Analysis of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Mr. Justice Harbottle

This story is reprinted in Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s collection of weird tales, In a Glass Darkly (1872), which purports to consist of nonfictional case studies first collected by Dr. Martin Hesselius and then edited and published by his literary executor. As the story’s editor notes at its outset, its provenance is complex. “Mr. Justice Harbottle” is the second and less technical of two narratives about the judge acquired by Dr. Hesselius, the first written by a Mrs. Trimmer and the second by Anthony Harman, Esquire. Unable to find the first account, among Dr. Hesselius’s papers the editor discovers in the doctor’s “escritoire a note to the effect that he had lent the Report of Judge Harbottle’s case written by Mrs. Trimmer, to Doctor F. Heyne.” Requesting this manuscript from Dr. Heyne, the editor is informed that the doctor returned the document to Dr. Hesselius. As proof, Dr. Heyne sends “a line written long since by Doctor Hesselius” that “acknowledged the safe return of the papers.” The editor feels secure in reproducing Mr. Harman’s account, as the “late Dr. Hesselius, in another passage of the note” avers that regarding “the facts (non-medical) of the case, the narrative of Mr. Harman exactly tallies with that furnished by Mrs. Trimmer.” After these involved explanations, yet another narrative frame is introduced. Writing 30 years after his conversation with an elderly man who lived in Judge Harbottle’s house, Mr. Harman relates this gentleman’s tale of an encounter there with the ghosts of the judge and a man whom he had convicted of forgery and executed, Lewis Pyneweck. Mr. Harman writes to a friend some years his senior for more information about the house and its most infamous inhabitant. Writing back to Mr. Harman, this friend recounts the events of the narrative proper, which take place during his father’s lifetime, in 1746.

An oil painting, a half length portrait of a bearded man.

At the story’s outset, Judge Harbottle speaks with a mysterious old man, Hugh Peters, who warns him that a cabal is forming to judge England’s judges. It plans to begin with Judge Harbottle, who has come to its attention by manipulating a jury into convicting of forgery Lewis Pyneweck, whose wife the judge has seduced and brought into his own home as a housekeeper. Though disturbed, the judge is suspicious and canny enough to order Peters followed. When the man is revealed to be a fraud and the plot merely a trick to frighten him, Judge Harbottle is relieved; however, he soon realizes that the disguised Mr. Peters bore a strange resemblance to the jailed Pyneweck. After making inquiries “whether any one was personating Pyneweck in prison, and whether he had thus or otherwise made his escape,” the judge is reassured that the prisoner is safe and there is “no question as to his identity.” Judge Harbottle later sentences Pyneweck to death, only to see him appear again in court some time after his hanging. Shortly after this strange visitation, the judge receives a letter informing him that on the 10th of the month he is to be tried for the wrongful execution of Pyneweck. He dismisses this letter as another hoax, but later he dreams that he is sentenced to death on the 10th of the following month by “a dilated effigy of himself.” When this date arrives, Pyneweck’s ghost appears to several members of Judge Harbottle’s household, and the judge himself is found hanged. “Mr. Justice Harbottle” is noteworthy for its many gothic features, including its intricate narrative structure, its doppelgangers, and its exploration of the uncertain boundary between madness and the supernatural.

Analysis of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Green Tea

Le Fanu, Sheridan. In a Glass Darkly. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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