The Ghost Stories of Mrs. Molesworth:
an unorthodox view
commentary by Mario Guslandi
Mary Louisa Molesworth (1839-1921) was a popular writer for children, who also produced a score of ghost stories, appearing mostly in two volumes, Four Ghost Stories (1888) & Uncanny Tales (1896). For the first time all Molesworth's ghostly tales are gathered in a single volume by the unknown (to me) british imprint Side Real Press. The book is published in a limited edition with 300 copies.
In the (unsigned) introduction to this volume she is described as "one of the best supernatural writers of the period." I'm not qualified to comment upon that statement, but as an avid reader of past & present supernatural fiction I 'm a little disappointed.
When reading a ghost story I'm looking for eerie atmospheres, I want to be subtly frightened or at least to feel uneasy. Molesworth's work, unfortunately, does not elicit any emotion in me.
The reason, perhaps, is that she is very interested in ghosts, but looks at the phenomenon in a very detached way. Although writing ghost fiction she does it with the attitude of a journalist or an amateur scientist examining facts. Molesworth's philosophy on the subject is well expressed in the words of one of the characters from her tale "Unexplained." Genuine ghosts "appear to people who never knew them, who take no interest in them...and then they have nothing to say...it is all purposeless" . Later on: "Nowadays we consider & philosophise, we want to get to the root & reason of things & we are more wary of exaggeration."
Accordingly, in "Lady's Farquar's Old Lady" (subtitled "A true ghost story"), a lady is urged by a friend to relate her experience with a ghost & does that with astonishingly detailed precision & complete lack of emotion. Moreover, meeting ghosts needs to be substantiated by evidence, & what's better than having that experience "Witnessed by Two"? So in the tale so titled, the living spectre of a shy lover visits his ladyfriend but, thoughtfully enough, manages to be introduced into the house by the butler. Maybe I'm wrong, but I have the impression that, all in all, Molesworth did not believe in ghosts. The fact itself is unremarkable one does not need to believe in ghosts to be a good ghost story writer but somehow seems to affect the author's attitude towards the matter, resulting in an exceedingly rationalistic approach.
In "Unexplained" an extremely long story the core of the tale is the appearance of the ghost of a young gentleman to a little girl. Also that girl who's not squeamish, although frightened describes her supernatural experience in a very clearcut manner. The story around the episode is painstakingly built up by the writer, but the reader, engrossed as he may be in the plot, can hardly feel any shivers on his spine or any quickening of his heartbeat.
In "The Story of the Rippling Train" the ghost of a living woman appears to the man secretly in love with her just to say goodbye a few months before her actual death. As the character who relates the events clearly states "there really is nothing frightening scarcely even creepy in my story at all."
So much for uncanny atmospheres...
In "The Shadows in the Moonlight," in my humble opinion the best story in the collection, the ghost initially seems to be haunting an ancient mansion but afterwards starts moving from one house to another. What the spectre is actually haunting is a piece of tapestry which, throughout the story, is transferred from place to place. Molesworth's rationalistic approach to the phenomenon, her accurate description & her need to corroborate the facts by means of multiple evidences (various family members, in turn, see the apparition) are characteristic of the writer's unemotional style. However, the plot is ingenious, entertaining & the spectral apparition itself almost manages to ensure a few chills to the reader.
"At the Dip of the Road" & "Not Exactly a Ghost Story" are, once again, the impassive reports of the facts leading to unmemorable ghostly manifestations.
Much more interesting & disquieting is "The Man with the Cough," a vivid story with an eerie atmosphere which has little to do with ghosts , but is skilfully told & reminds me of one of the black & white film noirs of the 30s or the 40s.
"Old Gervais," probably the most famous of Molesworth's ghost stories, is the tale of a faithful worker, a mason, coming back from the dead to give his warning about the dangers of an unsafe wall. Similarly in "A Strange Messenger" a deceased miner shows his gratitude to his former employer by summoning the doctor who will save the manager's life. In the last two stories Molesworth's narrative style, at last, becomes more concise, the need to circumstantiate the facts less obsessive & a touch of human sympathy seems to surface in the writer's attitude.
A further story, "A Ghost in the Pampas," completes the collection. The tale is attributed to Molesworth's son Bevil, but, evidently, the editor's feeling is that the story has been a collaborative work & in fact the style, in spite of the exotic background, strongly resembles that of the mother's latest ghost stories.
As I said , in my view of thinking, a good ghost story must trigger feelings lingering on the reader's mind at least for a few hours after closing the book. With the exception of "The Man with the Cough" (hardly a ghost story at all) this seldom happens to me with Mrs Moleworth's tales.
copyright © 2003 by Mario Guslandi, all rights reserved
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