E. Nesbit’s grim ghost stories almost always involve a sexual tension and frustration as a major theme. They typically involve an estranged couple struggling to understand one another, a pair of possessive young spouses, or a scandalous and ill-fated affair between impulsive lovers. They are torn between desire and distrust, between fresh passion and sexual boredom. But that is not the case in her most famous story – of any genre – the brilliant, traumatic “Man-Size in Marble.” While Nebit’s leading couples in the far majority of her stories are clouded in disapproval and scandal, these spouses are cozy, charming, and romantic: they are two genuinely loving, relatable spouses, still snuggled together in a honeymooner mentality. Pet names like “wifie” and “dearest” and the petty anxieties of domestic concerns such as blacking boots and cleaning dishes make this country setting vastly different from the urbane West-Enders. But chaotic supernatural hazards menace their love-nest as surely as the vision of the ripped throat haunted the apartment in London. Failure to take heed of sincere advice – even to the slightest degree – Nesbit suggests, can rob us of all we hold dear, leaving us wiser but sadder… if we manage to survive. Nesbit constructs a universe in chaos, one deaf to entreaty and blind to love, a heartless, merciless, misanthropic cosmos that crushes hope and smothers love.
The story follows two newlyweds who have begun renting a cottage in southern England in order to escape the bustle of the city. Like a pair of modern hipsters, they love travelling the less-trafficked road: eschewing a conventional apartment for a rustic stone house, where the wife, Laura, writes fiction and her unnamed husband, an artist, paints. They are deeply in love and tremendously happy together, and the rural beauty surrounding them seems to reflect their marital bliss. Soon after they arrive in their new town, they hire a housekeeper and settle into their artsy, bohemian life. It isn’t long after this, however, that the housekeeper quits unexpectedly, upsetting Laura. To calm her down, they go on a moonlit walk through the waving grasslands and find themselves arriving at an ancient Norman church.
Walking through the doors they study the centuries’ old architecture. In particular, they are drawn towards two marble, funerary statues of cruel-looking Norman knights. The narrator notes that he has heard that the two men were renowned for their cruelty and depravity, that they had an evil memory in the area, and that their house – long since destroyed by providential lightning – originally stood where his little love-nest currently sits. Pacified by the cold moonlight and the solemn church, Laura agrees to go home.
Soon after, the narrator meets with the housekeeper to discuss her reasons for leaving them, and is surprised when he learns that a local superstition holds that the two knights are said to rise from their tombs – in the form of their marble statues – and return to their manor on Halloween night. As it is almost October 31st, she refuses to stay with them until after the fateful night. Before leaving, she urges them to leave the house on All Saint’s Eve, to lock the doors, and adorn the openings with crosses. Concerned about his wife’s delicate mental health (she is fairly high strung and excitable), he keeps this story to himself.
On Halloween Night Laura seems tremendously distracted, claiming that she is afraid and has a premonition of approaching evil. She clings to her husband for security, but he brushes her worries off and sends her to bed early when it becomes clear that anxiety is exhausting her. The countryside is drenched in moonlight, and he decides to go on a walk to the church, smoking his pipe and absorbing the autumnal beauty. When he arrives at the church he suddenly remembers the legend, and while at first thrilled by the thought, he is suddenly terrified when he sees the knights’ marble tombs are missing their statues. He races back home but is stopped by a neighbor, a doctor, who ensures him that he is overreacting to a trick of moonlight. They walk back to the church where, by a match light, they confirm that the statues are in place, although one seems to be missing a finger – a new development.
Satisfied by still excited – and now preternaturally worried about his wife – the narrator goes back home, only to find the door open. The place is blazing with candles, lamps, and improvised tallow lights – anything to drive away the darkness. They find Laura flung across a table – dead and disheveled, with a wild look of horror on her face. In her clenched, cold hand they find a marble finger.
Regardless of its advances – of science and civility, manners and law – society remains vulnerable to the same ruthless passions which prowled boldly through it during its infancy. Nesbit used “The Semi-Detached” to expose the chaos that can brew in the urban heart of affluence, and sends her gun-shy protagonist packing for the simple domesticity of the English countryside. In this thematic foil – which, like “Semi-Detached,” pairs agreeably with Rhoda Broughton’s “Behold, it was a Dream!” – she tears the idyllic mask from a rural retreat, exposing a misanthropic energy, ripe with thoughtless lust and bursting with psychopathic glee. The couple is sweet and careful, selecting their honeymoon cabin with precision and mindfulness. Their lives are frugal and sensible, yet romantic and tender. They are the very embodiment of tidy, middle-classed Englishness, which so caringly merges dutiful pragmatism with a cultivated aesthetic.
Their universe is manicured and purposeful, and yet the sky above their considerate kingdom is torn to shreds, and evil things peer through and crush them. The universe is harsh, sudden, and sadistic, and haunted by the wickedness of mankind; though six centuries may pass, the living nature of the rapacious knights still roams. They do not represent a mythic or godlike evil, but one real, tangible, and contemporary – man-sized sins that beat in men’s hearts and stew in their brains.
There also dwells in this story, a moral sentiment prominent in the works of Poe, especially “The Oval Portrait.” Both stories feature an artist who adores his wife’s spirit – what she represents to him as a pure, spiritual ideal – but fails to appreciate her dynamic physicality – her rampant neuroses, psychological needs, and ever-present mortality. It isn’t until the moment when the artist most needs the complex personality of his wife that he arrives to find her dead – wasted and used up during one of his reveries. Both men understand only too late that what we value most is that which is rarest and most finite: life, shared love, mutual affection and experiences – an ideal can live forever, and a portrait may outlive generations, but a life lost is a treasure destroyed. Nick Freeman appears to concur with this interpretation, viewing “Man-Size in Marble” as a feminist tragedy. The following excerpt comes from the critical anthology Women and the Victorian Occult – a highly recommended read:
“[It] remains a disturbing story more than a century after it was collected in Nesbit’s bluntly titled Grim Tales… There is certainly no suggestion of a protecting Providence overseeing the innocent Laura as there was in many earlier Victorian ghost stories. The clergy are conspicuous by their absence, and Jack’s belief that his wife’s sweetness means ‘there must be a God […] and a God who was good” is the sourest of ironies. The suggestion of symbolic rape makes the story all the nastier, with Laura still clutching the phallic finger while her hair lies ‘loosened and fallen to the carpet.’
“Clearly she spent her last moments in an agony of terror as the statues disregarded her protective candles and burst into the cottage. Why, then, if Nesbit can be regarded as a writer of feminist Gothic, does Laura have to die? … In constructing a relationship in which male and female roles seem to be governed by the stereotypes of the day despite her characters’ bohemian pretensions, Nesbit is exploring the consequence of a crude essentialism which configures men as rational and dynamic and women as “sensitive” and passive. Jack clearly should have paid heed to Laura’s anxiety and learned from it, but he allows himself to dismiss it as ‘nervousness,’ recasting a psychic gift as a quintessentially feminine ailment of the day… Nesbit … kills Laura not to punish her but to demonstrate the latent violence inherent in the sexual politics of the period…
“By injecting Gothic fantasy into what seems at first an unexceptional tale of wedded bliss, Nesbit is able to provide both the shock expected of the genre, especially in short stories, and imbue her fiction with an underlying sense of ideological dissatisfaction. Sentimental aesthetics and rationalistic doctors are just as liable to oppose or inhibit the radical woman’s selfhood as the ghosts of the past, even if they balk at rape and murder.”
Nesbit is not alone in her use of the trope: we see it in Bram Stoker’s Dracula where Lucy and Mina – a self-avowed “New Woman” – are punished by every man in their lives (fiancées, husbands, friends, doctors, and relatives, not to mention the Count), and in the myriad versions of the “demon abductor” myth: J. S. Le Fanu’s tragic “Schalken the Painter” where a girl is prostituted by her uncle to a living corpse, E. F. Benson’s haunting “The Face” wherein a girl’s recurring nightmare of abduction comes to fruition, Charles Dickens’ chilling “To Be Read at Dusk” and Rhoda Broughton’s “The Man With the Nose,” both of which follow a respectable woman’s helpless kidnapping by a possibly supernatural molester. Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Bohemian” sees a man so consumed with social climbing that he is tricked by a mesmerist into relinquishing his fiancée’s soul to him. Machen’s Great God Pan watches a simple maidservant wither into a madwoman after her master exposes her mind to another dimension. Late Victorian literature darkly mulled over the idea of systematic sexism and the vulnerability it forced on women, and “Man-Size in Marble” – savage, haunting, and poignant – remains one of the purest examples of this study.