The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Cold Embrace" (1860)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Cold Embrace” was written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and first appeared in The Welcome Guest (Sept. 29, 1860). Braddon (1835-1915) was a successful commercial writer who is best-known for her sensation novels. “The Cold Embrace” is a neat little story about love and revenge.
A young German artist, handsome, eloquent, and a firm believer in the high calling of Art, falls in love, for a short while, with his cousin Gertrude. “Did he love her? Yes, when he first swore it. It soon wore out, this passionate love; how threadbare and wretched a sentiment it became at last in the selfish heart of the student.”1 When he is in Florence working under a master, he is smitten with a model and writes to Gertrude less and less and finally not at all. She needs the letters, though, for her father, not knowing of her relationship with the student, has arranged a marriage for her to a rich suitor. Gertrude writes to the student telling him of her upcoming marriage. On the eve of her wedding no letter from the student arrives. He has taken his time returning home to Brunswick, intending to arrive when the wedding was over. Instead he arrives just as Gertrude’s body is dragged from the river--she has drowned herself in despair. The student flees Brunswick but discovers that whenever he is alone two cold arms wrap themselves around his neck and clasp their hands on his breast. “He tries never to be alone; he makes a hundred acquaintances, and shares the chamber of another student.”2 It does no good, and the cold embrace always finds him. Eventually he succumbs to the caress of the cold arms and dances himself to death.
“The Cold Embrace” is regarded as one of the classic nineteenth century ghost stories. It does not reach that height, but it comes close. If the story’s plot is predictable–and “wronged woman haunts her heartless lover” is one many readers will have read before–and the story is not overly frightening, Braddon still tells it briskly and well, in a present tense that heightens the immediacy of the story, and she manages to make the ending of the story, with the student’s descent into madness and death in the arms of ghostly Gertrude, suitably hallucinogenic.
“The Cold Embrace” is a good example of a trend in the 1850s and 1860s, in both the United States and Great Britain, to make the ghosts in horror fiction active rather than passive and victimizers rather than victims. In the 1830s and 1840s a common trait among fictional ghosts was for them to be children (see: “The Old Nurse’s Story”) or otherwise powerless to affect the living (see: “The Last House on C---- Street")—in other words, to imitate the Gothic model. But in the 1850s and 1860s,
once the spiritualist-influenced conception of the ghostly in fiction had displaced the gothic conventions to a point where limited and generic ghosts seemed old-fashioned and uninteresting, public demand pressed for modern stories defined by a shared cultural presumption that ghosts would act differently. While there were differences between American and British ghost stories, just as between American and British spiritualism, such differences rarely extended to the portrayal of the ghosts themselves. On both sides of the Atlantic, these ghosts more closely resembled the spiritualist conception than the gothic.3
Without stories like “The Cold Embrace,” there would have been no “An Eddy in the Floor” and other stories of ghostly viciousness.
Print: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, The Cold Embrace and Other Ghost Stories. Ashcroft, BC: Ash-Tree Press, 2000.
1 Mary Elizabeth Braddon, “The Cold Embrace,” in Ralph the Bailiff, and Other Stories (London: S. Blackett, 1888), 55.
2 Braddon, “The Cold Embrace,” 60.
3 Jennifer Bann, “Ghostly Hands and Ghostly Agency: The Changing Figure of the Nineteenth-Century Specter,” Victorian Studies 51, no.4 (Summer, 2009), 677.