The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Man-Size in Marble" (1887)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Man-Size in Marble” was written by E. Nesbit and first appeared in Home Chimes (Dec. 1887). Nesbit (1858-1924) is considered to be the first writer of modern children’s fiction; she was extremely influential on later writers of children’s fiction. Her horror stories are not to be underestimated, and “Man-Size in Marble” is a nasty little conte cruel (see: “The Torture of Hope”).
The narrator of “Man-Size in Marble” and his wife are newlyweds. They have just moved to a cottage in the country, and although their finances are slim they are happy together. They have each other, a cottage with a lovely garden, and even a local woman, Mrs. Dorman, to do the cooking. Near the house is a lovely church which has two marble statues of knights by the altar. But one evening before All Saints’ Eve Mrs. Dorman insists that she is going to take a weekend’s leave. For Laura, the narrator’s wife, this is bad, since Laura hates doing any of the cooking. When the narrator speaks to Mrs. Dorman about this, she refuses to explain why she wants to leave, only hinting that the cottage “was a big house in Catholic times, and there was a many deeds done here,”1 and that the marble effigies, on All Saints’ Eve,
sits up on their slabs, and gets off of them, and then walks down the aisle, in their marble...and as the church clock strike eleven they walks out of the church door, and over the graves, and along the bier balk, and if it’s a wet night there’s the marks of their feet in the morning.2
But what the knights are supposed to do when they walk about, beyond visiting the cottage in which the narrator and Laura live, Mrs. Dorman will not say.
All Saints’ Eve arrives, and Laura has a presentiment of evil which the narrator laughs off. He goes for a walk and discovers the knights are missing from their slabs. He finds his neighbor, a doctor, and drags him back to the church, where they find the knights. They have returned to their prone positions--except one of them has a broken hand, which he did not have before. And when the narrator returns to his home, he finds Laura, “fallen back across a table...her eyes wide, wide open. They saw nothing now.”3 Clutched in her hand is a grey marble finger.
One of the flaws of the mid-century Victorian ghost story is its predictability. “Man-Size in Marble,” written in the mid-1880s, is predictable, to a point. It is obvious that the knights are eventually going to rise. But their actions on rising are not predictable. Killing Laura–and perhaps worse before killing her–is cruel and rather arbitrary on Nesbit’s part, which is why “Man-Size in Marble” is a conte cruel. The story itself is more than adequately told, with a few nicely turned phrases. It has a smooth 1890s feel to it and is a good deal more brisk and readable than the slower mid-century horror stories; the dialogue is punchier and the descriptions more apt, if not poetic. It is not scary, but it is horrible in its own cruel way.
Interestingly, though “Man-Size in Marble” is often placed in the Gothic genre or mode by critics, the misogyny of the late Victorian Gothic is not unthinkingly repeated in the story. Rather, Nesbit uses “Man-Size in Marble” to interrogate the misogyny of the late Victorian Gothic, and to question patriarchy. “‘Man-Size in Marble’ is a revealing criticism of the dangerous pretensions of [Nesbit’s] purportedly radical male contemporaries, with Laura’s husband a floppy-collared aesthete whose rejection of conformity is no more than a pose.”4 “In constructing a relationship in which male and female roles seem to be governed by the stereotypes of the day despite her characters’ bohemian pretensions, Nesbit is exploring the consequences of a crude essentialism which configures men as rational and dynamic and women as ‘‘sensitive’’ and passive.”5
In Dracula, the flirtatious Lucy is allowed to titillate Stoker’s readers with lighthearted speculations about polygamy before being first vampirized and then staked and beheaded by her ‘‘saviours’’, the Crew of Light. It is obvious that, however fascinating Lucy may be, Stoker’s conservatism punishes her for a willingness to entertain thoughts of sexual nonconformity. In ‘‘Man-Size in Marble’’, however, the killing of the New Woman serves a quite different purpose. Van Helsing and his terrified assistants decapitate Lucy in a desperate bid to restore order: Lucy’s sexuality, liberated by the vampire’s bite, has now spread from sympathizing with sexual permissiveness to the corruption of children. Nesbit, however, kills Laura not to punish her but to demonstrate the latent violence inherent in the sexual politics of the period...by injecting Gothic fantasy into what seems at first an unexceptional tale of newly wedded bliss, Nesbit is able to provide both the shock expected of the genre, especially in short stories, and imbue her fiction with an underlying sense of ideological dissatisfaction. Sentimental aesthetes and rationalistic doctors are just as liable to oppose or inhibit the radical woman’s selfhood as the ghosts of the past, even if they balk at rape and murder.6
Print: E. Nesbit, In the Dark. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.
1 E. Nesbit, “Man-Size in Marble,” Project Gutenberg, accessed Nov. 3, 2018, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/40321/40321-h/40321-h.htm
2 Nesbit, “Man-Size in Marble.”'
3 Nesbit, “Man-Size in Marble.”
4 Nick Freeman, “E. Nesbit’s New Woman Gothic,” Women’s Writing 15, no. 3 (Dec. 2008): 458.
5 Freeman, “E. Nesbit’s New Woman Gothic,” 463.
6 Freeman, “E. Nesbit’s New Woman Gothic,” 466.