Friday, July 10, 2015

Victorian #2

I read this book for the A Victorian Celebration 2015 hosted over at A Literary Odyssey in June and July, 2015.

The Uninhabited House - Mrs. J. H. Riddell

The Victorians loved ghost stories. They had a Christmas tradition in which they read aloud ghost tales that were printed in Christmas annuals of magazines like Household Words. This short novel was released in the Routledge’s Christmas Annual in 1875. Too long for short story collections and too short to be published as a stand-alone novel, it was not collected until Dover Publications released Five Victorian Ghost Novels in 1971. Get it.

Mrs. Riddell lost her husband and had to provide for their numerous kids by writing. In this novel, she has a charwoman say

"Well, sir, when a man goes, all goes. I have done my best, but still I have not been able to feed my children—his children—properly, and the sight of their poor pinched faces breaks my heart, it do, sir," and she burst out sobbing.

One gets the feeling this is not only out of the author’s imagination. And it makes us think what burdens a widow faced in those days - and ours, for that matter. Mrs. Riddell’s husband died of a broken heart after business reverses so she knew what it was like facing money troubles.

Anyway, as the title implies, this is a haunted house story. It is narrated by Hal Patterson, a clerk in a London solicitor’s office.  I read this one after the quiet country people in Dr. Thorne, and frankly it was fun to get back to the city and its lively street scenes like this:

At last, imagining the way clear, she made a sudden rush, and had just got well off the curb, when a mail phaeton turned the corner, and in one second she was down in the middle of the road, and I struggling with the horses and swearing at the driver, who, in his turn, very heartily anathematized me.

Patterson works for kind and good Mr. Craven who lives down to his name by being consistently pusillanimous when dealing with his worst client, Miss Blake. Born in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, Mrs. Riddell brings Irish high spirits to describing the imperious oafish Miss Blake:

Her face was a pure, rich red, from temple to chin; it resembled nothing so much as a brick which had been out for a long time, first in the sun and the wind, and then in a succession of heavy showers of rain. She looked weather-beaten, and sun-burnt, and sprayed with salt-water, all at once. Her eyes were a lighter blue than I previously thought eyes could be. Her cheek-bones stood out more prominently than I had thought cheek-bones capable of doing. Her mouth—not quite a bad one, by the way—opened wider than any within my experience; and her teeth, white and exposed, were suggestive of a set of tombstones planted outside a stonemason's shop, or an upper and lower set exhibited at the entrance to a dentist's operating-room. Poor dear Miss Blake, she and those pronounced teeth parted company long ago, and a much more becoming set—which she got exceedingly cheap, by agreeing with the maker to "send the whole of the city of London to her, if he liked"—now occupy their place.

Miss Blake depends on the rent of the haunted house for most of her income. It’s a beautiful place that attracts tenants until they experience its spooky doings: weird noises, unexplainable lights, doors that move by themselves, and full-bodied apparitions. For 50 pounds, Patterson agrees to stay in the house until he gets to the bottom of the mystery.

There are some unnerving moments but it’s never as scary as the scariest moments in a Sheridan LeFanu story. After all, it was a story written to read at Christmas, recall. Mrs. Riddell is more humorous and diverting than, say, Bram Stoker or M.R. James. I strongly recommend this story and Mrs. Riddell, who ought not to be a forgotten writer.

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