Words: Hannah Redfearn-Dunlop
When I was eight, I was a hipster. I was so hipster, I was hipster before hipster was invented. I was hipster before skinny jeans, hipster before thick-rimmed glasses, hipster before cronuts.
When I was eight, I was into ambient electro music, trip hop and roller blading.
When I was eight, my favourite film was ‘The Ghost and Mrs Muir’, made in 1947, set in 1900.
Ok, in reality this all just made me a bit strange, but nonetheless The Ghost and Mrs Muir is a film I enjoy to this day.
For those among you who haven’t caught it on one of its many reruns on Film4 or TCM, a short synopsis runs thusly: the titular Mrs Lucy Muir’s husband dies, after which she scandalises everyone by taking her daughter to live in a reputedly haunted house by the sea; she finds friendship/sexual tension with the swearing, shouting ghost of the sea captain who previously inhabited the house, writes his memoirs for him and passes them off as fiction – winning over a misogynistic publisher – falls in love and then out of love with a horrible children’s writer, a certain ‘Uncle Neddy’ (who Mrs Muir leaves after discovering that he is cheating on his wife and then later in life, sees him at a party: fat, bald, drunk and crying and acknowledges she made an excellent escape all things considered) and eventually dies and gets to, at long last, be with the Captain whom she loved all along.
When I was eight I think I probably just enjoyed the story, but watching now, as an adult (once I got over the random American accents – and very poor English accents – here and there), I think that it may have appealed to my bourgeoning feminist tendencies (not that I would have used that phrasing, my equivalent definition would have been something along the lines of a fantasy future life where I had two husbands – one for doing the cleaning and cooking and one for ‘taking out’).
Through modern eyes, The Ghost and Mrs Muir is a far from perfect analogy for emancipated womanhood, but considering it was made in ’47 and set in 1900 it is quietly rather subversive. Captain Gregg is overbearing and not always completely respectful, for example, the Captain ‘renames’ her, deeming ‘Lucy’ too boring, instead calling her ‘Lucia’ yet even here, it isn’t that he is necessarily trying to oppress her but rather empower her, saying ‘Women named Lucy are always being imposed upon – but ‘Lucia’, there’s a name for an amazon, for a queen.’ Obviously it is not for a man to lead a woman out of her oppression, not for a man to allow a woman to live a fulfilling life, but it is vital to remember that this was a film aimed at the usual ‘romance’ market; this becomes particularly important to consider when contrasting the relationship between Mrs Muir and the Captain and Mrs Muir and ‘Uncle Neddy’, who fulfils the more traditional role of the so-called romantic hero. The contrast between these interactions is a clear statement on the damaging and ridiculous portrayal of relationships in traditional romances. I choose to ignore the fact that the only man in the film that wants Mrs Muir to be an independent woman, doesn’t actually exist. Let’s ignore those implications.
Not everything is hunky dory though – the first night after Mrs Muir, her daughter and housekeeper move in, Captain Gregg (invisibly) watches her undress and tells her to never let anyone ‘tell her to be ashamed of her figure’. Super creepy right? She clearly thinks so to, so the next day she cuts down his beloved monkey puzzle tree. Now there’s a dick metaphor if ever I heard one (fuck the patriarchy).
As an adult I also learned that the film is based on a book, written in 1945, by a female writer called Josephine Leslie under the pseudonym ‘R.A. Dick’. Yes. I know. Too obvious. Yet I cannot help but be impressed by this woman, writing during the Second World War, under a somewhat masculine pseudonym. Is the liberation that Mrs Muir finds after her husband’s death something that Leslie herself craved? Did she yearn for a man she couldn’t have? Did she want to cut some dude’s dick off? Ok, that last one was a joke, but you see my point: I don’t want to play into the age old stereotype of ‘women write what they know’, but there are clear comparisons to be made. I don’t want that to be taken as any kind of dismissal of Leslie as a person or writer, it is no small feat that she managed to sneak a book that isn’t just disguised as a romance novel – it, very successfully, actually is one – past a war-time publisher, it also contains a fairly scathing critique of the way women are treated by the publishing industry and by society in general. Oh and then they made into a film and, I’m told, a TV series. BOOM.
It is satisfying to learn that – though it is imperfect – a film I loved as a child still resonates with me today. So often, the things we love as children are baffling to our adult selves – why did I ever think the Pokemon cartoon was a masterpiece? How did I look at Final Fantasy IX and think ‘man, those graphics are SICK!’ It is a painful thing to do, to go back over the culture of our childhood. So I am glad that The Ghost and Mrs Muir is not only still enjoyable to my adult self, but prompts me to think critically and carefully about the importance of feminism both to women in general and in the relationships we have with men.