Date: Sun, 9 Dec 2001
Re: 'The Shadow in the Corner': East Anglian Gothic
I wasn't sure quite what to expect from 'The Shadow in the Corner', because the only Braddon I had read previously was the sensation novel 'Lady Audley's Secret', which I enjoyed but didn't find scary. However, this story is written in much sparer prose and I think it does build the feeling of menace.
The very first paragraph, with the name of the house 'Wildheath Grange', immediately carries suggestions of the Brontes, with a suggestion of Heathcliff, and the house seems to be a typical Gothic mansion with its passages and hidden doors. But I immediately recognised the landscape as my own part of the world, East Anglia - the straggling heath and "desolate waste of sandy fields" leading to the shore sounds like many isolated spots along the Suffolk and Norfolk coast. As the story continues, it becomes clear that we are indeed in Norfolk, at some distance from Yarmouth, and there are one or two words of East Anglian dialect thrown in. In fact, the story is given its impetus by one of these words, "foreigner". The grumpy butler Daniel Skeg insists they must have a girl to work with his wife because she is getting too old, but says no local girls will come because of rumours that the house is haunted - so they must look further afield.
"Well," grumbled Daniel, as he began to clear the table, "a girl of some kind we must get, but she'll have to be a foreigner, or a girl that's hard driven for a place."
When Daniel Skegg said a foreigner, he did not mean the native of some distant clime, but a girl who had not been born and bred at Holcroft. Daniel had been raised and reared in that insignificant hamlet, and, small and dull as it was, he considered the world beyond it only margin.
The word "foreign" in this sense, for people from beyond your immediate neighbourhood, was certainly still in use in Suffolk thirty years ago, when I moved to an isolated village there from another isolated village in north Essex, not a million miles away. I remember a girl at school looking askance when she heard my slightly different accent, and saying: "You're furren, in't you?"
The whole story has this same forbidding feeling of the house and the village being shut against outsiders. Daniel, the old man whose family has lived in the village for generations, must get a girl in from outside because he can't persuade anybody local to come to the house. But, when Maria arrives, he resents her just because she is "foreign", an outsider. Daniel is the one who insists she must sleep in the haunted attic, coming up with a feeble excuse about the ceilings of the other rooms leaking. Although he has to defer to his master, he is determined to be master of this younger servant himself, and to break whatever spirit she has. I was struck by the fact that Daniel is the one who insists Maria must go back and sleep another night in the attic at the end of the story, when Bascom, after seeing the shadow himself, is willing to give her another room - although he doesn't have the courage to speak out and say what he has seen. Both men are to blame for the young girl's death, of course - they goad her just as the paragraph from Dickens's essay in 'The Uncommercial Traveller' suggested, by shutting her in the darkness with her worst fears.
Does anybody else have thoughts about this story?
Bye for now
December 10, 2001
Re: M. E. Braddon's "The Shadow in the Corner"
Like Judy, I have not read much Braddon. Before this story I read Lady Audley's Secret which is not subtly atmospheric (whatever else it is) and The Doctor's Wife which is more like Charlotte Lennox's Female Quixote and about a young girl done in by too many romances and the nature of romance itself far more than Flaubert's masterpiece, Madame Bovary.
The story made me respect Braddon more. This time through -- just now -- I had Dickens's passage in mind and took much more seriously the idea that one way of reading this story is as of a child's suicide. That certainly is there and I was aware of it, but now I am thinking that the ghostly presence and gothic elements of the story can be seen as a distraction, a device like "Green Tea" and triply removed narrators. Remember how horrified people have been at Hardy's describing a child's suicide frankly in Jude the Obscure. Children do commit suicide, and here is the story of a young girl torn from a kindly father, a sensitive intelligent girl, educated, taken to live with mean dense bullies one of whom out of spite and jealousy drives her back into a room where someone committed suicide and there is in the story real reason to believe there is a desperate ghost. It is Jane Eyre where the child does not rage out of hatred in the red room but turns on herself because there is no one to turn to. This aspect of the story had been obscured for me before -- I think now it is not one which was obscured for the Victorian reader.
Another aspect of this touching quality is the feel recalls that of the best women ghost writers. Male writers can often craft technically, surgically perfect gothic stories that chill; but female writers often seek to create works of art that touch the heart and revolve around family relationships: the death of children, the death of parents. "The Lost Ghost" of next week and Wharton's "Afterwards" the last one we are to read have this quality. A man can write this way but often it is a woman who does so. People on Gaslight have talked of this difference. Women write stories of a lose of care, a yearning to care, for tender affection where there is none or it has been lost.
This may be related to the reality that women have children; they give birth to them and when the children die (common in the 19th century) it's hard to accept this. As one of Austen's heroines remarked, women were powerless, preyed upon at home. They were left to care for the dead: the result: a visceral emotional response of sensibility. Maybe they are culturally allowed to express things men are not, not even when writing fiction which gives one a license. Women still tend to this kind of story: A. S. Byatt's "The Judy Ghost" which connects directly to the death of her real son at age 12 from a bicycle accident is directly in this poignant tradition.
Instead of Jekyll and Hyde this one connects also to Frankenstein. We have a solitary learned man who presents a facade of reasonableness; he does scientific research. This means more to him than the people he's surrounded by. The story is anti-science, anti-learning. Michael Bascom is a stern materialist too: he refuses to believe there is something beyond the material world -- and his pride prevents him from admitting to anyone there is danger here for the girl.
A signficant theme in Frankenstein is idea that single minded pursuit of anything which cuts you off from others you are bonded to is dangerous, perverse, and will make you inhumane. Here's Victor Frankenstein himself:
"A selfish pursuit had cramped and narrowed me, until your [Clerval's] gentleness and affection warmed and opened my sense" (Penguin, p. 68).
Again, Frankenstein says;
"A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that sutdy is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind' (Penguin, p. 54).
Frankenstein's understanding is inadequate here: no one should aim at calm, peace and perfect tranquillity; that is to aim at being something more than human. I am reminded of how Johnson disliked the stoics.
Gothic is at heart a reactionary form. The genre often punishes the scientist, the stoic, the learned, those who want to rise above, those who distrust the imagination as frivolous. It is on the side of the importance of the intangible and what words people say to one another. Mary's evenings with her father counted; the meanness of the butler is significant.
Braddon shows the same careful build-up of atmosphere too.
There is something affirmative here not in Le Fanu: the girl. If we do not interpret the story as one of suicide -- and as with the best ghost stories it's left ambiguous and we are invited to see both interpretations -- then the narrator's comment that the girl displayed a "noble form of courage" may be said to be the moral inference of the tale. She goes quietly into that room and accepts and endures. She is too good for this ugly (the servants) and indifferent because cowardly (Bascom) world. The narrator says; "a pity that all that could be found for her to do was to scour pots and pans". A social critique is here which is also frequently found in woman's use of the gothic (it's in Gaskell's). Thus the most directly disturbing moment in the text is this line: "Under what terror of apprehension did her mind give way?" Why was she picked on? What did she do to deserve whatever she knew?
Note that Braddon gives no vision. Dickens would have wanted her to present it, but she doesn't. The story let us experience the terror only through Bascom. Does Braddon mean to spare us? We should remember she shares her protagonist's sex and experienced much hardship and probably humiliation as a child.
Cheers to all,
Re: Why Read the Gothic?
Susan's posting the other day in effect asked us why do people read this stuff about the dreadful.
Angela who is also on Trollope-l wrote the following this morning:
Date: Wed, 12 Dec 2001
M. E. Braddon's "The Shadow in the Corner"
This story has been nagging at me with an echo of another short story. Any chance of any help with collective memories?
In this story we have the new young maid, two old servants and a mystery in a house. In the story I can't quite remember there is also a new young maid, two old servants and a mystery about a man who turns out to have a mutilating condition or illness. The story ends with a young policeman helping the young woman and ends of a slightly romantic note.
Aside from this, I enjoyed "The Shadow in the Corner" very much. I thought the particular kind of haunting the troubled ghost leaves behind was very well done.
Re: M. E. Braddon's "Shadow in the Corner"
Angela wrote that this story nagged at her with an echo of another short story:
"In this story we have the new young maid, two old servants and a mystery in a house. In the story I can't quite remember there is also a new young maid, two old servants and a mystery about a man who turns out to have a mutilating condition or illness. The story ends with a young policeman helping the young woman and ends of a slightly romantic note."
I can only come up with the idea that the above is a kind of archetypal Victorian situation. A huge proportion of the female population was in servitude (that was my English mother-in-law's word for being "in service") and there was considerable turnover, and what house would not have old servants who had acclimated themselves and would naturally take out their constricted low status on those beneath them?
One of the interests of Braddon's and next week, Marie Wilkins-Freeman [we are going to read "The Lost Ghost"] and later Edith Wharton's great "Afterward" is they are all rooted in real social situations. Repeatedly women story-writers use the gothic to bring out strong critiques of social situations they would be attacked for presenting were they to present it in a realistic story. They get away with exploring the abuse of women in society by presenting their material as ostensibly overdone and fanstasy. The social elements in them are often anything but overdone: they are rather ways of greating round "the popular success" fiction must seek. The label "fantasy" and its strong emotional atmosphere allows them to bring before the reader emotions of daily life women had and still have (so do vulnerable relatively powerless men) which in life we hide -- remember how Thackeray said (Pendennis had its moments) that people spend their lives with people without ever confiding in one another what they feel.
Remember Gaskell's "Old Nurse's Story" last year: which went directly into sexual transgress and the cruelty of relatives who turn a young woman out not because of the acknowleged reasons (how immoral she was) but because her sister was intensely jealous of her taking the man and the father was incensed at the rebellion partly out of Oedipal motives. So they starved the child. I have -- by-the-bye -- always wondered who was the nurse? Oliphant also uses gothic stories in feminist ways: witness "Lady Mary's Story" and "The Library Window" though it's true she tends to move into the metaphysical. She really has religious concerns.
The gothic confides; it reveals the hidden. They provide confessions what what we see daily but refuse to discuss -- like how a young girl would have been abysmally treated in such a house. She might not have committed suicide; they probably would not have been a ghost. But the rest of it is right on. Jane Eyre, Mansfield Park stuff.
I have not named the story you were remembering Angela :)
Cheers to all,
Date: Wed, 12 Dec 2001
Yes it is a very Victorian or even Edwardian setting and has its power. In both cases the younger servant is nervous, educated out of her place and despised by the older ones. An archetypal situation.
Date: Wed, 12 Dec 2001
"The Shadow in the Corner" disturbed me so much that I did not want to post about it. Servant girls were the ultimate victims. According to what I've read (non-fiction), Victorian masters taking sexual advantage of female house workers was fairly rare. Even so, many of these women seem to have been treated like brute beasts. And they were expected to work like galley slaves - hard physical work that went on for over twelve hours a day! Those of us who saw 1900 House on television got a good idea of how physically demanding keeping a home clean used to be. There is a romantic image in our minds of maids with cute be-ribboned caps waving feather dusters about. This is far from the reality. Michael Bascom lived among his books, oblivious to the "rats and mice, loneliness, echoes" and dust that surrounded him. Mr and Mrs. Skegg, Bascom's faithful retainers hire "an orphan from Yarmouth" to help with the housework. Here is the description of the "waif" Maria -
"The girl was a slim little thing, with a pale and somewhat old-fashioned face, flaxen hair, braided under a neat muslin cap, a very fair complexion, and light blue eyes. They were the lightest blue eyes Michael Bascom had ever seen, but there was a sweetness and gentleness in their expression which atoned for the insipid colour."
What is Braddon doing here? Is she just setting up the story? Is she making social commentary? It's not bad enough for the little wisp of a girl that she is dusting like mad for Bascom. Maria is living in a creepy house with the creepy Skeggs. (Great name!) Maria has good manners, and apparently she cleans like a demon, but her eyes are an "insipid colour." I guess it really was hard to find good help in those days. In the end, the poor haunted Maria winds up hanging dead from a hook in her bedroom wall. Maria is as invisible to her betters as any household appliance would be. "That new vacuum cleaner works well, but it is an insipid avocado green colour." Same thing. And when I'm done using the vacuum cleaner, I just shove it in the closet. Braddon's description of Maria's physical deterioration as she is tormented by being made to sleep in a haunted room was pretty corny, but scary too. I think Braddon was just telling a good story here. But I can't get away from the image of a woman hanging dead from a hook. In a corner. Like a used towel or a broken tool. Too bad for Mr. Bascom. Looks like he'll have to go out and find another waif. Maybe the eye color will be better on the next model.
Re: Braddon's Woman Hanging from the Corner Hook
Retitling a story sometimes brings out what it's about. Dear Catherine, I suggest you might be seeming to set up a false opposition: Braddon tells a good story, and the reason it's good is the social/psychological commentary. As with Trollope, both are at work: the power of the story comes from the social/psychological content.
Catherine outlines for us what the lives of these household servants were like. I can tell a real life instance.
True story: My mother-in-law was trained as an upper servant in the years just after World War One in England. She was born in 1911 in Hampshire; she is still with us living in Leeds.
As a child it was noticed that she was very bright, a good reader and docile, very shy really. She was the daughter of a shopkeeper and sailor on a merchant-ship -- not very different from some of the characters we see in Austen's novels -- not the main ones, the fringe people She "left" school at age 13 and was taken into a "great house". She was going to be made into a lower governeness and then upper governess. This was presented to her as a series of steps, something she had to earn..
She loathed it. It was imprisoning servitude and meant to be. She did get up at 5 and went to bed around 11. Every minute of her day and that of the other servants was watched. She was never allowed to have free time; if she was sitting she was supposed to be sewing. Older "higher" servants watched her dusting and chided her if anything was left. Of course any sexual interaction was unthinkable. People did rebel, and they mostly left eventually -- in fact turnover in such places was high.
She never reached the exaltation of lower governess. What happened was the economy changed and she switched to a job at Woolworth's. She describes it as intense relief. She had only to work 5 (long hours) and 1/2 days a week. She actually got a salary with which she could buy and choose her own food and clothes. When she got home by 9:30 her evenings were her own. Sundays were her own. No one incessantly attempting to control her social behavior beyond what was necessary to sell something or please a customer. I did once get up the nerve to ask her if the "master" ever bothered anyone sexually; she said she never saw it, but then she was around 14-15, very innocent and left within a year.
People ought really to talk to those who were once servants in these great houses to learn something of the reality. It was after I talked to her I came across an autobiographical piece by Virginia Woolf describing the Victorian house as made of two realms. One was front stage, where everything was beautiful, often renovated; the other was backstairs, like some prop room in a theater, uncarpeted, plain, not well lit, old. Recent films have tried to convey the difference, but they cannot help but soften and glamorize.
Were Mary not a child, were we not distracted by the suicide of the rich man who threw his property away (a type we see in Trollope repeatedly) her suicide would make sense. It is would not be the act of a beaten down, needled driven child -- but the act of someone who can find nowhere to live but in a savagely unjust social arrangement.
The next time a character in a Trollope novel suddenly turns around to the silence and says to the servant, oh go get me this or that, or we are told the servant was sent and kept waiting for 3 hours, let us remember Mary.
This ghost story differs significantly from Le Fanu's, Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde, what I'll call typical male stories, and is like many women's ghost and gothic stories. Strip away the supernatural paraphernalia and you have a powerful critique of life.
It's a good story because it is that.
In addition, if you think about the story just a bit more, you will see that what is criticized centrally is not Mary's position -- though what is done to her could not be done were she not a servant. What is criticized is human nature itself. It is the spite and jealousy of the Skeggs that drive them to want to "grind" Mary down. That word is Anthony Trollope's and he places it in the mouth of numbers of his hard women with daughters or people to be bullied into something. They are to be "ground" down to it. It is the indifferent selfishness and cowardice of Michael Bascom, his wrapping himself up in his projects and his not going to the trouble of making sure the girl was protected from the nastiness of his servants that does her in.
So we are back in the same place we where at the close of "Green Tea:" Mr Jennings was the psychologically vulnerable and he was hit hard. Were Mary to have been as dense, mean and hard as the Skeggs they could have done nothing to her. I remember my students trying very hard to find some poetic justice in the story: several stressed how ever after Bascom never stayed in his house. So I read the line:
"He ended his days at Oxford, where he fond the society of congenial minds, and the books he loved".
They said the Skeggs suffered. The Skeggs? You have to have that within you which tells you you are at fault; the day after the Skeggs will be saying the girl was weak, a "wimp" (our term but they'd have their own). Remember the line in Shakespeare's King Lear where Edmund says the Gods make us their instruments, to which someone replies, For what purpose? Why, a joke seems to be Edmund's reply.
Mary is such another as Jennings. The male gothics and female gothics come down to the same core though the female ones get there by a different route.
Date: Sat, 15 Dec 2001
Re: "The Shadow in the Corner"
I haven't had time to post much this week, but have enjoyed everybody's thoughts about 'Shadow in the Corner'. Angela mentioned that this reminded her of another short story with a young maid, two old servants and a mystery in a house, also with a man who turns out to have a mutilating condition or illness.
I also vaguely remember reading what I'm sure must have been this story (I believe the girl was having to nurse the sick man?), and have been searching around to find out which one it was, but so far have drawn a complete blank. I thought maybe it was one of our ghost stories from last year, but no - so then I wondered if it might be another tale by Gaskell or Oliphant, but if so I haven't managed to track it down so far! Can anybody solve the mystery?
Perhaps it's because we're reading this story straight after 'Green Tea', but I get the feeling there are elements of doubling here again. Skegg perhaps acts as an alter ego for Bascom - Bascom is the one who is lonely, who has never married and has poured all his "love" into scientific research, but it is Skegg who brings an attractive young woman into the house. Also, both of them are grumpy and self-centred and want to get their own way.
Then both these older men want to bend the girl to their wills, to keep her quiet and shut away. It's Skegg who decides to put her in the reputedly haunted attic bedroom, but Bascom has laid the way open for this by scoffing at the very idea of ghosts, and saying she can't sleep in the main part of the house in case she disturbs him: "I can't have a strange young woman tramping up and down the passages outside my room." When the girl enters the household, Bascom appears to be kindly towards her, Skegg unpleasant and bullying, but the message from both of them is the same, however differently they put it. Maria must be quiet and unobtrusive, and go on sleeping in the attic bedroom. Bascom tells her that her education should have equipped her to dismiss such fancies, while Skegg cites religion rather than science, saying: "Read your Bible, Maria, and don't talk no more about ghosts."
Catherine discussed the passage where Bascom takes note of Maria's appearance, and the "insipid colour" of her eyes. I agree that he is assessing her as her master here and that this is disturbing - it's telling that the paragraph begins by referring to her as a "thing" - "the girl was a slim little thing". But I get the feeling that the elderly bachelor is fighting against a sort of wistful attraction to the girl here. A few paragraphs later, when she leaves the room, this feeling is brought to the surface:
"The student seated himself at his desk and the girl withdrew, drifting out of the room as noiselessly as a flower blown across the threshold. Michael Bascom looked after her curiously. He had seen very little of youthful womanhood in his dry-as-dust career, and he wondered at this girl as at a creature of a species hitherto unknown to him. How fairly and delicately she was fashioned; what a translucent skin; what soft and pleasing accents issued from those rose-tinted lips. A pretty thing, assuredly, this kitchen wench! A pity that in all this busy world there could be no better work found for her than the scouring of pots and pans."
On first reading this passage, I remember wondering if Bascom was going to make sexual advances to the girl and perhaps even propose. Quite a few Victorian stories do see much older men marrying frightened teenagers. Of course, this doesn't happen, but I think Braddon does still hint at the attraction on his side, as he looks at her and realises the life he has given up for the sake of his studies - he has immersed himself in books and now he is too old to interest a young woman.
I was interested to see that he turns straight from musing on the girl's beauty to thinking about death: "Absorbed in considerations about dry bones, Mr Bascom thought no more of the pale-faced handmaiden."
Getting back to the idea of doubling, I also feel that in a way Maria serves as a double for Bascom in her fear of the shadow and her death. Surely, the shadow should be lying in wait for him rather than for her. It is his ancestor who "destroyed himself" in the room, just as Maria eventually destroys herself. When Bascom sleeps there, or rather lies awake, he senses that he is feeling his ancestor's torment and he too sees the shadow. However, there is also a sense in which the shadow is waiting for Maria - she brought her own cause of melancholy with her, as she grieves silently for her father and her lost life in Yarmouth.
The fates of Bascom and Maria are combined in the last paragraph of the story, where we learn that Bascom is haunted by her death for the rest of his life, and taken over by that same feeling of melancholy. "But the memory of Maria's sad face, and sadder death, was his abiding sorrow. Out of that deep shadow his soul was never lifted."
I'm looking forward to our next story by Mary E Wilkins Freeman. Thanks to Ellen for posting the biographical details about her.
Bye for now
Date: Sat, 15 Dec 2001
I guess I went Over The Top in my comments about Braddon's short story. Did I drink too much green tea, or was my fit of pique caused by my having to dust and reshelf hundreds of books? I am still dusting and reshelving books as part of a home improvement project. I love my books, but they take a lot of dusting. Poor Maria! Duster in hand she carries on resolutely until Fate does her in! Of course Braddon wrote a great story! When it comes to writing a "page turner" Braddon never (well, hardly ever) disappoints. Braddon keeps the pot bubbling so to speak, and engages us from the first paragraph. Vis a vis Kristi's post (P.D. James quote) and Ellen's response - Braddon, like Trollope, has a sharp eye for the "day to day-ness" of ordinary life. Take this paragraph from "The Shadow in the Corner":
"Michael Bascom was too deep in the atomic theory to give a second thought to the necessities of an old servant. Mrs. Skegg was an individual with whom he rarely came in contact. She lived for the most part in a gloomy region at the north end of the house, where she ruled over the solitude of a kitchen, that looked like a cathedral, and numerous offices of the sculler, larder, and pantry class, where she carried on a perpetual warfare with spiders and beetles, and wore her old life out in the labour of sweeping and scrubbing. She was a woman of severe aspect, dogmatic piety, and a bitter tongue. She was a good plain cook, and ministered diligently to her master's wants. He was not an epicure, but liked his life to be smooth and easy, and the equilibrium of his mental power would have been disturbed by a bad dinner. "
That looks like a throw-away paragraph, but look how much is in it. I love the "deep in the atomic theory" remark. That tells us all we need to know about Bascom. The image of Mrs. Skegg in her gloomy set of offices carrying on "perpetual warfare with spiders and beetles" tells us a lot too. In one tidy paragraph, the reader feels "the souls and elbows" of the characters. Trollope was an author who could do the same. The homely detail was Trollope's coin of the realm. Franzen's The Corrections is loaded with asides about the content of people's basements, the organization of a modern restaurant kitchen, a minute description of a dreary hotel conference room, etc. As Trollope sat in his train compartment and ground out his required number of words per day, he brought a wealth of down-to-earth insights about the goings on of his fellow human beings. Trollope, like Braddon had empathy for the Mrs. Skeggs of the world and their battles with spiders and beetles. Some modern critics have called Franzen's book "over written." They say that Franzen's asides about, for instance, the contents of Enid Lambert's basement are "over done" and do not contribute to the novel. Oh foolish critics! These type of passages _are_ the novel! We feel the very texture of the characters' lives in passages like these.
Let's look at another passage from Braddon's story:
"When Daniel Skegg went back to the kitchen he railed mercilessly at poor Maria, who sat pale and silent in her corner by the hearth, darning old Mrs. Skegg's grey worsted stockings, which were the roughest and harshest armour that ever human foot clothed itself withal."
We certainly feel every lump and bump of every darn in those worsted stockings. And don't we understand Mrs. Skegg by knowing about her footwear? I think we do! After reading this sentence, I "know" Mrs. Skegg quite intimately. Do you suppose that Trollope is, in a sense, "too feminine" in his minute observations of people, places and things? I say "bravo" to authors who write about lumpy stockings. And the contents of people's basements.
Re: Braddon's "Shadow in the Corner"
This is in response to both Judy and Catherine's recent posts on this story -- and to Kristi's passage from P D. James once again:
It's curious how ghost stories combine the popular and the literary. Those who have written them and about them all agree it takes a controlled expert art to put them across: one false step and the spell breaks. Since most of us don't believe in the supernatural, there is a also a strong playfulness at work: playfulness leads to artifice which is literary. Ghost stories as a genre first became popular in the 18th century (the first ones date from then, e.g., Daniel Defoe's "True Account of Mrs Veal") when belief in the supernatural was in retreat.
All this is to say that their literariness or artifice makes them endlessly intriguing, like puzzles and you can keep peeling off skins and find some more. Catherine quoted passages rich in pictorial and other kinds of detail: I was struck by the analogy of the kitchen to a cathedrale. These gothics like nothing so much as a cathedrale or castle and what's is not usually a vast labyrinthian place becomes one -- and we accept it.
It is a half-suspension of disbelief, a kind of hesitance too for the passage made me remember one of Jane Austen's mocks in her Northanger Abbey. The joke is as much on a literal reader as it about the genre. General Tilney (who is analogously Montoni in this part of the novel) has taken our heroine, Catherine Morland, on a tour of the Abbey's kitchens:
"they proceeded by quick communication to the kitchen-- the ancient kitchen of the convent, rich in the massy walls and smoke of former days, and in the stoves and hot closets of the present ... They took a slight survey of all; and Catherine was impressed, beyond her expectation, by their multiplicity and their convenience. The purposes for which a few shapeless pantries and a comfortless scullery were deemed sufficient at Fullerton, were here carried on in appropriate divisions, commodious and roomy. The number of servants continually appearing did not strike her less than the number of their offices ... Yet this was an abbey! How inexpressibly different in these domestic arrangements from such as she had read about--from abbeys and castles, in which, though certainly larger than Northanger, all the dirty work of the house was to be done by two pair of female hands at the utmost. How they could get through it all had often amazed Mrs. Allen; and, when Catherine saw what was necessary here, she began to be amazed herself."
I had not seen the sexual connotations of Bascom's response to Maria. Though the passages Judy cites show him attracted to the girl, the stress is more on her vulnerability, fragility and powerlessness: "drifting out of the room as noiselessly as a flower blown across the threshold." Nor did I see a double, but again she's right practically speaking Bascom and Skeggs treat Maria in precisely the same way: she is not to be a bother, and if it takes putting her where no one else is willing to go near, sobeit. Although I stressed Bascom as a figure who carries the theme of anti-science and anti-learning in the tale, I was really seeing him as afraid of sex, anti-sex, simply not sexual, avoiding it. Nowadays when men in stories behave like this readers are perpetually sniffing out a closeted gay person; the hidden or repressed sexual life of Henry James becomes a screen behind which he hid a homosexual life. Still there are people who do led celibate lives; they may prefer seeking power to sex (I really think that is the case of the ex-New York Major Edward Koch). I felt in this story Braddon was dramatizing this type of person as in retreat, as reluctant to engage, somewhat fearful and becomine "dry-as-dust". The phrase does turn up. The poignant irony is that Maria's death pushed him into engaging in life to the extent that he found a congenial world at Oxford.
People have quoted favorite passages from the story. I find this paragraph touching and it makes me long for such moments of happiness:
Maria sat down quietly in her corner by the kitchen fire, and turned over the leaves of her dead father's Bible till she came to the chapters they two had loved best and oftenest read together. He had been a simple-minded, straightforward man, the Yarmouth cabinet-maker-- a man full of aspirations after good, innately refined, instinctively religious. He and his motherless girl had spent their lives alone together, in the neat little home which Maria had so soon learnt to cherish and beautify; and they had loved each other with an almost romantic love. They had had the same tastes, the same ideas. Very little had sufficed to make them happy. But inexorable death parted father and daughter, in one of those sharp, sudden partings which are like the shock of an earthquake--instantaneous ruin, desolation, and despair.
There is a melancholy celebration of the beautiful and civilized here. A Yarmouth cabinet maker working with his hands. Good, innately refined, instinctively religious. It's the Oedipal father and daughter too.
From a classroom lecture on "Ghosts and Gothics, Romance and the Supernatural:
THE SHADOW IN THE CORNER
Biographical: Mary Elizabeth Braddon. 1835-1915.
She wrote 85 novels; she supported her husband, John Maxwell, and the six children she had by him, several before marriage, in high style. She lived with him before marriage. A brave, smart and prolific lady. Her father had deserted her mother when she was very young, and she knew the troubles of poverty, ostracism, how others can be spiteful because they resent whatever education you have. She was on the stage. She was on the stage. She wrote much journalism and rescued Maxwell's publishing verntures (he ran periodicals) more than once. A brave, smart and prolific write.
She wrote many gothic novels, both romantic and partly realistic. She wrote serious books (adaptations of Flaubert and Zola) and popular. She was called the Queen of the Circulating Library. Recently BBC did a film from her Lady Audley's Secret (1862), a bestseller in her time, still in print, a forerunner of Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca ('Last night I dreamt of Manderly...'). The heroine at the center seems to be angel; she is more a Rebecca type.
'The Shadow in the Corner' appeared an extra summer number of Dickens's All the Year Round in 1879.
A moving story. The real plight of the young girl, Maria. She has lost father; has hard mean (ordinary like the laMottes, the Marstons) people to have to live with; there needed no ghost to make her desperate enough to want to do away with herself. Touching picture of her and her father.
Has quality of the best women ghost writers. Male writers can often craft technically, surgically perfect gothic stories that chill; female writers often seek to create works of art that touch the heart while chilling the senses, thereby creating a link with the characters and making us care about them. This is one element in LeFanu's story of Charles Marsden, but it is overlaid by many other things.
Why would women be better at ghost and gothic stories: they have children, they give birth to them; when they die, it's hard and before the 19th century mortality among children high; women often powerless, preyed upon at home, left to care for the dead; visceral emotional response of sensibility. Maybe they are culturally allowed to express things men are not, not even when writing fiction which gives one a license: fiction a kind of mask to hide behind.
Again a haunted house, a solitary learned man, doing scientific research. Michael Bascom a stern materialist. Two old servants; careful build-up of atmosphere. His old woman would make anyone work: out of resentment (he's glad he's not educated out of his station, he). Not much work ethic to be found in ghost stories: a pity all that could be found for her to do was to scour pots and pans. She had a noble form of courage. Under what terror of apprehension did her mind give way?
We are to think there was a ghost even though we never see it.