The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"A Mysterious Visitor" (1857)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“A Mysterious Visitor” was written by Mrs. Henry Wood and first appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany (Oct. 1857). Mrs. Henry Wood, née Ellen Price (1814-1887), was an immensely popular writer in her time. Her East Lynne (1861), a rollicking good time of a sensation novel, was a huge commercial success. “A Mysterious Visitor” was popular enough in its day and is well-spoken-of by modern critics. Modern readers may feel differently about it.

On the night of 11 May 1857, the very night of the rebellion in India, Mrs. Louisa Ordie is at home caring for her sick child. The baby is feverish, but Louisa is a hysterical type who has already lost one child, in India, and who does not want to lose her other child. Captain Ordie and Louisa’s sister and brother in law are in India, and Louisa is alone save for the servants and neighbors. Louisa acts shrill and unpleasant toward the nurse and the other servants and is keeping herself up all night, watching her baby, when she hears footsteps on the gravel path outside the house. She wonders who it is and then recognizes her husband’s footsteps. Surprised, she goes out to greet him. He looks at her and then proceeds into the house, but when she goes after him he is gone. And since the tall gate to the house is locked and he can’t be found, no one believes Louisa--her unpleasant personality may have something to do with that as well--when she says she saw him. It is later revealed that at 11:25 India time Captain Ordie was sacrificing himself in fighting the Indians, and that Louisa saw him at 11:25 G.M.T. And so Louisa shrilly insists for the rest of her days that it was her husband’s ghost she saw.

“A Mysterious Visitor” can seem to the modern reader to be a fifteen page story padded out to thirty pages, filled with pointless dialogue which reads as if Mrs. Wood were being paid by the penny. Louisa will seem to the modern reader to be unpleasant, even unbearable, and Captain Ordie’s only appearance–the site of the story’s horror, for the modern reader—is over and done with in a sentence. In “A Mysterious Visitor” Mrs. Wood perpetuates the racist myths of the 1857 Sepoy Revolt, including that of English women facing “the fate worse than death” from Indians, that while popular in fiction of the nineteenth century1 are now known not to be true.

But “A Mysterious Visitor” actually reveals itself to be a somewhat complex story when subjected to deeper analysis and when considered in its contemporary context. The commonly available version of the story is from Mrs. Wood’s posthumous collection Adam Grainger (1890), but that version was bowdlerized by Mrs. Wood; “the original incarnation in Bentley’s Magazine was considerably more violent.”2 This violence would have resonated with contemporary audiences, heavily sensitized and shocked as they were to the events and news of the 1857 Revolt. “By setting her story of the 1857 Indian Uprising within the context of the supernatural, Wood allows two layers of terror, that of historic horror and ghostly terror, through the experiences of Louisa and the visitation of her husband in spectral form."3 

Even with the story bowdlerized by Mrs. Wood–perhaps because of her later fame and her desire not to offend her readers–Mrs. Wood was a consummately professional writer and wrote to support her family rather than to achieve art, and would happily edit out questionable material if doing so would guarantee herself more readers–“A Mysterious Visitor” has hints of something darker. Early in the story Louisa declares that she would “rather lose everything I possess in the world, than my baby.”4 She later discovers that one of her sisters was murdered in India and the other had disappeared, possibly to suffer the “fate worse than death,” and that her husband died in combat there. It’s possible that Mrs. Wood meant “A Mysterious Visitor” to be a “foolishly uttered wish” horror story.

The story itself, as noted, can feel to the modern reader like a fifteen page story padded out to thirty pages, but there is an alternative view of the story, advanced by Nick Freeman, that posits that the padded material is there to draw out the tension of the story and create what Freeman calls “cruel suspense.” Freeman has a point; the account of Captain Ordie’s final hours and the fate of Ordie and Louisa’s sisters is “artfully intensified by the retarding of crucial detail,”5 details which Wood, via the character describing Ordie’s fate, doles out slowly and, yes, cruelly. Modern readers may feel that the story is padded and slow rather than methodical and filled with tension, but undoubtedly Wood’s contemporary readers, who were conditioned by most fiction of the century to read and enjoy long works, saw it as the latter rather than the former.

Lastly, the idea of the spectral husband visiting his surviving wife is a cliché in horror fiction, stretching back in folklore undoubtedly to the Greeks and Romans if not the Egyptians or Sumerians. But as Roger Luckhurst (summarized in Melissa Makala’s Women’s Ghost Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain) noted, there was a belief among Victorians in the veracity of such “crisis apparitions:”6 

Another useful term which links Wood’s story to the cultural consciousness of the time is what Roger Luckhurst calls the imperial rumour. He discusses this idea in relation to the “crisis apparitions” of second sight, but also connects rumour to deeper anxieties about British rule in India and elsewhere. “Supernormal communications” from empire (i.e. ghosts appearing in Britain at the time of their deaths) were seemingly able to spread faster than any manmade form of communication, and ghosts which told of deaths from imperial violence became representative of British fears and rumours over failed governmental control in those regions. In the mind of the British public, if such violence could happen, but the public was not being “officially” told about it in detail, what else could be going on in India or Africa? This naturally led to more rumours and false “eye witness” accounts. According to Luckhurst these quickly spreading rumours, visitations from the dead, “suggests a mechanism of projection in which anxieties about the fragility of colonial rule and scanty communication could conjure occult doubles which mysteriously exceeded European systems.”7 

Modern readers will not be in tune with these aspects of “A Mysterious Visitor,” but Wood’s contemporary readers certainly were. Michael Flowers has it right: “Wood was a more subversive writer, especially before her name became known, than has ever been acknowledged."8 

Recommended Edition

Print: Tara Moore, ed., The Valancourt Book of Victorian Ghost Stories. Richmond, VA: Valancourt Books, 2013.

Online: As noted above, this is not the original version, but the version later bowdlerized by Mrs. Wood herself. The original version is not available online.

For Further Research

Nick Freeman, “Sensational Ghosts, Ghostly Sensations,” Women’s Writing 20.2 (May 2013): 186-201.


1 See Nancy L. Paxton, “Mobilizing Chivalry: Rape in British Novels About the Indian Uprising of 1857,” Victorian Studies 36, no. 1 (Autumn, 1992): 5-30, for more on this.

2 Michael Flowers, “Wood, Ellen,” The Facts on File Companion to the British Short Story, ed. Andrew Maunder (New York: Facts on File, 2007), 463.

3 Melissa Edmundson Makala, Women’s Ghost Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013), 142.

4 Mrs. Henry Wood, “A Mysterious Visitor,” Adam Grainger and Other Stories (London: Macmillan and Co., 1899), 363.

5 Nick Freeman, “Sensational Ghosts, Ghostly Sensations,” Women’s Writing 20.2 (May 2013): 190.

6 Roger Luckhurst, “Knowledge, belief and the supernatural at the imperial margin,” in The Victorian Supernatural, eds. Nicola Bown, Carolyn Burdett, and Pamela Thurschwell (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 204.

7 Makala, Women’s Ghost Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain, 142.

8 Michael Flowers, “Wood, Ellen,”463.