Today’s winter tale is a moody, slightly longer piece by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835 – 1915), a Victorian gothic writer most famous for the sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret.
In “At Chrighton Abbey,” Sarah Chrighton, a governess and poor relation of the distinguished Chrighton family, comes home for the Christmas holiday after several years of living abroad. She has a happy reunion with Squire Chrighton and his family, and meets the fiancé of her younger cousin Edward (the heir apparent). Edward’s mother is not overly fond of her future daughter-in-law, but is relieved that her son is marrying soon. For tragic endings stalk the sons of the Chrighton family, especially the unmarried ones.
The story revolves around Edward’s relationship with his fiancé Julia Tremaine. She’s a striking (and rich) woman, but not well liked by the rest of the Chrighton family, including Sarah.
She was tall and slim, and carried her head and neck with a stately air, which struck me more than anything in that first glance. Yes, she was handsome, undeniably handsome; and my cousin had been right when she said I could not fail to admire her; but to me the dazzlingly fair face with its perfect features, the marked aquiline nose, the short upper lip expressive of unmitigated pride, the full cold blue eyes, pencilled brows, and aureole of pale golden hair, were the very reverse of sympathetic. That Miss Tremaine must needs be universally admired, it was impossible to doubt; but I could not understand how any man could fall in love with such a woman.
Julia’s behavior doesn’t endear her to Sarah, either. She seems stuck-up, and more, as when she declines to accompany Edward and other members of the family on their gift-giving visits to the tenants of the estate.
‘I don’t like poor people,’ she said. ‘I daresay it sounds very dreadful, but it’s just as well to confess my iniquity at once. I never can get on with them, or they with me. I am not simpatica, I suppose…. It is better that I should not affect any feminine virtues which I do not possess.’
Not a politically correct thing to say.
Reading the story, though, I couldn’t help feel an empathy, even a sympathy for Julia Tremaine — and I suspect that this was Ms. Braddon’s intent. Because while Julia is stubborn, and way too proud, on closer examination she doesn’t seem arrogant or self-absorbed; she seems introverted and shy. There’s a large house party going on at Chrighton Abbey; Julia refuses to sing or play the piano for the company, though she’s clearly extremely talented in both directions (and will sing and play for just the family). She doesn’t sled, or skate, or play billiards, but prefers to sit in a corner of the drawing room doing stitching and beadwork. Even her dislike for the company of poor people comes partly from her general discomfort around strangers, and partly from a discomfort with what she sees as “cringing” — that is, having to pretend more gratitude than they really feel — when the tenants receive charity from the estate owners. And I can see her point.
And, unlike the usual haughty beauty in stories like this one, she genuinely loves Edward, though one suspects the marriage will be rocky.
Will love be enough?
As ghost stories go, this one is a fairly mild one, but I like it because Braddon subverts the stereotypical characters of an English gothic. Julia is one example; in addition there is Squire Chrighton, who hates fox-hunting and would rather hide in his library reading Greek than cavort with his guests. And even though Sarah is a poor relation, she is treated with respect and genuine affection by the richer members of her family and their household. Braddon writes with ironic bemusement about upper-class Victorian society; yet all the while she manages to maintain an anxious mood in the story, a feeling of impending doom.
You can read “At Chrighton Abbey” here. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.