Resource: Captain Frederick Marryat – RN ghostbuster!
When asked what genre my original writing is, I should reply that it’s “Age of Sail” adventure with humour and mystery and drama and gay romance and supernatural elements. I should, but I don’t, because the next question will be: “QUOI?” and so I’ve settled for either “I write Georgian ghost stories in a naval seeting” or “Penny Dreadfuls which are not dreadful and cost more than a penny.”
“Supernatural themes” and “Age of Sail” shouldn’t be that odd a “pairing”, though. Folk lore is full of ghost ships and spooks of all kind connected with the sea and those conquering it. Today I went through some of my books to look up some details about the Brown Lady of Raynham for a friend of mine. This is certainly one of the most famous “hauntings” ever; it’s well documented and there is even a very clear photography of the ghost, which you can see HERE.
Now imagine my surprise when I realised that Captain Frederick Marryat – you will probably remember his drawings of a Midshipman’s life and his book Mr. Midshipman Easy – had a run-in with the Brown Lady and had to learn that dealing with a ghost the “good old Navy way” doesn’t work. This might be an old story for some of you, but I just had to share; it gives a nice insight into Captain Marryat’s character.
The “Brown Lady of Raynham Hall” in Norfolk is believed to be the ghost of Lady Dorothy Townshend. From all we know, she was a rather wicked lady, and this reputation is the reason why experts still argue what really happened to her. Did she die of natural causes, as is the official version? Did she commit suicide? Was she murdered by her husband, throwing her down the great stairs? Did her husband secretly lock her up in her room until the day she died? Or was it smallpox – not very exciting or romantic, but probably the version closest to the truth?
But whatever the reasons, Lady Dorothy has reportedly haunted her old home for centuries. It’s said she even frightened King George IV who paid a visit to Raynham – quite obviously, she shared the general dislike for said gentleman. She appeared next to the King’s bed, looking all scary and dishevelled and pale, and his Majesty, used to the charms of Mrs. Fitzherbert (ah, the gossip of ye olden days!) was not amused. Much yelling ensued.
Enter Captain Frederick Marryat, Royal Navy, officially not prone to superstition and convinced that the Townshend family wasn’t dealing with a ghost but smugglers or poachers. Considering that the haunting was well-documented and going on for many, many years already, this was not very likely, but we can assume that Curageous Fred wanted to make a point that “such nonsense” didn’t exist. My personal opinion is that he just couldn’t resist the thrill of chasing down a ghost. Men and their fancies…
Anyway, Marryat was invited and insisted in sleeping in the room where the portrait of Lady Dorothy hung on the wall. One night, the two sons of Lord Townshend knocked on his door and wanted to show them a new pistol that had been recently bought. Marryat agreed and took his own loaded pistol with him, joking about a man having to be armed just in case a ghost should cross his path.
The pistol was inspected, found to be of good quality and the two young men jokingly offered Marryat to escort him back to his room – just in case a ghost should cross his path. In the dark corridor, they suddenly saw a woman approaching, carrying a lamp. Marryat, not wearing much more than his breeches and a shirt, didn’t want to embarrass the lady of the house or any other female by running into a half-naked Captain in the middle of the night, so he and the two lads quickly stepped into an empty room and hoped they wouldn’t be noticed.
Alas… the lady stopped and turned to them. Marryat recognised her immediately, for she wore the same brown dress as she did on the portrait in his room. So he had finally met the ghost – Lady Dorothy obviously wanted to leave a lasting impression on our great naval hero, and held the lamp up so he could see her face more clearly. Pretty but wicked she was, with an evil smile.
What would a captain of the Royal Navy do when confronted with such horror? Cry out in fear? No, that’s what Kings do. Faint? That’s for chamber maids. Saying a prayer? No. He made a step forward, aimed his pistol at the ghost and pulled the trigger.
Deeply offended by such behaviour not fitting a gentleman, Lady Dorothy vanished into thin air with a huff and a grim smile, and didn’t make any further appearances for many a decade. One can argue that it’s rather pointless to shoot at a ghost, as one of the basic requirements for a ghostly existence is already being dead. And we’ll never know whether this was an act of outstanding bravery on Captain Marryat’s part or the reaction of a man who was scared witless. Let’s be kind and assume the latter.
So that’s the story, and all that was left after the incident were a sulking ghost, a very puzzled captain and a bullet hole in the door…
Having grown-up in a “haunted” house, I feel with the family. Either you arrange yourself or you move out, there’s not much else you can do. Anyway, compliments to Captain Marryat for trying to help the Townshend-family getting rid of the annoying lady, and thanks for leaving us with this interesting story.