Ghosts of Christmas past

Victorians thought Christmas called for a good ghost story. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the most famous of these, but:

Pretty well all the major writers succumbed: Mrs Gaskell, generally thought of as a writer of social realism, or gentle comedy, wrote the terrifying “The Old Nurse’s Story”; Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of lurid novels of bigamy and betrayal, wrote dutifully of ghosts for Belgravia magazine.

But it was Sheridan Le Fanu who took ghostly tales to their peak. His first collection was published in 1851, and his final one posthumously in 1923: nearly three-quarters of a century of spooks. Le Fanu’s talent was to set aside melodrama for psychological reality. Severed heads screaming vengeance are comic, but Le Fanu’s ghosts are terrifying, for they are the ghosts of the everyday, the ghosts of people like us. Into a picture of charming sociability suddenly appears The Other.

Many better writers responded less well to the seasonal requirement. Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White, loathed the whole season: “the most hateful of all English seasons”, he called it. Yet even he produced a couple of Christmas stories: the demand was just too strong to ignore. Trollope joined in moaning about the annual grind. He wrote, gloomily, that he felt like an “undertaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral. He has to supply it, however distasteful it may be. It is his business, and he will starve if he neglect it.”

(Via La Muselivre.)

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