By the Twentieth Century, J. Sheridan Le Fanu was largely remembered for two or three Gothic mystery novels, “Carmilla,” and – in some circles – “Green Tea.” In 1923, M. R. James resurrected Le Fanu by editing a collection of his “best” ghost stories. Le Fanu was once again remembered for his contributions to supernatural fiction, heralded as the undisputed champion of the Victorian ghost story, and recognized for his profound influence on Bram Stoker, Rhoda Broughton, Charles Dickens, Henry James, and others. When James and his publishers selected a title for this volume, it was Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery by J. S. Le Fanu.
Those who have read the works of M. R. James will rapidly note how influential the titular story was to his own work: shades of “Lost Hearts” in particular are abundant in this story of corruption and malice. “Lost Hearts” features the plight of an orphan boy who is adopted by his middle-aged cousin, an eccentric and amateur metaphysician who, as we later learn, has been sacrificing prepubescent children (an Italian boy and a gypsy girl) in a Roman-era rite to gain immortality. The orphan is saved when the ghosts of the two children (whose long fingernails glow in the moonlight, and whose cadaverous chests have gouges where the hearts should be) kill their murderer and expose his heart.
Le Fanu himself was heavily influenced by one of the first great literary ghost stories in any language – Sir Walter Scott’s “The Tapestried Chamber,” a chilling little episode sometimes referred to (both in print and colloquially) as “The Lady in the Sacque.” The story involves a houseguest who is wakened in the night by the sight of an old woman dressed in an antique gown, walking about his room. Like the girl in “Ghost Stories of the Tiled House,” he coughs to let her know that the room his occupied, but when she turns:
“…what a countenance did she display to me! There was no longer any question what she was, or any thought of her being a living being. Upon a face which wore the fixed features of a corpse were imprinted the traces of the vilest and most hideous passions which had animated her while she lived. The body of some atrocious criminal seemed to have been given up from the grave, and the soul restored from the penal fire, in order to form for a space a union with the ancient accomplice of its guilt. I started up in bed, and sat upright, supporting myself on my palms, as I gazed on this horrible spectre. The hag made, as it seemed, a single and swift stride to the bed where I lay, and squatted herself down upon it, in precisely the same attitude which I had assumed in the extremity of horror, advancing her diabolical countenance within half a yard of mine, with a grin which seemed to intimate the malice and the derision of an incarnate fiend.”
The guest learns that he has met his friend’s long-dead ancestor, whose sins entail “a black and fearful catalogue” including “incest and unnatural murder” – implying infanticide.
What “Lost Hearts,” “The Tapestried Chamber,” and “Madam Crowl’s Ghost” share is a commentary on the corruption of the powerful and the unquestioned, unchallenged immunity, and – particularly – their abuse of the most vulnerable population imaginable: the children in their care.
The tale – a Gothic mixture of Jane Eyre, Dracula, and Great Expectations – comes from an old woman (now a retired nursemaid) who is asked to tell her now-grown charges a good ghost story. After a moment’s pauses she selects a personal story: a bizarre event from her own childhood. When she was thirteen years old she was hired out as a servant to Applewale House, where her aunt was a housekeeper to Old Dame Crowl.
The trip to the distant manor begins inauspiciously: some of her fellow travelers, upon hearing of her destination, warn against it because the lady of the house is a notorious madwoman, “possessed by the devil, and more ‘an half a ghost.” The man across from her asks if she has a Bible (she does) and recommends that she keep it under her pillow to “keep the ald girl’s claws aff ye.” Like Jonathan Harker at the beginning of “Dracula,” she descends from the carriage at a gloomy mansion with these warnings buzzing in her ears, but – equally determined to do her duty – she proceeds with her mission and enters the hall.
She is greeted by her aunt – her father’s sister, a hard, unaffectionate woman – who introduces her to Mr. Crowl, the dame’s grandson, who visits occasionally to check on her condition, and Mrs. Wyvern, a fat, jolly housemaid who assists her in caring for the demented Dame Crowl. After some passive aggressive compliments, her aunt leaves to check on the dame, who is currently being watched by Judith, another maid.
Mrs. Wyvern encourages her, but advises that she not ask her aunt any questions about the dame. At this point, she realizes that she still isn’t sure what her duties will be. Mrs. Wyvern guesses that she will just be asked to help around the house and babysit the dame by doing her needlework in the old woman’s room, fetching her food and drink, and making sure that she doesn’t get into “any mischief.” She asks why the last girl, whom she is replacing, left her position, but Mrs. Wyvern is vague about the circumstances.
At this point her aunt returns. Looking around the servants’ room, the girl first notices a strange-looking leather jacket with long, dangling sleeves and rows of straps and buckles. She asks her aunt what it is for, but is immediately ordered not to touch it, and the old lady storms out of the room. Mrs. Wyvern laughs and soothes her anxieties, but reflects her aunt’s evasiveness by saying that the jacket is nothing to worry about, adding “ask us no questions; we’ll tell ye no lies.”
Meanwhile, the old dame is apparently in a rage upstairs. The girl learns in time that she was a beauty in her day (she is 93 now), but is a ghoulish sight to see now, and that the servants only treat her with kid gloves because they know that the moment she dies they will all lose their jobs (although they expect to be paid a generous severance by Mr. Crowl), and the girl is ordered to humor and indulge her no matter what she does or says.
Days go by without the girl being asked to sit with Dame Crowl, but one day the door is left open and she does overhear her speaking with her aunt: the old woman’s voice is an unintelligible, squalling, animal noise, and her aunt’s responses are all reassurances that Satan can’t take someone’s soul unless God allows it. Shortly after, her aunt comes next door and announces that the dame is asleep and that she (the aunt) will be taking a tea break, and that supper will be brought up to her (the girl) soon.
The girl flips through a book of Aesop’s fables, but keeps thinking about Dame Crowl, and how she has been left unguarded. Naturally, she is overwhelmed by her curiosity, and peeks into the old lady’s room: it is a massive, ornate room flaring with dozens of candles and dominated by a huge, full-length mirror and a curtained four-poster bed. Since the dame was said to be sleeping, the girl decides to have a look at her. It is a mistake: she draws back the curtains and sees a grotesque sight.
The deeply-wrinkled, bent old lady is fully dressed in the mid-18th century garb of her hey-day – a satin ballgown, shoes, and powdered wig – complete with heavy makeup, fake eyebrows, and jewelry. Worse, of all, however, were her nails: long and cut to points like talons. To make matters worse, her eyes are wide open. She lunges at the girl, her heels clacking on the ground, and reaches out with her sharp nails demanding why she accused her of killing “the boy” and threatening to “tickle her stiff.” The girl backs away in dread, but Dame Crowl advances – bizarrely so, “like a thing on wires” – making a dreadful buzzing noise with her tongue (“zizz-zizz-zizz”).
The girl shrieks in terror – afraid that she will lose her mind if the old woman lays her bony hands on her – and her aunt arrives in time for her to rush out of the room to safety. Mrs. Wyvern laughs when she hears her story, but is strangely disturbed when she hears Crowl’s words about killing a boy. She asks if Crowl admitted that she killed the boy or merely said that she had been accused of it. She is relieved to hear that it was the latter. Notwithstanding, Judith, the other maid, is tasked with staying with the girl from that point on: both to keep her from agitating Crowl, and to protect her from the old woman.
A week later, Wyvern helps shed some light on these strange events: she tells the girl how when Crowl was young and beautiful, she successfully seduced her late husband, Squire Crowl, who was a wealthy widower with a nine-year-old son. They moved in together, but one morning shortly after, the boy disappeared and was never heard from again. His hat was found near the lake where he was wont to fish and swim, so he was presumed drowned. The Crowls had another son, who begat the current Mr. Crowl, but rumors never ceased to circulate around the missing first-born, and – it was whispered – the Dame knew more on the matter than she was willing to say.
Six months later, the old woman began her final decline in the midst of a miserable winter. The doctor fears that she will fall into a fit of violent insanity again, just as she had a year prior (hearing this, the girl suddenly realizes that the leather jacket was a straight-jacket). Indeed, the old woman spends her days screaming for mercy and fighting off invisible attackers. Finally, however, she dies, and her body is prepared and coffined and stored in the church vault while Mr. Crowl – who is in France – is written to.
The night before Mr. Crowl’s return, the girl was in her quarters next door to Dame Crowl’s old room – homesick for her mother’s home and her siblings – and was staring at the wall opposite the open door, when she saw shadows being projected against the wall by a red light behind her, as if something in the previously dark room had caught fire.
Turning around, she is stunned to see the old Dame trucked out in her 18th-century fineries – eyes wide as saucers, claws raised in menance, and the hem of her gown emitting its own scarlet light.
She approaches the girl’s bed – to her terror – but at the last moment she turns away and heads to an alcove in the room where she reveals a previously hidden door, opens it – with a hideous, snarling grin – and reaches for something on the floor in the dark, before disappearing.
Terrified, she flees to her aunt who is surprisingly sympathetic and soothing. After calming her down, she asks if the girl saw a key in the ghost’s hand. She does recall one, and matches it to a large, brass key in the scullery. Her aunt seems troubled but unsurprised. When Mr. Crowl finally arrives, they share the vision with him, and he confirms that he had heard of a secret door existing in that room, leading to a safe room where jewels had once been secured.
Returning to the room in force, they move a large cabinet from the alcove and uncover the faint traces of a hidden entrance in the wainscot: the keyhole has been filled and disguised, but since they are looking for it, they find it without difficulty, and use a chisel to clear it. Indeed, the key fits and the door opens, revealing a second, grim-looking door, which opens with ease to reveal a brick vault.
Her aunt advances into it with a candle, but is suddenly terrified by something, and orders them to close the door and leave the place. They have stumbled upon a small skeleton – the girl at first mistakes it for a monkey, but realizes that it is a child’s corpse – which Mr. Crowl jabs at with the poker, causing it to crumble to dust. He claims that it was the skeleton of a cat, and closes the door behind him. Mr. Crowl heads out to take care of the estate’s business and the girl is paid her three pounds in wages – plus a bonus pound from Mr. Crowl (implied to be a bribe for her silence and loyalty) – and sent back to her family.
Years later, the girl is visited by her aunt who – in confidence – confirms that the servants assumed that skeleton to belong to Dame Crowl’s missing step-son, whom she presumably locked away to starve to death in the vault where his poundings and prayers could never be heard, and whose hat was left at the lake to explain his disappearance away.
Indeed, on further examination, the skeleton was found to have jet buttons, a few pennies, and a green pocketknife amongst its moldered clothes, and the heartbreaking “missing person” notice that old Squire Crowl had published in the papers described a boy with a green knife, a jacket with jet buttons, and a few pennies.
The girl – now the old woman telling the tale to her grown charges – gratefully reports that she has never seen Applewale House, or Old Dame Crowl, since.
Another story which – almost unquestionably – influenced “Madam Crowl’s Ghost” is Elizabeth Gaskell’s supernatural classic “The Old Nurse’s Story.” The narrative (also told to youngsters by an aged servant) runs as follows: a very young nursemaid (the narrator) accompanies her recently orphaned mistress to the home of some relatives in the North Country where they find a suspiciously uneasy collection of servants, and one very old lady of the house – a grand spinster who was once a renowned beauty. Amidst a series of strange events, the little girl is lured outside into a blizzard by the vision of a dead girl and woman. Barely rescued in time, it is found that these are the ghosts of the old woman’s sister and niece, whom she betrayed to their father (the niece was born out of wedlock), who beat the little girl and cast them both into the snow to die. In a final dramatic flourish, Gaskell has the old woman die in terror when the scene is recreated in front of her in a ghostly tableau vivant.
It may strike you as odd that I have spent so much of both the foreword and the afterword of this story talking about the plots of other tales; what I’m hoping to do, is to situate Le Fanu’s tale – which clearly operates in connection with the two which inspired it and the other which it inspired – in a tradition of stories which purposefully speak to a series of universal concerns. Like “Lost Hearts,” “The Tapestried Chamber,” and “The Old Nurse’s Story,” “Madam Crowl’s Ghost” deals with themes of child abuse/neglect/murder, the troubling immunity of the rich/well-born/esteemed (the villains of all four stories escape judicial prosecution for their murders), and the way in which the past reaches out into the present and on to the future.
In “Madam Crowl’s Ghost,” the eponymous antagonist is the very figure of life-in-death: a living corpse, a preserved relic kept alive for selfish reasons and fear rather than from love, and certainly not challenged for her revolting crimes. As such, Madam Crowl is something of a vampire – a dandified spook with her long, sharp dentures, her talon-like claws, her cadaverous face made up like a mortician’s subject, sitting bolt-upright in bed. This image seems to have deeply disturbed Le Fanu – of a specter sitting patiently in a bed – as he remarks on it earlier in the story (where the four-poster is shrouded in shadow, allowing one to imagine whatever they like lurking inside), and had used a similar horror for the climax of “Schalken the Painter.”
And there is something about this image that speaks to the general themes of corruption, unnatural-ness, and the complicity of the various social classes in preserving the evil of the uppermost. Rather than sleeping, or sitting in a chair, or lounging on a couch, or playing cards in the parlor, Madam Crowl lounges lazily in bed – a sensual, self-indulgent location to spend the last decades of her life – but is so concerned with her self-image that she is outfitted in a gown, wig, heels, jewelry, and fake eyebrows. She has been propped up by her devoted servants, hidden from view like a bloody knife tidily and dotingly stowed in a kitchen drawer – her insanity denied, her murder never investigated, her wickedness tolerated.
And why? Because she is a grand woman. The narrator’s aunt is cruel to the point of low-grade sadism when it comes to her flesh and blood (including the vile comments about her dead brother), but seems more complicit than unsuspecting (she seems darkly unsurprised by the revelation) in her coddling of the ancient infanticide. Abuses of power – and the tyranny of privilege – are redolent in Le Fanu, and in ghost stories writ large. As with James, Scott, and Gaskell’s horror stories, Le Fanu’s draws attention to the means by which a community – through its support and submission to the powers at be – can be complicit in a great and terrible tragedy of outrageous abuse.