Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924)

Alison Flood wrote in The Guardian of 9.4.20:

“The darker side of Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of classic children’s novels including The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, is set to be revealed by a forgotten story found in the archives of the British Library, untouched for more than 100 years.

The British-American Hodgson Burnett is best remembered today for her The Secret Garden, the 1911 tale of a girl who comes from India to the isolated Yorkshire moors, and 1886’s Little Lord Fauntleroy, about a poor boy from Brooklyn who discovers he has inherited an English estate.

But 10 years before she died in 1924, Hodgson Burnett began writing a series of sketches that mixed autobiography with fiction. Published in Good Housekeeping magazine, the stories appeared under the title The Romantick Lady – a “cipher for the author’s imaginative and more fanciful side”, said British Library editor Johnny Davidson. One of them, The Christmas in the Fog, published in April 1915, was recently found among the British Library’s papers.

The story sees the author dealing with two incidents – a trip on a liner to New York surrounded by fog, and an encounter with a “shabby little boy, carrying a small bundle”. “His face was white, and his eyes had that horribly bewept, almost blinded look one shudders before when one sees it in an older person. That a child’s face and eyes should look so was inhuman – unnatural,” she writes.

Davidson said the story explores “how, in certain real situations, everyone becomes strange, ghostly, and comparable to an ‘actual’ supernatural ghost story”. A foghorn, for example, is described as having “a wild and hollow roar such as a Megatherium, as it rooted up and trampled down great trees in a primeval forest in darkest ages, might have bellowed in his lonely rage”.

“The remoteness, the sense of being at once shut in and shut out from the world, from life itself, was an uncanny and spectral thing. A new-born ghost wandering in ghostly spaces as yet unknown, might have felt it,” writes Hodgson Burnett.

Along with forgotten works by women writers whom the British Library says “pioneered and developed the ‘weird tale’ in the early 20th century”, The Christmas in the Fog will be reissued by the library’s publishing imprint in the anthology Queens of the Abyss, out later this year.

Other stories in the anthology include May Sinclair’s tale of what editor Mike Ashley called “a risqué phantom love”, and works from Marie Corelli, Violet Quirk and Greye La Spina and Margaret St Clair.

In his introduction, Ashley writes that many of the writers “had to rise from the abyss of poverty or other adversity in their childhood or married lives” and “it is possible to see how they channelled the anguish of their disadvantaged lives into their fiction, making it all the more real”.

Hodgson Burnett grew up in straitened circumstances after the death of her father. The family immigrated to the US in 1865, and the young writer helped to support her family by publishing stories. She married and divorced twice – considered scandalous at the time – and had two sons, one of whom, Lionel, died as a teenager.”

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