Friday, 2 October 2009

My Aunt Margaret's Adventure

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu produced some of the best supernatural stories of the Victorian era. For my money 'Carmilla' is his best, but it is run pretty close by 'Green Tea', 'The Familiar' and 'Schalcken the Painter'. Le Fanu's lesser tales have - to some extent - ridden along on the coattails of these superb efforts. The same might be said of the lesser novels, which might not be available if it weren't for Uncle Silas. And of course there was the M.R. James' edited collection, Madame Crowl's Ghost, which must have brought thousands of new readers to Le Fanu.

James collected stories that were (in his opinion) penned by Le Fanu but published anonymously. He specifically excluded 'My Aunt Margaret's Adventure' because - while Gothic enough - it doesn't have a ghostly theme. It is, however, a fairly Gothic tale of lost travellers, a spooky inn, and sinister doings at night. Brian J. Showers at Swan River Press is to be complimented for putting this rarity within the reach of Le Fanu fans and M.R. James hyper-completists.

I read this short-ish story on a short-ish train journey of about half an hour, and found it quite absorbing. Le Fanu, to modern readers, may seem to take his time, but by mid-Victorian standards he was a rather economical writer, and a master of the telling detail. In this case we are given abundant hints that Something Nasty is going to happen to poor old Aunt Margaret, and sure enough, it does. It's not exactly a whodunnit, though, unless one accepts that the Industrial Revolution is the culprit.

There are some fine moments, and as usual Le Fanu manages to combine the comical, realistic detail with some genuine chills. It's a gift that M.R. James clearly admired and set out to emulate in his own work. Much of the story deals with commonplace things - an old lady and her companion set out to retrieve some of the former's rent from a defaulting shopkeeper. Their driver is a bit of an old layabout who doesn't really know the way. They get lost and the question of where two ladies will spend the night becomes pressing.

All very commonplace - the stuff of myriad Victorian novels. But Le Fanu skilfully introduces ever more peculiar elements - the run-down inn they eventually find; the unpleasant Irishwoman who seems to be in charge; the weeping woman in the downstairs room; the man waiting at the gate for who knows what company?

All in all, this is a pleasant enough read, and the notes by Jim Rockhill and Gary W. Crawford are interesting and informative. I also enjoyed the poem Le Fanu refers to - George Coleman the Younger's mock-Gothic 'The Maiden of the Moor, or The Water-Fiends'. I can imagine Le Fanu - often seen as a rather melancholy character - having a little chuckle to himself over that one.

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