Friday, December 27, 2019

FFB: The Haunted River - Charlotte Riddell

THE STORY: Margaret and Georgie Vernam are sisters who have grown tired of living in London. They've spent much of the summer house hunting for a quaint cottage they can afford in the countryside. When they come across a bargain priced house near a dilapidated mill they feel they have found their dream hone. But the house and the mill have a dreaded past and their landlord begins acting rather suspiciously once they move in. By Christmas Day Margaret will witness mysterious events, confront possible apparitions and solve a horrid crime that almost goes unpunished.

THE CHARACTERS: The Haunted River (1877) is narrated by Margaret Vernam whose full name we do not until well into this novella. Prior to this we know her only as Peg, a nickname her sister has given her and one Margaret loathes but endures because she cannot but help but love her darling sister. Like many Victorian heroines of this late period she is a strong-willed, plain looking and sensible woman striving to be self-employed as a painter and sketch artist following in the footsteps of her much more successful painter father now deceased.

Her sister Georgie is typically the opposite of Margaret -- drop dead gorgeous, vivacious and gregarious, liked by everyone she meets, equipped with a disarming personality that even ruffians and nasty spirited children can be tamed by her gentle approach. A bit dreamy and flighty Georgie is the one who convinces Margaret to keep looking for their country dream house. It is Georgie who finds the advertisement for the bargain cottage near the mill, a remarkably spacious home with an expansive grounds, offered at a rent of only £50 a year.

The bulk of the story is devoted to the business of house hunting, wheeling and dealing with unctuous Mr. Lauston who claims he is acting as an agent for an unnamed third party. Lauston is a contradiction. He finds himself attracted to Margaret's business acumen and enjoys negotiating with her, but he almost immediately reneges on many of their agreements. As the story progresses Margaret will discover he has ulterior motives and -- like any true unctuous Victorian character -- he guards a secret in his past.

Scattered through the the narrative characters relate the past of the haunted mill, the horrible events that happened by the river banks and the legends that keep the locals away from the property. Only Margaret will be witness to events related to those stories of the past. in one of the earliest scenes she creates a painting with a strange man standing by an oak tree. When her servant looks at it she is aghast that Margaret has painted an exact likeness of Mr. Dingley, the former mill owner, who died several years ago. More surprising is that the reader knows that Margaret painted the man from life as she saw him standing by the tree while she was painting at her easel outdoors in the bright sunshine of a summer afternoon.

In the final third of the novel the sisters encounter a poor old woman being taunted by cruel children. Georgie manages to stop the rock throwing and foul language and the two of them take the woman into their home. She tells them yet another story about Mr. Lauston's niece Clara. Filled with the typical trappings of Victorian sensation fiction -- a child born in secret, shame and guilt ridden characters, child abduction, and incarceration in an asylum -- it is a truly horrible tale she tells. Margaret is appalled. Clara we learn is the victim of a Collins-like conspiracy reminiscent of the fate of Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White. It will fall to Margaret to set all things right late one night in the house when a strange woman, dripping wet and barefoot guides Margaret to a secret location in the house where some all important documents have been hidden.

Ultimately The Haunted River is indeed a ghost story as well as a sort of occult detective tale with Margaret acting as an accidental detective and her Watson turning out to be a ghost. Or was she real? The final 30 pages of the story are rife with thrilling set pieces, heightened emotions and evocative writing. Best of all the final ghostly apparition actually appears on Christmas Day in true Victorian tradition.

INNOVATIONS: Unlike the conventional Victorian ghost story writers who confined their hauntings to indoor settings with creaking staircases, darkened corridors and shadow filled homes Charlotte Riddel dared to write of ghosts and apparitions appearing in broad daylight. And not only broad daylight but in the wildness of outdoors. She would specialize in what S. M. Ellis called "open air" ghosts and enjoyed writing stories about haunted farms, forests and in the case of this novella a river.

QUOTES: At all events, whenever the evening was fairly fine, I paced the garden path slowly, watching and thinking as the evening closed and the darker shadows stole on.

Even in the daytime one could scarcely distinguish where the ivy began and the laurels ended; where the barberries had their roots and the rhododendrons fought with clustering briony and the fatal convolvulus for life; but when twilight came the whole corner of the bridge resolved itself into one dark mass of dense foliage.

Two or three times on the evening after Anne told me of Miss Lauston's story, I fancied I heard a stir and movement amongst this greenery, that when I stopped to listen I felt something more animate than the leaves was moving in the cover.

Each time I passed I gave the boughs a shake, so strong was the fancy upon me, and at last I parted the branches, and thrust my arm amongst the tangled creepers.

As I did so, something rushed out, so swiftly, so suddenly, that I started back affrighted. Something soft and cold touched my cheek. Something brushed my dress. Something lithe and shadowy flitted between me and the imperfect twilight in the open garden beyond, and then was gone.

THE AUTHOR: Charlotte Riddell (1832 - 1906), published under her married name as Mrs. J. H. Riddell, was one of the most prolific writers of short stories and novels in the mid to late Victorian era. She was the first women to write about the City and business life as Arthur Waugh recalls in One Mans' Road. He reminds us that nearly all of her income from her various publishers was lost by her "hopeless husband" a civil engineer who spent her money "on patenting impracticable stoves" among other foolish ideas. She wrote in a variety of genres including romance, domestic melodrama and sensation fiction. But she is perhaps best known for her supernatural fiction, both in long and short form. There is much written about her life on the internet and in long out of print biographies. The best info on Charlotte Riddell is found in Richard Dalby's introduction to the Sarob Press reissue of The Haunted River which draws from an essay by S. M. Ellis in his biographical work Wilkie Collins, LeFanu and Others (Constable, 1931). Ellis had a remarkable correspondence with Charlotte Riddell in the the last months of her life related to tracking down a copy of The Haunted River.

EASY TO FIND? According to Richard Dalby The Haunted River was for decades the most difficult of Mrs. Riddell's Christmas ghost stories to obtain in an original edition. Despite the efforts of E. F. Bleiler uncovering copies of The Uninhabited House and reprinting that novella and issuing an entire volume of her short stories with supernatural content The Haunted River languished in the "Limbo of Out of Printdom" until the 21st century. It was first printed in a limited edition of 300 copies by Sarob Press in 2001 which quickly sold out. Only a few copies of that edition are currently offered by online used booksellers but are all now priced in the "collector's market" range. Luckily, by 2012 all of Riddell's supernatural fiction had been uncovered and reprinted. Leonaur Ltd. took on the monumental task of publishing a three volume set of Charlotte Riddell's entire output of supernatural fiction. The Haunted River can be found in Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Mrs. J. H. Riddell: Volume 1 (2012). All three volumes are still in print and available from the usual mega-retail websites who deal in books.

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