Friday, 4 December 2009

Ghostly Goings-On At Kelmscott

I’ve just been reading a collection of Victorian Ghost Stories, first published in 1936 and then reissued as a Senate/Random House paperback in 1996. It features such spine-chilling tales as Le Fanu’s ‘The Dead Sexton’, Sutherland Menzies’ ‘Hugues the Wer-Wolf: A Kentish Legend of the Middle Ages’, Mark Lemon’s intriguing ‘The Ghost Detective’, and many others. Just the volume to curl up with in an arm-chair with a mug of steaming ovaltine on a dark winter’s night while the wind howls eerily outside!

Perusing this volume reminds me that ghost-stories were popular reading material in the Morris family circle. May Morris recalls that in Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus volumes ‘there is a certain ghost-story ... told by the negro African Jack, that father used to read impressively and dramatically, so that when the crisis came, one was positively stiff with excitement, and the pursuing horror of a corpse seemed to be actually wavering on the threshold of the room’ (CW, XXII, xvii).

However, the Morrises not only enjoyed literary ghost-stories, they sometimes found themselves in the midst of what may well have been actual ones. For as Fiona MacCarthy informs us, ‘The occult was a bond between Janey and Rossetti who used to go to séances together. Janey had a definitely spiritualist tendency, giving vivid accounts of ghost activity at Kelmscott: mysterious carriages being driven to the house’ (p.347).

There is a fine Victorian ghost story in the making here, clearly! Could not the Journal of William Morris Studies organise a creative writing competition based upon this snippet from MacCarthy’s biography and offer to publish the entry (no more than 8000 words, say) which most vividly gives us ‘The Strange Adventure of the Ghostly Carriage at Kelmscott Manor’?


Elrond said...

May also mentions, among the family reading material, Mitford's 'Tales of Old Japan': 'from the ghost-story in the last-named I suffered things not to be expressed in measured language' (Collected Works, vol IV).

Tony Pinkney said...

Ghost stories at Kelmscott continue into the 20th century. In 1952 John Betjeman writes of 'a recent tenant of Kelmscott. This lady was sitting on a still autumn night about five years ago up on the first floor in the room which has Morris's bed in it and which leads to the tapestry room. She was alone in the house. In the silence she heard two men talking amicably in this room. She opened the door of the tapestry room to see who they were - there was no one in it'

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