Having pleasant but vague memories of the film version featuring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison, I snapped up Josephine Leslie’s The Ghost And Mrs. Muir on a whim (originally published in 1945 under the pseudonym R.A. Dick). The paperback edition is about as slim as novels come, and the story, a very readable humorous fantasy, is not much beefier. Famous for the charm of the crisp exchanges between widow Lucy Muir and ghostly Captain Daniel Gregg, the book also offers some surprises: an unsentimental, individualistic assessment of motherhood and a single-minded rejection of the perceived necessity to become a useful member of larger society.
To assert her independence after years of submitting herself to the meddlesomeness of others, recently widowed Lucy Muir decides to move with her young daughter Anna and son Cyril to the little coastal resort of Whitecliff. Situated at the edge of green, rolling country that slopes down to the sea, neglected Gull Cottage meets the requirements both of her meagre purse and her longing for solitude. But although the grey stone house has stood vacant for years the real estate agent is curiously reluctant to let it to “a single lady”.
An amateurish but impertinent portrait, an improbably clean brass telescope in the main bedroom, and an uncooperative gas stove are Lucy’s introduction to the irascible sea captain who is believed to have committed suicide here years ago. Haunted or not, the house is exactly what Lucy wants and she refuses to be bullied any longer – especially by a rude-tempered ghost who does not possess the common decency to move on and leave earthly matters to the living.
Neither Lucy nor Captain Daniel Gregg fully grasps the significance of the friendship that buds between them until well-intentioned interference causes a rift of silence that brings a new kind of loneliness to them both.
Although The Ghost And Mrs. Muir follows Lucy Muir from her mid-thirties to the end of her life as a grandmother the reader is given few external clues to mark the passing of time. The seasons change, the children grow up, dogs succeed each other, and Lucy ages, but despite minor adjustments in definitions of modesty or progressiveness, the outside world remains as static as a painting. The mention of cars and mourning attire in the first chapter lets us know we are in the early twentieth century, an England with Beatrice stoves and later, careers for women, but an illusory place, too, from which wars and the Depression are conspicuously absent. This is a fairytale for adults, and an entertaining one at that.
The snappy dialogue and comedic interaction between Lucy Muir and the ghost of Daniel Gregg are the stars of the story. The humour is offset by, as Lucy phrases it, “this problem called life”, a shadowy counterpoint that lends the light-hearted drama variety and moments of melancholy and poignancy. Josephine Leslie’s prose has a cheery vintage quality, and particularly in passages that describe nature her imagery shines: “On the beach below the sea was coming in with crested green waves, curving over like powerful steel springs before they shattered themselves in a flurry of white, swirling broth, that sucked and dragged at the grey pebbles, rattling the loose stones back into the hidden engine of the seas” (67).
Like many stories, The Ghost And Mrs. Muir can be read on several levels. The most common, I assume, is the straightforward, amusing, occasionally touching tale of two people meant for each other but divided by an unusual obstacle. That is the book I thought I was reading when some of the elements on the way to the last chapter made stumble, pause, and mull. Please be warned that what follows does contain spoilers here and there for anyone who is unfamiliar with the film.
I have seen The Ghost And Mrs. Muir labelled as a classic romance, and no doubt it has inspired authors of modern genre fiction. However, while the ending fulfills the conventions of a love story the frank, brisk banter that characterises Lucy and Daniel’s friendship exhibits neither flirtatiousness nor dewy-eyed romanticism. Passionate love does make a guest appearance but the couple in question is not Mrs. Muir and Captain Gregg. The affection between the latter is shown through their companionship, which supports Lucy through the ups and downs of life and mellows Daniel into becoming less selfish and more of a benefactor, but its progress into something deeper is implied, not described outright. The film (1947 trailer) may differ; I cannot recall clearly, but my sense is that it relies a good deal on heightened melodrama and gothic fantasy whereas the book’s mood is more down-to-earth. In the novel, romanticism is not merely under-played: true love is decidedly anti-romantic.
Indeed, in the novel romantic love is full of discontent, pain, and repression, and it is questionable whether one is better off for having loved in such a way. The disembodied voice of Captain Gregg seems to underscore that bodily passions, sexual fulfillment, and mortal love have nothing on spiritual affinity. For unlike the film version, the novel’s Lucy cannot see Daniel except in a dream; there are no spectral visions of him floating about to accompany his mischievousness or roared expletives.
This leads me to an imbalance in their relationship that never ceased to bother me. Whereas Lucy can only hear Daniel, he is able to both see and hear her as well as access her thoughts. He does so, too, indiscriminately. Initially disconcerted by the conversations he carries on with her in her head, she pays a visit to a psychoanalyst in case she is losing her mind. Paradoxically, while an intensely private person in all her other dealings, Lucy never attempts to block him from her mind, to forbid him from listening to her thoughts or reprove him for “eavesdropping”. A combination of the sensible and the wistful, she seems simply to accept that she is an open book to him, whereas he comments that she is “nice-minded”, and so the narrator appears to imply that the situation is fine because Lucy has nothing to hide or be ashamed of. If anything, this state of affairs is made out to be a convenience since the two can communicate without any outsider being aware of it. Lucy’s inability to reciprocate, to pounce on Daniel’s thoughts unawares or have him at her beck and call is not discussed. And so he joins her in her bedroom in the evenings, on one occasion, when she is undressing and protests at his presence, explaining that ghosts do not react to matters of the flesh in the way mortals do, after he has just complimented her on her figure. His habit of bursting in on her unannounced allows for none of the barriers she puts up against the rest of the world, but the loss of such boundaries is not mutual.
This one-sided aspect of their communication style is further accentuated when during their separation from each other Lucy does not reach out and try to re-establish contact with Daniel. She proves the kind of female protagonist who, figuratively speaking, waits for the man to call. She is so entirely passive that I actually began to wonder whether she had genuinely lost interest in him. When Daniel of his own accord decides to “return” after an absence of many years, however, she appears to simply accept that, too. Of course, one could point to the issue of scarred emotions in this context and draw an inference that she is protecting herself by maintaining a distance. If so, I would wish for a turning point, some sort of catharsis or emotional insight that explains what has changed for her and made the subsequent reconciliation possible, but that is not forthcoming.
Then again, Lucy Muir is not one to volunteer information about herself. She abhors conflict, which is the reason that in the past she chose to submit rather than fight. Burnt by a marriage during which she stifled her own wishes and desires in order to cope with in-laws and their acquaintances, she craves the peace of mind that she can only find in solitude. Unwilling to conform with the strictures of society, she declines all social life and feels no need to make friends, silently rebelling against her sister-in-law’s insistence that a healthy social life is the mark of a well-adjusted individual. The times in her life during which she is drawn into social activities are shown as periods of dull, weary resignation. Because The Ghost And Mrs. Muir came out in 1945, the question that poses itself is whether wartime traumas/losses influenced the shaping of Lucy and indeed the story itself.
She also keeps her true feelings and thoughts about almost everything a secret from her children, even after they have grown into adults, particularly careful to betray nothing of her inner self to her supercilious son. When the adult Anna surprises her with an unexpected revelation Lucy likewise keeps mum and refrains from sharing a similar confidence. This reticence about oneself in front of one’s children may well have been typical of Lucy’s generation, but on the other hand Lucy’s relationship with Cyril and Anna seems as problematic to her as any other. The narrator does not attempt to varnish Lucy’s ambivalence about motherhood. She loves them both and dutifully tries to treat them equally, but is guiltily aware of her clear preference for one and uncertain whether she even likes the other very much. A mother hen she is not, and her reclusive tendencies wage a fight against a romanticised image of motherhood, one which lays down that children should be the sum total of a woman’s life. (The later mention that she has become a grandmother merely marks a stage in her life; the subject itself is left untouched.) Life has taught her that meddling causes more harm than good and while she is reluctant to interfere in the lives of her children she is even more adamant that they shall not be allowed to interfere in hers. She wonders if she is selfish, because she“[wants] to set nothing and no one right”, her greatest contentment coming from being left to lead her life in peace and privacy.
Although events in The Ghost And Mrs. Muir are portrayed from Lucy’s perspective and she is at once sensible and sensitive, making her character interesting as well as sympathetic, I sometimes felt the author’s treatment of the contradictory forces in her nature were portrayed with a superficiality that made her seem strangely wan. At the end of the book she seems unchanged; one can chart no growth arc for her. I also did not get the sense that this is a woman in charge of her life, but rather someone who restlessly scrambles to live life as she wishes but depends on the charitable impulses of others to be able to do so. For example, it is Daniel who comes up with money schemes aimed at supporting her financial independence. Lucy does not develop the confidence to frankly and honestly stand up to the demands of others; the only way she seems to be able to retain control over her life is by relying on secretiveness, evasiveness, and, if all else fails, stubbornness.
In Daniel Gregg Josephine Leslie takes another ordinary character, a sea captain of indeterminate age but certainly no longer young, and turns him into a figure to reckon with. He brings an energy to the story that falters in sections where he is absent, notably the less taut, more episodic, latter half of the book. For all his saltiness and ostensible spurning of conservative morality, I would argue that he is the much more conventional character of the two, a predictably alpha male who takes command, is goal-oriented, overbearing, and protective. There would be no story without him, but, as is obvious from this post, it is Lucy’s more nuanced personality that provoked me to think between the smiles and chuckles.
The narrative of The Ghost And Mrs. Muir turns inward, away from the world to not simply a domestic sphere but a fiercely defended private space. The rooms in Gull Cottage are dwelt on in detail, with their furnishing arrangements and rearrangements; elsewhere, too, furniture and “home” are recurring motifs. (Lucy's husband was an unsuccessful architect.) The house appears to be located on the South Downs, surrounded by beautifully described countryside and overlooking the sea. Lucy’s interactions with the outside world are extremely stressful to her, and interestingly, this fraught relationship seems to extend to the natural landscape, too. She battles weeds, a freshly dug burrow collapses over her dog, and a wood cascading with bluebells becomes the scene of corruption and pain. Whenever she needs consolation or reassurance she runs back to the comforts of her cottage instead of seeking out nature. Curiously, we never see her in physical communication with the sea. She is neither shown boating nor swimming, and even observes her children playing down by the shore from a lookout point in her garden wall. If the sea/ocean symbolises freedom, life, uncontrollable forces, the unknown, what does it say about Lucy, who chooses to live by the sea but to the end seems reluctant to step outside her cottage (Daniel’s former home), and her relationship with Daniel, who has navigated the world? Is The Ghost And Mrs. Muir really the story of how a recluse finds an alliance that allows her to be happy without ever really going outside herself?
When I began reading The Ghost And Mrs. Muir I assumed it would be a cosy diversion that could not possibly leave me with sufficient stimulation to compose a full-length post. I love it when books take me by surprise, and this one certainly did. As for the actual story, I did not enjoy it quite as unreservedly as the initial chapters led me to believe I would, but I was entertained and liked Josephine Leslie's writing style well enough to know I will want to reread the book one day.
(Pocket Books paperback, 1974, p.14-15):
“‘lI’m beginning to think that there’s something very odd about this house,’ said Lucy slowly.
‘Then in that case there’s no point in going upstairs,’ said Mr. Coombe in a relieved voice. ‘I knew it wouldn’t suit you.’
‘But it does suit me!’ said Lucy. ‘It’s exactly the house I want. But there’s something funny about it, and I mean to find out what it is even if you won’t tell me.’
Without a word Mr. Coombe turned and led the way upstairs. A bathroom and three bedrooms opened onto the square landing above. The back bedrooms were simply furnished under the usual coat of dust, and the front room with the big bow-window was arranged with equal simplicity. There were blue rugs on the stained wood floor, an iron bedstead, a chest of drawers, a cupboard, a large wicker armchair in front of the gas stove, and three pictures of sailing ships on the white-washed wall. What took the eye in this room, and held it, was a brass telescope standing on a tripod in the window, glittering in the afternoon sun.
Lucy stared at this object and stared at it again. She had seen telescopes before. What was there then so strange about this one? True, they were not usually considered necessary as furnishings to a bedroom, but after all the late occupant had been a sea captain, and to a sea captain a telescope, even in retirement, might be as comforting as a favourite violin to an old violinist. No, there was something about this particular telescope that had hit her sight with almost physical violence as soon as she had entered the room.
‘Of course,’ she said aloud, ‘you are clean!’
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the startled Mr. Coombe.
Lucy scarcely heard him. Another sound seemed to be filling the room and her ears, a deep rich chuckle. She glanced at Mr. Coombe, but that young man was certainly in no laughing mood. He had flushed to the roots of his thin fair hair and was staring at her; his pale eyes seemed to swim out at her, more than ever like a fish in a glass bowl, from behind his thick lenses.
‘Come,’ he said hoarsely and, seizing her arm, hustled her out of the room, down the stairs, and from the house, before she had time to protest.
‘I thought so!’ said Lucy as he helped her into the car and climbed in himself. ‘The house is haunted.’
‘I didn’t want to show it to you – you would see it,’ said Mr. Coombe, and stepping on the accelerator, he sent the car forward feverishly.”