Reviewed by Simon
Nobody loves a good reprint better than I do, and so I was quite excited to see a series from Vintage called ‘Vintage Movie Classics’, wherein they republish the books that were adapted into great films. (This series may only be available in the US; I have to confess that my conversations with Vintage did not entirely illuminate the matter.) I expected to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Godfather, and those sorts of texts – it was a surprise to see entirely books and films I’d never heard of (Back Street, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Cimarron etc.) which doubtless says more about my filmic knowledge than anything else. It was a lovely surprise, though – what better than reprints that will be unknown gems?
The one title I had come across before was R.A. Dick’s The Ghost and Mrs Muir, as I had had my eye on it during doctoral research – and found it too difficult to track down. So I was certainly grateful that a new copy was forthcoming – and The Ghost and Mrs Muir was every bit as enjoyable, silly, and entertaining as I’d have hoped.
Although we’ve kept this review for a Christmas-ghost-story period, there can’t be many less chilling ghost stories in the whole of publishing history. Indeed, it might be closer to call this one of the early examples of paranormal romance – though that paints rather an unfortunate picture.
The ghost in question is Captain Daniel Gregg – a churlish and grumpy (but ultimately, of course, kind-hearted) military gentleman who happened accidentally to kill himself by leaving the gas on. His house is on the rental market, but tenants don’t last more than a night at most – because he steps forward with his rather matter-of-fact haunting. Nothing daunted, widowed Mrs Lucy Muir takes a fancy to the house, and is determined to stay there (with her children Cyril and Anna):
“Don’t cry,” said the captain testily, “damn it, madam, don’t cry, I say – if there is one thing I can’t stand it is a woman crying. Well, light your damn fire and filled your blasted bottle, I don’t care, only for God’s sake, stop snivelling.”
“I’m not snivelling,” said Lucy, sobbing away, “I’m just crying a little because I’m tired and very unhappy and I have no house to live in.”
“Nonsense,” snapped Captain Gregg, “there are thousands of empty houses in England merely waiting to be lived in. That sort of sentimental twaddle won’t work with me.”
“But I want to live in this house,” said Lucy, “it’s more my house than any I’ve ever seen, and if I love it so much now when it looks so dirty, think how I shall love it and care for it when it’s clean and tidy all over.”
“Why do you love it so much?” asked the captain. “Is it because of its ridiculously low rent, is it just that spirit of something-for-nothing?”
“No, no, no!” said Lucy. “I felt it was my place as soon as I saw it. I fell in love with it at once – I can’t explain it – it was as if the house itself were welcoming me and crying out to be rescued from its degradation.”
That excerpt makes Mrs Muir seem rather wet, literally and metaphorically, but she is actually quite a match for him – taking no nonsense, and trying to civilise him a little.
It’s pretty quick that they settle down to a life together, woman and ghost – and, indeed, the model for The Ghost and Mrs Muir is more The Odd Couple than anything that could be dreamt up by Bram Stoker or his kin. We also see how Lucy Muir copes with her children as they grow up, and there is another romance thrown in for good measure (which could, I’ll admit, probably have been dispensed with). And then there is the book the two write together… The Ghost and Mrs Muir is quite touching at times, it’s certainly very amusing – but most of all, it is fun and light in a way that only a novel from the period could manage to be. If everyone else in your family is gathered around the fire reading ghost stories this Christmas, and you don’t fancy being frightened out of your wits, then R.A. Dick’s novel would be an absolutely perfect choice. For any other time of you, it’s simply a delightful little read.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.
R.A.Dick, The Ghost and Mrs Muir (Vintage Movie Classics, London, 2014) 978-0-8041-7348-3, paperback, 192 pages.