In addition to reading texts by the Brontës I also like to track down fiction inspired by this remarkable family. This includes re-tellings of their work, historical fiction about their lives, and literature inspired by the worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal. So step forward May Sinclair and her spooky story, “The Intercessor” (1911). Whilst not a re-telling or re-imagining, the spirit of the Brontës is clearly present in the narrative. First, let’s take a look at the author herself and what may have motivated her to produce her own Brontë inspired fiction.
May Sinclair (1863-1946) was a suffragist, celebrated author, and literary critic who first applied the term “stream of consciousness” to the field of literature in 1918 in a discussion of Dorothy Richardson’s novel sequence, Pilgrimage. Sinclair was a remarkable writer and woman. Born in Cheshire, her alcoholic father died in 1881 and during her adulthood, Sinclair was tasked with being a companion to her formidable mother and enduring the loss of three of her five brothers to congenital heart disease, whilst a fourth disappeared without trace after emigrating to Canada. Perhaps these losses were why she identified with the Brontës so much. Sinclair found literary success in the first part of the 20th century, and mixed with the likes of Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, and Richard Aldington. She was also a big fan of the Brontë sisters, and even penned a book entitled The Three Brontës in 1912. I’m yet to track down a copy of this, but as soon as I do, you can bet I’ll be blogging about it. The spirit of Emily Brontë in particular haunts some of Sinclair’s work including the short story “Where their Fire is not Quenched” which follows two lovers who are doomed to repeat their affair for eternity. Rather interestingly this tale suggests that to be somebody’s soul mate is not necessarily a positive thing; it can simply mean that two people in a destructive relationship are destined to come together over and over again before and after death (Cathy and Heathcliff, anyone?). The raw energy and passion of Emily’s work certainly hangs over Sinclair’s writing, but that’s not to say that she wasn’t a fantastic and original author in her own right. As stated above, she was celebrated during her lifetime, however, Sinclair became afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease in later life, ceased to publish, and was subsequently and shamefully forgotten about. When she died in 1946 aged 83, the world lost a literary great, and they didn’t even know it. Her work is worth tracking down, particularly as Halloween approaches.
Uncanny Stories is a short story collection by Sinclair which was originally published in 1923. The title comes from Sigmund Freud’s idea of the uncanny which he described as something neither “new or alien, but something which is familiar and old established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression”. Sinclair’s tales, which mix the psychological and the supernatural, are definitely uncanny stories. The collection was republished in 2006 by Wordsworth Editions as part of their Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural series. “The Intercessor” was not originally part of Uncanny Stories, but appears in this edition as the final story, and it doesn’t feel out of place. As these editions are now out of print, I’m so glad I bought my copy of Sinclair’s creepy, thrilling, and intriguing tales. It’s a perfect Halloween read.
For those who are intrigued by the idea of a Brontë inspired spooky story, here’s a spoiler free summary of the plot of “The Intercessor”. The tale begins with the protagonist, named Garvin, a stuffy “hunter of old things” who is looking for a quiet and child-free place in which he can complete his work for the Blackadder enterprise on County History. Disgruntled at the presence of children at the house he has taken a room in in the village of Craven, Garvin insists on finding a quiet place to work. He is directed to the Falshaw’s house by his landlord, ignoring the sinister looks hints from the villagers about the place. Upon reaching the building, Garvin discovers a strange house, a strange family with a secret, and psychological terror due to possible supernatural elements. As the mystery takes over him, Garvin neglects his work, and is determined to establish exactly what has taken place under the Falshaws’ roof, and exactly what he is experiencing each night.
And for those who have already read this fantastic story, or simply want more information, here’s a more detailed description/analysis. *THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD*
The blurb on the back cover describes “The Intercessor” as a “powerful story of childhood and abandoned love, a tale whose intensity compares with that of the Brontës”. It’s a statement that would intrigue any Brontëite, but coupled with my knowledge of Sinclair’s passion for the writings of the sisters, it’s one that had me reaching for this volume. As stated above, the narrative begins with Garvin’s arrival at the Falshaws’ house. The sly hints from the villagers about the condition of Falshaw’s wife, Sarah, brings to mind whisperings of Bertha in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. However, it is the spirit of Emily’s Wuthering Heights that is forcefully present here. Besides the fact that the main characters all pretty much turn out to be horrible people, in Garvin’s stranger seeking lodgings with a strange and unpleasant family, we find a more straitlaced but equally misguided Lockwood figure. The unloved, neglected ancestral house with the date and initials over the door cannot help but remind the reader of Lockwood’s first arrival at Wuthering Heights in which he spots “1500” and “Hareton Earnshaw” amongst crumbling ornamental features. Sinclair’s statement that the Falshaws’ house “wore the look of calamity” also surely owes a debt to Emily’s creation. The unloved exterior, the neglected interior, the constant mention of the “flagged stones” immediately presented to Garvin take the reader back to Wuthering Heights, and the surly master who doesn’t care either way whether Garvin stays or not brings the aged Heathcliff to mind. Sinclair’s use of Yorkshire dialect including Falshaw’s barked orders to his neice “Onny” (Anny) also bring to mind Emily’s use of dialect in addition to Charlotte’s in Shirley and her juvenilia. Even the Falshaw name echoes that of Earnshaw.
When Falshaw agrees to consult his wife regarding Garvin lodging there, there is a sense of unease, and even fear on his part. Garvin is eventually introduced to Sarah, a worn out, worn down, and hard woman, who is expecting a child and consents to him staying. After inspecting his sleeping quarters and the landing outside, Garvin notices a locked and mysterious door, behind which is probably a garret, again bringing Jane Eyre and Bertha to mind. That night Garvin thinks he hears the cry of a child despite the assurances of Falshaw that there are no children in the house. Garvin concludes the child must be a hidden and neglected love child of the young Anny and continues to hear the cries over the next few nights. Sinclair’s descriptions of the agony and misery conveyed in the cries is where Emily’s spirit reveals itself yet again in phrases such as, “a creature malignly re-created, born again to its mysterious, immitigable suffering”. When Garvin confronts Anny she only insists that the child will not hurt him and he needn’t leave because of it.
After a brief meeting with the local doctor, Garvin thinks he sees the figure of a small girl on the landing which he describes as “an agony made visible”. If you thought Wuthering Heights was grim, Sinclair can match that overwhelming sense of despair, wretchedness, and neglect. The small child beats and cries on the closed door of Sarah’s room in a scene which brought to my mind the image of little Rawdon and his mama’s door in Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. The neglected and unloved child is of course a feature of the literature of Charlotte and Emily (Jane Eyre and Heathcliff in particular) and it is also present in Sinclair’s work. The child climbs into bed with Garvin where they spend a peaceful night sleeping side by side. Although Garvin thinks he has seen the child and the Falshaws’ seem happy about this, it still isn’t made explicit that the child is real, a factor which could not fail to remind me of Henry James’s masterpiece The Turn of the Screw (1898).The hints about the nature of evil that simmer throughout Sinclair’s text are also reminiscent of James’s text, and consequently, I couldn’t help wondering about Garvin’s sanity more than that of the Falshaws. Garvin’s conversations with the doctor also bring to mind the opening of James’s novel in which the unnamed narrator listens to Douglas’s mysterious tale.
The child continues to seek Garvin’s room and bed each night, and he even spots it during the day playing in the garden. He determines to solve the mystery of the child and its parentage, looking for evidence in the garret room after securing the key, eventually discovering her name (Effy) from Anny, and the generation to which she belonged (the same one as Sarah’s unborn child). In the midst of all this, Sarah’s mind seems to be deteriorating as she convinces herself her child will be born dead, and the doctor continues to see her regularly. There is a hint of Sarah Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) in all of this, adding more layers to Sinclair’s unsettling narrative. Garvin is also frequently and mysteriously told that he must not leave the house by the Falshaws, adding more intrigue to the story.
Although he claims not to be afraid of the vision of the child, Garvin can’t help fearing what Sinclair eerily terms “the borderland” which I originally interpreted as meaning the place from which the child comes from, however, it also refers to the borderland of Garvin’s own fear, which he does not want to cross, suggesting that in a sense, what Garvin fears is fear. One night however, Garvin is terrified by the apparition of two more figures by his bed, figures the child seems to be horrified at the presence of. One of these figures is Falshaw, the other is an unknown woman. During a social visit to the doctor’s house, Garvin confesses what he has seen, and the doctor reveals the truth about the child.
Effy Falshaw (daughter of the Falshaws) drowned three years previously. Sarah was a wild woman who loved Falshaw more than he loved her. Falshaw thought a child would tame her, however, it made her worse. After Effy’s birth, Sarah was robbed of her health and strength, and Falshaw brought in a woman named Rhoda to help run the household. The two began a passionate affair and Sarah demanded that Rhoda be made to leave. Falshaw refused and Rhoda moved in with them, with Sarah stalking them as they conducted their affair under her own roof. I told you they were pretty much all horrible people. Sarah had Effy instead of her husband and began to hate the child, shunning her and barring her from her bedroom. Effy then crept into Rhoda’s room, the same one occupied by Garvin, each night for comfort.
When Effy stole into Rhoda’s room one night, she found Rhoda and Falshaw together, which is the vision witnessed by Garvin in his room. Falshaw finally sent Rhoda away but Effy drowned in the stone tank beneath Garvin’s window. A reformed Falshaw was then a dedicated husband to Sarah. Garvin concludes that he sees Effy because he is not afraid to, whereas the Falshaws are due to their treatment of her in life and, as the doctor concludes, the evil in them, once again bringing Henry James and the nature of evil to mind. Once Garvin knows the “half savage, half sordid” tale that could have come from the pen of Emily Brontë, he understands his role as the vehicle, or intercessor, through which Effy can get to her family, and her mother in particular.
The end of the narrative sees Effy reach out to her mother in Garvin’s presence, physically touching her, but Sarah shrinks away in fear and disgust. Garvin leaves the Falshaws’ after this. However, that night Sarah’s child is born dead and she demands to see Garvin. Upon his arrival, he witnesses Sarah cradling the dead child, who she insists is Effy, and the spirit of Effy switching places with the infant. Sinclair states that “Garvin knew that Effy’s passion was appeased”, ending the narrative on an extremely unsettling note and a suggestion that the evil force is actually a child. The epilogue reveals that Sarah’s state of mind has improved and that nothing is seen or heard at the Falshaws’ anymore. However, the doctor mentions a small shrine to Effy in Sarah’s room, asking Garvin whether it is “Just remembrance? Or – some idea of propitiation?” before declaring that “You should know”. Sinclair’s final line, “He did” confirms that Garvin was indeed the intercessor, and once again darkly hints at Effy’s true nature, concluding the narrative’s mysterious beginning with a chilling end.
My overall verdict? This really is an excellent and haunting story that has echoes of the work of Emily, Charlotte, Henry James, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman with its mix of supernatural and physiological terror. It might also be said to look forward to more recent ghost stories such as Susan Hill’s 1983 novel The Woman in Black, which features Arthur Kipps who is stranded at the eery Eel Marsh house, a secret child, visions of figures, and the screams and cries of a child. “The Intercessor” is spooky, chilling, and intriguing and I absolutely loved it. You could do worse than track this one down in time for Halloween.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
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All quotes from “The Intercessor” are taken from Uncanny Stories (London: Wordsworth Editions, 2006).
All quotes from Wuthering Heights are taken from Wuthering Heights (London: Wordsworth Editions, 1992).
Sigmund Freud quote is taken from Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion by Jack Zipes (London and New York: Routledge, 1988).