The Cultural Anxieties in Victorian Women's Ghost Stories, 1847-1920

Ohri, Indu, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Chase Levenson, Karen, Department of English, University of Virginia

“The Cultural Anxieties in Victorian Women’s Ghost Stories, 1847-1920“ expands on recent scholarly work by Vanessa Dickerson, Hilary Grimes, and Melissa Edmundson Makala to analyze the social concerns that British women writers explored in their supernatural fiction. I examine a diverse range of ghost stories by canonical and less familiar British women writers from the mid-Victorian period to World War I that scholars have long overlooked. My research was inspired by my desire to illuminate hitherto unnoticed aspects of women’s writing and to reveal the complexity of supernatural fiction by Victorian and Edwardian women. These women’s ghost stories are located in their cultural moment through an interdisciplinary framework that combines historicism, feminist criticism, and Gothic studies. As I argue, Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Brontë challenged conventional practices in this literary tradition during the late 1840s by incorporating the realist mode, feminist narratives, and complex female psychology within the ghost story. Their innovations deeply influenced later generations of female authors, who used ghosts to elucidate the darker aspects of certain subjects, which public discourse and contemporary realist novels were unwilling to address directly. My project complements and contests the current scholarly account that the Victorian English ghost story was a masculine genre. Instead, I draw attention to the Victorian and Edwardian recognition that women writers had invented a female literary tradition deserving serious critical consideration and they could achieve lasting fame through their ghost stories. These female authors employ literary ghosts to probe the darker realities underlying a variety of social concerns: family life, professional science, domestic service, and female artistry. Most importantly, these supernatural elements convey many women’s fight to free themselves from the domestic sphere, the marriage plot, and the role of the submissive Victorian Angel. My project illustrates that Victorian and Edwardian women writers were committed to building a female ghost story tradition that would secure their place in the literary canon and inspire the liberation of other women.

My first chapter builds on recent trauma theory and Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok’s concept of the “intergenerational phantom” to analyze how these ghost stories highlight Victorian women and children’s susceptibility to different types of abuse. During the nineteenth century, Wuthering Heights was commonly regarded as a “horror” novel for its grisly representation of spousal and child abuse perpetrated across multiple generations. Like Catherine Earnshaw, the women and children in these tales are vulnerable to neglect, beatings, and murder, but the supernatural allows them to reclaim power through revenge. Melissa Makala, Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, and Roxanne Harde’s readings assert that ghostly female and child revengers seek justice by punishing their male abusers. This chapter contests their view that the only possible way these victims can find resolution to their traumatic experiences is through enacting the same masculinized violence on their oppressors. Instead, I argue that these ghosts appeal to sympathetic human onlookers known as intercessors and try to forge ties with the larger community in order to disrupt the potentially endless cycle of retribution. I build on Makala and Harde’s recognition of the importance of forging alliances between the victimized ghosts and living intercessors in order to expose the systemic nature of family violence. In Section One, I consider ghost stories by Ellen Wood, Edith Nesbit, and Baillie Reynolds in which the alliance between the ghosts and the intercessors fails to enact positive change. In Section Two, my analysis centers on supernatural tales by Charlotte Riddell, May Sinclair, and H. D. Everett in which the alliance succeeds by obtaining justice for the ghost as well as happiness for the survivors.

My second chapter argues that Just as Charlotte Brontë stages Dr. Graham and Lucy Snowe’s debate on the existence of the ghostly nun in Villette, later female authors represent the conflict between skeptical male rationalists and superstitious “occult women.” The female authors critique the problems with traditional Victorian gender roles through their depiction of the inequality between these two character types. The rationalists are skeptical about the existence of ghosts and the occult sciences, come from professional middle-class backgrounds, and frequently include doctors, scientists, and psychical researchers. The ghost stories I analyze offer a twist on the idea that the male characters’ rationality or their bourgeois status makes them superior to occult women who understand or practice the supernatural. Instead, these men eagerly dispense with their souls–essentially their feminine qualities of kindness, compassion, and humanity–in a Faustian exchange for possession of a rigorous scientific perspective. As an alternative to the misogynistic rationalist, female authors turn to the legend of Faustus and Helena because this pairing offers the perfect union of masculine science and the feminine occult. In Section One, I investigate ghost stories by George Eliot, Amelia Edwards, Charlotte Riddell, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon that critique how the Victorian marriage plot and the discourse of separate spheres contributed to women’s absence from the sciences during the 1860s. Through their writing, these female authors highlight the disparity in men and women’s gender scripts, which gives rise to the conflict between the male rationalist and the occult woman. They also expose how female characters turn to the occult to circumvent their oppressive conditions as Angels in the House. During the fin de siècle, Victorian women entered scientific fields through various channels, such as psychical research, religious occultism, and professional medicine. In Section Two, I inspect how the female occult investigator reconciles science, religion, and the occult through her compassionate approach to ghost hunting in stories written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lanoe Falconer, Lettice Galbraith, and Nora O’Mahony.

My third chapter considers how the Brontës popularized impoverished female characters who tell ghost stories and work in domestic service as nurses, companions, or governesses, such as Jane Eyre, Nelly Dean, and Lucy
Snowe. I trace the evolution of this subgenre in analyzing the ways in which Victorian female authors’ ghost stories highlight the frustrations of middle-class women forced to toil in service as lady’s maids, governesses, or housekeepers due to the limits on their educational opportunities, social influence, and career choices at the time. The sympathetic depiction of the plight of distressed gentlewomen calls attention to the unfair restrictions on all bourgeois ladies. The supernatural tales demand the expansion of middle-class women’s privileges as well as the separation of the middle and upper classes from the working classes. Since these stories center on the hardships of distressed gentlewomen and are directed toward a middle-class readership, they do not advocate radically transforming the class system or curing the ills of the lower classes. The ghost stories I analyze in this chapter push to consolidate middle-class women’s power, with no thought for the struggles of working-class women. They seem to offer a narrow view of social reform in overlooking the working classes, through their representation of lower female servants as invisible presences haunting the margins of these ghost stories. In these tales, the ghost-seeing female servant is middle class because lower servants fail to notice or appreciate these phantoms, which do not speak to working-class problems, anxieties, or experiences. In Section One, I analyze ghost stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, Ada Trevanion, and Margaret Oliphant in which the younger distressed gentlewomen are placed in conflict with the ghostly doubles representing the limits on their social possibilities. In Section Two, I consider ghost stories by Elizabeth Gaskell, Ada Buisson, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Their tales feature servant narrators who recount “female rivalry narratives” in which women come into conflict with each other over unworthy men in order to encourage female solidarity.

My last chapter traces how the Brontë sisters participated in the female künstlerroman tradition through the creation of artistic heroines, such as Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe, and Helen Graham. This chapter argues that the female artists in the ghost stories under analysis resist being violently objectified as voiceless muses for the creation of men’s art; instead, they demand their right to produce their own music, handicrafts, and literature. When the female characters assert themselves creatively or sexually, the rival male artists/lovers attempt to subjugate them out of a desire to reestablish control or to discipline these women. The male ghosts simultaneously materialize the women’s struggle with men for artistic independence and the frustration that leads them to retaliate against their oppressors. In a reversal of the artist-muse paradigm, the male character is sacrificed to become a source for the artist heroine’s inspiration and the subject of her art, rather than an obstacle standing in the way of her dreams. Section One investigates the female characters’ struggle to transition from beautiful muses into professional artists in ghost stories from the 1860s and 1870s. Rosa Mulholland, Amelia Edwards, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon recount how these artist heroines are brutally suppressed by their male rivals for their presumption in trying to rise above their inferior status as makers of commodified art. In Section Two, I inspect Vernon Lee, Margaret Oliphant, and Francis Hodgson Burnett’s rendering of middle-class female authors during the fin de siècle and early-twentieth century. The artist heroines develop a model of female authorship in which they offer their ghost stories as gifts meant to inspire their women readers to compose supernatural tales.

My project concludes by delving further into my claim that Victorian and Edwardian female authors wrote these works in order to win fame by joining a recognized tradition of British supernatural fiction during the Golden Age of the ghost story. In light of the popularity of Victorian women’s contributions to this genre, we may wonder why their fame declined and they have been practically forgotten today. During the interwar era, there were several factors that led to the decrease of general and scholarly interest in women’s ghost stories. By trying to sustain and preserve a genre they admired, these female authors played an unwitting role in shaping the conditions that would lead to the obscurity of their ghost stories for nearly a century. Today, signs of awakening interest in these works offer hope that we may rediscover how Victorian and Edwardian women writers wielded the “fine tools” of supernatural fiction to invent a haunting female literary tradition.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Ghost Stories, Female Writers, Victorian Literature
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