The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"Margery of Quether" (1884)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“Margery of Quether” was written by Sabine Baring-Gould and first appeared in Cornhill Magazine (Apr-May, 1884). Baring-Gould (1834-1924) was a British clergyman and author of a wide range of works, from theology to folklore studies to hymns--he wrote “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Baring-Gould also wrote horror and ghost stories. “Margery of Quether,” formerly famous and now obscure, is an interesting oddity, a cynically humorous Victorian vampire story.

George Rosedhu is twenty-three years old. His parents are dead and he is the owner of Foggaton, a large piece of land in Devon. The Rosedhus have owned the property for over five hundred years. In time he intends to marry, but not too soon, since “young wives are expensive luxuries, and long families ruin a small property.”1 So, like his father and grandfather before him, George plans on marrying at a sensible age, at least fifty if not older. He has the lucky woman in mind: Margaret Palmer, daughter of George’s neighbor John Palmer of Quether. George courts Margaret, after his fashion, and his intentions toward her are clear, at least in his own mind: 

I had been keeping company with Margaret Palmer for seven or eight months, and I had begun to hope that in the course of a twelve month, if things progressed, I might make a declaration of my sentiments, and that after the lapse of some three or four years more we might begin to think of getting married.2 

But George is not romantic, which annoys Margaret. She stays away from him for several weeks. This takes place around Christmas Eve, when it is the local custom to climb to an abandoned church on the top of the highest hill in the area and ring the church bells. The man who ordinarily would do this cannot due to his lumbago, so George goes in his stead. The old man warns George that he might meet “Margery o’ Quether,” which annoys George, since he assumes that the old man is referring to Margaret. At the church George sees, hanging from the bell cord, “something dark, like a ball of dirty cobwebs.”3 The thing slowly slides down the cord to the ground, and George sees that it is a painfully old woman, about the size of a three months’ old baby. The woman mumbles that she is “Margery Palmer of Quether,” who hides up in the bell “year after year with a body o’ bones all scatted abroad [broken to pieces] and never no chance of the bones healing...I’ve lived there these hundreds of years. I reckoned it were the safest place I could be in.”4 When George identifies himself, Margery thinks that he is his several-times-removed great-grandfather, who died over 200 years ago. Margery explains that she prayed constantly for life, but not for eternal youth, and thus fell into the Cumaen Sybil trap, growing older and older, more and more frail, and gradually losing her senses. All she has left is one tooth.

George takes pity on poor Margery and decides to take her home. When he picks her up to carry her she tenaciously latches on to him and then bites him in the chest, her claws digging into him. He does not mind, though, and carries her home and tucks her up carefully by the fire and gives her something to eat. He finds that he is tired and goes to sleep. The next morning, Christmas morning, Margery looks slightly younger, but when George goes to church others take note that he looks years older than previously. George does not feel well and begs off attending Christmas dinner with the Palmers. He returns home, wanting to see how Margery is, and she immediately plants her tooth in his chest again. When she lets go, she is visibly younger, and George is older. George is no dummy and knows what is happening:

I would not have you suppose that Margery was sucking my some marvelous manner, to me quite inexplicable, extract life and health, the blood from my veins and the marrow from my bones, and assimilate them herself.5 

George does not mind this, however, since he has become fond of and almost obsessed with Margery. Within a few weeks George is a doddering old man, so frail and antiquated that he can no longer walk, and Margery is a buxom young woman with sparkling eyes. At this point Margery suggests to George that he marry her, so that when he dies, something which will occur soon, she can take control of Foggaton. He agrees, because she takes such good care of him in his dotage and because he wants her to continue to live, even though it will mean sucking the life out of successive men. But when the banns are announced, they are in the name of George Rosedhu and Margaret Palmer of Quether, where Margery lived centuries ago. This angers John Palmer, for everyone thinks that George is to marry John’s daughter, the younger Margaret. Margery has been attending church regularly, so everyone knows about her, and John threatens to burn Margery on a bonfire–she is a witch, clearly–if she does not relinquish George. George does not want Margery to die, but Margaret does, even though she is disgusted by George’s wizened state. Margery, seeing that John and the mob behind him are serious in their death threats, eventually gives in and restores his youth to him. John then forces George to marry Margaret within the month. Poor Margery, returned to decrepitude, is forced to hide in a remote part of Dartmoor.

During the 1880s “Margery of Quether” was likely the most famous vampire story in Great Britain. Reviewers of Dracula compared it to “Margery": seeking for a parallel to this weird, powerful, and horrorful story our mind reverts to such tales as The Mysteries of Udolpho; Frankenstein; Wuthering Heights; ‘The Fall of the House of Usher;’ and ‘Margery of Quether...’6 

But for reasons which are now mystifying “Margery” fell into neglect soon after the turn of the century and wasn’t anthologized for over a century. Baring-Gould was a skilled writer, and “Margery of Quether” certainly deserves to be counted among the best vampire stories of the nineteenth century. The voice of George Rosedhu–crotchety (though young), incorrigible, and phrased in the rural English vernacular–is perfectly created, and there are a number of funny moments to accompany the creepy moment in which George sees the something descending down the church bell rope, and the terrifying form which immortality has taken for Margery.

But most memorable is the specific type of humor in the story. There were no lack of humorous ghost stories in the nineteenth century, but the particular tone which Baring-Gould strikes is unusual. It is cynical and pointed, which some modern readers (and critics) occasionally miss. George’s narration and pointed comments at the expense of modern women and the “Radical Gladstone Chamberlain times” are seen as conservative by critics and readers, but this is a misinterpretation of “Margery.” Baring-Gould is sending up the provincial, small-minded conservatism of George and his neighbors, and George is a figure of humor and not to be taken seriously. He is quite dislikable. But Margaret Palmer is equally shrewish, and John Palmer is willing to use all manner of sophistry to justify killing Margery and getting the Foggaton lands for his family. Margery is really the only one who has much kindness, even though she is also a vampire. No, “Margery of Quether” is not to be taken as a conservative story, but rather a satire of the types of conservatives seen in the story.

Recommended Edition

Print: Sabine Baring-Gould, Margery of Quether and Other Weird Tales. Neuilly-le-Vendin, FR: Sarob Press, 1999. 



1 Sabine Baring-Gould, “Margery of Quether,” in Margery of Quether (Leipzig: Heinemann and Balestier, 1892), 10.

2 Baring-Gould, “Margery of Quether,” 9.

3 Baring-Gould, “Margery of Quether,” 20.

4 Baring-Gould, “Margery of Quether,” 22-23.

5 Baring-Gould, “Margery of Quether,” 38.

6 Qtd. in Alexandra Warwick, “Dracula and the Late Victorian Gothic Revival,” in Roger Luckhurst, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Dracula (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2018), 40.