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  • Spectral Economics and the Horror of Risk in Charlotte Riddell’s Ghost Stories
  • Sarah Bissell (bio)

A middle-aged man … with a set, determinedexpression of countenance, dark hair, no beardor whiskers, only a small moustache. … His easyindifference, his contemptuous coolness, angeredme. … Without swerving in the slightest degree fromthe path, he passed me! I felt something like a coldmist touch me for an instant. … I was sick with fear.

(Riddell, “Nut Bush” 151–52)

This relatively underwhelming encounter with a spirit—which appears in Charlotte Riddell’s “Nut Bush Farm” (1882)—represents the type of haunting that recurs in the author’s ghost stories. Riddell’s mild spectres often seem too mundane to be truly distressing insofar as they resemble the living, reiterate everyday actions, and occupy a comprehensible place in the material world. They frequently return to correct past wrongs but remain polite and innocuous in doing so. Gesturing rather than shrieking, they regularly depend on living characters to help them achieve these aims. The percipient in the above example is perturbed upon the revelation that his nocturnal intruder is spectral, but the modern reader might understandably fail to share his shock.1

Charlotte Riddell (1832–1906) was a prolific author of ghost stories whose tales seem somewhat lacking in the thrills and chills that we (perhaps misguidedly) associate with the genre.2 This absence of shock might explain why these tales, though recurring in anthologies of supernatural fiction, remain somewhat underdiscussed by academics.3 Critics such as Gail Turley Houston and Andrew Smith have established links between the ghost story and the precariousness of the Victorian financial system, but the contribution of this extremely economically conscious writer is often eschewed in favour of tales by authors such as M.R. James and Vernon Lee. Perhaps this is because, with the exception of the malicious Mrs. Jones, Riddell’s pallid spectres usually fail to instigate fear. But this apparent lack of affect is, I argue, their very point. Riddell’s ghosts—despite their liminal position between life and death—are feeble indeed in comparison to the far more distressing horror that shadows non-spectral Victorian subjects in her stories: the knowledge that they can be instantly ruined by the caprices of the highly unstable financial system in which they are inextricably immersed. Riddell’s varied spectres contribute to [End Page 73] their percipients’ precarious negotiations with nineteenth-century economics. Some of her benevolent ghosts aid living characters with their financial endeavours—through, for example, revealing illicit inheritors or allowing protagonists to capitalize on the promise of monetary recompense if they succeed in alleviating hauntings—while others function as uncanny manifestations of bailiffs in driving tenants from their homes. Moreover, many of Riddell’s spectres illustrate the spiritual costs of miserliness and overspending in distressing evocations of the afterlife, in which they remain entangled in the troublingly unreliable world of nineteenth-century finance.

This article examines economic risk in a selection of mid-career ghost stories by Charlotte Riddell. Drawing on recent scholarship on the Victorian financial market and on the author’s own pecuniary struggles, I argue that Riddell’s tales utilize the figure of the spectre in order to express anxieties about the perilous nature of nineteenth-century economics, particularly for women. Riddell depicts the processes that underpin this system as less familiar—and more horrifyingly destructive—than the ghosts themselves. According to Elaine Freedgood, risk in nineteenth-century Britain was often invoked in attempts to portray the country as a safe haven in a dangerous world. The idea that “risk could be written into, and out of, specific places provided powerful consolation” for the Victorian public (1). Freedgood suggests that these containment strategies were articulated through often short-lived “modern cosmologies” which circulated in ephemeral or marginal literature and attempted “to offer totalizing explanations of a part of the world” (2).4 The endeavours to frame risk as a controllable external threat were necessarily doomed to fail insofar as they neglected the temporal and largely unpredictable nature of risk (1). Furthermore, the inherently unstable economic structures underpinning Victorian life posited risk as a continual presence lurking at the very heart of...


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pp. 73-89
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