The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay, Annotated Edition

What started as a late lockdown project to research some points that intrigued me about David Lindsay’s second novel, 1922’s The Haunted Woman (which I wrote about in Mewsings a little while back), has turned into an extensively annotated edition, which I’ve now published in hardback, paperback and ebook. (Full details here.)

The thing that kicked it off was a phrase one of the novel’s characters uses early on, when explaining the name of the house at the centre of the book’s mystery, Runhill Court:

“Historical—supposed to be derived from the old Saxon ‘rune-hill,’ so he says. The runes were engraved letters, intended to keep off the trolls and blendings…”

1968 cover for G A Hight’s translation of Grettir

On first reading, I assumed “blendings” were some specific kind of fairy or goblin, but I could never find the name listed in reference works. It was only when I decided to solve it once and for all, and started by learning more about trolls, that what perhaps ought to have been obvious struck me: Norse sagas often feature the offspring of trolls and humans, and though these are usually called half-trolls in English translations, I realised this could be what “blendings”meant. And — thanks to the Icelandic Saga Database with its multiple translations and original-language versions, I found out that the original Icelandic word used in the sagas is “blendingum”. The only translator I could find who rendered it in English not as “half-trolls” but “blendings” was one G A Hight, translator of the 1914 Everyman edition of The Saga of Grettir the Strong. This makes me feel Lindsay could well have read Hight’s translation. (Sadly, Lindsay’s personal library was sold off before anyone was interested enough to note what it contained.)

It was a hugely enjoyable project, allowing me to indulge myself in researching a wide variety of topics, including the speed of cars in the 1920s (and, how did you lock a car in those days to prevent theft?), what exactly a “cream ice” is if it’s not an ice cream (and sometimes it isn’t), when David Lindsay was likely to have witnessed a solar eclipse (shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, it turns out), whether there ever was a “Hotel Gondy” as there is in the novel (there doesn’t seem to have been) and where that name might have come from, what supernatural creatures were likely to “ride the roof” of a house to require it to be protected by runes (not goblins, as one character suggests), what the novel’s Mrs Richborough might mean by claiming to be a “Spiritist”, how long it would have taken to reach Worthing by train from Hove in 1920 (thanks, TimeTableWorld.com), plus many others. (There’s 172 footnotes in all.)

Postcard of Chanctonbury Ring, with Wiston House in the middleground. Wiston is an Elizabethan manor about three miles north-west of Steyning, which is where Lindsay places Runhill Court

In some cases, I couldn’t find definite answers, though hopefully I’ve provided enough in the annotations to add to the reading of the novel anyway. What, for instance, is the sound of “a telephone wire while you’re waiting for a connection” that Isbel thinks she hears in Runhill Court’s upstairs corridor? She answers the question herself — it’s a “a kind of low, vibrating hum” — but I wanted to find corroborating evidence. How did other writers of the day describe that sound? Try as I might, I couldn’t find any other description of what a telephone line sounded like while you were waiting for a connection — though I did find intriguing passages from Proust and Kafka on the almost supernaturally expectant moment of listening to a phone line before the connection is made. So, enough to make for an annotation, anyway.

From a publishing perspective, this was the most technically challenging book I’ve produced yet, with endnotes, a host of page and endnote cross-references, a table, maps and other visual material, and so on. Up till now, I’ve produced the layouts for my Bookship publications using only a word-processor (Nisus Writer Pro), but this time I had to combine it with Affinity Publisher, plus some dragging and dropping via MacOS’s surprisingly useful Preview app. I almost skipped producing Kindle and ePub versions altogether, as it meant I had to do a lot of the endnote-linking and cross-references again from scratch (using Jutoh, the only ebook-creation app I’ve been able to find which gives me the flexibility I get from a word processor), but I hate to leave a project feeling half-finished, so the ebook versions are there.

And then there’s the cover. I actually started on the cover way before anything else, not with this edition in mind, but simply because I’d produced covers for all the other books Lindsay published in his lifetime (A Voyage to Arcturus, Sphinx, The Adventures of Monsieur de Mailly, and Devil’s Tor), and wanted to see what I could make of this one. That particular project sat around as a black rectangle with basic lettering on it for way over a year while I struggled to find anything to put on it. Wanting to stay true to the novel’s descriptions, I couldn’t find anything looking and feeling like Runhill Court, and didn’t even try (at first) to find faces that might stand in for the two main characters. Finally, though, I had to admit that the only thing to put on the cover of a book called The Haunted Woman was a woman looking at least a little haunted, so I started searching around for someone fitting Lindsay’s description of Isbel (“Her face was rather short and broad, with thick but sensitive features…”). First I went through pictures of women from the 1920s, but none were right. When I finally settled on a piece of stock photography (mostly used to advertise hair salons, it seems), I had the lingering feeling she looked too modern — until I added a dab of lipstick (Isbel, in the novel, is described as generally wearing too much makeup) and it somehow pushed her back into the 1920s. The male face was another challenge, one I resolved, a little cheekily, by using Margaret Cameron’s photograph of one of the Victorian’s era’s leading writers, Thomas Carlyle. David Lindsay’s friend E H Visiak wrote that Lindsay both “facially resembled” and admired Carlyle. (Visiak also called Carlyle Lindsay’s “kinsman”, which I at first took literally and tried in vain to find a genealogical link between the two, before realising he probably just meant they were both Scots.) I only realised once I’d added Carlyle’s face that Henry Judge, in the novel, is described as “clean-shaven”, whereas Carlyle has a beard and moustache. I faded out the beard, but the moustache remains. Sorry, Henry Judge, but I always imagined you with a moustache, despite what Lindsay says.

Postcard image of Hove’s Medina Esplanade, where one of the novel’s chapters takes place.

Among the background elements on the cover are floor-plans, with one slightly emphasised staircase to represent the novel’s mysterious stairs that only appear to certain people at certain times. I looked through a lot of floor-plans for mansions and manor houses thanks to Archive.org and Wikimedia Commons, but in the end the ones that most suited the look I was going for were, appropriately enough, for Borley Rectory, reputedly the most haunted house in Britain. (I broke up the floor-plans into their constituent elements, so the layout isn’t Borley Rectory — meaning I’ve either confused any ghosts who may be lingering in the floor-plans, or enraged them. If it’s the latter, I’m sure I’ll soon find out.)

I don’t know if I’ll be producing a similar edition of any of Lindsay’s other novels — certainly not in time for the centenary of Sphinx next year — but it’s been a fun and varied project, and hopefully one that might be of interest to other Lindsay readers. Or, at least, it’s a way to mark the novel’s centenary.

Comments (5)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I’m intrigued. Enough to buy a copy, anyhow. I do remember finding it very hard to separate my experience of reading ‘The Snark’ from my experience of reading Gardener’s annotations of the same (I read his edition multiple times as a teenager) and maybe that’ll be the case here? All the more so as I’m unfamiliar with ‘The Haunted Woman’.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    I may not be the best judge of this book, now, having read it multiple times. I read Gardener’s Snark (coincidentally I’ve just written an upcoming Mewsings on that poem). The annotations for a nonsense poem will inevitably be a little more abstract & speculative than for a novel that’s based in an actual historical moment. But who knows? Anyway, I have no idea what it would be like to read my annotated edition while not knowing the novel. Hopefully it won’t spoil it!

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Doubt it!

  4. Wee Jim says:

    Off-topic, but in Mary Rose “They come to a door leading to an upper-storey room of which Mrs Otery says (as Mrs Priday does in this novel): “It’s the oldest part of the house.””
    Surely at least part of the house below must be older than a room in an upper-storey – or are we supposed to notice the contradiction?

  5. Murray Ewing says:

    Yes, I’ve always thought that, too. I just thought both writers were focused on the idea or meaning of a top-level hidden room rather than its reality. But, I’m no architect/builder!

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