The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Phantom Coach" (1864)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Phantom Lover” was written by “Vernon Lee” and first appeared in A Phantom Lover: A Fantastic Story (1886). “Vernon Lee” was the pen name of Violet Paget (1865-1935), a brilliant writer of supernatural fiction. She may not be well-known, but among the cognoscenti of supernatural fiction hers is a name to conjure with. “The Phantom Lover,” which has also appeared under the title “Oke of Okehurst,” is yet another of Paget’s wonderful stories, and if it lacks the sinister femme fatale of “Amour Dure” it more than makes up for it in atmosphere.

Mr. Oke is the current member of the Okes of Okehurst. The Okehursts have been landed gentry in Kent going back to the Saxon times, and Mr. Oke is the last of that line. His wife, Alice, is taken with the work of a painter, so Mr. Oke hires the man to do a portrait of the Okes. The painter, who is the narrator of “The Phantom Lover,” visits them in their sprawling King James 1 mansion in Kent and is struck by Alice. Mr. Oke is a handsome, well-made man, but in personality he is diffident and deeply uncomfortable around others, especially his wife. But Alice is “exquisite and strange.”1 “Exquisite” because she is tall, willowy, and strikingly beautiful, although in ways not at all au courant. “Strange” because she has cultivated dreaminess almost to an art form, and she spends her time submerged in thought. She presents a “mixture of extreme graciousness and utter indifference,”2 and most of the time she treats the painter as if he were a piece of furniture. Her treatment of her husband is worse. She seems to feel only contempt for him, and continually brings up the one subject that her husband is the most uncomfortable discussing or hearing discussed, which is also the one thing she spends her time thinking about: Mr. Oke’s ancestor Nicholas Oke, his wife Alice, and Alice’s lover Christopher Lovelock. The trio lived in the early part of the seventeenth century, and their lovers’ triangle ended badly: Nicholas and Alice, who was dressed as a groom, waylaid and murdered Christopher. As time goes by Alice Oke becomes more and more involved in her imaginings of the past–she was obsessed to begin with, but her obsession waxes and then peaks–and she increasingly goads her poor husband about his ghostly rival for her heart (although Mr. Oke really has no part of her heart), until the spirit of Christopher Lovelace manifests itself and accompanies Alice Oke on her walks around the Okehurst grounds. Driven mad with his own obsession for Alice, Mr. Oke shoots her and then himself and dies raving. A locket is found around Alice’s neck, containing hair which can only have come from Lovelock.

“The Phantom Lover” is a different type of story from “Amour Dure,” but excellent in its own way. “Amour Dure” had a mounting obsession and a descent into insanity. “The Phantom Lover” has instead a character study. The relationship between Mr. Oke and Alice Oke is drawn with psychological penetration and plausibility. Alice’s dreamy otherworldliness is unrealistic but the dynamic between husband and wife, the cruel contempt and the psychological abuse, is emotionally realistic. Paget’s characterization in “The Phantom Lover” is excellent. The characters are in an unreal situation, but they are three-dimensional, much more so than characters are in most other horror stories. The story also has a blurring of gender lines which rewards prolonged consideration of the story. Mr. Oke is cast in a stereotypically female way (passive, the figure hurt by the cruelty of the spouse) and Alice is cast in a stereotypically masculine way (the heartless philanderer). There is not a lot of horror in “The Phantom Lover,” because the ghost is not threatening and the only menace is to be found in Alice’s dispassionate sneers toward her husband, but Paget creates an atmospheric story with a number of engrossing visual and sensual descriptions. And jaded readers of horror stories will find that some of their expectations will be confounded: that (for example) the narrator’s painting of Alice Oke will not also show Christopher Lovelock, nor will Mr. Oke will go mad on seeing it.

Alice Oke is not quite a femme fatale (see: The Fatal Woman), certainly not to the same degree of Medea da Carpi. But Alice is the cause of doom of a male close to her (Paget liked writing female doom-causing characters). Alice’s obsession with the past, especially the Alice Okehurst who loved Christopher Lovelock and who killed him, is so all-consuming that she mentally lives there almost all of the time, and the only time she cares about the narrator is when he talks to her of Alice Okehurst and Christopher Lovelock. Alice’s disdain for her husband is not even angry. She does not care for him enough to become emotional about him. He is simply a mild annoyance. The only thing she does care about is Christopher Lovelock, and that’s what kills her–but in the narrator’s own words, “it seemed such an appropriate end for her; I fancy she would have liked it could she have known it.”3 

“The Phantom Lover” is highly regarded by critics—perhaps too highly, as they tend to rate it above “Amour Dure.” But there is certainly enough in “The Phantom Lover” to reward prolonged critical contemplation. There is the gender inversion described above. There is the story’s place in literary history: just as Hauntings “may have stimulated [Henry] James the following year to write his first ghost story, ‘Sir Edmund Orme’ (1891)…in 1895 he made his first notes for his tale ‘The Way It Came,’ which can be shown to owe a debt to the longest tale in Hauntings—“Oke of Okehurst, or The Phantom Lover.’”4 There is the ambiguity of “The Phantom Lover,” in that “the reader is led to doubt seriously whether the protagonists have actually come into contact with the supernatural at all,” thanks to Mr. Oke’s “maniac-frown” and Alice Oke’s “psychological mania.”5 And there is in the story “a powerful critique of the sexual politics and ethics of the contemporary Aesthetic Movement.”6 

Recommended Edition

Print: Vernon Lee, Hauntings: The Supernatural Stories. Ashcroft, BC: Ash-Tree Press, 2002.

Online: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006131665

 

1 Vernon Lee, “The Phantom Lover,” in Hauntings: Fantastic Stories (London: Lane, 1906), 124.

2 Lee, “The Phantom Lover,” 126.

3 Lee, “The Phantom Lover,” 111.

4 Adeline R. Tintner, “Vernon Lee’s ‘Oke of Okehurst; or The Phantom Lover,’ and James’s ‘The Way It Came,’” Studies in Short Fiction 28, no. 3 (Summer 1991): 355.

5 Sondeep Kandola, Vernon Lee (Tavistock, Devon: Northcote House Publishers, 2010), 24.

6 Kandola, Vernon Lee, 25.