The Darker Sex: Tales of the Supernatural and Macabre by Victorian Women Writers

The Darker Sex: Tales of the Supernatural and Macabre by Victorian Women Writers

by Mike Ashley

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Ghosts, precognition, suicide, and the afterlife are all themes in these thrilling stories by Britain and America's greatest Victorian women, proving their talent for creating dark, sensational, and horrifying tales of the supernatural. This anthology showcases some of the best and most representative work by female writers during this period, including Emily

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Ghosts, precognition, suicide, and the afterlife are all themes in these thrilling stories by Britain and America's greatest Victorian women, proving their talent for creating dark, sensational, and horrifying tales of the supernatural. This anthology showcases some of the best and most representative work by female writers during this period, including Emily Bronte, Mary Braddon, George Eliot, and Edith Nesbit, as well as Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Riddell, Louisa Baldwin, Mary Penn, Violet Quirk, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps. Editor Mike Ashley provides valuable insight into the authors' lives. Each story still has the ability to shock, frighten, and show how Victorian women perfected and developed the Gothic genre.

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"Ashley does his usual fine job . . . sure to appeal to fans of both Victorian fiction and ghost stories."  —Publishers Weekly

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Owen, Peter Limited
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5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.80(d)

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The Darker Sex

Tales of the Supernatural and Macabre by Victorian Women Writers

By Mike Ashley

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 2009 Mike Ashley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7206-1467-1


Emily Brontë


We start our exploration of the battle between life and death with a little-known piece by Emily Brontë (1818-48). Renowned for Wuthering Heights (1847), Emily was the most precocious and strong-willed of the surviving Brontë sisters, though Charlotte was the eldest. All three sisters wrote from an early age, together with their brother Branwell, setting stories in their imaginary kingdoms - Gondal in the case of Emily and Anne. By the time she turned twenty, Emily had completed many stories and poems, though none had been published. In 1842, Charlotte and Emily, now in their mid-twenties, were sent to Brussels to expand their education. While there, under the stern stewardship of Constantin Heger, the two women completed several writing assignments, one of which was 'Le Palais de la Mort' ('The Palace of Death'), written in October 1842. It was composed in French and was not translated into English for over a century. Even now it is one of Emily Brontë's least-known works. The following translation by Sue Lonoff was included in the volume The Belgian Essays (1997) featuring the work of both Charlotte and Emily.

The Palace of Death

In times past, when men were few in number, Death lived frugally and husbanded her means. Her sole minister then was Old Age, who guarded the gate of her palace and from time to time admitted a solitary victim to appease the hunger of her mistress. This abstinence was soon recompensed; Her Majesty's prey increased prodigiously, and Old Age began to find that he had too much to do.

It was at this time that Death decided to change her way of living, to appoint new agents, and to take a prime minister.

On the day set for the nomination, the silence of the sombre palace was broken by the arrival of candidates from all quarters; the vaults, the chambers and the galleries resounded with the noise of steps that came and went, as if the bones that lay strewn about the pavement had suddenly come back to life; and Death, looking down from the height of her throne; smiled hideously to see what multitudes hastened to serve her. Amongst the first arrivals were Wrath and Vengeance, who hurried to the station themselves before Her Majesty, loudly arguing about the justice of their particular rights. Envy and Treason took their positions behind in the shadow. Famine and Plague, attended by their companions Sloth and Avarice, secured very convenient places in the crowd and cast a scornful eye over the other guests. None the less they were forced to give way when Ambition and Fanaticism appeared; the retinues of those two personages filled the council chamber, and they imperiously demanded an immediate audience.

'I doubt not,' said the former, 'that Your Majesty will be fair in her decision, but why waste time in vain disputes when a glance will suffice to determine the one who is alone worthy of the office in question? Who are all these pretenders who besiege your throne? What can they do in your service? The ablest amongst them is no more capable of governing your empire than is a soldier, with no quality other than his courage, of commanding an army. They know how to strike one victim here and another there; they know how to entrap feeble prey, the men on whom those are your mark has been visible since birth, and those are the limits of their usefulness; as for me, I will lead the elite of the race to your portals, those who are furthest from your power. I will harvest them in their flower and offer them to you as troops at the same stroke. Besides, I have so many means; it is not the sword alone that wins my victories; I have other agents, secret but powerful allies. Fanaticism himself is but an instrument that I shall employ for my profit.'

On hearing these words, Fanaticism shook his savage head, and, raising toward Death an eye burning with the fire of obsession, he began: 'I know this blusterer will happily borrow my weapons and march under my banners, but is that any reason that she should presume to compare herself with me? Not only will I be as powerful as she at overturning states and desolating realms, but I will enter into families; I will set the son against the father, the daughter against the mother; inspired by me the faithful friend will become a mortal enemy, the wife will betray her husband, the domestic his master. No sentiment can withstand me; I will banners traverse the earth beneath heaven's banners and crowns will be as stones beneath my feet. As for the other candidates, they are unworthy of attention; Wrath is barbarism; vengeance is partial; Famine can be conquered by industry; Plague is capricious. Your prime minister must be someone who is always close to men, who surrounds and possesses them. Decide then between Ambition and me; we are the only ones between whom your choice can hesitate.'

Fanaticism fell silent, and Her Majesty seemed to waver in doubt between these two rivals when the door of the hall opened, and there entered a person before whom everyone fell back in astonishment, for she had a figure that seemed to glow with joy and health, her step was as light as a zephyr, and Death herself appeared uneasy at her first approach; however, she soon reassured herself. 'You recognize me,' the stranger said to her; 'I arrive later than the others, but I know that my claim is certain. Some of my rivals are formidable, I admit, and I may perhaps be surpassed by several in striking deeds that draw the admiration of the mob, but I have a friend before whom this whole assembly will be forced to succumb. Her name is Civilization: in a few years she will come to dwell on this earth with us, and each century will amplify her power. In the end, she will divert Ambition from your service; she will put the brake of law on wrath; she will wrest the weapons from Fanaticism's hands; she will chase Famine off amongst the savages. I alone will grow and flourish under her reign; the power of all the others will expire with their partisans; mine will exist even when I am dead. If once I make acquaintance with the father, my influence will extend to the son, and before men unite to banish me from their society, I will have changed their entire nature and made the whole species an easier prey for your Majesty, so effectively, in fact, that Old Age will have almost a sinecure and your palace will be gorged with victims.' 'Say no more,' said Death, descending from her throne and embracing Intemperance (for that was the stranger's name). 'It is enough that I know you. For the others, I have lucrative and important offices; they will all be my ministers, but for you alone is reserved the honour of being my viceroy.'


Elizabeth Gaskell

The Old Nurse's Story

Though she died in 1865 of a heart attack, at the age of just fifty-five, the works of Elizabeth Gaskell continue to live on and delight each new generation. The series of sketches that make up the book Cranford (1853) is perhaps the most lively and popular of her works, though Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1855) were of great importance in their day for highlighting social conditions and inequalities. She was in some ways a female equivalent of Charles Dickens, who held her in very high regard. It was Dickens who encouraged her to turn her abilities to the supernatural and to write a ghost story for the first special Christmas issue of his magazine Household Words in 1852. The result was 'The Old Nurse's Story', which became one of the most popular and most reprinted of all Victorian ghost stories. It set the standard for the field for the next fifty years.

The Old Nurse's Story

You know, my dears, that your mother was an orphan and an only child; and I dare say you have heard that your grandfather was a clergyman up in Westmorland, where I come from. I was just a girl in the village school, when, one day, your grandmother came in to ask the mistress if there was any scholar there who would do for a nurse-maid; and mighty proud I was, I can tell ye, when the mistress called me up, and spoke to my being a good girl at my needle, and a steady honest girl, and one whose parents were very respectable, though they might be poor. I thought I should like nothing better than to serve the pretty young lady, who was blushing as deep as I was, as she spoke of the coming baby, and what I should have to do with it. However, I see you don't care so much for this part of my story, as for what you think is to come, so I'll tell you at once. I was engaged and settled at the parsonage before Miss Rosamond (that was the baby, who is now your mother) was born. To be sure, I had little enough to do with her when she came, for she was never out of her mother's arms, and slept by her all night long; and proud enough was I sometimes when missis trusted her to me. There never was such a baby before or since, though you've all of you been fine enough in your turns; but for sweet, winning ways, you've none of you come up to your mother. She took after her mother, who was a real lady born; a Miss Furnivall, a granddaughter of Lord Furnivall's, in Northumberland. I believe she had neither brother nor sister, and had been brought up in my lord's family till she had married your grandfather, who was just a curate, son to a shopkeeper in Carlisle - but a clever, fine gentleman as ever was - and one who was a right-down hard worker in his parish, which was very wide, and scattered all abroad over the Westmorland Fells. When your mother, little Miss Rosamond, was about four or five years old, both her parents died in a fortnight - one after the other. Ah! that was a sad time. My pretty young mistress and me was looking for another baby, when my master came home from one of his long rides, wet, and tired, and took the fever he died of; and then she never held up her head again, but just lived to see her dead baby, and have it laid on her breast before she sighed away her life. My mistress had asked me, on her death bed, never to leave Miss Rosamond; but if she had never spoken a word, I would have gone with the little child to the end of the world.

The next thing, and before we had well stilled our sobs, the executors and guardians came to settle the affairs. They were my poor young mistress's own cousin, Lord Furnivall, and Mr Esthwaite, my master's brother, a shopkeeper in Manchester; not so well-to-do then as he was afterwards, and with a large family rising about him. Well! I don't know if it were their settling, or because of a letter my mistress wrote on her death-bed to her cousin, my lord; but somehow it was settled that Miss Rosamond and me were to go to Furnivall Manor House, in Northumberland, and my lord spoke as if it had been her mother's wish that she should live with his family, and as if he had no objections, for that one or two more or less could make no difference in so grand a household. So, though that was not the way in which I should have wished the coming of my bright and pretty pet to have been looked at - who was like a sunbeam in any family, be it never so grand - I was well pleased that all the folks in the Dale should stare and admire, when they heard I was going to be young lady's maid at my Lord Furnivall's at Furnivall Manor.

But I made a mistake in thinking we were to go and live where my lord did. It turned out that the family had left Furnivall Manor House fifty years or more. I could not hear that my poor young mistress had ever been there, though she had been brought up in the family; and I was sorry for that, for I should have liked Miss Rosamond's youth to have passed where her mother's had been.

My lord's gentleman, from whom I asked as many questions as I durst, said that the Manor House was at the foot of the Cumberland Fells, and a very grand place; that an old Miss Furnivall, a great-aunt of my lord's, lived there, with only a few servants; but that it was a very healthy place, and my lord had thought that it would suit Miss Rosamond very well for a few years, and that her being there might perhaps amuse his old aunt.

I was bidden by my lord to have Miss Rosamond's things ready by a certain day. He was a stern proud man, as they say all the Lords Furnivall were; and he never spoke a word more than was necessary. Folk did say he had loved my young mistress; but that, because she knew that his father would object, she would never listen to him, and married Mr Esthwaite; but I don't know. He never married at any rate. But he never took much notice of Miss Rosamond; which I thought he might have done if he had cared for her dead mother. He sent his gentleman with us to the Manor House, telling him to join him at Newcastle that same evening; so there was no great length of time for him to make us known to all the strangers before he, too, shook us off; and we were left, two lonely young things (I was not eighteen), in the great old Manor House. It seems like yesterday that we drove there. We had left our own dear parsonage very early, and we had both cried as if our hearts would break, though we were travelling in my lord's carriage, which I thought so much of once. And now it was long past noon on a September day, and we stopped to change horses for the last time at a little smoky town, all full of colliers and miners. Miss Rosamond had fallen asleep, but Mr Henry told me to waken her, that she might see the park and the Manor House as we drove up. I thought it rather a pity; but I did what he bade me, for fear he should complain of me to my lord. We had left all signs of a town, or even a village, and were then inside the gates of a large wild park - not like the parks here in the south, but with rocks, and the noise of running water, and gnarled thorn-trees, and old oaks, all white and peeled with age.

The road went up about two miles, and then we saw a great and stately house, with many trees close around it, so close that in some places their branches dragged against the walls when the wind blew; and some hung broken down; for no one seemed to take much charge of the place; - to lop the wood, or to keep the moss-covered carriage-way in order. Only in front of the house all was clear. The great oval drive was without a weed; and neither tree nor creeper was allowed to grow over the long, many-windowed front; at both sides of which a wing projected, which were each the ends of other side fronts; for the house, though it was so desolate, was even grander than I expected. Behind it rose the Fells, which seemed unenclosed and bare enough; and on the left hand of the house, as you stood facing it, was a little, old-fashioned flower-garden, as I found out afterwards. A door opened out upon it from the west front; it had been scooped out of the thick dark wood for some old Lady Furnivall; but the branches of the great forest trees had grown and overshadowed it again, and there were very few flowers that would live there at that time.

When we drove up to the great front entrance, and went into the hall I thought we should be lost - it was so large, and vast, and grand. There was a chandelier all of bronze, hung down from the middle of the ceiling; and I had never seen one before, and looked at it all in amaze. Then, at one end of the hall, was a great fireplace, as large as the sides of the houses in my country, with massy andirons and dogs to hold the wood; and by it were heavy old-fashioned sofas. At the opposite end of the hall, to the left as you went in - on the western side - was an organ built into the wall, and so large that it filled up the best part of that end. Beyond it, on the same side, was a door; and opposite, on each side of the fire-place, were also doors leading to the east front; but those I never went through as long as I stayed in the house, so I can't tell you what lay beyond.

The afternoon was closing in, and the hall, which had no fire lighted in it, looked dark and gloomy, but we did not stay there a moment. The old servant, who had opened the door for us, bowed to Mr Henry, and took us in through the door at the further side of the great organ, and led us through several smaller halls and passages into the west drawing-room, where he said that Miss Furnivall was sitting. Poor little Miss Rosamond held very tight to me, as if she were scared and lost in that great place, and as for myself, I was not much better. The west drawing-room was very cheerful-looking, with a warm fire in it, and plenty of good, comfortable furniture about. Miss Furnivall was an old lady not far from eighty, I should think, but I do not know. She was thin and tall, and had a face as full of fine wrinkles as if they had been drawn all over it with a needle's point. Her eyes were very watchful, to make up, I suppose, for her being so deaf as to be obliged to use a trumpet. Sitting with her, working at the same great piece of tapestry, was Mrs Stark, her maid and companion, and almost as old as she was. She had lived with Miss Furnivall ever since they both were young, and now she seemed more like a friend than a servant; she looked so cold and grey, and stony, as if she had never loved or cared for any one; and I don't suppose she did care for any one, except her mistress; and, owing to the great deafness of the latter, Mrs Stark treated her very much as if she were a child. Mr Henry gave some message from my lord, and then he bowed good-bye to us all - taking no notice of my sweet little Miss Rosamond's outstretched hand - and left us standing there, being looked at by the two old ladies through their spectacles.


Excerpted from The Darker Sex by Mike Ashley. Copyright © 2009 Mike Ashley. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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