Lanoe Falconer: English Ghosts and Russian Assassins

Mary_Elizabeth_Hawker Lanoe Falconer, a.k.a. Mary Elizabeth Hawker



Lanoe Falconer, Mistress of Ghosts and Assassins

My latest Lockdown read-o-rama discovery: Lanoe Falconer.

Nom de plume of Mary Elizabeth Hawker (1848-1908), Lanoe Falconer was a novelist and short story writer active about 1890 to 1903; she died in 1908, of tuberculosis. I had never read her, even though I read a lot of 19th-century English ghost stories.

Her debut novel, Mademoiselle Ixe, was what we would call a high concept thriller today: a demure governess in an upper class English household turns out to be a secret Russian nihilist assassin (a sleeper asset in mod spyspeak), and kills a Romanov prince. There was some resistance from publishers at first, apparently because girls weren’t supposed to write about Russian nihilist assassins, but the book was a big hit when finally published in 1890 as one of the Pseudonym Library novels from Fisher Unwin.

I came across her next novel, Cecilia de Noel, in a collection titled Victorian Ghost Stories by Noted Women Writers, edited by Richard Dalby (Barnes & Noble Books, 1988).  The novella length story was included complete in this collection, and I found it extremely enjoyable. The set-up is typical Victorian ghost story: guests at an old English manor house are warned that the place is haunted. One by one, the guests encounter the ghost, and their reactions make up most of the narrative. Cecilia de Noel is offstage for most of the story, but she is frequently mentioned, and everyone seems to think she would have her own, unique way of dealing with the spirit.

The basic trope is familiar from other Victorian ghostly tales: a pure, loving heart resolves/frees/puts to rest a doomed spirit—as in Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” or E.F. Benson’s “How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery.” The character of Cecilia de Noel is more interesting and complex than the usual innocents in this set-up, however. She is a mature woman who yet can access child-like wonder and compassion, and is quite conscious of the role she has to play. Her unique personality is frequently brought up by the other characters, so that when she finally puts in an appearance the reader is really ready to meet her.

Falconer was a deft satirist, gently mocking upper class English materialism and snobbery. Her characters are various and interesting. She is a poet of weather, and her descriptions of English scenery are evocative and entrancing. But perhaps the thing I liked most about the story is the way the characters discuss religion, spirituality, and the Larger Issues. Falconer has thought seriously about these issues, and the discussion ranges from rigid Puritan orthodoxy to various English Christian sects to atheism to spiritualism (the table-knocking kind) to something that sounds like theosophy, with hints of Hinduism and Buddhism, resolving in a universal spirituality of love and compassion. Not bad for a spook story, and the discussions flow quite naturally from the appearances of the ghost to various members of the household.

She reminded me at times of Jane Austen (when describing upper class foibles) and at times of E. M. Forster (when her characters discuss Big Life Issues).

Money quote: “. . . after some hours of her society . . . the universe appears to me only a gigantic apparatus especially designed to provide Lady Atherley and her class with cans of hot water at stated intervals, costly repasts elaborately served, and all other requisites of irreproachable civilisation.”

I am trying to track down her collection of short stories, Hotel Angleterre, and somewhere out there is a relatively recent biography.

Watch this space for more Lanoe.



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