Books Interviews

Melissa Edmundson: ‘The ghost story gave women a voice’

Melissa Edmundson is a literary historian specialising in nineteenth and early twentieth-century British women writers, especially those who wrote supernatural fiction. Much of her work centres on re-discovering those writers who have been forgotten. Edmundson is the editor of a new collection of ghost stories by Victorian women called Avenging Angelspublished by Victorian Secrets, an independent publisher dedicated to books about and from the nineteenth century.

If you wish to explore the area further, beyond Avenging Angels, Edmundson wrote for us a reading list of ghost stories by Victorian women writers. Here, I speak to Edmundson about the new collection and her chosen area of research.

Peter Meinertzhagen: Your research centres on rediscovering forgotten women writers, especially those who excelled in the supernatural. Why especially ‘the supernatural’?

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Melissa Edmundson: It’s fascinating to me how well the supernatural lends itself to the exploration of social issues and how it can tell us about the eras in which it was written. Many scholars still don’t take Gothic too seriously as a source for serious critical study – that’s changed in recent years, but the dismissive attitude is still there. So finding strong social elements in these stories, what I call the ‘social supernatural’ in Women’s Ghost Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2013), makes these stories something more than just light entertainment. Yes, they were written to entertain but they also had an important purpose. When you think about it, there’s unsettlement on two levels: there’s the unsettled nature of the ghost who can’t be at peace and then there’s the social imbalance that the ghost in the story often reflects.

PM: Just how important was the ghost story form for Victorian women writers?

ME: It was incredibly important. It allowed women a way into the publishing world of the nineteenth century. They published numerous ghost stories in newspapers and magazines and then turned these opportunities into lucrative professional writing careers. The ghost story also gave women a voice in a society that often disregarded women’s thoughts and opinions. This is why supernatural writing is often linked to the Spiritualist movement. Mediumship allowed women to have careers, make money, work inside (and outside) the home, travel, gain notoriety, and it gave them a unique kind of cultural authority because of their contact with those on the ‘other side’. I like to think of these writers as summoning their own kinds of ghosts in order to build their audience and increase their influence as important ‘mediums’ in their own right.

PM: Do you think there is a defining characteristic of the ghost stories written by women, in comparison to those by men in the same period?

ME: One of the major differences is the message behind the story. Women’s stories tend to have more emphasis on personal relationships and troubles within those relationships that lead to haunting. There’s an increased focus on families and what goes on behind the closed doors of the supposedly peaceful and safe domestic space. Women writers also use female ghosts to reflect suffering experienced in a woman’s life, both before and after death. These women return from their graves to right some wrong done to them. Women’s ghost stories also tend to be more critical of existing cultural attitudes and are therefore more subversive. It’s not just about evoking fear for its own sake – there’s a reason behind that fear, a deeper, often more troubling meaning grounded in the real world. For instance, when I was researching women’s Colonial Gothic short stories for my latest monograph, I was surprised by how subversive these stories are. Women used supernatural fiction to bring attention to how imperialism was hurting the people in colonised regions, as well as the British themselves who were connected to these areas of the empire. So you have a piece of literature that becomes a piece of history, a comment on contemporary socio-political issues. You could even call it a form of protest.

PM: Many of the writers included in your collection (and others) were very successful in their time. Why, then, have they been forgotten?

ME: Much of this vanishing had to do with the fact that women’s collections were often not republished and then became harder to find. Then twentieth-century anthologists typically included stories by men that didn’t give a full picture of women’s literary production, which is incredibly sad because instead of including a few ‘new’ stories by women, they just republished the same stories by men over and over again. So everyone knows Algernon Blackwood and M.R. James, but no one knows Louisa Baldwin or Lettice Galbraith. Women were often more popular writers than men, and many needed to make money by their writing in order to support themselves and their families, so their work was also discounted as not being worthy of serious study by many twentieth-century scholars. Because they were able to produce so much writing, they were labelled hack writers, and this became another reason to neglect their work. Women such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Margaret Oliphant worked as editors of their own journals and had a bit more control over whose work was published, but they were in the minority. Many women also used male narrators, male pseudonyms, or wrote anonymously. This effectively covered up their status as ‘woman authors’.

PM: How did you go about choosing the selection of stories in Avenging Angels?

ME: I wanted to highlight how women writers push the limits of social themes in their writing, and although there have been many collections of women’s ghost stories in recent years, I don’t think this social aspect has been focused on as much as it should be. As I say in the introduction, these writers didn’t shy away from controversial topics. There’s murder, betrayal, marital problems, and child abuse, among other issues. Victorian Secrets gave me a generous word limit, but even so, some tough choices had to be made. Each story in Avenging Angels comes from a collection published by each of these individual authors, and many of the authors included published more than one collection of supernatural fiction, so imagine how many stories I actually had to choose from!

I also wanted to show the historical scope of women’s involvement within the genre of the supernatural throughout the long Victorian period. I start with Amelia B. Edwards’s ‘The Four-Fifteen Express’, which was published in 1867, and end with Violet Hunt’s ‘The Prayer’, published in her 1911 collection. But I also want to stress that women’s supernatural fiction doesn’t end with the Victorian period. In fact, I’m working on a new collection of women’s weird fiction that ranges from 1890 to 1940. There were some amazing collections by women in the 1920s and 1930s. I hope Avenging Angels encourages people to read more by these authors as well as looking beyond the period represented in the book.

Avenging Angels: Ghost Stories by Victorian Women Writers edited by Melissa Edmundson is published by Victorian Secrets. Buy this book on Amazon.

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