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Margaret Oliphant’s ‘The Open Door’: Looking Back to Move Forward

Posted by. Professor Rosemary Mitchell
Posted on 31 October 2016

blogs:Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies

Margaret_Oliphant_Wilson_Oliphant Augustus Sandys 1881

​​The latest post from the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies​ has a Halloween theme, as Dr Rosemary Mitchell examines a ghost story by the Victorian writer Margaret Oliphant. 

Margaret Oliphant's ghost story,​​ The Open Door, was published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in January 1882. It is a tale of binaries – past and present, town and country, lower and upper classes, religion and science – which explores the borders between the natural physical world and the spiritual one. Like many of Oliphant's ghost stories, it is about a past which refuses to be silent and a modernity which refuses to listen to it.

Past and Present
The plot is a simple one. A retired officer, Colonel Mortimer, has taken a lease on the mansion of Brentwood, close to Edinburgh and apparently in the North Esk Valley. The village of Brentwood is probably Lasswade ('the ford by the meadow'): the river is 'grimy with paper-making', an industry which thrived in Lasswade. The mansion itself is probably Colinton Castle - which was about six or seven miles from Lasswade, and where Oliphant stayed with her publisher, William Blackwood and his family, in autumn of 1881. It is a modern Georgian edifice, but there are the picturesque ruins of an earlier house in the grounds, including a tower and some outhouses (all of which characterises Colinton). In the outhouses, which were the servant's quarters, is a 'common doorway … open and vacant, free to all the winds', which strikes the Colonel as 'like a melancholy comment upon a life which is over'. 



Colinton Castle, RCAHMS

But – just as the ruins remain in the grounds of Brentwood park with its modern house – so does the past continue to impinge on the present, and the dead on the living.  Colonel Mortimer's only son, Roland, is sent to school in Edinburgh, and he uses a pony to travel in good weather, and the railway in poor. This allows him to combine the 'advantages of two systems' – living at home in the country, yet attending a good school in the city – and also to use two forms of transport, ancient and modern.  Unsurprisingly, it is whilst he is using the ancient mode and riding home one November night that he hears a 'voices among the ruins'. Roland sickens (brain-fever, the inevitable Victorian ailment) and his father is called back to Edinburgh. The summons, naturally, comes in two forms – letters marked urgent and telegrams are both dispatched to his London club. The anxious father prepares to return northwards, reflecting on the fact that 'the quickness of the railway' is a boon, but waiting for the departure of the train makes him long to be able to have 'thrown myself into a post-chaise as soon as horses could be put to'. Once again, the past and the present are in tension…

​Dead and Living
The Colonel and the local doctor, Simson, are inclined to suspect 'hallucination' and 'fever of the brain'. Roland's name seems significant here: it must be an allusion to Robert Browning's 1859 poem, 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came'. This is a deliberately ambiguous poem which describes a knight's quest through a dreary and terrifying landscape which can be read as a symbolic representation of depression and mental illness.  Mortimer inwardly debates his son's request to help the being whom he has heard calling 'Oh mother, let me in!': can he believe this is a ghost? Can it be some lost child? He decides to speak to his coachman. At Jarvis's home, he hears from the coachman that 'the place was haunted beyond all doubt', although the haunting only takes place in the months of November and December (a highly significant detail).  Previous tenants have not taken the house for any length of time – and yet would not investigate the cause of the 'visitation'. The Colonel naturally feels irritated that he has been allowed to take the tenancy without any warning. However, he is fair-minded enough to recognise that 'the possession of a ghost' would have been seen as 'a distinct advantage' by his family, had it been mentioned to him.

Here there is clearly a contrast emerging between the progressively-minded upper class tenants – who, while clearly experiencing the ghostly visitation, do not wish to admit to it because they view psychic phenomenon as a bit of a joke – and the 'superstitious' lower orders, who clearly do believe, but are aware that their belief will be mocked.

On his way back to the mansion, however, Mortimer passes the ruins and his experience there makes his 'scepticism disappear like the mist'. Reflecting on what he has felt and heard, he clearly distinguishes between the 'little movements of nature', such as the breaking of small branches, and the 'soul of a creature invisible' which he hears. He engages a witness, his old batman and butler, Bagley, and returns to the ruins at ten o'clock that night. Again, the Colonel is struck by the clear contrast between the natural noises of the night and the sound of the ghostly voice. The two men trace it to the open doorway in the servant's offices, and thoroughly investigate this opening, only to find that what looks like a fallen body turns out to be a juniper bush, which the Colonel does not remember seeing earlier. Bagley, 'less sophisticated than I', is totally overcome with terror, while the Colonel begins to view the phenomenon as 'a recollection of a real scene' and to 'listen almost as it had been a play'.  A distinct contrast again emerges between Mortimer, who – while admitting the reality of the ghost, is busily rationalising and distancing himself from it – and the lower-class Bagley, who is 'half-dead with terror'. 

​Science and Spirituality
Mortimer, determined to continue his investigations, now enlists the services of Mr Simson, the family physician. The doctor is initially very reluctant to be seen to go ghost-hunting, as this does not accord with his self-perception as a man of science.  He comments on 'the freaks our brains are subject to' (a medical and psychological explanation), but also speaks of 'phonetic disturbance', a 'trick of the echoes or the winds' (a natural phenomenon). What he does not give credence to is any spiritual or psychic explanation. Unsurprisingly, the man of science arrives by train to participate in the 'coming experiment' and bears with him a coil of taper as ''There is nothing like light'. When nothing initially happens, he gloats that 'a sceptic's presence stops everything', comparing the visitation to various fraudulent spiritualist practices. However, near midnight, the moaning commences. Simson tries to dismiss the noises as the work of a child out late, but he does not believe his own explanation: 'The scoffer could scoff no more', despite putting on a 'very bold front'. The doctor investigates the area around the doorway, but finds nothing but the juniper bush – now apparently on the other side of the door. The two men go back to the house, and the doctor drinks a large brandy: while he still cannot believe what he has seen, he also cannot explain it away.

In the morning, the doctor and Mortimer note that the juniper bush is now neither on the left or right-hand-side of the doorway, but has vanished completely. For his second authority, Mortimer turns from the urban man of science to the rural man of religion. The elderly minister, Dr Moncrieff, is a man 'strong in philosophy, not so strong in Greek, strongest of all in experience … he did not think so much about the troublesome problems of theology as many of the young men … but he understood human nature'. The Colonel has clearly turned from an expert in the mind to an expert in the heart: Dr Moncrieff reacts to the story, not with an attempt to explain the phenomenon, but with praise for Roland's compassion for the 'poor lost soul'. The clergyman is not so inclined to separate the natural world from the spiritual, either: 'I'm an old man; I'm less liable to be frighted than those what are further off the world unseen'.

The Colonel, the doctor and the clergyman visit the site of the haunting that night – and all readers of fairy tales and folk stories will know that it is the third of any repeated action which is the transformative one which brings final resolution. For the Victorian reader, the description of Dr Moncrieff's light – 'an old-fashioned lantern with a pierced and ornamental top' – is likely to have awakened the memory of a particular religious image: William Holman Hunt's famous portrayal of Christ as The Light of the World, also set at night in a spooky landscape, in a doorway with vegetation growing around it.


William Holman Hunt, The Light of The World (Manchester Version) (1851-1856), via Wikimedia Commons

The ghostly voice is again heard, and the reaction of the clergyman is particularly interesting. He gives the ghost a name – Willie – and Mortimer notes that 'he neither saw nor heard me': this is clearly because Dr Moncrieff sees Willie. He exhorts the ghost to lie and sob 'at heaven's gate, and no your poor mother's ruined door', as she is no longer here to meet him. When the clergyman begs God to let Willie's mother 'draw him inower' the threshold of 'Thy everlasting habitations', something seems to fling itself wildly in at the open door, and then ''it's gone!''. It is now 'the middle of the night'. Throughout the proceedings, Mortimer is full of pity and Simson of terror; but the minister is the only one who has the personal knowledge and spiritual authority to release the 'wandering spirit'. The light of science has failed to illuminate the situation: it is the spiritual light brought by the minister which has exorcised the ghost.

Simson now reverts to his 'sceptical and cynical self' and tries to find some explanation for the phenomenon. This attempt to challenge the spiritual authority of the minster fails, as the clergyman modestly declares that 'There is just one thing I am certain of – and that is the loving-kindness of God'. His open-mindedness contrasts with the medical man's 'cold- blooded confidence' in his ability to explain everything scientifically. Mortimer later reflects that Moncrieff's courage arose from his compassion for the lost boy – the prodigal son of the former housekeeper of the old house – whom he saw not as a ghost but as 'a poor fellow-creature in misery', a compassion which was shared, too, by Roland (who now recovers from his illness).  The Colonel's acceptance of this strange occurrence as a spiritual mystery impressed on 'the hidden heart of nature' is not shared by Simson, who eventually finds a tramp's hideaway in the ruins which he uses as evidence of 'human agency'. 'There is no argument with men of this kind', reflects Mortimer, but notes, 'the juniper-bush staggered him'. There is evidence which Simson just cannot explain away.

Thresholds
The juniper-bush is, I would argue, a clue to the subtext of the tale. Juniper was once used in Gaelic 'sainings', or blessings of the house at the Hogmanay celebrations of the New Year: the house was fumigated with torches of juniper wood and then the doors and windows were flung open to let in the fresh air of the New Year.  The borders between old and new, unseen and seen, are multi-layered in Oliphant's story. The motif of the open door itself may well remind the reader of Janus, the two-faced Roman god of transitions, passages, doorways, and gateways who looked backwards and forwards - and who gave his name to the first month of the year. It is noticeable that the ghostly visitation in the ruins takes place in November and December and ceases at the New Year, the chronological boundary between the old and the new years. It seems likely that the publication of the story in January 1882 is no coincidence. The three visits made by the Colonel and his companions take place in the eleventh and twelfth hour of the evening, and when the spirit is exorcised, it is the 'middle of the night', when night passes into morning.  It is the young boy and the old clergyman who have least trouble in accepting the ghost's reality, and responding to it with compassion, perhaps because they are nearest to the beginning and end of life and thus the borderlands of existence. And of course, it is religion (ancient knowledge nursed in the heart) rather than science (new knowledge born of the brain) which, for Oliphant, provides real understanding of the ghosts of the past, and the power to finally put them to rest. Moving forwards, it seems, requires looking back.

Professor Rosemary Mitchell is the Acting Director of the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies and Associate Editor of the Journal of Victorian Culture. Her research interests focus on Victorian historical cultures and how the Victorians appropriated the past to explore and address contemporary political, social, religious and cultural issues. She is currently writing a monograph on Victorian domesticity and gender roles and the uses of the past.

Monday 31 October is also the official launch date of the latest volume of LCVS working papers in Victorian Studies, titled Imagining the Victorians (ed. Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett). In celebration of the LCVS' 21st birthday, it showcases work by recent MRes graduates, PhD students and post-doctoral students at the centre. It examines both how the Victorians imagined their own world in customs, literature and science; and how later generations construct and interpret the Victorians. To order a copy, contact the LCVS at lcvs@leedstrinity.ac.uk (cost £15, inc. postage and packing).​