Embattled Young Victorian Women

There is something so fragile about young Victorian women. Partially, this was because they could not really own property: If they were married, their husbands had full control. According to Bartleby.Com:

The property rights of women during most of the nineteenth century were dependent upon their marital status. Once women married, their property rights were governed by English common law, which required that the property women took into a marriage, or acquired subsequently, be legally absorbed by their husbands. Furthermore, married women could not make wills or dispose of any property without their husbands’ consent. Marital separation, whether initiated by the husband or wife, usually left the women economically destitute, as the law offered them no rights to marital property.

I have just finished reading J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh (1864), a brooding mystery about a young English heiress named Maud Ruthyn who is hemmed in by the incompetence of her guardians and the villainy of people trusted by their guardians who strive to take advantage of her.

Looking back on English novels of the Victorian era, I find many novels on this theme. Think of Jane Eyre, Bleak House, The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Agney Grey. It made me realize that it took a long time for society to protect the rights of women. Even today, many existing societies fail in this regard.

In those novels, the only prospect young women could look forward to other than marriage with a loving and rich husband is a dead-end job as a governess, seamstress, laundress, or some other poorly paying “-ess.”

Thou Foster-Child of Silence and Slow Time

Irish Writer J. Sheridan LeFanu (1814-1873)

He is probably most famous for his ghost stories. His Carmilla (1872) was a Lesbian vampire tale that inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula and was turned into a Roger Vadim film called Blood and Roses (1960). His stories were an unusual mixture of horror, mystery, and historical fiction. After putting it off for decades, I am finally reading his Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh (1864) and am enjoying immensely.

The title of this post comes from John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

There is something eminently satisfying about reading a long nineteenth century novel. It calls for reserves of patience, but rewards with insights similar to those of the Grecian urn about which Keats writes. That is particularly true of novels from the British Isles, where the prose at times approaches the realm of poetry:

See how a sleepy child will put off the inevitable departure for bed. The little creature’s eyes blink and stare, and it needs constant jogging to prevent his nodding off into the slumber which nature craves. His waking is a pain; he is quite worn out, and peevish, and stupid, and yet he implores a respite, and deprecates repose, and vows he is not sleepy, even to the moment when his mother takes him in her arms, and carries him, in a sweet slumber, to the nursery. So it is with us old children of earth and the great sleep of death, and nature our kind mother. Just so reluctantly we part with consciousness, the picture is, even to the last, so interesting; the bird in the hand, though sick and moulting, so inestimably better than all the brilliant tenants of the bush. We sit up, yawning, and blinking, and stupid, the whole scene swimming before us, and the stories and music humming off into the sound of distant winds and waters. It is not time yet; we are not fatigued; we are good for another hour still, and so protesting against bed, we falter and drop into the dreamless sleep which nature assigns to fatigue and satiety.

I am presently 70% of the way through Uncle Silas and look forward to finishing the book tomorrow, come hell or high water. If you are interested in exploring LeFanu’s work, the following editions were issued by Dover Publications and may still be found from used book dealers (I recommend http://www.abebooks.com):

  • Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu
  • Green Tea and Other Ghost Stories
  • Ghost Stories and Mysteries
  • Wylder’s Hand
  • Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh
  • The Wyvern Mystery

It is my opinion that LeFanu is a sadly neglected writer who, over time, will come into his own.

The Halloween 2020 Book List

A Canadian Adaptation of LeFanu’s Carmilla (2017)

Every October, I usually read several novels and short stories in the horror genre. I do not care that much for the current stuff, like Stephen King or Dean Koontz. My preference is for the classics, and those tend to be concentrated in the late 19th century.

The books I read this month were:

  • Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales
  • Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s In a Glass Darkly, which included the short novels Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant
  • Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, a new collection edited by Aaron Worthy

Shirley Jackson is most famous for her short story “The Lottery,” but she also wrote such novels as We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House.

Sheridan LeFanu (1814-1873) was an Irish author who wrote some classic tales of horror, especially Carmilla, a tale of a lesbian vampire who predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by some twenty years. In 1960, it was made into a film by Roger Vadim entitled Blood and Roses (in France: Et mourir de plaisir). At the time I attended college, it was the most popular film showed by the Dartmouth Film Society.

Welsh Horror Tale Author Arthur Machen

Finally, there was a delightful collection of novellas and tales by Arthur Machen (1863-1947). Most of Machen’s best work was composed up to the late 1920s and included the classic The Great God Pan (1894), which tells of what happened when a young woman who, upon being exposed to the Greek god Pan, created a trail of destruction that spanned several continents.