Monthly Archives: June 2013

Genre: The Haunted House

The Ash Tree Illustration by George Chastain

The Ash Tree illustration by George Chastain (The Twilight Zone 1981)

‘… there were no more mysterious occurrences … no rings on the bells, no raps, no footsteps, no more curious incidences of any kind. The house continued to … “behave itself” ‘.             (The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters, p. 386)

After a lapse of a few weeks, I have finally been able to return to the literary country house. My last post on this topic is here, and concerned the country house poem. Here the focus is how the country house can play host to something more supernatural and chilling, and ultimately more claustrophobic.

In an article for The New Statesman (2011), John O’Connell identified the country house genre as two distinct groups; the Gothic (the focus here) and the social.  This article is now exclusively for subscribers, but the overview is given by John Lucas in The Guardian from February 2011. Lucas himself states, ‘It’s dramatically useful to be able to force characters together in a physical space where they have little choice but to interact with each other. In this sense, the country house functions in much the same way as a pub in a soap opera.’ Yet the Gothic and the social country house did not just appear from nothing. There is certainly something which links the steady move towards privacy for landowners and their families, Acts of Enclosure, and extensive landscaping which suggests that the house itself became ever more remote and mysterious during the eighteenth century.

Of course the Gothic setting may not even be a country house. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765), Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron (1778), and Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) all play out within murky castle walls. Indeed Gothic originally implied medieval, but by the end of the eighteenth century its meaning had altered to incorporate the purely macabre, eerie and supernatural. The medieval element was not always important.

How the country house setting fits into the Gothic model is complex, and is as much the backdrop as it is a character. This is not about whether ghosts or the supernatural are real, but often about social commentary and the psychological and physical threats posed by others. For example the artificial relationships set out by the class system and patriarchal dominance, the paranoia of rightful inheritance, tyrannical masters seeking sexual deviance, or the consequences of inbreeding. Add to these the architectural decay of a world that once thrived or the intrigue of an ill-fated inhabitant brought to an early demise through murder or suicide and the scene is set for monsters and ghouls stepping forth to tell their tales.

The haunted house may simply be the desolate detached thing at the end of the road. Yet the country house (big or small) provides the writer with a greater variety of space, of past opulence, of dysfunctional families and their struggle to uphold pride and lineage. The dark corners, damp basement passageways and dusty attics are all places for secreting horrifyingly disfigured relations, ancestral sins, or discarded womenfolk.

Front cover for the Turn of the Screw, making use of an typically ethereal painting by Atkinson Grimshaw.

Front cover for the Turn of the Screw, making use of an typically ethereal painting by Atkinson Grimshaw.

Key authors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would certainly include the following: Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839),  Charles Dickens et al., The Haunted House (1859), J. S. Le Fanu, ‘Madam Crowl’s Ghost’ (1870), Charlotte Riddell, The Haunted House at Latchford (1872), Henry James, ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898), and M. R. James, ‘The Ash Tree’ (1904). All of these have different tales to tell, but the techniques are similar wherever you look. Ultimately, the haunted house is the static setting into which one or more characters are introduced in order to relate the tale to us as the readers. The madness and hysteria may have already existed before their mediation like in H. P. Lovecraft’s, The Rats in the Walls (1924). On the other hand this new character or characters may or may not be the trigger for the haunting as in the genre’s present day revival like Sarah Waters’s, The Little Stranger (2009).

Front cover for The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (first published 2009)

Front cover for The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (first published 2009)

M. R. James does not use this technique in ‘The Ash Tree’, but instead has his narrator pass on the tale as though it were stuff of legend or folklore. Yet, this too is common, especially in short stories. The period setting is therefore important and may be familiar to the reader. Supernatural suspense in the protagonist’s own present or recent past for example  might be provided by a tortured spirit, often with a message from the grave like in the late James Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall (2006) or even Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983). Also common is the retelling by the main character of their version of events (usually by firelight) to a contemporary audience.

The role of the haunted house has never really changed dramatically in literature over time, but it has seen a handful of revivals. The country house as haunted house however does not fit obviously into the social changes occurring simultaneously.  The interwar years see little production of ghostly tales, as the country house at that time became the social house model as noted by John O’Connell. Presumably this might have more to do with a dismissal of all things Victorian rather than a severe dislike of the supernatural tale itself. Moreover, demolition of the country house in the UK during the 1950s and 1960s does not seem to impact too heavily on the genre.

As a child I was probably reading haunted house stories produced during a wave of interest in Victoriana and past opulence in children’s literature. Many of my favourite authors like Robert Westall, Philippa Pearce and  Helen Cresswell knew how to twist the fate of an old mansion. Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958) for one, is as much about a fantasy world as it is about the dismantling of a golden era. Today’s revival has been a few years in the making, but there is a wealth of novels and short stories to examine further. Perhaps the accessibility of the country house has aided this fascination; the layers of history witnessed in the blocked up doorways and windows, glistening mirrors that once held someone’s reflection, creaking floorboards, the maze of passageways, empty beds, and unnamed portraits…

Still from the 20 film of The Woman in Black (Cotter Hall)

Still from the 2012 film of The Woman in Black (Cotterstock Hall, Northamptonshire)

References and further reading:

John Boyne, This House is Haunted (2013)

E. J. Clery, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction (1995)

J. S. Le Fanu, In a Glass Darkly (1872)

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (2000)

Peter Haining, The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories (2005)

James Herbert, Haunted (1988)

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

P. J. Keating, The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel 1875-1914 (2012 ?)

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (1938)

The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986)

J. B. Priestley, Benighted (1927)

John Sullivan, Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story From Le Fanu To Blackwood (1978) and Lost Souls: A Collection of English Ghost Stories (1983)

Robert Westall, Ghost Abbey (new edition 2011)

Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost (first published 1887)

Links:

The Ghost Story on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_story

The Gothic literary genre on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_fiction

Haunted Country Houses in Country Life Magazine http://www.countrylife.co.uk/countryside/pursuits/article/153019/Top-10-haunted-country-houses.html

University of Sheffield, School of English course Literature of the English Country House http://soeblog.group.shef.ac.uk/mooc/

And last but not least, Horror Film Haunted Houses http://cinefantastiqueonline.com/2009/03/sense-of-wonder-hollywoods-most-haunted-houses/

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East India Company at Home Mid-Project Conference, 31st May – 1st June 2013.

Since the East India Company at Home Project started in September 2011, there has been a buzz surrounding its methodological framework, its research findings and range of subject matter. I last covered this project here after they released their first case study.

The project (EICaH for short) began at the University of Warwick but has since been transferred to University College London (UCL) for a variety of reasons, but mainly due to funding opportunities and departmental interests.* The premise of the project is to examine the British country house in an imperial and global context through material culture and the families linked with these houses on the one hand and the connections they may have had with the East India Company on the other.

EICaH wallpapers[2]

Helen Clifford and Emile de Bruijn presenting their paper on Chinese wallpapers in National Trust properties ‘every good country house has its Chinese wallpaper’!

What makes the EICaH project so unique and perhaps even dynamic, is its attempt to pull together knowledge from a spectrum of sources and people. By putting this bluntly, the project’s diverse pool of thought comes from academics, museum professionals, archivists and librarians, students, local and family historians and independent scholars. The core team consists of Professor Margot Finn, Helen Clifford, and Kate Smith. Then there is an Advisory Board consisting of those affiliated with institutions like the V&A, the British Library or local authorities to mention a few. Project associates make up the next segment of those involved and are a healthy mix of those with interests in the British country house, the East India Company, trade and consumption and all the bits in the middle. I’m a project associate simply because I clearly adore country houses and the mixture of histories which can be applied to them.

I don’t want to talk at length about the details of the project as this is fully accessible through the links already given. What I do want to do is address the topics discussed at the mid-project conference which took place at the end of last week.

The conference was split over two days and roughly by content and methodology. The link to the programme is here. On Friday some fascinating papers concerning particular people and places associated with the East India Company were presented to the cosy audience of about 70 avid listeners.

EICaH John McAleer

John McAleer and the architecture of the East India Company’s Offices (image courtesy of Rachael Barnwell)

My favourites were Georgina Green’s research into supercargoes and the roles of East India Company captains; John McAleer’s look at the architecture of the Company’s offices; Stephen McDowall’s extensive and thoughtful examination of material culture and the meanings placed upon specific objects; and Janice Sibthorpe’s Sezincote’s case study. In the evening a keynote lecture by Giorgio Riello about the trade and consumption of cotton textiles finished the day on a high.

Saturday was the day of debate with the focus on how collaboration between academic institutions and those outside the ‘academy’ work effectively or otherwise. Here it was necessary to understand the structure of the project – its framework, but also the questions it was hoping to ask as well as answer. There was  lot to cover.

The most anticipated part of the Saturday sessions was undoubtedly the trip to Osterley Park (which I was unable to attend) but for me in particular it was the discussion concerning the methodology of the project since I was taking part. Upon the very kind invitation of Margot Finn, Helen Clifford and Kate Smith, also participating were Margaret Makepeace (Lead Curator of East India Company Collections at the British Library), Cliff Pereira (Public Engagement Consultant), and Keith Sweetmore (Development Manager at the North Yorkshire Country Record Office) That’s the four of us pictured below.

EICaH me

In the words of Margot Finn, the project is fairly ‘experimental’ in terms of previous attempts by historians to collaborate. I’ve found other projects to be rather formulaic and incredibly constrained by academic protocol (for want of a better word) and so I was eager to see some part of the discussion aimed at how the EICaH project had been able to challenge this. My belief is that for something of this scale to thrive, individual academics must be willing to show motivation and share their professional development both within their respective departments but also elsewhere.

I, for one, despise the Research Excellence Framework (replacing the Research Assessment Exercise) since it encourages exclusivity through peer review whilst exposing a neat way to keep academic research knotted tightly to the academy. In more simple terms, any research undertaken by an academic institution, regardless of wider collaboration eventually becomes the possession of that institution and the doors close to those without academic affiliation.

So where does the EICaH project fit in? I understand there to be two distinct parts to its methodology and its collaborative efforts represent the major part; the role of the country houuse as means of posing and answering questions, the lesser part. Margot Finn and Helen Clifford are the highly motivated academics who initiated the project and discussed its possibilities long before it began. They also have a desire to promote greater dissemination of their own findings to wider audiences. Inevitably, they are bound by academic protocol because funding for projects like this comes with certain criteria to which any published material or outcome must adhere.

However, it should be noted that the EICaH project is perhaps transitional. Finn declared it to be experimental, indeed there is still more to be said about exactly how the country house community and household may be placed within an imperial and global context, but the project can provide a working model for future historians.

At the end of the conference though, I came away satisfied that history can be made more accessible both to bigger audiences and to those wishing to undertake historical research. The academic can put something into context, and the museum professional can provide layers of interpretation, but a historian is not limited to fancy apparatus like the scientist, or material compounds like the chemist in order to test a theory; history is about thinking. Many of Britain’s archives, libraries and collections are freely accessible to everyone, working collaboratively can enrich the pools of thought and maintain a flow of intellect whether someone has an academic tenure or not.

*******

* Warwick University links are still accessible and currently functional. I have left the original post on countryhousereader (dated March 2012) with these links in tact. The same case studies are also available on the UCL blog which has transferred everything over to this new site. The links in this post are for the UCL blog.

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Filed under Building the Country House, Men and the Country House, Women and the Country House