When Ghost Meets GhostDecember 5, 2012
I think I’ve been over the whole William De Morgan thing before — how he was an excellent and super-important Arts & Crafts potter, how he had a second career as a bestselling novelist around the time he hit retirement age, how the mere mention of Joseph Vance renders me completely inarticulate, etc. It’s not his second career itself that’s so surprising — it’s that he was so good, and that he’s been so completely forgotten.
I keep wanting to make wild pronouncements about de Morgan writing postmodern pastiches of Victorian novels when the Victorian Era had barely ended, but I worry that I’m pushing it. I’ve read three of his books now, and while I don’t think that When Ghost Meets Ghost is quite as good as Somehow Good, or that much of anything is as good as Joseph Vance, it may be the most William De Morgan-y of William De Morgan’s books, and I continue to be impressed with William De Morgan.
Even more than Somehow Good, When Ghost Meets Ghost is a novel of coincidences. De Morgan is massively dependent on coincidences, but makes up for it by being better than any other author I’ve encountered at explaining them away, which he does by not explaining them away. Every once in a while he just writes something like, “this may seem unlikely, but that’s how it happened,” or even “you may object to this coincidence, but think how many coincidences it took us to get to this point,” and then everything seems okay. I know, it shouldn’t work. But it does, because William De Morgan is magic. Anyway, he has many opportunities to exercise this skill of his, starting with six-year-old Dave Wardle’s trip to the country to recuperate with the long-lost twin of his upstairs neighbor after he’s run over by a fire truck.
The upstairs neighbor is Maisie Daverill, better known as known as Mrs. Prichard, or, to Dave and his younger sister Dolly, Mrs. Picture. De Morgan is almost as unnaturally good at childrens’ speech patterns and mispronunciations as he is at making ridiculous coincidences seem reasonable. Maisie once had a twin and and an unscrupulous husband. The unscrupulous husband got convicted of forgery and sent to Australia, and eventually Maisie joined him there, leaving their daughter with her twin. Then, at some point, she decided to go back to England to pay a visit, and her husband was so unhappy with the idea that he forged a letter announcing the twin’s death. Then, to stop the twin from writing Maisie letters in the future, he sent her a letter announcing Maisie’s death. When I call him unscrupulous, mostly I mean that he’s evil.
Eventually the unscrupulous husband died and Maisie returned to England, not knowing that her twin was still alive. When the book opens, she’s eighty, or nearly eighty, and When Ghost Meets Ghost is mainly about whether they’ll ever find each other, and if so, how. There are so many connections that the eventual meeting seems inevitable, but there are also near-misses that make the coincidences seem likely. And meanwhile there’s a lot of other stuff going on. Sapps Court, where Maisie lives upstairs from Dave and Dolly and their aunt and uncle, is one center of action. Other inhabitants include former prizefighter Uncle Mo, Aunt M’riar (whose past comes into play), Maisie’s roommate Susan Burr and Michael Ragstroar, otherwise Rackstraw, who has, if nothing else, a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
The other center of action is The Towers, the home of the Earl of Ancester, where the Earl’s daughter, Gwen, has a few minutes of conversation with a young man who is almost immediately afterwards shot by the gamekeeper. The fallout of that event has almost nothing to do with Maisie and her sister, but Gwen does. The Towers is also the primary location of the subplot involving the Hon. Percival Pellew and Miss Constance Smith-Dickenson, which is maybe my favorite subplot — he’s a distant cousin and she’s a friend of the family, and their romance shows off De Morgan’s capacity for seeing multiple points of view to great effect.
The temptation with De Morgan is to keep describing stuff from his books, in the hopes that I’ll accidentally succeed in conveying how great they are, and I have a feeling it’s not working. Let me try again.
When Ghost Meets Ghost is like a Victorian novel, only it was written in the teens and the omniscient narrator is perfectly clear about the fact that the events of the novel occurred fifty years previously. It’s full of interesting characters and suspenseful situations, and you always end up knowing a little more about any given person than you actually need to — in a good way. Ridiculous things happen, but De Morgan makes them seem normal. Things get sad sometimes. It’s like Dickens, a little, but less sentimental and more modern and self-aware, if not always by much. It’s also frequently, subtly feminist.
That said, I’m not actually recommending that you read When Ghost Meets Ghost. Read Joseph Vance first. I stand by my description of it as being like David Copperfield, only less squishy.