A few months ago, I wrote a post about how one of the stories in ‘The Virago Book of Ghost Stories’, namely, Margery Lawrence’s ‘The Haunted Saucepan’ veered over the thin line between the ludicrous and the ghostly, so that it made me snort with laughter.
To be fair to Margery Lawrence, I believe she wrote some stories generally considered terrifying. Also, part of the problem was the dated ambiance of the story – the plight of the hero, ‘needing’ to live in Mayfair and accordingly forced to choose between living in his club, or ‘the discomfort of hotels’ is not one to arouse much sympathy among many modern readers.
It is interesting, therefore, that a story from the same era – and written from the same perspective of dated assumptions – is to my mind wholly successful as a ghost story, and having written about how one story in this collection fails in its purpose to terrify (though it gave me a wonderful laugh), it seems only fair to write about how to my mind ‘Miss de Mannering of Asham’ (amongst others) strikingly succeeds.
This story, by F M Mayor, was presumably written at some time in the 1920’s (the author died in 1932). It seems ‘the woman alone’ was one of her favourite themes, and this is certainly that of this short story. The atmosphere summed up in her story is tragic, and strangely believable. Also, there is an underlying compassionate attitude towards suffering humanity in the story, which elevates the tale beyond the level of a typical ghost story and leaves a lasting impression on the reader (anyway, it did with me).
The story begins with a couple of school teachers going on holiday to a resort in an unspecified area on the north east coast of England. They stay in an inn, hire a donkey and trap, and set out to explore the area. Duly coming to a great house set in extensive parkland, they enter (in those days, asking to see round stately homes was commonplace).
The day is overcast (as are so many humid summer days in England. As they drive through the parkland, they find it oppressive, particularly an avenue of laurels. Many of the trees in this park have been struck by lightning, and the protagonist Margaret feels a sense of pity for them, and discovers a general claustrophobic dislike of parkland she never realised she had before.
Kate is affected too, and so is the donkey. They come to the Jacobean mansion, and a young manservant greets them, one of a number left there by its current owner, who almost never visits. He hints at a ghostly atmosphere and a shut up room. Kate goes to visit the old church, and comes back pale and uncommunicative.
That night Margaret amd Kate suffer from nervous fears and they share a bed (this was written in the days when no possible sexual connotation regarding this would be made by the readership). The next morning, at breakfast, Kate reads about Asham Hall in her guide book, and suggests they return to look at the tombs. This time they go by bicycle, but Margaret becomes too affected by the atmosphere to go into the churchyard. She stays behind, and sees a woman in the churchyard, who walks down the path, passing Kate. Kate is aware of her approach, but does not see her.
Later a great aunt of their landlady at the inn tells them how her mother worked as a young woman at Asham Hall for the then aging Miss de Mannering, who treated her kindly, particularly when she was upset at being let down by a young man. On Miss de Mannering’s death, she bought some of her personal things so that they would not go to strangers, including, ‘a lot of writing’ and a portrait of Miss de Mannering.
The woman shows both to the teachers, to whom she has taken a great liking. The portrait is dated ‘Bath 1805’ and Margaret thinks, ‘I should have been afraid of Miss de Mannering from her mouth and the turn of her head, they were so proud and aristocratic, but I loved her for the sad, timid eyes, which seemed to be appealing for kindness and protection.’
The writing – a story within a story, a device I have always found fascinating – relates the story of Miss de Mannering, an isolated, plain and lonely girl living alone with an elderly, ill tempered father, obsessed by money problems. At the age of twenty-five, she is sent by him to Bath to stay with her aunt and cousin and find a husband.
Her aunt and cousin treat her kindly, but she is not a success at Bath. However, her cousin tells her that a man called Captain Phillimore admires her ‘countenance’. ‘I congratulate you with all my heart.’
Miss de Mannering relates, ‘Captain Phillimore sought me out again and again’. Though reputedly wild and extravagant, he proposes to her, but insists that he has reasons why their coming marriage should be kept secret. Meanwhile, he asks her to consummate their coming marriage in the summerhouse, dismissing the marriage ceremony, ‘Using the ‘wicked sophistries of the infidel philosophers of France…But alas, there was no need of sophistries. I loved him as no weak mortal should be loved…’
Miss de Mannering returns to Asham, and eagerly awaits Captain Phillimore’s arrival to ask for her. But ‘Certainty was succeeded by hope, hope by doubt, doubt by dread’. She discovers that she is pregnant. She confides in her old nurse, who advises her how best to conceal her changing shape, and arranges for her to go to an associate elsewhere to give birth.
Meanwhile, lonely and forsaken, Miss de Mannering is tormented by the stormy weather, with violent thunderstorms, and the oppressive skies of August. In November, some women she met in Bath come to visit. To her horror, they talk of how Captain Phillimore betted with his friends that he would seduce the three most innocent maids in Bath.
‘My love was dead, but I could not, could not, hate him.’ She sends for her old nurse, but snow is falling fast, and before she can arrive, Miss de Mannering goes into premature labour. The baby only lives for hours. Miss de Mannering would have buried him herself in the churchyard, but the ground is frozen. She burns the body on the fire. Subsequently, she goes into a fever lasting many weeks.
When she comes to herself, the doctor gently reveals to her that he knows her full story, but ‘A physician may sometimes give his humble aid to the soul as well as to the body. Let me recall to your suffering soul that all of us sinners are promised mercy through our Redeemer. I entreat you not to lose heart.’ The compassionate doctor arranges for her to go on holiday with his sister.
Miss de Mannering returns to Asham with her health restored. ‘I learnt to forgive him.’
Kate and Margaret also find a letter from Captain Phillimore to Miss de Mannering, dated 1810 and sent from ‘Hen and Chicken Court. Clerkenwell ‘ (then a decidedly rough area in London):
‘Standing as I do on the confines of eternity, I venture to address you. Long have I desired to implore your forgiveness, but have not presumed so far. I entreat you not to spurn my letter…my vows were false, but even at the time I faltered, as I encountered your trusting and affectionate gaze…Had I embraced the opportunity offered me by Destiny to link my happiness with one as innocent and confiding as yourself, I might have been spared the wretchedness which has been my portion…’
The letter is stained with tears, which Kate finds incomprehensible over ‘That skunk’. But Margaret guesses far better, ‘All that letter, with it’s stilted, old-fashioned style, which makes it hard for us to believe that the writer was in earnest, would have meant to Miss de Mannering.’
My short quotations can do little justice to the atmosphere of the story, and the strong, yet understated, style in which it is written. The tale of the innocent young woman wronged and seduced would have been written countless times even in the 1920’s, yet this ghost story relates it with a freshness and a verve that brings its poignancy to life all over again.
I found it very moving, particularly the ending, and Captain Phillimore’s repentance. I was interested to read online that interest in the writing of this author, neglected for decades, has recently revived.