Date: Sun, 28 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] 'Was It an Illusion?' by Amelia B Edwards
We've talked about how in a few of the stories from 'Restless Spirits' the ghost isn't really scary and the ending seems to fall off. Neither of these applies to Amelia B Edwards' 'Was It an Illusion?', which, as Ellen mentioned, is included in the Cox & Gilbert Oxford anthology. This strikes me as more of a classically-constructed ghost story, which builds up the tension steadily to the climax.
The beginning immediately takes us into familiar Gothic territory, with the traveller venturing out into the wild northern countryside in winter, getting lost and having to ask the way as dusk is falling. But the surprise element here is that the ghost, or ghosts, appear right at the start, passing by almost unnoticed - the limping man and the tall boy, who both appear apparently out of nowhere, "emerging from the fog", and then disappear as quickly. Edwards signals that these are apparitions by using the wording just before their appearance: "Up to this moment I had not met a living soul..."
After their appearance, the school inspector is left asking himself "Was I dreaming?", and that is the same question we are left with at the end, as signalled in the title of the story, 'Was It an Illusion?' Nobody else admits to seeing the visions, although it is stated in the final letter from Wolstenholme that the schoolmaster, Ebenezer Skelton, has felt himself haunted by an "invisible presence". Events seem to bear out the fact that Frazer must have "really" seen the ghosts, but there is still an ambiguity there.
I was quite surprised at the use of the name 'Ebenezer' for the schoolmaster, which tends instantly to suggest Scrooge - I think I have only come across one or two Ebenezers elsewhere, one of them the miserly uncle in Stevenson's 'Kidnapped'. Here I think the name immediately helps to build a suspicion of the schoolmaster, along with his pale appearance and the way he claims not to see the mysterious shadow, although he is clearly terrified of it. On first reading, I half-expected it to turn out that the schoolmaster was a ghost - which it does in a way, with that final twist of him committing suicide in jail. Of the two apparitions Frazer sees, one is the boy who is already dead, the other the murderer who is doomed. There's an irony about the way the schoolmaster is anxious to do the best for the boys he teaches, and even to ensure they have more space for a playground, despite the fact that he "was not particularly kind" to his supposed nephew, in fact his illegitimate son, who led a wretched life, hidden away and neglected, before being beaten to death
It strikes me that this story of the illegitimate child being hidden away, and the parent living in terror of the child's "shadow", is at heart more of a woman's story, with suggestions of the infanticides in novels like 'Adam Bede', and in real life too of course. Iit was still possible for a man to continue in a respectable position even if he was known to have fathered illegitimate children, although I suppose Skelton would lose his job in the context of this story. The way the story is constructed reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Gaskell's 'Old Nurse's Story', another tale of an unwanted and murdered child returning to take vengeance.
All the best,
December 28, 2003
Re: Amelia Edwards's "Is It an Illusion?"
This does seem to be a "classic" ghost story, complete with wintry landscape, the sudden (early) appearance of a ghost which does leave one with that strange _frisson_, and a connection to atavistic/savage behavior because something has happened which is hidden away because it was not socially accepted by the society. The illegitimate child is a repeated motif in the Victorian ghost story. The "Old Nurse's Story" mentioned by Judy has an illegimate birth (or sexual arrangement which is not condoned by the society); I usually think of Adam Bede when we talk of how the Victorians differed from our practice of abortion (also The Heart of Mid-Lothian). The terrible shame, ostracizing and consequent (in real life) desperate poverty of a girl who gave birth outside wedlock when the child was not taken from her apparently did not infrequently end in infanticide or attempts and desires for it. Crabbe's horrific story of Peter Grimes, man who beat his boy apprentices to death (it became the basis of a Britten opera) plays upon the illegitimate child who is gotten "rid" of this way. Interestingly the 20th century opera shows pity for Grimes; Crabbe's Grimes was sheerly brutal in the manner of Dickens's Bill Sykes. According to Gutwirth and others, the 18th century practice of sending children out to wetnurses was in fact a mostly unacknowledged wholesale version of infanticide in a society which had no means of secure contraception.
Ghost stories seem to work to express feelings and bring out realities that are socially unacceptable or frighteningly amoral but happen every day. The reputed "unreality" of the story is the escape valve, the cover.
Edwards seems to have a strong predilection for snow and chill as central to terror and death. Her "Phantom Coach" has the same landscape. "The Phantom Coach" had the interest of having the apparently living person (who may also be a vision) be someone who is also a scientist/learned person, a theme characteristic of the ghost story. However, both dwell on people who withdraw from society, live in solitude, apart and the dangers of this whether you go off the deep end to destroy yourself ("Phantom Coach") or end up murdering others ("Is It an Illusion?")
There does seem to be a specific set of motifs characteristic of the ghost story by a woman in the 19th century which are shared by the ghost story by a woman in the 20th. The difference between the two is the latter tends to become more sheerly psychological torture and distress, melancholy. We might say that Wharton's "The Lady's Maid's Bell" lies inbetween these two tendencies: the creation of a frisson, ghost and questioning of the justice/goodness of life and what's outside in deathare typical of the 19th century ghost story; the 20th century moves into the psychological with metaphysics tending to become social criticism and a psychoanalytical interpretation.
Cheers to all,
Date: Tue, 30 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Amelia Edwards, "Was it an Illusion?"
I got a chance to read this story today (over my lunch at the Huntington--indoors alas, the air was a little chill for the garden seating). I must agree with Judy that this story has a terrific structure--and it feels richer in details, and more successful in making a ghost-story mood and pay-off.
Judy and Ellen have commented extensively, but here are my additional notes... The name Ebenezer Skelton caught me too--not just for the echoes of other gothic Ebenezers, but also for the Skelton/Skeleton proximity. And I giggled a bit, when Wolstenholme asked Frazer, "Have you ever been down a coal pit?" I have! I grew up in anthracite mining country--there aren't any active mines now, but there's a restored mine that has tours--you have to wear a hardhat. My little brother took the tour so many times he knew the guide's spiel by heart. And the drama of a tarn suddenly disappearing--that was part of the legacy of mining for us too. Part of our driveway became a bottomless hole one day. So, while this was set in Northern England, it felt like my home area--I could feel the chill.
It's a story brimming with anxiety about disability--in sum, the limping madman with the delicate chest kills his backwards bastard son, then himself. The immutable taint, passed from twisted father to undeserving son, brings both to violent ends. Frazer wonders often if he's going mad, or having some kind of vision problem.
Judy read the first limping ghost as a vision of the doomed Skelton; I read it as a replay view of Skelton on the night of the murder, trudging almost in a trance either to or from his deed.
Love the idea of a traveling school inspector as the stranger on the scene--we don't have those anymore, like ladies' companions, or governesses, or servants... Edith Wharton's essay about writing ghost stories explains that part of her reason for doing so is that the conventional elements were disappearing from the world she lived in, and she wanted to write such tales while they were still possible. Penny R
Date: Tue, 30 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Amelia Edwards, "Was it an Illusion?"
Penny L. Richards wrote:
It's a story brimming with anxiety about disability--in sum, the limping madman with the delicate chest kills his backwards bastard son, then himself. The immutable taint, passed from twisted father to undeserving son, brings both to violent ends. Frazer wonders often if he's going mad, or having some kind of vision problem. Judy read the first limping ghost as a vision of the doomed Skelton; I read it as a replay view of Skelton on the night of the murder, trudging almost in a trance either to or from his deed.
Thanks for this, Penny. I had wondered about the limp but hadn't come to any conclusions about it - I wondered if perhaps it was to be seen as an outward sign of Skelton's inner evil, or "twistedness", as you say, as unfortunately disability often seems to be in 19th-century stories. It hadn't struck me at all to make the connection between the father and son's disabilities. I also thought it was a replay view of Skelton on the night of the murder, but it struck me that the fact his ghost is seen at all points to the fact he is doomed to death. Glad you enjoyed this story too.
All the best, Judy
I forgot to include this bit in yesterday's post...
I took the schoolboys' perfect performance as additional information about their master Skelton--that he was so demanding and terrifying that the boys were scared into a good show for the visiting inspector. In an era when school achievement was measured by rote memorization and recitation of discrete facts, it wouldn't be difficult to mistake fear-born precision for studious good work. How much more provoking, then, for such a harsh man whose professional life rests on his skill at intimidating boys, to find he's got a backward teenaged son who won't be tamed, a son whose existence itself is a messy detail in a strictly controlled life.
Re: Edwards's "Is It an Illusion?"
I too hadn't focused in any alert way on the boy and man as both disabled, though in different ways. It does fit the central type of these tales: often the one who "gets it in the head" is peculiarly vulnerable, someone who is an outcast from the society. In Braddon's "Shadow in the Corner" we have the story of a young girl whose father dies; she is poverty-striken, sensitive, intelligent and timid. This arouses disdain, contempt, bitter resentment and an instinct to destroy with impunity. And so she is mocked, overworked, isolated and finally hung in a room by a ghost who haunts the house. The ghost is of someone destroyed for reasons that have nothing to do with the girl; she just comes in his way. You can also interpret this tale psychologically and see the girl as having been driven to suicide. Grimes's boys are outcasts, not wanted by their communities.
1831: Amelia B. Edwards, English novelist, travel writer, Egyptologist (d. 1892)