Analysis of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Green Tea

The first story in Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s sensation collection In a Glass Darkly. This collection of stories forms a unified whole, held together by a frame story that resurfaces at the beginning and end of each consecutive episode.

Written in the wake of the so-called Sensational Sixties, In a Glass Darkly forms part of the Victorian sensation genre popularized by Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Ellen Wood. It transposes the gothic into domestic or urban settings, adding an interest in new medical, specifically psychological, theories. In the frame story, the medical secretary of the fictitious German physician Dr. Hesselius sets out to edit accounts of mysterious, enigmatically supernatural occurrences. Capitalizing on the mid-Victorian fascination with clinical treatments, psychosomatic disorders, and the increasingly problematic mind/body split, the ghost stories that follow are thus presented as medical accounts: “Here and there a case strikes me as of a kind to amuse or horrify a lay reader with an interest quite different from the peculiar one which it may possess for an expert.” As in the majority of Victorian sensation stories, horror is shown to be breaking into or, with a twist that is even more calculated to disturb, out of the mundane. This introduction of the gothic into the everyday middle-class home constitutes an important disruption of Victorian ideals of domesticity. As Lillian Nayder argues in a study of Wilkie Collins, it generates a specifically “domestic Gothic.”

While the later stories in In a Glass Darkly tend to return to the foreign scenes and aristocratic trappings that characterize the 18th-century gothic genre, “Green Tea” admirably exemplifies the popularity of the Victorian domestic gothic in its choice of a suburban setting. Mr. Jennings, the unfortunate victim of supernatural phantasms, is a quiet, scholarly clergyman. His first encounter with the demon is set in an omnibus that takes him from the City, London’s commercial district, to a quiet, upmarket Victorian suburbia. The only drugs or stimulants featured in the story are pots of the titular green tea.

Connected to this projection of a disturbingly familiar horror, in which dark suburban streets, empty omnibuses, and insomnia become the signs of a developing phantasmagoria, or nightmare, is the ambiguous function of modern medical research in the story. Dr. Hesselius is the author of essays on “Metaphysical Medicine” and a follower of the 18th-century cosmologist Swedenborg. His interpretations of Jennings’s malady are influenced by his belief in metaphysics. Jennings admits that his extensive consumption of green tea has affected his nerves, which might account for his visions of the monkeylike demon that haunts him from the omnibus to his suburban home and ultimately drives him to suicide. However, whether the demon is solely the creation of dyspepsia and affected nerves or a true vision remains tantalizingly unsolved. Jennings’s reasoning proves ineffective: “ ‘I’ve been sitting up too late, and I daresay my digestion is quite wrong, and with God’s help, I shall be all right, and this is but a symptom of nervous dyspepsia.’ Did I believe all this? Not a word of it.” After Jennings’s death, Dr. Hesselius concludes that his patient inadvertently opened an “inner eye,” and yet his diagnosis of this “sublimated,” “precocious,” or “interior” vision is strictly couched in clinical terms. Similar ambiguity is central to the following stories in the book, including the influential vampire story “Carmilla.”

Harris, Sally. “Spiritual Warnings: The Ghost Stories of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu,” Victorians Institute Journal 31 (2003): 9–39.
Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. In a Glass Darkly. London: John Lehman, 1947.
McCormack, W. J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Stroud, England: Sutton, 1997.
Nayder, Lillian. Wilkie Collins. London: Prentice Hall, 1997.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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