Figure 1. Original London Ghost Walk:
Tour Leader, Richard Jones
During the Victorian era, phantoms of young children were exceptionally common in the literary haunting experience. For example, Catherine Linton’s ghost at the start of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847):
[M]y fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me […] and a most melancholy voice sobbed, “Let me in – let me in!” […] I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window (30).
Figure 2. “Wuthering Heights Illustrations”
by Fritz Eichenberg
This quotation reveals a connection between Lockwood and the young spectre; a hair-raising physical intimacy as his fingers “closed on” those of Catherine’s. The term “fingers” suggests an image of doubling, the window is a metaphorical barrier between the living world of the narrator and the supernatural world of the apparition. In addition, the phrase “little, ice-cold hand” provides a sensory representation of the ghost and signifies death in the child – a lack of warmth and thus, a lack of life. Furthermore, repetition of the phrase “let me in” is especially chilling, making the phantom seem mysterious. Who is Catherine Linton, the “wicked little soul” (32), and why does she want to be let into the bedroom? The ambiguity surrounding the child is provoking and distresses Lockwood, who describes his “maddening fear” (30) at the sight. Therefore, in this spooky scene, readers understand the narrator’s fear of the young, eerie spectre – a characteristic theme in Victorian gothic texts.
Apparitions spooked many Victorians, including Elizabeth Gaskell, who once wrote to Eliza Fox claiming “I SAW a ghost!” (qtd. in Laura Kranzler: xi). In Gaskell’s short text ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ (1952) we see apparitions clearly lingering in her writing too. A young girl, Miss Rosalind, is lured outside by a spectral child who had “taken her by the hand” (22) – reflecting the intimacy of hands used by Bronte. Miss Rosalind explains: “I hear my little girl plaining and crying very sad – oh, let her in, or she will die!” (29). Frequent punctuation here develops oppressive pauses,
Figure 3. Elizabeth Gaskell ‘The Old Nurse’s
Story’ by M. Grant Kelleymeyer
Technological advances may have also been guilty in spooking the Victorians and causing a rise in spectral literature. Despite offering numerous possibilities, technology struck terror in many people. For instance, Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone in 1876. Telephones offered the uncanny experience of being able to communicate with people without having them physically present.
Figure 4. Image of Alexander Graham Bell talking into a
telephone at the Centennial Exhibition, Pennsylvania, 1876
This experience was thriving with superstition during the Victorian period, as Nicola Bown et al. points out: “The mysterious powers of electricity […] made the world seem as if it were full of invisible, occult forces” (1). The idea of sound being detached from a physical body is echoed throughout gothic literature. For example, in Gaskell’s ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ the harrowing and tormenting sounds of the piano being played: “my flesh began to creep […] the old lord, if it was he, played away more, and more stormily and sadly on the great organ” (18-19). Sibilance used here echoes the gloomy rhythm played on the piano: “more stormily and sadly”. This haunting tune, combined with the anonymity of the player, reveals the spookiness of noise in gothic literature. Therefore, it is probable that advances in technology and soundscapes during the nineteenth century created an uncanny fear and stressed the unnerving ghostly voice, thus, spooking the Victorians.
Figure 5. Original London Ghost Walk:
Gas lamp located by Guildhall Buildings, London
Gas lamps may also claim involvement in the spooky ghost sighting experience and the surge in spectral literature. During the Victorian era, many homes were fitted with gas lamps as they provided stable, strong lighting. However, as Ruth Robins and Richard Jones both explain, carbon monoxide was sometimes released from incorrectly installed gas lamps. Carbon monoxide intoxicated the Victorians and caused numerous hallucinations – perhaps including visions of ghosts (Leeds Beckett University, YouTube). Consequently, gas lamps may indicate why there were so many ghost novels emerging during the nineteenth century – and why phantoms were spooking so many Victorians.
In addition, scientific research may she spooking of the contemporary people. The Victorian era saw incredible scientific discoveries and was often known as the Age of Reason. In 1859 Charles Darwin published his text The Origin of Species, in which he proposes the theory of natural selection.
Figure 6. First Edition of The Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin
In conclusion, the Victorians were obsessed with supernatural tales. Numerous gothic stories produced in the nineteenth century are centred on images of apparitions and uncanny hauntings. So, the question I posed was: what got the Victorians so spooked? In my blog, I have delved into four main areas that may have caused the public to be so frightened of phantoms: Child poverty among the lower classes and the guilt experienced by the living, the introduction of technology, including the telephone and its Freudian uncanny in regards to disembodied voices, gas lamps and the hallucinatory carbon monoxide they produced and finally, the Age of Reason and the enlightening scientific discoveries that inspired a detachment from religion and, thus, an ambiguity of the soul. To conclude, the Victorians were spooked by the world around them; regretting the past, troubled with the present and dreading the advances of the future.
Figure 7. Original London Ghost Walk:
Photograph of London alleyway,
located near St. Paul’s Cathedral
Figure 8. Original London Ghost Walk:
Photograph 2 of London alleyway,
located near Bank station
If you are interested in historic ghosts in London, I highly recommend attending the Original London Ghost Walk, see details: http://www.london-ghost-walk.co.uk/
Bown, Nicola, et. al. The Victorian Supernatural. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 1-7. Print
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Sydney: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1997. 30-32. Print
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Gothic Tales. Ed. Kranzler, Laura. London: Penguin Classics, 2000. 18-29. Print
Kranzler, Laura. “Introduction”. In Gothic Tales. Ed. Gaskell, Elizabeth. London: Penguin Classics, 2000. xi. Print
Leeds Beckett University. Professor Ruth Robbins – ‘The Victorian Ghost’. Ruth Robbins.YouTube, 2013. Web. 30 November 2015. < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg94bRJLLj4>
Smith, Elton E. and Robert Haas. The Haunted Mind. Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1999.vii. Print
Wolfreys, Julian. Victorian Hauntings: Spectrality, Gothic, the Uncanny and Literature. NewYork: Palgrave, 2002. 5. Print
Works Cited (Images):
Figure 1. Bialkowski, Phoebe. “Original London Ghost Walk: Tour Leader, Richard Jones”. 2015. JPEG file.
Figure 2. Eichenberg, Fritz. “Wuthering Heights Illustration”. Modern Library. 1996.Web. 30 November 2015.<http://www.modernlib.com/Identifiers/illustratedImageFolders/heightsImages.html>
Figure 3. Kelleymeyer, Grant M. “Elizabeth Gaskell – The Old Nurse’s Story”. Deviant Art. 2014-15. 1 December 2015. <http://mgkellermeyer.deviantart.com/art/Elizabeth-Gaskell-The-Old-Nurse-s-Story-457434162>
Figure 4. Alexander Graham Bell. Digital Image. Early Office Museum. 2000. Web. 30 November 2015. <http://www.earlyofficemuseum.com/centennial%20exposition.htm>
Figure 5. Bialkowski, Phoebe. “Original London Ghost Walk: Gas lamp located by Guildhall Buildings, London”. 2015. JPEG file.
Figure 6. The Origin of Species, first edition, 1859 (BV D10). St John’s College University ofCambridge. 2014. Web. 30 November 2015. <http://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/origin-species-means-natural-selection-charles-darwin
located near St. Paul’s Cathedral”. 2015. JPEG file.
alleyway, located near Bank station”. 2015. JPEG file.