Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, April 20, 2021


 "The Elusive Melody" by "George Egerton" (Mary Charvelita Dunne Bright) {from her collection Fantasias, 1897)

Part ghost story, part fable, part parable, part modernist fin de siecle romance, "The Elusive Melody" is heavily influenced by both Nietzschean darkness and sexual expression.  It's a strange little meandering story -- not the writer's best, but certainly one that displays her powers as an influential turn of the century author.

At the end of a long avenue there is a deserted house, quite unlike any of the others on the street.  As if to point out its uniqueness, in the yard stands a cypress tree, the only one in the area.  Both the house and the tree exude a feeling of strangeness.  One day, a woman and her three daughters move into the house.  Soon "many strange noises, the thud of falling bodies, ringing bells, doors that opened noiselessly cause maid after maid to leave."  The middle daughter, ghe grey-eyed one, is drawn to an old clock and its pendulum, constantly sitting in front of it, listening to the pendulum and the sound of tiny footsteps behind it, which turn into louder steps, then a faltering stride; the little girl says she is just "watching the feet."

One day, the older girl,  just ten years old, the one with the gypsy eyes, sits at the piano and begins to play.  This child had never played before and was noted for not having a musical ear or any talent whatsoever, yet she flawlessly plays pieces that she has heard before to the delight of guests.  Until, one day. she can't.  The youngest child, the one with the steady eyes, raged against the visions the middle child had.

Soon the family moved to smaller quarters, because the mother was expecting a fourth child.  No man, no father, is mentioned in the story.  The mother is not well and is bordering on poverty.

Suddenly we shift to some years ahead.  The youngest girl never made it to her teens, having met a grim, unnamed death.  The middle girl sailed to America and became sadder than ever.  No mention is made of the mother, nor of the child she was carrying.  The oldest girl grew into a solitary person, content in her aloofness and that she had no need form men.  One day, the muse that allowed her to play the piano came back, Euterpe the muse of music but as Euterpe the muse of lyric poetry.  She was given words, "words like arrows winged with silver, that never failed to hit the mark; golden-tipped words that tickled to laughter, or others that moved to tears -- hosts that wore her livery and stepped into their duties in her time of need."  These words swept over her so much the she forgot she was a woman.  She wandered into a meadow and met a huntsman who was chasing butterflies.  When he saw her the huntsman blew on a lure and he, who knew almost every species of butterfly, realized that he had come upon a rare one.  He drew the girl onto his horse and they raced away, as if by magic.  The girl, who had never dreamed that she would attract a man, began to see the world differently.  

Finally, one day they rode through the gate of a city:  "It was a curious gate fashioned out of fossilized human hearts set in the most original manner between a quaint tracery of vows, alas, much chipped."  In a temple they plucked the only genuine flower...and found it to be an ordinary bloom.  Soon their ardor faded and the huntsman went out in search of butterflies and the girl stayed home and wilted.  One day the to were out and came to the entrance of a graveyard in which the paths divided.  A caretaker explains that this is the burial ground of lost illusions.  "Many people never do any good until they are bourne through it; for then they turn their undivided attention to some practical pursuit."  As they entered the gates the huntsman spied a beautiful butterfly.  As he chased after it he realized that the girl was too delicate and not robust enough to stick a pin through.  The girl, for her part, went to the right side of the graveyard where dwelt the poets and dreamers.  Suddenly the words came back to her, blazing in poetry, but just as suddenly the lute strings of her heart broke and "The magic words could no longer fall into place; the ashes of love lay thick in the path of the rhythm."  

There the story ends, in bleakness and despair.

The author, Mary Bright (1850-1945), had a singular life.  Born in Australia and spending her childhood there and in New Zealand and Chile, her family moved to Ireland when she was eleven.  She spent her formative yerss there and considered herself "Totally Irish."  She wanted to be an artist and spent two years in school in Germany, but when he mother died she returned to Ireland to take care of her siblings.  She eventually trained as a nurse.  She had several romantic encounters and in 1888, she caused a scandal by eloping with a married man.  The man's wife claimed he was a bigamist, having been married before her.  The claims were false, the man divorced his wife and married Mary later that year.  During the elopement, Mary's father tracked the couple down and shot the man.  He recovered and they moved to Norway, and he died a year after he and Mary were married,  

While in Norway, Mary had  brief affair with future Nobel Laureate Knut Hamsun.  Mary translated Hamsun's first novel for English audiences.  She married a second time, to a penniless adventurer and author.  It was then  that she began to write fiction, both as a means of escaping poverty and of escaping boredom,  she chose to write under the name "George Egerton."  Her first book of short stories (illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley) was wildly successful and she became a literary sensation.  She was friends with the likes of George Bernard Shaw, J. M. Barrie, among others.  Her work influenced such writers as Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Jean Rhys, and D. H. Lawrence.  Mary and her second husband divorced in 1901, the year that he died.  In June of that year she married for a third time, to Reginald Golding Bright, a drama critic some fifteen years her younger.  Their marriage evidently lasted until his death in 1941

She was an advocate for feminism, sexual freedom, women's education, and financial freedom.  She was critical of religion and (despite being married three times) of marriage as an institution.  Along with sexual freedom, she advocated for same sex partnership and single parenting.  Mary became a critical link in the sexual transgressiveness of later writers.  Little read today, she has become increasingly popular with academic scholars.

Her collection Fantasias is available to read online.


  1. That is quite a dark story. Equaling anything contemporary.

  2. I like ghost stories so I'll track down FANTASIAS. Interesting choice!

  3. Thanks for the pointer--she's new to me.

    Certainly there is little completely new under the sun. H. G. Wells's "The Cone" is at least as splattery as any contemporary splatterpunk fiction or tended to be Grand Guignol.