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A Writer’s Ghosts: The Specular and the Spectral in A.S. Byatt’s “The Changeling”

Pascale Tollance
p. 141-152


Dans la nouvelle intitulée « The Changeling » (Sugar and Other Stories), Byatt revisite l’histoire de fantômes et la met au service d’une réflexion métafictionnelle. L’idée que l’art tue la vie, dont Byatt admet qu’elle constitue une de ses hantises, subit ici une torsion car c’est lorsque le personnage de papier menace d’être supplanté par un être de chair que les spectres se déchaînent. La nouvelle se voit placée sous le signe de la duplication et de la substitution, mais aussi d’un trouble qui laisse place à l’indécidable. L’excès que le spectral introduit relève du corps, un corps que l’hôtesse/auteure, Joséphine, tente en vain de domestiquer. L’enfant qui se met à hanter la maison échappe à l’emprise de celle qui l’avait recueilli, et c’est lors d’une apparition insoutenable dans le miroir que la nouvelle culmine et bascule. Le spectral fait alors surgir un point aveugle, un trou dans l’image qui a le pouvoir d’ébranler tout l’édifice spéculaire du texte.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

Antonia Susan Byatt

Texte intégral

1Sugar and Other Stories, A.S. Byatt’s first collection of short stories is a book which has a spectral feel, and which, by the author’s own admission, played a key part in a process of personal mourning (Byatt, Passion 21). Published after the death of Byatt’s mother and father, it includes some ghostly children whom it is difficult not to associate with the son the author lost (he was eleven), some fifteen years before the publication of the collection. Sugar and Other Stories also happens to be heavily metafictional: it is not just an attempt to conjure up or exorcise the dead but a reflection on the power of writing when coming face to face with their ghosts or, conversely, failing to do so. Judging by the author’s comments, metafiction can prove as double-edged as fiction in “dealing” with the dead. In an essay entitled “Sugar” where she looks back on the story which gives its name to the collection, Byatt confesses her guilt at the idea she might have turned the death of her parents into material for a meta-critical exercise:

I found that I had used [my father’s] dying—and secretly, my mother’s later death also—in order to think about the nature of truth and writing. And that was something I had been brought up to think was wrong. (Byatt, Passions 21)

  • 1 In an interview to The Guardian which followed the publication of The Children’s Book, we read: “Th (...)

2The image of the author as predator or murderer is a running theme in Byatt’s fiction—it is at the heart of The Children’s Book—and it is something in front of which Byatt expresses her bewilderment and readily accepts that she remains clueless.1 Sugar and Other Stories suggests that “using” the dead is no less tormenting than feeding off the living and that self-awareness does not make it better, but instead adds to the crime that comes to haunt the writer. Beyond Byatt’s own predicament and what could be seen as a singular propensity for guilt, the stories invite us to think about the ghosts that fiction and metafiction give rise to, as their power to kill or for that matter to kill a second time is tested. Spectrality undermines specularity: it points out its limits, emphasizing the power of self-examination to unleash what it was trying to pacify and safely put into a box; it causes the emergence of a blind spot in the most controlled experiments in so-called “narcissistic” examination. As it turns out, this blind spot is also what prevents the text from folding upon itself, what keeps it open, what keeps it going.

3In focusing on “The Changeling,” the eighth story in the collection, I propose to examine how Byatt presents a writer’s lethal power at its starkest, and her failure to “welcome” the ghost, as Derrida would have it (Specters, 216), when she is presented with what looks like a double or a flesh and blood version of one of her fictional characters. I would like to address by contrast the more ambivalent choice on Byatt’s part to replicate her character’s attempt at framing the ghost, while allowing it to multiply and gain a life of its own within the tight space of the short story.

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4The main character in “The Changeling” is Josephine, a lone female writer, who also happens to offer board and lodging to some pupils from her friend Max McKinley’s school. In the “cosy attics” (149) of her large house, she accommodates those whom she calls “the Lost Boys” (148), boys who are orphaned or live too far away from home to go back to their families during holidays. Josephine can pride herself on her caring and sensitive approach until she is entrusted with a pale-looking boy called Henry Smee who turns out to bear an uncanny resemblance to a fictional character of hers called Simon Vowle. Her friend Max, in asking once more for her help, is extremely clear from the start: “I think—you’ll see—I think Henry Smee is Simon Vowle in The Boiler-Room. It is quite striking” (147-48). Josephine takes up “the challenge” (“a real challenge” [147], in the words of her friend Max), but little by little the boy starts taking up too much room, roams the house at night and, to crown it all, starts reading and telling her about the book she has written about that other “thin and pale” (150) boy called Simon Vowle. At that moment, for the first time in her life, Josephine develops a writer’s block. One night, as she comes back from a dinner-party, she discovers Henry Smee in her bedroom doing nothing wrong or “nothing very fearful” (158) but looking at his face and then at her own screaming face in her mirror. She orders the boy to get out and to go away, which he does the next day. A couple of months later Josephine learns that Henry Smee has died, which she declares “terrible” (160), but her writer’s block goes and little by little, the ink starts flowing again.

5In many respects “The Changeling” can be read as a neat little tale about the sacrifices that writing involves, its inhuman demands, and the guilt that it may generate, especially if the writer is a woman. Byatt draws from fairy-tale and folklore not with the effect of taming them but, on the contrary, in order to bring out the violence of the seemingly gentle and civilised world of the headmaster and the writer. Josephine appears at the beginning as a fairy godmother who presides over the fate of unhappy children as she plots with the man who talks in a fatherly way about “his boys” (147). The end of story suggests that the writer’s gleaming kitchen may just be the domain of a witch or an ogress rather than the cosy and homely haven it appears to be. The place where Josephine used to take refuge as a child in order to write was no ivory tower but the boiler-room of her school. The title of the story, “The Changeling,” which refers to a popular belief that children sometimes get stolen and swapped for creatures which are the offspring of a fairy, troll, or elf also sheds an ironic light on the tale. Here it seems that it is the mother who is nothing but a fairy in disguise, or, that the mother prefers a fairy’s child, a fictional, made-up creature, to the real thing, a child of flesh and blood. The idea that art somehow excludes life is made all the clearer by the twist Byatt introduces: the paper child pre-exists the human child and is threatened by him, rather than the other way round. The simplicity of the tale nevertheless gets blurred from the moment both Henry Smee and Simon Vowle appear as potential substitutes or replacements for someone else and as the question of who came first, who comes first gains complexity. More than a mere double, the human child turns into a strange creature who undermines all form of certainty: as it happens, Smee does not stick to the attic where Josephine has put him, he starts asking questions and begging more and more answers from Josephine, but also from the reader.

6If Henry Smee is described as ghostly in appearance and behaviour, if his presence is felt to be increasingly creepy by Josephine, he is not, unlike the ghost in “The July Ghost,” an apparition (at least until the climactic episode of the mirror) but a ghost largely by metaphor. Equally we could say that he is the ghost that unleashes and unsettles metaphor—causing meaning to proliferate but also boring holes into what might have been a straightforward allegorical tale. The title, through the reference it makes to folklore, introduces the motif of substitution but also extends it and questions it as it becomes clear little by little that what takes place is no simple swap. When she sets eyes on Henry Smee for the first time, Josephine sees someone familiar, someone who has come straight out of her book, and she has no trouble describing him considering she has already described him before:

You could have used, Josephine could have used the same little groups of words indifferently to describe either [Henry or Simon]. He was excessively thin and pale, with lank, colourless hair, moon-glasses and a long fragile head on hunched shoulders, the sharp bones standing out on cheek and chin. (150)

7And yet Henry Smee “[does]—and equally [does] not look like Simon Vowle” (149). “The words would have fitted, had been written by Josephine, but the image did not” (150). The boy who seems to have walked out of her book not only shows the first signs that he might run loose but threatens to revert the order of things by retrospectively giving his face to the boy of whom he was supposed to be the shadow: “It came to Josephine that Max, whenever he thought of Simon Vowle, now saw this face, as she herself had to struggle, thinking of Philip Marlowe, not to see Humphrey Bogart” (150).

8If Josephine looks upon Henry Smee as an impostor, the rest of the story shows that he may only be silently raising the relevant question of who started taking the place of whom in Josephine’s carefully constructed little world. As it shapes itself, the story also divides itself. The simple equation which is given at the start “Henry Smee is Simon Vowle” cannot be considered without another equation which emerges little by little: Simon Vowle is Josephine. Is, and, “equally” is not. Henry Smee shatters Josephine’s safe world by replacing ontology by “hauntology” (Specters, 63) / “hantologie” (Spectres, 89), in Derrida’s words. Simon Vowle is in fact already a ghost, the shadow of the pale fearful child that Josephine herself used to be and that she tried to exorcise by writing it into fiction. As the ghost of a ghost, Henry Smee threatens the solidity of Josephine’s fictional edifice in various ways. He shows it to be a hall of mirrors and endless reflections by awakening the ghosts of all of Josephine’s former selves. We are told little by little that Simon is in fact only one character among many, a character made to fit a type: “Her characteristic form was the long novella: her characteristic hero a boy, anywhere between infancy and late adolescence, threatened and in retreat” (151). Before Simon, we learn that there were others, that she already wrote as a child “clumsy tales of justified terror, of bounding packs of girls who accidentally squeezed the last breath out of their pathetic prey” (154). And we are told that the fearful girl who produced these doubles already had a double in her phobic mother:

When Josephine was five or six her overwrapped mother would take her overwrapped daughter as far as the local school and had been known to go as far as the public library. By the time Josephine was fourteen, at boarding school Josephine’s mother rarely ventured outside her bedroom, and became giddy even in the back garden. (153)

9If writing in itself is meant to be an exorcism, Josephine specializes in second death, so to speak, as she makes sure she kills the fictional characters she creates: The Boiler Room and Simon Vowle have “a macabre end: Josephine did not let her characters off” (152).

10Josephine’s world can be described as a world of endless substitutions but equally as a world where substitution fails as she has to write and kill again and again. Henry Smee, the changeling, is yet another instance of this and at the same time the one who points out the limits of such a process. As he cannot be completely contained by the words that describe him, he appears as a remainder that writing cannot eliminate or transform—a resurgence of the past that Josephine fails to eradicate, unless it is something even more disturbing. As Jacques Derrida underlines at the beginning of Specters of Marx, the spectral introduces a temporal disruption: “The time is out of joint” (Specters, 20). Henry Smee becomes truly dangerous to Josephine when he threatens to take her own place as a writer —and not just the place of her character—or more interestingly when he sits in the place of the reader, who, as it turns out, makes it clear that he co-writes the text he is reading:

She felt above all threatened by his reading of Simon Wowle. Simon Vowle was herself, was Josephine Piper; there was no room for another. Writers are commonly asked what readers they imagine. There are writers, believe it, and Josephine Piper was one of them, who can only function by imagining no reader. (156)

11Josephine develops a writer’s block from the moment her vision of herself as sole maker of her text is jeopardized: “Josephine had made herself, with an effort of will, in opposition to her mother’s fear, and what that might have made of her” (156). The ghost displaces the notion of origin by reminding Josephine of what she was before she mothered or “made herself,” but it shatters it even more by transforming that origin into something produced by the text rather than producing it. Again Derrida’s words feel relevant: “… a specter is always a revenant. One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back” (Specters, 11). Henry Smee is not so much a shadow of her former pale self, as the other which writing generates and which Josephine forecloses in her world of doubles “where there was no room for another.” He is a third which has to go in the same way as all thirds have had to go before to make room for a purely dual relation—the fast disappearance of Josephine’s husband which leaves her alone with her son is one example of that. As such, Henry Smee opens a gap, a space of disjunction (“disjointure,” Derrida, Spectres 42) where things do not “fit,” do not match, become unpredictable and undecidable. Having rejected the hazards of life for the sanctuary of fiction, Josephine has failed to see that there may be no safety in writing.

12The disruption of set places which the ghost causes manifests itself in the way Henry Smee starts to roam the house at all hours of night and day, to sit in Josephine’s kitchen in the middle of the night when she tries to confine him to her attic where she is said to have always “put [her boys] to sleep” (149). The boy lives in the house without being able to settle down, or to quote Derrida, “he engineers a habitation without proper inhabiting, call it a haunting” (Specters, 20) / “il s’ingénie à habiter sans proprement habiter, soit à hanter” (Spectres, 42). The remainder or the excess for which Josephine “has no room” (156), which she finds impossible to domesticate and, in the end, to accommodate, imposes itself as a bodily presence which she compares to “a field-force” (152). This something otherworldly and the disturbance it creates evokes that something of a “non-world” to quote Bernard Bass which is embodied and yet deprived of substance in Lacan’s object a—otherness as a disruption not just at the level of the Symbolic but at the level of the Real (Baas 55). We might remember Max’s words: “This time I have a real challenge.” This “real” can be given a particular emphasis, at the same time as the “challenge,” so close phonetically to “changeling,” proves to be more than a swap of names. The function of the ghost can be also likened to that of object a as castoff or left-over of the signifying process: in his very quiet voice, Henry Smee “offers” Josephine what she describes as the “flotsam and jetsam of his thoughts” (153). We can find in Henry Smee’s strange physical presence an echo of the paradox that characterises object a: an object which is impossible to place (“objet inassignable,” Baas 82), “a floating object” (Dolar 73), which is both corporeal and detached from the body. Although he seems to be made of thin air and to have no substance, pale Henry imposes his clinging, stifling presence. Although he appears nervous and restless and keeps coming and going in the house, he is said to have an unnerving “habit of stasis” (150). Or, as Sarah Gooderson puts it, “malleable” Smee is in fact “slippery and moves into the realms of being an unreadable text beyond Josephine’s interpretative domain.” But the disruption the ghost introduces into Josephine’s world manifests itself in a paroxysmal manner as a disturbance in the image reflected by the mirror.

13From the start, Henry Smee marks his difference from Simon Vowle by an image, the image that does not fit, even as the words do. In the climactic episode which provokes the eviction of the pale boy, Josephine finds herself face to face with that image again but this time she finds herself gazed at rather than gazing, stared at by a pair of eyeless eyes:

She went up, sighed, closed herself into her small room and began to scream. He was doing nothing very fearful: simply studying his own face, sitting on the end of her bed, in her square of mirror, in the light given by the street lamp. As she came in what she in fact saw was his reflected image staring at her out of the square of dark glass, lit up oddly by the light from the landing, through the door over her own shoulder […] His moon-face in the glass was distraught and glittering, eyeless because his glasses reflected reflection. (158-59)

14The reflected reflection that obliterates the eyes can be seen as an example of what Derrida calls “the visor effect”:

This Thing meanwhile looks at us and sees us not see it even when it is there. A spectral asymmetry interrupts here all specularity. It de-synchronizes, it recalls us to anachrony. We will call this the visor effect: we do not see who looks at us. (Specters, 6)

15The idea that the mirror should become a place of disjunction is also what we find in Lacan’s description of object a as an elusive or vanishing “point of being” (“un point d’être évanouissant,” Lacan 79), as what cannot be reflected (“un objet non spécularisable,” Baas 75) and hollows the image out. Here the “eyeless moon-face” finds an echo in Josephine’s screaming face, the hole in the image is redoubled and intensified by the piercing cry. That the acme and the turning-point in the story should take place in front of a mirror brings out the limits of Josephine’s attempt to see her world simply as what she makes of it and to see herself as the woman she has “made herself.” More than ever the spectral challenges the dual. This last face to face is in fact the culmination of a process of invasion and disintegration: the ghost that comes back to haunt her with a vengeance not only works his way into the house to end up sitting on her bed, but causes all barriers to crumble by introducing contagion with the “infectious fear” (153) he brings in, even if he does “nothing very fearful” (158). From the moment Josephine stops to be able to invent her safe doubles and falls under the influence of Henry Smee, we can say that contiguity takes over resemblance, or that unbridled metonymy replaces metaphor, unless, precisely, her endless substitutions have little to do with metaphor, are but a process of cloning in which the gap and the play that the poetic gesture involves is denied.

16Although the lost boy that Josephine cannot accommodate ends up framed, he shatters that frame by becoming a blind spot in her field of vision. But the story does not fold upon itself there. For there is another blind spot and another lost boy in the story, someone who is outside that final frame and remains peripheral or off-centre in the story, when he is perhaps its punctum (Barthes). We are told about Josephine’s son, Peter, the son whom she does not “see” (157) any more, at two points in the story. First, we learn that he used to help Josephine with the welfare of the lost boys but then disappeared, “inexplicably” (149), leaving an empty room at the heart of the house which Josephine never filled. Just before the face to face in the mirror, Peter is mentioned a second time, almost in passing: we are told that he dropped out of school to help drop-outs, became a tramp living among the tramps. Peter who will later find his double in Tom in The Children’s Book, is perhaps from the start a shadow, a child doomed never to grow up because he is the shadow of Peter Pan. At the same time, he is the child that Josephine fails to turn into a double of herself although once her husband goes, she makes him her indispensable partner in the care of the lost boys. Peter the tramp will not stand still, will not be accommodated, will not be “explained” and turned into fiction by his mother: his room stands empty and the short story which is so explicit in many respects builds a strange space of silence around him. In the initial equation which seems to account for the title of the story “Henry Smee is Simon Vowle,” Peter is yet another third, another other who challenges the world of doubles—another spectre from which spectral Smee himself diverts our attention. Together they nevertheless happen to point in the direction of a hazy area that surrounds fatherly and apparently benevolent Max: whilst Peter is said to have “inexplicably cooled” (149) about Max, Henry Smee only “twists his useless hands in his dressing-gown” (155) when Josephine tells him that one can only be happy at St Edmund’s school “with people like Max.” Although the matter is barely touched upon, it raises yet another spectre in the text which contributes to blurring its contours further.

17If we take Peter into account, a new twist is given to the twist given to the traditional motif of the changeling—what appeared as the simple inversion of a simple swap (a “real” child had taken the place of a fairy’s creature rather than the other way round) can be inverted again. Once upon a time there was a real child in Josephine’s house and he was her own son, but he has been removed or something has caused him to remove himself and he has never been replaced: the child’s bed is empty and will remain empty. This twist marks the limit of the process of substitution—which does not mean its end. The real “ghost story” in “The Changeling” may be the story that does not get told, the story that is excluded yet inseparable from the stories that do get told. The spectral manifests itself in places where the narrative stalls but it also lines it through and through. What haunts the text also challenges our reading of the story as plain allegory. Although the conclusion of the tale indicates that everything has gone back to normal, there is something Josephine has not quite got rid of and that might come back to haunt her:

But the writing-block went. The next day she was able to start again with nothing and no one between her and the present Simon Vowle, a writer at work, making a separate world, with no inconvenient reader or importunate character in the house. The ghost of those limp yet skilful hands, just that, attached itself to the form of the present Simon (whose name was in fact James) but not so that anyone would have noticed. (160)

18The writer has regained control and feels confident that the surgery she has performed in grafting Henry Smee’s hands on her new character will remain invisible. But might there not be something that she fails to see? Jane L. Campbell emphasises Josephine’s gesture of appropriation at the close of the story: “All that is left of Henry is the ghost of his hands, which she appropriates for the new Simon” (116). Yet, as Josephine invites the ghost’s hands into her book, who is to say that they will remain in place, that they will not gain a life of their own? Who is to say that the end is not the beginning of another ghost story—or merely the continuation of the one we have been reading? As Campbell puts it, Byatt “knows that the finishing off is never final” (106).

19More than a running theme, haunting is intimately connected with the need to write and the process of writing in Byatt’s fiction. In an interview with Jean-Louis Chevalier where she was asked about her predilection for “the weird, or the strange, the unusual, the eerie, the extraordinary,” Byatt’s answer was the following: “I think again I took up writing in order to accommodate the strange. I think … the human consciousness is completely preoccupied with what is not seen, with what haunts.” The house where Josephine “accommodates” her “lost children” is not simply the refuge of a neurotic writer suffering from pathological fear. It can be seen as the site of a confrontation that writing always involves in one way or another. As Julian Wolfreys argues in his Preface to Victorian Hauntings, “all forms of narrative, are, in one way or another, haunted” (3). Byatt specialises in neat, carefully constructed tales: the uncanny invites itself inside the solid walls of a tidy house where everything seems to have its place: “The spectral effect … needs structure, within which its efficacy assumes maximum disruption. The act of haunting is effective because it displaces us in those places where we feel most secure, mostly notably in our homes, in the domestic scene,” as Wolfreys points out (5). The strength of Byatt’s fiction lies in that fact that something remains awry even when the ghost seems to have gone, when order has been restored and the door of the house safely closed again. The “iterable supplement” (Derrida) that haunting involves cannot be contained by fiction, nor can it be framed by metafiction. Awareness and self-reflexion cannot do away with the blind spot in the mirror. If that mars the task of the writer who tries to shut out anything coming from the outside, it also leaves a window open for the reader.


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---. Spectres de Marx. Paris: Galilée, 1993. Print.

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1 In an interview to The Guardian which followed the publication of The Children’s Book, we read: “The book touches, too, on what Byatt calls ‘one of the steady themes of my writing that I don’t understand—as opposed to several that I do. I don’t understand why, in my work, writing is always so dangerous. It’s very destructive. People who write books are destroyers.’”

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Pascale Tollance, « A Writer’s Ghosts: The Specular and the Spectral in A.S. Byatt’s “The Changeling” », Journal of the Short Story in English, 70 | 2018, 141-152.

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Pascale Tollance, « A Writer’s Ghosts: The Specular and the Spectral in A.S. Byatt’s “The Changeling” », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 70 | Spring 2018, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2020, consulté le 23 octobre 2020. URL :


Pascale Tollance

Pascale Tollance is Professor of English at Université Lumière–Lyon 2 (France). She has written extensively on Malcolm Lowry, as well as on British contemporary authors such as Graham Swift, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt, Jeanette Winterson and Rachel Seiffert. She is the author of a book on Graham Swift (Graham Swift: La Scène de la voix. Villeneuve d'Ascq : PU du Septentrion, 2011) which focuses on the staging of voice in Swift’s fiction. Together with Chantal Delourme and Isabelle Gadoin she is in charge of the online journal L’Atelier, has co-edited vol. 5.1 (Survivance) and vol. 6.2. (La Transmission) and is on the editorial board of the online journal Polysèmes. Her interests include post-colonial literatures (she has written recently on the fiction Janet Frame, J.M. Coetzee and Alice Munro).

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