The Haunted Room

“I have been tracing a parallel in my mind,” he observed, “between the human soul and the so-called haunted dwelling. Most persons have in the deepest recess of the spiritual man some secret chamber, where prejudice shuts out the light, where self-deception bricks up the door. Into this chamber the possesser himself in some cases never enters to search out and expel the besetting sin, which, unrecognised, perhaps lurks there in the darkness.”

Upon the death of her husband from hydrophobia only weeks after their marriage, the young widow Mrs Myers has his room bricked up. For the next fifty years, she does not leave the house…and over that time, not only the room itself but the whole estate of Myst Court gains a reputation for being haunted… Upon the death of Mrs Myers, Myst Court descends to her nephew, the widower Mr Trevor. In company with his eldest son, nineteen-year-old Bruce, Mr Trevor travels to Wiltshire to inspect his inheritance, to decide whether to move his family there, or lease the estate and continue on in the pleasant villa near to London that the Trevors currently occupy. In their absence, Mr Trevor’s brother-in-law, Captains Arrows, a naval officer, concludes a long cruise and arrives at Summer Villa to visit his relatives. Arrows’ niece, Emmie, reports to her uncle all she and her younger brother, Vibert, know of the inheritance – including its ill reputation, and the fact that Mrs Myers’ will specfied that the bricked-up room was not to be entered. Arrows laughs off the thought of a haunted house, but sees that Emmie is more disturbed than she cares to admit.

When Mr Trevor and Bruce return, the former reports that the house and estate alike are in poor repair. He adds that not only would a tenant be impossible to find, but that the necessary improvements require the oversight of an owner, not an agent; and that consequently, he has decided that Summer Villa must be given up. Although she strives to hide it, Emmie in particular is dismayed by this news, not only because of the prospect of leaving a pleasant neighbourhood and goods friends for an old house in disarray, but because, as her uncle has observed, the thought of Myst Court being haunted has taken possession of her imagination.

Captain Arrows is recalled to active duty. During his visit, he has become concerned about certain aspects of the characters of his niece and nephews; and before he leaves, he tries to warn each of them of what he fears lurks in their own “haunted room”, that dark chamber in the heart where sins and weaknesses hide even from their owner. Bruce, although level-headed and dependable beyond his years, possesses an overweening pride that gives him too high an opinion of his own powers, making him reluctant to admit a fault, resentful of criticism and scornful of advice and assistance. Vibert, meanwhile, is thoughtless to the point of being selfish, disregarding the feelings and needs of others while he pursues his own pleasures. As for Emmie, she is puzzled when her uncle accuses her of mistrust. Captain Arrows explains that Emmie does not truly have faith in God, but rather allows herself to be ruled by her fears in everything from her terror of thunderstorms – and ghosts – to her neglect of her duties: failing, for example, to succour the poor for fear of encountering sickness. Unlike her brothers, who are offended and angry with Captain Arrows, Emmie is willing enough to admit her chief failing – but no less loath to try and overcome it.

Poor Emmie’s first experiences at Myst Court are not happy ones. As a prank on Bruce, Vibert drives off without him from the station, but then gets lost in the dark, overturning the small carriage and Emmie with it just as a storm breaks. The pair are rescued by passers-by, one a Colonel Standish, an American, the other a local man, Harper, who crowns Emmie’s misery by asking whether they are, “Some of the new folk as are coming to the haunted house.” At the house itself, Emmie is settled into the largest and most comfortable room, which Bruce has been at pains to furnish and decorate for her. However, when the housekeeper, Mrs Jessel, informs her darkly that it is adjacent to the haunted room, describing also her own ghostly encounters during her employment at Myst Court, Emmie’s terror overcomes her and she begs Bruce to swap accommodation with her – even though his room is small and stark. Bruce is hurt by her disregard of his efforts and disgusted by her cowardice, but agrees.

Nor do Emmie’s efforts to fulfil her obligations to her father’s tenants go well. After literally fleeing the field in a panic during her first attempt to help, a series of humiliating blunders sees Emmie giving money to the least deserving, neglecting to provide promised aid for the sick, and finally relinquishing her duties to Mrs Jessel – who is only too happy to have the family bounty in her charge.

But Emmie has not come to the end of her trials; and before much longer, the courage and endurance of all the Trevors will be tested to the utmost, as the dark and deadly secret of the haunted room is finally revealed…

[SPOILERS]

Charlotte Maria Tucker, who usually published under the sobriquet “A.L.O.E.” – “A Lady Of England” – was one of the most prolific of all 19th-century authors – even after giving her competitors a head start. Miss Tucker’s father, an important official in the notorious British East India Company, disapproved of women working; and it was not until after his death in 1851 that his thirty-year-old daughter felt she could devote herself to the two great passions of her life, missionary work and literature. For more than twenty years, Miss Tucker published stories intended for young people, which covered a wide range of topics from the strictly historical to the frankly allegorical, but always with overt moral and religious themes. Miss Tucker’s stories were successful and very popular; if her work was always didactic, it was also entertaining, and showed an understanding often missing from tales intended for the young. The considerable earnings of her efforts were donated almost in their entirety to charity.

The Haunted Room (in some editions, “Haunted Rooms“) was published in 1876. It carries a preface stating:

It is under peculiar circumstances that A.L.O.E. sends forth this little volume. As it is passing through the press its author is preparing to enter on a new field of labour in the East, as an honorary member of the Zenana Mission in India. Of the fact that the missionary cause has been dear to A.L.O.E. her readers may be aware from her former writings. She now hopes to be permitted to devote an evening hour of her life to that cause…

At the age of fifty-four, Charlotte Maria Tucker left England for India to work as a missionary, and spent the rest of her life there. The Reverend Worthington Jukes later recalled in his memoirs, She proved an inspiration to many, not the least, to the younger generation of Missionaries, men and women, who found in her the link which they had lost on leaving their dear ones in England. They found in her a sympathy and geniality born of the deepest spirituality and intellectual cheerfulness, and they were always happy in her company. Many of these Missionaries were deeply honoured by being allowed to call her “Auntie”, and I was one of the fortunate Nephews; of the nieces there were many…

Miss Tucker continued to write during her years in India – and to donate all the proceeds. Her stories often had Indian themes, and some were translated into local dialects. Miss Tucker died in 1893; tributes are paid to her memory in the form of plaques upon both the church in Batala, where she did much of her work and where she is buried, and Lahore Cathedral.  In 1895, the novelist Agnes Giberne published a biography of her entitled A Lady Of England: The Life And Letters Of Charlotte Maria Tucker.

While most of Miss Tucker’s stories were intended for children, The Haunted Room is aimed more at an audience that today we would call “young adult”. It is an extremely hardcore religious / didactic work. Miss Tucker is uncompromising in her ideas of religious duty. To her way of thinking, Bruce’s pride, Vibert’s selfishness and Emmie’s cowardice are not mere venal transgressions, but sins of the deepest order that a good Christian must fight against and subdue.

However, although much of The Haunted Room is given to considerations of duty and faith, these reflections are set within a realistic family dynamic, and a framework of the relations between the sexes, that any reader will recognise – and either smile or wince at:

“Come, come, there’s nothing to be terrified at now; the danger is over. You’re not hurt, are you?” asked Vibert, with some anxiety, for he loved his sister next to himself, though, it must be confessed, with a considerable space between.

“Of course I will change rooms with you if you really wish it,” said Bruce, willing to humour his sister, but making mental reflections on the fickleness and unreasonableness of the female sex, of which Emmie was the only representative with whom he was well acquainted.

   “You are the last person from whom I should have expected such a taunt,” said the spendthrift bitterly. “I thought that if I had no other friend in the world I should find one, Emmie, in you.”
   “Always! always!'”cried his sister eagerly: “I would do anything for you, dear Vibert!”
   “Will you lend me that five-pound note?”

While it would be incorrect to say that Miss Tucker sympathises with her young transgressors, there is certainly a sense of wry understanding in her presentation of them, particularly of the way in which family relationships tend to trap people in certain behaviour patterns.

Thus we have Vibert emotionally blackmailing the weak-willed Emmie into lending him money, even though (i) it’s all she has; (ii) she has earmarked it for charitable works; and (iii) she knows full well from past experience that despite Vibert’s protestations and expressions of hurt at her lack of trust in him, she’ll never see a penny of it again. Emmie’s chief desire is to be a mediator between her brothers, but somehow she always manages to put herself in the wrong just before attempting it, which gives her reluctant auditors an excuse to wave her gentle criticisms away. Vibert, in his resentment of Mr Trevor’s open reliance upon Bruce’s judgement, makes a point of defying his brother at every opportunity, no matter how foolish or hurtful to others his actions might be; while Bruce, in turn, equally resentful of what he views as his father’s over-indulgence of Vibert, consoles himself with the thought of how much better a person he is than his brother – hugging the very pride and self-satisfaction that his uncle has warned him against. And then there’s Mr Trevor himself, who never seems to be around when Vibert is jeering at and goading his older brother, but always manages to enter the room just as Bruce is losing his temper in retaliation.

Speaking of Mr Trevor, it is interesting that his main contribution to this story is his repeated absence from it for one reason or another, his children frequently left to their own control. While at first glance this may be seen as an “explanation” for their failings, in fact it becomes clear that Miss Tucker does not intend this interpretation. On the contrary, in her opinion, at the ages of 19, 18 and 17, Bruce, Emmie and Vibert are quite old enough to understand and execute their duties, without the need for adult supervision.

That said, Miss Tucker does admit that the children’s early loss of their mother has been damaging, and for Emmie in particular. There is a sense that, the world – and female education – being what it is, girls do need more guidance than boys, being given less chance to learn through experience and thus more susceptible to poor influences…including the usual suspects:

…the images of Harper and Jael Jessel mixed themselves up with the phantoms which their weird stories had raised in the imaginative mind of the girl. Emmie, early deprived of the guidance of a sensible mother, had often made an unprofitable use of her leisure; she had read much of the literature which is called sensational; she had pondered over tales of horror; her mind had been fed on unwholesome food. Emmie had let fancy lead her where it list, and it would be no easy task to undo the mischief wrought in idle hours in the name of amusement.

And I doubt we’ll find a clearer declaration of Miss Tucker’s own literary manifesto anywhere in her extensive oeuvre.

Of the three Trevor children, Miss Tucker is hardest upon Emmie. Although she admits the peculiar difficulties of being a girl, it is evident that she also feels that as a girl, Emmie has the best chance to be a true Christian. From the beginning of this story, however, it is made clear how very long and thorny is the path before her. The description of Emmie’s various blunders and shrinkings and retreats during her abortive attempts at charity work is unflinching and painful, a graphic account of the consequences of what this story calls Emmie’s “mistrust”, her lack of real, practical faith in God, which leads on to other failures little less serious:

It was not the love of God, but the dread of incurring His displeasure, which made the poor, hesitating, unwilling girl combat the fear of man. And if Emmie was not impelled forwards by a loving desire to please a loving Master, still less was she influenced by tender concern for the souls of those whom she felt that she ought to visit. The child of luxury, in her pleasant home, had scarcely regarded the poor as being of the same class of beings as herself. They were creatures to be pitied, to be helped, to be taught by those trained for the work; but as beings to be objects of sympathy and love, as children of the one Great Father, Emmie could not regard them. Charity was thus to her but a cold dry duty…

Although at times I found Miss Tucker’s attitude towards Emmie perhaps a little too unrelenting, I do have to say that reading a work in which a girl being weak, timorous and helpless was treated with scorn and derision, rather than being regarded as proper female behaviour, was remarkably refreshing.

And the haunted room? The real haunted room, that is, not those figurative dark chambers within the human heart, against which the concerned Captain Arrows warns his niece and nephews at the outset of our tale, for so long to no good effect. Well, the sealed-up room at Myst Court does in fact have a terrible secret, but as you’ve probably concluded by now, given the nature of the tale in question – and Miss Tucker’s opinion of horror stories and other sensational literarure – that secret isn’t a ghost. The secret is revealed, separately, to Emmie and to Bruce, with dire consequences. By the conclusion of The Haunted Room, the entire Trevor family will have suffered through an ordeal of the most dangerous and terrifying nature, a test by fire – in Bruce’s case, almost literally – with all three of the children confronted by and compelled to overcome their worst individual failings, finally emerging tempered in both body and soul…

Not in the least degree doubting that the woman had addressed one of the household, and eager to find herself once more amongst familiar faces, out of the darkness and chilly night air, Emmie quickly followed Mrs Jessel into the room. No sooner had she crossed the threshold than she stopped short in surprise and alarm, gazing in motionless terror at the unexpected sight which met her eyes.—for Emmie stood in the haunted chamber!

.

Footnote:  Even in the didactic literature of the 19th century, it seems I cannot quite escape the political turmoil of the late 17th and early 18th centuries:

“Let’s imagine ourselves as we would have appeared some hundred and fifty years ago. I’m a young Tory gallant (of course, I’m a Jacobite at heart, and drink to the king over the water); Bruce is a decided Whig.—I’m not sure that he is not a Dutchman, and has come over from Holland in the train of the Prince of Orange.”
—Vibert Trevor, 1876.

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3 Responses to “The Haunted Room”

  1. I usually find Moral books very hard going – but it sounds as though there’s rather more to this than “X does something good, Y does something bad, repeat”.

  2. Oh, there are many, many different kinds of moral works, and an overview of the variations keeps me going even when an individual work is a bit of a slog. For this one, I found Miss Tucker’s tough-love version of Christian duty a bit unnerving, but enjoyed her grow up / stand up attitude to Emmie.

    The other thing that’s interesting here is that as much as Miss Tucker disapproved of sensation literature for its own sake, she clearly wasn’t above using some sensational material to illustrate her own points. The experiences of the three children during the climax of the story are pretty extreme.

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