Dear friends and readers,
I had really thought my last blog on Fuller’s The Convent and Atwood’s Lady Oracle might be my last blog for a while on the gothic. But I find it’s still very strongly on my mind, partly because I’m now writing the paper for this coming pair of conference (now called Gothic Intertexuality in Northanger Abbey — the title changes daily), because I’m also teaching "Exploring the Gothic" at GMU, and I’m reading yet more gothics with friends online. Over on WWTTA a few weeks ago now I posted a URL to Wharton’s semi-parodic vampire story, "Mr Jones", and much to my surprise, several people read it, and all made comments, interested ones. Since then I sent along a URL to "Afterward" and we talked of the film series Shades of Darkness, to say nothing of people getting interested in, taking out of the library or buying Susan Hill’s Woman in Black, and also watching it online through a utube presentation.
Well I bought myself this lovely paperback of the complete ghost stories of Wharton some time ago, and when I read Catherine Delors’s blog delighting in "Kerfol", which includes a photo of Wharton when young and pretty:
I sat down and read it myself. Very powerful. Here is the illustration by Laszlo Kubinyi (who illustrated all the tales in this Scribner’s volume):
It harks back to the archetypal Bluebeard tale and forwards to Susan Glaspell’s short play, Trifles. Anne Williams retells the story of Bluebeard and says this paradigm as well as the Psyche one is found repeatedly in female gothics. I hope I don’t have to retell the Bluebeard story. In Trifles a wife has been accused of murdering her husband and two of her friends with their police husbands come to the now desolate apartment, the men to search for evidence against the wife. The women talk another room from where the evidence is said to exist — a rope to hang the husband. They see a bird cage where there’s a strangled bird and in their dialogue it emerges the wife led a desperately lonely domineered life with her only joy that bird. It becomes clear the husband was intensely jealous of any love the wife had for anything and killed the bird. The woman don’t seem to realize they have conjured up a sufficient excuse for the wife killing a mean cruel murderous man but they also seem to fall silent suddenly. They express fear that if they say anything on the wife’s behalf this way it will incriminate her for she is pleading innocent. And the play ends.
The opening of the tale resembles the opening in Mr Jones. A rich and privileged 20th century woman comes to an ancient castle/mansion. In "Mr Jones" Lady Jane has inherited it and decides to stay; the narrator of "Kerfol" is nameless; she is coming to see if she should buy an ancient castle called Kerfol. As with "Mr Jones" she quickly confronts remnants of an older world. In "Mr Jones" it was a sarcophagus where a powerful lord is buried and his monument decorated with all his dates, honors, paraphernalia, and on the bottom three words "Also his wife." "Mr Jones" is one of those many gothics where the story has a hard time getting told: the center is Lady Jane at last wresting a key from the absent Mr Jones (from his housekeeper) and finding in a drawer in a muniment room a manuscript which is written by a woman of the later 18th century, Lady Juliana, a cripple kept imprisoned by Mr Jones (so he is very old) and her own attitudes: she blames herself as unworthy and deserving punishment. Well she’s getting or got it.
"Afterward" also opens on two people who are charmed by a very old house and playfully (foolishly) long, they say, to live in a haunted one.
In "kerfol" what happens as our modern heroine walks deeper and deeper into the grounds, passes the chapel and gets to the dry moat, dogs appear one by one and watch her. After a while they form a crowd, a circle. Our anxiety for our heroine is stronger because unacknowledged by heroine or narrartor; the suspense is unnerving, the atmosphere increasingly alarming, chilling. As a reader I was riveted, alarmed, I wanted to tell our heroine to go back, go back (!) as I felt these dogs may leap on her at any time and devour her. She just carries on, nervously addressing them, but they do not bark just stare. This is a version of a werewolf story too, only they simply gaze at her. She returns to the wife of the real estate agent, Lanrivain and tells the Madame what she saw. The Madame’s voice drops and says she’s always wondered (why no one rented this estate) and tells our heroine there are no dogs at Kerfol at all.
The next day Lanrivain hunts out "a shabby volume" from the 18th century, a history of trials at the Assizes and our heroine reads the story at the heart of the tale — this is one that has an easier time getting told than say "Afterward" or "Lady’s Maid’s Bell’ (which never gets told clearly at all). We learn of the marriage of one later 17th century French lord, Ive de Cornault, a hard mercenary man who has been allowed to gets away with whatever he wants because the world at the time gave him the power — to Anne de Barrigan. How he shut her up in a castle and never let her even walk in a park, to keep her as he pleased for his pleasures, only she never got pregnant, so she began to adopt dogs. As she adopts each one, she finds it strangled and put on her pillow afterward. One by one. As a side issue, one that does not emerge clearly until the trial, it seems she was attracted to a handsome kindly squire called Lanrivain, doubtless an ancestor of the present estate agent?
I was left to surmize that the dogs had seen in this modern woman a version of their mistress, Anne de Cornault. What they did in the later 17th century is finally tear to pieces this cruel man, Ives, and then there is a court case in which Anne is accused of murder and in danger of a terrible death (women who murdered their husbands no matter how treated were subject to be burnt to death). What ensues is how the court is bored and irritated by these "trifing" stories of the death of dogs. I remembered the word "trifling" but when I returned to write this blog I discovered it was ratther "trivial". "Trifling" was my mind making an intertext with Glaspell’s play.
Anne tells the jury she did not murder her husband but was terrified of him "because he had strangled my little dog." Those in the courtroom smile. The voice of the narrtor (by the time of the tale turned slightly archaci) tells us that in this era a nobleman cuold hang his peasant and many did so. Nonetheless, one judge shows some sympathy and lets the wife tell her story, and a "chill" is sent through the courtroom when she says that her husband said she resembled a portrait of a great-grandmother with her dog "lying i the chapel with her feet on a little dog."
This gets her nowhere as a defense. We are made to realize what the court is interested in is the story of Lanrikain, the handsome young man she had liked and how the husband twisted around one of the dead dogs necks a necklet she had given to Lanrikain. They attribute the husband’s behavior to jealousy and want to ferret out if the wife committed adultery. The situation of imprisonment and punishment of a wife by a husband based on this accusation of adultery is exactly the paradigm underlying the Duchess of C******** by Genlis and Smith’s Montalbert. Among the details Wharton implies is the wife is tortured to make her tell the truth — meaning a truth the court wants to hear. Sarah Maza in her Private Lives and Public Affairs talks of how torture laced such proceedings at each turn. Kubinyi’s drawing of the wife’s face implies the husband would beat her on the face. The jealousy, the demand for total possession and obedience is found in Trollope’s realistic story He Knew He Was Right — tellingly I’ve seen people say of Trollope’s story the husband had the right to be jealous and the wife should have given in to him to keep peace (which means live in a form of isolation) as well as accuse the husband of being unmanly for not being sure of himself (for his sexual anxiety). Sexual anxiety does not reach the surface in tales of older times.
Well, after the court fails to come to a decision, and much argument about details about the dogs (the sort of real trivia lawyers use to delay and distract), the wife is turned over to a church court and they give her to the husband’s family who in Wharton’s quiet savage irony for a horror of a life, "shut her up in a the keep of Kefol, where she is said to have died many years later a harmless madwoman." Harmless to their interests.
Well here we have all the elements outlined by Anne Williams, Eugenia DeLaMotte, Michelle Masse (who discusses "Kerfol" and other of Wharton’s ghost stories. The cruel male hegemonic pattern. And the elements Jack Sullivan in his Elegant Nightmares and Eve Sedgwick in her Coherence of Gothic Conventions outline. The uncanny and terrifying eruption of atavastic past and the malignity or mischievousness, at best indifference and alienation of the surrounding outside paranormal world. Not to omit someone barricaded from what they should normally have access to.
My edition of The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton has remarkable illustrations for each story. Beyond all Whartons’ ghost stories, it contains (from A Backward Glance) her memory of her near fatal encounter with typhoid fever, teh experience of which and hallucination from high fever she connected with her penchant for writing ghost stories. Several essays on Wharton I’ve read too argue for the brilliant art of these stories, a few of which are parodic at the same time as Wharton to bring out her woman’s perspective, delves sexuality indirectly, displays women’s condition and subjugation then and now (often through the class system too), and sa dialogue with the unconscious and deep psychic dynamics. The other night I watched Terence Davies’s film adaptation of Wharton’s great House of Mirth (with Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart) and need to watch again so I can write about it.
Her connection to Austen? Summer is a rewrite of S&S (heroine seduced, impregnated and abandoned as poor by a Willoughby characer, forced to marry a man who is sly, mean old and we last see her walking up the stairs to him); House of Mirth takes a central paradigm from Mansfield Park: Lily is the Mary Crawford character done in and left to perish by Seldon, an Edmund Bertram and his moral friend, a Fanny Price; a third novel whose title escapes right now reworks some of the paradigms of Emma.