A Portrait-Painter’s Story – a ghostly encounter unveiled to Dickens in 1861

HeaphyLast year I randomly downloaded an American podcast doing a Halloween special about the history of ghosts and supernatural writings in the nineteenth century. The hosts came across a ghost story which was published in a journal edited by Dickens, All the Year Round, in September 1861, entitled A Portrait-Painter’s Story.  I was intrigued by that time while I listened to the podcast and today I dug out some information regarding the curious anecdote of Dickens.

The story set against the backdrop during autumnal time in 1858. A portrait painter occasioned to get acquainted with a beautiful young lady who got in the carriage at the Doncaster stop and sat down opposite to him while he was travelling on a morning train from York to London.

The next few minutes were occupied in locating herself. There was the cloak to be spread under her, the skirts of the dress to be arranged, the gloves to be tightened, and such other trifling arrangements of plumage as ladies are wont to make before sitting themselves comfortably at church or elsewhere, the last and most important being the placing back over her hat the veil that concealed her features. I could then see that the lady was young, certainly pot more than two or three and twenty; but being moderately tall, rather robust in make and decided in expression, she might have been two or three years younger.

The protagonist was supposed to leave the lady to get on with his journey and interchanged at Retford Junction so as to meet up a Kirkbeck family in Lincolnshire. However, as soon as he arrived at the host’s house he against bumped into the mysterious young lady who stood near the chimney-place and warmed her feet. Since then several times did the mysterious young woman appear to him inadvertently and besought him to make some sketches of her with his own recollection. To ease the painter’s burden to his work, she also produced from her belongings an engraving of a woman  whom her family considered to be very much like her.

“Do you think you could paint my portrait?” the lady inquired.

“Yes, 1 think I could, if I had the opportunity.”

“Now, look at my face well; do you think you should recollect my features?”

“Yes, I am sure I should never forget your features.”

“Of course I might have expected you to say that; but do you think you could do me from recollection?”

“Well, if it be necessary, I will try; but can’t you give me any sittings?”

“No, quite impossible; it could not be. It is said that the print I showed you before dinner is like me; do you think so?”

“Not much.” I replied; “it has not your expression. If you can give me one sitting, it would be better than none.”

“No; I don’t see how it could be.”

Weeks later the portrait painter unexpectedly stayed with a family called Lute, which the story is brought to the climax in that the young lady, who actually named Caroline, “died near four months previously; that her father had never yet recovered from the shock of her death”. Through violent paroxysms, the father saw images of the deceased daughter engaging with the protagonist; and being taken care by the circumstance of fate and the portrait painter’s sketches, the once indisposed yet convalescing father could finally reunite with his beloved Caroline through the memories they shared with each other. “The portrait now hangs in his bedroom, with the print and the two sketches by the side, and written beneath is: “C. L., 13th September, 1858, aged twenty-two.”

Victorians those days were all obsessed with spiritual encounters, mesmerism, prophecies, premonitions, inexplicable fate and coincidences that befell upon them in life, just the same as we are today, which made supernatural and Gothic tales irresistible to the reading public (One example was that a young girl aged fifteen was suffered from fits and died horribly as she was much worried by Mother Shipton’s prophecy that the world would end in 1881). The publication of A Portrait-Painter’s Story soon aroused an incredulous response, especially from a miniature painter, Thomas Frank Heaphy (1813 – 1873). Heaphy wrote in a letter to Dickens attached with his own copy of the story  claiming that the incident, who Heaphy thought “originated” by Dickens, was more or less true – but he himself was the actually none other than the real “protagonist” who encountered this seemingly young and beautiful apparition. Dickens was much amazed and shocked by the coincidence displayed through the series of correspondence he had with Heaphy, especially as to the date that he himself inserted while revising the proof for the publication – “Why that date should have come into my head rather than any other I am profoundly unable to say.” The Story, according to Dickens’s account, was second handed to Sir Edward Lytton from a young writer named Edward Ward, and timely Mr Layard, a friend of his, also heard Sir Edward Lytton retold it in a gathering party.

Dickens thought the version of Heaphy’s was far more striking as well as superior and requested to procure Heaphy’s manuscript upon his approval to be published in the October issue of  All the Year Round. After Heaphy’s death several years later, his wife republished the later husband’s supernatural account enriched by the long-kept correspondences between Heaphy and Dickens.

As a side-note, we might not know what Dickens first reaction was while reading Heaphy’s letter. Enraged? Annoyed? Surprised? Shocked? He might be irritated that his dear fellows implicated him to his being accused of “stealing people’s ideas” again as he was not only once beset by these similar cases before. And never did he know that around four years later, he would incur a railway incident yet again, this time, which was actually a matter of life and death.

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The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton (1)

51zzcEgaQLL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I have delved into the first few chapters of The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton by Diane Atkinson. The Sheridan family shared some kind of erratic flight of passion in the aspect of love. Or in other cases, this was the misfortunes that many stage players shared in marriage lives, including Fanny Kemble, Mrs. Siddons.

At young age, both father and son (Richard Brinsley (“Sherry”) and Tom) eloped with singer Eliza Liney and budding novelist Caroline Henrietta Callander respectively, also declared man and life at Gretna Green. However both cases ended in all a muddle. Sherry, although fought two duels with Charles Mathews over Eliza Liney before marriage, he had a fling with notable women of the contemporary in spite of his nuptial status – poet Frances Anne Crewe and Henrietta Ponsonby. His wife Eliza Liney on the other hand had an affair with Duke of Clarence (afterwards William IV). Incidentally, before his succession as the King, William also had an actress lover Mrs. Jordan who had borne him more than ten children before the separation.

Elza Liney
Elza Liney

As of the son, Thomas Sheridan, he was sued for “criminal conversation” in 1807 after he was appointment as manager Drury Lane Theatre by his father, which his daughter Caroline later on incurred. This scandalous affair with Mrs. Elizabeth Campbell, the wife of a Jamaican plantation owner, that happened before his marriage with Caroline Norton’s mother, punished him off with the unpayable fifteen hundred pounds and thus sent him off to the Fleet prison.

index
The Crim. Con. Gazette, flourished in the 1830s.

I still haven’t sailed in the nuptial life of Caroline and George Norton, up to the point where they married at St George’s, Hanover Square in 1827 and set off to Edinburgh at galleried “Bull and Mouth” Coaching Inn. But I like the description of Caroline compared with the unpleasant George Norton.

“Her self-esteem was higher than considered seemly for young ladies and she could be ‘stormy-tempered with a reckless and specious tongue’. A combination of her mother’s gentle beauty and quiet literary prowess, and her father’s dramatic impulsive and love of showing-off, had given her a reputation as bossy, high-handed and an outrageous flirt…Caroline could also be magnanimous and generous in defeat, and was ‘uninterested in paying back old scores’ when the ‘ungovernable outburst of resentment against them had subsided’.” (p.43)

Sad Girls by Lang Leav

9781449487768When I read first few pages of this book, it does not start off convincing to me, because Audrey, the heroine of this novel, blurted out a lie because she only wanted to “create some kind of commotion, something to break the monotony”. It does not remind me of anything like it in the reality, and it does not quite catch on. But when I continue reading the plot, this novel turns out surprisingly attractive;  it resonates some books I had read in the past, for example, Paulo Coelho Eleven Minutes.

In Audrey case, she found Rad as her inseparable half, the one that “created the link that was lacking in the universe” (from Eleven Minutes) because of the passion in life they both indulged in – the love of writing and life. But most importantly, they connected because of the lie and sins, the pain they both evaded to feel in themselves but both shared. Love is conscious when souls are present, when coincidences hit hard. However in the beginning, Audrey’s dark secret of the lie she told could not unveiled to Rad because of its ugliness. That night she revealed it, one being too engulfed with sin she had committed and one being reluctant to accept the truth, both exiled themselves and embarked on a journey to reclusive places unbeknownst to one another. On Audrey’s part, she found a mentor who taught her to seek, enrich, and empty the soul; Rad, on the other hand, incurred failure during Audrey’s absence. Through this journey that dealt with self-doubts and desperation of sadness, souls were cleansed and emptied in order to prepare for a  more overflowing love.

  • “I followed his gaze upward, and we thought our individual thoughts, sending them out into the universe like parallel lines. At that moment, I felt a sense of something that was bigger than us, an inexplicable force that willfully drew Rad and me to this convergence, to this particular alignment with the stars. We were always meant for each other.”
  • “A deep realization reverberated through my body, like the ringing of a church bell. All at once, I understood why the pain of separation, that carving out of the insides, had to happen. I used to have this sense that I felt too much for Rad, that the feelings inside me would start spilling over and I wouldn’t be able to contain them. Now I knew why I had been hollowed out, why my insides were chipped away with a chisel and mallet. It was to make room for this new feeling, this love that was so vast, so expansive it could not have fit into the vessel I once was.”

Actually, on the point Audrey was homecoming and reached to a point of self-realization of what the definition of love was, I thought this was the time that the “ultima” finally achieved, that the novel about depression and suicide could finally turned out to be something more healthy. Unexpectedly, out of a bang! there is a shocking twist to the plot that novel ends up unwholesome and dangerous again,  similar to a relationship like Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. That I begin questioning whether Sad Girls has a good ending or not, and I do not know whether the Author intentionally has this ending in mind as she writes it along.

The novel ends with the paragraph “If you know what it’s like to want someone so much you would kill for them. If you know what it’s like to feel someone so deep under your skin you would sacrifice everything to protect them even if it screws up your own moral compass. That’s what love is”. Perhaps with these lines as well as the twist, the book becomes a more memorable read. But I am not really keen on this. On the other hand, I appreciate this novel for the fact that it reminds me of something I had read in the past. Some quotes from the conversations frequently breathes in and out and might make one jot down on a piece of paper. Some are beautiful, some related to a reader’s own experiences, some are insightful. I especially like the ones on writing, and I feel that the author is really treating this novel as part of her biography and put a lot of effort in it.

  • “An author’s first novel is always, at least in part, an autobiography.”
  • “I learned that writing is the consolation prize you are given when you don’t get the thing you want the most.” 
  • “I don’t think all writers are sad. I think it’s the other way around – all sad people write. It’s a form of catharsis, a way of working through things that feel unresolved, like undoing a knot. People who are prone to sadness are more likely to pick up a pen.”
  • “You can never relive a moment through writing. You can only retell it.”