Deconstructing a Classic Victorian Ghost Story
From Magonia No. 74, April 2001
The classic Victorian ghost story – the ghost story to end all ghost stories – began in April 1882 when a retired army captain of Irish extraction, Frederick William Despard (53), his 46 year old second wife Harriet Ann (nee Nixon), ‘ a great invalid’, and his teenage children, 19 year old Rosina Clara, Edith Sophia was about to turn 18, 15 year old Henry, 13 year old Lilian, 12 year old Mabel, and their little brother Wilfrid, 9, moved house. They moved from Lansdown Road in Cheltenham, the town where they had been living for the previous half dozen or so years to another rented house at Pittville Circus Road, on the corner of All Saints Road, a ‘typical modern residence, square and commonplace in appearance’. They would have been accompanied by the usual bevy of servants that such an upper middle bourgeois family would have had, in 1881 a cook, a parlour maid, a house maid and a nursery maid for the little boy. Staying with them from time to time was Rosina’s married half sister Freda Kinloch, the daughter of Frederick and his first wife Rosina nee Meredith.
Even before we begin we have a hint of something odd, what kind of man names the eldest daughter of his second wife after his deceased first wife. A bit insensitive one might think, and suggesting that perhaps the dead Rosina held primary place in Frederick’s affections. Like the then Princess Alexandra, Harriet was not only an invalid but deaf, and seems to have spent much of the time in her room.
In any case in the June after the family moved in something rather odd happened to Rosina Clara. She was in her room getting ready for bed when someone started fiddling with the door. Thinking it was her mother she opened the door, and saw down the passage ‘the figure of a tall lady dressed in black standing at the head of the stairs..the face hidden in a handkerchief’ As the figure descended the stairs Rosina started to follow but her candle blew out and she returned to bed. It’s not at all clear if she ever asked anyone who the lady might have been. Perhaps the question was redundant, for Rosina began seeing the figure with increasing frequency. She also reported that Freda, Willy and a housemaid also saw the figure.
It seems to have been in 1884 that the events began to get really strange, Freda Kinloch lost her little baby and came to stay with them, and during this time strange noises were heard in the house, and Rosina began to keep a regular diary of the now frequent apparitions, which she sent to a friend Catherine Campbell in letters. Alas however these letters and journal could never be presented to the SPR, because they contained ‘matters of a private nature’. Some speculation has been devoted to the nature of these private matters, Peter Underwood suggested that they may contain Rosina’s suspicions that the ‘weeping lady’ was in fact Frederick’s mistress, I seem to remember that Eric Dingwall suggested that they may have included evidence of a lesbian affair between Rosina and Catherine. Cynics might point out that telling a story in the form of letters and diary entries was a Victorian literary convention.
In her account Rosina, who was, or would be, a medical student (exactly when her medical studies, which concluded successfully in 1897 begun is unclear) and in her account she clearly goes all-out to portray herself as Miss Intrepid Scientific Ghost Hunter, methodically following the ghost around, putting wires across its path to try and trip it up, trying to talk to it etc. By now Rosina is starting to see the ghost everywhere. In the most extraordinary episode, Rosina claimed that she was sat on the couch by the widow, reading by the summer evening twilight, with mother and father in the room, when Miss Ghost came in and stood by her couch for half an hour. Rosina said nothing and her parents did not seem to see it, When it left she followed and again tried to talk to it. I think that disposes of Underwood’s mistress theory, for a mistress to stand in room with her paramour, his wife and daughter for half an hour, and the couple to pretend to have seen nothing is a bit too odd for even the oddest Victorians.
For a mistress to stand in room with her paramour, his wife and daughter for half an hour, and the couple to pretend to have seen nothing is a bit too odd for even the oddest Victorians
By the late summer of 1884 the Despard girls are seeing the ghost everywhere, its becoming a topic of excitement. I suspect these girls needed quite a bit of excitement, life for lively intelligent young women among the Victorian bourgeois could be dull at the best of times, and an invalid deaf mother probably didn’t help much. Add to that the mourning half sister and you have a potent brew. The ghost and its hunting become the chief source of entertainment.
But now there was to be a new excitement, once the girls had told their father, the ghost hunt took a new phase, the hunt for a suspect. Given the circumstances, one obvious suspect might have been Rosina Meredith looking after her daughter, or, given that Rosina thought the figure was wearing ‘old fashioned widows weeds’, there was the only widow who had actually lived in the house, old Mrs Littlewood whose husband died just a month after moving into the house. No, gossip was suggesting a much sexier target.
For only a few years before the respectable bourgeois inhabitants of Pittville Circus Road had the neighbours from hell, living right there in the Despard’s home. These were Henry Swinhoe and his second wife Imogen Hutchings, who were brawling noisy drunks. Who was to blame was a case of you pays your money and takes your choice. Partisans of Imogen said that Henry has taken to the bottle when his first wife died, and Imogen had tried to reform him, but had taken to the booze herself, on no said Henry’s partisans it was the other way round, that poor innocent Henry discovered Imogen was a lush on their honeymoon, and she infected him. More plausible than these tales of innocence wronged would be to assume they were both drunks when they met. Just the sort of people to end up in strange beds, in strange houses wearing someone else’s night clothes and no memory of how they got there. Perhaps that’s how Imogen ended up in Henry’s bed, and well, in those days that meant marriage.
The neighbourhood was soon scandalised by rows and fights, and thrown crockery. The rows were over money and Henry’s kids, who you just get the hint were rather wild, and most certainly didn’t take to Imogen, nor she to them, There was also Henry’s perhaps paranoid belief that Imogen was after his first wife’s jewels. If there were passionate fights that were talked about, you get the hint, at least in the early days, of the passionate sex which wasn’t. By the time Henry and Imogen had separated and boozed them selves to death, they must have been the most hated people ever to have lived in their neighbourhood. Even with a brood of teenage girls the Despards must have seemed like quite relief.
I think we can be sure that the Despard’s knew something of this story before they moved in, it must have been the talk of the town. Right from the start it must have been at the back of their minds.
Lets look at this scandal a little more closely, too see why it may have had such a fascination with the Despard girls. For the Victorians drink was the principle indication of loss of civility and respectability, ‘taking the pledge’ was many a working class family’s announcement of a move up into the respectable classes. For the middle classes a drunken husband was bad enough, a cad and a bounder, but just about tolerable but a drunken woman was out of bounds completely. The wife was supposed to be the force of order, stability and domestic tranquillity. The home was the haven of peace. In a very real sense the Swinhoe’s home was a disorderly house, an intrusion of chaotic, raw wildness into the safe respectable leafy suburbs of Victorian Cheltenham. Imogen was the anti wife, and anti mother, the negation of all that the Victorian housewife should be. Even Henry and Imogen’s name ‘Swinhoe’ seemed redolent of swinishness, corruption and sensuality.
The Victorian bourgeois imagination was held in thrall by this fall out of respectability, into a proletarian mire of drunkenness, vice, poverty and squalor which they called ‘The Abyss’. Imogen is the image of this ‘Abyss’ at the heart of the respectable.
We can sense how the image of Imogen might have had an appalled fascination for bored, respectable teenage girls, how they might have whispered and giggled in mock horror about what had gone on in this very house. To become a doctor for a Victorian woman took a lot of willpower and independence, and her later career suggests someone to a degree formidable, someone who might have identified a some secret level with the wild, sassy Imogen. Yet at other levels they were opposites. Rosina never married, that doesn’t in any way imply that she was lesbian, though she might have been, but that like some many Victorian women who wanted to make a mark in the world, she had to forswear the chains of marriage and domesticity. Rosina had before her examples of the dangers of sexuality. The step mother after who whom she was named, (and seems to have a some hold on her imagination, when she chose a pseudonym she chose a name beginning with M, perhaps just Rose M-, with the filling in to Morton an SPR editor’s bowing to complaints about the endless dashes ) had died young, one assumes in childbirth. Her own mother was now an invalid, perhaps the little boy in later life one pregnancy too many, unless her deafness and infirmity, like Queen Alexandra’s are evidence of a more sinister cause. Now her half sister’s baby had died.
They had both deserted the role of ideal Victorian wife and mother, but in opposite directions. Imogen into sensuality and excess; Rosina into austere intellectualism
Rosina and Imogen had both deserted the role of ideal Victorian wife and mother, but in opposite directions as it were. Imogen into sensuality and excess; Rosina into austere intellectualism. In some sense Imogen is what Jung would have called Rosina’s shadow. At times Rosina felt that she was ‘losing power’ to the figure. At one level this might be an indication of sense of weakness coinciding with the hallucination, perhaps a hint of some form of epililetoform event. At another it represents surely her sense weakening of before the lure of the sensual. (Remember how the figure announces itself by a fiddling with the bedroom door) Yet she persists, her ghost hunt is strange form of exorcism, a battle of wills between reason and the senses. In her imagination Rosina tames Imogen, domesticates the roaring abyss.. She envisions her not as a wild rampaging poltergeist, but as, well, a quiet, timid, weepy and altogether tame Victorian ghost, seen but barely heard. As the image of Imogen is tamed, as Imogen never does speak to her, the strange noises and general weirdness fade away. The wildness is being tamed, respectability is restored.
Rosina adds a couple of other details. Imogen’s face, like an executioner’s, is always well hidden, behind a handkerchief, with the suggestion that she is concealing some visible mark of Cain or of the sensual beast, some outward sign of inward corruption, that proclaims her as an inhabitant of the abyss. Rosina is also much taken with the idea, deriving from Henry Swinhoe’s paranoia that Imogen is ‘after his first wife’s jewels’, and that this is why she is haunting the house. These jewels again have layers of interpretation. Certainly, we can see them not as important in themselves, but as symbols of affection. Imogen wants them as a sign that she counts as much as her predecessor. Remember how Rosina was named not after her own mother, but Frederick’s first wife. Could Harriet Ann have similar feelings?
At another level, we should note that in the English folk tradition jewels had often been used as a symbol of virginity and chastity. In lusting after her predecessors ‘jewels’ Imogen is seeking her respectability, purity (or at least the image of purity seen through the eyes of her children and friends).
What really happened in that house we may never know. A combination of the sort of odd atmospheric effects which seem to common in ‘haunted houses’ which give rise to sounds that the brain interprets as footsteps and swishing dresses, which rattle doors and produce cold winds, and hallucinations on Rosina’s part are a start. She was the eldest sister in residence and perhaps was able to dominate others. The need for control, symbolised in the ghost hunt and the taming of Imogen may have had darker sides. Perhaps she was a hoaxer, and got her younger siblings involved in game which became increasingly real, a fantasy into which they escaped from sadness and boredom. The ‘other witnesses’ quoted were her siblings couple of servants, and the rather impressionable Miss Campbell who made the curious comment ‘Miss Despard wishes me to state that although I have never seen the figure, I have heard the footsteps..’ As for Miss Campbell claim that one night she had a telepathic vision of Rosina confronting the ghost, the less said the better.
In later years just about any halfway spooky experience within a mile or so of the house had been blamed on poor Imogen. She has not however been reported in any of the local bars or night-clubs.
Bibliography and sources:
The orginal account is: ‘Morton’, Miss R. C. ‘Record of a haunted house’ in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. VIII, pt. XXII (1892) pp 311-332.
The story features in several of the works of Andrew Mackenzie:
The Unexplained. Arthur Barker, 1966, chapter 9, pp. 51-57.
Apparitions and Ghosts. Arthur Barker, 1971, chapter 11, pp. 145-58.
Hauntings and Apparitions. Heinemann, 1982 chapter 3 pp 40-64.
The Seen and the Unseen. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987, chapter 13, pp. 137-48.
A more critical view is presented in: Underwood, Peter. Hauntings: new light on the greatest true ghost stories of the world. J.M.Dent, 1977, chapter 8, pp. 169-197.
Further background on the family was taken from the LDS CD-Rom of the 1881 Census for Great Britain, and the from the Familysearch website (revealing for example that Freda, Rosina and Edith were born in Tasmania). I have assumed that Harriet Ann was Rosina’s mother, because Familysearch only gives the baptism of Edith, with Harriet as her mother, however the several-years gap between Freda and Rosina gives much more room for a death and second marriage, than the one year gap between Rosina and Edith.