“Man-Size in Marble” (1893) is a gothic short story by Edith Nesbit. You can read it at Project Gutenberg, as part of Nesbit’s Grim Tales collection. This tale is her most widely anthologised short story.
What must it be like to be ahead of one’s time? It’s happened to scientists over the years. The guy who worked out there are an infinite number of infinities ploughed a lonely furrow — none of his contemporary colleagues bought his whacky theories about that. In the end, decades later, whaddaya know, he was right.
When it comes to writers ahead of their time, a standout example is E. Nesbit. For more on why, I’ve dedicated a separate article.
In this story, Nesbit is critiquing gender essentialism of the day, in which men were seen as rational and dynamic while women were seen as sensitive and passive. She does not critique this with a simple gender inversion. As I have noticed in the past, the gender flip is not especially good as a vehicle for critique anyway.
Interestingly, Nesbit was famously scared of the dark.
I spend a bit of time on book recommendation sites and modern parents are still buying Enid Blyton. I wish someone, once in a while, would place E. Nesbit in the hands of modern kids, if we insist that classics aren’t classics unless they’re 50 to 100 years old. You’ll find Nesbit’s children’s books have aged far less terribly than everyone else’s.That’s because Nesbit was a leftie feminist. And here’s the thing about leftie feminism: What looks radical today looks sensible after a few decades, even to conservatives.
Aside from children’s literature, Nesbit wrote short stories (for adults). “Man-sized In Marble” is her best-known example, though most people who know of Nesbit probably don’t know her for her short stories at all.
THE GOTHIC TRADITION
As explained below, Nesbit chose gothic conventions to convey her ideas. What are gothic conventions, exactly? I have wondered that myself and went into it here.
‘Man-Size in Marble’’ (1893) is both a successful Gothic chiller and a more politicized investigation of the plight of the artistically ambitious New Woman under patriarchy. It posits that while Gothic’s anti-feminism during the fin de siècle (end of the [nineteenth] century) is an increasingly familiar topic of study, little attention has yet been paid to the ways in which Gothic can also serve as a means of critiquing such attitudes. Through a close reading of Nesbit’s story and a comparison with other relevant texts of the era, the essay suggests that the author’s own radicalism, often overlooked by those who stereotype her as a writer for children*, encourages her to expose the violence inherent within late nineteenth-century social systems. For Nesbit, the Gothic is the perfect instrument for such a project.— abstract of E. NESBIT’S NEW WOMAN GOTHIC by Nick Freeman
*Though it’s doubtful meant this way here, the phrasing of ‘overlooked by those who stereotype her as a writer for children’ may encourage an interpretation that, had Nesbit ONLY been a writer for children, this would have indeed been a lesser thing. This is an attitude that has plagued children’s literature since the beginning of children’s literature. In fact, children’s literature must appeal to both adults and children and is therefore one of the most difficult things to write.
- Mrs Dorman the housekeeper is a classic Gothic archetype. She’s the Cassandra figure who warns of impending doom but no one believes her. She’s the Madwoman or the Old Wife. However, in this feminist story she is more than an archetype. She is indeed old and wise with a deep store of local knowledge. She refuses the neat division between legend and history. She is presented as the inverse of a Londoner. Mrs Dorman has a symbolic name. She oversees the transmission of stories between the ancient village and its newcomers.
- Laura is the virginal character (although not literally, since she’s newly married).
- The narrator is the hero of his own story, according to him. If he wet his pants and ran away screaming, he’s not going to tell us, is he.
- The setting of the church and graveyard is a classic setting for Gothic horror.
- Your typical gothic horror includes members of the clergy. In this tale the clergy are conspicuous by their absence — the ending does not encourage us to believe there’s a God looking after us all, though that’s what Jack thinks.
- By the 1890s gothic fiction was becoming increasingly violent. This story is quietly, off-the-page violent, but shocking for its time. There are several reasons why readers were developing a higher tolerance for gore — newspapers were reporting crimes in greater detail; the library system collapsed and this led to relaxed censorship; writers of realist fiction were pushing the boundaries with stark horror; magazines wanted shorter short stories which meant writers were cramming in more content via shock value.
- The symbolism is Catholic, which makes this part of British Gothic tradition — a ‘Latinate, idolatrous and regressive world at odds with the progressive rationalism and secular statehood inaugurated by Henry VIII’s break with Rome’. (Women and the Victorian Occult).
- This story belongs to a subcategory of the gothic tale, about sinister ceremonies, anniversaries and rites. These are pagan in origin. Other examples: “Pallinghurst Barrow” and “Wolverden Tower” by Grant Allen, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. In film we have The Wicker Man, which ends in fire. However, Nesbit’s rites have their origins in Catholicism.
- Nesbit made use of folklore and Gothic conventions but some of it is her own invention completely.
STORYWORLD OF “MAN-SIZE IN MARBLE”
“Man-size In Marble” is set in Brenzett, which today has a population of about 400. There’s not much to it. Nesbit herself lived in Kent most of her life, though she was born in what is now Greater London. When I looked Brenzett up on Wikipedia I learned that this story is one of the most famous things about it. On the map you’ll find it about halfway between Hastings and Dover.
This story was published in 1893, a significant year for New Zealand women such as myself. In September 1893 New Zealand became the first self-governed nation to extend the right to vote to women. In England suffrage came much later — they needed a world war to prove women’s mettle. But Edith Nesbit would’ve been well aware of these changes on the wind.
THE NEW WOMAN
1893 was the era of the so-called “New Woman”. Even without the vote, British feminists were encouraging independence, and advised women receive an education of their own. Of course, it was only women from the middle and upper classes who could afford to take this advice. Almost all of the fertile women in England who remained unmarried in the second half of the 1800s were from the upper classes and I surmise they preferred it that way. But these women were considered useless to society (what is a woman for, if not to provide sex and children for men?) and some put forth arguments that these women should be shipped off to the colonies, where there was a wife drought. (I wonder how many women were shipped here to Australia for that reason, against their will?)
MEN ARE MEN AND WOMEN ARE WOMEN!
During the 1880s and 1890s, there was a moral panic about how they were living in ‘sexual anarchy’ (according to writer George Gissing). All the established rules about sexual identity and behaviour were felt to be breaking down. This upsets conservatives.
I believe we have entered another moral panic in the last five years or so, as trans people are finally having their moment, and as non-binary people are requesting we use their preferred pronouns.
The Catholic All Saints tradition is now expressed in America as Halloween. All Saints Day wasn’t the only date associated with the supernatural. People used to stay up all night ‘porch-watching’. They would stay up all night in the church porch hoping to see the wraiths of all the local parishioners parade by. This would let them know who would die in the coming year. However, this wasn’t an All Saints thing to do — most people would’ve done it on St Marks Eve (April 24).
Girls were thought to have special access to these supernatural powers. They’d be able to perform acts of divination and learn who their future husbands would be. People would light bonfires. Go back far enough (into the Medieval era) and Christians thought that souls in Purgatory would be purged by the holy fire. The feast of All Saints was an attempt to relieve the ghosts stuck in Purgatory.
Protestantism rejected all this supernatural nonsense and All Saints was removed from the English church calendar in 1559. Still, all of this remained useful to writers of gothic horror.
KNIGHTS IN CHURCHES
To better understand this story, it’s important to know the Catholic tradition of burying knights in important places — the closer to the altar, the more important they’d been. Supposedly.
Another impressive feature of [Saint John’s Co-Cathedral] is the collection of marble tombstones in the nave in which were buried important knights. The more important knights were placed closer to the front of the church. These tombstones, richly decorated with in-laid marble and with the coats of arms of the knight buried below as well as images relevant to that knight, often telling a story of triumph in battle, form a rich visual display in the church.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “MAN-SIZE IN MARBLE”
Nathaniel Piven, a thirty-something-year-old Brooklyn novelist and burgeoning public intellectual, is thoughtful yet careless, open-minded yet absurdly entitled.— The New Yorker review
Jack reminds me of Nathaniel P. because both are New Age Guys (for their era); neither are alpha males; both are aesthetes; both are writers and both appear to be in touch with their emotions. When Jack finds Laura crying he tries to comfort her with “don’t cry, or I shall have to cry too, to keep you in countenance, and then you’ll never respect your man again”. This snippet of dialogue tells us layers of things about Jack:
- He is blithely dismissing his wife’s emotions
- He makes a show of having emotions himself
- But the code of masculinity dictates he couldn’t possibly give in to them
- Because his job as husband is to be first and foremost respected by his wife.
- Ergo, this is performative empathy.
Jack speaks for Laura and Mrs Dorman throughout the story, refusing to take either of them seriously. He loves folklore but treats Mrs Dorman as a Victorian anthropologist might a tribal elder — perhaps here, Nesbit is satirizing the folklore “collectors” of the period such as Edward Clodd — and patronizes Laura with a pet name “Pussy”. He also persistently trivialises her art despite the fact that it seems to be their only earned income; while Laura is writing, he passes his time in sketching “wonderful cloud effects”. Whether her tales are “little magazine stories” or stories for the little magazines that were so much a feature of the 1890s’ literary scene, Jack sees them as insignificant, fit only for the “Monthly Marplot”. His disdain for “the jingling guinea” is what one would expect from an aesthete of the period, but it shows, too, a worrying inability to face up to the economic realities of his marriage.
Jacks’ rationalism is at odds with the outlook of the story’s women: it is his adherence to it that ultimately brings about his “life’s tragedy”. The story begins with a confession of rationalism’s limits, a frequent Gothic device as well as a rebutt fo the positivism that was making Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes so pouplar in the early 1890s. … For much of the story, howeer, he is quite happy to live by rationalist principles, signally a clear divide between himself, the seemingly superstitious female characters, and maybe, by extension, the villages as a whole: the Irish outsider, Dr Kelly, is after all the “only neighbour” with whom Jack socializes. The more intuitive Laura is less imprisoned by this gospel, though…her sensitivity is not enough to save her from an awful fate, perhaps because her attitudes to social class are less radical than Nesbit’s own. The “village people” are, she says, “awfully sheepy”, and if one won’t do a thing, one may be quite sure none of the others will”.
Faced with Mrs Dorman’s absence, Laura worries that “I shall have to cook the dinners and wash up all the hateful, greasy plates … and we shall never have any time for [creative] work.”. The statues will not stand for her transgressions, and a collision between flesh and blood and calcified tradition is inevitable. In this respect, it is notable that they no longer have names, for they are less individuals in themselves than representatives of a reactionary brutality that destroys those who oppose it.[…]Quiescent for most of the time, the forces embodied by the stone knights have not been wholly vanquished by those of progress and modernity and are yet capable of wreaking havoc when roused.
Sexism is the ideology that supports patriarchal social relations, but misogyny enforces it when there’s a threat of that system going away.
In her ghost stories Nesbit uses the supernatural as a catalyst to precipitate an emotional crisis. This technique achieved criticism of Victorian proprieties.
Nesbit has used Catholic iconography to critique traditions of divination. After we learn she is dead we realise Laura was not protected by all those candles at all. She is ‘wedded’ to the stone knights, not to her mortal husband.
Nesbit kills Laura not to punish her, but to demonstrate the latent violent inherent in the sexual politics of the period. Many New Women are confronted by representatives of the patriarchal order, but the encounter is usually staged in solidly realist surroundings like those of Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893). 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.