Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Uninhabited House, by Mrs. J.H. Riddell

Echo Library, 2007
105 pp
(originally published 1875)


My many go thanks to Michael Flowers, who maintains a website dedicated to Charlotte Riddell (1832 - 1906) where I was fortunate enough to find some valuable information about this relatively unknown author -- well, at least I'd not heard of her prior to discovering this book.  An incredibly prolific writer, Riddell's vast bibliography includes over fifty novels and short stories, several of them classified as "supernatural."  The Uninhabited House is a novella-sized haunted house story, set just outside of London along the banks of the Thames.

The "uninhabited house" of the title is River Hall, the property of Miss Helena Elmsdale who inherited the property after the death of her father. Miss Elmsdale has not yet reached her majority, however, so the business of keeping the house rented falls to her aunt Miss Susannah Blake who  puts it in the hands of her attorneys, Messrs. Craven and Son.  She is not the easiest of clients, but the lawyers do their very best to keep it rented for her.   Unfortunately for everyone concerned, the house has a history of tenants who are only too eager to leave shortly after taking the place.  After one tenant decides he's had enough, Mr. Craven realizes that the house that is doomed by reputation to never again see a tenant grace its threshold. With Miss Blake demanding that something be done, one man takes it upon himself to stay in the house so he can discover the secrets that plague River Hall.

Charlotte Riddell, 1875
Without giving anything away, the circumstances in which Miss Blake and her niece find themselves in this book are loosely based on events in the author's own life. After her father died and left the family in financial straits, Charlotte and her mother relocated to London where Charlotte took up writing as a way to help support herself.  Her skills came in handy after her marriage when her husband also suffered some financial setbacks.   In this story, the Blake sisters (the other being Kathleen, now deceased) discover one day that "their trustee had robbed them," and that they were penniless.  Although they tried to earn a living, they found themselves "on the edge of beggary." In The Uninhabited House, the sisters are saved when Kathleen marries a businessman, Mr. Elmsdale, but with Kathleen and Elmsdale dead, Miss Susannah Blake and Helena find themselves in a bad financial predicament once again.   The story's focus on money and the lack of it is quite interesting, not just because of art reflecting life, but because all of their problems could have actually been solved if only Susannah Blake had not set her social and class standards so high throughout her life.  It seems to me that in many ways, one of the points of this story is that it isn't money that brings happiness -- in fact, it is just the opposite in some situations.  Combined with the supernatural elements of this story, it definitely should have made for interesting reading at the time.

I will say that for a while I wasn't quite sure how this tale was going to play out, since it reads like a mystery novel in some parts.  Actually, for me as a crime reader that's not a bad thing, but I really wanted to know exactly what was happening at River Hall. As it turns out, it becomes sort of a hybrid mystery/ghost story when all is said and done; the downside is that it also has a wee bit of sentimental sappiness there at the end, which frankly, given the time it was published doesn't really surprise me.  This is also a story you don't read in hopes of being scared out of your wits ... it's more something you read in appreciation of the author's craft and as a representation of Victorian ghost-story writing, especially the work of a woman writer.

 While it has its issues,  I enjoyed The Uninhabited House very much, and when I finished it, I bought two more books of her work for my home library, Volumes I and II of The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Mrs. J.H. Riddell,  published by Leonaur.  (By the way, I don't reap any benefit if you click on this link that goes to Amazon).  I foresee many hours spent reading Riddell's work in my future -- and would recommend this book to readers who are interested in Victorian-era women writers, to readers of old ghost stories/haunted house tales, and to anyone like myself who is trying to discover previously-unknown authors and bring their obscurity into the light.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you! I love her work. Thanks also for your blog -- you provided me with some great reading.


Say what you will, but do it in a nice way.