Melissa Edmundson’s short story collection, Women’s Weird, is full of literary greats such as Edith Wharton, May Sinclair and Edith Nesbit. Their stories are packed with ghosts, ghouls and weird occurrences, but, says Gabriela Frost, the most chilling aspect is the social treatment of women.
What makes a ghost story really scary? Is it the sudden chill that blows across a dark room, and gently grazes your skin like a brush of taffeta? Or the shadow which, just for a moment, seems to slink a little closer in the corner of your vision? Is it the silhouette at the end of a hallway, a tapping sound on a deadly still night, a breathy sigh just inches away, though you’re entirely alone? Is it a crypt, a curse, a corpse?
There are surely hundreds of answers to this question, each one steeped in cultural, religious, epochal, scientific, and social significance. With this in mind, the publication of Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 – a collection of short stories in the weird genre, written by women – poses a similar, but tantalizingly distinct question. Women’s Weird invites us to ask: what did women writers in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Britain and America know to be truly frightening?
One answer is of course ghouls, ghosts and weird phenomena, all of which abound in the thirteen stories included in this collection. It might seem odd that these notions were still so pervasive following a century in which scientific and rationalist developments had seriously damaged the foundations of religious and superstitious practices. But, if anything, these discoveries further justified the intrigue of the supernatural.
The nineteenth century presented a paradox, because in spite of itself, science – be it the guise of Dalton’s atomic theory, or Von Helmholtz’s law of the conservation of energy – made belief in the invisible plausible. At the same time, new insights into the fallibility of corporeal vision ascertained once and for all that seeing was not, in fact, believing. With lengthy photograph exposure times providing the perfect opportunity to stage and ‘evidence’ ghostly apparitions, and the clicks of the telegraph inspiring a new wave of spiritualist communications with the dead, new technologies did not always work against superstition.
In the furtive privacy of the home, the ghost story itself became a spectre, lingering in the liminal space of the reader’s internal voice
As such, weird stories published across periodicals were feverishly lapped up by a public with an increasingly healthy appetite for them. What’s more, the reading experience of the genre was gradually transformed from an intrinsically communal, oral tradition, to a private, introspective thrill, sometimes spoken only by that intangible voice in the reader’s head. In the furtive privacy of the home, the ghost story itself became a spectre, lingering in the liminal space of the reader’s internal voice…
But what did it mean for our writers, specifically? On closer reading, we discover a more complex web of answers to our initial question. These women’s stories are not just overexcited fancies or plays on the public mood. They have a bearing on real life. They subtly extrapolate the traps and horrors not just of the supernatural – but of contemporary womanhood itself.
It is not necessary to read every piece of women’s literature as a feminist manifesto. When dealing with historical writings, we can all too easily slide into an anachronistic projection of our own social standards onto those of the past. But underpinning the stories in Women’s Weird are a number of recurring figures who speak volumes of the contemporary understanding of the relationships between men and women, and social attitudes towards the latter. Amongst the most prominent are the overbearing male custodian, the innocent woman who becomes collateral damage in a man’s quest for knowledge or power, the foolhardy male protagonist, and the woman whose voice is silenced.
Edith Wharton’s Kerfol is a case in point. In this story, Yves de Cournault’s abusive and malicious control over his wife Anne is far more sinister than his death at the paws of Anne’s murdered dogs. Yves finds himself suspicious of his childless wife, who he keeps virtually under house arrest. In his jealousy he determines to deny her all companionship, and spitefully murders her much loved dogs, who return in spectral form to wreak their revenge. Their tale is told from a judicial record discovered by a curious outsider, who visits Anne and Yves’ abode (Kerfol) centuries later with a view to buying it, only to find himself being followed by a small pack of eerily quiet dogs.
The account of the trial of Anne de Cournault is not just a literary device. Of course it has that effect – not unlike in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose– of rendering the tale all the more compelling by including an ‘official’ document. But more importantly, Anne’s trial is a lesson in all the ways in which a woman attempting to condemn her husband’s violence is belittled, ignored and mocked for her fears and perceived fancies. It perfectly encapsulates the obstacles to a woman trying to be heard and believed in an official capacity. The trial is said to have taken place in the 1600s – but to the early twentieth-century reader, no doubt a great deal of Anne’s plight rang true. Even now, in light of the #MeToo movement, it is hard to ignore the fact of women’s repeated censure when it comes to speaking out against a man’s violent and threatening behaviour.
The scariest moment in the entire tale has nothing to do with ghosts. Rather it is when the judges ask Anne why she had gone to open the door to another man on the night of Yves’ death:
‘Then why did you want him to take you away?’
‘Because I was afraid for my life.’
‘Of whom were you afraid?’
‘Of my husband.’
‘Why were you afraid of your husband?’
‘Because he had strangled my little dog.’
Another smile must have passed around the courtroom: […] pinching a pet animal’s windpipe was nothing to make a fuss about.
Anne’s testimony is littered with instances of mockery over her legitimate fears for her husband’s temper. The very wording epitomises the way in which a man’s violent behaviour – here described as a ‘pinch’, as though to kill a living creature were as simple as snuffing out a candle – is justified by his righteous anger. The court repeatedly attempts to twist the story into one of Anne’s infidelity, attacking her every statement in order to prove her wicked intentions to betray her husband (of which there is never any evidence). All of this is done, of course, to avoid condemning Yves’ violent, abusive behaviour.
At the end, once we are content that the court case is closed, we are reassured that Anne was subsequently shut up in Kerfol’s keep by the husband’s family, only to die many years later as ‘a harmless mad-woman’. This sentence crops up as a passing statement – a phrase of little significance or interest. Yet it bears the weight of several thousand days spent in agonising isolation. It exposes the cost for she who dares to question a man’s authority over her life. In this single line, Wharton perfectly captures the indifference of the outside world to a woman’s personal suffering.
What is truly scary (more so than the harmless ghost) is that in spite of its blatant inefficacy, the demonization of women who bore children out of wedlock continued to pervade in the contemporary social imaginary.
The abusive male custodian appears in other guises across these tales. He reappears in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Giant Wistaria. Here, he is the father of a young woman who has brought shame upon her family by bearing a bastard child. The father vows to cover up the scandal, and plans to abandon the grandchild in the USA and move the family to England, where they will start afresh and marry off their troublesome daughter. The alternative, he warns, is that ‘she stayeth ever in that chamber’. Much later, a group of friends who rent the family home as a summer house encounter a ghostly vision of a young woman. They discover the remains of the baby in the cellar well, and of its mother in the ‘strangling grasp of the roots of the great wistaria’ beneath the house.
So it is that the father’s oppressive control over his daughter’s fate is reflected in the giant wisteria which smothers the house. It creeps slowly around the stonework, tearing the building apart with the hushed violence of slow, institutionalised horror. Even in death, the giant wisteria coils tightly around the daughter’s bones. The plant has grown to such gargantuan proportions as to itself be the structural support of the tired old building. It ‘had once climbed its pillars’ but has now destroyed the very thing which it held dear: ‘now the pillars were wrenched from their places and held rigid and helpless by the tightly wound and knotted arms’. Still it latches unrelentingly to its purpose, determined to grow and to uphold an image of beauty and stability to the outside world at any cost. Only now, the dilapidation which it wreaks cannot fail to be seen.
If we extend the metaphor back to the concept of the contemporary social structure – paternal control, legitimacy law, social approval and their stronghold over attitudes to women – we are reminded that practices such as the ostracization of ‘fallen women’, including those who bore illegitimate children (see, for example, Richard Redgrave’s 1851 painting The Outcast) were still commonplace in nineteenth and early twentieth-century America and Britain. Gilman portrays the ghost of this unsustainable olde-worlde practice as lingering on in the contemporary social condition. What is truly scary (certainly more so than the apparently harmless ghost who leads the guests to discover her child’s remains) is that in spite of its blatant inefficacy, the demonization of women who bore children out of wedlock continued to pervade in the contemporary social imaginary.
Our protagonists are almost exclusively male, and where they are not (such as in Mary Butts’ With and Without Buttons, which focuses on a ghoulish prank-gone-wrong played by two sisters), the women’s encounters are corroborated by male friends or partners. Why are our narrators so often men when our writers are women? Why, for the same reason that Anne de Cournault could not be taken seriously at trial. Any encounter described from a woman’s perspective must inevitably be read with a pinch of salt. These stories emerged in the wake of Charcot and in the full swing of Freud, when women were, after all, prone to hysteria…
An exception to this rule is Edith Nesbit‘s The Shadow. It is told from the perspective of a female listener, whose housekeeper (Miss Eastwich) recounts her own ghoulish encounter with a stalking shadow for the first time. What is interesting here is that Nesbit’s narrator repeatedly stresses her surprise at Miss Eastwich’s storytelling. The older service woman is initially described as though she were herself a ghost:
She was, at all normal hours, the most silent woman I have ever known. She stood and looked at us, and shivered a little. So did we – for in those days corridors were not warmed by hot-water pipes, and the air from the door was keen.
The cold stillness and silence evoked by her arrival late at night could just as easily be that of a spectral visitor. Yet the youngest of the cohort welcomes the housekeeper warmly, breaking down the imagined wall around the woman who our narrator has until now assumed to be a distant, unsociable type. The subsequent pages are filled with the narrator’s remorse that it has taken her so long to acknowledge the humanity of the housekeeper. All it took to reveal her ‘real voice’ was a little tenderness in the guise of a cup of cocoa and a warm fireside.
Edith Nesbit’s story highlights the ways in which women of higher social standing are prone to silencing the voices of those further down the social chain.
Turn of the century tales are full of silent housekeepers and maids who disappear through service doors and down servants’ staircases, and whose own needs, desires and stories are brushed away as easily and unobtrusively as the cobwebs and dust to which they so diligently tend. Nesbit’s story breaks with the socially prescribed othering of these quietly industrious, subservient women. What’s more, it highlights the ways in which women of higher social standing are prone to silencing the voices of those further down the social chain. It is not only men who censure and belittle women’s voices. Once again in Women’s Weird, we are confronted with an issue which hits a modern-day nerve, as contemporary feminists continue to grapple with the realities of women’s social progress and intersectionality.
In this way it is a radical tale. Nesbit resists exploring these two social groups in isolation and instead brings them into conversation in a context which does dignity to both. She has us questioning our self-righteous ignorance of the lives of others, and in particular the total dehumanisation of what was, at the time, an extremely populous workforce of women working in domestic service (for the first half of the twentieth century, more women worked in domestic service than in any other labour market)[. Most importantly, she stresses the power of women in a position of privilege over their less fortunate counterparts’ ability to speak and be heard.
So what else sent a chill down our writers’ spines? Women’s submission to abusive male control and their silencing are both frightening and still pressing concepts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the institution of marriage (which, as it stood in late nineteenth to early twentieth-century Britain and America, was less of a choice and more of a duty for most women) does not come off well either. I’m thinking here of May Sinclair’s Where Their Fire is Not Quenched, which cleverly moulds apparently socially acceptable themes (the damning perils of sin) with Sinclair’s own critical take on social structures of marriage.
The story recounts the life of Harriot Leigh who, having lost two opportunities for love in her younger years, takes up an affair with a married man (Oscar Wade). The affair is a whirlwind until the novelty wears off, and her lover begins to bore and even repulse her. When Oscar breaks off the relationship, Harriot lives out her days in comparatively pious quietude. Yet on her deathbed – some years after Oscar’s death – she fails to confess her sin. As she passes onto the next life, she finds herself revisiting the places of her youth where she repeatedly encounters Oscar. He seems to chase her through the next world in a dizzying and disconnected labyrinth of her past, and of all the men who she has held dear. When he finally catches up with her, Oscar explains that this is hell, and only the beginning of it:
‘This isn’t the worst. We’re not quite dead yet, as long as we’ve life in us to turn and run and get away from each other; as long as we can escape into our memories. […] In the last hell we shall not run away any longer; we shall find no more roads, no more passages, no more open doors. We shall have no need to look for each other. […] We shall be one flesh and one spirit […]’
‘Why? Why?’ she cried.
‘Because that’s all that’s left us. That’s what you made of love.’
On the face of it, Sinclair unproblematically presents a story where unrepented sin sends a pair of adulterers to eternal damnation. Yet with a little consideration (and certainly on a second reading) it becomes clear that Sinclair is not just critiquing their affair, but the institution of marriage as a whole. Earlier on in the story, Harriot asks herself whether she would marry Oscar, were he not already wed:
Would I marry him? Marriage would be the Hotel Saint Pierre all over again, without any possibility of escape. But, if she wouldn’t marry him, was she in love with him? That was the test.
Harriot’s image of marriage as a constant repetition of their tired-out affair is restaged in the reality of her experience of hell. If Sinclair weren’t already clear enough, Oscar expresses his dread for the darkest circle of hell where they will become ‘one flesh and one spirit’. Their situation is already the symptom of one failed marriage (that of Oscar and Muriel) and seems to be the playing out of another, hypothetical, marital life. Sinclair questions the notion that marriage is ‘the true test’ of love, and portrays it instead as a form of death, a hell-on-earth from which there is no escape. But she also avoids making such statements explicitly, and as such cleverly distributes her critique under the guise of a moral tale.
There are so many facets to these stories which might merit further examination. For example, it is curious that so many of the haunted objects in the Women’s Weird tales, from fur boas to ladies’ gloves and saucepans, would have been predominantly associated with the turn-of-the-century feminine. Was this a way to exact a specifically feminine revenge, and make women the arbiters of fearsome power? Was it simply that our writers, in taking inspiration from real life, sought to manipulate the domestic and feminine realm of their day-to-day into something fantastical? We can only speculate.
What is for sure is that the writers collated in Women’s Weird, and edited by Melissa Edmundson, are both exceptional storytellers and wily social commentators. Their critique of woman’s social condition is not their only goal, nor is it the exclusive repository of their value as “women” writers. In the end, like all of the best ghost stories, the Women’s Weird collection reminds us that we need not look so far as the supernatural to find our deepest, darkest fears.
Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 is edited by Melissa Edmundson and published by Handheld Press. It is available to purchase here. Click the links to follow Handheld Press and Melissa Edmundson on Twitter. To find out more about Melissa Edmundson’s work click here.
Lucy Writers and Gabriela Frost would like to thank Handheld Press founder and publisher, Kate Macdonald, and Handheld Press publicist Judith Wise for sending us a copy of Women’s Weird and allowing Gaby to write about this excellent collection.
About Gabriela Frost
Gabriela Frost holds an MPhil in European, Latin American and Comparative Literatures and Cultures from the University of Cambridge. Her postgraduate research interests included Francophone and Italophone culture and arts. Gaby studied her undergraduate BA in French and Italian across several universities (Trinity College Dublin, Università degli Studi di Siena, Université Aix-Marseille, Royal Holloway) before taking a year out of academia to work in a contemporary art gallery and to fulfil a long-term dream of visiting India prior to arriving at Cambridge. Her current research interests centre on early twentieth century art, literature, culture and thought in Europe, with an emphasis on the immigrant artists of the École de Paris, and on the involvement of women as cultural producers and patrons. Gabriela was shortlisted for the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme Student Journalism Awards 2019 under the category of Criticism. Aside from academic interests, she loves creating and making and enjoys crochet, printmaking, pottery, photography and all things crafty. She is a keen walker and an amateur ornithologist, and also a big foodie who loves cooking (and eating!).
This content was commissioned under our new theme, Night / Shift
For Night / Shift, Lucy Writers want to close our eyes to the rituals of the day and open them wide to the possibilities, sites, moves, sounds and forms visible only by night. Using Leonora Carrington’s work (see image above) as an entrance into this broad theme, we welcome writing – reviews, features, essays, creative non-fiction, (flash) fiction, poetry – and art work that explores night and its multiple shifts, liberating and otherwise, for womxn in particular.
Is night, as Carrington suggests, a feminine and feminist zone in itself, one which subverts daily codifications and rethinks day’s conditions? Or is night – also known as Nyx in Greek mythology, the maternal goddess of death, darkness, strife and sleep – still a period of discord, a stretch of time that threatens as much as it frees? For more information, see our Submissions & Contact page.