First published in Blackwood's in January 1896, 'The Library Window' is the most suggestive and controversial of Oliphant's supernatural tales. Densely written, it yields to a number of interpretations. It is most frequently read, for example, as a feminist tract in which the narrator, constrained by the suffocating conditions of Victorian womanhood, aspires to enter the masculine world of professional authorship.

But the story might also be interpreted as a psychoanalytical study of a young woman who is not haunted, as such, but is undergoing a mental collapse. Connections can be made between the text and the late Victorian idea of 'adolescent insanity', a condition codified in the work of pre-Freudian theorists such as Henry Maudsley and Horatio Donkin. There is no external evidence that Oliphant read these writers' books, but the deteriorating condition of the young woman — whose behaviour degenerates from a state of mild hysteria to fevered hallucination and erotic arousal — is patterned in precise compliance with the mental structures described in Maudsley's The Pathology of Mind (1895) and Body and Mind (1870). Her seeing of the young man can be interpreted as a symptom of the 'madness' brought on the movement into adolescent and effectively reads, in Maudsley's terminology, as a sign of sexual repression.

Conventionally framed as a classic ghost story, 'The Library Window' is better understood, I suggest, as a case study of 'female madness', as defined by male theorists. This interpretation links it with Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper' (1892), and James's 'The Turn of the Screw' (1898).

Last modified 19 September 2008