Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 edited by Melissa Edmondson

Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Winter is a time for ghost stories, Christmas in particular. M.R. James, the doyen of the English ghost story, traditionally read a new story by candlelight to friends who eagerly gathered in his study on Christmas Eve. But James wasn’t the only one writing ghost stories. During the period covered by this book, there were many women publishing ghost stories that equalled if not surpassed those of James and his male contemporaries. As long as publishers have been producing anthologies of ghost stories, women writers have featured in them: during the 1980s, Virago produced several excellent anthologies of ghost stories by women writers. This latest collection, edited by Melissa Edmundson, is a welcome addition to the shelf. 

Book Cover: Women’s Weird. Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 edited by Melissa Edmundson

I’m sidestepping the ‘Women’s Weird’ of the title for now, for reasons I’ll come back to later in this review. Instead, I turn to the first story, Louisa Baldwin’s ‘The Weird of the Walfords’. It is a conventional example of period ghost story writing – the narrator believes that his family is blighted by a curse attached to an ancestral family bed and destroys it despite being warned not to. It gives away nothing to say that the curse will strike again. What is notable, however, is that the story is narrated by the Squire himself. And this is not the only story with a first-person male narrator: of the thirteen stories, only two first-person narrators are identifiably female, while most of the third-person narratives also use a male viewpoint figure. 

There are many reasons why women might write from a male viewpoint, but it is not difficult to imagine that in some cases it reflects the fact that men often had greater access to the world and its contents, whereas women could follow only in the imagination. In Baldwin’s case, I wonder too if she has not used it as a sly way to comment on how men infantilise women: the narrator refers more than once to his ‘little wife’, as well as blaming her for the death of their son because he acquiesced to her request to turn the room that once held the cursed bed into a nursery.

There are stories here of a woman whose freedom is circumscribed by her husband’s jealousy (Edith Wharton’s ‘Kerfol’), a woman who is drawn into an inexplicable haunting while loyally taking care of a friend’s daughter (E. Nesbit’s ‘The Shadow’), and a more traditional story of a wrong righted when a lost child’s body is finally discovered (‘The Giant Wistaria’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman). Other stories are more formally experimental, such as May Sinclair’s ‘Where Their Fire is Not Quenched’, where the haunting persists beyond the mortal plane. 

There is no denying this is a strong collection of ghost stories written by women, mostly reflecting on the hopes and fears of women. I’d recommend it as a collection without hesitation. I am, though, uneasy about the framing of this anthology as an expression of women’s weird writing, insofar as I’m not entirely clear about the distinction Edmondson is seeking to make between weird stories and what I’m going to refer to as ‘the English ghost story tradition’ (embodied by the work of people like M.R. James, though it is by no means an exclusively English phenomenon). I think my difficulty lies in Edmondson’s observation that these stories ‘also explore more universal imaginings of fear, unease and dread’ (viii), suggesting that writers have left behind them ‘primarily domestic concerns’. Again, I’m not clear where these ‘domestic concerns’ might have vanished to, given that so many of these stories focus on issues and events that are firmly tied to the ‘real’ world of the household, family relationships, children’s welfare, things traditionally seen as the female purview. There is nothing more domestic than a literally haunted saucepan, after all. 

It doesn’t help either that Edmondson bases her theorising on H.P. Lovecraft’s attempt to describe the Weird tale. Lovecraft would not be my preferred starting point for formulating a female-oriented view of weird fiction, and it’s clear from the quotations taken from writing by Mary Butts and Eleanor Scott, two writers of extremely effective ghost stories, and a better starting point for this discussion, that their philosophy is somewhat at variance with his, though more strongly aligned with the type of fiction I think we’re probably talking about here. According to Butts, in an essay entitled ‘Ghosties and Ghoulies: Uses of the Supernatural in English Fiction’ such stories must evoke ‘a stirring, a touching of nerves not usually sensitive, an awakening to more than fear – but to something like awareness and conviction or even memory’ (qtd x), and that feels right to me. Because I cannot get past the fact that to me, that the stories here (with the exception, I think, of Francis Stevens’ ‘Unseen – Unfeared’, which might be seen as ‘weird’) are unequivocally examples of the English, or Victorian, ghost story tradition.

I don’t have the space here to go into this discussion further, much as I might like to, but the proliferation of terms – strange, weird, supernatural, ghost – is indicative that we are in danger of becoming lost in a forest of immense taxonomic complexity in which we risk losing sight of the actual stories themselves. Interesting and intriguing as the philosophical discussion might be (and I’m personally always up for that sort of conversation), I choose at this point to celebrate this anthology, and its thirteen stories, a number of which were entirely new to me. There isn’t a single weak story here. They’re often provocative, always entertaining, and they leave the reader in a thoughtful frame of mind.

Copyright Maureen Kincaid Speller. All rights reserved.

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