Old Lady Mary is over eighty and has only one person whom she loves, her eighteen-year-old goddaughter Mary. But without a will, her little fortune will go to a grandson who is already rich. Her lawyer Mr Furnival urges her on many occasions to make a will, but she always puts him off - death seems yet so far away. Finally on a sudden impulse she writes a will herself, but places it in the hidden drawer of an old desk. Of course after her death the will is not found, and thus Mary is left penniless.
When Lady Mary arrives in the Afterlife, and has time to contemplate her past, she realises she has done a great wrong. She seeks permission to go back, though she is warned that most who go back will suffer, and will accomplish nothing. Thus she makes her journey back and discovers the bitterness of lingering unseen in her old world, witnessing what is happening to Mary. Soon the village is rocked by rumours of a ghost at the old house.
Biographical and other notes
The character of Lady Mary was inspired by Margaret Oliphant's dear friend Harriet Stewart (Mrs Duncan Stewart), who died shortly after the story was first published.
The minor character Mr Furnival, the lawyer, had made earlier appearances in Zaidee (1854) and Grove Road, Hampstead (1880), though these were very brief. He seems to have originated in 1853 with Charles Dickens in the story "By Parcel Post" in Household Words magazine, with its reference to the firm of Furnival & Clement. (The name of Furnival was probably a little joke of Dickens', referring to Furnival's Inn where Dickens lived in his early writing years. Furnival's Inn had once been an Inn of Chancery, but by Dickens' time simply had chambers to let.) After Mrs Oliphant created her own Mr Furnival in 1854, Anthony Trollope seems to have carried on the little joke in 1862 with the lawyer Mr Furnival in Orley Farm.
Old Lady Mary was printed by itself as a novel in America - see the right-hand link under "Read it now" above.
British publishing information
Periodical: Blackwood's Magazine Jan 1884
First edition: Blackwood and Sons (collected in Stories of the Seen and Unseen) 1902