No. 31: The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe

So Spring has finally sprung, HOORAY!

I type this from my sofa, bare feet up on the coffee table, toenails painted, balcony doors flung open, football cries and birdsong mingling. An ice cream van wails its tune as it winds the streets. The scent of a BBQ lingers. Perfect.

This past Winter has been particularly bleak. Poppy (who joined me for The Communist Manifesto) and I decided to embrace Spring  with a mini break in Lisbon. This, combined with the extended Easter weekend, has meant I haven’t posted this as quickly as I would have liked, so I’m pleased to be hitting ‘Publish’ at last.

I read The Tell-Tale Heart on board our flight to Lisbon, in mid-March. Neither my friend Katy, who chose this Little Black Classic, or I have never read any Poe before so we looked forward to the introduction.

It comprises three short stories and The Tell-Tale Heart is the first.

The narrator is evidently insane from the outset – his writing is disjointed and contradictory, and he admits in the second paragraph of page one

‘I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture … I made up my mind to take the life of the old man’.

I was in the company of a madman, although he tried to convince me otherwise. Who this man is, or who is companion is, we don’t know, as we slip into the action almost immediately.

The narrator confesses that he studied his companion’s sleep pattern, to perfect the best means and timings for the killing.

On the eighth evening of observation, the stalker’s hand slips on the hatch of his lantern and awakens the sleeping man, who sits up up and questions the sound. The two men are frozen in their positions for an hour, both listening for the other’s reaction.

The deranged narrator becomes aware of a low pounding.

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‘I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of the drum stimulates the soldier into courage.’

The pounding grows louder and the deafened madman fears it will wake the neighbour. ‘The old man’s hour had come!’

He drags the man to the floor and heaves the bed on top of him, either crushing or suffocating him.

‘If you still think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body.’

These ‘wise precautions’ consist of dismembering the old man’s body, and using a large tub underneath the floorboards to catch the blood and store the body parts. The description is gloriously macabre.

Three policemen come knocking, claiming a neighbour heard a shriek. The madman assures them he was just sleeping fitfully and tours them around the house to highlight all is well.

He invites them to rest, drawing up chairs above the very spot where his dead companion’s body parts lie, and revels in his hubris.

As he makes small talk with the three policemen, the narrator suddenly feels unwell – a ringing in his ears, his head aches, and he hears a low, quick thudding. The policemen seem unaware and chat normally.

The madman paces the floor, the noise increasing in volume.

‘I foamed – I raved – I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose’

Yet the policemen continue to chat pleasantly and the madman assumes they are mocking him.

The short story ends ‘I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! here, here! – it is the beating of his hideous heart!’

I was utterly gripped by this short story, the clanging and chatter of the plane dissolving. I loved how the narrator talks directly to the reader and cuts straight to the heart of the story (pardon the pun!), avoiding any unnecessary description. Anything and everything around the narrator is white noise – the companion, the policemen, the location, the surroundings are all irrelevant. The narrator’s mental deterioration is the subject alone, and his unravelling is completely compelling, his paranoia turning into tangible symptoms.

Is it the heart of the dead man that betrays him, or his own anxious beating heart?

The Tell-Tale Heart was my favourite story in this small collection. I enjoyed  The Fall of the House of Usher, which similarly portrays ideas of mental illness in a Gothic setting (reminiscent of the house in The Old Nurse’s Story). In this instance, however, the narrator describes his friend’s mental state to the reader.

But I couldn’t resist the spell cast by the narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart, and Poe’s direct language and candid descriptions.

I chewed over the short story as we climbed Lisbon’s hilly streets in the Spring sunshine, stopping for coffee and a glass of something red at regular intervals.

It was on a walking tour that we stepped into Igreja de São Domingos, having been warned that the church’s interior is seriously macabre.

Sure enough, Poppy and I stood at the back, frozen in its eeriness, the hairs on the backs of our necks standing. I asked that we return with Edgar Allan Poe and properly drink the church in.

And so, on our last day in the city, we trailed down Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s main thoroughfare, which is very similar to the Champs-Élysées in Paris in both appearance and ambience. We came to the top of Rossio Square where, just off to the left, stands São Domingos.

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The church, once the largest in Lisbon, hosting royal weddings, has witnessed countless horrors. Like nearby Rossio Square, it saw public executions during the infamous Inquisition. It was later damaged by the 1531 earthquake, then the 1755 earthquake (which famously devastated much of Lisbon), and finally a fire which broke out in the church in 1959.

This last event gutted the already ramshackle church, which today acts as a monument to Lisbon’s tragic history.

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I thought Poe would approve of it’s nightmarish interiors. It’s painted a rusty orange, a reminder of it’s fiery past, with sections of fire-damaged parts remaining.

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Idols of suffering saints line the walls alongside scorched pillars. The Holy Trinity above the altar is unrecognisable today, damaged and ghoulish.

As Poppy and I slowly wandered around she pointed out long, engraved lines on one of the pillars. “They’re like scratch marks,” she whispered.

I shivered.

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It is the creepiest building I have stepped into. Even the air is musty, as if it has absorbed the church’s decay.

Katy, thank you so much for choosing this Little Black Classic (and for pointing out my unBEARable typos) – it was excellent. I think both you and Edgar Allan Poe would have really liked the church, and I hope you enjoyed The Tell-Tale Heart.

Next time I will be reading I Hate and I Love.

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No. 77: A Slip Under the Microscope, H.G. Wells

I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read The War of the Worlds, or any of H.G. Wells’ work in fact. Not intentionally, of course, there are just so many books to read and, if I’m honest, science fiction isn’t really my gig (although conversely I am a huge Margaret Atwood fan).

This meant I approached A Slip Under the Microscope with really little or no knowledge of the author.

My friend Lois chose this week’s Little Black Classic. She read Wells’ The Truth About Pyecraft for her book group, and her Dad is an advocate of the writer.

I read the book a couple of weeks ago, buried under a blanket on my sofa, on a nippy Sunday morning. Coffee, toast, jammies. Bliss.

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I chose to read A Slip Under the Microscope first, despite it being the second short story in this edition.

It opens in a laboratory within The College of Science, with dissections in glass jars and anatomical drawings lining the walls. Wells paints a wonderful image of the space, paying heed to very specific, chaotic details of a classroom.

I liked the description of a classically cold and poor student in his digs

“he would sit on the bed of his room in Chelsea with his coat and a muffler, and write out the lecture notes”

I’ve been there.

Here we meet Hill, the son of a humble cobbler.  He is shabbily dressed, opinionated and clearly intelligent.

His rival is Wedderburn (great name), another intelligent student and the son of a respected optician. Both boys, of different social classes, are vying for the attention of a Miss Haysman.

Hill is besotted. His ambition fades as his love for Miss Haysman deepens. But he manages top marks in the class, along with Wedderburn.

The two young men fight to be top dog in both the classroom and in Miss Haysman’s affections.

“she was the Queen of Beauty in a tournament of scalpels and stumpy pencils”

The main action takes place in the laboratory. A mystery specimen is placed on a slip under a microscope. Each student in turn studies the specimen and has to return to their desk to identify it with a sketch.

There is an implicit instruction to not move the slip, its precise positioning purposely blurring the identity and ensuring a more challenging examination.

Alas, on his turn, Hill moves it, purely out of habit when studying a specimen under a microscope. We’re privy to his internal debate – does he confess, does he lie? He wants to beat Wedderburn. He chooses to remain silent and return to his desk.

He gets the highest score in class, closely followed by arch enemy Wedderburn. Hill is racked with guilt and so goes to his lecturer to confess. He is punished as a cheat, fails the course and so loses his scholarship.

Wedderburn and Miss Haysman learn of Hill’s action, and his confession. The tell-tale says “what can you expect? His father is a cobbler.”

And that’s it. I wasn’t really sure what to make of this short story. It presents a moral dilemma, loaded with anguish and regret, but didn’t toy with my emotions or present an irresistible plot as much as I had hoped for.

I enjoyed the first short story, The Door in the Wall, far more.

A boy discovers a lone green door in Kensington, behind which lies a fantastical land, an escape from the streets of London. Here he strokes the ears of two tame panthers, makes friends with a beautiful girl, and admires expansive gardens with trickling fountains. The world is all his own.

“the Door in the Wall was a real door, leading through a real wall to immortal realities.”

The door and its hidden garden haunts him. He tells his Father and Aunt who don’t believe him, scolding him for his lies.

Years later, he finds it on Campden Hill, realising it wasn’t a dream! He confides in a friend, who tells their schoolmates and they accuse him of a being a liar.

Then, when he was 17 and in a cab in Earl’s Court, he saw the door once more!

“Who wants to pat panthers on the way to dinner with pretty women and distinguished men?”

After his death, his friend reflects on his friend’s stories of the Door in the Wall – was he mad and hallucinating, or did the door and its enchanted land exist?

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I set out into London’s own enchanted lands in search of adventures new, inspired by Wells.

I want to tell you that I left on a crisp winter day, with blue skies overhead and frost glazing the pavements, my face numb with the freshness of the season.

I didn’t, and it wasn’t.

I skipped out to be greeted by a bitingly cold wind and that sideways rain that cuts into you. Every fibre of my being shivered. I should be in bed writing, I thought. But I persevered and caught the tube to Marylebone for Hanover Terrace, where Wells lived.

It was even wetter when I disembarked at Baker Street. I fought against the blustering wind as I walked along a beautiful stretch of road – even through the haze of weather it was impressive.

Firstly, facing Regents Park, was the London Business School, an expansive corridor of Regency architecture, with a colonnaded facade and manicured gardens.

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Shortly after, I arrived at Hanover Terrace, which is of a similar appearance to the previous, but clearly residential, with cars dotting the front drive.

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These houses are magnificent, if rather intimidating, and clearly have residents of worth.

I trotted along (the feeling in my toes waning by this point) until I reached No. 13 – Wells’ house, where the writer lived and passed away.

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I wanted to really drink it in, but there was a security officer patrolling. No genuinely, there was.

I made awkward small talk with the official, who wore a bullet proof vest. He had clearly clocked and followed me. He kept close to me while I snapped these few photographs.

I left, concerned he would wrestle me to the ground if I stayed much longer, and he followed, presumably to be sure of my exit, six steps behind at all times.

Who knew little 5″2″ me could be quite so threatening.

Disgruntled and slightly threatened by this, I made my way back through the elements to meet Lois and regale the story of this week’s classic.

It was cold. It was wet. It was miserable. See exhibit A:

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This was taken shortly before I slipped on a particularly wet pavement. As I peeled myself off the ground, using an obliging railing as leverage, I concluded that this summarises winter for me. Sitting on a wet pavement, feeling strangely intimidated.

I looked around for a door in a wall, to transport me to away from the cold and the rain to worlds new and mystical. But, on this occasion, my search was in vain.

I settled for a reviving cup of a tea and a catch up with my friend.

Thank you Lois for choosing this week’s Little Black Classic, and for comforting me in my chilly condition!

 

Next time I will be blogging about The Communist Manifesto.

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No. 72: Miss Brill, Katherine Mansfield

I have been enormously excited to read Miss Brill. My friend Claire selected it after we visited the Ladybird by Design exhibition back in August. Her choice of classic came with a glowing review.

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The book consists of three short stories: Marriage à la Mode, Miss Brill and The Stranger. Importantly, a woman stands at the core of all three stories – the thread that binds the three together.

Marriage à la Mode and The Stranger appear remarkably similar. Both magnify an amorous husband, hankering for his wife having spent time apart from her. Both wives, in contrast, are distracted and apathetic.

The wife in Marriage à la Mode seems to prefer the company of her extensive group of glamorous friends. In a particularly cruel moment, she reads a charming love letter from her loving husband aloud to her (in my opinion) pretentious friends, before the party laugh hysterically.

“… laughing, sneering, jeering, stretching out their hands while she read them William’s letter.”

She immediately realises the error of her ways and decides to write her husband a love letter in return. She is soon distracted by her clamouring friends and promises herself she will write to him later, the implication being that she is preoccupied with her friends and doesn’t.

In The Stranger, a husband is reunited with his wife after she has returned from what seems to be a cruise, where she befriended everyone from the passengers to the captain himself.

The introductory quote summarises the wife perfectly – distracted and brief.

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The wife reveals to her husband that a man, who suffered from a heart condition, died in her arms when the two were alone together on board the ship. She makes it clear their relationship was perfectly innocent, she was simply there when it happened.

But alas, for her husband, she had

“Spoilt their evening! Spoilt their being alone together! They would never be alone together again!”

They were both great short stories – easy to whip through and I loved their fractured endings.

Miss Brill, however, was the star attraction. My friend Claire had first read Katherine Mansfield in school and fell in love with her short story The Doll’s House.

Having never encountered Mansfield before, I settled down on a train earlier this month to tuck in.

Miss Brill is an English Teacher living in France and we follow her on her usual Sunday routine.

The opening line immediately drew me in

“Although it was so brilliantly fine – the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques – Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur.”

This fur is integral to the story. It takes on a life of its own, later mirroring Miss Brill herself

“Little rogue biting its tale just by her left ear. She could have taken it off and laid it on her lap and stroked it.”

And so swathed in her beloved fur, Miss Brill heads for her traditional constitutional around the public gardens, enjoying the live band who sounded “louder and gayer” that day.

She observes every minute detail of the band – the conductor’s new coat, a new musical phrase – along with all the parties that emanate out from the band, before perching on a bench where she can better people-watch.

“She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives for just a minute while they talked around her.”

I could entirely relate to this. I relish people-watching, whether sitting at a pavement cafe with a cappuccino on holiday in Venice, or leaning by a fountain with a dodgy latte in Trafalgar Square, just down the road from my office.

Miss Brill watches children play, the band trumpet, lovers meet. She nostalgically recalls regularly reading a newspaper to an old man who would doze in the public gardens.

“How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play.”

A pair of young lovers enter stage left. The hero and heroine, as Miss Brill names them, approach the bench.

Sitting alongside Miss Brill, the young girl is evidently hesitant to kiss her hero. The boy queries her hesitation.

“Because of that stupid old thing at the end there? … Why does she come here at all – who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?”

The girl giggles, “It’s her fu-fur which is so funny … It’s exactly like a fried whiting.”

Her usual routine includes calling in at a local bakery en route home to purchase a slice of honey cake, sometimes with a crowning almond, and putting the kettle on for an accompanying cup of tea.

Alas, on this occasion, Miss Brill passes the bakery by, heading straight home.

She arrives back at her “little dark room” where she sits for a long time. She removes her fur, not bearing to meet it’s eye, and places it back in its box.

The story’s closing words are

“But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.”

Poor Miss Brill! My heart broke for her. I resented those young people and their vicious words wounding an innocent, isolating her even more in “her room like a cupboard.”

The closing image of the fur, her familiar, on some level grieving for her is just brilliant. You can picture the entire scene, Miss Brill here performing her own play for us.

Having finished the book, I decided to honour Miss Brill by donning my own fur coat and taking a stroll around a public park.

Please rest assured that my fur is very much a fake (£80 from Zara, Autumn 2014). Depending on what I wear it with, the coat can make me feel fabulously glamorous, like Elizabeth Taylor, as I clip-clop around London, or a bit like I’ve stepped out of an old dusty wardrobe, like Narnia’s Mr Tumnus.

I thought about Miss Brill and, having been written in the 1920s, assumed that she wouldn’t leave home without a hat and gloves. I therefore chose a suitable set and left my flat.

I was to meet my lovely friend Lois for a stroll but alas she had a rather heavy night on the town the night before and overslept. We were booked in for an exhibition at 11am, and she was running half an hour behind schedule.

Rather than taking in the sights of Hyde Park, where I could picture Miss Brill strolling of a weekend, I found a nearby public garden that I decided would do just as nicely. We’re very lucky to have so many public gardens in London.

And so, rather appropriately, I sat on a bench wrapped in my fur and people-watched on a lovely Autumnal morning. I saw young couples walking dogs, children whizz by on scooters, women in joggers carrying eggs and sliced bread for their breakfast and an elderly man with a walking stick stretch his legs.

Lois texted me “are you wearing your fur?” having spotted me from the opposite side of the park (I’m hard to miss in that fur). She collected me from my bench and we were on our way.

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It made for a delightful morning, particularly as, lucky for me, there were no cruel words. If only Miss Brill had experienced the same.

Thank you Miss Brill Claire for choosing this Little Black Classic. You’re right to love Mansfield and thank you for introducing her to me!

Next time I will be reading Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth.

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No. 39: The Old Nurse’s Story, Elizabeth Gaskell

This is my tenth Little Black Classic on the blog, hurrah!

Things we’ve learnt thus far:

  1. I don’t necessarily enjoy fiction. Take Mayhew and Hakluyt.
  2. Mrs Beaton might have provided inspiration to this years Great British Bake Off, but her chicken pie is truly heinous.
  3. I enjoy a drink in the blog. See Hafez, see Hebel, see Kenko.
  4. Hardy’s marriage was genuinely sad.
  5. Mozart swore. Which was surprising.

I regarded the tenth Classic as a landmark, so I asked my marvellous Mum to choose it. A huge fan of the BBC’s adaptation of North and South, she picked Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story.

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I know North and South well, having studied it at school alongside Dickens’ Hard Times. They were hard times indeed. Believe it or not, North and South offered genuinely light relief.

At university, North and South formed part of my dissertation, which looked at the birth of the publishing industry in Victorian England.

‘What a hoot!’ I can hear you say ‘Do tell us more! We are fascinated by the serialisation of novels and the first commuter market that required affordable, decent fiction for railway travellers.’

Perhaps another time, dear friend, for now we should turn to the Classic itself.

This particular Little Black Classic comprises two short stories. I’ve chosen to focus on the first, which the Classic takes it’s name from. But the second, called Curious, if True, makes for very entertaining reading – it depicts a gathering of fairytale character at a dinner table. What’s not to like?!

The Old Nurse’s Story doesn’t star such nostalgic characters.

As the title implies, the story is told by an Old Nurse, who fits more of a governess role. For those of you who don’t know, a governess was very common in Victorian Britain. She was usually a young woman, employed by a relatively monied family, and her role was that of a nanny and educator – she was teacher, nurse and friend. Perhaps like a modern day au pair.

Hester, the old nurse, takes us back to her seventeenth year when she cared for a little girl called Rosamund. When Rosamund is sadly orphaned, she and Hester move into Furnivall Manor House, Northumberland, occupied by distant relatives of Rosamund’s.

Isolated on wild moorland, an entire wing closed off from residents, the Manor is pretty damn creepy from the get go.

Upon entry to the house the two newcomers find a hall “so large, and vast, and grand” with a chandelier and organ, and countless imposing portraits.

Hester and Rosamund encounter a motley crew of residents. James and Dorothy, a husband and wife, both fill housekeeper-type roles; Agnes is their maid; Miss Furnivall is the elderly lady of the house; and Mrs Stark her companion.

The whole feel is unsettling. Dorothy and James are welcoming, but Miss Furnivall and Miss Stark are chillingly aloof, particularly the lady of the house who “looked so cold, and grey, and stony, as if she had never loved or cared for anyone.”

As winter sets in, Hester becomes aware of the old organ playing, usually soon after tucking Rosamund in for the night. “I used to hear it booming and swelling away in the distance.” Assuming it’s Miss Furnivall practicing her playing, she asks Dorothy and James about its provenance. Both refuse to speak about it, seeming shaken that she should ask.

Agnes then reveals

“she had heard it many a time but most of all on winter nights, and before storms; and folks did say it was the old lord playing on the great organ in the hall, just as he used to when he was alive; but who the old lord was, or why he played on stormy winter evenings in particular, she either could not or would not tell me.”

To add to the mystery, Hester goes to investigate the eerie organ and finds it smashed up inside. Understandably, “my flesh began to creep a little.”

On one snowy day, when Hester returns from church, she cannot find her dear Rosamund anywhere in the great house. Everyone searches for the child, even Mrs Furnivall “trembling all over,” but to no avail.

Hester runs out into the snowy moors desperately, bumping into a lowly shepherd who holds the near dead child in his arms.

When she is revived, the child reveals she watched the snow falling out the window when she saw a pretty little girl who beckoned to Rosamund. The little girl led Rosamund to a set of holly trees where a lady sat, weeping. Upon seeing the two little girls, she “smiled very proud and grand, and took me on her knee, and began to lull her to sleep.”

As Hester points out, however, there was just one set of a child’s footprints in the snow.

Cue morbid organ music.

Hester relays Rosamund’s tale to Mrs Furnivall, and the old woman shrieks “keep her from that child! It will lure her to her death! That evil child! Tell her it is a wicked, naughty child.”

The plot thickens when, one day, Hester and Rosamund are playing and the little mysterious girl appears outside

“dressed all unfit to be out-of-doors such a bitter night – crying, and beating against the window-panes, as if she wanted to be let in. She seemed to sob and wail … when, all of a sudden, and close upon us, the great organ pealed out so loud and thundering.”

Hester does all she can to protect Rosamund, physically pinning her to the floor to avoid her running out to the ghostly child.

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***SPOILER ALERT*** Ignore this section if you want to read for yourself!

After this event, Hester forces Dorothy to speak.

Dorothy reveals that Miss Furnivall had a sister, called Maude. Both sisters fell in love with their father’s musician, and he courted each in turn while their father practiced his beloved organ.

The musician married Maude in secret, and the two had a baby girl, whose identity was kept from the old lord. When Miss Furnivall learned of her sister’s disgrace, however, she told her father, who banished both Maude and her child from the house, sending them out in to the thick snow.

One November evening, when snow is falling thickly, Hester and the other residents can hear ghostly voices and the cold wind screaming outside. The door to the locked east wing bursts open, and four ghostly apparitions appear – the old lord, a younger Miss Furnivall, Miss Maude and her little girl, aka Miss Rosamund’s freaky friend.

In a strange occurrence, the scene of banishment is played out for the living – the ghosts frozen in time before the disgraced mother and daughter go to meet their snowy doom. The old Miss Furnivall begs the ghost of her father to save them from their fates. The short story closes with Miss Furnivall warning us

“What is done in youth can never be undone in old age!”

***SAFE TO LOOK***

This story was an absolute corker. I couldn’t put it down.

This Gothic tale seemed a real digression from Gaskell’s usual social commentaries, which tend to explore themes of class, family and the impact of industrialisation.

The Old Nurse’s Story really made me think of Jane Eyre, my absolute favourite book. A young woman is charged with caring and educating a little girl in a large, eerie, isolated house. The young woman also senses another living force in the house. I won’t reveal what that force in Jane Eyre is, for anyone that haven’t read it (but seriously, where have you been? Go and read it!).

Gaskell and Brontë were in fact friends, and Gaskell wrote Brontë’s biography, so it’s entirely plausible that Jane Eyre was a source of inspiration.

Having put the book down, I set upon visiting a grand haunted house like Furnivall Manor House. In a dark, damp, cobwebbed corner of my brain I recalled Ham House in Richmond is haunted.

I checked online, and sure enough there are accounts of the supernatural – an old woman scratching at a bedroom wall, inexplicable footsteps, the strange smell of tobacco and the ghostly apparition of a cocker spaniel.

Delighted at this find, I grabbed my camera and Tim (I was too terrified to go it alone).

We set out on a truly beautiful Autumnal Sunday, disembarked at Richmond and walked along the Thames to reach Ham House. With sunshine overheard, we passed cows, geese, rowers and dog-walkers. It was truly idyllic, and not in the slightest bit creepy.

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When approaching the house itself, however, it did begin to feel a little ominous. It is certainly grand, but doesn’t exude any real warmth unlike other stately homes. It’s literally dark in colour, and eerie busts stare down at you as you approach the house.

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I thought that the description of Furnivall Manor House is actually very similar to Ham House.

“Only in front of the house was all clear. The great oval drive was without a weed; and neither tree nor creeper was allowed to grow over the long many-windowed front.”

Upon arrival in the house, you find yourself in a large, light entrance hall, with portraits glaring down from the walls at us intruders, again like in Furnivall Manor House. From here we were directed through to the chapel and grand staircase, both rumoured to be haunted.

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In the case of the chapel, there are accounts of the ghost of the Duchess Elizabeth of Lauderdale, who died in Ham House, crying as she looks over a dead body, understood to be that of her husband, while a man stands behind her with his hand on her shoulder.

*Shudder.

The chapel was indeed a bit creepy – the photo below doesn’t do it justice. But then what low-lit chapel is not creepy?

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The staircase, on the other hand, was most definitely eerie. Decked in dark wooden panelling and floorboards that creak and crack, grand paintings are fixed to the walls and a chandelier swings overhead.

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At one point, Tim fell deathly silent and turned very pale. I asked him what was wrong. He said he could hear a ticking, despite there not being a clock in presence. Then, we both heard a clock chime before a lowly gust passed the both of us, like something had walked between us.

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*Jokes.

We literally didn’t experience anything.

But I could entirely imagine the great organ from The Old Nurse’s Story being placed here, playing inexplicably in the depth of winter. I could even envisage the ghostly apparitions confronting the living in the space at the foot of the stairs, and the roguish musician courting both sisters in the beautiful grounds.

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It makes for a perfect Halloween’s story and, those of you interested in haunted houses, Ham House does offer a Halloween ghost tour in search of the supernatural.

Thank you, Mum, for picking The Old Nurse’s Story – it was excellent! Perhaps you might like to borrow it?

That makes ten Little Black Classics read, 70 to go. Hurrah!

Next week I will be blogging about Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill.

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No. 22: How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog, Johann Peter Hebel

You might have noticed I’ve been rather quiet of late which, if you know me, is out of character. Life has been busy. Having returned from Plymouth, as discussed in the last blog post, I nipped home for a couple of weekends and spent an idyllic few days in Paris, nibbling on crêpes and winding around the stocked shelves of Shakespeare and Company. Utter bliss.

A Little Bit Bookish took a bit of a backseat. But here I am, at last, in the fine company of a Penguin. My friend Emma chose this week’s Classic – How a Ghastly Story Was Brought to Light by a Common or Garden Butcher’s Dog, which I am shortening to A Ghastly Story from hereon.

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A collection of fables, translated from German, these short stories offer moral warnings and advisories for adults, highlighting the perils of stealing, arguing, arrogance, trickery and trusting vagrant salesmen.

They make for a very different and varied reading experience. They’re classic German Gothic – castles, ghostly apparitions, murders – all the staples of a spine-chilling read.

Some of my favourite classic writing is Gothic, but I didn’t relish these tales. They are entirely readable, and they vary in length (some are over five pages, some are just a paragraph) making them easy to dip in to. But I found them disjointed – just as a began to settle into a tale it would end.

And whilst they were Gothic, they lacked real art and drama, the qualities I love in Gothic writing (think of the Brontës, think of Heathcliff and the mad woman in the attic… and what a pair they’d make! No one has thought of this before?! *quickly jots down a novel idea).

Although not subtly Gothic, these are spooky nonetheless.

A Ghastly Story, which this classic takes its name from, is not to be read before bedtime, even by a twenty-something-year-old.

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A husband and wife kill a butcher for his purse of money, before killing and seemingly eating a child who witnessed the atrocity. The butcher’s dog saves the day, sniffing out his owner’s corpse and alerting the neighbours. The closing image is of the sentenced murderers:

“their villainous corpses bound to the wheel, and even now the crows are still saying, ‘That’s tasty meat, that is!'”

This isn’t Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare.

Then, in ‘A Secret Beheading’ an executioner is forced to behead a young woman, without clarification of her identity or her crime. The tale concludes:

“No, nobody found out who she was, what sin she had committed, and nobody knows where she is buried.”

Incredibly morbid, and I couldn’t really make sense of the point here, other than I understand never to travel to Landau on my own.

Another tale, simply entitled ‘A Curious Ghost Story,’ begins in a similarly eerie vein. A gentleman, looking for refuge on a long journey, spends the night in a closed up mansion, rumoured to be occupied by ghosts. Sure enough, he is woken by an apparition, only to realise these ghosts are a group of forgers, taking advantage of the resources the mansion has to offer while the Lord of the Manor is away. The gentleman promises to keep their secret, and does so, receiving parcels of jewellery and new pistols in thanks.

I enjoyed this story more than A Secret Beheading and A Ghastly Story. I liked the fact it was a ghost story without ghosts, and the gathering of ‘baddies’ wuss out of murdering the gentleman, instead deciding that showering him with gifts is an appropriate course.

These really are a miss mash of stories and I’m not confident why they’re pitched as fables, with Hebel offering us idioms and warnings.

Take the closing line of The Cheap Meal: “Remember: Someone will always stand up for what is right.” And the close of Patience Rewarded: “Remember: Other people’s property can eat into your own just as fresh snow swallows up the old.”

And my favourite conclusion of any of these stories is that of The Lightest Death Sentence, which ends “This little story comes from our mother-in-law who doesn’t like to let anyone die if she can possibly help it.”

I was keen to swap notes with Emma, who read the stories in tandem. We were quaffing drinks at a garden party when the subject arose. She agreed she couldn’t quite settle into them, although she has since lent her copy to a friend who is really enjoying them.

Emma made several interesting points, including that they have been translated from German – some of the subtleties that I felt were missing could have been lost.

She interestingly pointed out that fairy tales by Hebels contemporaries also strikingly include character that just aren’t particularly pleasant to one another. Inn keepers trying to get one up on the other, murderous couples, dentist con artists. This was an excellent point. Think Rumplestiltskin, wanting first-born children for payment of magic, and Hansel and Gretel being threatened by a cannibalistic witch.

These are the realities of European fairy tales before Disney and Pixar adopted them and gave them a glossy finish.

Fairy tales, whether for adults or children, are dark and it seems I’ve been living in a rose-tinted, theme park with candy floss clouds and doe-eyed characters.

I left with Emma’s comments and, for some reason, Hafez and his eloquent, tragically optimistic poetry tickling my brain.

Like Hafez I needed a tipple to lighten the mood. A frighteningly alcohol-dependent statement, I am aware.

I visited The Fable, a bar not far from the Monument, London.

Upon entering this establishment is a table surrounded by a book wall, protecting it’s occupants from cheating villains and deceptive ghouls. I knew I’d just found my new local.

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Here I had a much needed drink, dubbed an Aperol 1919 (Aperol, gin, rhubarb syrup, apple and prosecco – all the best things).

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As I sipped on my fruity cocktail, in a Carrie Bradshaw way, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Hebel was just having a bit of a laugh, and possibly poking fun at those stories of a similar ilk.

If he was, I’m not confident he passed this off. I’ve felt pulled and tugged by these so-called fables. It would be interesting to read them along side Aesop and the Brothers Grimm, who are both on the list of Little Black Classics.

Whatever, musing over the fables with a glass in hand was an excellent way to conclude the journey. Thank you Emma G for choosing this one – I’m pleased we really were reading from the same page!

Next week I will be blogging about A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees.

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