- Lady Sarah’s Secret – Emma: #61 (21 April 1979) – #69 (16 June 1979)
- Reprinted – Judy: #1500 (8 October 1988) – #1508 (10 December 1988)
- Reprinted (as Judy classic) – M&J: #308 (4th May 1997) – #315 (May 24 1997) [last issue has 2 installments]
In 1840, Lady Sarah Cragston is out riding when she nearly runs down a girl. She is surprised to find out the girl has runaway from the local orphanage which her father is governor of. Sarah doesn’t listen to the girl’s claims of mistreatment, believing her to be an ungrateful wretch and takes her back to the orphanage. She does however become suspicious when the Bonneys that run the place, are keen to get rid of her. She insists on looking around and is appalled by the conditions. Later she tries to tell her father about what she saw and at first she thinks he shares her outrage but he is only upset that she went to orphanage and forbids her from going there again. Later while talking to a maid, Sarah learns that the orphanage used to be a mansion called Fell Grange, until the daughter of the house, Elizabeth Sturgesse, was tragically killed while out riding. There is a legend that Elizabeth’s spirit appeared to help those in need and she became known as “The Dark Lady of Haunted Hill”. Lady Sarah decides it is time for the Dark Lady to reappear and finds old riding gear and dark wig to become the part.
Lady Sarah’s first act is to free the runaway she met earlier, who had since been beaten and locked in the cellar. She first runs into the Bonneys, Mr Bonney is terrified of the ghost but Mrs bonny shows less fear and has to be dragged inside by her husband. The girl, Ellen Rumble, is very grateful and even more so when Sarah arranges it so she can hire her as personal servant. Ellen makes a good ally as she can tell Sarah about the inner workings of the orphanage. She helps Sarah when she does some investigative work to see where Mrs bonny gets the food for the orphanage, she obviously buys the good stuff for herself and the orphans get the cheap, poor quality stuff. Sarah buys supplies for the orphans and sets out a feast for them. Then in the guise of the Dark Lady, she warns the Bonneys to start feeding them properly.
At this point Mrs Bonney’s original confidence of ghosts not being able to harm them, seems to be waning. The Bonneys even foolishly put bars on the cellar door to keep the ghost off. Of course while that would be no use against a ghost, it does pose a problem for Sarah, as she now needs to find another way to access the orphanage. Ellen does know of one successful runaway who said she had aunt in Crampton. Sarah manages to track her down and find out about a secret passage. Then using a potion that was given to her father by a sea captain, she is able to temporarily paralyze the Bonneys in order to stop them abusing cripples. These things further convince the Bonneys that she is a supernatural being with powers.
Next Sarah finds out that the money her father provides for a doctor, actually goes to a charlatan doctor who gives the sick children coloured water, so him and the Bonneys make a tidy profit by not giving proper medicine. Sarah and Ellen go searching for a legitimate doctor to treat a very sick girl. They find a doctor name Sturgesse and this seems like a good omen so Sarah hires him. The Bonneys are surprised by Dr. Sturgesse’s visit and by his name. Adding to their stress further is when asked who sent him, the doctor points to Sarah who is watching close by dressed as the Dark Lady.
When a letter arrives from the Bonneys to her father, saying the price of coal has increased, Sarah is suspicious of a scam. She is proved right when visiting the orphanage she hears the Bonneys plan to forge bills. While returning home, her father sees her near the orphanage and is very angry, he doesn’t want her anywhere near the orphans in case she catches something. While she says she will stay away, that night she is back again as the Dark Lady to see if she can find out what the Bonneys are doing with the money they keep. She finds Mr Bonny hosting a card game and she takes a risk haunting them. While she does startle the men, one of them knocks over a lamp and starts a fire. While they are putting out the fire, Sarah escapes, but one on of the men, Harry, hears her coughing and therefore believes there is no ghost. Harry visits Lord Cragston the next day to talk about the occurrences at the orphanage. Sarah whose throat is still irritated by the smoke can’t stop herself coughing, which leads Harry to accuse her of being the ghost. Lord Cragston doesn’t believe such things and kicks him out but he is concerned by Sarah’s coughing and sends her to an aunt to recover. This is a further worry for Sarah as this will mean the Bonneys will not believe in the ghost now, but Ellen keeps up the legend as she sneaks out and plays the Dark Lady in her stead.
While out riding Sarah sees the parish clerk beating on a young girl while bringing her to orphanage, that night worried about this outspoken new girl Sarah sneaks into the orphanage to check on her, but Ellen has a sense of foreboding. That night the Bonneys have visitors who are concerned about the “hauntings” – the parish clerk and Mr Calver, the justice of peace. Ellen goes to warn Sarah about the arrivals, but the secret panel to the passage closes and they are forced to hide. While they do manage to slip out, Sarah accidentally leaves a riding glove behind. The Justice of Peace sees the girls riding off in the distance, he suspects there is no ghost and wants to investigate the orphanage further. Meanwhile Mr Bonney has found the riding glove and also now knows there is no ghost and that it is Lady Sarah that has been behind everything. He goes to Lord Cragston with this news, who is troubled by this, but still doesn’t believe Sarah that anything wrong with the Bonneys. He is forced to listen with the sudden arrival of Mr Calver with Mr Holmes, a government inspector of children’s work conditions. They want Sarah to testify against the Bonneys. At the inquiry Ellen also testifies but the other orphans are too scared to. One exception is Crissy, the outspoken girl, who shows the beatings on her back. Lord Cragston, apologizes for being unaware of what Bonneys were doing and promises to get suitable replacements. A few weeks later with the kindly Jacksons in charge, Sarah can put away her Dark Lady costume.
When we first meet Lady Sarah she is not too concerned for the orphans, going so far as to bring back the runaway to orphanage by tying a rope around her waist and calling her an “ungrateful little wretch”. It is likely that this initial attitude is influenced by her father. He doesn’t seem to have a high opinion of the orphans seeing them as brats, of little use and potentially infectious rather than what they actually are – children. We are not told how Sarah’s mother died but it may be a factor in Lord Cragston’s fear for his daughter’s safety and that she may catch some illness from being near the orphans. He doesn’t seem to be intentionally cruel, as he does believe the orphans are being provided for and that the “good” Bonneys are training the brats to be useful to society. But his claims of ignorance of the Bonneys wrong doings, isn’t good enough when his own daughter has told him of their cruelty and he doesn’t bother to investigate further.
Like I said Sarah seems to have a similar attitude to her father, until she sees the actual living conditions of the orphans and is horrified. It is fitting then, that the first person she helps is that same runaway she brought back. In quite a contrast to their first meeting, after her rescue of Ellen, Sarah attends to her injuries, no longer feeling above those poorer than her. In return for this kindness Ellen becomes a loyal companion to Sarah. In other stories such as “The Seeker” or “The Secret Life of Hateful Hattie”, the protagonists pretend to be mean spirited in real life to keep their secret, so it makes a difference here that Sarah speaks up for the orphans even when she’s not in costume and also that she has an ally to confide in.
Using the legend of the ghost, is also an interesting angle. Through her father’s local history books, Sarah learns about deeds that the “Dark Lady” supposedly did, which she uses to help her own cause. It would seems most people are familiar with the legend, but whether those events were real, exaggerated or perhaps someone playing at the ghost, like Sarah did, we never know for sure. It could be interesting if different people use the guise of the Dark Lady whenever she is needed. While many people fear her, Mrs Bonney initially shows her toughness, not fearing the ghost, it certainly seems to be her that’s in charge, as Mr Bonney fears his wife’s wrath as well as the ghost.
The art is gorgeous and very detailed, I particularly like the details in the clothes. Also the use of the shadows and perspective when Sarah is doing her haunting, makes her a very intimidating presence. While a lot of the panels are standard size, when given more room with wider panel D’Adderio takes advantage doing some lovely work as demonstrated in the opening panel. It is another strong story from the short lived Emma comic and with the classic artwork and captivating story, it’s no surprise that this was reprinted in Judy and as a Judy classic in M&J.