If we were to draw a topography of the Fantastic in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English fiction, we should obviously think of a series of physical structures that are not only the setting and background against which a story unfolds but also function as recurrent themes and metaphors. I shall briefly consider the transformations that occur in the spatial architecture of the Fantastic, moving from the Gothic romance to Victorian ‘supernatural’ fiction. One of these transformations is represented by the passage from claustrophobic enclaves (castles, crypts, vaults) to various types of borders and boundaries, with the gradual demise of images of closure that characterize Gothic novels, in favour of apertures, that can be found in some Victorian short stories. Alongside manifest border images such as doors, walls and windows, frames and portraits stand out as thresholds between the visible and the invisible worlds: objects whose liminal dimension marks the tension between the rational and the irrational, the real and the unreal, that is typical of the fantastic mode. The frame of the portrait (or of the photograph) has the function of literally delimiting the space of the fantastic, as it encapsulates the ghost within its borders. The figure the portrait represents is the ghost, in the etymological sense of the word, that is, an apparition, a specter, a supernatural being.

My aim is to propose a reading of three texts whose plots unfold around a portrait: J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter” ([1839] 1964), Margaret Oliphant’s “The Portrait” ([1885] 2000), and Thomas Hardy’s “An Imaginative Woman” ([1894/1996] 2008), which, although ‘minor’ works when compared to Poe’s “The Oval Portrait”, Pater’s “Sebastian van Storck”, and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, are significant examples of a narrative space belonging to the Fantastic where a magic exchange “between a life-imbued portrait and its astonished viewer” (Manion 2) takes place.