A Haunted Regency Setting

In my neighborhood, the residents spend weeks in advance of Halloween erecting elaborate displays at great expense and effort to attract trick-or-treaters. Adjoining neighborhoods grumble that their simple pumpkins and baskets of candy are forsaken, year after year, for elaborate treat dispensing displays, adults in mid-century throwback costumes and a recreational vehicle converted into a walk-thru haunted house.

Setting is key.

Two years ago this blog posted a Halloween discourse on the Regency’s rising infatuation with the supernatural. As my last post playfully points out, the popularity of wild, haunted settings in works of early Romantic literature was largely responsible for this trend.

Sir Walter Scott was probably the first well-known writer to tap into the power the untamed, natural setting had on readers at the time:

“….the living I fear not, but I trifle not nor toy with my dead neighbours of the churchyard. I promise you, it requires a good heart to live so near it: worthy Master Holdforth..had a sore fright there the last time he came to visit me..”  — Kenilworth, Sir Walter Scott (1821)

Long before Kenilworth sparked the Regency’s penchant for ghost hunting, there was Scott’s Rokeby. By the time of its publication in 1813, the poet’s work was beginning to pale. The readers of the Regency saw it as an ill-disguised marketing ploy for English country house tourism. Nevertheless, Scott once again turned to setting for inspiration in a work that was highly anticipated, with the potential to topple even Childe Harold.

The titular name of Rokeby comes from a real country house once owned by Regency-era antiquarian J. B. S. Morritt, a particular friend to the Wizard of the North. His Rokeby Park was and remains a perfect gem of Palladian architecture.

Rokeby Park’s neighboring river, The Greta. Another noted Romantic, Coleridge, called it Loud Lamenter for the distinctive sound its waters make running over the rocks. Photo via RokebyPark.com

A dobie, or dobby, is said to walk the ravine of the Greta. Much like a brownie or fairy, this spirit is rooted to the place and yet capable of startling passersby. Some traditions say it is the ghost of a murdered heiress to the nearby peel tower of Mortham, an earlier residence of Rokeby’s builders.

“Others say it was a Lady Rokeby, the wife of the owner who was shot in the walks by robbers, but she certainly became a ghost and under the very poetic nom de guerre of Mortham Dobby, she appeared dressed as a fine lady with a piece of white silk trailing behind her, without a head indeed though no tradition states how she lost so material a member, but with many of its advantages for she had long hair on her shoulders and eyes nose and mouth in her breast.”


—  Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott: In Three Volumes, Volume 1’ John G. Lockhart

Morritt was understandably gratified by the poet’s determination to give his home such splendid notoriety, living as he did in the age of Romanticism. Perhaps he was less gratified  when he discovered Scott looked elsewhere to beef the thing up.

Old Littlecot Park as printed in Views of the Seats of Noblemen, vol. V — by John Neale (1820)

The contributing setting was Littlecote House in Wiltshire, as revealed in Scott’s notes to the fifth canto. Scott visited the Elizabethan house and was struck by a particular bedroom there, whose furnishings were done up in blue, much tattered and worn by the Regency. Its hangings in one place were marred by a hole deliberately made, and clumsily patched again with the cut-out material.

The reason for the patch concerned a midwife during the latter part of Elizabeth I’s reign. She was summoned late in the night (an appropriately stormy one in November), blindfolded, to a location unknown to her. Once her eyes were uncovered, she saw that the bedchamber she’d been brought to was clearly of some wealth and consequence. A masked man of terrifying aspect ordered her to minister to a woman in disguise, giving birth.

In a most horrific act, the man grabbed the newborn baby from the midwife. After several torturous attempts, he finally dispatched it in the room’s blazing fireplace.

Upon her return home, the midwife made a deposition before the local magistrate, ‘strongly agitated by the horrors of the preceding night.’ Blindfolded during departure, she was able to identify the mysterious house of murder by taking away a swatch of the bed hanging.

Such a small piece of setting served to damn a man already consigned to the devil.

He was “Black” Will Durrell, the owner of Littlecote, his activities devoted to amorous and litigious interests. He escaped the gallows by bribing the judge of his case. He couldn’t bribe justice, however. Again it was the story’s setting that served as the instrument of revenge.

Black Will’s own horse threw and killed him, spooked by the dead infant’s ghost.

Happy Halloween!




Leg-Shackled by an Apparition

This post is a temporary departure from our discourse on writs. It is, after all, Halloween!

The following is a tale of a haunted bedroom, and reads a little like a Regency romance:

A young buck of the ton quit London to join a weekend house party in the south of England. His host, an older gentleman and quite worthy, owned a considerable country estate there. By reason of a wedding, the house was completely full of overnight guests, so that only one bedroom was vacant.

It was allegedly haunted.

Up to every rig and row, our hero was not above enjoying an overnight lark with an apparition and readily agreed to sleep in the disturbed room:

“Sir, you will oblige me by letting me lie there; for I have often coveted to be in a place that was haunted.”

Apparitions; or, the Mysteries of Ghosts, Hobgoblins, and Haunted Houses by Joseph Taylor (1815)

That night, the intrepid young man committed himself to sleep, for the room was comfortably furnished and the fire had been generously built up. At three o’clock in the morning he woke, for someone had entered the room. He could not see who it was for his candle was extinguished.

Fortunately, the intruder revived the fire with a poker, the brightening glow revealing the apparition to be a young woman in naught but her shift, She was so pale as to be indistinguishable from a wraith.

It was not until she got into bed with the astonished young man that he perceived the apparition to be flesh and blood. Only the living breathe while asleep. Her hand, which he clasped, was warm.

Finding she had a ring on her finger, he took it off unperceived.

Presently, his fair bed fellow rose and left the room. Clutching the evidence of her visitation in his hand, the young man locked the door against further incursions and went to sleep.

As is the case with country house mysteries, the guests greatly anticipated the outcome of a night spent in a haunted bedroom. Indeed, everyone appeared well before nuncheon so as not to miss the opportunity to find out how the young man, so clearly awake on every suit, had passed the night before.

Before he would gratify their curiosity, however, the bachelor required the females assembled to identify the ring he held up. The daughter of the house very prettily claimed it, declaring she had lost it somehow during the night and had despaired of its recovery.

She was thrown into an even prettier state of confusion when the handsome guest took her by the hand and brought her before the master of the house, her papa, announcing:

“This is the lovely spirit by which your chamber is haunted.”

Amid the company’s good-natured laughter, the worthy host begged his weekend-guest to become a tenant for life, and offered his daughter for marriage, along with a large dowry.

This generous offer was so advantageous to the young gentleman, that he could by no means refuse it; and his late bed-fellow, hearing what her father had said, was easily prevailed upon to accept him as her husband.”

Belgrave Hall - supposedly haunted by a former owner's seven daughters. Photo by Roger Hutchinson via Wikicommons

Belgrave Hall – supposedly haunted by a former owner’s seven daughters.
Photo by Roger Hutchinson via Wikicommons

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





The Real Regency Vampire

At the dawn of the Regency, vampires had little to show for themselves in literature. What had been written of them was neither compelling nor seductive. There was the bat that had attacked the king in Sir Burges’ poem Richard the First (1801). The slave dealer in Montgomery’s 1807 The West Indies was a “bloated vampire of a living man.” In 1810, His Grace the Duke of Norfolk found himself the embarrassed object of an obscure poem’s dedication about a goblin entitled The Vampire. Miss Aiken, in her 1811 Epistles on Women, decried those polluting “vampire forms.”

Then came The Vampyre in 1819. Critics promptly gave it the kiss of death:

Villa Diodati - watering hole of the junta

Villa Diodati – where the junta rusticated

“a flat and feeble tale of supernatural horrors.” Edinburgh Monthly Review

“one (and we are happy to believe the last) of that travelling junta of our country-folk..” Antheneum

That “travelling junta” would be Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, who spent part of 1816, that “year without a summer” in a scandalous interlude at a Swiss villa. To be part of a junta was not what bothered Byron. It was the fact that the “vampyre” was neither a bat nor parasitic slave trader, but a suave English aristocrat.  Not unlike himself:

“A bustling inhabitant of the world..restless and erratic..subject to pecuniary embarrassments.” — Monthly Review, 1919

Pecuniary embarrassments aside, the fact the creature had been christened Ruthven left no doubt in anyone’s mind as to its identity. This was entirely due to the efforts of Lady Caroline Lamb a few years before in 1816’s Glenarvon. Her character was also named Ruthven, but everyone knew him as Byron–the villain who had so cruelly abandoned her.

To add insult to injury, the publisher had the effrontery of passing off The Vampyre as Byron’s own work.

The devil!

The notion was not so farfetched to the average Regency reader. It must be remembered that Byron had written of vampires before. His Giaour (1813) featured an infidel who indulged in an illicit affair with a pasha’s harem girl. She had been tossed into the sea to die whereupon the giaour killed the pasha. Byron’s narrator predicted the giaour would eventually suffer the fate of the vampire, rise from the dead and suck the blood of his loved ones, to his everlasting torment.

Perhaps Byron might not have added the following footnote to Giaour if he knew one day he might be made into a vampire himself:

“The Vampire superstition is still general in the Levant…I recollect a whole family being terrified by the scream of a child, which they imagined must proceed from such a visitation. The Greeks never mention the word without horror. The freshness of the face, and the wetness of the lip with blood, are the never-failing signs of a Vampire. The stories told in Hungary and Greece of those foul feeders are singular, and some of them most incredibly attested.”

This picture of the modern vampiric nobleman is provided courtesy of Find a Grave

This picture of the modern vampiric nobleman is provided courtesy of:               Find a Grave

Amid a flurry of protestations and recriminations over the vile Vampyre and his story, it was eventually revealed that one Dr. John Polidori was the true author, whom “we cannot imagine what mental disease could induce Lord Byron to endure for a moment.” The good doctor was in attendance during the interlude at the Villa Didorati (the lodging of the aforementioned junta). There he had served in the capacity of Byron’s own personal sawbones before they parted in ways less than amicable.

Dr. Polidori was astonished at the vindictive hurled in his direction, which went something like this:

“The publication of that vile abortion, ‘The Vampyre‘ under the name of the greatest of living geniuses, was a wrong… which will not be easy for the perpetrator to expiate.”

He hastily insisted that the work was never meant to see the light of day, that he had placed the manuscript into the care of an unnamed lady, who later gave it to an unscrupulous publisher, who unleashed it upon an unsuspected Public wholly and wantonly without permission.

Amid the flurry of these protestations and recriminations, the aforementioned Public devoured the work, giving it an astounding success.

It was the birth of a new subgenre within the Gothic novel.