Joan Aiken: The Haunting of Lamb House
Jonathan Cape 1991
‘Perhaps we are nothing but the raw materials of a ghost story.’
— Hugo to Toby Lamb
A ghostly apparition, what does it signify? Misfortune? Death? Something lost or unfinished? Are inexplicable happenings evidence of a poltergeist or just the wild imaginings of the observer? Do houses, ancient sites and natural features attract supernatural entities like a genius loci, or perhaps preserve the memory of ancient associations? Will we ever fathom out true answers?
The Haunting of Lamb House is a ghost story unlike any other I’ve read. True, there may be more than one ghost (it appears) and there are three related stories: but if you’re looking for your spine to be tingled or expecting multiple bumps in the night you might be disappointed. Instead, what you’ll be offered is a sense of place and of the personages, real or imagined, that inhabited a three hundred year old house, so that the house becomes as much a character as the denizens that inhabit it.
What for me adds to the novel’s attractiveness are a couple of considerations: first, the house featured in it actually exists — and can be visited by the public — and second, the three narratives, with their different voices, give the novel a documentary feel, as though one was perusing transcriptions of actual historical artefacts. Their combination in one narrative thread somehow allowed me, Coleridge-style, to willingly suspend any sense of disbelief.
The opening narrative, which provides the main impetus for the remaining two, is told in the first person by Toby Lamb, son of the James Lamb who built Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, early in the eighteenth century. Toby is the ill-used child of the family, disregarded because of his lameness but with sterling qualities nevertheless. While he works hard to do the best for the family business, a series of misfortunes befall the family members. The older brother is a bully, a gambler and a drunkard who predeceases Toby; a beloved sister is fostered by a childless Tunbridge Wells couple who, to put it mildly, don’t have her best interests at heart; a younger brother meets tragedy on Winchelsea beach; their mother is temperamentally of a weak disposition and remains sequestered in her bedroom; Toby has but one childhood friend.
On top of that Toby is the only one to see a mysterious figure in the garden, a portent whose significance Toby desperately believes may be a key to the family’s misfortunes.
‘The Stranger in the Garden’ is followed by ‘The Shade in the Alley’, which follows on from Toby’s 1784 journal, picking up its themes in the early 20th century. We now are in the presence of Henry James, the writer, who in 1897 leased Lamb House and then two years later bought it outright. During this time he had written and published his most famous ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, said to be partly inspired by an incident told him by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, E W Benson, co-founder of The Cambridge Association for Spiritual Inquiry. In this section James comes across a mysterious manuscript as the result of a curious fire in 1899, soon after he’d bought the house. And this journal is to prove an obsession for the remainder of his time at the house.
The language of ‘The Shade in the Alley’ is very Jamesian: it is told in the style of the writer himself (indeed, Aiken admits to using his own words wherever possible) with James constantly referred to as ‘our friend’, cher maître and ‘our hero’. One could almost imagine James writing his memoir in the third person, were it not for the fact that he ends his life in the closing pages, undecided whether to publish Toby’s account or rewrite it in his own, more felicitous, words.
The final section, ‘The Figure in the Chair’, takes on yet another mood, lighter in tone at times, less ponderous than the Jamesian section and less melancholy than Toby’s writing. This is narrated by E F (‘Fred’) Benson, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury who was friends with James, and features Fred’s brother Arthur. Both siblings were writers and also interested in ghosts: Fred even wrote several supernatural short stories. ‘The Figure in the Chair’ has a séance at its centre, and draws together the stranger seen by Toby at Lamb House, James’ concerns about how to deal with Toby’s journal and, finally, the import of the revelations that Fred and Arthur hear at the séance. What then happened to the eighteenth-century manuscript after James discovered it? Do we, the readers of this novel, hold the account in our hands?
And now there is this novel, written by Joan Aiken, native of Rye. Reading it while on holiday in East Sussex and visiting places mentioned in its pages for me made it so much more vivid.
Would it have made the story less involving if I’d never been there? Hard to tell, but I will say this. Aiken reveals her ability to write in distinct voices, neither pastiche nor parody but convincing in their evocation of period detail, language and manners. Toby’s account, though long, is a fictionalised version of the Lamb family in the Georgian period and its history, reworked to suit her purposes. I’ve read James, and skimmed Benson, but these sections come out as authentic recreations of those authors’ own writings, mannerisms and moods.
A man in black—poltergeist happenings—a hidden manuscript—revelations at a séance—a restless spirit who seeks rest. If no tingling spines ensue then possibly the odd shiver may make itself felt (not just from supernatural causes, there is implied abuse though we have to imagine details). This novel calls out to be read during a late autumn evening in a creaky old house; you don’t have to be familiar with Lamb House and its environs to be persuaded that this could — just — be all true.
2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a scary book