In the spirit of the season, I decided to dedicate this blog post to exploring the Gothic in one of Reynolds’s lesser-known short stories, The Pixy, or the Unbaptised Child: A Christmas Story (1848). Written originally in 1848 and later published in Reynolds’s Miscellany in 1850, the story was published in the style of Charles Dickens’s Christmas miniature books, on green paper. This was instantly recognisable to a readership that were growing accustomed to the tradition of serialised ghost stories around Christmas, particularly since the popularity of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843). The Pixy combines the traditional Christmas Ghost story with the overt political discourse which, arguably, defines Reynolds’s legacy. The story itself is based on the long-held superstition in Devonshire and Cornwall that if a child dies unbaptised, they will roam the earth and haunt those left behind.
The Pixy tells the story of the newly married lawyer Arthur Lorimer and his wife Emily and begins on Christmas day in 1788. Their day of Christmas celebration is interrupted when Arthur is summoned to a hotel to hear the dying declaration of a young woman in order that she may make arrangements for after her death. Upon arrival, Arthur sees that the dying woman, Margaret. The date is of particular significance to Margaret as it was on Christmas day they fell in love and exactly one year later, when he abandoned her. Despite Arthur’s pleas for forgiveness, Margaret informs Arthur that he does not deserve the salvation that the season brings. She further explains that he is the father of her baby and that he needs to have her baptised; she urges him to take responsibility for their daughter’s wellbeing – her spiritual wellbeing to be precise. In her dying breath, she curses Arthur and tells him ‘fulfil your destiny – it will be terrible – but be forewarned.’ Despite making this solemn promise, Arthur does not baptise the child and, in an attempt to save his own reputation, Arthur denies all paternal connection to the child – claiming to be caring for her out of a sense of moral duty. Emily assumes the role of the child’s mother, calling her Isabella and treating her the same as her own son, Arthur.
A year after Margaret’s death, on Christmas day, Isabella dies unbaptised. Though Arthur does not feel any genuine sentiment towards his daughter, he becomes fearful of Margaret’s curse. Isabella returns to haunt Arthur and remind him of his broken pledge. The description of Isabella as a ghostly child is reminiscent of Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Past as we are told that ‘at the foot of the stairs he beheld the radiant form of a young child, quite naked and transparent as if it were a mere embodiment of that light which the moon and stars send forth’. Like the emaciated ghost in Dickens’s novella, the ghost of Isabella is surrounded by light signifying not only her purity but shows her as a symbol of enlightenment.
As Nina Auerbach argued in Private Theatricals: The Lives of the Victorians (1990), the ghosts of children are more subtle than other Gothic monsters and yet remain terrifying, particularly for the guilty, corrupted adult they are haunting. Isabella serves as a reminder to Arthur’s transgression; even in death she threatens to expose his deceit and cowardice. Unlike The Ghost of Christmas Past, whose function is to help Scrooge redeem himself, the ghost of Isabella is less passive as she has the ability to alter Arthur’s life rather than just reminding him of his past sins.
The next year Isabella returns, this time a more malevolent and disruptive force in Arthur’s now peaceful life. Returning home from an evening of celebrations, both Arthur and his son see the ghost of Isabella in the garden. The pair are compelled to follow Isabella from the estate and to a river. Arthur is terrified as ‘he beheld his little son bound along the pathway towards the phenomenon of the transparent child of light’. Arthur passes out and when he awakes he finds that his son is missing, presumed to have drowned. Like most ghosts, Isabella has a lesson to teach her father. Isabella is a symbol of his broken promises to Margaret and his continued deceit in order to maintain his reputation. Isabella is not described as a gruesome or intimidating figure, shown in Arthur’s son’s reaction to her, though she elicits disgust and resentment in Arthur. From the first time he was told that Isabella was his illegitimate child, he is described as having ‘loathed’ her and when she was ill, he was ambivalent at first and, by the end, ‘rejoiced’ to be free of his burden. While conforming to typical ghost story tropes, Reynolds’s social values are ever-present in this short story showing his disdain for those who attempt to escape their responsibilities, particularly wealthy individuals. His sympathy for unwed mothers and discussion of their status as pariahs at the time, is shown in a number of his texts including The Mysteries of London (1844-46).
Twenty years after his son goes missing, Arthur is promoted to the position of Attorney General and is responsible for trying to disband meetings of working-class groups who were protesting their working conditions. Through spying and entrapment, Arthur sentences a young man named Albert to death for treason for attending a political rally. Reynolds’s Chartist ideology become much more apparent in this segment of the tale. The reader is then privy to a final Christmas with the Lorimers who dread yet another year without their son, who would have now been in his thirties. Arthur again sees the spectral vision of young Isabella and is tormented by his guilt. While he is mesmerised by the apparition, an elderly couple arrive at the door – it emerges that their son, Arthur, had been taken in by another family when he went missing and went by the name of Albert. Arthur is horrified when he realises that he inadvertently sentenced his innocent son to death.
As you can see, The Pixy is not the heart-warming Christmas tale of redemption and forgiveness that A Christmas Carol is. Reynolds’s uses the supernatural in order to not only entertain his readership and conform to a long-running tradition, but to express his own political ideologies and social agenda.
Published in Reynolds’s Miscellany in 1850, originally published as a miniature in the style of Dickens’s Christmas miniature books on green covers.