Other than “Man-Size in Marble,” no horror tale of Nesbit’s has received wider circulation and acclaim than “John Charrington’s Wedding.” A favorite amongst anthologies of classic ghost stories, it is almost as much a perennial as “The Signal-Man,” “The Body Snatcher,” and “The Judge’s House.” The appeal comes – as in “Man-Size” – from Nesbit’s razor-edged taste for irony and fate. A wedding is naturally expected to be the happiest of occasions, but John Charrington’s wedding is different. It had been brought about by sheer will – his will to woo and possess the prettiest girl in town, a girl whose beauty and coquetry has caused her to be diminished to a local commodity. So strong is Charrington’s desire to own the object of his affection that he musters the strength to do the impossible. But this is no story of “love conquers all” – indeed, the conquering hero is up to debate: it might be desire, lust, pride, or sheer willpower, but love has very little to do with it. How man, after all, have been frightened to death by love?
The story follows the ill-fated courtship between John Charrington, a young man brimming with willful confidence, and May Forster, the village beauty. May resists John's amorous attentions for months before she finally gives in and accepts his proposal. To John it is a victory over the entire village (who mocked his ambition and doubted his ability to woo the lovely May). The power of his will is so astonishing that his friends speculate that not even death could have separated him from his love. On the wedding day, John is out of town, travelling in, and the villagers gather at the church with May, who seems meek and blushing. But something seems off -- in fact, everything seems off: the sky seems to darken preternaturally, the funeral knell tolls instead of the wedding bell, and when John arrives -- late but in time -- he looks terrible. Covered in dust and grime, ruffled and battered, he stands beside his solemn bride and completes the ceremony. Seemingly rushed, the pair climb into their carriage without a word and gallop into the dusk. Predictably, word returns that John had been killed in a train accident before the wedding, and May's corpse is discovered alone in the carriage when it arrives...
The problem – or one of the problems – with interpreting John Charrington as a Wuthering Heights-type love story – one where fanatical love is capable of reaching beyond the grave – is the manner of May’s gruesome death. She is not found peacefully slumped over her husband’s seat as if she had been laying her head in his lap, or with the blush of life lingering on her cold cheeks, with the sweetest smile on her pale lips. Her springlike personality, so aptly indicated by her name, is drained dry, leaving behind a white-haired, bloodless shell hollowed out by terror. Was it the fear of death or ghosts which killed her? Or was it the horror of how strong John’s fanaticism was? That he would be so desperate to show off his conquest to the village, that he would overcome death to prove his friends wrong, and – worse of all – that he would be so obsessed with owning her that he would drag her to death with him in order to seal their promised covenant – more so than a simple fear of revenants, this may have been the cause of her death. And Charrington must not be found blameless here either: the sad ghost who keeps his promise to wed his bride, and is heartbroken when she faints at his touch.
Unlike the couple in “From the Dead” there is very little pathos in John Charrington’s abduction of his living wife to the world of the dead. It is an insidious return from the dead, one motivated clearly by an intention to return to hell with his betrothed, and in that sense his resurrection might be viewed as utterly murderous. There are two very interesting presidents to this story which should be acknowledged: one ancient and one Victorian. The Victorian story is one of the first great tales from the pen of the century’s greatest ghost story writer, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, called “Schalken the Painter.” In this story, written about the eponymous, real-life 17th century Dutch portraitist, Le Fanu invents a backstory to explain Schalken’s historical taste for nocturnal paintings featuring women holding candles and giving suggestive grins. In his tale, Schalken fell in love with his instructor’s young ward, Rose, but thought himself too poor to propose to her. One day a grotesque gentleman appears at the art studio offering the instructor a vast sum to marry his beautiful niece. In spite of her reservations (and the man’s demonic face), the master agrees to essentially prostitute his niece. The sad bride and the ghostly groom ride off to his hometown, only for the carriage to be found empty. Later that year, Rose bursts into the studio, raving about the unholiness of a union between the living and dead, and begging for food and wine and a priest. They rush off to get the food, but when they turn she is dragged from the room never to be seen again. Years later Schalken is attending a funeral at a cathedral in the town the carriage was heading towards, and is shocked to see his lost love standing in a nightgown with a candle. She beckons him flirtatiously into the basement of the medieval church. Mesmerized, he follows her to a four poster bed in a crypt, but is terrified when she draws the curtain to reveal the upright corpse of her “husband.” She has married a ghost who came to collect her, and has since spirited her irrecoverably to the world of the dead. Like Le Fanu, whose story unquestionably influenced this one, Nesbit insinuates a sexual nature to the abduction. This violence is even more pronounced in the ancient myth which inspired both Victorian writers, the myth of the Rape of Persephone.
Like May and Rose, Persephone – who is incidentally associated with springtime and flowers – attracted the attention of Hades, king of the Underworld. He abducted her while she was picking flowers, dragged her into hell, and forced her to become his wife. Her mother, Demeter, was the goddess of harvest, and she blighted the world with winter until Hades allowed Persephone to return. They came to a compromise: Persephone would return to the world of the living each spring (and winter would depart), and go back to her husband in the fall (when Demeter would send the world back into mourning), thus explaining the seasons. Persephone would eternally be Hades’ wife, and became the Queen of the Dead. Both of these stories – if accepted as sources – suggest the dark nature of Charrington’s abduction, and offer a commentary on male possessiveness and sexual violence, which were much easier to discuss in the disarming context of an ill-starred wedding day than an established marriage. Wife-beating, spousal rape, and zealous ownership are all possible interpretations of this story which, like so many of Nesbit’s, bitterly portrays the shadows that can hang so heavily upon matrimony.