The terrible moment of complete illumination

Hi, folks!

weird-women-lisa morton leslie klingerThis is the first post where I talk about some of the stories in the collection Weird Women – Volume 2: 1840-1925: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers, ed. Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger (2021), as part of my Deal me In project.

For more about the project & my previous posts on it, go here: Reading Plans | Stories 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 – 7 | 8 – 11 | 12 – 15 | 16-23 | 24-27 (you are here)

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24) The Drowned Fisherman, by Anna Maria Hall (Mrs. S. C. Hall, 1836)
  • First published in 1836, in The Amulet, and later collected in The Romancist and Novelist’s Library: The Best Works of the Best Authors, Volume III, ed. William Hazlitt (1840)
  • My rating: ★★

Kate Browne is a fisherman’s wife, and tonight she is plagued by a bad feeling: something terrible is going to happen to her husband, Dermot, and her son, Ben, while they are out at sea.

The boat needs mending, but Dermot doesn’t care about her good sense nor about her bad omens: he is intent on sailing tonight, no matter what. Ben’s fiancée, Statia, comes to spend the night with Kate, to make her company and help dispel her worries. The two pray for the men at sea: “It’s a fine thing to have the religion to turn to when the heart turns everything else.”

Statia cannot sleep, and spends the night musing about her future as a fisherman’s wife. Suddenly, she sees Ben standing before the window. His face is pressed to the glass, his eyes are cold, his features are “clear like wax: while, as he gazed, their beautiful form assumed the long, pale hue of death – by a sudden effort she closed her eyes, but only for a brief, brief moment. When she re-opened them, he was gone – and she only looked upon the grey mingling of sea and sky.”

Surprise, surprise. Ben is dead. Kate was right. And a fisherman should always listen to his wife. Statia never forgets her drowned fisherman, never marries, and adopts Kate as her second mother. The end.

I like the atmosphere in this story, and the image of the mingling of sea and sky as a metaphor for death by drowning. As for plot, though, this was… rather dull.

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25) The Lifted Veil, by George Eliot (1859)
  • First published in Blackwood’s Magazine, July 1859
  • My rating: ★★★★★

Latimer knows how and when he is going to die, and there is not much time left. In a flashback, he tells us his story. Maybe this is a confession of guilt, maybe a testament of sorts. After recovering from a long illness at nineteen, Latimer discovers that something has changed: he is able to see not only into the future, but into people’s minds. He is cursed with “superadded consciousness.”

And, worse still, he is cursed with a romantic fixation for his brother’s fiancée, Bertha Grant. He knows she will be his, and he knows she will make him miserable. But his gift of clairvoyance cannot save him from doom: it can provide him with knowledge, but not with knowledge’s highest requirement – sympathy.

Latimer can see into people’s minds, but not into himself. He will eventually find out that his attraction for Bertha was founded on shallow, selfish reasons – and that she is selfish and shallow herself. When Bertha and her new maid, Mrs. Archer, begin to conspire, Latimer senses that he is losing his superpower.

One night, an old school friend of his, Charles Meunier, pays him a visit. Meunier is renowned doctor and, as luck will have it, this visit will provide him with a human guinea pig for one of his experiments. Mrs. Archer is dying, and, as soon as she takes her last breath, Meunier wants to conduct a transfusion of his own blood into her corpse.

Well, well. Of course, she will come back to life with a mission: as soon as she opens her eyes, Mrs. Archer accuses Bertha of trying to poison Latimer. Mission accomplished, the maid will fall back into death, as if released. Latimer and Bertha will part ways, and he will spend his last years increasingly ill, and suffering from the foreknowledge of his death.

“I have never been encouraged to trust much in the sympathy of my fellow men. But we have all a chance of meeting with some pity, some tenderness, some charity, when we are dead: it is the living only who cannot be forgiven — the living only from whom men’s indulgence and reverence are held off, like the rain by the hard east wind. While the heart beats, bruise it — it is your only opportunity; while the eye can still turn towards you with moist timid entreaty, freeze it with an icy unanswering gaze; while the ear, that delicate messenger to the inmost sanctuary of the soul, can still take in the tones of kindness, put it off with hard civility, or sneering compliment, or envious affectation of indifference; while the creative brain can still throb with the sense of injustice, with the yearning for brotherly recognition — make haste — oppress it with your ill-considered judgments, your trivial comparisons, your careless misrepresentations. The heart will by and by be still — ubi sœva indignatio ulterius cor lacerare nequit; the eye will cease to entreat; the ear will be deaf; the brain will have ceased from all wants as well as from all work. Then your charitable speeches may find vent; then you may remember and pity the toil and the struggle and the failure; then you may give due honour to the work achieved; then you may find extenuation for errors, and may consent to bury them”.

What is the lifted veil from the title? The veil that shrouds fate, the burden of seeing into the mind of another? The veil that shrouds one’s own sins? The boundaries between life and death, and between one person and another? When Latimer is finally able to see into Bertha’s mind and discover her true nature, a veil is lifted from his eyes, and he experiences “the terrible moment of complete illumination”. For Latimer, it’s a moment of illumination about Bertha, but it feels so terrible because it is also a moment of illumination about himself.

I like how Eliot uses the gothic conventions to explore her ethical ideas. What makes this a horror story is the fact that the lifting of the veil is not enough – and can potentially make things worse: Latimer can see the worst of people, but he cannot feel sympathy for any other human being. Knowledge alone can only bring him the feeling of disgust for people.

As a result of the lifting of the veil, Latimer carries the burden of incommunicability, the burden of a knowledge that cannot be shared. Latimer is aware of how he is viewed by others, and he knows he cannot find complete understanding. As a result of the lifting of the veil, Latimer has become a monster. “Are you unable to give me your sympathy — you who read this? Are you unable to imagine this double consciousness at work within me, flowing on like two parallel streams which never mingle their waters and blend into a common hue?

He knows too much; we have reasons to fear him. But can we give him our sympathy? Or, by sharing his story, is he making monsters of us all?

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26) The Ghost in the Mill, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1870)
  • First published in The Atlantic Monthly, June 1870
  • My rating: ★★★★

This is a story within a story within a story. The narrator is one of the boys who loves to listen to tales by the firelight, and there is no one better to tell them than a guy named Sam. The narrator is telling us a story titled “Come down, come down”, which he had been told by Sam – who, in turn, had been told the story from another guy named Cap’n Eb Sawin, many moons ago.

It’s about a peddler named Jehiel Lommedieu, who falls in love with Phebe Ann Parker and promises to marry her before Thanksgiving. He goes on a journey, but never returns – and Phebe, who was a “gal o’sense”, gets tired of waiting and goes on to marry someone else.

Sometime later, Cap’n Eb is caught on a snow storm while travelling, and decides to take shelter at Cack Sparrock’s old mill. While the two men were telling each other stories around the fire, there is a loud knock on the door. It’s old Ketury, an Indigenous woman with a reputation for being a witch.

Ketury looks up the chimney several times, muttering words in a strange language, and calling out, several times, for something to “come down, come down, let’s see who ye be.” Now for the juicy bit: each time she calls, body parts fall down from the chimney, one by one. A pair of feet, legs, a body, the arms, and then the head – until Lommedieu is assembled in front of them, and then leaves together with Ketury, in a cloud of smoke.

Crack is terrified: “his sin had been set home to his soul”. The witch has forced the truth to come out: Cack’s father had murdered Lommedieu for money, and Crack had helped him to dispose of the body, hiding it in the chimney. They pull down the chimney, and find the poor peddler’s skeleton.

Of course, the narrator’s grandmother does not believe an inch of Sam’s story – in an inversion of the common trope where women are taken to be irrational and prone to believe in supernatural tales. “Boys”, rebuts Sam, “if ye want to lead a pleasant and prosperous life, ye must contrive allers to keep jest the happy medium between truth and falsehood.”

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27) The Man with the Nose, by Rhoda Broughton (1872)
  • First published in Temple Bar, October 1872, and later collected in Tales for Christmas Eve (1873)
  • My rating: ★★★★★

Our narrator is a newlywed young man who lost his wife during their honeymoon, and, as he tells us his story, he is trying to understand why. He is not a particularly reliable narrator, and maybe this story is just his way of dealing with public shame. Who knows?

His wife, Elizabeth, had been haunted by a mesmerizer since a vacation she took with her parents some years earlier. As she tells to her husband that she had been through a mesmeric experience, our narrator seems to take it as a somewhat piquant confession of guilt. Elizabeth trembles, shivers, pants – through her husband’s eyes, her bodily response is represented almost as a form of sexual arousal, and her mesmeric experience as a sexual transgression: “I believe I did all sorts of extraordinary things that he told me—sang and danced, and made a fool of myself—but when I came home I was very ill, very—I lay in bed for five whole weeks, and—and was off my head, and said odd and wicked things that you would not have expected me to say—that dreadful bed! shall I ever forget it?

During their honeymoon, every night, Elizabeth is haunted by our eponymous Man with the Nose – a spectre who visits her in her marital bed, claiming her body, and disrupting her marriage: “His eyes commanded me to come to him”.

As our narrator interrupts the honeymoon to deal with unrelated family problems, we know that a bond quite different from the marriage one will be consummated: Elizabeth will eventually be carried off by the Man with the Nose, deserting her husband before the honeymoon is even concluded. Is she possessed? Seduced? Fallen? Is she dead? Elizabeth’s hallucination allows her to free herself and to engage in behaviour that would otherwise be considered scandalous for a married woman.

I love Broughton’s mordant satire of Victorian sexual (and Gothic) conventions in this story, as well as the way she uses the genre to convey the most pressing private and public fears during Victorian times – adultery, female sexual transgression, deviance, and elopement. Such as ghosts, these fears remained culturally unsaid and unseen, but made themselves felt.

Our narrator, who had diminished Elizabeth as childish, silly, and hysteric throughout the story, is, in the end, shown to be the naïve and powerless one, forever haunted by his wife’s desertion.


That’s all for now, folks. I will be writing about the remaining stories in this collection in a future post.

Yours truly,

J.


William-Adolphe Bouguereau, ‘The Remorse of Orestes’
Orestes Pursued by the Furies (Also known as The Remorse of Orestes), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862 (Detail)


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