British Fiction, 18001829

UTTERSON, Sarah Elizabeth. Tales of the Dead (1813)

Contemporary Reviews

Monthly Review, 2nd ser. 77 (Aug 1815): 378–81.

In a concise and sensible advertisement, we are informed that the first four tales in this collection, and the last, are imitated from a small French work in two duodecimo volumes, intitled, ‘Fantasmagoriana; ou Recueil d’Histoires d’Apparitions, de Spectres, Revenans, Fantômes, &c. Traduit de l’Allemand, par un Amateur: Paris, 1812.’ The fifth tale is founded on an incident related to the translator by a female friend of deserved literary celebrity, as having actually occurred in this country. It is a fragment of very considerable interest to the lovers of the miraculous; a species of readers which can never be wholly extinct, howmuchsoever they may have been surfeited out of their flourishing state of existence, by the inordinate supply of their favourite food which (as the present author observes) was administered to them between the days of ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and those of ‘The Confessional of the Black Penitents.’

No preliminary dissertation on the different sorts of spirits, whether black or white, whether blue or gray, must here be expected from us, as we have neither limits nor leisure to frighten our readers or ourselves with such high and strange lucubrations. We must refer them, with the French editor of this work, (whose preface the English imitator translates,) to Dom Calmet, and the Abbé Lenglet-Dufresnoy; in whose ample list of ghostly authors, the most sanguine or sanguinary of spectre-mongers will find enough and more than enough to satisfy him. [1] If, however, he should not yet cry out, ‘Hold, [378/379] enough!’ we would lead him still farther on, if like Hamlet he will follow us at an aweful distance, to Swedenborg and St. Martin; to Wagener and to Jung, the respective authors of ‘The Spectres,’ (Die Gespenster Kurze Erzæhlungen aus dem Reiche der Wahrheit, — a title that itself sounds very like the powerful invocation of a spirit,—) and of ‘The Theory on Phantasmatology:’ authors who put quite out of joint the noses of Scott on Apparitions, and Walter Scott, and Michael Scott himself, and throw poor King James and his Dæmonology, and Glanville’s Witches, and Wanley’s Wonders, and the Wonderful Magazine, entirely into the back ground.

The first of these tales is called ‘The Family Portraits.’ The name instantly suggests a boundless association of horrors to the vivid imagination of the ghost-seer; and the motto from ‘the Winter’s Tale’ is well selected:

‘No longer shall you gaze on’t—lest your fancy
May think anon it moves.—
The fixture of her eye has motion in’t!’

We shall say no more. It is our object (a legitimate object on such an occasion as the introduction of a ghost-story, but sadly misplaced, though very fashionable, in the poetical tales of the day,) to excite and not to gratify curiosity. Besides, we feel a sort of involuntary shudder, even as we run over these tales a second time.

‘The dead does Leonora fear?
Oh God! Oh no!— but talk not of the dead!’
Spencer’s Translation from Berger.

Of ‘The Fated Hour,’ we shall only observe,

——— ‘Wan the maiden was,
Of saintly paleness, and there seem’d to dwell
In the strong beauties of her countenance

Something that was not earthly.’

Bravissima! Joan of Arc! This, we say, is all the intimation of the nature of the story which we shall give: but there is a passage relating to this unearthly maiden, which we feel irresistibly compelled to extract; and let our fair— nay let our firmest— readers look to it, as they read. The sister is speaking:

‘ “But a very extraordinary particularity, which I by chance discovered in her just as she attained her fifteenth year, created an impression of fear on my mind which will never be effaced.

‘ “On my return from making a visit, I found Seraphina in my father’s cabinet, near the window, with her eyes fixed and immovable. Accustomed from her earliest infancy to see her in this situation, [379/380] without being perceived by her I pressed her to my bosom, without producing on her the least sensation of my presence. At this moment I looked towards the garden, and I there saw my father walking with this same Seraphina whom I held in my arms.

‘ “In the name of God, my sister——!” exclaimed I, equally cold with the statue before me; who now began to recover.

‘ “At the same time my eye involuntarily returned towards the garden, where I had seen her; and there perceived my father alone, looking with uneasiness, as it appeared to me, for her, who, but an instant before, was with him. I endeavoured to conceal this event from my sister; but in the most affectionate tone she loaded me with questions to learn the cause of my agitation.

‘ “I eluded them as well as I could; and asked her how long she had been in the closet. She answered me, smiling, that I ought to know best; as she came in after me; and that if she was not mistaken, she had before that been walking in the garden with my father.

‘ “This ignorance of the situation in which she was but an instant before, did not astonish me on my sister’s account, as she had often shewn proofs of this absence of mind. At that instant, my father came in, exclaiming, ‘Tell me, my dear Seraphina, how you so suddenly escaped from my sight, and came here? We were, as you know, conversing; and scarcely had you finished speaking, when, looking round, I found myself alone. I naturally thought that you had concealed yourself in the adjacent thicket; but in vain I looked there for you; and on coming into this room, here I find you.’

‘ “It is really strange,” replied Seraphina; “I know not myself how it has happened.”

‘ “From that moment I felt convinced of what I had heard from several persons, but what my father always contradicted; which was, that while Seraphina was in the house, she had been seen elsewhere. I secretly reflected also on what my sister had repeatedly told me, that when a child (she was ignorant whether sleeping or awake), she had been transported to heaven, where she had played with angels; to which incident she attributed her disinclination to all infantine games.

‘ “My father strenuously combated this idea, as well as the event to which I had been witness, of her sudden disappearance from the garden.

‘ “Do not torment me any longer,” said he, “with these phænomena, which appear complaisantly renewed every day, in order to gratify your eager imagination. It is true, that your sister’s person and habits present many singularities; but all your idle talk will never persuade me that she holds any immediate intercourse with the world of spirits.”

‘ “My father did not then know, that where there is any doubt of the future, the weak mind of man ought not to allow him to profane the word never, by uttering it.” ’

‘The Death’s Head’ is the third story; ushered in by a quotation from Young’s Night Thoughts: [380/381]

———‘What guilt
Can equal violations of the dead?
The dead how sacred!’

The tameness and mere prose of this motto serve as excellent foils to some of the others.

‘The Death-Bride’ is the fourth.

—— ‘She shall be such
As walk’d your first queen’s ghost.’
Shakspeare.

This tale is one of the most interesting in the collection, but we cannot cite any passage from it.

‘The Storm’ is the fifth;—and only let a small family or friendly party, of males and females, draw round the blazing wood-fire of their dark wainscot parlour in the old château, or any other description of haunted house, while the rain and wind

‘Beat dark December,’

and every individual of them hear this story without the secret thrill, the painful joy, nowhere so adequately described as in Joanna Baillie’s play of Orra:— let, we say, this event happen, and then we shall allow that, after all, there is no such thing as a ghost. It is impossible to detach a sentence from this tale without injuring the context; or with any chance of justly conveying its strong powers of excitement to the reader.

‘The Spectre-Barber’ concludes the volume, and properly and good humouredly dismisses the panic-stricken assembly,

‘Sending its hearers laughing to their beds!’

[1] Our own pages (in the Review of Mrs. Grant on the Highland Superstitions, December 1811,) are quoted for information on this subject by the French editor.

Notes: Format: 8vo; price 9s. Boards. Publisher: White and Cochrane.

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