My Love All Dressed in White, a Ghost Story by M. Villa-Gilbert, 1964

From a review by Mark Valentine (Wormwoodiana)…

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‘“It was a deeply superstitious place but he was used to it and it didn’t worry him at all. On the contrary, he liked to be here and he came here often. To be by himself, to take off his clothes and get himself drunk on the strange atmosphere, the subtle eroticism of the place. Because it worked upon him, caused him to bloom like some exotic but evil-smelling flower.”

Is it possible to commit murder by ghost? That is the question posed by M. Villa- Gilbert’s My Love All Dressed in White (1964). A public schoolboy has returned to his family home to meet his new stepmother: his father, who should have joined them too, is detained on business. Remarkably self-possessed, the youth does not actively dislike the woman his father has chosen, but considers she will be an inconvenience, and an intrusion on the semi-abandoned manor and garden he wants all to himself. He treats her efforts to win him over with a disdain barely masked by a formal politeness.

The boy has a secret hideaway, a broken fountain with a decayed statue of Narkissos which now stares at its ruined reflection in a stagnant pool. There is a suggestion that this young man might be under the baleful influence of this idol: he has consciously adopted its attributes. This is a subtle and sophisticated study of a character with all the amorality, arrogance and poise of a young demi-god. He resents it when his stepmother finds him there, where he has stripped to admire himself and to pursue languorous erotic thoughts.

The shabby Jacobean house, with its overgrown ornamental, Italianate garden, has a ghost, or so he says, a pale young woman, and in a desultory way he mentions her to the newcomer and occasionally returns lightly to the legend. She is said to have died on her wedding day and to resent any newly wed in the house. In a memorable scene, he dances with the ghost in the disused ballroom, his hands full of the rotting white of her gown: but he dare not look upon her face. Is this his imagining, or is the apparition real? Or could it be another reflection of his own corrupt soul?

Later, as he walks in the garden with his stepmother under the moon, there is a white apparition: startled, she falls through a wicket gate and down some steps, and does not rise again. From then on we observe and fully accept the young man’s confidence that his exact role in the affair cannot be discovered and could not be brought home to him even if it were.

The writing does not depend upon mystery or suspense: we know what has happened from the very beginning, when the boy telephones the police to report the incident. The prose is cadenced, sensuous, attentive to delicate impressions of moonlight, rustling leaves, the call of the nightjar, scents, gestures. It seems imbued with the spirit of the Eighteen Nineties, and its decadent youth might have been created by Wilde or Machen or drawn by Beardsley. Its fraught atmosphere and the intense relationship also suggest the influence of The Turn of the Screw, and indeed this is specifically invoked in the enticements to the French edition, Mon amour tout habillé de blanc (Albin Michel, 1970), translated by Colette-Marie Huet, as is the shade of Poe.

This was the author’s second novel of six in the period 1963-1970: her full name seems to be Mariana Soledad Magdalena Villa Gilbert, born in 1937. Her first novel, Mrs Galbraith’s Air (1963) also suggests the noted James novella. It won some notoriety for its somewhat humid depiction of a passion between an aesthetic adolescent boy and a mature woman school-teacher, in the setting quite literally of a hothouse, where the boy also caresses the orchids and fingers the tendrils of exotic growths. It was well-received: the Times said “Miss Villa-Gilbert writes extremely well, and she has a cool eye for wickedness”, while other critics spoke of it as delicate, sensitive and imaginative. A review in The Spectator thought the book was “extraordinarily well-written” though with too much artifice, the work of a mind “inflamed by literature”.

There were four more novels after My Love All Dressed in White and, after a long gap, a collection of four stories, The Sun in Horus, which appeared from Hamish Hamilton in 1986. One of these, “Smoke”, has a theme and an adolescent character not unlike those of her first two novels, a boy trying to prevent his widowed mother in wartime falling for a raffish and unreliable suitor. But after that, there were apparently no more publications. None of her exquisite, artful novels, meditations on the mingling of evil and innocence, seem to have had much attention in all the decades since. It seems strange and unlikely that prose of such style and intelligence, and an imagination so fervid, could have been so soon subdued: perhaps there may be manuscripts.’

Other Books by M. Villa-Gilbert

Mrs Galbraith’s Air (Chatto & Windus, 1963)
My Love All Dressed in White (Chatto & Windus, 1964)
Mrs Cantello (Chatto & Windus, 1966)
A Jingle Jangle Song (Chatto & Windus, 1968)
The Others (Chatto & Windus, 1970)
Manuela: A Modern Myth (Chatto & Windus, 1973)
The Sun in Horus (Hamilton, 1986)

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