Tuesday, September 23, 2014

So, from the first, I was haunted by the letter B - a scary Dickens ghost story

When I started Wuthering Expectations I had wondered what kind of schedule I could keep.  But I always knew I could just write about short stories, just read one and get writin’.  I swore, though, that I would only resort to such desperate measures when – no, I thought I would do it all the time.  I don’t know why I don’t do it more.  I had been planning to spend much of this week writing about Walter Pater, for pity's sake.  Random English short stories: much easier.

So I am still in A. S. Byatt’s Oxford Book of English Short Stories.  Long ago, I wrote a little post wondering about the dearth of famous 19th century English short stories.  Compared to U.S. literature at the same time, I mean – Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, James, those folks.  Or Russian, French, or German literature.  The English, like the Americans, had magazines, and those magazine published fictional stories of various lengths and qualities.  They published such stories by famous writers, famous then, or now, or both.  Yet the British stories have always had a lower status, kept off in the margins as if they are second-rate compared to the best novels, which, in my experience, they mostly are until Stevenson and especially Kipling came along in the 1880s.  I have read more of the relevant pool of stories since I wrote that old post, but I have not solved the puzzle.

I do not know if it is coincidence, but I believe Kipling’s “’Wireless’” is the most famous or studied story that Byatt, who is deliberately on the lookout for oddities and obscurities, includes in the Oxford book, unless “The Haunted House” (1859) by Charles Dickens counts.  “Today, ‘The Haunted House of 1859’ is one of the attractions at Dickens World in Chatham in Kent” – if that’s not fame, what is.

One of the bedrooms is haunted by the ghost of young Master B., who was done in because he rang the bell while the owl hooted (the house is also haunted by an “’ooded woman with a howl”).  The sensible narrator, assigned to that room, is “uneasy” about the initial.

I also carried the mysterious letter into the appearance and pursuits of the deceased; wondering whether he dressed in Blue, wore Boots (he couldn’t have been Bald), was a boy of Brains, liked Books, was good at Bowling, had any skill as a Boxer, even in his Buoyant Boyhood Bathed from a Bathing-machine at Bognor, Bangor, Bournemouth, Brighton, or Broadstairs, like a Bounding Billiard Ball?

So, from the first, I was haunted by the letter B.  (34)

The ghost story, as readers of Wuthering Expectations are well aware, is an inherently comic genre.  This one takes a strange turn, though, into a genuinely sentimental childhood story, in which an elaborate schoolchild game based on The Arabian Nights is shattered by the intrusion of real death and poverty.  At the new (“cold, bare”) school

I never whispered in that wretched place that I had been Haroun or had had a Seraglio: for, I knew that if I mentioned my reverses, I should be so worried, that I should have to drown myself in the muddy pond near the playground, which looked like the beer.  (42)

“The Haunted House” is part of a frame story for a separate anthology with contributions by Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell and others, at least one of whom may have written a story more appealing to true fans of ghost stories, in which the ghost is not just a metaphor for the losses we all suffer, but surely less appealing to me, so I will not check.


  1. "I believe Kipling’s “’Wireless’” is the most famous or studied story that Byatt, who is deliberately on the lookout for oddities and obscurities, includes in the Oxford book"

    Including Kipling at all raises questions about the sincerity of Byatt's claim that she “decided to be stringent about the Englishness of the writers” (xv) in terms of both origin and attitude. Including "Wireless" makes it even more dubious.

  2. The golden age of short stories -- the late 19th century -- must have been a wonderful era in which to live (well, for a reader). The convergence of cultural and technological issues made the era a perfect petri dish for short stories. Now, I fear, they are becoming odd exceptions in the world of publishing. But here is something to ponder: your fascination and your postings have been a catalyst: I have been digging through my bookshelves for collections of short stories, and my new TBR pile is taking shape. Perhaps Flannery O'Connor will lead the way. She is, to my mind, the best short story writer the U.S. has produced in the last 100 years. Stay tuned at Beyond Eastrod.

  3. Byatt identifies the Englishness of "'Wireless'" in its use of Keats, which is inarguably true but I think well beside your point, Roger. I have real doubts about the "Englishness" conceit.

    RT, a person might wonder if the short story is now moving - or has moved - into the status of poetry, meaning a prestigious credential actually read only by a few devotees of the form. Some of O'Connor's early stories were published in Mademoiselle, for Pete's sake. There was still a real audience for stories. Mystery stories, pulp stories, fishing stories, all kinds of stories.

    1. Well, I am no expert on the history of the publishing markets, so I have only anecdotal evidence squirreled away in my memory.

      But it is true that O'Connor's market opportunities were already different from those enjoyed by Hemingway and Fitzgerald (for example); in fact, academic journals were then becoming prominent outlets, and we all know how limited the readership is for those publications. O'Connor was a paradox: she needed to be commercial, but she did not really want to be commercial. Go figure.

      And who the hell is Pete? And why is "for Pete's sake" such an issue? Note: colloquial expressions like the one involving Pete intrigue me; we use them, and most of us have no idea about the origins or meanings.

      BTW, I have begun digging through one of the (if not the very) first book-length collections of essays about O'Connor's writing: The Added Dimension: The Art and Mind of Flannery O'Connor (Fordham UP, 1966). I am entertained by the New Critic flavor, and I wish we had not moved away from that critical stance. Yes, I am a Luddite. So be it.

    2. I used "for pity's sake" in the main post, so I needed some elegant variation in my clichés.

  4. AR(T), by now you must be close to chapter XLIV of Bleak House. After it hits that chapter, it becomes chore-ish to finish. Dickens didn't show his readers the same kindness Nabokov did with his Ada: as soon as he felt he was losing the grip of the book, he finished it quickly. Bleak House just goes on; even Dickens' brilliant riffs (and there are none more brilliant) are not so funny past that point:

    "He is not softened by distance and unfamiliarity; he is not a genuine foreign-grown savage; he is the ordinary home-made article. Dirty, ugly, disagreeable to all the senses, in body a common creature of the common streets, only in soul a heathen. Homely filth begrimes him, homely parasites devour him, homely sores are in him, homely rags are on him; native ignorance, the growth of English soil and climate, sinks his immortal nature lower than the beasts that perish. Stand forth, Jo, in uncompromising colours! From the sole of thy foot to the crown of thy head, there is nothing interesting about thee." (By the way, that homely English soil and climate will show up again in what is arguably Hardy's best poem, Drummer Hodge).

  5. Not as close as you think - this time through I have been reading Bleak House so slowly. Attentively, but so slowly. I'm not just fondling the details, I am practically napping on them.

    I know what you mean - in memory I mentally compress the end of the book, so that all of the great incidents are further on than in reality. Thus I remember the Spontaneous Combustion as being around the 3/4 mark, rather than in the dead center of the book. My memory is apparently filling up the slack.

    "Drummer Hodge," now that's a great poem.