Desire and Anxiety in the Victorian Ghost Story
Part 2: The Haunted ‘New Woman’ in Man Size in Marble, Edith Nesbit
The emergence of ghost stories during the Victorian era mirrors the emergence of fast-paced social developments in transportation, communication and sexual liberation, and could consequently be read as a means to channel social anxieties. Themes of masculinity, anxiety and change are repetitively acknowledged within the genre.
Edith Nesbit, Freud, Psychoanalysis, Women, Fin De Siecle, The New Woman
The haunting of the New Woman
“Our first instinct is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain,” – Edgar Allen Poe
Edith Nesbit’s ‘Man Size in Marble’ is a story almost as difficult to decipher as its unknowable marble statues. Whether Nesbit is deliberately punishing the new woman figure through Laura’s death, or embracing feminism and commenting on the stifling power of patriarchy is subjective; however, I will go on to analyse the story with the former argument in mind.
Laura exists within the transitional period of the Fin de Siècle. In light of this, the windows and doors of Nesbit’s fictitious home can be read as key elements within the text. Mrs Dorman warns Jack to ‘lock the door,’ a caution he ignores, instead leaving the entrance to his home ‘on the latch.’ When he returns with the doctor, (another example of idealised Victorian masculinity), in tow, reassured in the non-existence of all things supernatural, the front and parlour doors are open. The window is also thrown wide open, sending ‘all the candles flaring one way.’ Thresholds such as windows and doors lend themselves as symbolic images of the transitional period of ‘the new woman’, in addition to representing passages to the unconscious mind, riddled with desire and anxiety.
Nesbit plays on the tension between the domesticity of the home, where Laura remains throughout the text, and the gothic setting beyond the open front door, highlighting the relation between male and female desire.
‘That woman should ape man and desire to change places with him was conceivable . . . but that she should be content to develop the good material which she finds in herself . . . must appear to him to be a thing as monstrous as it is unaccountable,’ Sarah Grand.
Grand’s concept of women actively ‘aping’ their husbands harks of Victorian anxiety surrounding Darwinism. In posing the theory that all human beings have evolved from the ape, Darwin disproves the bias inequality between the sexes – no longer are women secondary to men, ‘born of Adam’s rib,’ as the Bible suggests.
Grand goes on to suggest that women have allowed men to treat them as inferior beings, and are therefore partly responsible for their social statuses as domestic, silent and humble. If we accept this reading, then Laura is not wholly a ‘New Woman,’ – she allows Jack to patronise and condescend to her, permits him to trivialise her work, and remains at home while he takes his evening stroll, which ultimately leads to her demise. The anxiety she suffers is not strong enough to drive her from the house against her husband’s wishes. Despite her instincts, Laura unaccountably chooses to remain within the house.
Her actions are a result of Jack’s refusal to acknowledge his wife’s importance, domestically, financially and emotionally. Jack’s narrative voice is the only one we are allowed to hear over the course of the story – neither Laura nor Mrs Dorman are allowed to share their thoughts without his narrative presenting its male opinion. Jack blatantly ignores his house keeper’s warnings, and refers to his wife as ‘always nervous, as highly-strung natures are.’ The limitations of his male perspective place Laura at risk – throughout, she is unaware of the legend, voiceless and alone.
During the Victorian era, the emergence of ‘spiritualism promoted a species of ‘feminine power,’’(Tatiana Kontou,) a notion reflected in both Laura and Mrs Dorman’s accurate instincts surrounding spirituality. ‘I am uneasy. . . I have shivered three or four times since we came in and it is not cold, is it?’ Laura’s instincts, in addition to Mrs Dorman’s name, a homophone for ‘dormant’ or ‘door man,’ carry connotations of female mysticism. Jack’s anxieties over the intellectual properties of the women in his life drive his ignorance.
Violence and the body in gothic fiction
If the text is read as a critique of Victorian masculinity and simultaneous celebration of feminism and ‘The New Woman,’ why then, does Laura have to die? In his essay, ‘New Woman Gothic,’ Nick Freeman speculates that:
‘Gothic fiction of the 1890’s was becoming increasingly explicit where acts of violence were concerned,’ he suggests that Nesbit was ‘able to profit from this new license to thrill.’
However, Laura’s death is never described in detail – there is no scene of murder, only a murder scene. Laura’s dead body is found, ‘her lips were drawn back, and her eyes wide, wide open.’ Nesbit forgoes gore in order to provide a glimpse of Laura’s body, beautiful and ravished, her bodily windows left open. Consequently, she becomes martyred, a symbol of hope on the threshold of feminism, her bodily windows reflecting the windows of the household. Laura may have opted to stay within the domestic sphere while her husband ventured outdoors, but she remains in the window, on the very brink of tradition, ready to enter a new era.
Furthermore, Freeman reads Laura’s death as symbolic of rape – ‘Nesbit..kills Laura not to punish her but to demonstrate the latent violence inherent in the sexual politics of the period.’ His argument, however, forgets the most significant aspect of the scene – the marble finger. In taking the phallic symbol from the statue, Laura is proved to have fought, to have removed a bodily symbol of masculinity from her attacker and held it firmly in her hand. ‘The story can certainly be read as a narrative of the insurmountable obstacles facing the radical woman of the period,’ Freeman concludes. Laura has faced the obstacles, fought and lost, but is undeniably on the brink of entering a new era of female desire.
Pick up your copy of The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories to read the full collection of stories discussed in this blog.