- Ada Trevanion’s “A Ghost Story”: Queered Haunting and the “Mysterious Inmate” of Woodford House
In the January 1858 issue of New York’s National Magazine, a short story appears, simply titled “A Ghost Story.” The origins of this strange little tale are somewhat mystifying for the contemporary scholar. Very little is known today about its author, the London-born Ada Trevanion, whose recovered literary output (to date) consists of just this short story and a book of poems published in London in the same year. Yet, in spite of the dearth of material, clear themes are repeated across her writing, with both “A Ghost Story” and her poems exuding romanticized images of nature, death, and the supernatural.
Feminist literary criticism has proposed for decades that the typically minor modes of magazine fiction, local colour literature, and regional writing—traditionally disregarded by male contemporaries as petty amusements—were often used as a form of framing mechanism that concealed a subtext. Lillian Faderman identifies magazine fiction as a medium that could “depict female-female love relationships with an openness that later became . . . impossible” (“Lesbian Magazine Fiction” 102). Terry Castle emphasizes the ghost story in particular as offering a literary framework in which writers were able to explore and give expression to certain forbidden topics without fear of censure. For Castle, the spectral apparition is a metaphor that highlights the “‘recognition through negation’ which has taken place with regard to female homosexuality in Western culture since the Enlightenment . . . which otherwise could not be acknowledged” (60). This essay examines the ghostly apparition that haunts the protagonist in “A Ghost Story,” using notions of female “queerness” to uncover its underlying subversion.
Trevanion’s tale is set in the enigmatic Woodford House, a school for “young ladies” (16). Protagonist Ruth Irvine announces to the reader that “Woodford House was rather famous for its mysterious inmates,” (17) going on to describe one such “inmate,” the “peculiar” Miss Winter, a young teacher who “slept in a small room adjoining ours, walked out with us, and never left us” (16). Such close contact results in fierce rivalry and jealousy among the students, who complain that their teacher “favored Ruth Irvine” (17). Ruth’s “desire to learn” certainly translates as a desire for Miss Winter’s approval, and when she subsequently over-studies herself into illness, the latter takes it upon herself to nurse Ruth back to health. This time together forges an even more intimate bond between Miss Winter and Ruth, one suggestive of courtship. The teacher confides in Ruth, decorates her room with “mosses and wild flowers,” and gives her a book of poetry, telling the [End Page 174] young student to “keep it always, and never to forget her if [she] never [sees] her again” (18). When Miss Winter leaves for the summer, the devoted Ruth misses her intensely, waiting impatiently for her to return.
And so she does, one “sultry” night, at the strike of midnight, while the moon shines full in the sky (19). Recognizing her teacher’s step on the stairs, Ruth sits up in bed to see her “friend” at the foot of it (19). More alarmed by her “strange, wistful expression” (19) than by her presence in the room at night, she reaches out for her in sympathy, but Miss Winter disappears, leaving Ruth “bewildered and disappointed” (19). The following night, Miss Winter returns, and again Ruth tries to embrace her: “I moved quickly toward her, and bent forward to kiss her” (21). Again she disappears. The third night, Miss Winter gazes at Ruth with her “long-familiar” (21) eyes as if it is the last time she will see her. She reveals that there are important papers hidden in her wardrobe, and vanishes once again, for the last time. The next day, Miss Winter’s death is confirmed by the principal of Woodford House, who says consolingly, “I believe you were much attached to her” before Ruth “swoon[s] away” with a “wild cry” (22). Ruth becomes dangerously ill, staying in bed for days and waiting in vain for Miss Winter to appear again, but to no avail: “she came no more” (23).1...