19th Century

“The Pixy; or the Unbaptised Child” by G.W.M. Reynolds | Jessica Elizabeth Thomas

Jessica Elizabeth Thomas is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chester. Her research interests include the study of Victorian popular literature as well as nineteenth-century French literature. Thomas has a specific interest in the study of the life and works of George W.M. Reynolds (1814-79) and she has recently published two books: Editorials from Reynolds’s Newspaper, vol. 1: 1850, with Stephen Basdeo; and an edition of Reynolds’s Pickwick Married (1841).

George W. M. Reynolds wrote The Pixy, or the Unbaptised Child: A Story for Christmas, in 1848, and published it in his journal, Reynolds Miscellany, in 1850. It is one of Reynolds’s less well-known short stories, originally printed on green paper, in the same style as Charles Dickens’s Christmas miniature books.  Indeed, the Victorian reading public were familiar with the publication of a serialised Christmas ghost story, which began in 1843 with Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. 

George WM Reynolds (Basdeo collection)

Despite Reynolds being a rather unknown author now, during the 1840s he was widely read, and so popular that he outsold Dickens.  Reynolds was a writer of his time, he started out as a shameless plagiarist of Dickens, one of his early books being Pickwick Abroad,in which Dickens’s characters were moved to France, and satisfied his readers’ appetites for sensationalist plots: exciting stories full of gothic suspense and intrigue. In his own Pickwick stories, Reynolds expressed his own social commentary, and, becoming lost in his own impassioned attacks towards the aristocracy and government, he highlighted the plight of the poor and the conditions of the working classes, as well as treatment of unmarried mothers, and illegitimate children.

The Pixy; or, The Unbaptized Child is one such story, combining the traditional Christmas ghost story with an explicit political address.

The Pixy is a tale based on a popular Devonshire belief that a child who dies before it has been baptised will continue to roam the earth, continually haunting those that remain and

Work weal of woe for them whom they might have had reason to love or hate?

Thus, it is a narrative steeped in superstition and folklore, combined with Reynolds’s political agenda.  The plot of the story opens on Christmas Day, 1788, at the home of the newly married Lorimers.  Arthur Lorimer is a solicitor and is summoned to a nearby hotel to attend to a dying, young female guest who wishes to settle her affairs and make her Will.

Lorimer attends the dying Margaret (Basdeo collection)

As soon as Lorimer enters her chamber, he recognises the young woman is Margaret, a woman that he fell in love with on Christmas Day, and who, twelve months later, on Christmas Day, abandoned.  Margaret rebuffs Lorimer’s attempts at seeking her forgiveness, stating that

‘“The Christmas season, which to others is a blessing, shall become to thee a curse: for thou hast forfeited all claim to that salvation and that mercy which He … ensure[d] on behalf of his elect!”’ 

Furthermore, Margaret informs Lorimer that her baby is his daughter. As the child has not been baptised, Margaret tells Lorimer he must take responsibility for her spiritual well-being and ensure that she is baptised. Lorimer ardently promises to do so, ‘awed by a superstition’ that should he fail to do so and the baby should die, her soul may haunt him.  Margaret then dies, cursing Lorimer with her last breath,

Fulfil your destiny – it will be terrible – but be forewarned – and dread a Christmas Day.

Lorimer disregards his promise; he refuses to baptise his daughter, in a shameless preservation of his own honour, and denies that she is his, and takes the child home but tells his wife that he is raising her out of his virtuousness. He and his wife Emily, name the child Isabella, treating her equally to their own son, Arthur.

On the following Christmas Day, Isabella dies, having not been baptised.  Though Lorimer’s

Callous soul remained untouched – unmoved by the knowledge that Death was already standing by the cradle … of his own daughter

He is, however, terrified that Margaret’s curse will take effect, and that Isabella will haunt him, which indeed she does.  

Though this story mimics the typical style of the Christmas serial, particularly Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Reynolds employs the spirit of a deceased unbaptised child as a symbol of repentance, extending the notion further than many other authors.  As Sara Hackenberg has suggests the threshold between the dead and the living was a permeable one; the dead were making their presence known to the living in a particularly active way.[1]

Isabella continually returns to Lorimer every Christmas, appearing to remind him of his failure to satisfy Margaret’s request. In this way, Lorimer’s past can not be laid to rest; the continual reappearance of Isabella threatens to expose Lorimer’s dishonesty.

The descriptions that Reynolds gives of Isabella’s spirit are always framed in light. The radiant form of a young child, quite naked, and transparent, as if it were a mere embodiment of that light which the moon and stars send forth’ echo those of Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Past.  As Sophie Raine has observed, the ghost of Isabella is less passive, as she has the ability to alter Arthur’s life rather than just reminding him of his past sins.[2] 

The pixy leads Lorimer’s son away

Isabella’s hauntings continue to torment Lorimer; she has a lesson to teach him, and acts as a constant reminder of his treachery towards her and Margaret, for the preservation of his own repute, and his inability to admit his past.  Each haunting is more malicious – a year after her death, she lures Lorimer’s son, Arthur, to follow her. Although Lorimer witnesses it, he is unable to move:

Motionless – powerless – silent, as if a magic spell were upon him.

Again, Isabella appears as a ‘radiant child’ enlightening Lorimer of his failings towards her but Arthur disappears into the night.

The final description of Isabella’s haunting of Lorimer is many years later following his appointment as Attorney-General—an honourable promotion.  It is at this point that Reynolds intrusion with his own Chartist beliefs becomes more prevalent.  Lorimer is responsible for sentencing a member of a working-class group named Albert, to death, for treason for attending a political meeting in which a protest was made against the horrific working conditions suffered by poor labourers. 

Albert was hoodwinked, however, into attending the meeting by a man appointed, on Lorimer’s orders, to entrap him. That Christmas Day Isabella returns to the Lorimer’s household, and

Far more profoundly mournful, and far more touchingly reproachful than ever as now the look which the spirit of the Unbaptized One bent on Sir Arthur Lorimer.

Again, Isabella is radiant, and lit by a ‘silvery lustre’.  At this point, Lorimer feels the greatest sense of remorse,

his conscience was stricken with even more rending pang than he had yet experienced on any previous occasion.

Lorimer is at last enlightened by Isabella’s torturing and chooses to seek redemption and forgiveness.

Simultaneously, an elderly couple visit the Lorimers and inform them that they took in Arthur as a child, one Christmas Day night, some twenty years previously, and named him Albert. 

This is indeed the same Albert, whom Lorimer falsely sentenced to death for treason, despite his innocence!  Lorimer then rushes to free Albert from his sentence and absolve him, before resigning as Attorney-General and leading a life of purity and charity. As a result of this, Isabella has secured her aim, Lorimer admits his deceit and seeks forgiveness, atoning himself of his moral crimes for the sake of his reputation.  The hauntings then cease and Lorimer now repentant leads a new life of goodness and charity. 

Though The Pixy appears to follow the tradition of the Christmas ghost story, with a hero finding redemption and morality, Reynolds does, however, impose his own social ideologies into the narrative.  The story, just like many of his narratives, cannot be narrowly categorized as a mere melodrama for entertaining the lower classes. As Janet L. Grose has argued,[3] his radical views and acute awareness of the plight of the oppressed are evident in his appeals for social reform. Reynolds uses The Pixy to make a defence for unmarried mothers who were considered outcasts by society. As Anne Humphreys has observed, for Reynolds illegitimacy was a good thing; instead of the normal plot where a mother is paralyzed by remorse and the child scarred, Reynolds celebrates these characters, having a worthy and civilizing effect on the vilified members of the perfidious aristocracy, who attempt (and very often succeeded) in shirking their responsibilities.

In this manner, Reynolds could attack the aristocratic privilege and vanity and showed himself to be a sympathetic advocate towards the oppressed in his writings.  As Jenna Herdman contends:[4] the criticism of the self-promotion and self-congratulation that Lorimer demonstrates is a typical trope threading through much of Reynolds’s work as he calls for a change in society’s attitudes.  Reynolds’s melodrama explores the hardships of the oppressed and the corruption of the oppressors in the battle between good and evil.  To add additional strength to his arguments, Reynolds employs the ghost of a child to haunt Lorimer and lead him to righteousness.  This literary tactic is far more subtle, given that the ghost of the child would be more terrifying for Lorimer than that of an adult; Isabella’s appearance has a much greater impact on Lorimer than that of Margaret’s ghost would have done. 

The Pixy may be a mimic of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol; early in his career Reynolds clearly did plagiarize other authors plots and characters. However, it would be more accurate to suggest that Reynolds reworked these ideas and imposed his own social critiques and appeals for reform.

[1] Sara Hackenberg, ‘Vampires and Resurrection Men: The Perils and Pleasures of the Embodied Past in 1840s Sensational Fiction’, Victorian Studies, 52: 1 (2009), 63–75.

[2] Sophie Raine [online], ‘The Pixy, or the Unbaptised child: A Christmas Story’, G.W.M. Reynolds Society, accessed 17 May 2021.

[3] Janet L. Grose, ‘G. W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Rattlesnakes History: Social Reform through Sensationalized Fiction’, Studies in the Literary Imagination, 29: 1 (1996), 63–70.

[4] J.M. Herdman, ‘The Prince and the Penny Chartist: The Great Exhibition in Reynolds’s Newspaper’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 53: 3 (2020), 313–37.