What better conduit between the quick and the dead can there be than a collection of historical records which purport to let the living hear the voices of those who have gone before? Today’s blog post selects a few items from among the Library’s historical manuscripts which really come into their own at Hallow’een. They include a vengeful seventeenth-century spirit, an old faithful, the classic ghostly ‘coach and pair’ and something genuinely weird from the pen of the great Edith Somerville. This last one will make you shudder.
One of the best-known ‘other-worldly’ accounts in Trinity’s manuscript collection is from the 1641 Depositions. These contemporary accounts of a major mid-seventeenth century rebellion need no ghostly assistance to make them terrifying, so graphic is the violence they describe. The deposition of Elizabeth Price is one of the most famous of all witness testimonies taken at this time.
Several of her children were drowned by rebels in the River Bann and, in recounting her experience later, Mrs Price recalled seeing a ghostly apparition: ‘near the bridge about twilight, upon a sudden there appeared a vision or spirit assuming the shape of a woman upright in the water, naked, with elevated hands, her hair dishevelled, very white, her eyes seeming to twinkle in her head, and her skin as white as snow’. This wraith refused to speak in response to questions from a priest, a friar and a minister except for its ghastly repetition of the words ‘revenge, revenge, revenge’.
Ominous aural portents were recorded by Margaret Dobbin (1786-1883), best known to history for her accounts of another time of war, the 1798 Rebellion. Her ghost encounter took place when she was visiting neighbours a mile from her home in Co Down. All the family heard strange slapping noises ‘as if a heavy whip’ had hit the furniture twice.
When she returned home it turned out that Margaret’s aged aunt had heard the very same thing at the very same time. ‘These things are not of this world’, Mrs Dobbin wrote. ‘They were warnings to me but I didn’t understand them at the time’. Shortly thereafter her beloved sister Jane became ill and died leaving Margaret ‘the most miserable being on earth’.
Another item, from the papers of the earls of Arran, tells of a ghostly railway train seemingly rushing through the interior of the house, Hyde Hall, where the author Sophia Roden was sleeping in 1911. She was ‘terror-stricken’ but knew she wasn’t dreaming as her dogs commenced barking furiously. An phantom ‘coach and pair’ was also supposed to drive up to the hall door of this eighteenth- century house which is now the site of a public display garden run by the Royal Horticultural Society.
The final story dates from the time of the First World War and is all the better for being told by a masterly writer who was also a spiritualist. Artist, writer, suffragist and sportswoman Edith Oenone Somerville (1858-1949) is best known for her novel The Real Charlotte which is regarded as one of the great English-language novels of the Victorian period. Most of her literary output was the result of her collaboration with her cousin ‘Martin Ross’ (Violet Florence Martin) a collaboration which was not interrupted by Martin’s death; Somerville used ‘automatic writing’ to allow her cousin to contribute to subsequent books which continued to be published under both authors’ names. In a letter to her sister Hildegard, written in 1914, Somerville recounts a tale of what can only be summarised as haunted dog food.
Having placed her dog’s food dish on the floor Somerville recounted that ‘two conglomerated lumps of meat and slush rose quietly out of the plate; one fell on the floor, the other flopped back into the tray. As it lay there it squeaked – a small, very faint, dry little squeak’. Somerville then went on to describe how this demon doggie dinner began to move on its own, ‘a grayish, shapeless mass, trailing with vermicelli, altogether horrible and awful’. It then uttered another far louder squeak, ‘a reedy, oozy sound, the sort of sound that a thing with no mouth would make’.
She advanced closer with a lamp to examine it but found that ‘the thing had gone’. Somerville rehearsed all possible explanations for what she had observed but, in the end, was of the opinion that what she had seen had been an ‘elemental’ which had slid out of the fourth dimension, and materialised for a minute or two.
The Library holds a very significant Somerville and Ross archive including manuscript drafts of some of the literary work; correspondence with their publisher Alain Comte de Suzannet; Somerville’s artwork for such works as In Mr. Knox’s Country as well as her scrapbooks and hundreds of letters to her sister Hildegard Coghill.