Thursday, June 10, 2010
THE UNINHABITED HOUSE by Mrs. J. H. Riddell
A law firm's difficult client has a difficult problem: a house that she hopes to have an income from is increasingly a problem. Tenants keep leaving, and eventually there's a lawsuit over whether the house is haunted. Finally, one of the law firm's clerks undertakes to live in the house and uncover its secrets...
I'm reading this as part of a collection of Victorian ghost novels, and it's quite enjoyable. It's got some of the failings of Victorian popular lit, in that it's occasionally flowery and quite sentimental. However...it's notable in one significant aspect. While many Victorian novels have characters who are either independently wealthy or seem to live on air, Riddell's characters have well-established economic lives. There's law clerks, real-estate developers, and pensioners, and many struggle to simply get by. Everyone is solidly middle-class; there's no dukes or earls.
The hauntings in this are eerie enough, and Riddell's concepts of the supernatural are fairly restrained. The ghosts are here for a reason, and once that reason is met, they move on. No Lovecraftian cosmic horror here, or that nasty randomness of Wakefield's later work.
And some of the book's goings-on parallel Mrs. Riddell's life. Charlotte Riddell (1832-1906) was an enormously prolific author, and while popular in her time she was never rich and died in near-poverty. Much of her writing was done to pay the debts incurred by her financially irresponsible and feckless husband...and that's something that characters in THE UNINHABITED HOUSE face. One character is left in poverty when his father dies after losing the family savings in an ill-judged investment, and the house of the title is haunted by the specter of a man who supposedly committed suicide when faced with financial ruin.
Alas, Mrs. Riddell is largely forgotten today, except for the occasional story in anthologies. About a third of her work was in the supernatural vein, including the novels FAIRY WATER, THE HAUNTED RIVER, THE DISAPPEARANCE OF MR. JEREMIAH REDWORTH, and THE NUN'S CURSE, in addition to a slew of short stories. The rest was of the Victorian "social novel" genre. As I said, she's largely forgotten, but her work is still readable.
I'll be reading more Victorian ghost novels as I work my way through the collection...