Jane Austen’s Haunted Emma

The environs of Jane Austen’s Emma boast some spectral incidents. Set in Surrey “the most misunderstood English county,” the novel features picturesque Box Hill and surrounding villages serving as the backdrop for a subtle complexity of romantic misunderstanding.

All quotes are from the novel.

“Emma had never been to Box Hill; she wished to see what everyone found so well worth seeing..”

Box Hill itself contains the grave of a man buried upside down. Major Peter Labilliere, not surprisingly a somewhat eccentric man, was a particular friend of the 5th Duke of Devonshire. He spent a good deal of his time wandering the hill. His ghost has yet to quit the area, according to reports.

“Let everybody on the Hill hear me if they can. Let my accents swell from Mickleham on one side, and Dorking on the other.”

The road from Box Hill to Dorking passes through the village of Westcott, the location of Stowe Maries, a Grade II listed sixteenth century timbered house once owned by the actor Leslie Howard. Reports of a ghostly horseman abound. One witness saw the roadside bushes part as if pushed aside, accompanied by the sound of a horse trotting by.

“I didn’t chase women, but I couldn’t always be bothered to run away.” — Leslie Howard

The ruins of old Betchworth Castle to the east make it difficult to imagine this medieval fortification had been renovated into a fine Regency-era house. It became part of the grounds of nearby Deepdene, acquired by colorful banker Thomas Hope. His well-developed craze for the Gothic style led him to turn a destructive eye toward old Betchworth. He had the house deliberately reduced to a picturesque ruin. Ironically, his Regency masterpiece Deepdene was destroyed to make an office building.

Betchworth Castle still remains, said to be haunted by a ‘Lord Hope.’ His ghost wanders in perpetual grief over the accidental killing of his son. A spectral black dog prowls the ruins at night as well.

Old Betchworth lies along the River Mole. Spooky, yeah? Photo by Ian Capper via geograph.org.uk

To the west of Dorking is Silent Pool, situated near the old estate of Henry Drummond, one of the wealthier men of Regency England and a rival banker to Sarah Sophia, Countess of Jersey. The body of water has a blue opalescent color. It is said to be haunted by a woodcutter’s daughter who drowned there to escape King John’s embrace.

Mystery writer Agatha Christie mysteriously disappeared near Silent Pool, where her car was found abandoned.

Jane Austen wrote Emma while staying with relatives in Great Bookham, on the outskirts of Dorking. Richard Sheridan, Regency-era playwright and one of Lady Bessborough’s lovers, lived in the neighborhood for a time at Polesdon Lacey, an old manor later remodeled into a villa and fine example of the era’s architecture. The grounds of this house and nearby Cotman Dean heath (Little Bookham Common) long had the reputation of being haunted by the spirit of an old woman.

“..ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! The proper sport of boys and girls..”

The villagers had almost forgotten their local ghost until some boarding school boys resurrected her. They used a dark lanthorn (lantern with sliding black lens) and carried it around the place at night. The villagers were not familiar with this relatively new device. Thus they grew convinced the light moving swiftly around the heath, point to point, could have only been carried thus by spectral means.

The fun ended when the boys were discovered and thrashed within an inch of their lives.

Bookham Commons via nationaltrust.org.uk


Regency Essay on Ghosts

From a delightful Regency-era discussion in the Edinburgh Observer, or, Town and Country Magazine, Jan. 3, 1818:


In churchyards:

“(they) have no particular business, but seem to appear, pro bono publico, or to scare idle apprentices from playing pranks over their tombs.”

Their appearance:

“dragging chains is not the fashion of English ghosts; chains and black vestments being chiefly the accoutrements of foreign spectres, seen in arbitrary governments.”

The female:

“if a tree stood in her way, she will always go through it. This I do not doubt: because women will go through anything, even if it be fire and water, much less a sturdy oak, to compass their end.”

they call him "Skeletor" -- an unexplained figure captured by closed-circuit camera at Hampton Court Palace

they call him “Skeletor” — an unexplained figure captured by closed-circuit camera at Hampton Court Palace

The effect of Christmas Eve:

“It is an established law, however, that none can appear on Christmas Eve…(and) there being some persons, particularly those born on Christmas Eve, who cannot see spirits.”


“The most approved mode of addressing a ghost is by commanding it in the name of the three Persons of the Trinity to tell you who it is, and what is its business. This may be necessary to repeat three times; after which it will, in a low and hollow voice, declare its satisfaction at being spoken to, and desire the party addressing it not to be afraid, for it will do him no harm.”

Mode of redress:

“In cases of murder, a ghost, instead of going to the next justice of the peace, or to the nearest relation of the deceased, appears to some poor labourer who knows none of the parties, draws the curtains of some decrepid nurse or alms-woman, or hovers about the place where the body is deposited.. the ghost commonly appl(ies) to a third person, ignorant of the whole affair, and a stranger to all concerned.”

Method of approach:

“The coming of a spirit is announced some time before its appearance, by a variety of loud and dreadful noises; sometimes rattling in an old hall, like a coach-an-six, and rumbling up and down the stair-case like the trundling of bowls or cannon balls..when any eminent person is about to enter their regions they make a great noise, like women..at a fire in the night-time.”

Getting rid of them:

“The process is to issue a summons to his worship, the parson of the parish , and another to the butler of the castle, who is required (by duces tecum) to bring him some of the best ale and provisions which he can find in his master’s larder. ..he is met and discomfited with ease by the parson in a Latin formulary:–a language that strikes the most audacious ghost with terror. What would be the effect of Greek, or wild Irish, or the American Choctaw, is not yet known.”

Place of banishment:

“..a but of beer, if an alderman–a pipe of Madeira, if a gentleman–he may be rolled up in parchment, if a lawyer, or confined to the garret, if an author.


an authoritative book on the matter for late twentieth century juveniles

another authoritative source on the subject aimed at an audience of late twentieth century juveniles