The first of Margaret Oliphant’s popular series Stories of the Seen and Unseen, “A Beleaguered City” belongs to the subgenre of Victorian-era supernatural tales, such as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol .
In “A Beleaguered City” Oliphant uses different narrators to give evidence about how the worldly and materialistic conduct of the inhabitants of the French town of Semur causes “the dead to rise from their graves” and take possession of the town. After darkness settles over the city, a mysterious force ushers the townspeople out of their homes and locks them outside the town walls. The reason for this evacuation is demonstrated early in the story: The people of Semur have made a god of money and neglected their religious responsibilities. But far from being a sentimental sermon, this novella thoughtfully explores contemporary debates between religion and science, spiritualism and materialism. The story’s most obvious spokesman for materialism is the vulgar Jacques Richard, who proclaims, “There is no bon Dieu but money.” But more interesting is Martin Dupin, the mayor of Semur and the story’s primary narrator, who does “not pretend, in these days of progress, to have retained” his religious faith. He too is a materialist, but he idolizes rationality and science.
Reason proves an inadequate savior in this story, for the scientists cannot explain the spectral message that appears on the cathedral doors, and more important, the spirits do not reveal themselves to the avowedly rational characters. Thus, the mayor’s devout wife Agnes has a vision of their deceased daughter, Marie, but the secular Dupin is unable to communicate with the child himself. Likewise, the priest is humiliated to find that the spiritual world does not reveal itself to him but rather to the village “dreamer,” Lecamus. Yet the narrative does not fully endorse extreme spiritualism either and shows a distrust of fanatical religious feeling. Madame Veuve Dupin’s account of events leads the reader to regard Sister Mariette’s smile of calm resignation as a deficiency rather than a virtue—after all, the aged nun can disregard the material world only because she has no son or husband among the watchers. And even as the ghostly invasion of Semur seems designed to challenge Dupin’s secularism and pull him toward religious faith, Dupin’s serving of the mass and triumphal Te Deum do not ultimately signal his full conversion.
This novella can also be read as an allegory of interpretation. The supernatural event is inexplicable, so the entire community works to interpret it. Indeed, the text exists as Dupin’s official history of the city’s possession, and to that purpose he asks several other characters to add their accounts “to ensure a complete testimony.” Readers should note that rather than fill in the holes, the multiple narrators often give conflicting accounts that highlight the complex nature of interpretation. Dupin’s interpretive authority is initially undermined because he cannot explain or control these strange happenings, but his credibility is further damaged when the townspeople begin to suspect that the siege is a divine punishment for his refusal to allow the Sisters of St. Jean to say mass in the local hospital. Ultimately, the reader cannot accept Dupin’s rational account because even his own mother contradicts him by sympathizing with the sisters of St. Jean.
Oliphant, Margaret. A Beleagured City and Other Tales of the Seen and Unseen. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2000.