The Haunted World of Edith Wharton

Everyday Specters

Edith Wharton’s ghosts.


Last fall, I was in the English countryside on a research trip and decided to visit Blo’ Norton Hall, the moated, 16th-century manor house in Norfolk where a prince I was writing about had once lived. It was almost dusk when I arrived, but there were several people my age walking the grounds: guests, I assumed, of the bed-and-breakfast to which the house had been converted after the prince’s death. I tried to maintain a friendly distance.

As I walked around the house’s rear, the four young men, holding glasses of beer, strolled directly past me, and I smiled at them—but none appeared to see me. Moments later, I realized that this was not, in fact, a bed-and-breakfast through which I was welcome to perambulate but a single, large holiday home, and I was trespassing on some friends’ private vacation. Mortified, I ran back to my car, reversed for several minutes down the long gravel driveway, and hightailed it home. It felt like a close call. The occupants could have interrogated me or even called the police. But one more chilling possibility also struck me: Had those men seen me at all? Or had I been somehow invisible to them—perhaps as an interloper from another realm, or perceived as the type of grounds staff some are trained not to see? Was I, in other words, a sort of ghost passing through their domain?

The incident at Blo’ Norton Hall was not obviously spooky at the time, and I realized why it haunted me only months later, when I read Edith Wharton’s ghost stories. Though my experience was hard to contextualize at first, it felt immediately at home among these stories, with which it shared a number of elements: a beautiful old house with a name; a picturesque, remote setting; a desultory leisure class; a young woman out of her element; misunderstandings between visitors and staff and the owners or residents of the beautiful old house. On top of all this, the situation I found myself in had precisely the ambiguous tension that makes so many of Wharton’s ghost stories scary. Her stories are haunted not by gore or violent beings but by things like aging, loneliness, and unresolved personal histories. And like my experience at Blo’ Norton Hall, her tales tend to be indifferent as to whether ghosts are supernatural beings per se—some of these stories have literal ghosts, but many don’t—or some other imagined force. Either way, they derive their subtle psychological horror from the ways our everyday lives can haunt us.

Ghosts is a story collection originally published in 1937, shortly after Wharton’s death at age 75, and now reissued by New York Review Books. Its opening story, “All Souls,” was the last piece of fiction she completed. It tells the story of a stubborn elderly woman, living alone in a New England mansion, who sprains her ankle on Halloween and is soon after abandoned by all her servants, who are perhaps absorbed in occult activity. The same mix of a realistic social world and some eerie disruption therein is maintained throughout the collection. We meet a well-to-do New York lawyer who somehow receives letters from his dead first wife, and the ghost of a domestic servant who tries to warn her successor about her abusive employer. The stories are all suspenseful, but not grisly. The possible witchcraft in “All Souls,” for instance, is not the point of the tale, which derives most of its plot and horror from the protagonist’s painstaking, night-long investigation, which reveals the abject isolation of her twilight years.

Originally published between 1902 and 1937, the stories are also haunted by the ghosts of greater social change all around Wharton. They were written from the Progressive Era to the Great Depression, and through the First World War. Class conflict, the costs of new forms of business, the growing pains of a rapidly industrializing society, and the particular toll of all those things on women are central to these stories as well. For Wharton, the ghosts of the nascent American century were as much material as supernatural.

Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City in 1862. The daughter of an upper-crust New York family—some members of which inspired the expression “keeping up with the Joneses”—Wharton was raised partly in Europe, summered in Newport, and was tutored by governesses. She was not allowed to read novels until she got married, as their subject matter was considered unsuitable for virgins.

Nevertheless, young Edith harbored literary ambitions and by her teenage years was composing stories, plays, and poems, including a bound volume of poetry that was self-published with family funds when she was 16. At 23, she married a sportsman in her circle named Teddy Wharton and spent several years in the stultifying leisure prescribed to her class, until she emerged in 1900, at the age of 38, with her first book-length work of fiction, The Touchstone. It’s a somewhat soppy novella about a poor man who conflictedly sells the letters of a dead former admirer (a famous female author) to fund his marriage. A more mature work followed just a few years later: The House of Mirth, her 1905 breakout hit about the decline and fall of an aging society beauty. It was a massive bestseller in her time and remains a classic today. All told, Wharton wrote 15 novels, seven novellas, 85 short stories, a memoir, and several nonfiction books on travel, interior design, wartime France, and more.

Her lifelong thematic preoccupations were those of class and elite mores, the tensions between modernity and tradition, the constraints on women’s lives, and the dysfunctions of marriage. Wharton wrote in a period caught between the 19th-century novel of manners and 20th-century modernism, but what is perhaps most helpful in understanding her oeuvre is that she wrote to entertain a mainstream (rather than an elite or avant-garde) audience. It was partly to stay relevant in between her novels that she dipped into genres like the ghost story. (This mainstream audience was not without its challenges; she once grudgingly dubbed her readers the “magazine morons,” when she had to add a more explicit ending to “All Souls.”)

In her personal life, the three and a half decades spanned by these stories’ composition saw Wharton emigrate to Europe, divorce her husband, and become a major novelist. The ghost stories reflect both her tumultuous times and some of her private concerns. The earliest one from this collection, “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” was published in 1902 and is, among other things, a lengthy consideration of a wage laborer’s plight, written in the wake of the Gilded Age. The last two stories were written in the 1930s, a decade dominated by the Depression and Wharton’s old age, which informs the sublime melancholy cast of “Pomegranate Seed” and “All Souls.”

Several stories rely on a frame narrative, a trope of the ghost story form. “All Souls” and “Miss Mary Pask” are related in retrospect, and “Kerfol” and “The Eyes” use stories-within-a-story à la The Turn of the Screw; the locus of fright is not in “figuring out” their endings. Others riff on Gothic themes like spooky old houses, stormy weather, and incest—sometimes in campy ways, like “Miss Mary Pask,” in which the “ghost” shown flirting with her terrified young male visitor is finally revealed to be a lonely but also amusingly lascivious old lady in a “cataleptic trance.” All the stories are related through short, numbered sections that move their plots along at a clip. In “Mr. Jones,” for instance, a young woman moves into an old, inherited country house near Kent and invites a writer friend to visit; the two investigate the house’s sordid history through its records and then deal with the morbid consequences of their findings.

Most of the actual or potential ghosts in these stories are not that scary, which is perhaps why their characters always spring into action when they encounter them. In “All Souls,” the elderly widow resists her doctor’s orders to rest her sprained ankle and stubbornly drags herself through every room of the house to investigate her servants’ abandonment, fortifying herself with a stiff drink and her late husband’s loaded revolver. In “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” a servant comes to realize that her predecessor is haunting the house and, when she sees the apparition, boldly follows her into the winter night, determined to find out what she wants to say. In “Afterward,” a woman probes her husband’s mysterious disappearance from their country house like a private investigator and finally pieces together the explanation—a man who had once been scammed by her husband has spirited him away to the afterlife—“with the look of triumph of a child who has worked out a difficult puzzle.”

The more affecting terrors in Ghosts include domestic violence, lonely marriages, undignified old age, and suppressed identity. There are disastrous marriages galore: The titular housekeeper of “Mr. Jones” turns out to be the malevolent, long-dead servant who once helped an 18th-century nobleman isolate his deaf and mute wife there. In “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” servants come and go; the only constant is the abuse and neglect of the invalid lady of the house by her alcoholic and philandering husband. In “Kerfol,” it turns out that the “most romantic house in Brittany” is haunted not by the sadistic 17th-century aristocrat who owned it but by all the dogs he killed there, pets that had briefly enlivened his wife’s “desolate” and “extremely lonely” life. That backstory is related through the records of a long-ago court case, which diffuses the real-time suspense but does not dull the horrors of that cruel marriage.

Even if they are not physically violent, other marriages in these stories are hauntingly lonely. Mary Boyne, who retires with her husband to England in “Afterward,” prides herself on never asking too many questions about his work or interrupting him in his study, but that’s exactly what allows her husband to be abducted by a ghostly visitor, leaving her shell-shocked and alone. In “Pomegranate Seed,” a lawyer’s beleaguered second wife begs him to tell her about the mysterious letters he’s received since their honeymoon, but he refuses. So she has to do something even scarier than compare herself to a romantic forerunner: form an alliance with her mother-in-law. These tales of failed and lonely marriages past and present reflect a career-long theme of the author, who spoke even on her deathbed, as her biographer Hermione Lee notes, about the “hopeless case” of her own abortive union with Teddy Wharton.

In several other stories, growing old is a catalog of ineluctable horrors. In “Miss Mary Pask” (written when Wharton was 63), the titular character is supposedly “like hundreds of other dowdy old maids, cheerful derelicts content with their innumerable little substitutes for living.” When the narrator, a young male painter, visits her on a stormy night, it is out of the thinnest obligation to a woman nearly outside society. The narrator of “All Souls,” a relative of the protagonist, Sara Clayburn, concludes that her cousin’s servants disappeared in order to participate in a witches’ coven, but Sara herself is never shown coming to terms with her own dark night of the soul, which we’ve just spent several pages wincing through.

The Wharton completist may recognize some of the raw material for these stories in her earlier works. For instance, she used the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone in a 1912 verse play before finding its subtle final expression in “Pomegranate Seed,” in which the ghostly letters keep the New York lawyer figuratively tethered to the underworld. And a 1926 volume of poems contained an experimental riff on a dead woman returning home on All Souls’ Day, published over a decade before Wharton revisited the holiday in her final short story. The ghost story form transforms both these familiar materials and her evergreen themes: Once some donnée becomes a ghost story, what may have been just an amusing character study acquires a participatory element, since readers must meet her halfway in becoming scared. To do so involves truly contemplating what exactly it is in these texts—and it is never the literal ghosts—that elicits a chill.

Fraying social relations are not the only horrors afoot. Six of these eleven stories are set in country homes with names like Pangbourne and Whitegates (which can wear on even the most devoted Wharton fan), and all are animated by their upstairs/downstairs dynamics. Servants in these houses alternately witness and enable their employers’ misery, perhaps engage in supernatural activity, and sometimes become ghosts themselves. They collectively reflect a terrified anxiety about what the workers propping up these grand houses might do when they band together, see too much, or even—as in the case of Mr. Jones, the housekeeper who still influences a country house from his grave—do their jobs too well.

Wharton inhabited grand houses throughout her life, from Land’s End in Newport to Pavillon Colombe in France. But the world of her youth, among the cloistered New York families for whom a Newport summer home was wholly unremarkable, was transformed by the breakneck growth of the Gilded Age, the world-historical fortunes of tycoons like Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller, and increasingly violent struggles between capital and labor at the turn of the century. By the time Wharton was born, her family was several generations past its income-earning phase and her circle prided itself on wasteful leisure. While they coasted on inherited wealth, the new robber barons made huge profits that they strove to make even huger by exerting downward pressure on their workers’ wages and lifestyles. (Wharton memorably depicted this shift in The Age of Innocence, whose old-money protagonist, Newland Archer, twiddles his thumbs at an undemanding law firm while the arriviste, scandal-shrouded financier Julius Beaufort makes vast sums that are utterly incomprehensible to families like the Archers.) Furthermore, the once-farm-based American economy rapidly industrialized; agricultural jobs shrank from 64 percent of the workforce in 1850 to 30 percent in 1920. The newly proletarianized working class had many occasions to rebel, and they certainly did not escape the notice of Wharton, who conducted firsthand research into subjects like factory towns, cotton mills, and the lives of poor New Englanders.

That may be why the specter of underclass rebellion animates so many of Ghosts’ stories—what the scholar Karen J. Jacobsen has called their “economic hauntings.” In “All Souls,” Agnes, the “dour old Scottish maid whom Sara had inherited from her mother-in-law,” leaves her infirm mistress with a tray of sandwiches while she and the other servants deliberately clear out for their secretive group activity. We never actually find out what they get up to on that night, but the point is that they are empowered to do so by banding together. Agnes begins the story as inherited human property but ends it with a triumphal performance. She puts on a “masterly” display of surprise the day after getting away with her scheme—essentially gaslighting her prideful mistress. And why not? Sara knows, even after her terrifying solo ordeal, that “she was dependent on [the servants] and felt at home with them.” But then the same thing happens the following year, so Sara simply flees the house and its supposedly “efficient, devoted, respectful and respectable” servants. Agnes might see it as a successful collective action.

Wharton usually writes about these dynamics self-consciously, though sometimes her biases emerge. She gives servant characters in three separate stories the name Agnes (meaning “pure”—a little on the nose), perhaps betraying a latent essentialist view of the servant class. But she typically has a defter hand. In “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” the protagonist, Hartley, recounts a series of horrors directly, in the first person. A poor immigrant, she has just recovered from typhoid and faced months of precarious unemployment before landing at a gloomy American country house, where she encounters fresh threats like the lecherous man of the house and crippling depression in the long, “unwholesome” winter. Her sympathetic female boss devises mundane shopping trips that render her ecstatic; “I hadn’t known till then how low my spirits had fallen,” Hartley admits in a moving aside. It is only after all of these realistically scary things that she finally sees a ghost. And we are hardly surprised to read that the bored, poor, and utterly miserable Hartley chooses to follow her predecessor Emma Saxon’s ghostly trail—at that point, maybe just to feel something. After tramping through the snow, Hartley comes home and sees the “death-flutter” pass over her mistress. Bad news for the lady of the house, but above all, yet another traumatic event for Hartley, on top of everything else she has tolerated in the brief tale.

Wharton wrote that “the ‘moral issue’ question must not be allowed to enter into the estimating of a ghost-story,” but it’s obvious that the vexed ethics of the violent new forms of 20th-century capitalism animate so many of her stories, whether because their moral dimensions weighed on her explicitly or because they emerged from her virtuoso social observation. “The Triumph of Night,” about a lonely winter traveler, includes speculation about a financial crisis and ends with revelations about a cement company corruption scandal that “shakes Wall Street to its foundations.” Ned Boyne in “Afterward” was embroiled in a murky stateside business scandal before absconding to the English countryside, and it gradually emerges that his white-collar crime drove a man to suicide. Boyne has only a moment of pastoral quiet before his victim returns from the underworld to exact his revenge.

Such economic concerns are like discreet piping in Wharton’s familiar, smooth fictional edifices, and she would be horrified were it otherwise. In a 1907 letter, she lamented that the introduction of business courses at Harvard inspired “such a depth of pessimism” in her that she wanted to erupt in “Biblical curses.” The vulgar explicitness of 20th-century American business culture repelled her. Much like how readers must meet her “half-way among the primeval shadows” to get scared by these ghost stories, they can make out these frightening economic fault lines only if they read with that in mind. But most of us probably are, these days; precarity and exploitation have proved durable themes, and modern business practices remain not just dumb but also terrifying. Wharton laments in this collection’s preface about “what we shall lose when the wraith and the fetch are no more with us,” but upon reading these stories, it’s revealed to be a feint: These ghosts, of economic despair, isolation, senescence, and cruelty, are not going anywhere.

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