“The Phantom Coach”
by Amelia Edwards
Ghosts were for writers in the Victorian era what vampires are in the 21st century – a source of bread and butter. The often cheesy Christmas annuals published late in the year were the Victorian equivalent of chia pets – holiday gifts for the totally clueless giver. Except instead of chia seeds, the annuals demanded stories, lots and lots of stories, to fill them. Strange though it may seem, those stories often included ghosts, the unhallowed dead earning their keep by providing holiday cheer.
Male writers were willing to supply the Christmas annual market, but it was also, aside from birthing babies, one of few creative outlets available to the increasingly educated, middle-class women writers of the era. And one of the best of those now almost forgotten women was Amelia Edwards.
Many of her counterparts of both sexes wrote not only as a creative outlet but out of desperate need to support their families. Edwards, however, was unmarried, childless and, after the death of her parents, without family ties. With only herself to provide for, her recognized talent (Dickens invited her to contribute to his Christmas annual) and energy enabled her to accumulate enough wealth to indulge a love for exotic travel. To that end, on November 29, 1873, at age 32, she and traveling companion Lucy Renshaw arrived in Cairo, “literally and most prosaically,” she wrote, “in search of fine weather.”
Fine weather, however, had been in short supply for the narrator of one of her most famous stories, 1864’s “The Phantom Coach.”
“Within a day or two of the end of the grouse season,” "Coach's" young barrister-at-law James Murray relates, “I had been out all day with my gun and had had no sport to speak of. The month (was) December, the place, a bleak wide moor in the far north of England. And I had lost my way.”
A snowstorm begins and night falls. Murray begins to fear he will walk aimlessly until he drops from exhaustion to freeze to death when the figure of an old man with a lantern appears out of the storm. Although the old man gruffly informs him that he will not be welcome, Murray insists on following him to his house. After a supper seasoned with tales of ghosts, the misanthropic host directs Murray to the nearest road where he can catch a mail coach to the nearest town.
Only, he is warned, he should watch for a signpost where one night nine years earlier, the coach tumbled off the road and into a ravine, killing all six men aboard.
As the night grows colder, a vehicle approaches. Murray steps inside, to an atmosphere, which was “colder than that of the outside air, and was pervaded by a singularly damp and disagreeable smell. . . ” .His ride with the death coach's doomed passengers has begun.
Widely anthologized, “The Phantom Coach” is also available at http://gutenberg.net/au/ebooks06/0605591.txt and on YouTube.
Edwards, meanwhile, found Egypt an equally fascinating source of creativity, as Amanda Adams details in her Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and Their Search for Adventure. Edwards’ infatuation with Egypt would lead to the writing of her greatest writing, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, work as a co-founder of the Egypt Exploration Society and mentorship of rising young Egyptologist Flinders Petrie.
Fans of the Egyptian mystery tales of the late archaeologist Barbara Mertz (writing as Elizabeth Peters) will enjoy the many similarities between Mertz’s heroine Amelia Peabody and Edwards, from their first names to the name of their Egyptian houseboats, to their age on arriving in Egypt. But while Amelia Peabody found true love with a (fictional) archeologist, Amelia Edwards’ great love remained Egypt itself, her mission: bringing its ghosts back to life.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues an October of horror with “The Open Window,” by H.H. Munro, writing as “Saki.”)