A Strange Adventure in the Life of Miss Laura Mildmay by J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1871)
Mr. Jenner, the Vicar of the village of Golden Friars, and his wife Dolly have a pleasant and rich life with one major exception: through twenty years of marriage they have not been blessed with a child. This has been their one regret, one that Mrs. Jenner, especially, has felt. One evening a letter arrives, sent by Hileria Pullen, a woman unknown to either of them. The letter tells of the death of a long-lost relative of Mrs. Jenner and of the existence of an eighteen-month old daughter, whom the mother wished to go the Jenners' care. The writer, Miss Pullen (the child's nurse), explained that she and the child were taken into the care of Captain Torquil and his wife; Mrs. Torquil was a very distant cousin of Mrs. Jenner.
For reasons unknown and never explained, Mrs. Mildmay, the deceased woman, Had left a will giving a rather sizable fortune to Mrs. Torquil if the infant were not married by her thirtieth birthday. The nurse, Miss Pullen, hinted strongly that she feared for the child, refering only vaguely about the Captain's terrible temper. The letter ended with a plea for the vicar to take the baby away from the Torquil house.
While discussing this strange letter, there was a knock on the door. The parish clerk had arrived with a small child, telling the Jenners that a woman, half-dead, had arrived at the local inn with the child and would not rest until the child was out of harm's way and with the vicar. The woman, of course, was the nurse and the child was the young baby in her charge.
While her husband journeys to the inn, Mrs. Jenner and Kitty Bell, the maid, take the child upstairs and begin to unwrap her:
"To say they were disappointed would be nothing -- they were shocked. It was the ugliest
baby they had ever seen, and looked, moreover, as if it was dying;
"'Adzooks!' gasped Kitty, after a silence of some seconds.
"'Dear me! Poor little thing!' said Mrs. Jenner, in a whisper of amazement. 'It certainly is
"'Did I ever see such a windered babby as that!' exclaimed Kitty."
Things begin to happen rather rapidly from here. Captain Torquil arrives at the vicarage and demands to see the baby. Refused by Mrs. Jenner, he storms up the stairs, breaks open a door and seizes the child. He is stopped by several of the townsmen and storms out of the house vowing police action against the Jenners. At the same time, the vicar has heard Hileria Pullen's tale. The Captain, it seems, is in heavy debt due to gambling losses; his wife spends her days in her bedroom, a hopeless alcoholic. Captain Torquil has few friends left, due to his immoral ways and vicious temper. He has spend much time glaring at the baby with hatred, knowing that, should the baby die, a fortune would come to his wife. He has even tried to get the nurse to give the child a strange powder which she feared was poison.
The baby, gravely ill, had indeed been poisoned shortly before the nurse took her and escaped. She is nursed back to health and made a ward of the Jenners, dispite pleas and threats of legal action fro Captain Torquil. Torquil then flees his debtors, going abroad as a private mercenary where it is reported that he was badly disfigured and slain.
Eighteen years pass and the child, Laura, has blossomed from a hideous baby to one of the most beautiful women in the country. She is courted by many, although there are just two main suitors. The rest of the book details the danger she finds herself in when the past reaches up for her.
J. Sheridan Le Fanu, has been called the father of the modern ghost story and Ireland's answer to edgar Allen Poe. His books, such as Uncle Silas, Wylder's Hand and The House by the Churchyard are classic mysteries that helped form the genre. He was a master of the psychological portrait and his leisurely manner helped convey his sensational stories to an interested public. (His famous vampire story Camilla, with its underrlaying theme of lesbianism, would have surely sparked outrage had it not been for his slow and subtle style.) His best work surpasses that of Wilkie Collins, to whom he is sometimes compared. Luckily, almost all of his work is readily available -- much of it online -- and his short stories have been included in a number of anthologies. A Strange Adventure in the Life of Miss Laura Mildmay is one of his few works that can be deemed a forgotten work. The story first appeared as one of three novels in the collection Chronicles of Golden Friars in 1871, which was reprinted in three volumes by Arno Press in 1977. The only other printing of the story that I know of was in 1947 by the London firm of Home & Van Thal. a shame, really, because Laura Mildmay is an excellent and compelling story, an atmospheric tale of blood and thunder. As a bonus, the novel also incorporates a separate ghost story, the much better-known "Madame Crowl's Ghost", which served as the title story of a collection edited by M. R. James which brought a new generation to Le Fanu in 1923.
While Patti Abbot recovers from her truly horrible vacation, blog buddy Todd Mason is filling in this week, rounding up the other Friday's Forgotten Books. Go to Sweet Freedom for links to more great reading.