In the cold February of 1868, Sheridan Le Fanu's Welsh niece, Rhoda Broughton, published her first ghost story: "The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth" -- a chilling episode based on rumors circulating around London firesides about a house in Mayfair (more on that later). Presaging the subtle domestic terrors of Henry James, and the inexplicable violence of William Hope Hodgson, this collection of letters between two affluent women is a century before its time in the chilling realism that causes it to throb with relatability: who hasn’t secretly boasted of their relationship with a close friend, been hurt when well-intended advice is rejected, or felt annoyed by a sick child?
It isn’t until the jarring, emotional conclusion that events swerve into the unnatural – when Jane Austen morphs into Mary Shelley. They could be emails between your mom and her elderly aunt, or phone conversations between your girlfriend and her sister. That’s what makes the last pages so disquieting. Broughton often sought to locate the dread lurking in the domestic – the secret anxieties, repressions, and rage stuffed into the dark spaces in the minds and hearts of British society women. Externally, all was well-kept, proper, and acceptable, but under the floorboards of even the most wholesome home, corpses may lie rotting.
The story is recorded in letters between two middle-society women – Elizabeth and Cecelia – whose correspondence is lush with the sort of comfortable inside jokes, playful ribbing, and gushing praises that you might expect between two best friends. Elizabeth begins by crowing about the extreme depth of their friendship as evidenced by her tedious search for a suitable West End flat for Cecelia and her new husband. After speaking with over fifty agents, looking at dozens of houses (most of which, she claims, are either only suitable for a duke or a chimney sweep – nothing in between), and combing over each detail, she has finally found a flat that she considers worthy: 32 — Street, Mayfair.
It has everything Cecelia was looking for, down to three windows in the drawing room and a curtain for the door. Indeed, she goes into great detail of the brightness, cheeriness, and lush comfort of what appears to be a very expensive, fashionable flat. Expecting it to be impossibly expensive, she is surprised to find that it will rent for only £300 per annum ($33,000 in 2020). She anticipates Cecelia’s skepticism: the apartment doesn’t have bad plumbing or strange odors, and the previous owner wasn’t a member of the demimonde (indeed, he was a sober, elderly military man with a devoted wife). Crowing with pride, Elizabeth begs Cecelia to look into it. (In a postscript, she apologizes for not being able to tour it with her: her son, Artie, has whooping cough and they will be at a sea resort indefinitely).
Cecelia writes back (after bemoaning Artie’s illness and theorizing that children get sick at the worst times on purpose) to thank her friend and agree: 32 — Street is perfect for her. Although the low rent seems to concern her, she writes it off as a mystery and spends the rest of her letter cheerily rhapsodizing about fashion, trends in facial hair, and the differences between men and women.
Two weeks later, the pithy, Jane Austen-esque tone of their correspondence has been entirely and unexpectedly transformed: “Oh my dearest Bessy, how I wish we were out of this dreadful, dreadful house!” Cecelia’s letter carries the news that the servants have apparently been uncomfortable there all along, sensing something in the rooms with them. The maid nervously informed her that when the cook had some groceries ordered, the delivery man told her that the last family hadn’t lasted there two weeks, and that the house had a “villainously bad name” in the neighborhood: indeed, during the last four years no family had stayed there longer than a month. This horrifies Cecelia, who is deeply superstitious, but her husband scoffs at the idea of being chased off of such excellent real estate based on a grocer’s gossip.
Temporarily soothed, Cecelia turns her thoughts towards the visit of a friend named Adela, and helps the servants prepare her room. As she is bringing a vase of her favorite flowers upstairs, one of the maids is making the bed, and Cecelia enters the room focused on not spilling the water in the vase.
“Suddenly a sort of shiver passed over me; and feeling frightened—I did not know why—I looked up quickly. The girl was standing by the bed, leaning forward a little with her hands clenched in each other, rigid, every nerve tense; her eyes, wide open, starting out of her head, and a look of unutterable stony horror in them; her cheeks and mouth not pale, but livid as those of one that died awhile ago in mortal pain. As I looked at her, her lips moved a little, and an awful hoarse voice, not like hers in the least, said, 'Oh! my God, I have seen it!' and then she fell down suddenly, like a log, with a heavy noise.”
The maid remains unconscious for two hours, but when she is revived, Cecelia is horrified to find her a raving lunatic. The doctor is called, but her recovery is still in doubt by the time she falls asleep from exhaustion at his house. Cecelia is unsure of how to process this horrifying event, but knows for sure that she will never let Adela enter that terrible room.
Elizabeth writes back, evidently concerned, but tries to ease her friend’s mind by suggesting that epilepsy may be to blame, and keeps the subject on the maid’s physical condition, avoiding any suggestion of the supernatural. She closes with some chatty grumbling about Artie’s whooping cough and a plea for Cecelia to keep her updated on “the poor patient’s condition.”
Cecelia writes back two weeks later with horrible news: they have been forced to leave the house at 32 — Street, Mayfair following a fatal tragedy. The housemaid had been removed to an insane asylum – still unrecovered – only shuddering, moaning, and hiding her face when questioned about what she saw. She is describing this bizarre situation to Adela when Ralph Gordon, a strong, handsome cavalry officer arrives unexpectedly. Gordon and Adela seem to be developing a relationship and certainly share a mutual attraction, and, cocksure cavalier that he is, Gordon leaps at the idea of spending the night in the haunted room as a dare.
Cecelia immediately senses something terrible will happen if he goes through with this, and Adela begs him to be sensible, but this only goads him further, and he delights in the idea of waiting up for the ghost with a poker. That night he arrives with one of his fellow officers, and the two prepare a signal: if Gordon rings the room’s bell once it means that he has merely been excited by something and requires no response, but two rings mean that he has seen something definite, and means “come.” He runs up the stairs and is seen no more.
They wait for a white-knuckled hour, but – exactly at eleven o’clock – they hear the bell ring out. Adela and Cecelia charge for the stairs, but the other soldier blocks their way, reminding them of Gordon’s instructions. They wait for a further ten minutes, but the bell then begins to ring violently, persistently. They all rush up the stairs and break into the room – Cecelia and Adela crashing in at the same time.
Gordon is standing in the middle of the room, rigid and petrified, his face scorched with fear – the same as the maid’s. Stretching his arms out, he topples to the floor and – in a husky, strangled voice cries out, “Oh my God! I have seen it!” He was dead.
Broughton ends the tale with five words: "This is a true story..."
"Nothing But the Truth" is far different from what we might expect in a Victorian ghost story if we are only used to the purple prose of Bulwer-Lytton or the ghoulish antics of Varney the Vampire. Broughton’s epistolary sketch is far more interested in psychology than melodramatics. What and why are far less important than how – namely, how the characters respond to the presence of a socially-destabilizing infestation. This story could just as easily have been written about cholera or a house fire, because its victims – ranging from a lower-class female servant to an aristocratic male hussar – are struck down without warning or opportunity for self-defense.
Cecilia’s worldview of protection and privilege is devastated by the May Fair phantom’s rampage – blind to class distinctions, and stripped of mercy. The strong, dependable men of affluence and distinction (whom she and Bessy sexually idolize) are no more capable of staving off death than the illiterate girls who empty their shit pots. The leering Specter of Death, Broughton warns, takes us unawares, regardless of our resistance, evasion, or denial. It is the terror of its devastating menace rather than the horror of its ubiquitous form. As befits the niece of J. S. Le Fanu, Broughton’s grasp of terror is enormous and overwhelming.
Broughton ends her tale by suggesting that it is based in fact, and while this is not expressly accurate, there is a kernel of truth to it. Aficionados of English ghost lore might already recognize her model: the infamous townhouse at 50 Berkeley Square -- "the most haunted house in London." Situated in Mayfair, this four story 18th century brick house overlooks one of London's most opulent neighborhoods, but harbors over two centuries of unsettling ghost stories which center around a nameless, often shapeless "Thing" haunting the attic. The most common legend states that the Thing took up residence there soon after a young woman escaped an abusive relative by jumping to her death from an upper window (others say that a girl was butchered there by a mad servant, or that a mentally challenged man was locked up in the attic and fed through a hole), but all versions agree that "the house contains at least one room of which the atmosphere is supernaturally fatal to body and mind."
The Thing is described as weirdly Lovecraftian for a mid-Victorian ghost story: 'an amorphous blob of mist to a “collection of shadows,” to the humanoid form of a shadowy man, to a slimy ooze with claws and even tentacles, that made “sloppy noises” as it travelled. Whatever it was also apparently had the ability to drive whoever saw it absolutely mad if they gazed upon it long enough, such as was the case of a maid who had allegedly gone into the residence to clean and had later been found stark raving insane.'
Two of the most famous incidents connected with 50 Berkeley are included -- or alluded to -- in Broughton's story: a maid is sent to the lunatic asylum without having the mental power to explain what she saw, and a dashing gentleman dies after accepting a dare to spend the night in the haunted room. According to some sources, the man in question was a hard-living baronet named Sir Robert Warboys, who accepted the dare after a night of drinking in 1840. He had the caretaker of the house admit him to the cursed chamber and they managed to rig up a bell pull in the disused room, for him to call attention if he happened to catch a prankster playing the ghost.
Hardly an hour after the caretaker left Warboys in the dark, he heard the bell suddenly and violently ring out, and as he rushed up the stairs, a pistol shot cracked behind the door. The servant found Warboys cringing in terror on the floor, pointing to a spot on the wall where a bullet hole marked the spot he had seen the Thing. But Warboys died in strangled silence before he could explain more...
Whether any of this is true or not, 50 Berkeley Square had such a hideous reputation in the mid-19th century that Broughton wasn't the only one to adapt its story: Bulwer-Lytton himself used it as the inspiration for his most famous ghost story, "The Haunters and the Haunted," Elliott O'Donnell further developed its lore in a 1924 article (the source of the rumor that two sailors had spent the night there: one impaled himself on the gate jumping through a window after being attacked by a slimey, shadowy, tentacled visitant), and still even H. P. Lovecraft appropriated some of the house's lore for "The Shunned House" and "The Lurking Fear," among others.