“The Shadow” is Nesbit’s worthiest bid for the literary ghost story – that rare genre of powerful, elegant supernaturalism that thunders in your ears after you read it, haunts you intermittently for days, and disturbs some dark and quiet spot of your soul. Henry James (“The Jolly Corner,” “The Real, Right Thing,” “The Ghostly Rental”), Edith Wharton (“The Eyes,” “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”), Willa Cather (“Consequences”), and Charles Dickens (“The Signal-Man,” “To Be Read at Dusk”) were masters of this unusual style: a ghost story that was actually not at all about supernatural mythologies, spooky sights, or Gothic atmosphere, but rather one that was deeply concerned with the condition of the human soul.
In “The Real, Right Thing” a man begins to write a biography of his dead friend until his ghost warns him away from it for unknown reasons. In “The Eyes” a man sees a ghostly set of eyes as a youth and doesn’t realize until his old age that they were his own – wrinkled and reddened by a life of negligent greed. In “The Signal-Man” a railway worker is haunted by a vision that warns him of disasters with no hope of stopping them, filling his heart with guilt and anxiety.
These smartly written stories are far more effective at disturbing us than scaring us, but they last in our memories far longer than tales of blood and vampires. “Man-Size in Marble” and “John Charrington’s Wedding” are unquestionable classics – masterpieces – of supernatural fiction, but they are still more genre pieces than literary in quality. Nesbit has achieved such philosophical heights in three other stories: “The House of Silence,” “The Violet Car,” and “Uncle Abraham’s Romance.” All four of these tales evoke that same kind of realism, moral disturbance, and plot ambiguity that are the trademark of the literary ghost story, and have a very discernable kinship to the ghost stories of James, Wharton, and Dickens. An elegant and puzzling tale, Nesbit frames it at that most ghostly setting – a Christmas party in an old house – and warns us in advance: it is a mystery to be pondered. So it is.
“This is not an artistically rounded-off ghost story, and nothing is explained in it, and there seems to be no reason why any of it should have happened. But that is no reason why it should not be told. You must have noticed that all the real ghost stories you have ever come close to, are like this in these respects – no explanation, no logical coherence…” These are the philosophical opening words of a story told by a woman looking back on a strange, sad episode from her girlhood.
“There were three of us and another,” she recalls about a group of friends attending a country Christmas party years ago. The fourth girl – “the other” – had fainted after a raucous night of dancing at a grand, old house, and had been tucked away to bed. As the night wanes, the partiers regroup to their sleeping quarters (worse for drink, the young men sleep on sofas, floors, and the dining room table while the girls cluster in the antique guest rooms) and settle in for the night. The girls gossip about the boys, giggle, and joke, but as the winter evening deepens and darkens – “broken only by the whisper of the wind in the cedar branches, and the scraping of their harsh fingers against our windowpanes” – the mood becomes decidedly spookier.
The girls call to mind a host of famous ghost stories (including Amelia B. Edwards’ “The Phantom Coach,” Walter Scott’s “The Tapestried Chamber,” Wilkie Collins’ “A Horribly Strange Bed,” and Rhoda Broughton’s “Nothing But the Truth”), and are terribly startled by a sudden tap on the door. It’s only Miss Eastwich – the narrator’s aunt’s housekeeper – whom the girls consider utterly plain, boring, and unromantic.
She was drawn to the room out of concern, seeing the lights flickering under the door at such a late hour. It is clear to the narrator – who notices her glance at the door to the room where the fainted girl is sleeping – that she is actually worried that a fit of exhaustion might have turned into something more serious. Silent, serious, and stoic, Eastwich meekly accepts the chattering girls’ invitation to join their story telling session and have some cocoa by the snapping fire. The youngest girl – an impetuous heiress who doesn’t know the implacable, machine-like Eastwich like the narrator does – insists on hearing a ghost story (to the narrator’s horror).
But the grim, middle-aged woman is touched by their invitation – she is given the coziest chair, the narrator’s shawl, and a cup of cocoa – and warms her bony face and hands in the blaze. The youngest girl again insists on hearing Eastwich’s best ghost story, saying that although none of them believe in ghost stories, they love the pastime – even if all the stories they hear tend to be second-hand and “artistically rounded off” in a tidy, mystery-ending manner. Eastwich, who grimly claims to have a genuine-if-strange first-hand account of a haunting, stares pensively into the fire and mutters something about not being able to do any harm with her story since all the girls are over twenty and not likely to frighten...
Twenty years ago, she says, she had two friends whom she loved more than anything in the world – a young woman and her fiancée – and in the sadness of her voice, the narrator infers that the love may have been rather complicated. After their marriage Eastwich saw less and less of them, but two years later she received a letter from the husband asking her to visit: his wife was very ill and needed looking after (we will later learn that the “illness” is a very troubled pregnancy).
They lived in a new house with a cheerful façade but a deeply gloomy atmosphere. When Eastwich arrives the husband thanks her and asks her to “forgive the past” (a comment which mystifies the youngest girl, to the narrator’s annoyance) and she does. Mabel, the wife, is weak and excitable from her pregnancy, and so she often leaves her friend and husband alone when she goes to bed early. The two spend their nights gazing worriedly into the fireplace.
One night he tells her that he finds the house peculiar, and that if it were not brand new, he would consider it haunted. She asks if he has seen anything, and he replies “no, not yet… There’s a sort of a feeling … I’ve seen nothing and heard nothing, but I’ve been so near to seeing and hearing, just near, that’s all. And something follows me about – only when I turn round, there’s never anything, only my shadow…” He says that he hopes Eastwich – whom he calls Margaret – could help him, and asks if she believes in curses, and whether he thinks anyone he may have wronged in the past could have put a curse on him. He wonders aloud if such a person could forgive him and break the curse, and Margaret assures him that they could.
Margaret urges him to take Mabel away, but Mabel has spent so much time preparing the house for the baby that he worries what a move would do to her. Margaret continues listening to his solemn musings, and as if his worrisome spirit were contagious, she too begins to sense a presence – even in broad daylight, and particularly on the stairs and passage ways. Sometimes, as she climbs the stairs, she has to bite her lip to keep from sprinting in terror. One night she is alone in the kitchen heating up milk for Mabel and begins to suspect that the days of “almost seeing” are quickly progressing into materialization. Indeed, she sees something crouching in a cupboard and calls Mabel’s name, but realizes that it is something vague and inhuman: an inky, disembodied shadow which slithers away into the darkness, causing Margaret to scream.
When she sees the husband he agrees that the force is emanating from the cupboard. They both continue to see “something that would crouch and sink, and lie like a black pool, and then slowly draw itself into the shadow that was nearest.” Often, they note, the Shadow seems to come from their own, natural shadows. One morning she actually hears the Shadow sigh (an experience far worse than seeing it), and she wonders how she has been able to stand being in the house before remembering that her love for Mabel and her husband has left her no choice.
Then the baby is born and some of the tension leaves them: Mabel is still unwell, but they plan to take her to the sea once she recuperates. But one night after discussing this, Margaret listens at their bedroom door, then turns around to see the Shadow towering in the gloom, right before plunging to the floor and sucking its way under the door… Afraid, Margaret bursts in to find Mabel sleeping peacefully beside the baby. Relieved, she prays to herself that Mabel would never know about the terrors she has experienced with Mabel’s husband. Eastwich pauses here and bitterly notes that her prayer was answered: Mabel never woke up.
At the funeral, Margaret and the widower stand over the coffin and hold hands. She begins to lead him away, but a sigh – the sigh of the Shadow – freezes their blood. Between them and the coffin they see It pooling, then – having been sighted – it bolts for the nearest shadow: the one under Mabel’s elevated casket. Margaret leaves the next day and Mabel’s mother-in-law (a women who never liked Margaret) takes her place. The next time she saw him, the black thing crouching between him was his second wife mourning over his own casket, dressed in widow’s weeds…
The girls are stunned with sadness. Eastwich mutters to herself that it isn’t a very pleasant story which doesn’t lead anywhere. She had never told it to anyone before, and wonders if the only reason she felt like sharing it was the emotion she felt at seeing Mabel’s daughter again, and her gaze flows to the fainted girl’s room. “Mabel’s baby?” the girls ask, “Yes,” she responds, “and exactly like Mabel, only with his eyes.” The youngest girl, mellowed by the story, takes Eastwich’s cold hands and begins stroking them.
Suddenly, Eastwich bolts upright and gasps, eyes bulging at the dark corner by the fainted girl’s door: something unseen is standing there, and – following her gaze – the narrator tracks it as it sinks, widens, and glides beneath the door. The girls are unsure if they’ve seen anything, but they all hear a quivering sigh fill the room, and they bolt to the girl’s bedside – the narrator holding a guttering candle aloft and the youngest wrapping her arms protectively around Eastwich (the narrator notes that they been enveloping her ever since, and that the youngest eventually hired Eastwich as her housekeeper).
In the morning the doctor determines that the cause of death was a heart disease which she had inherited from Mabel, her mother. The narrator sadly disagrees: “But I have sometimes wondered whether she may not have inherited something from her father. I had never been able to forget the look on her dead face…”
I myself have a strong opinion about the meaning of this story, but that meaning is not gospel, so feel free to dissent. I have read the story many times, and it wasn’t until the second-to-last time that a meaning emerged from the shadows. In my opinion, this is a story about the consequences of a free-living lifestyle, the moral damages of guilt, and the brutal pain of a love triangle. Nesbit writes herself into the story repeatedly: she (47 at the time, and constantly aware of Hubert Bland’s taste for silly, young girls) warns young women from writing middle aged ladies off as un-beautiful (“People can smile prettily at forty or fifty, or even later, though girls don’t realise this”); she creates a character – the youngest girl, pretty, vain, obtuse – who is then eviscerated by the narrator as a pompous and self-involved coquette; she writes of a ménage-a-trois between a married couple and a single female friend, and of a pregnancy (like Alice Hoatson’s) that is overshadowed by unhappiness and awkward shame.
Throughout the story we see imagery and hear innuendo that suggest that the relationship between Miss Eastwich and “him” is not one of innocent unrequited love. Her “friend” – who brazenly calls her by her first name in spite of all codes of propriety between married and single persons of the opposite gender – has one explicit character flaw: “His was not a very strong character; very sweet, and kind, and gentle, but not strong. He was easily led.” Led by his emotions. Led by his lusts. Led by his desires and the women in his life. Led from the coffin by Miss Eastwich. Led from Miss Eastwich by his disapproving mother. He is a man who is generous but lacks self-control, and an affair between the two conspirators is easy to imagine.
On the page that’s what it sounds like, but between the lines I sense something far more sinister: There is a strong suggestion that “he” is sorry for more than disappointing her romantic hopes – it is implied that they may have been sexual partners at one time. Further evidence points to an even more glaring crime: Miss Eastwich may have contracted syphilis from her “friend” and may now be barren. And there is more – if so, is the husband a philanderer who has contracted a vicious VD, passed it on to his wife, and gravely complicated her pregnancy? Perhaps, and if that is indeed so, his candor in the presence of Miss Eastwich complicates things further by suggesting that they may share the disease from a sexual encounter prior to his marriage.
Victorian innuendo throughout the story hints that Miss Eastwich has had sexual relations with her “friend” (though probably in the years before his marriage), and that she may be barren – a frequent result of syphilitic infection in women Certainly our two characters are tremendously suspicious to behold: they doctor her quietly without ever telling her about her affliction – whatever its nature may be – and try their hardest to keep her in the dark. No doctors seem to visit until the birth, and they are very clear that there is something specifically wrong – not just a pregnancy. “I don’t know [whether she] will begin to notice something wrong,” he says conspiratorially. They work feverishly to distract Mabel, yet to no good: Mabel dies the night that Miss Eastwich breathes an ambiguous prayer that she should hear, see, and know no evil ever again.
Freud would call this cut and dry wish fulfilment – she prays vaguely for Mabel to be at peace, and we are left to wonder what her emotional response was to the response to this prayer which she herself calls an affirmative response. But then comes the Shadow. What it represents is up to interpretation, but it can clearly be seen as a response to the relationship between the three friends: it is his guilt, shame, desire, embarrassment, or fear; it is Miss Eastwich’s jealousy, anger, resentment, repression, lust, or hate; it is Mabel’s jealousy, suspicion, or unspoken knowledge of the affair. It is any combination or selection of these, or something entirely different, but one thing it is not is a conventional ghost. They live in a new house, fresh and without history, yet it festers with the infection passed to it from the first couple to live there. Nesbit defies Gothic conventions by avoiding an old home, making the unconventional haunting all the more chilling. We hear one particularly telling detail from Miss Eastwich: “[The shadow would] draw itself into the shadow that was nearest. Often that shadow was my own.”
Freud and Jung are now both on alert. The Shadow appears to be a projection of the two friends’ own guilty consciences. A shadow is the darkness that is revealed of a man’s physical character when light is cast on it. Likewise, the shadow is used to represent the darkness that is revealed of a man’s moral character when truth is cast on it. The Shadow is a symbol of guilt, truth, and sin. That is dwells in cupboard where one might be expected to secretly store the mercury required to combat the effects of syphilis might be my reading too much into things, but it is certainly meaningful to Nesbit that the Shadow lives in that particular spot. Perhaps it is poison, instead – an alternative to my theory – which the couple (for such they are) dose Mabel’s milk with. The most terrifying moment in the story is when Eastwich sees the Shadow brooding in the cupboard and weakly imagines it to be her sick friend crouched in its darkness like a toad: Mabel is what they fear – her hate, her knowledge of their past, her impediment to their future. And in the end, Mabel comes between them for good when the Shadow of her coffin parts them forever.
This is one of Nesbit’s most complex stories – one unquestionably worthy of Henry James of Edith Wharton – and genuinely one of the most powerful literary ghost stories ever written. It follows the model of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” wherein a busy man is stopped by a spiritually-scarred wandering who forces him to hear the tale of his greatest sin, and then walks away from the encounter fundamentally changed. The same happens to the “youngest girl” and Miss Eastwich – she begins the story vain, petty, and dense, and ends it traumatized, solemn, and responsible, even taking in Miss Eastwich as her maid, as if they are sharing a burden together. The same is true of its readers: we put the tale down. Our brows are furrowed, our minds confused, our hearts disturbed. We walk away different than we came.