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Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Phantom Lover by Vernon Lee

A Phantom Lover
By Vernon Lee (nee Violet Paget, 1856-1935)

Published in 1890

Although this novella is not on my initial list of books I intend to read for this challenge, I have decided to put a review here after stumbling into it a couple of days ago. It is one of the best ghost stories I have ever read.

This novella has been compared to The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, in that there is a question about whether the ghost of the story was merely a figment of the imagination of two of the characters.

A Phantom Lover is set in an English country house called Okehurst sometime before 1886, during six weeks of late summer into early fall. The narrator is a painter who has been invited to Okehurst to paint the portraits of William and Alice Oke.

William and Alice are distant cousins, both descended from Nicholas and Alice Oke who lived at Okehurst in the early 17th century. William is a very good looking young man, obviously very much in love with his wife, Alice. Alice is tall and very slender. She has a striking resemblance to the 17th century Alice, whose portrait hangs in Okehurst, and she cultivates this resemblance by dressing in clothes similar to the ones worn by the first Alice in her portrait. Alice alternates between being languorous and very distant on most occasions, and energetic, almost manic on other occasions, leaving the impression she is taking drugs of some kind.

The 17th century Alice had had an admirer, the poet Christopher Lovelock. The 19th century Alice is obsessed with the love between her ancestress and Lovelock, telling the narrator at one point:

"Such love as that," she said, looking into the far distance of the oak-dotted park-land, "is very rare, but it can exist. It becomes a person's whole existence, his whole soul; and it can survive the death, not merely of the beloved, but of the lover. It is unextinguishable, and goes on in the spiritual world until it meets a reincarnation of the beloved; and when this happens, it jets out and draws to it all that may remain of that lover's soul, and takes shape and surrounds the beloved one once more."

Alice believes herself to be the reincarnation of the 17th century Alice and thus believes herself to be the object of Christopher Lovelock's love which has survived through the centuries. Lovelock is the ghost of the story. William Oke, Alice's husband, is consumed by jealousy and descends into madness, believing he sees Lovelock's ghost with Alice.

Does Lovelock's ghost exist? Alice and William obviously believe it does. The narrator, however, does not.

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