30 July 2018


Robin Roberts. Subversive Spirits: The Female Ghost in British and American Popular Culture. University Press of Mississippi, 2018.

It came as a great relief to get to Chapter One. The fourteen-and-a-bit-page Introduction was a bit of a trial, due to its reliance on ludicrous feminist jargon-du-jour – ‘heteronormativity’, anyone? – repetition, and over-complex syntax. Clearly, I thought, the entire book is going to be unreadable in the way that the authors of most modern academic tomes obviously feel they have to be in order to be taken seriously.
Obfuscation is seen to equal intellect. But of course, bad writing is bad writing, and the impenetrable wall of wordage seems to be intended to prevent us from getting a glimpse of the actual content. In some instances, that might not always be a bad thing.

Suddenly, however, the dire Intro is over and there is Chapter One: proper sentences, some of them even short. Even direct and mostly straightforward language. Mystified, I double-checked, thinking that the Intro must have been by someone else. Apparently not. Then it occurred that perhaps the Intro was originally the proposal for the book, intended to catch the eye of university publishers who love a bit of OTT English (or should that be ‘English’?). Fair enough. Everyone has to earn a living. But it had jangled the nerves of this non-academic reader so badly it made me hypercritical about the rest of the book, even though I reminded myself from time to time that the medium is not always the message.

This is, of course, a hyper-feminist work. Its main contention is that women have had it tough in life due to the repression of patriarchies, so in stories about the afterlife they can become empowered, and basically get their own back by causing terror and havoc. *Subversive Spirits* is, though, not actually about ghosts – sadly few universities of today would fund research that took the paranormal seriously – but about their representation in popular culture, on both sides of the Atlantic.

While many of the cases discussed do indeed appear to snuggle neatly into the overall thesis, some resolutely do not. I take serious issue, as a major example, with the idea that Noel Coward’s famous 1940s’ play – later a film - Blithe Spirit - is even remotely about female empowerment. Consulting Noel Coward’s diaries and Philip Hoare’s biography of the great 20th-century playwright, it’s blatantly obvious that it was never intended to be more than amusing – a farce with ghosts.

Robin Roberts, however is keen to have us believe that the two serial wives of the main character, playwright Charles Condomine, who become ghosts, have somehow proven their feminine power – largely denied to them in life – by killing their husband and having him with them in the afterlife. In fact, even a superficial viewing or reading of the script – and superficial is all it was ever intended to be, this being Noel Coward after all! – may reveal strong misogynism on his part, but Elvira and Ruth do not become empowered, at least not in the way Robin Roberts believes. Forming a strange sisterhood after life, they simply go on being very, very irritating and bossy to the man. It is his personal hell to be trapped with them for eternity. But it is very funny.

Roberts cites an early scene where Charles and Ruth are getting ready for a night out. Charles is ready long before his wife, who sits surrounded by her mirrors, prinking and preening. To Roberts this is a sign of male repression. I would suggest it’s a revelation, true, but actually of female vanity and fussiness, a self-imposed fluffiness that we most of us still dare to actually enjoy. I note that even after their death, the wives wear startlingly red lipstick. It’s not entirely a matter of costume design. It’s what they would choose to do. I know I would.

One of the most irritating traits of modern (should that be ‘post-modern’?) academics is that they Know Better – not only than their students (which is only right and proper, of course), but also usually than the authors who, often being long gone are therefore incapable of putting them right. Here we have not one, but two determined feminist critics discussing a Noel Coward that neither he himself nor any of his fans would even begin to recognise.

Roberts cites fellow scholar Penny Farfan to bolster her case. According to the latter, Blithe Spirit ‘pass[es] as light entertainment… but has been premised upon a narrative drive toward reproductive heterosexual union and social continuity.’ In other words, it’s set against a background of the normal attitude to relationships in Coward’s day. Would one actually expect otherwise? And the fact that he considered it to be merely a vehicle for the best light-comedy talents around is surely underlined by his original ambition to play the lead himself.

Then there’s The Woman In Black, the original book by Susan Hill, plus the stage play and the movie. Roberts is surely on safer ground here with her beady eye out for anything remotely sexist. Susan Hill, being a modern writer is more attuned to gendered nuances herself, so one should hardly be surprised at allusions to the ‘the untouchable, impossible, absent body of the mother’, and highly dramatic moments that even reinforce Roberts’ idea 'that men’s attempts to conquer their fear of the feminine are futile'. The silent ghost of a woman once beaten down and repressed does, it seem, get her own back on men by terrifying them beyond words. But in the movie, at least, there is perhaps an ambiguous ending that sits uncomfortably with such certainties. Kipps and his child are, it is true, killed because of the lurking Woman in Black, but then their own ghosts are seen immediately walking off together with his dead wife. A happy family in the afterlife. Very heteronormative, albeit with a heavy dash of the paranormal.

Roberts includes analyses of female ghosts from several cultures, including South America, whose stories are fascinating, especially to someone unacquainted with those traditions. But then we get to one’s home ground and here we are again. ‘Looking at Blenheim Palace from a gendered perspective’…. Do we really have to?

In the bad old days – indeed, not long ago at all – terrible injustices occurred every minute of every day to women, usually as a result of patriarchal intransigence or brutality. We know that. (I know that, and have written at length about it.) Often the souls of poor, tragic women have been reported haunting the scenes of their downfall, Blenheim Palace being one of them.

Roberts looks askance at the way the visitors’ experience is manipulated, especially when the ‘uncredited actresses’ (whatever happened to the politically correct ‘actor’?) in the Blenheim Palace video exhibit appear ‘exceptionally attractive’, glossing over the real hardships experienced by women at the time. The historical women are presented as gossipy and – horrors! – ‘oblivious to socio-political realities’. Well, as one who does like to shout at the television when anachronistic characters and customs flood the screen in historical dramas, I have a certain sympathy for tut-tutting at too-perfect teeth and over-chirpy presentation of young women allegedly from long ago, who one could easily imagine breaking off from the narrative to catch up on Instagram. Annoying, yes, but let’s remember that the point of such multi-media exhibits is to educate and entertain visitors who are touring grand houses to find something to do in the long summer holidays. Presenting young women, even as ghosts, with blackened teeth (or no teeth at all) and hideous skin conditions would not do much except persuade the young ones at least that all women in the olden days were witches. And as for them haranguing us about, say the iniquities of the Poor Law….one star on TripAdvisor if you’re lucky!

As for the women of yore being ‘oblivious to socio-political realities’, hard though it is for a highly-educated female academic to swallow, throughout even recent history most working women were unconcerned with politics. When life was hand to mouth and mere existence a daily fight, perhaps ironically there was not much time or energy to ponder on the conditions that created the poverty in the first place. Real women get on with it. Sometimes, yes, they will stand up and fight for something better. Often they’ll devour books that will help them in their fight. But is this book destined to be one of them?

Finally, however, perhaps there is something wonky with the basic premise of this book. Throughout it we learn a good deal about a limited selection of ghosts in both English-speaking and Latin America – but of course, they are all stories of female ghosts. Perhaps, though, it wouldn’t have helped Roberts’ insistence that women only become empowered as ghosts if she had compared them with narratives of male spirits. Don’t they, too, terrify? Doesn’t that empower them? -- Lynn Picknett

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