The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"Thrawn Janet" (1881)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“Thrawn Janet” was written by Robert Louis Stevenson and first appeared in Cornhill Magazine (Oct 1881). Although posterity, snobbery, and ignorance have relegated Stevenson (1850-1894) to the role of children’s author, in the second half of the nineteenth century Stevenson was a major writer, close friends with Henry James and H. Rider Haggard, producer of bestsellers and critically-acclaimed works, a writer who wrote for all age groups and whose work was read by both low- and high-brows. Discerning critics have (justifiably) called Stevenson the initiator of the “Age of Storytellers,” the great flowering of high-quality popular fiction from the 1880s until 1914.1 

The titular character of “Thrawn Janet” is Janet M'Clour, an “auld limmer”2 (“A light woman; a strumpet; in weaker sense: A jade, hussy, minx”3) who works for the Reverend Murdoch Soulis as his housekeeper. However, the locals distrust Janet and believe that she is a witch. They eventually throw her in “the water o’ Dule, to see if she were a witch or no, soum or droun.”4 The Reverend rescues her, but he makes her swear to renounce the devil and all his works. Janet does this with reluctance, and the next day she appears “wi' her neck thrawn, and her heid on ae side, like a body that has been hangit, and a girn on her face like an unstreakit corp.”5 After that, things get a bit creepy. Janet acts in an eldritch and Quite Wrong manner, and the devil, in the form of a black man, appears on Black Hill. One night, during a terrible heat wave, the Reverend hears something awful in his house and goes looking for its cause. He finds

Janet hingin' frae a nail beside the auld aik cabinet; her heid aye lay on her shoother, her een were steeked, the tongue projekit frae her mouth, and her heels were twa feet clear abune the what cantrip it wad ill beseem a man to judge, she hingin' frae a single nail an' by a single wursted thred for darnin' hose.6 

Sufficiently frightened, the Reverend bolts from the house, only to be pursued by Janet in a slow, terrifying, and inescapable fashion. The Reverend says, “Witch, beldame, devil! I charge you, by the power of God, begone–if you be dead, to the grave–if you be damned, to hell!”7 In response the hand of God descends from the Heavens and destroys Janet, leaving the Reverend an understandably shaken man.

“Thrawn Janet” presents a significant difficulty for readers. Stevenson chose to tell it in a nearly impenetrable Scottish brogue. (“Thrawn” is “Twisted, crooked, bent out of shape; misshapen, distorted”8). This brogue fit the expectations of nineteenth century readers and appealed to Stevenson’s native Scottish audience but can be enormously off-putting to non-Scottish readers. It takes an effort to make it through “Thrawn Janet,” which is a real shame, because the content of the story is outstandingly creepy. There is a reason that “Thrawn Janet” is seen as one of Stevenson’s best short stories, and it has nothing to do with the story’s brogue. Its Gothic elements, combined with a focus on psychology rather than supernatural effects, work superbly. “Stevenson highlights the sense of uncanniness and self-alienation that result naturally, as it were, from the operations of our psyches, just as he foregrounds the mechanisms by which we attempt to ward off the self-knowledge we sometimes prefer not to have.”9 

Recommended Edition

Print: Michael Newton, ed., The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories: From Elizabeth Gaskell to Ambrose BierceLondon: Penguin Books, 2010.



1 See Mike Ashley’s The Age of the Storytellers: British Popular Fiction Magazines, 1880-1950 (London: British Library, 2006) and Roger Lancelyn Green, “Introduction,” The Prince of Zenda (New York: Heritage Press, 1966) for more on this glorious age of letters and Stevenson’s role in starting it.

2 Robert Louis Stevenson, “Thrawn Janet,” in The Merry Men, and Other Tales and Fables (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1887), 147.

3 "limmer, n. and adj.". OED Online. December 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed January 13, 2019).

4 Stevenson, “Thrawn Janet,” 148.

5 Stevenson, “Thrawn Janet,” 150.

6 Stevenson, “Thrawn Janet,” 157.

7 Stevenson, “Thrawn Janet,” 159.

8 "thrawn, adj. (and adv.)". OED Online. December 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed January 13, 2019).

9 Stephen Arata, “Stevenson and Fin-de-Siecle Gothic,” in Penny Fielding, ed., The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Louis Stevenson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 55.