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J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Mr. Justice Harbottle: A Full Summary and Deep Literary Analysis

Among the very last of Le Fanu’s supernatural works – certainly his last great one – is this reworking – almost a hazy prequel – of “Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street.” It is a fitting conclusion to Le Fanu’s career in that it is his first deep, psychological treatment of that favorite trope of his, the malevolently carnal aristocrat. There is, of course, the far longer, far more involved novella, “The Haunted Baronet,” itself an expansion of “Sir Robert Ardagh,” but Ardagh (and the Haunted Baronet and Sir Dominick and the Dead Sexton and Ultor de Lacy and even Schalken) are members of a separate trope: the ambitious aspirant fallen on hard times who makes a pact with the dark powers – a Faustian protagonist in the model of Marlowe and Goethe, Irving and Hawthorne.


The bloated, satin-swaddled villains that populate so much of Le Fanu’s fiction are not lean, desperate young men, eager to collude with evil forces: to paraphrase the American drama Breaking Bad, “they are not in danger, they are the danger… A guy opens his door and invites in morally compromising forces and you think of them? No. They are the ones who knock!” These are the most unsavory of Le Fanu’s antognists because they are purely mortal. Unlike the merciless creeps in “Schalken,” “Ultor de Lacy,” and “Green Tea,” the “malevolently carnal aristocrat” is not an spirit from hell sent to torture men, but a living man who delights in the same without supernatural motivation. Unlike the cretinous ne’er-do-wells in “Dead Sexton,” “Dickon the Devil,” and “The Drunkard’s Dream,” they are not intellectually weak or morally compromised, rather they are intellectually strong and intentionally perverse. We find them in “Lough Guir,” “Ghost of a Hand,” “Tiled House,” “Squire Toby’s Will,” “Aungier Street,” and more.


These characters flit in the background of Le Fanu’s fiction: sinister paintings, disembodied hands, suspicious rats, secondhand accounts, and silent visions. They are corpulent, flabby, puffy, and pale, their limbs bloated with gout, faces discolored from too much port, expressions warped with sensuality, sadism, and perversion. They have a favorite costume: red satin dressing gowns embroidered with flowers, heads shaved for wig-wearing but covered in lush velvet caps when unoccupied, and throats loosely swaddled in cravats (sometimes hiding ligature marks or terrible gashes. They are the embodiment of privilege, indulgence, entitlement, and power: cartoonish yet sinister, friendly yet repulsive, comfortable yet disquieting. And yes, they are always remarkable for the comfort which they exhibit around others – an awkwardly intimate way of appearing barefoot in a dressing gown and cap (the 18th century equivalent of walking around naked except for an untied, or creepily loose men’s kimono). They are the perfect symbol of aristocratic abuse and hubris with which Le Fanu could give vent to his political dissonance as a Conservative dismayed by his culture’s rejection of medieval social contracts between the poor and powerful. The wicked Judge Horrocks, late of Aungier Street, was modelled closely on two villainous judges known popularly as THE hanging judges of their respective eras: the Jacobean Sir George Jeffreys – whose reign of terror existed in Le Fanu’s favorite period of history, the reigns of James II and William III, linked by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – and the Georgian Sir John Toler who horrified Ireland with his heartlessness and coarse lifestyle. Combined, Toler and Jeffreys match Horrocks’ description: Toler was fat with a discolored face and loathesome jowls, and Jeffreys – though not a bloated blister like Toler – had a sensual, sadistic expression that bespoke of shameful vices and appetites. When Le Fanu resurrected Horrocks he changed his name to Harbottle and – rather than dwelling on his hauntings – decided to ponder the conceit: what if a ghost was haunted before he was a haunter? And so we begin with a vision of the dead Harbottle that very much resembles the ghost in “Aungier Street,” but the majority of the story goes even further back into Le Fanu’s canon for its inspiration – our earliest tale in this book, “A Drunkard’s Dream” – to give Horrocks/Harbottle what Le Fanu felt he most deserved: a taste of Hell.


II.




THE JUDGE’S HOUSE

The story begins with a strange story told to the narrator by a sober, elderly business acquaintance who had suddenly decided to change his rooms. He had lived, up to this point, in a large, old house in Westminster, London, and although it was gloomy and dark, he had had no concerns whatsoever with the atmosphere, as it was affordable, and he was not imaginative. One night, however, he was reading late at night when the clock struck one and all of a sudden, the locked door to his study opened up and two men soundlessly crossed the floor in front of his bed, and passed into the sitting room on the other side (again, through a locked door).


The first was a swarthy, dark-eyed, lean man dressed in black mourning clothes from the mid-18th century (100 years earlier to this setting), with a sinister expression. Behind him trudges a stout, elderly man in an embroidered dressing gown, carrying a length of rope. His face is tremendously ugly and wicked-looking, and worse yet, it has the rigid, staring appearance of a corpse. Their steps are silent, but the man watching them feels their vibration. Horrified, he gets out of bed to check the doors: they are both locked, and he decides to hunt down new rooms that morning.


Fascinated, the narrator writes to a scholar friend of his whom he suspects may be familiar with the ghosts’ originals. His friend excitedly reports that he knows both the house described and the two men seen walking its floors after death: the man in the dressing gown with the villainous face was once an infamous hanging judge and libertine who suddenly hanged himself in his house in 1748. The death was extremely sensational and attracted widespread attention for the paranormal activity said to have lead up to and followed his death.


There are currently two extremely strong narratives written about the case. The more scientific (and seemingly more boring and theoretical) had once been in the possession of the paranormal psychologist Martin Hesselius, but had been lost shortly after he leant it to a friend. The other report – more literary and speculative in nature – still exists, and it is this which the narrator proceeds to relate.


THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST JUSTICE HARBOTTLE

Mr. Justice Harbottle lived in a gloomy brick building in Westminster, whose rooms were paneled with heavy wainscotting, and whose central feature was a massive balustraded staircase. He was considered a vulgar, brutal tyrant: well-known for his mistresses, orgies, and wild parties, and one of the most corrupt jurists in Britain. He scorned any legal advice from scholars, colleagues, and juries, making decisions based on personal and political bias, and handing down death sentences for petty crimes without concern for justice or humanity.


One evening in 1746 he was walking home from court when he overtakes a strange, bent old man in a green cloak. The stranger asks him if he knows the way to Judge Harbottle’s, because he has important confidential information to share. The Judge is both tantalized and suspicious, so he introduces himself and guides him to his house and ushers him into his study. There, the stranger – who calls himself Hugh Peters – warns him of a conspiracy to undermine his career: a secret cabal of his political enemies (Tories and Jacobites) have begun meeting with the objective of monitoring his court decisions for corruption, calling themselves the “High Court of Appeal,” and specifically interested in avenging injustices which Harbottle had committed against them.


They are, Peters says, taking particular interest in the case of a grocer named Lewis Pyneweck who has been arrested for forgery. This seems to worry Harbottle. He asks Peters for names, but Peters is still working that out (he claims to have been informed by one of their number who is himself putting together a roster). Harbottle threatens Peters that if he is up to any tricks, Harbottle will ruin his life, but all in all seems impressed that he has uncovered what his naturally paranoid mind seemed to suspect.


Peters departs, and as he does, Harbottle catches a glimpse of his face for the first time: it is deathly white and unwholesome. He shakes this off and rushes out into his lobby where his whole house is thundering with a raccous orgy being held by his friends and supporters. Among them is his lover and ostensible housekeeper, the curvaceous Mrs. --------, who is the prisoner Pyneweck’s lawful wife. Harbottle had stolen her away from Pyneweck at a time when their relationship was on the rocks, and although he is already a notorious cad, if it gets out that he hanged his lover’s husband (which he is fully planning to do) it would be the nail in his professional coffin.


Concerned, Harbottle calls one of his servants down from the party and has him chase Peters down with the hope of finding where he lives and subsequently more about him. The servant does find the old man in the green cloak, but almost immediately after he agrees to let the footman escort him, Peters distracts him and beats him over the head with his cane before running into the dark. Harbottle is seemingly pleased to have learned this, as his paranoia is doubly satisfied: there still must be a secret cabal, AND the ashen-faced Hugh Peters was nothing more than a spy and a thug. He is still disturbed by one thing, however: upon further consideration, Hugh Peters was a dead ringer for Lewis Pyneweck – only with a bloodless face – and although he at first considers that it may have been Pyneweck in stage makeup, this is impossible since the man is in prison.


He calls to his housekeeper who enters his study in a tight-fitting dress and ribbons, and immediately starts to caress his gouty ears. Apparently she has just received a letter from Pyneweck asking her to send him money to hire a lawyer to defend him. Flirtatiously, she teases that she hopes the Judge will find a reason to let Pyneweck off easily, but her lustiness is frozen over in horror when Harbottle announces that he has every intention of hanging him. Harbottle is offended that Pyneweck would solicit anything from her, and delights in telling his mistress that her husband has no chance at acquittal. She is surprised and frightened to hear this: she hadn’t thought of him for some time, and her feelings are more tender than she expected. They have a young daughter together, who thinks that her father is dead, and Mrs. Pyneweck wonders how she’ll face the girl.


A SUBPOENA FROM A DEAD MAN

Harbottle is true to his word: Pyneweck and six others are hanged for a variety of crimes. Mrs. Pyneweck is stunned and heartbroken, and Harbottle is delighted: he has spurned the threats of the “High Court of Appeals” cabal, asserted his mastery over Mrs. Pyneweck, and removed an inconvenient man from his life. Shortly thereafter, he is at the Old Bailey swearing in another jury when the crier delivers a letter to him. It was sent over by a man in the gallery – a lean, swarthy-faced man dressed all in mourning:


“That Judge descried, to his amazement, the features of Lewis Pyneweck. He had the usual faint thin-lipped smile; and with his blue chin raised in air, and as it seemed quite unconscious of the distinguished notice he has attracted, he was stretching his low cravat with his crooked fingers, while he slowly turned his head from side to side--a process which enabled the Judge to see distinctly a stripe of swollen blue round his neck, which indicated, he thought, the grip of the rope.”


The figure disappears into the crowd and cannot be found by the bailiffs when Harbottle demands they bring him forward. He finishes swearing in the jury but appears to be in a confused and worried daze. Afterward it is said, as the jury considers the case they are hearing, that he looks as though “he would not have given sixpence to see the prisoner hanged.” In the privacy of his quarters he reads the letter. It is a subpoena for him to appear before “The High Court of Appeal” to answer for the “murder” of Lewis Pyneweck, which will sit on February the 10th. It is signed by Caleb Searcher, the Officer of the Crown Solicitor for the Kingdom of Life and Death.


At first Harbottle is enranged, then disturbed. He asks Mrs. Pyneweck if her late husband ever had a brother (who, he supposes, could have posed as him at the Old Bailey). At first she becomes hysterical at the mention of her husband, but eventually confirms that he has no living brother. Harbottle’s mood is very dark and concerned: it was now the 9th of the month and he eagerly looks forward to the 11th and the end of this foolishness.


[At this point, the narrator adds an intriguing footnote: the letter from Caleb Searcher was never found in Harbottle’s papers, although a supposed “copy” of it – one written in his own hand was indeed found after his death. The narrator wonders whether this was just a copy, whether it was written by a ghostly doppelganger, or whether he wrote it to himself in a delirium of guilt-ridden psychosis?]


ON TRIAL IN HELL’S COURTROOM

On the following evening – February 10, 1748 – the Judge is sitting in a carriage preparing to attend the Drury Lane theater with two of his jurist colleagues. He is tired of waiting for them and leans back in the coach, closing his eyes. He hears two men open the doors and slip inside, and he assumes that his companions have arrived. The coach rolls forward without compelling him to open his eyes, and it strikes him as odd that his friends are so grim and silent. Suddenly, they lurch forward and grab him; he opens his eyes and is shocked to see two men dressed as Bow Street Runners (18th century London policemen), shoving pistols in his ribs. He swears at them in rage and pulls the cord to stop the coach. As it rolls to a stop, he looks out the window and is stunned to see that they are no longer in London:


“…under a broad moonlight, he saw a black moor stretching lifelessly from right to left, with rotting trees, pointing fantastic branches in the air, standing here and there in groups, as if they held up their arms and twigs like fingers, in horrible glee at the Judge's coming.”


A footman comes to the door and looks in at him. Harbottle is horrified to recognize the sunken features of a former servant of his whom he had fired in a rage, and then sent to prison for supposedly stealing a spoon. The man had died there of typhus. Harbottle is stunned speechless, and the coach rolls onward.


After a while, they paused in the midst of the desolate moor, and Harbottle gathers that he is supposed to look out and see something. He does: a monstrously large, three-legged gallows with thirty-some rotting, skeletal remains swinging from the three crossbeams, and bones beginning to pile on the ground below. A leering, cartoonishly deformed hangman perches atop the gallows smoking a pipe. Despite his loose-hanging skin he bears an eerie resemblance to Pyneweck, and delightfully flourishes a new rope in the air while skipping along the crossbeam in a macabre dance while ravens croak overhead. Harbottle is horrified. The coach proceeds, and suddenly turns the corner and enters the courtyard of an immense, white building.


The guards hustle Harbottle down a dark, stony corridor which seems to be underground, past gigantic, bony soldiers with musk