Woman reading a book, looking over her left shoulder as if in surprise or fright.


Haunted Victorians: An Anthology of Literary Exhibitions 

Ghosts break the rules: the rules of religion, the rules of science, the rules of empirical knowledge, even—it seems—the rules of life and death. They break the rules of linear time, placing the problems of the past squarely in the present, affecting the future. Hauntings refuse simple cause and effect logic, leaving us asking “why?” with no answers in sight. The presence, even the possibility, of ghosts requires us to ask uncomfortable, maybe even unanswerable, questions: What is the nature of existence, and what is our value in the grand scheme of things? Ghosts violate boundaries, they surprise us, and they frighten us because they exist not just beyond our personal control, but also beyond the systems we have created to account for what we believe to be real. Ghosts force us to consider what these phantoms, these experiences, these moments of profound uncertainty mean about the meaning of life.

This disruptive potential of the ghostly may be one reason tales of the supernatural have been popular across the British Isles, Ireland, and beyond, for as long as we can measure. Anglophone folk tales regularly feature ghostly occurrences, and the pre-Christian practice of telling ghost stories around the fire on midwinter nights continues today as a celebrated Christmas tradition in the U.K.

This semester, the students of "ENG329: Haunted Victorians" spent months analyzing the many persistent, profound, and provoking questions that are posed in and by these narratives of haunting. Then, they formed editorial teams to create Haunted Victorians: An Anthology of Literary Exhibitions to share their discoveries more widely. Taking on the role of editorial curators, these teams of students have selected to share five narratives from the long Victorian period as representative and individually intriguing examples of the genre of the Victorian ghost story.

The Victorian period (approx. 1837-1901) was a time of change, uncertainty, and displacement: economic, technological, and social “progress” was a double-edged sword, the costs and benefits of which landed unevenly among the many communities living in Britain. And the British imperial project overseas raised yet more questions of fundamental values, challenging simplistic beliefs in British “superiority” as the complex consequences and profoundly problematic modes of empire-building became more generally understood. In the Victorian period, haunted by the past and fearfully forecasting the future, the form of the ghost story became ever more popular. Writers and readers alike understood it to be a form about anxiety, a form that asked questions it also refused to answer. Reflecting these lived complexities, the five narratives explored in this Anthology feature narrative gaps, flashbacks (analepses), framing devices, multiple narrative levels, and shifting perspectives (focalization) in their formal structures.

Taking our cue from the narrative conventions of the Victorian ghost story itself, the student contributors to this Anthology have used a variety of ways to communicate their interpretations of and to illuminate the lurking anxieties behind each fictional haunting. Please join us in our haunted journeys: read the stories, explore the annotations, listen to the recordings, and look at the images. We cannot promise any final answers about the nature of the Victorian ghost story as a genre, nor about the nature of reality: but we can promise to raise for you—like spirits from the grave—some pleasurably haunting questions.

Professor Heidi L. Pennington, James Madison University, December 2023


 Catalog Introductions to Haunted Victorians: An Anthology of Literary Exhibitions

Click here for the Catalog Introduction to "The Old Nurse's Story" (1852) by Elizabeth Gaskell

Click here for the Catalog Introduction to "To Be Read at Dusk" (1852) by Charles Dickens

Click here for the Catalog Introduction to "The Canterville Ghost" (1887) by Oscar Wilde

Click here for the Catalog Introduction to "The Skeleton" (1892) by Rabindranath Tagore

Click here for the Catalog Introduction to "Sultana's Dream" (1905) by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain



Contributors to Haunted Victorians: An Anthology of Literary Exhibitions

 Riley Alvarez ("The Skeleton" editorial team)

Blair Casey ("The Canterville Ghost" editorial team)

Caleb Ching ("The Canterville Ghost" editorial team)

Mattie Cooke ("To Be Read at Dusk" editorial team)

Sydney Dudley ("Sultana's Dream" editorial team)

Jack Foster ("The Old Nurse's Story" editorial team)

Gillian Guy ("To Be Read at Dusk" editorial team)

Grace Keeler ("The Old Nurse's Story" editorial team)

Bryce Kittle ("The Old Nurse's Story" editorial team)

Kayla Koldys ("The Skeleton" editorial team)

Rachel Lowe ("Sultana's Dream" editorial team)

Huy Nguyen ("The Canterville Ghost" editorial team)

Anna Oehler ("The Canterville Ghost" editorial team)

Kylie Ordonez ("The Canterville Ghost" editorial team)

Izabella Pezza ("Sultana's Dream" editorial team)

Alexia Ryan ("The Canterville Ghost" editorial team)

Rachel Smith ("The Old Nurse's Story" editorial team)

Phoebe Solo-Sakss ("Sultana's Dream" editorial team)

Brynn Sprinkle ("The Skeleton" editorial team)

Kamryn Upson ("To Be Read at Dusk" editorial team)

India Williams ("The Skeleton" editorial team)

Peyton Zahirnyi ("To Be Read at Dusk" editorial team)


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Heading image sourced from: Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dr._Jayne%27s_Expectorant_(3093617372).jpg

Published @ COVE

December 2023