Ethereal Materialism and Spectres in Victorian Ghost Stories

Sarah Jane Bissell

Sarah Jane Bissell

In ‘Maxwell Drewitt’, a pseudonymously-published 1865 novel by Irish author Charlotte Riddell, the eponymous and mercenary protagonist meditates on his failing health, regretting the cruel actions he has committed to obtaining his prosperity: “House to house, acre to acre, property to property! For this end — to be standing with the best part of his existence — health — taken away from him; thinking in solitude of that unknown world concerning which the clergy preached continually; the secrets of which not one of the departed had ever returned to reveal. The next world! There is something very terrible to a man like ‘Maxwell Drewitt’ in the idea of leaving all he has most enjoyed, most coveted, most valued, and going away to the cold and silent grave.”

Drewitt trembles in the face of the undiscovered realm from which no traveller returns. He marks a distinction between the living world — in which he enjoys the acquired fruits of his morally-suspect actions — and the dreariness of the grave, bereft of these pleasures, expressing fear that he will be held accountable for his shady actions following his demise. If one’s identity is predicated on material goods, this passage asks, what unsettling transformations must take place when death severs this worldly tie?

Several years later, Riddell began producing ghost stories that explored the effects of such materialistic preoccupations on the figure of the ghost. Not only do these tales challenge Drewitt’s worldview in presenting images of spectres who return to the world of the living, they also imply that these visitations are indebted to or facilitated by the materialist concerns which drove the characters in life: Riddell’s ghosts express the same anxieties as Drewitt in associating themselves with the transmission of material goods.

Furthermore, the dark and threatening unknown realm is no longer the grave and/or afterlife as envisioned by Drewitt. Rather, the convoluted and highly unstable financial system in which both living and dead characters are immersed poses a far greater threat to human happiness.

This article examines the insecurity of nineteenth-century financial institutions in a number of Riddell’s ghost stories, tales that critique their dangerous aspects (especially for women) while also suggesting opportunities through which characters can achieve economic independence. Drawing on recent scholarship on Victorian finance and the author’s own pecuniary struggles in an increasingly commercialised literary marketplace, I argue that Riddell’s ghost stories utilise the figure of the spectre to express anxieties about nineteenth-century economics.

The processes which underpin this system are largely depicted as less familiar, and more horrifyingly destructive, than the ghosts themselves. Through the figure of the ghost, who often remains mired in pecuniary matters beyond death, Riddell’s supernatural stories interrogate the centrality of unstable finance to the Victorian world: these texts posit that all aspects of nineteenth-century economics — not merely speculation, but also earning, banking, and saving — were intrinsically risky.

In outlining the effects of this riskiness on a range of Victorian subjects (aristocrats, working-class, middle-class; men and women; living and dead), these tales reveal the disturbing insidiousness of financial processes in everyday nineteenth-century Britain.

This economic background informs my reading of several ghost stories by Riddell — ‘The Uninhabited House’ (1875), ‘Nut Bush Farm’ (1882), and ‘Old Mrs Jones’ (1882) — which feature a plethora of financial shocks, ruined subjects, and economically-driven spirits.

In many of Riddell’s tales, the ghosts seem somewhat mild and innocuous, insofar as they gesture rather than shriek, reiterate everyday actions, and occupy a comprehensible place in the material world.

They often depend on living characters to achieve their aims, and thus the ghost/percipient relationship, in Riddell’s fiction, is frequently marked by a sense of sympathy or compassion. Some readers have commented on Riddell’s apparent failure to frighten, but in rejecting the ghost as an object of terror they neglect the far greater danger shadowing Victorian subjects in her fiction.

What hovers ominously on Riddell’s narrative peripheries is not the vengeful spectre, but the altogether more horrifying menace of financial insecurity. Although Riddell’s ghosts provide the mystery around which her narratives revolve, these figures are far less threatening than the cruelty of a volatile economic structure which could (and often did) crush subjects in an instant.

Moreover, women’s particular vulnerability within this system is signalled throughout Riddell’s fiction: even male ghosts, it is implied, wield more financial power than living women.

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