Charlotte Riddell’s Supernatural Fiction

Compiled by Michael Flowers ©2005-2006

 

“I love ghost stories; I like hearing of

   ghosts; I delight in reading about them.

There is to me a fearful joy in being

frightened out of my wits - in feeling

“creepy” all over.”
The Haunted  River.
(1877)

 

Routledge's Christmas Annual 1875

The Uninhabited House

"Courtesy of Jennifer Carnell of  The Sensation Press"
 

I have attempted to list Riddell’s ghost stories in order of their composition, but in many cases this must remain conjectural until the first periodical appearances of the tales marked with an asterisk have been traced.  This is most notable with the excellent tales which appeared in Riddell’s best supernatural collection, Weird Stories (1882).  Unfortunately, at the time of writing only the original publication date of ‘Sandy the Tinker’ has been located.  It is possible that many of the tales in Weird Stories pre-date her supernatural novellas, but this will not be known for certain until all the original magazine appearances have been located. 

 

TITLE                                   SUPERNATURAL CATEGORY

Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning.                     Banshee awakens conscience of protagonist

A Strange Christmas Game                            Ghostly murder re-enacted until victim found

Fairy Water                                                     Ghost causes wasting illness & leads to detection  of body & hidden jewellery.

Forewarned, Forearmed*                                Precognitive dream prevents murder

The Uninhabited House                                 Ghost shows suicide was really murder

The Haunted River                                         Unscrupulous landlord murdered previous tenant

The Disappearance of                                    Ghost indicates site of his murdered corpse

Mr. Jeremiah Redworth

Sandy the Tinker                                             The Devil takes the soul of  Sandy the Tinker

Walnut-Tree House*                                      Ghost alerts new tenant to child cruelty

Nut Bush Farm*                                              Ghost reveals site of his murder

The Old House in Vauxhall Walk*                Murdered Ghost shows where her hoard is buried

Old Mrs. Jones*                                              Poisoned wife haunts place of her murder

The Last of Squire Ennismore                        Evil squire spirited away by Devil's agent

The Nun’s Curse                                             Ancient nun’s curse may blight family fortunes

A Terrible Vengeance*                                  Drowned young woman haunts her murderer

Why Dr. Cray Left Southam*                       Precognitive dream reveals murder occurred

Diarmid Chittock’s Story                               Poltergeist reveals murder took place

Conn Kilrea*                                                   Soldier reformed by ancestral ghost

 

Chatto and Windus reprint of  Weird Stories - one of the finest collections of supernatural
stories during the whole of the Victorian period. 

Photo  Miles Stribling.(c) 2006
 

Critical Views of Riddell’s Supernatural fiction

It is quite difficult to ascertain the contemporary attitude towards Charlotte Riddell’s supernatural fiction.  If we look at the space given over to short stories in the review sections of the Athenaeum  and The Saturday Review  we find that in comparison with the novel they are relatively neglected.  For instance, most of Charlotte Riddell’s novels are given a generous amount of column inches in both these journals, but her short story collections are virtually ignored.  To be more specific, in the 1870’s each of Mrs. Riddell’s novels are given leading ‘Novel of the Week’ status in the review pages of both the Athenaeum  and The Saturday Review,  whilst her three volume collection, Frank Sinclair’s Wife and other Stories (1874) is not featured in either journal.

There seems to have been a general critical disdain for the short story format in marked contrast to their popularity with the public.  For instance, up to a quarter of a million copies of each All the Year Round Christmas number were being sold in the years between 1860 and 1865.(1)  Despite the general antipathy to the short story format the supernatural stories when they were reviewed were occasionally thought to stand out in collections which were not genre based.  Thus, The Athenaeum reviewer finds Mrs. Riddell’s ghost story, ‘Diarmid Chittock’s Story’, “pleasanter, though there is a murder in it”(2) than the title story in the collection Handsome Phil (1899), which is a story of marriage across the divisions of class.

Similarly, The Spectator reviewer of Princess Sunshine and Other Stories  (1889) finds the title story “somewhat irritating”(3) but thinks ‘A Terrible Vengeance’ is “certainly one of the creepiest of recent ghost-stories.”  The critic concludes “it may be a perverted taste, but we would rather have our spirits curdled than our spirits depressed.” (Ibid)

The comments on the short ghost stories are more often restricted to one adjective per tale, or the story is mentioned with no allusion as to its quality.  Thus in the review of Handsome Phil, mentioned above, ‘Conn Kilrea’ is summarised in that it “deals with the effect of a family apparition upon a gallant young soldier.”(4)  An inadequate critical attention extends to the only collection of Charlotte Riddell’s ghost stories published in her lifetime.  In an 1882 edition of The Queen the complete review of Weird Stories reads:

        People who know Mrs. Riddell’s writings will expect to be interested in this

        book, with its suggestive title, and will not be disappointed.  The stories are

        all interesting, and many of them partake of the kind which adapts them to be

        told in the chimney corner to people who have a half-belief in ghosts.   (5)

The notice in The Times  for the previous week is slightly more fulsome in its praise, it believes that Weird Stories:

                  are sensational enough in all conscience, seeing that the main action is

                        directed by supernatural agencies, and that disagreeably obtrusive ghosts

                        haunt the scenes of their earthly troubles.  But these mysteries of the

                        invisible world are adroitly realized, and the stories are so probable as to be

                        pleasantly thrilling; nervous people, indeed, might prefer to read the book

                        on a railway journey by daylight rather than in a lonely apartment towards

                        the small hours.  (6)

To describe supernatural stories as “so probable” may seem contradictory but it is evident that even in brief contemporary notices Riddell’s blending of the realistic and supernatural elements was one of her most noticeable and successful achievements.  Weird Stories was entirely ignored by the two premier review journals of the period: The Saturday Review and The Athenaeum.  The scant attention given by Victorian critics ensures that it is difficult to credit that Weird Stories was described by E.F. Bleiler in 1983 as “a landmark volume,” unless like Bleiler one is a historian of ghostly fiction.(7)

Reviewers were scarcely more generous in allocating space to Charlotte Riddell’s four supernatural novellas.  So far I have been unable to locate a single review for either Fairy Water  (1873) or The Uninhabited House (1875) in either The Times, The Saturday Review or The Athenaeum.   I have been slightly more fortunate with the two later novellas.  I have discovered a solitary review for The Haunted River (1877) in The Times, and a grand total of two for The Disappearance of Mr. Jeremiah Redworth (1878); one in The Saturday Review   and the other in The Times. 

The notice of ‘Christmas Books’ in The Times for December 1877 commences by lamenting the quality of contemporary annuals but finds a few positive words to describe The Haunted River.  The reviewer finds that: “as one reads at times, there creeps over one almost the old delicious, long-forgotten thrill one was once used to feel when a master hand was marshalling the ‘sheeted ghosts’.”(8)  The critic incorrectly, in my view, goes on to complain that “it is only spoilt by the occasional introduction of too common-place an element”.(Ibid)  It is the everyday features in Riddell’s ghost stories which proved most effective to her contemporaries, and to those of succeeding generations. 

A more representative Victorian opinion was that Riddell’s ghost stories combined a narrative strength whilst exhibiting a close approximation to reality.  Perhaps this opinion of Riddell’s work in the genre is best exemplified by the critic of The Saturday Review for 21st December 1878.  Amongst reviews of other ‘Christmas Books’ lies a small notice of The Disappearance of Mr. Jeremiah Redworth.   However, the few remarks given to this volume are significant.  Initially, the review praises Charlotte Riddell’s narrative technique with the remarks “she certainly possesses the power of carrying her readers with her.”(9)  The notice concludes with the faint praise that the “adventures will be found a pleasant companion for a Christmas railway journey.” (Ibid).  The story would therefore seem to be adequate purely on the level of entertainment.  However, the most significant praise is to be found at the centre of the short review because it touches on the verisimilitude in Charlotte Riddell’s ghost stories.  The Saturday Review critic believes her characters “are real people, though forced by all kinds of agencies, including supernatural ones, to act in various abnormal ways.” (Ibid, my emphasis).

A very rare nineteenth edition - century of
Mr. Jeremiah Redworth.
Photo  Miles Stribling.(c) 2006

Despite the paucity of direct evidence in actual reviews it is possible to infer the high opinion of Charlotte Riddell’s contemporaries towards her supernatural writings.  Charlotte Riddell wrote the novella-length Fairy Water for the Routledge Christmas Annual of 1873.  The publishers must have been satisfied both with the quality of the story and the corresponding sales because Riddell was commissioned to contribute to the same format on a further three occasions.  Two of Riddell’s annuals were reissued in more permanent form when Chatto and Windus published The Uninhabited House and The Haunted River as a single volume in 1883.  The remaining two novellas were also reissued separately; Fairy Water in 1878 and The Disappearance of Mr. Jeremiah Redworth soon after its original appearance as a Christmas Annual, but the exact date has not yet been successfully ascertained.  Riddell’s known ability with the ghostly tale would also seem to be confirmed by the publication of Weird Stories in 1882.  This brought together six supernatural stories but did not include all that she had written in this genre up to that period.  The early tales ‘Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning’, ‘A Strange Christmas Game’ and ‘Forewarned, Forearmed’ and possibly others that have not yet been traced may have been omitted through lack of space.  This volume must have been fairly popular as a new edition was issued in 1884 and again the following year, but very few copies survive.  

After Charlotte Riddell’s death her literary reputation declined, until she became a mere footnote in works such as Victorian Wallflowers (1934), which attempted to recover other nineteenth-century writers who had unjustly been forgotten, such as Mrs. Henry Wood, Wilkie Collins and R.D. Blackmore.  Despite this fading from view, Charlotte Riddell’s ghost stories continued to have their champions.  In 1931 S.M Ellis published an appreciation of all of her work but singled out her supernatural writings for special praise.  Ellis was something of a expert in the genre, as his wide-ranging knowledge is illustrated in his short 1923 essay “The Ghost Story and Its Exponents”.  Ellis was of the opinion that: “Weird Stories comprise some of the best ghost tales ever written.”(10)  His view was reaffirmed by Herbert Van Thal who, when he republished Riddell’s Weird Stories in 1946, stated: “those who are ‘connoisseurs’ of the ghost story will find here tales that should come up to their highest expectations.”(11)

 

 

 



E.F. Bleiler’s 1977 Dover Press edition of Riddell’s Collected Ghost Stories.  
Photo © 2005 Richard Cook

Although Victorian women ghost story writers have not received due critical attention in modern times the little that has been written appears to reach a consensus.  E.F. Bleiler, as editor, has been responsible for ensuring that much of Charlotte Riddell’s supernatural writings have returned to print since 1970.  He republished two of her novellas, Fairy Water and The Uninhabited House and for the first time made available her complete known short supernatural fiction when The Collected Ghost Stories of Mrs. J. H. Riddell appeared in 1977.  It is Bleiler’s considered view of Charlotte Riddell’s ghost stories that “apart from J. S. Le Fanu, no other writer of the Victorian period could handle better the emergence of the supernormal.”(12)   More recent opinion seems to concur with Bleiler’s views.  In an essay of 1985 James Campbell stated that “as a realist, no one can surpass Riddell in her best work in the genre...Next to Le Fanu...[she] is the best writer of supernatural tales in the Victorian era”(13).  Neil Wilson continued the positive criticism into the new millennium when he concluded his entry on Riddell with the remarks “unlike her illustrious contemporaries [she] has not yet received the wider recognition she so thoroughly deserves” (14).


          The new millennium saw Ridell's longest ghost stories restored to print in Richard Dalby's landmark volume The Haunted River & Three Other Ghostly Novellas (Mountain Ash., Wales: Sarob Press, 2001).  Richard Dalby's indefatigable researches ensured that The Haunted River and The Disappearance of Mr. Jeremiah Redworth appeared in book form for the first time in over a century, whilst the texts for Fairy Water and  The Uninhabited House came from different sources than those reprinted by E.F. Bleiler in the 1970s.  Although Riddell's supernatural novellas are well worth reading, especially The Uninhabited House, it cannot be denied, as with most Victorian authors, her shorter ghostly narratives are the most effective - 'A Terrible Vengeance' and the six superlative tales in Weird Stories  are her supreme achievement in the genre.

Richard Dalby’s 2001 Sarob Press edition of Riddell’s complete ghostly novellas.  

Photo © 2005 Richard Cook.

 

For further information about Riddell’s ghost stories the following are recommended:

E.F. Bleiler (ed.), A Guide to Supernatural Fiction (Kent State Univ Press, 1983)

E.F. Bleiler, ‘Mrs. Riddell, Mid-Victorian Ghosts, and Christmas Annuals’, The Collected Ghost

                        Stories of Mrs J.H. Riddell (New York: Dover, 1977).

James L. Campbell, ‘Mrs J.H. Riddell’, Supernatural Fiction Writers (ed.) E.F. Bleiler, (New York:

                        Scribner’s, 1985). 

Richard Dalby, ‘Introduction’, The Haunted River & Three Other Ghostly Novellas by Mrs J.H. Riddell

                        (Mountain Ash, Wales: Sarob Press, 2001).

 

 Endnotes

1. Richard Altick, The English Common Reader, University of Chicago: Chicago, 1957, p.395.

2. The Athenaeum, 8/6/1899.

3. The Spectator, 31/8/1889.                              

4. The Athenaeum, 8/6/1899.

5. The Queen, 30/12/1882.

6. The Times, 23/12/1882.

7. E.F. Bleiler (ed.), Guide to Supernatural Fiction, Kent: Kent State University, 1983, p.431.

8. The Times, 28/12/1877.

9. The Saturday Review, 21/12/1878.

10. Fortnightly Review, December 1923, pp.999-1003.

11. Herbert Van Thal (ed.), Weird Stories by Mrs Riddell, London: Home & Van Thal, 1946, p.viii.

12. E.F. Bleiler (ed.), Collected Ghost Stories of Mrs J.H. Riddell, New York: Dover, 1977, p.xxvi.

13. E.F. Bleiler (ed.), Supernatural Fiction Writers, New York: Scribner’s, 1985, p.277.

14. Neil Wilson (ed.), Shadows in the Attic: A Guide to British Supernatural Fiction, 1820-1950,

Boston Spa, British Library, 2000, p.422.

 

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