Born in Carrickfergus, near Belfast, into an Anglo-Irish family, Charlotte Riddell (1832-1906), name pronounced “Riddle”, grew up in Ireland, but moved to London in 1855, after her father’s death, to pursue a literary career. Initially battling against poverty and the difficulties of breaking into the publishing market as an unknown woman writer, she was later to enjoy success as a novelist and editor, producing a long list of popular novels between the 1860s and 1880s. In a bid to ensure respectability, she published under her married name of Mrs. J. H. Riddell up until The mid-1860s.
Riddell’s first novel to achieve contemporary recognition, George Geith of Fen Court published in three volumes (the fashion of the day) in 1864, is a tale of commerce set in the City of London; the novel was very successful, and was soon followed by others, such as Home, Sweet Home (1873), Mortomley’s Estate (1874) and The Head of the Firm (1892), whose titles suggest her ongoing interest in property, inheritance and the world of business, aligning her with her contemporary novelist Anthony Trollope.
She worked as the editor of Home Magazine and St. James’s Magazine in the 1860s, at a time when women editors and journalists, once seen as anomalous, were growing in numbers. Like other professional women writers of her day, she remained reliant on the income from her writing to support herself and her family; she remained childless, anew had a less-than-successful husband, an inventor, whose debts she was often obliged to pay.
Although Charlotte Riddell is not a familiar name to modern readers, having been rather unjustly neglected in some histories of Victorian women’s writing, her work deserves to be considered along-side the more well-known, popular authors of her day, such as Wilkie Collins, Sheridan Le Fanu, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Mrs Henry Wood. Such novelists wrote primarily in the “sensational” genre, which satisfied the public appetite for crime, violence, and sensationalism at mid-century; and there are certainly elements of this in her supernatural stories, which borrow from sensation fiction in their emphasis.
Nineteenth-century readers were captivated by the supernatural, and the demand for the ghost story only increased as the century progressed. Riddell is notable amongst Victorian writers for her longer supernatural fiction and for producing one of the first collections of ghost stories, “Weird Tales” which were only beginning to appear in collected form by the 1870s and 1880s. She published four supernatural novels, all of which appeared in Routledge’s Christmas annuals, Fairy Water (1873), The Uninhabited House (1874), The Haunted River (1877) and The Disappearance of Mr Jeremiah Redworth (1878).
The English association of ghost stories with Christmas in the nineteenth century, attributable no doubt to Charles Dickens who published supernatural tales in the Christmas supplements to his popular journals, All the Year Round and Household Words in the 1850s and 1860s, was well established by the time Riddell was producing her fiction, and the public demand for the much loved annuals continued apace.
Supernatural novels were something of an innovation in a period which seemed to prefer the shorter, more intense ghost story, and certainly some of Riddell’s short stories are a lot longer than those of her contemporaries; this allowed for greater commentary on social mores and more details about a wider range of characters, whilst building up tension behind the ostensible realism.
Although she certainly contributed regularly to mainstream journals such as Temple Bar, London Society, and Once a Week, which were important showcases for contemporary fiction, it is not known whether the six ghost stories which make up Weird Stories (1882) had been previously published in periodicals, or were written specifically as a new collection, though critics have tended to assume the latter. The sensation novelist, Rhoda Broughton (1840-1920), whose tales bear some similarities to those of Riddell in both style and subject matter, had been one of the first Victorian authors to publish a ghost story collection, though the five tales which comprise Broughton’s Tales for Christmas Eve (1873), later republished as Twilight Stories in 1879, had all previously appeared in Temple Bar in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Perhaps Riddell’s Weird Stories collection was an attempt to try something new, at a time when the author or her publisher may have felt that her more realist style of fiction was going out of fashion.
The majority of Riddell’s stories are haunted house narratives, drawing on and contributing to a very popular sub-genre of the ghost story prominent throughout the nineteenth century. Other notable examples of this sub genre are stories such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” (1853), Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House” (1891), Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea” (1871), and Rhoda Broughton’s “The Truth, the Whole Truth’ and Nothing but the Truth” (1868).
Weird Stories was published the year that saw the formation of the Society for Psychical Research in Britain, which set out to investigate and classify paranormal phenomena and, amongst other things, invited readers of the periodicals to report instances of haunting and hallucinations; this the haunted house narrative acquired a new resonance. These types of stories conventionally open with the narrator buying or renting a suspiciously cheap house and living there despite mysterious warnings of the locals; and they usually conclude with revelations of unavenged murders and acts of violence, lost or stolen wills, or buried family traumas. The desolation of these neglected houses, some of which have been lying empty for years, is often banished by “laying” the ghosts to rest, marriage and family reconciliations, or the discovery of hidden money (the narratives were known to emphasise the difficulties of maintaining well-managed households, or of finding suitable new homes). The stories also allowed authors to explore issues around the acquisition and loss of property, inheritance, and material possessions; as well as women’s financial dependency; and their positions as wives, mothers, and daughters—matters of great personal interest to popular women writers (and their readers).
Riddell’s haunted house narratives are particularly striking for their varied portrayal of female ghosts and strange monstrous women. Comparing Riddell with fellow writers Margaret Oliphant and Florence Marryat, Vanessa D. Dickerson notes that all three women “probed the nature of women’s special relation to the spiritual and the material” at a time when new legislation was only just addressing women’s rights to their own earnings and property (the second Married Women’s Property Act, extending rights granted in the original Act of 1870, was passed in the same year as Riddell’s collection, Weird Stories, 1882.) Sometimes RIddell’s ghosts are miserly figures, like the pitiful old hag in ‘The Old House in Vauxhall Walk’, who counts her sovereigns in the middle of the night, taunted by her poor and wretched family members whom she could have supported whike alive, durging her “lost life”. The female murderer in “The Open Door’”, who comes to search for a lost will, has become a fierce, devilish figure who fights against the young clerk staying at the haunted Ladlow Hall: “the desire for money…transformed the demure angel into a fury the male can barely control”. In “Nut Bush Farm”, the “mannish” landlady, Miss Gostock, who drives a hard bargain but looks like “some monstrous figure in a story of giants and hobgoblins”, is much scarier than the actual ghost of the previous tenant, perhaps inviting the reader to consider the strangeness of women in charge of their own finances.
The no-nonsense new owners or tenants of the properties signalled in the titles of RIddell’s ghost stories are determined not to hend the advice of local superstitions, adopting, rather, the stance more commonly found in the conventional male narrator of the ghost story at that time, concerning the “impossibility of the paranormal”—though succeeding events do end up shattering sugh bravado.
The narratives often include meditations on the values and pleasures of property. The son and heir in “The Old House in Vauxhall Walk”, originally describing himself as “houseless – homeless – hopeless!” after a quarrel with his father, finds that his encounter with the miserly ghost makes him reappraise his attitude toward money, particularly as the miser’s hoarded gold, (SPOILER ALERT!!) discovered behind the smashed mirror at the end of the story, will guarantee his inheritance. ‘Walnut-Tree House’ offers a variation on this theme with its figure of the uncanny ghost of a neglected child, who died young, that follows the owner around the newly inherited property. Perhaps acting as a reminder of the responsibilities of fatherhood and inheritance, the young ghost’s presence, more benign than malevolent, eventually serves to facilitate the owner’s marriage to the dead boy’s long-lost sister, who will produce children to enliven the once “desolate and deserted” Walnut-Tree House.
As Jenny Uglow has pointed out in her discussion of Victorian women’s ghost stories: “Although—perhaps because—they were written as unpretentious entertainments, ghost stories seemed to give their writers a licence to experiment, to push the boundaries of fiction a little further”. Whilst publishers often had control over the endings of Victorian novels, which also had to be fit to appear in public “lending libraries”, the author could conclude her short stories in alternative, ambiguous ways; or obliquely address themes such as female sexuality or racial otherness that might be considered too risqué or shocking for polite readers of the novel.
In Riddell’s story “Old Mrs Jones”, the ghostly figure of the title (SPOILER ALERT!!!) is the murdered wife of the dissolute and disreputable Dr Jones, who, it is revealed, has fallen into ‘evil habits’ of drinking, gambling, and promiscuity. With his preference for “bold, flaunting women’”, his choice of wife cannot fail to give the locals something to gossip about. The “new” Mrs Jones turns out to be small, old, and ugly; she is also of a different race, “not black but exceedingly brown”, at a time when “it would be most undesirable to introduce foreigners of no respectable color into the bosom of British families who had made their money in the City”. In this story, Riddell taps into contemporary fears of the foreigner, whose wealth has the potential to be “contaminated”, highlighting a common hypocrisy in respectable British society during a period of patriotic imperialism. Those who recoil in horror from the apparition of the witch-like Mrs Jones, who haunts the house now being rented by Mr. and Mrs. Tippens, are also recoilin from her “otherness”, her threatening “dark face and fierce black eyes”, so out of place in the traditional British homestead. The ending of the story has the house going up in flames, a distressed figure with streaming grey hair standing on the parapet, described as “the witch the doctor married, and fire alone can destroy her!” As Dr. Jones has been discovered living under another name (SPOILER ALERT!!!) with the remains of an embalmed body hidden in his laboratory, we may assume this is the ghost of the first Mrs. Jones, the one who must be destroyed in this way—perhaps as a punishment for her “ferocity”.
These tropes draw heavily on Charlotte Brontë’s widely-read Gothic tale, Jane Eyre (1847), which similarly features a fierce and angry woman of another race who Jane believes to be a ghost, but is actually Mr Rochester’s mad Jamaican wife, who has been imprisoner in the attic for fifteen years. She, too, is destroyed in a fire, visible in her death throes on the rooftop, like old Mrs Jones. Both Brontë and Riddell use these Gothic elements to great effect in their narratives to draw attention to the plight of the foreign woman and the racial prejudices of the British. The supernatural encounters, their matter-of-fact description only serving to increase the tension, produce what one nervous tenant calls “this terror of the unseen”, which continues to disturb both characters and readers lomg after the troubling histories of the unquiet ghosts have been revealed and their spirits laid to rest.
Like other ghost stories of the period, these tales show a fascination for the psychological, another arena of the unknown, soon to be explored by Sigmund Freud (see his essay “The Uncanny”) and a new generation of psycho-analysts at the turn of the century. In “Old Mrs Jones”‘ for instance, the prudent and sensible Anne Jane cannot sleep for dreaming of the ghostly figure of Mrs. Jones; Jane ultimately leads the police to Mr. Jones’s hideout while sleepwalking (guided, of course, by Mrs. Jones’ ghost). The causes of sleepwalking, hallucinations, and visions of the future—all very topical—were actively discussed in exciting new journals in the burgeoning areas of psychology and medicine in the 1890s. Freud would go on to investigate These and other relevant topics in his The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, further contribuing to the wide appeal of the supernatural in fiction—namely the ghost story, during the end of the fin de siecle.
With their monstrous women, uncanny children, dissolution, greed, and murder all existing behind the façade of the “splendid manor house”‘ Charlotte Riddell’s weird stories continue to appeal to the modern reader, a fact she would no doubt be pleased to know.