Tonight, I laughed at my imminent comp exam as I nestled in a couch corner and picked up a book of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories. Had I structured my exam differently, it’s quite possible these stories would have made the exam cut, but as it stands they’re only extra, unrelated reading that’s taking away from the time I’ve been devoting reading The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction (which, by the way, is incredibly interesting in and of itself, but a harder piece about which to write a post). My sister bought me Edith Wharton’s ghost stories last year for Christmas, but it’s taken me an entire year to write about one for my blog. This evening I sat down to a rather chilling tale called The Lady’s Maid’s Bell, and I decided I’d write a bit about it. According to the text’s introduction, this is Wharton’s most ambiguous ghost story, and after reading it, I think I can surmise why. Since it’s hard to write about a story in much detail without giving away the ending, this analysis will contain spoilers. If I were a better, or perhaps a more careful writer, I would be able to produce analysis without spoilers. But as it stands, I think I’ll have to say a fair deal about the story to analyze it.
On that note, the plot goes something like this: Alice Hartley has just recovered from typhoid, and an old friend with connections sets her up to be the servant to an ailing woman in a relatively secluded country home. On Alice’s first night on the job, she sees a tall, thin, white woman lingering in a doorway for whom she can’t account; the maid in question appears at no other household functions and is never with anyone else. Eventually, through an old photograph and some hearsay, Alice matches the figure up with the name “Emma Saxon,” the previous maid to the lady of the house (Mrs. Brymptom), a maid who died in the house before Alice moved in to take over her duties. As days go by, the bell that connects Alice’s room to Mrs. Brymptom’s rings at night inexplicably, and Alice hears footsteps coming from the locked door across the hall from her – the former room of Emma Saxon. She is persistently tormented by an unknown feeling, a sort of vague discomfort at the knowledge of a possibly sinister presence,and one night, Emma appears and seems to want to lead Alice somewhere. Alice follows her to through the countryside, into the village, to the house of one Mr. Ranford, friend to Mrs. Brymptom. But when Alice looks to Emma to figure out why she’s at Mr. Ranford’s house, Emma disappears, and Alice is faced with an awkward situation and a chilling mystery, simultaneously. There is, of course, more to the story, but I’ll stop there for now.
David Stuart Davies, who wrote the introduction to Wharton’s book of ghost stories, notes that Wharton was a considerable fan of Henry James. This is not surprising, since this unnerving little story, written in 1902, bears considerable resemblance to James’ 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw. While I’ve never written about James’s novella, I have written about a 1961 screen adaptation of the novella called The Innocents, and I’m waiting anxiously for The Turning to come out this spring – another scary movie that’s supposed to be a contemporary adaptation of James’s work. Alas, I digress. My point was that there are myriad similarities between “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell.” If I exaggerate the similarities between the two stories too much, which may be a fair accusation, suffice it to say that one reminded me greatly of another, although that may be because there were sets of typical conventions for the late 19th/early 20thcentury ghost story.
To state an obvious but significant observation about the setting of the texts, both take place in sequestered country manors. According to Davies, Wharton was a master at creating a sense of place in her writing, in part, he speculates, because she was one of the foremost interior designers in early 20th century America and wrote a sort of seminal text on interior home design and the process of employing classicism to create simple, stylish rooms. I got some sense of this establishment of place as I read “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” although most of what is scary about the large country house where Alice Hartley works comes from Alice Hartley’s own feelings and observations about the location. The gothic novel started with works like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Anne Radcliffe’sThe Mysteries of Udolpho, novels that rely, like many gothic novels, on gloomy mansions with hidden rooms and secret artifacts. Wharton’s mansion, in “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” isn’t objectively gloomy. Rather, it takes on a pervasive feeling of dreariness and melancholy from the narrator’s standpoint, once she has already experienced something akin to a supernatural occurrence. Davies asserts that Wharton herself felt consistently tortured, in life, by the possibility of supernatural presences. Indeed, she burned ghost story books because she was frightened to be in the same house as such texts. The narrator is similarly not just afraid of the house and what it stands for, but genuinely troubled or disturbed by the Brymptoms’ country home
Mr. Brymptom, similar to the male lead character in The Turn of the Screw, is most always absent, but not as absent as the mysterious, aloof uncle in The Turn of the Screw who wants nothing to do with his charges. Mr. Brymptom is mean,and when he’s in the house, its ambience becomes considerably tenser. But even when Mr. Brymptom isn’t in the house, the narrator is ill at ease after a few short weeks. She admits: “In short, I had nothing to complain of; yet there was always a weight on me. I can’t say why it was so, but I know it was not the loneliness that I felt” (Wharton 9). Along with emphasizing her disquietude, the narrator specifically points to her own perception as the originating location of the house’s melancholy. She spends a day in town for example, and observes, on her way home, as she re-approaches the house, that “the moment I caught site of the house again my heart dropped down like a stone in a well. It was not a gloomy house, exactly, yet I never entered it but a feeling of gloom came over me” (Wharton 9, emphasis added). Through the narrator’s pathos, Wharton builds mood and mystery, and the partial exploration of the narrator’s troubled psyche also parallels James’s exploration of the governess’s psyche in “The Turn of theScrew.”
Indeed, one marked parallel between the two texts is the uncertainty that there is really a ghost in either story. This is a hallmark of “The Turn of the Screw;” the new governess sees the ghosts of old workers in the house, but the reader cannot discern, for certain, if she’s taking stories she’s heard and filtering them through a hallucinating psyche or if there are indeed ghosts that haunt the premises. Wharton’s story, on the other hand, may not be a classic example of this particular ambiguity, but I’m going to claim such uncertainty exists anyway. Granted, the narrator sees Emma Saxon’s ghost before seeing a photograph of Emma Saxon, but we don’t necessarily know what the ghost’s face looks like during her initial sighting. It’s possible that Alice thinks she sees a figure standing in the doorway, and later, after seeing a picture of Emma, decides that she’s seen Emma Saxon. Similarly, when she follows Emma across the countryside, the land takes on another solitary, gloomy ambience, and nobody sees Emma save the narrator. Emma stops at Mr. Ranford’s house, but by the time Mr. Ranford comes out of his house, Emma has disappeared. There is some evidence, at the end of the text (minor spoiler alert) that Mr. Brymptom sees Emma, but this sighting is only according to the narrator’s conjecture; one could argue that the narrator thinks Mr. Brymptom has seen Emma and relates this sighting to the reader. Mr. Brymptom never claims to have seen her, and we are left wondering if the narrator (Alice) has imagined a specter that doesn’t really exist. I’m not sure I buy this reading of the story, but I think it’s possible to consider it.
The rest of the story’s ambiguity comes with what happens at the end. While I won’t describe the ending of the text in detail, my supposition, after reading the story, is that Mrs. Brymptom and Mr. Ranford were having an affair. The text never states this directly, but the ending of the story – an ending which raises a lot of questions – gives us enough information to let us presume this is the case. This is partially obvious because Davies asserts that much of Wharton’s ghost story writing included extra-marital affairs, and also likely because Emma– if she is a real specter – leads Alice to Mr. Ranford’s house. These details alone wouldn’t necessarily indicate that an affair is going on, but the text gives additional clues (for example, Alice notes when she enters Mrs. Brymptom’s room that Mrs. Brymptom isn’t dressed for bed, and she’s surprised by this). Mr. Brymptom’s dialogue during this scene suggests that he knows Mr. Ranford is in his house (he comes home unexpectedly from the West Indies), and the location of Emma Saxon’s final appearance might indicate as much, too. What is most hard to discern in the story, ultimately, might be the purpose of Emma Saxon’s ghost. Emma loved Mrs. Brymptom in life, but doesn’t do much to protect her in death. Indeed, one reading of the story could suggest that Emma’s ghost provokes Mrs. Brymptom’s death. (Ugggh, I tried not to say it, but the spoiler slipped! Nevertheless, Mrs. Brymptom’s death is fairly predictable, and you don’t know exactly how it happened, so it’s still worth reading the story).
Davies, in his introduction to Wharton’s stories, observes that many critics downplay the merit of the ghostly tales and aren’t fully appreciative of the skill that goes into spinning the subtle suspense involved in spectral stories. Especially upon reading Wharton’s story, I would have to agree with this assessment. Writing a ghost story that is actually scary is not an easy thing to do, and Wharton definitely succeeds with the tale she weaves. One of my favorite parts of the story, which I briefly alluded to already, is how Wharton describes the empty, vast feeling of groundless place that the presence of the specter provokes. Earlier in the story, the narrator delights at the falling snow, which she imagines covering all the gloominess of her surroundings and adding a sort of comforting blanket to the country scenery. But as she follows the specter of Emma Saxon through the desolate countryside to the village, the reader easily empathizes with the narrator’s dread. Alice explains what it’s like to follow a supernatural presence when she remarks: “Somehow, it was worse here than indoors. She made the whole countryside seem lonely as the grave, with none but us two in it, and no help in the wide world” (Wharton 18). She goes on to say, in a particularly petrifying line, “Once I tried to go back; but she turned and looked at me, and it was as if she had dragged me with ropes” (18). The nothingness Alice feels in the presence of Emma Saxon reminds me of a scene in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. Theodora, a psychic, places her hand on a dead body and feels only lonesome nothingness. One can feel, in Wharton’s story, the death-like loneliness of the narrator. One can imagine a white, wintry day, a ghost in the distance, and an attempt to escape as the ghost slowly turns and looks back at you, demanding you to move forward. It is never clear whether Emma Saxon is helpful or sinister, but her presence is formidable in these lines.
In short, Wharton writes a fine ghost story. The mystery surrounding Emma Saxon and the high turnover of housekeepers in the mansion goes unanswered, but the room for speculation that the story allows is entertaining. While part of me wishes the answers to the story’s questions were more blatant, I like being required to do some work on my own and make my own inferences about the tale. If you’re a ghost fan—or a general fan of the horror story—I would definitely check out Wharton’s work. Written 18 years before she penned The Age of Innocence, this is a scary story by a writer who’s clearly troubled, herself, by the possibility of the supernatural. I felt Wharton’s own trepidation while reading this. Indeed, knowing that the writer of a ghost story fears ghosts makes the story that much richer.