Tuesday Terror! Madam Crowl’s Ghost by Sheridan Le Fanu

Deathly dialect…

Taken from the collection Green Tea and Other Weird Stories, this is one of several stories Le Fanu wrote in a Northumbrian dialect. I have no idea how authentic it is, but I love it – there’s a kind of softness and lilt to the words and phrasing that seems made for relating ghostly tales by the light of the fire. So here we go for this week’s…

Madam Crowl’s Ghost
by Sheridan Le Fanu

J Sheridan Le Fanu

I’m an ald woman now, and I was but thirteen, my last birthday, the night I came to Applewale House. My aunt was the housekeeper there…

Already anxious and homesick, the girl’s fears are increased by the teasing of two fellow passengers on the coach, on hearing where she was headed…

“Ho, then,” says one of them, “you’ll not be long there!”

And I looked at him as much as to say “Why not?” for I had spoken out when I told them where I was goin’, as if ’twas something clever I hed to say.

“Because,” says he, “and don’t you for your life tell no one, only watch her and see—she’s possessed by the devil, and more an half a ghost.”

The sight of the old house does nothing to cheer her up…

A great white-and-black house it is, wi’ great black beams across and right up it, and gables lookin’ out, as white as a sheet, to the moon, and the shadows o’ the trees, two or three up and down in front, you could count the leaves on them, and all the little diamond-shaped winda-panes, glimmering on the great hall winda, and great shutters, in the old fashion, hinged on the wall outside, boulted across all the rest o’ the windas in front…

The girl’s aunt and another woman share the task of looking after old Madam Crowl, whose mind is beginning to fail and she sometimes has periods of a kind of insanity. It’s a while before the girl gets to see the old lady, but one day her aunt has gone off to have a cup of tea while Madam Crowl is asleep, and tells the girl to listen out for any signs of her wakening. The girl can’t resist the temptation to take a quick peep at her ancient mistress on her bed…

There she was, dressed out. You never sid the like in they days. Satin and silk, and scarlet and green, and gold and pint lace; by Jen! ’twas a sight! A big powdered wig, half as high as herself, was a-top o’ her head, and, wow!—was ever such wrinkles?—and her old baggy throat all powdered white, and her cheeks rouged, and mouse-skin eyebrows, that Mrs. Wyvern used to stick on, and there she lay proud and stark, wi’ a pair o’ clocked silk hose on, and heels to her shoon as tall as nine-pins. Lawk! . . . Her wrinkled little hands was stretched down by her sides, and such long nails, all cut into points, I never sid in my days. Could it ever a bin the fashion for grit fowk to wear their fingernails so?

(Mouse-skin eyebrows?!?!? Aargh!!!)

Suddenly the old woman wakes…

And in an instant she opens her eyes and up she sits, and spins herself round, and down wi’ her, wi’ a clack on her two tall heels on the floor, facin’ me, ogglin’ in my face wi’ her two great glassy eyes, and a wicked simper wi’ her wrinkled lips, and lang fause teeth… Says she:

“Ye little limb! what for did ye say I killed the boy? I’ll tickle ye till ye’re stiff!”

(Illustration by Charles William Stewart
for the Folio Society)

Terrified, the girl flees to her aunt, who seems to find a disturbing meaning in the old woman’s words. But Madam Crowl’s remaining time is short, and soon she is in the throes of her last, uneasy illness…

She pined, and windered, and went off, torflin’, torflin’, quiet enough, till a day or two before her flittin’, and then she took to rabblin’, and sometimes skirlin’ in the bed, ye’d think a robber had a knife to her throat, and she used to work out o’ the bed, and not being strong enough, then, to walk or stand, she’d fall on the flure, wi’ her ald wizened hands stretched before her face, and skirlin’ still for mercy.

* * * * *

The version I’m linking to is slightly different to the one in the book but not significantly. The book doesn’t have the short introduction, so the narrator isn’t named. Although there are some unfamiliar words sprinkled throughout, it’s not hard to guess their meaning from the context, and of course the notes in the Oxford World’s Classics edition I was reading explain any that might be a bit too obscure.

The story is dark – a mix of human evil and supernatural horror, made scarier by being seen through the eyes of such a young narrator. The porpy quivered quite a bit at points, while I loved the language and the perfectly paced build up to a satisfyingly ghoulish conclusion.

It’s reasonably short – I think it only took me twenty minutes or so to read. If you’d like to read it, here’s a link.

(The porpy is becoming a big Le Fanu fan…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

37 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! Madam Crowl’s Ghost by Sheridan Le Fanu

  1. Thanks for the link, FictionFan! It does sound like a very spooky story, and there’s something about that point of view that adds to the eerie quality, I think. I like it that it’s written in dialect, too. It’s not easy to do that, and still have the story be clear to people who aren’t familiar with that dialect. Glad you enjoyed this so well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve always quite liked Le Fanu, but this collection has turned me into a real fan – the selection of stories is great! There are three dialect ones in it and I loved them – he sustains it beautifully, especially considering it wasn’t his own dialect.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That sounds reasonably North Eastern to me. I’ve never got over reading a book in which a character spoke in “Lancashire” dialect which sounded nothing like Lancashire and much more like Somerset, but that one’s not bad!

    Liked by 1 person

    • This collection is really great, especially with the addition of the intro and notes. Yes, I thought it sounded Scottish too – not so much the words, a few of which were unfamiliar to me, but the rhythm and lilt of it. I’d love to hear someone read it aloud.


  3. I imagine this would sound great as an audiobook because of the dialect. I’ll need to see if there are any recordings of this out there, as my speech sofftware won’t do it justice I’m afraid. The story sounds great too though, and as I’ve never read any Le Fanu, I might try to find some of his short stories if I can.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d love to hear it read aloud too. It’s a pity Oxford don’t do audiobooks of their classics. Even although there are often versions available they’re quite often slightly different because Oxford try to find the “definitive” version – the director’s cut! I think there will be some Le Fanu on Audible but I’m not sure if this is one of his best known. Fingers crossed! If not, Carmilla is great, and I’m sure it’ll have been recorded several times.


    • I’m often put off by dialect too, unless it’s smooth enough not to interrupt the flow of my reading. But this was very well done – the occasional unfamiliar word was pretty obvious in context most of the time, so I didn’t find myself stopping to work things out. I’m becoming a big Le Fanu fan this year – he’s great! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It seems like he got the balance right with the dialect – I’m often put off by reading in a dialect I’m not familiar with, but the quotes you’ve included here are pretty easy to follow without sacrificing the feel of the language.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I thought he did it every well, so that it didn’t interrupt the flow of the reading. It’s as much to do with the rhythm and lilt as the words, and I always love that. 😀


  5. Wow, ok. Mouseskin eyebrows, can’t say I’ll ever forget that phrase for as long as I live LOLOLOL

    I love the sounds of this one, especially when it involves a carriage clacking up to a big old scary house, so there is no more delicious form of suspense I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know!!! I googled, and apparently there’s a dispute over whether people ever actually wore them… ugh!

      Yes, I was just writing in a different review yesterday that Gothic houses are the best!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for this story. Most of the time I really like reading (and hearing) stories written in dialect. I enjoy the rhythms and sounds of language and the underlying satisfaction of putting together meaning. If it does slow my reading down a bit, that’s probably a good thing for me – more time to savour! So I relished this story in both its language and its underlying story line – there were good reasons for an addled brain!

    Liked by 1 person

    • When dialect works for me I love it, but sometimes it makes me work too hard and then I get bored. This was perfect – I could make a reasonable guess at all the words because of the context, and also because there’s an undoubted Scottish flavour in there, since Northumberland is just over the border. This collection has been great – it’s turned me into a fully-fledged Le Fanu fan! Glad you’ve enjoyed the couple I’ve highlighted too. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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