Mary Webb was an English writer born in 1881 who was best known for her poetry and novels, most notably Precious Bane and Gone to Earth. She suffered from poor health after age 20 and died at only 46. “Mr. Tallent’s Ghost” is a short story by Mary Webb about a man who wants to have his writing posthumously published and the subsequent complications for those involved in the process. Here’s a summary of “Mr. Tallent’s Ghost”.
“Mr. Tallent’s Ghost” Summary
The narrator, a lawyer, is on holiday at a mountain inn. It’s been raining and he’s been bored. He sees a tall, lean man, Mr. Tallent, in the parlor reading a manuscript, which turns out to be his own work.
Having formerly been a critic, the narrator knows how dull these can be, but he’s so bored he asks to read it. Mr. Tallent suggests he read it to him instead. The lawyer agrees, because dinner will be served at about nine anyway.
Mr. Tallent reads in a slow, monotonous voice. The ideas are cliched with characters who do nothing. After he drones on for hours, the narrator asks to pause for a discussion. Mr. Tallent says it’s a bad time because the climax of the story is close. He continues reading, but of course, nothing happens.
The narrator thinks if supper isn’t ready soon, he might kill Mr. Tallent. He daydreams about how he might do it. Supper is served at almost ten o’clock. Afterward, Mr. Tallent reads the rest of the manuscript. When he finishes, Mr. Tallent says he’s leaving his money to posthumously fund the publication of his manuscripts. He wants the narrator to draw up the will and be the trustee.
The lawyer tries to beg off and makes excuses, but he gets roped into agreeing. In the morning, he draws up the will and leaves a forwarding address for the manuscripts. As he leaves the inn for London, he sees Mr. Tallent reading his work to another patron.
The lawyer hears nothing of Mr. Tallent for years and largely forgets him. About ten years after their first meeting, the lawyer is recovering in the hospital, sitting with some other patients. Mr. Tallent comes in and reads to the captive audience. Soon after, the lawyer reads Mr. Tallent’s obituary in the paper.
The narrator is soon contacted by a solicitor who brings the will, a letter, and a box of manuscripts. Mr. Tallent’s relatives are angry about getting nothing, say the manuscripts are worthless, and are contesting the will.
That evening, the narrator looks through the box, finding that the story he heard was one of the best ones. He feels Mr. Tallent’s presence and his voice.
The lawyer engages a journalist, Johnson, to read through the manuscripts and pick the best ones for publication. With the will’s stipulations, it might not be possible to refuse publication, even if none seem suitable. He knows a publisher desperate enough to take the job.
After a week, the lawyer starts receiving many letters from Mr. Tallent’s poor, angry family. If he gives them any hope, he again feels Mr. Tallent’s presence. He’s notified that legal proceedings will be starting soon.
“Mr. Tallent’s Ghost” Summary, Cont’d
Johnson comes back to pick up more manuscripts. They talk about Mr. Tallent’s boring writing. The lawyer feels haunted by Tallent; he hears his voice and feels his presence, at times, and the letters from his relations are a constant annoyance. The journalist soon feels the same way. He dreamed all night of Tallent explaining the inspiration for his work. The lawyer also dreams of Tallent, and the harassment from the letters gets worse.
The lawyer is forced to host a meeting at his own expense to try and settle things down. The meeting is contentious as various poor people make their cases against the will. During the proceedings, the lawyer is certain he sees Mr. Tallent pass by the window. Johnson tries to calm him and a medical man present says these types of hallucinations are common. A woman temporarily distracts everyone with talk of the Bible.
A solicitor explains that they want the money, and the narrator wishes he could give it to them and be done with Mr. Tallent. The meeting goes on for four hours with the attendees making ridiculous suggestions for settling the matter. Johnson gives his opinion that the manuscripts are terrible. A large woman, Tallent’s mother, takes exception to this, although she hasn’t read any of them.
Once again, the lawyer sees Mr. Tallent pass by the window. He looks mad as he tries to smash the window. Nobody believes he saw anything. The meeting finally ends. They reach an agreement to settle out of court by bringing in arbiters to rule on the legality of the will and the quality of the best manuscript.
The lawyer walks home, discouraged and overwhelmed with his deceased client. Near his home, he sees Mr. Tallent a block away standing in front of him. He loses him around a corner. For a while, he sees Tallent almost every day.
The arbiters decide that half the money is to be divided among the relations. There’s some relief for about a month. Then, two of the beneficiaries claim they’re being haunted by Mr. Tallent; they hear him reading at home. They end up in an asylum, where their symptoms go away. On release, they recur and have to go back. The same thing happens to some of the others.
Two years after, it starts happening to the lawyer. He consults with experts and tries to have people with him who could help him catch Tallent’s ghost, but the visitations only happen at night when he’s alone. Finally, about a year after the haunting began, he and a companion see Tallent on a dead-end street. They jump in a passing taxi, catch him and tackle him.
The lawyer is shocked to find Tallent is solid, not a ghost. He takes Tallent back to his house and demands an explanation. Mr. Tallent never died. He put the announcement in the paper while he was away in America.
He knows about the terrible mental strain his relatives and the lawyer have been under. He finds it interesting. He’s a progressive psycho-analyst and his novels aren’t serious. He’s followed people around reading his work out loud and appearing to them.
It’s all part of a multi-layered experiment he’s been running that will serve as the basis for his true magnus opus—a treatise on the Power of Human Endurance.
I hope this summary of “Mr. Tallent’s Ghost” by Mary Webb was helpful.