I taught Mary Elizabeth Braddon's ghost story "At Chrighton Abbey" on Monday, and as I prepared it for class, I couldn't help thinking that Braddon was reworking Jane Eyre. The narrator of "At Chrighton Abbey" is Sarah, a governess in her thirties, a "distant cousin" of the wealthy and ancient Chrighton family; despite having to "go out into the bleak unknown world" to survive (she is living with a family in St. Petersburg), she professes a deep attachment to both her nation and the family seat. She visits the Chrightons at Christmas, where she encounters the now-adult heir, Edward, and his fiancee, Julia Tremaine--an icy blonde whose attractions Sarah finds puzzling ("...I could not understand how any man could fall in love with such a woman"). During the course of Sarah's visit, Edward and Julia slowly become estranged over Julia's apparent lack of charity; this estrangement comes accompanied by Sarah's vision of a ghostly hunt, which, says one of the servants, heralds doom for someone in the family. An irate Edward visits a friend to go hunting and, predictably, dies in the field, leaving the family bereft and Julia converted to a life of good works among the poor.
Although Sarah professes herself nothing but "a confirmed old maid, a quiet spectator in life's drama," her narrative is undershot with threads of deep nostalgia and alienation. She repeatedly asserts her sense of belonging to the Chrightons and their history--"...I made it my business to seek employment abroad, where the degradation of one solitary Chrighton was not so likely to inflict shame upon the ancient house to which I belonged"--and yet, while she is treated well, there is no sense that anyone has missed her desperately during her absence. Sarah invests both the abbey and Englishness with an aura of deep time, from "my dear old country home" to the servants she can remember from "my very infancy" to the "old familiar English country-house life" and the "real old English Christmas." Again and again, the narrative returns to familiarity, to the sense of a comfortable, unchanging tradition; by visiting Chrighton Abbey, Sarah reestablishes her identity within a sweeping national timeline, miniaturized by both the family and its home. Above all, the space and its culture are, as she says repeatedly, "old." Antiquity promises to conquer Sarah's distress at her "degradation" and exile abroad; it grounds her, as it were, offering a way for her to stabilize her otherwise threatened identity. When Sarah meets Julia Tremaine and imagines her thinking "'[a] frump, a poor relation,'" this moment of projection tells us as much about Sarah's anxieties as it does about Julia.
Sarah's yearning for home and family, which echoes Jane Eyre's, is underscored by the increasingly-fraught relationship between Edward and Julia, which carries unmistakable hints of the rather theatrical courtship between Edward Rochester and Blanche Ingram. Jane moans of Blanche, "she could not charm him," and the self-professed spinster Sarah, now unmarriageable, seems similarly and strangely piqued by Julia's chill. Sarah insists that Edward "seemed all that was admirable" and can hardly imagine him "happy with such a mate"; there are undertones of a frustrated infatuation here. And yet, if Julia seems as ice-cold as the cruel Blanche Ingram, her disinterest in philanthropic visiting matched by Blanche's dislike of children, the narrative makes clear that something else is at work: Julia's iciness may be pride, but it also conceals her own anxieties about social interaction (it turns out that she is uncomfortable one-on-one with the poor, but is happy to engage in philanthropy on her own terms). Moreover, the estrangement is a case of it taking two to tango, as each is unwilling to beg pardon of the other. Unlike Rochester's mock courtship of Blanche, the problem is not one of dissimilarity, but too great similarity--and if one is unworthy, so is the other.
One of the things we discussed in class is that it's Sarah who sees the spectral vision of the hunt. Sarah is, in many ways, a stereotypical audience for ghostly behavior, precisely because she describes herself as "an utter unbeliever in all ghostly things"--much like cats, bothering people who don't like them, Victorian ghosts inevitably haunt skeptics. To be a skeptic in the world of Gothic is to blunder across invisible boundaries, trespass in frightening territories; in a way, it is to be conceptually not at home. In that context, it's interesting that the last person who saw the ghosts was "a wild young Oxford gentleman" who happened to be using Sarah's room. The ghosts, that is, don't necessarily appear to members of the household, but to random occupants of a small guest room; the ghosts' appearance is a sign of the viewer's strangeness to the space (in part because those who see the hunt promptly mistake it for the real thing, not realizing that the Chrightons don't keep hounds). Sarah is not at home here. Nor will she be: at the end of the story, after Edward's death, she remains a perpetual and unmarried visitor. The forever-unwedded Julia Tremaine may be redeemed by her sorrows, "a Sister of Charity in all but the robe," but there is no "Reader, I married him" for Sarah, no comic resolution to emerge from the Gothic trauma--no Prince Charming, in other words, for the governess Cinderella.