“We’re all of us haunted and haunting” ― Chuck Palahniuk
Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848) was a British Royal Navy officer, who after distinguished service retired to a literary life, regaling Victorians with nautical narratives that would serve as the prototypes for later popular maritime novelists such as C.S. Forester (the Horatio Hornblower series) and Patrick O’Brian (The Aubrey-Maturin series e.g. Master and Commander), known for his evocative descriptions of life at sea in the 19th Century based on his own experiences.
One has to have a measure of courage to willingly crew a wooden ship likely to endure numerous canon fusillades. I mean, it’s not high on my list of ways to live a long and healthy life. Then again, joining the 19th Century British Navy is not for the meek in most respects. Marryat brought his “A” game. He was known for jumping overboard to save drowning shipmates, saw action in the Mediterranean, led raids on Massachusetts and captured a number of American ships in the War of 1812, and captained the HMS Larne during the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1824. He dabbled in applied sceintific endeavors, identifying a new genus of gastropod (Cyclostrema cancellatum), designed a better lifeboat (for which he earned a medal from the Royal Humane Society), and invented a widely used system of maritime flag signaling. Add to this impressive resume that he was good pals with Charles Dickens and a Fellow in the Royal Society, the oldest national scientific institution in the world, and I think we can agree he was no slouch when it came to either mortal combat or intellectual inquiry. Oh, and did I mention he once tried his hand at ghostbusting?
For the last 15 years of Marryat’s life he resided on his estate in Langham, Norfolk. Among his close friends were Sir Charles and Lady Townshend of Raynham Hall, the 400-year seat of the Townshend family in Norfolk. Which of course means it was haunted. In the case of Raynham Hall, it was said that it’s resident phantom “Brown Lady” was actually the ghost of Lady Dorothy Walpole (1686–1726), the sister of Robert Walpole, generally regarded as the first Prime Minister of Great Britain. Lady Dorthy died at Raynham Hall in 1726 from smallpox. Starting in 1835, reports of said “Brown Lady” were frequent (in 1936, a very famous photograph was taken that purports to show the ghost of Lady Dorthy descending a staircase). When Sir Charles and Lady Townshend took possession, they arrived at Raynham Hall with a large contingent of friends in tow. The party wouldn’t last long.
To their annoyance, soon after their arrival, rumors arose that the house was haunted, and their guests began, one and all (like those in the parable), to make excuses to go home again. Sir Charles and Lady Townshend might have sung, “Friend after friend departs,” with due effect, but it would have had none on the general exodus that took place from Rainham. And it was all on account of a Brown Lady, whose portrait hung in one of the bedrooms, and in which she was represented as wearing a brown satin dress with yellow trimmings, and a ruffle around her throat — a very harmless, innocent-looking young woman. But they all declared they had seen her walking about the house — some in the corridor, some in their bedrooms, others in the lower premises, and neither guests nor servants would remain in the Hall (Marryat, 1891, p8).
Sir Charles turned to his good friend Captain Marryat, as intrepid an individual as any one might wish for in the face of the preternatural. Marryat had a strong suspicion that there was a great deal of smuggling and poaching going on in Norfolk at the time and suspected that locals were trying to frighten Sir Charles and Lady Townshend away, so they could carry on with their shady activities. Frederick’s daughter and biographer Florence recorded the story her father told her about what ensued.
He asked his friends to let him stay with them and sleep in the haunted chamber, and he felt sure he could rid them of the nuisance. They accepted his offer, and he took possession of the room in which the portrait of the apparition hung, and in which she had been often seen, and slept each night with a loaded revolver under his pillow. For two days, however, he saw nothing, and the third was to be the limit of his stay. On the third night, however, two young men (nephews of the baronet) knocked at his door as he was undressing to go to bed, and asked him to step over to their room (which was at the other end of the corridor), and give them his opinion of a new gun just arrived from London. My father was in his shirt and trousers, but as the hour was late, and everybody had retired to rest except themselves, he prepared to accompany them as he was. As they were leaving the room, he caught up his revolver, “in case we meet the Brown Lady,” he said, laughing. When the inspection of the gun was over, the young men in the same spirit declared they would accompany my father back again, “in case you meet the Brown Lady,” they repeated, laughing also. The three gentlemen therefore returned in company. The corridor was long and dark, for the lights had been extinguished, but as they reached the middle of it, they saw the glimmer of a lamp coming towards them from the other end. “One of the ladies going to visit the nurseries,” whispered the young Townshends to my father. Now, the bed-room doors in that corridor faced each other, and each room had a double door with a space between, as is the case in many old-fashioned country houses. My father (as I have said) was in a shirt and trousers only, and his native modesty made him feel uncomfortable, so he slipped within one of the outer doors (his friends following his example), in order to conceal himself until the lady should have passed by. I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer, through the chink of the door, until, as she was close enough for him to distinguish the colors and style of her costume, he recognized the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of “The Brown Lady.” He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which he stood, and, holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, deliberately grinned at him. This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face. The figure instantly disappeared—the figure at which for the space of several minutes three men had been looking together—and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the opposite side of the corridor and lodged in the panel of the inner door. My father never attempted again to interfere with the Brown Lady, and I have heard that she haunts the premises to this day (Prince, 1928, p165-166)
You never have a man-portable particle accelerator when you need one. And obviously revolvers are not the most effective tool for dealing with ghosts. These days we just want to get chatty with them or wave burning sage in their faces, rather than hauling out the proton pack, but Marryat was a good old Victorian man of action, so he used what he had. It’s easy not to believe in ghosts, but it takes a kind of willful disbelief, for as Marryat’s pal Charles Dickens once said, “For who can wonder that man should feel a vague belief in tales of disembodied spirits wandering through those places which they once dearly affected, when he himself, scarcely less separated from his old world than they, is forever lingering upon past emotions and bygone times, and hovering, the ghost of his former self, about the places and people that warmed his heart of old?”
Marryat, Florence, 1837-1899. There Is No Death. New York: National Book Company, 1891.
Prince, Walter Franklin, 1863-1934. Noted Witnesses for Psychic Occurrences: Incidents and Biographical Data, With Occasional Comments. Boston, MA: Boston Society for Psychic Research, 1928.
One has to wonder if, and after this experience, that Marryat (maniac with gun) was invited to stay at Raynham Hall, ever again! It would seem that the thought that it could be a prank, of sorts, never crossed his mind. Fortunately, it appears that the apparition was genuine.
But ghosts must have the most boring of existances.