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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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Edith Nesbit's Uncle Abraham's Romance: A Detailed Summary and a Literary Analysis

Peter Yearsley, who beautifully narrated Nesbit’s 1893 collection, Grim Tales for LibriVox, described the book’s contents in the following manner: “A collection of gentle stories that draw us into that hidden world where fear is just around the next corner, and where loving hands can touch across the boundaries of death.” None of those tales better matches his lovely description than “Uncle Abraham’s Romance.”

This ghost story is the sort that one might most enjoy reading on a country porch swing as the pink light of a late summer afternoon fades into the violet of dusk. One can hear the cicadas buzzing in the shaggy elms overhead and see the white butterflies sailing in and out of the straw-colored cornfields. A beautiful, plaintive, and poetic ghost story, it smacks of a genuine family legend, and offers a complicated stew of emotions surrounding Nesbit’s favorite theme: the tragic romance of love and hope dashed by death and loss.



Elderly bachelor, Uncle Abraham, is sitting down with his eighteen-year-old niece – to whom “romance was the world” – and is full of questions about his enigmatic youth. She has reservations though, since he is “old and lame” – literally: Abraham has been crippled since his childhood. But she can’t help herself from asking if anything romantic ever happened to him.

He responds in the negative, before cryptically adding “unless – but no: that wasn’t romantic either.” Intrigued, she presses him, especially when she notices his gaze stealing towards a miniature portrait that hangs beside his chair – one of a lovely, Poe-esque woman “with large lustrous eyes and perfect oval face.”

When asked about her identity, he will only own that she was “a lady who died long ago” and that the picture is a faithful representation. When pushed further, he grumbles that “there’s nothing to tell … I think it was fancy, mostly, and folly, but it’s the realest thing in my long life.” Now his niece’s curiosity is irrepressible, so he agrees to share his tale.

As a crippled teenager he had been overwhelmed with loneliness: he had few friends, and no sweethearts, as the local girls all laughed at his deformity and none ever passed time with him. As a result, he became used to frequenting lonely spots and hobbling down isolated lanes, lost in his thoughts.

His favorite haunt was the churchyard on the hill overlooking the marshes, which was aromatic with thyme and illuminated by the moon, and he would stay there after dark, pondering why God had cursed him with bad legs until his bitterness had worn off with time.

One hot night in August, he was watching the transition from sunset to moonrise when he was startled by a rustling. He turned around to see a woman – a woman who looked like the portrait at his elbow. He admitted to being scared at first, and the woman laughingly asked if he thought she was a ghost. They ended up chatting long into the night and parted friends.

Every evening for the following week – and then on an on for longer than he can recall – they happened upon each other in the same spot – always at twilight with the bats flitting overhead and the glowworms in the dew – and he began to notice that he was no longer bothered by the sight of lovers cavorting in the lane on his return home: now he felt as though he understood their happiness.

His family, however, was growing worried with his appearance: the late nights amongst the damp marsh and graveyard were making him “look like [he] had one foot in the grave.” As a result, they insisted on sending him to relatives in Bath where he would be able to “take the waters” and recover his health. This greatly worried him because he didn’t want to part from his clandestine sweetheart even though they had never exchanged names.

When he shared the news that he would be leaving with her, during their nightly tryst among “the yew-trees … and the lichened gravestones,” she was “very sad, and dearer than life itself.” She appears to understand his family’s rationale, but cryptically warns him that he must return to her before the new moon: if so, they will meet as usual, but “if the new moon shines on this grave and you are not here – you will never see me again anymore.”

He notices her place her hand on an “old weather-worn” headstone matted with lichen and agrees to meet her there before the moon is new. Peering at its face, he sees that it reads:


Ob. 1713


[NOTE: "Ob." is an abbreviation of the Latin obiit: "She/he died," cf. "obituary"]

His lover is not convinced: she reiterates the seriousness of her warning, saying “I mean it, it is no fancy,” and he doubles down on his promise.

Meanwhile, he finds the warm waters and cheery company in Bath a welcome change from the damp marshland and lonely village. Nearly a month passes without him turning much thought towards his secret girlfriend, and with forgetfulness, his health gradually returns.

One day before he is due to return, he happens upon a miniature portrait – the same one now hanging by his chair – and is stunned by the resemblance to the girl he has only seen by moonlight. He questions his aunt about the sitter’s identity and is told that it belonged to Susannah Kingsnorth, a beautiful girl who had once been betrothed to one of their ancestors but didn’t live long enough to make it to the altar: she died in 1713, and his aunt recalls that “they say she was a bit of a witch.”

Uncle Abraham wryly observes that the year in which this story took place was 1813, and that he was not humored by his aunt’s story. Indeed, he suffered a sudden seizure and was incapacitated for a number of days – long enough that he missed his rendezvous with the girl by the grave and never saw her again.

His niece is stunned with awe and sadness and asks him if he believes that he actually had a romance with a ghost. Her uncle scoffs, telling her to take no notice of old men’s tales from many, many years ago. However, after taking a solemn drag on his pipe, he adds, “But I know what you means, and happiness, though I was lame, and the girls used to laugh at me.”     




Few ghost stories – save those of Margaret Oliphant and Rhoda Broughton – effectively convey pathos with such authenticity and elegance.  Nesbit conveys a rich sense of loneliness, fragile love, and tender nostalgia without evoking the gush of sentimentality that so many Victorian writers relished. Although she treaded dangerously into this territory in several horror stories (cf. the first two chapters of “From the Dead,” “The Haunted Inheritance,” and the unprintable “Letter in Brown Ink” – wherein a girl imprisoned in a madwoman’s attic writes an SOS letter in her own blood, is rescued by her neighbor, and marries his son), her supernatural fiction was largely cynical, realistic, and genuine in tone.

It is, however, refreshing to read “Uncle Abraham’s Romance” as so many of Nesbit’s stories end with betrayal and rejection. While this tale still closes with a rush of sorrowful loss (one very much like that in “The Ebony Frame”) the sense of bitter resignation is absent. Instead we are left with a wistful old man who seems to quietly relish this fleeting romance from his youth. The manner in which Nesbit paints scenery, mood, and emotion are some of the best in her oeuvre. Like “Man-Size in Marble,” there is a vivid sense of setting and a delicious helping of emotionally-invigorated scenery. Despite its lack of horror, “Uncle Abraham’s Romance” remains one of the best ghost stories in Nesbit’s canon.

Like Oliphant’s “The Open Door” and Broughton’s “Poor Pretty Bobby,” Nesbit’s tale exudes a humanity that modern horror often evades, one that makes it a vivid and elegant ghost story, unusual in its humanity and rich in its sympathy.



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