Haunted houses and ghost stories are staples of the horror genre… but what happens when they are explored with their female authors in mind? Dr Emma Liggins (of Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies) has been finding out in her new book The Haunted House in Women’s Ghost Stories: Gender, Space and Modernity, 1850–1945 (Palgrave, 2020) considering the writers and stories that have often been neglected in literary histories.

By Dr Emma Liggins

Using spatial theory to frame her readings of female-authored Victorian and early-twentieth-century stories, Emma considers the links between gender and the ‘architectural uncanny’. This approach opens up questions such as; why are certain rooms of the house chosen in these ghost stories, are there particular trends in how these ghosts are characterised, and how does the sense of confinement potentially link to women’s real lived experience at the time? To reflect on women’s ghost stories of this period, is to reflect on the difficult conditions and social expectations of domesticity, subservience and even abuse many faced.

Drawing on the work of authors including Margaret Oliphant, Vernon Lee, Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Gaskell and May Sinclair as just some examples, Emma highlights the range of ways in which ghosts, women and servants occupy domestic space. Spatial theorists such as Gaston Bachelard, Henri Lefebvre and Elizabeth Grosz have considered how space is used and what it potentially represents; their perspectives offer an alternative way of thinking about the ghost story form. The chapters consider a selection of haunted spaces including suburban villas, haunted gardens, ancestral mansions, Italian churches, and American town houses, some in various states of disrepair.

The book is a significant exploration of the female gothic, examining the relationship between the past and modernity and shining a light on narratives not always given the attention they deserve. After all, during the Victorian era, women’s ghost stories were often derided, seen as ‘not the subject’ on which women should be writing, or as lesser to other genres of fiction.

Dr Emma Liggins is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature in the Department of English at Manchester Metropolitan University and a specialist in Victorian Literature. She has previously written for Haunt, sharing her experience of A Tour of Southern Cemetery and contributing an article covering What can we learn from Victorian attitudes to contagion? More can be heard from Emma on the subject at the RAH! Podcast. Considering the recent publication of her book, Haunt Manchester decided to speak to Emma and find out more…

Hello Emma. Congratulations on your new book 'The Haunted House in Women’s Ghost Stories'. Why did you choose to focus on women’s ghost stories in particular, and do you feel this is somewhat of an under-addressed area?

“I’ve always been fascinated by ghost stories, particularly the creepiness of their settings. Some of my research is on forgotten women writers of the nineteenth century and the stories they published in magazines, and I was intrigued to find out why so many stories by women were about ghosts and haunted houses, and why architectural descriptions were so prominent. Most of us are familiar with famous Victorian ghost stories by men like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, but the stories of women contributors often got lost in history, even though they were well-known at the time. I wanted to find out which rooms were ‘most haunted’ at this time. More work is now being done on women and the supernatural, but there’s still a lot more to discover!"

Pictured below: a gate in the grounds of Capesthorne Hall

By Dr Emma Liggins

The time period you have chosen is 1850-1945. Can you tell us more about this choice? After all, this is a period when women were often associated with the responsibility of ‘the house’/domestic space, so does this make ghost stories by them on this topic all the more disturbing?

"Yes certainly, the Victorian woman was idealised as ‘the angel in the house’, the guardian of domestic values and manager of servants. As women spent more time in the home, the stories suggest they thought about it as an uncanny space – both familiar and strangely unfamiliar, to follow Freud’s thinking. In domestic advice manuals and books on architecture and interior design, domestic spaces are described in Gothic terms as dark, threatening, claustrophobic, suffocating and this comes through in the stories women wrote.

"During this time spatial rules were in operation. Family members were supposed to remain distanced from servants, men and women occupied different rooms as space became gendered - and I think the ghost story allowed women to reflect on the strangeness of this distancing (something we’re now experiencing during COVID-19). By the twentieth century the home was being transformed by new technologies like telephones and electricity, Victorian spatial hierarchies were in decline and there were fewer servants, but this often made for a disorientating experience – it somehow didn’t feel so ‘homelike’ and new technologies acquired ghostly resonances which disturbed women. It’s also a period when attitudes to the supernatural were changing, when spiritualism, the capacity to communicate with the dead, became popular: its supposed heyday was between the 1860s and 1880s but there was a revival in the early twentieth century, particularly after the losses of the First World War. Often ghost stories are a way of processing the trauma of mourning and loss."

Can you tell us a little more about some of the ‘haunted houses’ you encounter in the book, and how you have gone about this? 

By Dr Emma Liggins Pictured above: Capesthorne Hall

"One of the things I wanted to do in the book was to explore the possible correlations between the houses inhabited or visited by the women writers and the houses they depicted in their stories. I found material in women’s letters, autobiographies, travel writing and magazine articles about the houses they admired and feared. During my research, I worked on exhibitions and events at Speke Hall, Liverpool and Ordsall Hall, Salford, which meant navigating the houses to find their hidden stories.  Forbidden or locked spaces, bedrooms where family members had died and the positioning of the servants’ quarters and staircases are often described in ghost stories so I looked carefully at these rooms, as well as the routes taken by servants and visitors around the house. Some of the writers wrote about haunted gardens with their eerie, half-alive statues, lime avenues and strange monuments, so the exterior and its lay-out is also important."

"Not many people know that Elizabeth Gaskell, the Manchester novelist, went for regular visits to the Georgian mansion, Capesthorne Hall (image abive), near Congleton in Cheshire, to stay with her friend Caroline Davenport. Her reverence for the grandeur of her friend’s house, with its old pictures and impressive estate, appears in her ghost stories. Furnival Manor in ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ is a disorientating, vast place where the servants feel ‘lost’, where the spectral child outside the window is a reminder of transgressive female ancestors banished by patriarchal power. Both Gaskell and May Sinclair visited and wrote about The Brontë Parsonage in Haworth , as Gaskell became Charlotte Brontë’s friend and biographer. Their spectralisation of the desolate graveyard, the ‘wild’ moors and the house as a site of mourning and death carried over into their ghost stories."

Do you sense that some of the authors were drawing more on their own experiences than others? Can you give us some examples?

"Well, Gaskell certainly boasted in her letters that she’d seen a ghost!  Some women were sceptical, others longed for spiritual communication with their lost children or family members. Vernon Lee wrote about the reverence for the ‘old house’ in the modern age, so there is also a sense that some of these women wanted to be haunted, or entered old buildings with the desire to think themselves back into the past. Living in Florence, Lee was obsessed with chilly Italian churches and their dusty relics, so her haunted houses often appear like sacred spaces, crumbling monuments to a lost past.

"Elizabeth Bowen, whose Irish family home was demolished in 1961 and who witnessed the bombing of London houses in the Blitz, created haunted houses in states of ruin and collapse – one lesser-known story, ‘Oh Madam…’ (1941) is written from the point of view of a traumatized servant describing the half-destroyed rooms of her London home. The collapse of the house is here linked to the collapse, or partial erosion, of the bonds between mistress and servant: the servant says of the damaged, dusty house, ‘it used to sort of sparkle, didn’t it’, voicing a recurring regret that the sparkle of the past is gone forever."

Pictured below: The Brontë Parsonage in Haworth

By Dr Emma Liggins

Is there a story that you have found particularly chilling?

"Some stories imagine what it feels like to be a female ghost, often a figure shut out from domestic security or ownership of property. A particularly unnerving one is May Sinclair’s ‘Where their Fire is not Quenched’ in which the modern woman is doomed to return to the tawdry hotel-room where she had conducted an illicit affair, and, what is worse, re-enact her desires for a man she now despises. Doors in the story all seem to open up into the grey corridor leading to this uncanny hotel-room, which reminds me of some scenes in twentieth-century horror films like The Shining. In Wharton’s story ‘The Lady’s Maid’s Bell’ the ominous servant’s bell which rings in the middle of the night summons not only the new servant but her dead predecessor, both of whom haunt the threshold between servant space and family space."

Why does learning about these women’s ghost stories of the past have contemporary relevance/applications? ​

"Thinking about women’s experiences of the home and what they found disturbing about domestic space is still relevant, as it can tell us so much about the history of the family, gender relations and how our anxieties are shaped by perceptions of place and space. The focus on servant identities in ghost stories written by women is particularly revealing about those often marginalised lives of the vast numbers of domestic staff who kept houses running. Haunted houses can be a refuge from modernity, a nostalgic window into the past, but also a sign of the buried fears and stories of a particular culture: what women really thought about their oppressive, over-crowded drawing-rooms, how servants felt restricted by spatial rules or how the nursery with its absent children became a traumatic space of mourning. The ghost story continues to be a popular genre, as indicated by the recent TV and film adaptations of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. I think we’re still fascinated with the strange uncanniness of space."

Introduction by Emily Oldfield 

Photographs thanks to Dr Emma Liggins