One of the Few Female Occult Detectives
“Wanted–An Explanation” is an anonymous novella that appeared in four weekly issues of Household Words during June of 1881. (This journal was a revival of the one Charles Dickens had edited in the 1850s.) The work is an interesting one, and I was very excited as I began reading it. After all, it spotlights one of the rare female supernatural sleuths on my bibliography, Lady Julia Spinner.
Lady Julia is an enjoyably crusty, no-nonsense woman who has never married and probably sees no reason why she would. In some ways, she’s like my own ghost hunter, Vera Van Slyke. She becomes a bit snarky, though, when first hearing that a manor called Hunt House is haunted. You see, Lady Julia is a committed ghost hunter, but very much unlike Vera, she doesn’t believe in ghosts. Serving as narrator, she says:
‘I do not believe in their existence at all,’ I responded with sharpness. ‘I have been a hunter of ghosts all my life, and have never been able even to meet with a single person who has seen one.’
In fact, when later called to Hunt House to investigate strange events there, she remains skeptical of supernatural explanations — even after she experiences some very odd sensations herself. This contradiction coupled with her crankiness makes Lady Julia one of the more developed ghost hunter characters I’ve discovered.
A Corner-of-the-Eye Phantom
A broken thread appears in the story when we learn how the specter is perceived — or is almost perceived. On the day Lady Julia arrives to investigate the house, she’s in her bedroom unpacking. She speaks to her maid, but she gets no reply.
Then I turned round. Beaufort was not there. I was alone. Simple as this was, it positively gave me a shock. Although I had not heard her fidgeting, I could have sworn she was in the room—that well-known, indescribable consciousness of the presence of another identity beside one’s own, with which we are all familiar, had so entirely possessed me.
This corner-of-the-eye awareness of the ghostly presence seems to relate to why the new lady of the house becomes enamored with skating. Do the spins and turns Susy Sherbrooke performs on the ice help her to interact with the elusive ghost? Probably not. However, when skating rinks first became popular, some people were very worried that they were a place where young women could freely mingle with men they barely knew! One critic describes the “skating-rink furore” as “an epidemic disease” and a threat to “the moral and physical welfare of the female portion of the rising generation.” And, as we’ll see, improper mingling between the sexes is at the heart of the haunting.
Skating as a Parallel of Promiscuity
Lady Julia discovers evidence of a former resident, and the writer makes this likely villain a foreigner in the fashion of other supernatural novels from about the same time (e.g., Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle). That is, there’s a strong suggestion that the house is haunted by the ghost of a passionate, swarthy, cloak-wearing, scar-faced Spaniard who had once lived there after eloping with a young, married woman. Susy tells Lady Julia that she keeps glimpsing a “dark, cruel face, the face of the miniature which I found in the cupboard in the little dressing-room,” and that fits the description of the Spaniard. Does his sinful presence linger in the house?
Or do subsequent residents suffer from the curse that this man put on the house? As Lady Julia learns from the local gossip/historian, the villainous Spaniard cursed the house when his lover died: “his were the curses of the wicked; and we all know that curses, like chickens, come home to roost.” Or maybe there’s just bad energy left over from the extramarital elopement itself. No specific final explanation is given for why young wives who move to the house are plagued by madness and their husbands by jealousy. Thus, the title: “Wanted–An Explanation.”
Some readers might find this a disappointment, and it’s not helped by the fact that — just as Lady Julia is about to unravel the riddle — she’s called away. And away she goes! Susy, her friend, is put into far greater danger as a result of this. That’s good for the dramatic tension, I guess, but it seems inconsistent with, if not Lady Julia’s character, then with her role as the story’s detective.
An Important Work with an Unfortunate Ending
I worry that I’ve already spoiled things too much, but let me repeat that I found the conclusion unsatisfying in its lack of a confirmed solution to the mystery. It seems as if that title was a way of compensating for the ending instead of, say, signaling that the author was hoping to try something new with how a mystery is resolved. Indeed, perhaps, the reader is invited to do a better job of tying up loose ends than Lady Julia does. Perhaps.
Nonetheless, the theme of wives haunted by feelings of infidelity is rather sophisticated for a Victorian ghost story. In addition, Lady Julia’s characterization starts out strong, and her status as one of the earliest female occult detectives is historically important. These strengths explain why I included “Wanted–An Explanation” in my anthology Ghostly Clients & Demonic Culprits: The Roots of Occult Detective Fiction.