Bithia Mary Croker and the Ghosts of India

Melissa Edmundson

Bithia Mary Croker (1849-1920) used her fourteen years in India and Burma as the wife of a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Scots Munster Fusiliers to her literary advantage.1 During these years, from her arrival in 1877 to her return to England in 1892, Croker wrote novels and stories based on her first-hand experiences within the British colonial empire.2 To Let (1893) contains several of her stories set in India and Burma in the 1880s, including the story which gives the collection its name, as well as “The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor.” Both stories are told from the viewpoint of native Englishwomen traveling alone through the uncharted (i.e. non English) territory of India.3 These women are forced by various unforeseen circumstances to take refuge in abandoned bungalows, and during their respective stays at these ironically named “rest houses,” witness the presence of ghosts of former British officials who have either been murdered by Indian natives or have otherwise died while serving the British in India. These portrayals of mysterious deaths allow Croker to critique the British presence in India through the motif of the haunted house. Just as the previous inhabitants of these dwellings met with unhappy ends, the female narrators of her stories find themselves driven out of their supposed refuges, and this disorientation with regard to place leads to a greater uneasiness about their position as unwanted outsiders in India. Croker uses not only the ghosts as warnings of the negative effects of empire, she also establishes her female narrators as witnesses to these ghosts. These women, therefore, become privileged critics of the English imperial presence.

In “The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor,” Croker’s narrator quickly establishes the Anglo-Indian town of Karwassa as a refuge amidst the surrounding Indian wilderness. Specifically, the narrator, Nellie Loyd, the wife of an English forest officer, likes Karwassa because of its Englishness. She calls the station “an oasis of civilization, amid leagues and leagues of surrounding forest and jungle” (Croker 96). The town that has been built in Karwassa is England in microcosm, with a post office, public gardens, tennis courts, and a church. Croker also comments on the artificial nature of the Anglo-Indian town by having Nellie mention the station’s “ice machine” (96), which creates what she calls the English “season” even during the hottest months in India. Nellie’s life in Karwassa is almost as non-Indian as the Indian town in which she lives, and her daily routine involves “tennis at daybreak, moonlight picnics, whist-parties,” and “little dinners” (96). As Nellie and her friend, Julia Goodchild, the wife of a British police officer, prepare to visit their husbands at the distant town of Chanda, they are warned about their journey by Mrs. Duff, an Englishwoman who seldom leaves Karwassa. Mrs. Duff’s warning to the two younger women first introduces readers to the ghost story at the center of Croker’s tale: “Chanda — Chanda. . . . Isn’t there some queer story about a bungalow near there — that is unhealthy — or haunted or something?” (97)4 However, Julia ignores Mrs. Duff’s vague warning and seeks a rational explanation behind such a story. She tells Mrs. Duff that the bungalows in the farther regions are often in disrepair, and visitors may well leave because of sickness or lack of rest; but she doubts they are scared away by ghosts.

The first two days of the trip are met with no problems, but as soon as Nellie and Julia become imperial adventurers, themselves, and turn off of the main road onto “the old Jubbulpore Road,” or in other words, away from their “England” and into the true India, their problems begin. After their oxen go lame or else run away, they decide to walk sixteen miles to the next rest house, where they plan to meet their servant, Abdul, with a fresh supply of oxen. As the women walk along the road toward Chanda, Croker uses the reactions of the natives to comment on the women as an anomaly in the Indian landscape:

the few people we encountered driving their primitive little carts stared hard at us in utter stupefaction, as well they might — two mem sahibs trudging along, with no escort except a panting white dog. The insolent crows and lazy blue buffalos all gazed at us in undisguised amazement as we wended our way through this monotonous and melancholy scene. (99-100)

At the next village of Dakor the women are faced with another warning about their presence in the village. Just as with Mrs. Duff, the warning comes in the form of an “old woman,” who shakes her hand “in a warning manner” (100) and tells the women something they cannot understand (presumably because of the language barrier). As they approach the travelers’ bungalow, it becomes clear that the once distinctly British structure is being slowly reclaimed by its native Indian surroundings:

we discovered that the drive was as grass-grown as a field; jungle grew up to the back of the house, heavy wooden shutters closed all the windows, and the door was locked. There was a forlorn, desolate, dismal appearance about the place; it looked as if it had not been visited for years. (100- 101)

Croker also carefully positions her story around an architectural element of the Indian landscape that held symbolic significance for both the English and Indians after the 1857 Mutiny. According to Margaret MacMillan in Women of the Raj (1988), these dwellings often had inflammatory remarks painted on their walls, such as “Revenge your slaughtered countrywomen! To —— with the bloody Sepoys!” (102) Because of their violent pasts, these places were often thought to be haunted. Iris Portal, a member of a service family who lived in Meerut during the twentieth century, remarked that several bungalows had plaques commemorating the violent deaths of their former inhabitants. She also recalled:

There was one bungalow near by where they had to take their beds out into the garden, not only for the heat but because things happened, like doors blowing open when there was no wind. Dogs would never stay in the house, and it was emphatically haunted. They all felt it and they all hated it, and that was one of the Mutiny bungalows with a plaque on it. (Portal qtd. in MacMillan 103)

In Croker’s story, the local caretaker of the bungalow refuses to let Nellie and Julia use the building for the night, so they break the lock in order to gain entrance. Later, when the women are settling in for the night, Nellie sees the man staring at them through the window:

It was the face of some malicious animal, more than the face of a man, that glowered out beneath his filthy red turban. His eyes glared and rolled as if they would leave their sockets; his teeth were fangs, like dogs’ teeth, and stood out almost perpendicularly from his hideous mouth. He surveyed us for a few seconds in savage silence, and then melted away into the surrounding darkness as suddenly as he appeared. (103)

Not only is the man described as an animal, but he is also a threatening presence. Nellie describes him as looking like a dog, while Julia finds an English equivalent for the caretaker, calling him the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland, another story of a disoriented visitor in a strange land. The bungalow is subsequently fortified, with the shutters “well barred and the doors bolted” (103). Shuchi Kapila notes about Croker’s use of physical space in her novels, that “domestic interiors mimic racial and cultural hierarchies” (227); indeed, the women are placed within the bungalow, and Abdul sleeps on the verandah, signifying his marginal status in both the British and Indian worlds.

In the middle of the night, Nellie is awakened by a sudden light in the room and sees a man, whom she recognizes as a fellow “traveller.” He does not take notice of the women and sits at a table in the middle of the room writing a letter. Though this man occupies the same room as the women, instead of staring at them through the window, making him actually a greater threat to them than the caretaker (in addition to his belongings, Nellie notices that the traveler carries a gun case), her description of the stranger is in stark contrast to the previous description of the caretaker:

He was young and good looking, but very, very pale; possibly he had just recovered from some long illness. I could not see his eyes, they were bent upon the paper before him; his hands, I noticed, were well shaped, white, and very thin. He wore a signet-ring on the third finger of the left hand, and was dressed with a care and finish not often met with in the jungle. (103-04)

Croker’s placement of the ghost of the murdered man in the center of the room is also significant, as this implies something that becomes central and vital to Nellie’s consciousness. The dominate placement of this apparition in Nellie mind’s mirrored by his placement in the room, is symbolic of the effect of this ghost story on the mind of the public, as well as the story’s comment on the placement of the English and the Indians within the mind of the British reading public. As Ken Gelder and Jane M. Jacobs discuss in their study of the significance of the Australian postcolonial ghost story, in stories of haunting the supposedly marginal object, the ghost, who is representative of a marginal people (the colonized) becomes just the opposite, something that moves from the periphery to the center, and who can disrupt the “sense of the nation’s well-being” (188). By having ghosts who are British and Indian in her stories, Croker calls into question this idea of marginality. In their dependence on the Indian natives and their presence as a minority in India, the British were, in many ways, marginal, though they tried not to think or act this way in public. By moving British ghosts to the “center” of her supernatural tales, Croker is implicitly commenting on the dangerous instability of colony. The ghost’s influence thus extends beyond the local, beyond the specific site of empire.

Nellie then witnesses the man’s murder, as his Indian servant sneaks up behind him and stabs him. Before he dies, the man looks at Nellie (his only recognition of her) with what she describes as “a sad, strange look! a look of appeal” (104). When Nellie wakes, it is daylight. Just as with the flash of light that accompanied the presence of the ghost, daylight presents her with an enlightened view of her own situation and surroundings. Nellie’s “awakening” to her precarious situation is a clever reversal of what Roger Luckhurst describes as a colonial region in which the English were the ones supposedly doing the “enlightening”: “The locale, a hostel on the elaborate travel network that existed across the Indian empire, is significant. The systems of road, railway, postal, and telegraphic communications were often held to be the means by which enlightenment would be brought to ignorant and superstitious natives” (xxv). By the story’s end, it is Nellie and Julia who are educated about the harmful effects of British colonization and the very real danger that is represented in a fleeting ghostly encounter.5 Croker’s story also provides an early example of how Gelder and Jacobs describe the postcolonial ghost story, as one which is “often quite literally about ‘the return of the repressed’- namely, the return of the ‘truth’ (or a ‘truth effect’) about colonization” (188). Likewise, the use of the ghost in the story further exemplifies Margaret L. Carter’s description of Gothic fiction as a genre which “confers greater ‘realism’ on the story by giving the impression of a secondary world, discovered rather than constructed” (17). In this way, Nellie and Julia’s “secondary world” provides them with greater truth about their everyday world. The women, in turn, must then educate others about what they have witnessed.

Though her “tongue seemed paralyzed” (104) when she tries to scream after witnessing the murder, Nellie finds her voice in time to warn Julia about the ghost and the murder. However, just as she dismissed Mrs. Duff and the old woman in the village, Julia refuses to believe the supernatural story and tells Nellie her vision was brought about by purely rational causes: “‘Ghosts! murders! walk to Chanda!’ she echoed scornfully. ‘Why, you silly girl, did I not sleep here in this very room, and sleep as sound as a top? It was all the pâté de foie gras. You know it never agrees with you’” (105). The next night, Nellie refuses to sleep in the bungalow, saying that one more night there would kill her. Croker suggests the similarity in the two travelers by making it clear that the murdered Englishman was the guest who, seven years before, wrote in the bungalow visitor’s book that the caretaker was “an insolent, drunken hound” (102), a comment reminiscent of Nellie’s description of the caretaker after she sees him outside the window of the bungalow. Her positive and sympathetic reaction to the traveler also shows that she chooses to look past his insulting description of the caretaker or perhaps that she simply agrees with his characterization of the man. Nellie’s absence in the bungalow leaves Julia alone to face the ghost, and the following night, she also sees the murdered traveler. After Julia sees the ghost, she questions a local woman about the haunted bungalow. The woman will only admit that it is haunted by “devils” (106), leaving an ambiguous comment as to who the “devil” actually is, the Englishman, the Indian, or perhaps both. The nightly repetition of the crime calls the reader’s attention back to the epigraph of the story, in which Croker quotes a stanza from Sir Alfred Lyall’s “The Hindu Ascetic” (1889):

When shall these phantoms flicker away,
  Like the smoke of the guns on the wind-swept hill;
Like the sounds and colours of yesterday,
  And the soul have rest, and the air be still? (96)

Lyall, an English administrator in India, wrote many poems based on his experiences in the region, and these lines are spoken by an Indian native. However, the lines could just as easily be spoken by an Englishman, who has witnessed the continuing violence caused by the British occupation of India (especially the bloody Sepoy Rebellion of 1857). The ghost of the traveler also could question when his soul would “have rest,” presumably because of his murder, he cannot find that rest. The retributive violence he experiences on a nightly basis is suggested by the admission of a local woman that “in spite of the wooden shutters there were lights in the window every night up to twelve o’clock” (106). The man’s suffering also is heightened by Nellie’s description of his “sad, strange . . . look of appeal” (104), a description which further suggests his atonement for his role as oppressor of the native citizens. This look of appeal is symbolic of the connection the women now have to the ghost of the man (and the past). By setting her stories in a domestic space, rather than a military or governmental space, Croker is able to involve her female characters in the “action” of imperialism. In her essay, “Burning Down the Master’s (Prison)-House: Revolution and Revelation in Colonial and Postcolonial Female Gothic,” Carol Margaret Davison makes a connection between Female Gothic and Empire Gothic, saying that the “manor/ Great House,” as the traditional space for the female, functions as a reminder of imperial aims (138). It is also a site of friction between colonizer and colonized: “the manor/Great House is a site of historical and cultural, conscious and unconscious, collisions and collusions” (138). The supernatural battle within Croker’s bungalows is the imperial conflict in microcosm. However, as much as she seeks to place some of the blame on the English in her stories, Croker is still the Englishwoman looking at India from an outsider’s perspective, and the Indian caretaker remains the embodiment of the mysterious and unpredictable native, who has an advantage over the colonists. And Croker takes advantage of this to suit her Gothic aims, which, according to Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, frequently consisted of writers “turn[ing] the colonial subject into the obscene cannibalistic personification of evil” which “could bring revulsion and horror into the text, thereby mirroring political and social anxieties close to home” (231). The murder of the Englishman and the description of the animalistic qualities of the Indian caretaker, then, serves as Gothic and political horror.

Julia’s treatment of the caretaker and her criticism of his management and lack of hospitality also are reminiscent of the British traveler’s written insults in the visitor’s book, which makes her position among the natives just as dangerous as the murdered man’s situation. Croker’s portrayal of Julia as a quintessential “memsahib” figure also highlights her uncertain existence among those whom she dominates. According to Jenny Sharpe in Allegories of Empire (1993), this literary character was used frequently by women writers as one reason for native hostilities towards the English. Sharpe notes that this “notorious female figure” became most popular among authors after the 1857 Mutiny (91).6 The term, meaning “lady master” and referring specifically to wealthy British women, describes the “small-minded, social snob who tyrannically rules over a household of servants and refuses to associate with Indians” (Sharpe 91), except, of course, as working-class servants. In other words, this is the imperial femme fatale, whose class snobbery causes unrest. Sharpe also cites Wilfred Scawen Blunt, who came to the conclusion in his historical study, Ideas about India (1885), “that the Englishwoman in India during the last thirty years has been the cause of half the bitter feelings there between race and race” (qtd. in Sharpe 91). The problem of the memsahib was also the subject of an October 1886 article by J. E. Dawson in the Calcutta Review (one of the most respected Anglo-Indian journals of the time), which held Englishwomen accountable for upholding domestic order in India:

Each Englishwoman, in her own Bungalow, is the centre of an influence, and the cynosure of an argus-eyed criticism, even to her most insignificant acts, to which her English life offers no parallel. The smallest establishment will contain from ten to a dozen, the larger, from a dozen to twenty or thirty servants. With every one of these the Mêm Sahib is more or less in contact, and the happiness and comfort of their lives depends largely on her supervision. (Dawson 363)

Dawson classes Englishwomen under three groups: the well-established “Anglo-Indian,” whose family has been a part of Indian society for a few generations, “maturer” ladies (i.e. unmarried, single women), who enter the country with a set attitude and “character,” and, finally, the “young bride,” who is completely naïve to the country that is her new home (“Woman in India” 348). Though perhaps not quite yet the memsahib who exhibits domineering tendencies, these classes of women are often busy-bodies, whose descriptions fit well with Croker’s female characters, both young and old: “The youngest addition is herself a welcome ingredient, for she affords a fresh topic for discussion. The frailties of the Jones and Smiths are, alas! worn threadbare. All the rents and fissures in the domestic and social relationships of every one in the station, are common property” (“Woman in India” 354). The article also cites these women’s failure to learn the Hindi or Urdu languages as one of the reasons why there was frequently miscommunication between the English and Indians: “Ignorance of the language means ignorance of the people, and ignorance of the people, if it be productive of no positive harm, must at least render attempts at good abortive: but where knowledge and good will go hand in hand, the good within the scope of all cannot be overrated” (“Woman in India” 366). In fact, in Croker’s supernatural stories, the female characters do not speak the local language and show little interest in learning any new, non-English way of communicating. As the article relates, this “ignorance” of both language and people leads to the confrontations between Julia and the native Indians and makes the Englishwomen outsiders in their Indian environment.

According to the article, the Englishwoman is “the centre of an influence” and even “her most insignificant acts” have consequences among the Indian natives (“Woman in India” 363). They are also criticized for the manner in which they govern their servants. Dawson says, “It must be observed that very many mistresses in India indulge in a tone of irritation and command when addressing their native servants, that would not be tolerated by our household servants at Home” (“Woman in India” 364). Indeed, Julia’s behavior in Croker’s story provides enough reason to understand why the Englishman was murdered or why she and Nellie are in such a precarious situation among the Indian natives.

Interestingly, it is the Indian caretaker who gives the women the first and only specific warning about the bungalow and urges them to proceed to Chanda. He tells them that the building is “out of repair,” “full of rats,” and is “unhealthy” (101). In response to this advice, Julia scolds the caretaker: “‘Drawing government pay, and refusing to open a government travellers’ bungalow!’ . . . ‘Let us have no more of this nonsense; open the house at once and get it ready for us, or I shall report you to the commissioner sahib’” (101). After the caretaker fails to return with the key, Julia grows angrier at the thought of the man’s disobedience: “‘I shall certainly report that old wretch! The idea of a dâk bungalow caretaker refusing admittance and running away with the key! . . . I shall not forget to tell Frank about the way we were treated at Dakor bungalow’” (102). Julia’s similar stubbornness in regard to the ghost story and the haunted bungalow anticipates the critical response of the women’s husbands when they arrive at Dakor: “they were loudly, rudely incredulous, and, of course, we were very angry; . . . they merely laughed still more heartily and talked of ‘nightmare,’ and gave themselves such airs of offensive superiority, that Julia’s soul flew to arms” (107). At this point in the story, Nellie and Julia, as witnesses to the crime, are left to relate the circumstances of the traveler’s death to their husbands and convince them that the crime did, indeed, happen. They become privileged interpreters of the colonial tension that exists in the village and, therefore, are more informed than the British officials. Likewise, Nellie is left to memorialize and name the murdered traveler, who is identified as Gordon Forbes. They discover that Forbes, like Julia’s husband, Frank, was a police officer. This information, once again, calls attention to the similarity between the living colonists at Dakor and the colonist who died, for Croker suggests that Frank, as a fellow English “sahib,” could have been the recipient of violence and native revenge, if he had stayed in the bungalow seven years earlier.

According to Shuchi Kapila, in her article on Bithia Croker’s Anglo-Indian romance novels, “Croker’s fiction depends heavily on formal closure — one of the inescapable features of popular romances inextricably tied to reader satisfaction” (230). However, in “The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor,” as in other supernatural stories in To Let, Croker leaves readers with an uneasy, oftentimes ambiguous ending representative of the characters’ own uneasiness about their marginal position as outsiders in India. As Gelder and Jacobs point out, “To settle on a haunted site is to risk unsettlement” (188), with a double meaning of the word “unsettlement.” The inhabitants of colonial haunted houses are physically displaced and emotionally unsettled by the end of the stories.

The last paragraph of “The Dâk Bungalow” describes Nellie and Julia’s decision to keep the details of their experience away from Mrs. Duff:

Mrs. Duff was full of curiosity concerning our trip. We informed her that we spent Christmas at Chanda, as we had originally intended, with our husbands, that they had provided an excellent dinner of black buck and jungle fowl, that the plum-pudding surpassed all expectations; but we never told her a word about our two nights’ halt at Dakor bungalow. (108)

The two women are placed back into their proper and safe “England” within India, but their description of the adventure, which sounds very much like someone talking about superficial things in order to avoid an unpleasant subject, is encapsulated in an awareness of their real experience. Before seeing Mrs. Duff again in Karwassa, the women place a cross at the grave of the traveler and send his belongings to his family. After seeing Mrs. Duff, Nellie and Julia are left with the memories of the ghostly scene and murder, which they choose to keep to themselves but which, nonetheless, remain in their minds. When the body of the traveler is recovered, Julia exclaims, “I shall never, never forget last night as long as I live” (106).

In her article, Kapila cites Alison Sainsbury, in “Married to the Empire: The Anglo-Indian Domestic Novel,” as saying that these novels “enfranchise middle-class English women, making them partners — even central agents — in the enterprise of empire” (qtd. in Kapila 231). However, in her short stories, Croker goes further than simply making her female readers “partners” or “agents” within an imperialistic network. In her ghost stories set in India, Croker not only makes her readers aware of the potential negative effects of empire on both native peoples and the English, but also, through her frequent use of female narrators who resemble her readership, makes those women question their own position as part of a colonizing nation. The serious political commentary in what might appear on the surface to be just another ghost story, lends credibility to Kapila’s discussion about the lack of critical scholarship on these women writers as commentators on the imperial situation:

Women romancers have not received the same serious critical attention as canonical figures such as Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster, who have always been studied for the seriousness and complexity of their Indian experience. The canonization of Kipling’s work has made the masculine genre of adventure writing the representative ‘literature of empire.’ Domestic dramas and romances have been treated as at best a historical curiosity and at worst ‘bad writing’ that would never attain the status of great literature. (219)

Those who would value canonical works by male authors over lesser-known women writers of empire or who would relegate women’s colonial writing to the status of “historical curiosity,” fail to take into account the unique view of women who also spent time within the British colonies, learning about the customs of the places and seeing firsthand the long-term effects of the British presence in these regions.

Bithia Croker’s “To Let” is another haunted house story with an imperial twist. By beginning the story in Lucknow, Croker implicitly hints at the tensions caused by the British East India Company’s annexation of the Awadh province in 1856 and the city’s involvement in the violence of the Indian Rebellion the following year. The narrator, Susan Shandon, is a single, wealthy Englishwoman, who fits the Victorian definition of a “redundant woman.”7 She moves to India to live with her brother, Tom, his wife, Aggie, and their two small children, Bob and Tom. As an unmarried woman, Susan realizes her dependence on the kindness of her brother and his family. In the opening paragraph, and pages before the ghost story is even introduced, she admits, “I do not think my mother was sorry to have one of her four grown-up daughters thus taken off her hands” (346). As with Croker’s description of Karwassa in “The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor,” the Indian station at Lucknow displays many English characteristics. Susan finds great “novelty” in her new environment, but her description of her daily routine is far from anything associated with an authentic Indian landscape. Her “paradise on earth” comes complete with “early morning rides, picnics down the river, and dances at the ‘Chutter Munzil’” (347). It is precisely for this reason that Susan finds Lucknow “a melancholy spot” in the summer after the majority of the English leave: “the public gardens were deserted, the chairs at the Chutter Munzil stood empty, the very bands had gone to the hills!, the shops were shut, the baked white roads, no longer thronged with carriages and bamboo carts” (347). This reliance on English ways in a foreign land is also mentioned in Dawson’s article in the Calcutta Review, which recommends that an Englishwoman’s interest in ornate, overly expensive dresses, tennis, and waltzes should “be regarded not as the recreations of existence, but as its objects” (“Woman in India” 367). The article warns that women who take these frivolous things too seriously will not themselves be taken seriously or respected by anyone around them.

In this English atmosphere, Aggie also fulfills the role of proper Englishwoman. Behind closed doors, she has the power, as Susan confides to the reader, “Strictly between ourselves she is the ruling member of the family, and turns her lord and master round her little finger (346). This description hints at the fact that Tom’s outward status as ruling Englishman in India is due to Aggie’s ambitious efforts on his behalf:

Aggie rouses him up, and pushes him to the front, and keeps him there. She knows all about his department, his prospects of promotion, his prospects of furlough, of getting acting appointments, and so on, even better than he does himself. The chief of Tom’s department — have I said that Tom is in the Irritation [sic] Office? — has placed it solemnly on record that he considers little Mrs Shandon a surprisingly clever woman. (346)

Far from the apparent ignorance of the wives in “The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor” regarding their husbands’ positions within the English government, Aggie directly involves herself in her husband’s profession and makes sure that he performs his duties within the empire.

The trouble begins when Aggie refuses to leave Tom alone in Lucknow during the summer months. Because they delay their trip to the cooler mountains with the rest of the English women and children, Aggie, Susan, and the two children must await word about the renting of a bungalow. To their surprise, a friend, Edith Chalmers, finds them a “charming” bungalow for only 800 rupees (348). Their journey to the bungalow is full of problems, as they try to transport all their belongings, including pets, up the mountains. Susan finds the trip tiring and oppressive because of the heat, and Croker comments on their status as wealthy Englishwomen and their social distance from the Indian natives around them when she describes the women’s method of transportation:

We accomplished the accent in dandies — open kind of boxes, half box half chair, carried on the shoulders of four men. This was an entirely novel sensation to me, and at first an agreeable one, so long as the slopes were moderate and the paths wide; but the higher we went, the narrower became the path, the steeper the naked precipice; and as my coolies would walk at the extreme edge, with the utmost indifference to my frantic appeals to ‘Bector! Bector!’ — and would change poles at the most agonizing corners — my feelings were very mixed, especially when droves of loose pack ponies came thundering down hill, with no respect for the rights of the road. (349)

Susan’s fear comes from the fact that the natives could drop her at any moment, but part of her danger also comes from her loss of control in the situation. Her “appeals” to the carriers are met with “utmost indifference” by the natives, who are at once beneath them, both literally and in social terms, while, at the same time, superior to them in their control of the dandies and their knowledge of the mountainous terrain. Also similar to “The Dâk Bungalow,” the further the women venture into unfamiliar, non-English territory, the more dangerous their environment becomes. The natives have greater control over their lives, and the Indian landscape on the whole becomes wilder and less predictable.

The uncertainty of Susan during their transport to the bungalow, and the emphasis on the otherness that she feels, complicates the reader’s notion of who the “Other” actually is in this case. The instability of the women in regard to their position also lends itself well to how Croker’s ghost stories are positioned within postcolonial Gothic. According to Andrew Smith and William Hughes in Empire and the Gothic (2003), the questions and uncertainties raised by colonial Gothic help to critique the purpose of the colonizing nation as a whole:

Gothic tales, their contradictions, ambiguities and ambivalences, provide a dense and complex blend of assertion and doubt, acceptance and defiance, and truth and falsity and in this way they provide a space in which key elements of the dominant culture become debated, affirmed and questioned. It is because of this that a postcolonial mode of enquiry, one underpinned by a poststructuralist scepticism, is able to open up the political dimension of these narratives without denying their fundamental complexities. Postcolonialism helps to isolate images of Self and Other in such a way that they identify how a particular brand of colonial politics works towards constructing difference, whilst at the same time indicating the presence of the inherently unstable version of the subject on which such a politics rest. (3-4)

In Croker’s story, this notion of instability is enacted by both the living and the dead, the colonizer and the colonized. The English are outsiders and exist as Other within India, yet her English perspective as an author inevitably casts the Indian natives (and their violent ghosts) as the mysterious foreign Other. Going a step further, there is even a difference in the degree of Otherness of the English as cultural group. Frequently in Croker’s stories, there is an English newcomer, who must be initiated into the culture by another English man or woman who has been in India longer.

This sense of instability and disorientation also exists because of the foreign place described in the story’s narrative, and extends beyond place into the historical “place” and perspective of the author. Readers find themselves disoriented in Croker’s stories because she makes it clear that the English do not naturally belong in India. This foreignness makes them outsiders. The difference, then, is one of reader sympathy. If the women exist as outsiders, then they are more vulnerable outsiders than the Indian Other. This is especially true of the more likeable characters in Croker’s stories. They are meant to excite the empathetic emotions of the reader. These women are victims of both the shallowness and unconcern of the memsahibs, who lead them into their unpleasant supernatural encounters, as well as the vengefulness of the Indian natives and restless spirits who reside in these bungalows. Croker makes it possible to sympathize with her female characters, but not with the Indians who were wronged in the first place. Their victimization remains too vague and allusive for the reader to understand, thereby guaranteeing that the women will most always be the most sympathetic characters, even though Croker seeks to hold them accountable for their actions in the larger imperial network by the terrible visions they witness.

Both Aggie and Susan are relieved when they arrive at their rented bungalow, named Briarwood, with its English name and English landscaping, as Mrs. Chalmers has already reported: “a mile and a half from the club . . . two sitting-rooms, four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a hall, servants’ go-downs, stabling, and a splendid view from a very pretty garden” (348). Inside, the bungalow is, likewise, furnished in an English style. It has wardrobes, mirrors, armchairs, glasses, Spode china, lamps, pots for coffee and tea, dishes, candlesticks, wine coasters, and mustard spoons (351). The women also go about arranging the deserted bungalow to appear even more orderly and British; as Susan says, “We set to work to modernize the drawing-room with phoolkaries, Madras muslin curtains, photograph screens and frames, and such like portable articles. We placed the piano across a corner, arranged flowers in some handsome Dresden china vases, and entirely altered and improved the character of the room” (351). They also waste no time in walking to the nearest station to enter their names at the library and ask for letters at the nearby post office.

When the women question why the rent is so low, Susan jokingly remarks that “perhaps it has a ghost” (350). The answer to their question is given by a Mrs. Starkey, who hints that their joke may not be far from the truth. Croker describes Mrs. Starkey as a quintessential Englishwoman, who, upon meeting Susan, instinctively “appraises” the young woman’s “chances in the great marriage market” (352). This appraisal is followed by a plain and simple warning that the bungalow is haunted. However, Aggie makes light of the comment, and flippantly exclaims, “Is that all? I was afraid it was the drains. I don’t believe in ghosts and haunted houses” (352). When asked what they will see, Mrs. Starkey claims that they will see no ghosts, “but you will make up for it in hearing” (352), after the monsoon begins. When the women continue to praise the quality of the house and say that the beautiful verandah alone “is worth half the rent of the house,” Mrs. Starkey responds, “And in my opinion the house is worth double rent without it” (353). After this exchange, class issues begin to cloud Aggie’s judgment. She simply labels Mrs. Starkey a “horrid old frump” and considers her “dismal prophecy” nothing more than anger and jealously over the women having something better than she has (353). As they continue to live in their English India, Susan attends a picnic and becomes friends with Mr. Chalmers’s brother, Charlie, a captain in the English army. Croker hints at a possible romantic match for the two young people, but this potential for happiness is soon overshadowed by the presence of ghosts at Briarwood.

Although she was the first to disregard the rumor, Aggie becomes the first person to hear the haunting sound of a man on horseback falling through the verandah railing during a violent rainstorm. The former inhabitants of the bungalow were a retired army officer, his wife, and their young niece, Lucy. The niece was engaged to a young officer in the British Guides, and in his rush to see Lucy, the man fell off the verandah to his death. This situation parallels Susan’s own life and provides a comment on her uncertain future as a married woman in India. Before she learns the story, Susan is escorted home in a violent rain storm by Captain Chalmers, and when she first hears the ghostly sounds, she thinks it is Charlie who is in danger.

Croker’s placement of the supernatural disturbance on the verandah is also telling. A bungalow’s verandah held symbolic importance within the empire. Mary A. Procida notes that the verandah was the place where British officials would meet with Indian petitioners. She states that the bungalow often combined “domesticity and imperial rule” and that “home and office occupied the same space” (59). The verandah is, of course, also a marginal place, between inner and outer spaces. The haunting of such a space adds another layer and its function as a place of “troubling” and frustrated hopes points to the often “troubled” placement of women within the imperial network. In her discussion of the female picturesque in women’s imperial writing, Sara Suleri points out,

In the homosocial world of the early nineteenth century, the Anglo-Indian woman manipulates the picturesque into a complex cultural expression of ambivalence about her role as a segregated and a segregating presence. . . . an era obsessed with public displays of authority and spectacles of power, the Anglo-Indian woman locates a language in which to disempower such authority, focusing instead on the domestic limitations of the picturesque. In the seclusion of its aesthetic, she constructs a discursive equivalent to the Indian woman’s zenana, that space which both draws and repels her, and about which she is obsessively impelled to write. (80)

The description of the Anglo-Indian woman as writer, and as interpreter of her surroundings, helps to shed light on the continuing appeal of India as a source of fiction. Through their writing, especially their published works, women authors were able to set themselves apart as privileged interpreters of empire and its workings, while also using the supernatural as a way to describe both their fascination with their Indian environment as well as their anxiety within a foreign land. Their ghosts symbolically call into question the stability of British (male) rule and women’s even more fragile status as female and colonizer.

Just as with the lingering memory of the murdered Englishman that haunts Nellie and Julia in “The Dâk Bungalow,” Aggie is haunted by the sounds of the ghostly accident, which replay over and over again in her head. She tells Susan that “it always happens just before dark,” and, when asked if she will ever be able to forgot the sound, Aggie exclaims, “Never!” and also admits that she hears “the most terrible weeping and sobbing in [her] bedroom” (358). They later find out from Mrs. Starkey that after her fiancé died, Lucy “went out of her mind and destroyed herself” (359), and the officer and his wife died shortly thereafter. As with the ending of “The Dâk Bungalow,” Tom arrives but does not believe the women’s story until he witnesses the sounds for himself, thereby, once again, making the women the bearers of the ghostly knowledge to other Englishmen and continuing the story that began with Mrs. Starkey.

The presence of the ghost also frees the Indian natives from their roles as servants for the Shandon family. Aggie reports to Susan that “the ayah Mumà has heard it, and the khánsámáh says his mother is sick and he must go, and the bearer wants to attend his brother’s wedding. They will all leave” (358). Likewise, the bungalow returns to its natural setting: “The flowers are nearly all gone; the paint has peeled off the doors and windows; the avenue is grass-grown. Briarwood appears to have resigned itself to emptiness, neglect and decay, although outside the gate there still hangs a battered board on which, if you look very closely you can decipher the words ‘To Let’“ (359).

Rosemary Cargill Raza, in a brief biographical entry on Bithia Croker, remarks that Croker’s “view of colonial society is for the most part conservative” (272). Although this statement may be true for her novels set in India, Burma, and Ireland, Croker’s supernatural short stories complicate this conservative classification and present Croker as more than simply the “female Kipling” which Roger Luckhurst calls her (xxiv). In “The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor” and “To Let,” the ghost stories serve as an impetus for the female protagonists to recognize their role as participants in the imperialist culture. They may not be fully reformed as a result of their experience, but they do begin to appreciate that their presence in India has greater significance than “moonlight picnics” and “whist-parties.” In writing about the ghosts who haunt Indian bungalows, and the subsequent reaction of the English women who witness these hauntings, Croker makes an indirect, yet purposeful statement about the potential dangers of British colonization and imperialism, and the harm that such an occupation inflicts on both the living and the dead.

University of South Carolina

Works Cited

  • Barr, Pat. The Memsahibs: The Women of Victorian India. London: Seeker and Warburg, 1976.
  • Carter, Margaret L. Specter or Delusion?: The Supernatural in Gothic Fiction. London: UMI Research Press, 1987.
  • Croker, Bithia Mary. “The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor.” Late Victorian Gothic Tales. Ed. Roger Luckhurst. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 96-108.
  • Croker, Bithia Mary. “To Let.” The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories. Eds. Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. 346-59.
  • Croker, Bithia Mary. “Her Last Wishes.” “Number Ninety” and Other Ghost Stories. Ed. Richard Dalby. Sarob Press, 2000.
  • Davison, Carol Margaret. “Burning Down the Master’s (Prison)-House: Revolution and Revelation in Colonial and Postcolonial Female Gothic.” Empire and the Gothic: The Politics of Genre. Eds. Andrew Smith and William Hughes. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 136-54.
  • Dawson, J. E. “Woman in India: Her Influence and Position.” Calcutta Review 83 (October 1886): 347-70.
  • Gelder, Ken and Jane M. Jacobs. “The Postcolonial Ghost Story.” Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis , History. Eds. Peter Buse and Andrew Stott. Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: Macmillan, 1999. 179-200.
  • Kapila, Shuchi. “The Domestic Novel Goes Native: Bithia Mary Croker’s Anglo-India.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 26.3 (September 2004): 215-35.
  • MacMillan, Margaret. Women of the Raj. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988.
  • Marcus, Sharon. Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.
  • Mighall, Robert. A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction: Mapping History’s Nightmares. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. “Colonial and Postcolonial Gothic: The Caribbean.” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 229-57.
  • Procida, Mary A. Married to the Empire: Gender, Politics and Imperialism in India, 1883-1947. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002.
  • Raza, Rosemary Cargill. “Bithia Mary Croker.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 14. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 271-72.
  • Sharpe, Jenny. Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
  • Singh, Bhupal. A Survey of Anglo-Indian Fiction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1934 London: Curzon Press, 1975.
  • Sladen, Douglas. Twenty Years of My Life. London: Constable, 1915.
  • Smith, Andrew, and William Hughes. Empire and the Gothic: The Politics of Genre. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2003.
  • Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1993.
  • Thompson, Edward. The Other Side of the Medal. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1926. Greenwood Press, 1974.
  • Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1995.

Source: CEA Critic, Winter 2010, Vol. 72, No. 2 (Winter 2010), pp. 94-112 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

  1. Croker’s work has been largely ignored by critics until very recently. There are slight mentions of her in reminiscences and memoirs in the early twentieth century. Bhupal Singh included a description of her work in A Survey of Anglo-Indian Fiction (1934) in a chapter titled “Novels of Anglo-Indian Life.” Her work is listed first in the chapter, followed by Maud Diver, Mrs. G. H. Bell (“John Travers”), Alice Perrin, Mrs. E. W. Savi, Shelland Bradley, and various other short mentions of little-known Anglo-Indian writers. Singh describes the quality of these writers’ works as “not very high,” especially when compared to “the master” of Anglo-Indian fiction, Rudyard Kipling. He provides the following description of Croker’s work, taking into account her romance novels and not her short fiction:

    Mrs. Croker’s Indian books take the reader practically all over India; they show great powers of observation, and a vast range of experience. She knows the small and big Anglo-Indian stations well and can hit off their characteristics in a few bold strokes. She has wit, humour, and irony. She loves the jungle and the open field. All her heroes are lovers of horseflesh, and hunt. They are not mere types, but possess an individuality of their own. The heroines, however, are all alike. These novels are amusing and vivacious, but suffer from monotony of treatment and themes. (111)

    Though her work is not discussed in detail in this project, it should be noted that Alice Perrin had a similar career to her contemporary, Bithia Croker. Perrin spent sixteen years in India as the wife of an engineer in the India Public Works Department. She also wrote several traditional romance novels based on her experiences in India, and like Croker, chose to keep her supernatural writing within the genre of short stories. “Caulfield’s Crime” was published in the December 1892 issue of Belgravia, and her ghost stories appeared in such collections as East of Suez (1901), Red Records (1906), Tales That Are Told (1917), and Rough Passages (1926). For more on Perrin’s supernatural fiction, see Richard Dalby’s edition of her work, The Sistrum and Other Ghost Stories, published by Sarob Press in 2001. 

  2. In his memoir, Twenty Years of My Life (1915), Douglas Sladen includes a chapter on “Lady Authors” and says Croker, Alice Perrin, and Flora Annie Steel “have all been valued friends for many years” and praises their literary output as Anglo-Indian writers: “It is natural to mention Mrs. Steel, Mrs. Perrin and Mrs. Croker together, for they long divided the Indian Empire with Rudyard Kipling as a realm of fiction. Each in her own department is supreme” (120). Sladen’s appraisal of these women is unique in that he places their writing on the same plane, or “realm,” as Kipling, when most other reviews and critics of the time placed Kipling on a pedestal as the preeminent writer of Indian fiction of his day. Sladen also includes a biographical passage, in Croker’s own words, which explains her entry into Indian fiction:

    My very first attempt at writing was in the hot weather at Secunderabad. When my husband was away tiger-shooting, and I was more or less a prisoner all day owing to the heat, I began a story, solely for my own amusement. It grew day by day, and absorbed all my time and interest. This was Proper Pride. With reluctance and trepidation I read it to a friend, and then to all the other ladies in the regiment — under the seal of secrecy. Emboldened by this success, I wrote Pretty Miss Neville, and when I returned home with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, I had two manuscripts among my luggage. These went the usual round, but at the end of a year I received a small offer for Proper Pride. It came out in August 1892, without my name, and was immediately successful — principally owing to long and appreciative notices in The Times and Saturday Review, both on the same day. Three editions went off in a month, and I must confess that no one was as much surprised by this success as I was. Subsequently I sold the copyright of Pretty Miss Neville for one hundred pounds, and though now a lady of thirty, she still sells, in cheap editions. I attribute my good fortune to the fact that my novels struck a new note — India and army society — and that I received very powerful help from unknown reviewers. I like writing, otherwise I could not work. I believe I inherit the taste of my father’s family, who were said to be ‘born with a pen in their hands’! (121)

    Interestingly, Croker’s account of her stories’ initial transmission among the women of the army regiment closely resembles the woman-to-woman transference of the ghost rumors in her supernatural tales. 

  3. This discussion focuses on only two of Croker’s haunted bungalow stories; however she wrote several other Indian ghost stories with similar themes. “The Red Bungalow” is comparable to “To Let,” but much more disturbing because the curse on the house continues into the present. Instead of witnessing a past violent act, the family in “The Red Bungalow” directly suffers from the malevolent spirits inhabiting the house. However, it is the children who see the ghost (or ghosts, since Croker doesn’t give readers a clear description of the something doing the haunting) and the women protagonists are powerless to stop the damage done to the children. The women suppose that the children’s “ayah” is looking after them, but when she goes outside, the ghost appears to the children, causing the boy’s death and the girl’s muteness. This silence on the part of the children causes a disconnect in the line of knowledge and learning about the cause of the ghost, which differentiates the characters in “Dâk Bungalow” and “To Let” from the women in “The Red Bungalow.” Each of the bungalows is ultimately abandoned, but the latter story ends much more mysteriously and ominously, with the seemingly innocent children of the English falling prey to a vengeful Indian apparition. 

  4. The fear of “unhealthy” bungalows recurs throughout Croker’s supernatural Indian fiction, and can be read as a symbolic fear of close contact with the Indian locals, a fear which had its beginnings long before Croker’s time. In her article on colonial and postcolonial Gothic, Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert cites Edward Long’s critique of the “dangers” of colonialism in Candid Reflections . . . On What is Commonly Called the Negro Cause (1772), in which he warns against the genetic mixing of “lower class” Englishwomen and black immigrants (230). This is an early version of the fear of atavism and degeneration that became more prevalent in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but also points to the growing concern over colonists falling victim to contagious diseases in foreign countries. This fear “mutated” again in the idea of “unhealthy” houses which spread disease to colonists. A more direct example of this fear can be found in Croker’s “Her Last Wishes,” in which the ghost takes the form of a young woman who died of cholera: “The black cholera was raging round, and the coolies, and servants, and every living soul, fled the place — just ran for their dear lives — never stopped to pack a bundle, or to turn a key. It was awful bad in these hills, that season! Miss Nellie got it from nursing her ayah — she was took herself in a couple of hours” (56).

    The anxiety over unhealthy residences is a recurring theme in Victorian haunted house stories as well, and is again related to class issues. In her study of London single-family homes and the problems of overcrowding, Sharon Marcus sees an added social component in the literary houses of the time:

    Ghosts also conferred on middle-class houses the contagion and illness that urban investigators . . . associated with the housing of the poor. . . . In Victorian ghost stories, haunted middle-class houses in London become, like the lodging houses of the poor, scenes of crime and familial dissolution, with specters often replaying the murder of a spouse, sibling, or child. Indeed, corpses litter middle-class houses in supernatural fiction as they did the houses of the poor in public health investigations. (125)

    The theme of unhealthiness connects to more “mainstream” Victorian haunted houses as well. In his chapter on haunted houses in A Geography of Gothic Fiction, Robert Mighall discusses hereditary disease as a curse on the house, playing on the double meaning of “house” as physical place and “house” as family line (78ff.). See also Anne Williams, Art of Darkness (1995): “That the house embodies the family history reminds us that the word “house” has two meanings relevant to Gothic fictions — it refers both to the building itself and to the family line” (45). 

  5. Edward Thompson, in his pro-British account of the Mutiny, The Other Side of the Medal (1926), describes Indian hostility toward the British as a vengeful ghost. In the early twentieth century, the Mutiny was still in the collective memory of the people of northern India as the unfinished business of empire haunted both the British and the Indians. The unresolved anger became its own specter: “Right at the back of the mind of many an Indian the Mutiny flits as he talks with an Englishman — an unavenged and unappeased ghost” (32). Readers must bear in mind that Thompson’s account was written during a tense time in Anglo-Indian relations and after renewed violence in Amritsar in 1919. The anxiety in the above passage thus speaks to the past as well as to Thompson’s own time. 

  6. For a sympathetic reading of Englishwomen in India, see Pat Barr’s The Memsahibs: The Women of Victorian India (1976). She contends that the “fictional image” of the memsahib as “a frivolous, snobbish and selfish creature who flitted from bridge to tennis parties ‘in the hills’ while her poor husband slaved ‘on the plains’” is an “historical cliché” (1) founded by Kipling and other Anglo-Indian writers. 

  7. Susan also fits within the categories of Englishwomen from Dawson’s “Woman in India,” as Croker’s description places her as one of the “maturer” ladies who make their new homes in India. However, Susan displays few memsahib tendencies (unlike her sister-in-law, Aggie) and is for the most part a likeable character.