Ghosts and l'écriture-femme

The Lady's Maid's Bell

by Edith Wharton

Illustration by Walter Appleton Clark for Edith Wharton, "The Lady's Maid's Bell," Scribner's Magazine, 32 (1902)

Date: Fri, 05 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Edith Wharton's "The Lady's Maid's Bell"

I just finished reading this. It will be interesting to hear what others say; I didn't think it as deep or brilliant as the other two ghost stories by Wharton I have read thus far ("Mr Jones," which can also be read as a fearful vampire story, and "Afterward"). It seemed too short and a little thin in comparison.

It is more centrally about women's powerlessness and breaking of taboos than "Afterward" or "Mr Jones". I'll say no more as it's not my week to post the facilitating posting.

Here I'll just contribute some "background." I went over to the Gale Literary Database and found it concurred with McDowell, Wolff and Lewis (on whom see further below) in describing The Custom of the Country as one of Wharton's great realistic fictions. I noticed it connected the book to Sinclair Lewis's novels which I had in my earlier posting.

Here is a summary and commentary on what I found:

"Wharton was sometimes harshly critical of society. Irving Howe commented in Encounter, "In The Custom of the Country ... she turned to- -I think it fair to say, she was largely the innovator of--a tough-spirited, fierce and abrasive satire of the barbaric philistinism she felt to be settling upon American society and the source of which she was inclined to locate, not with complete accuracy, in the new raw towns of the Midwest." A member of New York's elite having "old money," Wharton was keenly aware of the relative lack of gentility among those whose fortunes were gained in industry instead of real estate. The corrupting power of wealth was particularly evident among the nouveaux riches and the rising middle class. Howe added, "Endless numbers of American novels would later be written on this theme, and Sinclair Lewis would commonly be mentioned as a writer particularly indebted to The Custom of the Country; but the truth is that no American novelist of our time--with the single exception of Nathaniel West--has been so ruthless, so bitingly cold as Mrs. Wharton in assaulting the vulgarities and failures of our society."

On The House of Mirth, the Gale offers:

" Wharton was especially effective at piercing the veil of moral respectability that sometimes masked a lack of integrity among the rich. In House of Mirth, for example, an intelligent and lovely girl must lose her status as a member of the leisure class if she is to avoid moral ruin. Lily Bart rebels against the standards of her social group enough to smoke, gamble, and be seen in public with married men; however, her sense of decency keeps her from marrying a wealthy but vulgar suitor merely to secure her fortunes ..."

(This not marrying a man to secure one's safety and fortune reminds me of Trollope's Lady Mabel Grex in The Duke's Children which we are reading on Trollope-l.)

I found Janet Malcolm's qualification of Howe's views of interest:

"Some critics felt that Wharton's portraits of men were unfairly negative. "Men especially have a hard time of it in Mrs. Wharton's novels," Howe commented in Encounter. He continued, "In their notorious vanity and faithlessness, they seldom `come through'; they fail Mrs. Wharton's heroines less from bad faith than weak imagination, a laziness of spirit that keeps them from a true grasp of suffering; and in a number of her novels one finds a suppressed feminine bitterness, a profound impatience with the claims of the ruling sex." New York Times Book Review contributor Janet Malcolm, however, looking back on The House of Mirth, The Reef, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence, remarked that in Wharton's fiction, "the callousness and heartlessness by which this universe is ruled is the callousness and heartlessness of women. There are no bad men in Wharton's fiction. There are weak men and there are foolish men and there are vulgar New Rich men, but no man ever deliberately causes harm to another person; that role is exclusively reserved for women." While not accusing Wharton of misanthropy or misogyny, other critics have spoken of her pervasive pessimism. Howe related Wharton's "feminist resentment" to "a more radical and galling inequity at the heart of the human scheme ..."

For my own part, in the three ghost stories I've read thus far ("Mr Jones," "Afterward" and "The Lady's Maid's Bell" (and from what I've read about Wharton's "The Eyes") she does not present heartless callous hard women in her gothics, nor is she intent upon exposing the materialism, vulgarity and philistinism of social life. To my mind she is after deeper game, something more important if less tangible and measurable.

The Gale Literary Database has hardly anything to say about these -- they have until recently not been seen as quite as "respectable" as realistic fiction. However, you can find sections in Cynthia Wolff in her biography, Margaret McDowell in her Twayne, and Claudia Pierpont in the New Yorker in an article called "Cries and Whispers" (April 2001) on Wharton's gothic and ghost stories -- as well as short realistic ones. Lundie in her introduction to Restless Spirits also has some perceptive comments on "Lady's Maid's Bell."

In sum, Pierpont centered her essay on a short story by Wharton never published in her lifetime in which she gives a frank (graphic) account of a frankly incestuous relationship between a daughter and father. Pierpont connected this story which obsessively goes on about "secrets" to the secrets which seem to insidiously poison the air in her ghost stories. She also goes over the frustrations and miseries of Wharton's first marriage, her love affair with Fullerton, her lifelong loving companionship with Walter Berry and how one finds reflections of these relationships throughout these stories.

Wolff is psychoanalytical (she brings out the archetypes); Her description of Wharton's "landscape of desolation" is relevant to the wintry scene of "Lady Maid's Bell." Gothic is a wintry genre, and ghosts literally chill us. McDowell and Lundie concentrate on Wharton's depiction of exploitation and fear as well as intense attraction to brutality and desire to escape it to a idealized English landscape (which turns out to be very dangerous).

Wharton wrote about writing short fiction eloquently. I remember a phrase where she describes the aim of the short story writer (i.e., herself) to drive a shaft through the heart of experience (or words to this effect).

There's a full bibliography of works by and on Wharton online. It does not seem to lead to actual essays very much, but it does cite where you can find them.

Cheers to all,

Date: Fri, 5 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Edith Wharton's "The Lady's Maid's Bell"

On Friday, December 5, 2003, at 09:03 PM, Ellen Moody wrote:

I didn't think it as deep or brilliant as the other two ghost stories by Wharton I have read thus far ... It seemed too short and a little thin in comparison. But it is more centrally about women's powerlessness and breaking of taboos than "Afterward" or "Mr Jones".

I agree. Probably my favorite in the volume I'm reading in, The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton (a 1973 paperback) is "Kerfol"--you get the powerlessness of a woman, the cruelty of a husband, and ghost dogs. Something about these silent, murdered, ghost dogs, seen only once a year, struck a chord in my dog-fearing heart. There's also the device of the dogs' story being told in an imperfectly translated historical document, offered to the visiting ghost-seer by way of explanation by her more knowledgeable friends. I'm such a sucker for the "it's all here in this ancient document" plot.

For the record, the stories included are "The Lady Maid's Bell," "The Eyes," "Afterward," "Kerfol," "The Triumph of the Night," "Miss Mary Pask," "Bewitched," "Mr. Jones," "Pomegranate Seed," "the Looking Glass," and "All Souls" (plus an "Autobiographical Postscript"). I haven't read them all, yet (just the first four plus "Mr. Jones," I think).

The collection is accompanied by a preface written by Wharton, about the craft of writing ghost stories. It's an engaging essay, I enjoyed it as much as I did most of the stories so far, I think.

Penny R

Date: Tue, 09 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] 'The Lady's Maid's Bell'

It's not my week to start us off on the ghost stories, but here are just a few quick thoughts before they slip out of my mind. Penny and Ellen both said they don't think this story is one of Wharton's best. It's only the second one of her supernatural tales I've read - the first was 'Afterward', which we read on trollope-l a while ago - so I was really choosing in the dark, and went for this because it was in Restless Spirits and available as an etext. I do agree it is not as powerful as 'Afterward', but I still find it an interesting story - I've only read it once and should probably do so another couple of times to get more of a feeling of its shape.

The story reminded me of 'The Turn of the Screw', which was published three years earlier - I have a feeling the governess there has been ill as well, although I don't have my copy to hand to check. I think there's something of the same kind of ambiguity here as in James's novella. It is left uncertain whether the previous maid died as a result of supernatural events, and whether she really appears at the end to precipitate her mistress's death, or whether all this is in the mind of Alice Hartley. Hints of Jane Eyre are there in the background of both.

I've been noticing recently that there are a number of 19th/early 20th century novels where servants seem to take on something of the quality of ghostly doubles, stalking and taunting. One example of this is Rebecca, with Mrs Danvers, imbued with the spirit of the first wife, trying to drive the second wife to suicide, and there's a similar plot in the second half of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Making of a Marchioness, where a maid tries to murder the marchioness on behalf of her own mistress, again a dispossessed woman.

I know I haven't really thought all this out properly, but it's as though the middle/upper-class surface of these novels is haunted by the spectre of the vengeful servant - Peter Quint in 'The Turn of the Screw' is a servant who does return as a ghost to torment his masters, and there's a hint of the same thing here with Emma Saxon. I don't quite see, though, why Emma - or Hartley, if she is imagining it all - wants to expose the kindly wife as an adultress and expose her to the rage of the unappealing husband. You'd expect them both to side with her and turn away from him.

I see Catherine Lundie includes this story in the section of 'Restless Spirits' on marriage. Well, the marriage shown is certainly a bleak one - a loveless and violent power struggle. This also reminded me of our recent group read here, Iris Murdoch's 'The Unicorn', again with the pale wife trapped in her room and afraid of the violent husband. Quite a contrast with The Custom of the Country, where the wife is the violent one.

I'd like to read more of Wharton's stories.

All the best,

Date: Tue, 09 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] 'The Lady's Maid's Bell'

Judy wrote:

It is left uncertain whether the previous maid died as a result of supernatural events, and whether she really appears at the end to precipitate her mistress's death, or whether all this is in the mind of Alice Hartley.

Oh, good. So it wasn't just me.

I wondered if the husband killed the former maid, possibly for aiding and abetting his wife in an affair with Mr. Ranford. No one in the house wants to talk about her. Or maybe the maid died of natural causes and was herself in love with Mr. Brympton and wanted to avenge him for his wife's affair with Ranford. The last doesn't really seem to fit as everyone says she was devoted to her mistress.

I have been trying to figure out what the ghost wanted. I am assuming there is actually a ghost. If the ghost was, indeed, trying to communicate a message to Hartley, what was it?

At first I thought that the husband was possibly planning to kill Mrs. Brympton. That was the only explanation I could come up with for the ghost leading Hartley to the home of Mr. Ranford.

But then, it is Mrs. Brympton that dies which put a different spin on the story for me. Unless it was an accident and the ghost didn't intend the mistress to die.

What have I missed?


Re: Wharton's "The Lady's Maid's Bell" - on a second reading

I should have been reading all the short stories we've done at least twice. A short story is an art form more than a novel and a ghost story must be particularly artful if it is to have its effect. Short stories do not yield their meaning without meditation and looking at "the shape" as Judy says; when I've taught them in a collection, I read all of them in a row quickly after I read them separately so as to get a feel of the collection as a book which makes a statement in its own right. Good anthologies do this. I've just reread "The Lady's Maid's Bell" and on the second reading I like it much better; I still am not sure what happened quite, but I have an inkling of the meaning of the enigmatic events. I also read "The Eyes" for the first time.

Digression: Today I received an old copy of The Virago Book of Ghost Stories. Very inexpensive; like Restless Spirits it cost me around $6.00 altogether with postage. This is sad since it shows no one wants these collections of women's stories. It has "The Eyes" which I have read about a few times as very good. Then after I read Judy's and Dagny's postings, I reread "The Lady's Maid's Bell." I've also gone back to look at "Souls Belated," a really fine realistic story by Wharton which I read with students last fall (so I read it three times and then read student's papers on it), and have been thinking about "Afterward" and "Mr Jones."

I don't read it as a projection of Hartley's mind. To me (once again) that is to take the unreliable narrator too far: in the case of The Turn of the Screw (as I recall at any rate) we are given a number of explicit denials so that we are urged to disbelieve the governess. Nowhere in this story are we urged to disbelieve Hartley; in fact the behavior of the other servants is intended to make us feel they see Emma Mason; the behavior of the husband at the end suggests he has seen her; the room is left for her, the routine of having Agnes come for Hartley is to protect Hartley from Emma -- or keep them apart. It is a tragic story where tracks of grief and loss are found everywhere in the air and snow. I did like the use of snow in the story -- this reminded me of Gaskell's "Old Nurse's Story" and Oliphant's "Open Door" and Edwards's "Phantom Coach," only maybe Wharton is more modern because the snow can be just snow and is atmospheric rather than numinous. The detail of the snow streaking against the panes as Hartley peers out the window an sees only "the dark of the moon" and "nothing visible" is the kind of perfect stroke necessary to these ghost tales.

What do I surmize happened? Well, as the story opens we are told the woman had two children who are now dead. This strikes me as significant. The husband is brutal, a demanding coarse drunken lover and she has no recourse to say no: twice Hartley refers to her relief that she is not such a lady as Mrs Brympton. We get a line later in the story which suggests that when young and innocent Mrs Brympton had married him out of attraction and (foolish) girl love: "the kind of man a young simpleton might have thought handsome, and would have been like to pay dear for thinking it." He is himself bored, and probably thinks he is doing her a favor hanging around so much. Yes there are strong hints that if adultery is not actually going on physically, a liaison of deep emotional transgressions and anguished satisfactions are shared between Mr Ranford and Mrs Brympton. Are we ever told her first name?

The loneliness and solitude of the life is what the two prefer. They couldn't have an affair were they in public. "Souls Belated" is about a couple where the wife had left the husband and is living with an author whom she loves; they too are cut off from society, and she has to make a decision to marry him if they are not to be perpetually scapegoated or cut off from others. If the latter happens, his work will suffer. This motive of adultery is common in Wharton's novels -- it reflects her own need to leave her first husband, how hard it was to do it, her affair with Fullerton, her life-long companionship with Berry. They are buried next to one another in France somewhere (I believe). I have read Wharton's husband drank.

What's left ambiguous is the relationship between Emma and Mrs Brympton: how did Emma die? why is she now haunting Mrs Brympton? I feel that Emma caused Mrs Brympton to die; she was trying to lure Hartley into bringing Ranford back to the house so as to trap the lovers. I did fear Emma was taking Hartley into death -- as ghosts often do (so the little girl in the "Old Nurse's Tale" is threatened), but that was clearly not it. Emma is not concerned with Hartley.

The seething vengeful ghost is common. The triangle of irretrievable events and death and then a desire on the part of the ghost of the once living person wanting revenge or justice is central to many ghost tales. Was Emma the husband's mistress? He looks at Hartley to see if she will be "meat" for him. Since Emma several maid's have left precipitiously. If Emma was there so long, she saw those children die. Was it from neglect enforced by the husband? or the powerlessness and weakness of Mrs Brympton. Mrs Brympton is one of these typical central figures in ghost stories: nervous, sensitive, solitary, just the type the cruel forces of malignity seem to go after. This is the Kafaesque level of the ghost story but here we see some weakness. For we do not feel for sure that the death was unfair; most of the time the ghost hits where it can, and this ghost is altogether too much in charge. If Emma wants to remove her mistress so she can have the husband, that's too pragmatic a motive, not metaphysical and mischievous enough. A ghost should be more like Iago: motiveless malignity -- for the tale to have its thematic effect. Emma is just not that shaft through the heart of experience Wharton said a ghost story had to have. She is not projecting hatred and intensity and sneering -- as the eyes in the tale of the same name do. Nor as the fearful Mr Jones does.

I saw Hartley as an attempt at the prosaic interface we see in the man we first meet in Wuthering HeightsM; the kind of reasoning unimaginative person who is often put before us and the supernatural world just to make the slide easier and to give the disbelieving reader someone to identify with. She makes comic comments. But probably Wharton wants us to see her as a kind of echo of Mrs Bympton: she has just had typhoid; she has lost her looks; she is desperate, thin, needs a place. She is intelligent as she can read and reads well. But the parallel doesn't quite come off. Hartley is too prosaic and not in sufficient danger. She's too much in control -- the strongest moment of the story is really as she's walking up the stairs for the first time and sees Emma in the dark corridor.

The atmosphere is good, many good details but it just doesn't come off since the story is not sufficiently "lifted" off the ground. It lacks the intensity it needs; something is lacking in the presence of Emma, the ghost; and something is too sturdy in Hartley.

I'll compare it briefly to "The Eyes." This is a slight story too, very short. An aging wealthy connoisseur named Culwin has friends over, and proposes they all tell ghost stories. Everyone but he tells one and all but two men, the narrator and a young friend of Culwin leave; they challenge him to tell them of an intrusion which terrified or disturbed him. Twice in his life he was incessantly haunted by a pair of red eyes looking at him from above or near his bed; they looked at him with intense hatred; they sneered; they were vicious with cold cruelty. He would try to shut his eyes; he would hide under the bedclothes; he would get up, put on the light, walk about and they would be gone. But go back to bed, turn out the light, and there they'd be. Now the intensity and feel of this reminds me of the monkey story by Le Fanu we read on Trollope-l a couple of years ago. It also is uncanny in the way of M. R. James -- writing at this time. M. R.'s "whisper and I'll come to you unearths all readers' fears as does this story of sudden eyes quietly there.

What made them erupt? The narrator, Culwin, thinks he was very kind and good to two lover-friends, a woman whom he promised to marry (perhaps having having an affair) and a young man (the feel is homosexual and it's overt) whom he patronized and would not tell wrote dreadful stuff. He thinks he brought on these eyes as the world's derision on any kindness, as an eruption of the real indifference of the world -- but also he says well he neglected them too. He deserted the woman; he should have told the young man he was wasting his life. It seems he didn't want to be bothered; he didn't want to engage. Now this is like "Afterward" -- the woman who didn't want to look to see what her husband was doing to make them rich, who didn't engage, who stayed aloof, had no family, just lived a life of ease and withdrawal. Her husband is taken from her because he has made his wealth by cheating and betraying others.

But "Afterward" like "Mr Jones" and "Souls Belated" is much longer than either "The Lady's Maid's Bell" or "The Eyes." All three are much more developed, given much more detail and nuance. Mr Jones is literally nervewracking and really chilling, fearful at the end -- if you read it as a vampire story, which it invites. "The Eyes" has a language rhythm which reminds me of Henry James; it's a much later story than "The Lady's Maid's Bell." It leaves you scared a little; you don't want to see these eyes. But it needs more in my view. Wharton needed more space to make for more depth.

My feeling is "The Lady's Maid's Bell" is too much sheerly a melodramatic story; it really doesn't bring us into the world of inexplicable evil in the way of "Afterward" and "Mr Jones." It doesn't have the subtleties of "Souls Belated." It's good but not great.

On Wharton's picture: it could also be that she's older. The front cover of Cynthia Wolff's A Feast of Words shows a much younger fuller bodied woman, richly dressed. Her face is rounder, softer, this time she looks intently away from us.


I omitted to tell the ending of "The Eyes." It is a sort of surprize and it comes quickly. To me it was a device, too artificial, and therefore cheap. A lesson learned sort of thing. The narrator looks in the mirror and gasp (!) In "Afterward" the wife only slowly learns what has happened.

Now "The Lady's Maid's Bell" also is truncated in feel. It ends too abruptly. And it's a sort of trick ending. I got the feeling of a story got up for a magazine -- which I never did in "Afterward," "Souls Belated" or "Mr Jones."

I suggest Wharton needed room and space to create her effects, and lots of slowly developing details.


Date: Wed, 10 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] The Lady's Maid's Bell - and Incomprehension

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Here am I supposed to facilitate The Lady's Maid's Bell, but with all good intentions in the world, and me quite a Wharton fan too - I don't understand the story! A shameful thing to have to admit to this august company, but there you have it.

I will summarize it a bit, as at least I ought to be up to doing *that.*

Alice Hartley, the narrator, has recently recovered from typhoid and still appears so weak, no ladies are willing to engage her. Then a friend of the lady who brought her out to the States, proposes a place for her: to be lady's maid to her niece, Mrs. Brympton, at her country estate on the Hudson. Mrs. Brympton, though youngish, is nervous and vaporish, and her husband is best avoided. But she will be a kind mistress, and the place in the country would be the best thing for Hartley.

The house is a gloomy one in the woods, and Hartley is shown to her room. She notices an open door to another room which is empty, and the housemaid crossly says that Mrs. Brympton wants it kept locked. Hartley sees a pale woman in a dark gown, but the housemaid doesn't comment. There are other queer things: whenever Hartley's mistress wants her, a maid is sent, rather than a bell being rung. The cook tells her about the former lady's maid, Emma Saxon, who died; the mistress loved her like a sister, and it is her room that's kept locked up.

Mr. Brympton, a "bull-necked" man, puts in a rare appearance, and Hartley learns that her mistress spends more time with an neighbor and old friend, Mr. Ranford, with whom she shares tastes in common. Hartley is alarmed when a friend tells her that Mrs. Brympton has been unable to keep maids, and that it's not supposed to be worth while for a young woman to unpack her boxes there. She doesn't know what to think, except that there's clearly tension between the master and mistress. One night her bell unexpectedly rings. She hears someone slipping out of the locked room, and she hurries to her mistress's door. Mr. Brympton exclaims, "How many of you are there, in God's name?" and Mrs. Brympton, lying weak and still, addresses her as Emma, then says she's been dreaming. The next morning Mrs. Brympton sends her with a message to Mr. Ranford, and afterward Mr. Brympton questions her. Later, she finds a photo of Emma in her sewing machine. Neither Hartley nor her mistress are the same after the night the bell rang. Mr. Brympton goes off to the West Indies and things seem better, but then one snowy day Hartley goes out and comes face to face with the ghost of Emma, who regards her pleadingly. She follows her to Mr. Ranford's house, and Mr. Ranford asks what is the matter - but Emma has disappeared, without saying what she wanted. Late that night, the bell rings again. Hartley sees Emma in the hall, and hurries to Mrs. Brympton's room. The mistress turns pale, and says she didn't ring. Then Hartley hears a man's step and "the truth comes over her." She says she thinks it's Mr. Brympton, and the mistress faints. Mr. Brympton pushes past, saying it's a pity his wife didn't choose a more convenient moment but he's going to meet a friend. He won't look at his wife: "It seems that's done for me," he says. As he tears open the dressing-room door, there stands Emma. He throws up his hands to hide his face, and she is gone. Mrs. Brympton raises herself, then dies. There are few people at the funeral; Mr. Ranford, pale and in black, leans on a stick. Mr. Brympton notices it and stares at him...After the funeral Mr. Brympton drives off to the station, and the servants are left alone in the house...

End of synopsis. Well, I love the 1900 atmosphere, it feels we're back in the world of Marcella, and all the details of a servant's life are observed with clarity. Particularly the opening, where Hartley's position in the world, as a poor working woman, presumably an immigrant from Ireland, is set out. Recovering from typhoid, she is a helpless to secure employment and we get the strongest sense of what would induce a woman of the period to accept the life of a servant. It's both the depiction of the marriage, and the ghost part of the story that I just don't get. We're given a very wry shrewd clue as to what kind of man Mr. Brympton is - "the kind of man a young simpleton might have thought handsome, and would have been like to pay dear for thinking it." It is clearly Hartley's good fortune that she isn't the kind of "morsel" he is after. Does this imply, perhaps, that the dead maid Emma *was* his kind of morsel? Did he ruin her life? Is that how or why she died? Does he dally with all the lady's maids? But then there is the matter of Mrs. Brympton's friendship with Mr. Ranford, who is plainly much more congenial to her. Mr. Brympton seems jealous of him, as evidenced by a snatch of conversation partly overheard by Hartley. Is it Mrs. Brympton, the invalid, who's having an affair?

The significance of the bell, and both Mrs. Brympton's and Hartley's weakened reaction to it, completely escapes me. If Mrs. Brympton doesn't ring it, who does? Emma? Mr. Ransford? Does Mrs. Brympton cringe from the bell because it reminds her of Emma? But she loved Emma. Why did she order her room locked up? This points to Mr. Brympton perhaps "ruining" the servant. Then there's the question of what the ghost Emma tries and fails to tell Hartley. Why does she lead her to Mr. Ranford's house? The secret is left bafflingly unanswered. Is she seeking help for Mrs. Brympton, is she indicating that Mrs. Brympton is having an affair with Mr. Ranford - what? The final scene is most puzzling of all. The bell, and Emma, lead Hartley to her mistress's room, but Mrs. Brympton collapses with the arrival of her husband. Hartley suddenly realizes what it all means, but this reader certainly doesn't! Mr. Ranford is nowhere to be seen, and what is the significance of his carrying a stick at the funeral, and Mr. Brympton's anger at seeing it? Has he hurt himself? Are we to think he was mixed up in the bell ringing? What is going ON? I simply cannot tell!

Seldom have I seen a story that completely has me flummoxed like this, and it's useless to analyze it further since I clearly don't get the first thing of what it's about. It's odd too - Wharton is usually crystalline in her writing, and if her intentions are subtle, devious and layered, I've had no trouble in penetrating them in her wonderful novels such as The House of Mirth or Custom of the Country. Why should this rather slight little story be so impenetrable? At least I can invite a discussion by begging anyone who understands the story, to herewith enlighten me!

Diana Birchall

Date: Wed, 10 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] The Lady's Maid's Bell - and Incomprehension

Actually, I've been fairly reassured by all the expressions of puzzlement and incomprehension as far as this story goes as my reaction was the same: at first I thought I'd read over something because I'd read the story too fast; then I read it again more slowly and still didn't 'get' those very same episodes in the story Diana and others have also mentioned having trouble with. It's as if there were lacunae in the text. Still, I did find it quite atmospheric, and once I have more than a moment to spare, I'll try to read it again and see if it's a question of third time lucky and the fog clearing.


When you catch up with the posts, you will see you are not the only one with questions about the current story, The Lady's Maid's Bell. You mentioned in your post the stick which Mr. Ranford carried at the funeral. Somehow I just thought it was a cane. Now I don't know.


Date: Thu, 11 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] TV movie of 'The Lady's Maid's Bell'

I was interested to see from the imdb site that there was a TV movie of 'The Lady's Maid's Bell' made in 1985,with Joanna David as Hartley and June Brown, who plays Dot in EastEnders, as Emma Saxon. The details given are very brief, but, for what it's worth, here's the link:

All the best,

Date: Thu, 11 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] The Lady's Maid's Bell - Wharton Makes Us Work

Aha! You can't think how relieved I am. I wrote my bit on The Lady's Maid's Bell before I saw everyone else's comments on it (I'm on Digest). I was really starting to think I'd lost my marbles, not to have a clue about this story, so thank goodness, here was Judy calling it "ambiguous" and Dagny saying, "Oh good. So it wasn't just me," and Ellen admitting "I still am not sure what happened quite." All gave valiant attempts at interpretation and raised interesting points.

I don't feel that Hartley is an unreliable narrator, though I *do* wonder what kind of tricks Wharton is playing on us! (By the way, it's interesting that Ellen unconsciously calls the maid Emma Mason instead of Emma Saxton...shades of Bertha Mason, who has been evoked in this discussion.) Many interesting possibilities have been advanced, but *still* nothing quite explains to me why Ranford is leaning on his stick in the end, and why the husband says that ambiguous line as he steps over his dying wife, "It seems that's done for me." Does he mean "done for me" as in "I'm finished," or "that's done for me," meaning his love or usage of his wife? We need a literary detective here. I wonder if somebody has written about this in any Wharton lit crit.

OK, I've looked it over again - I can see I'm going to keep worrying it like a terrier with a rat until I get it! - and here's what I am in the process of thinking. Emma leads Hartley to Mr. Ranford's, so she can entrap Ranford and Mrs. Brympton (as Ellen suggests). Probably she wants to get even with the lot of them in revenge for her own horrible experiences. Then that night, a quiet snowy night, Hartley thinks she hears a door open and close again below - perhaps Ranford coming to or leaving the house, or Mrs. Brympton slipping back in after secretly visiting him. Then the bell rings just as Mr. Brympton arrives: Emma picks just the right moment to cause trouble. Hartley glimpses Emma, who is peering to see the results of what she's done. Hartley also sees that Mrs. Brympton is dressed (as if she's been entertaining a guest, or has slipped out and then returned - remember she told Hartley she wouldn't need her that evening). Mrs. Brympton turns pale when she hears that the bell has been rung - she must realize that Emma is trying to entrap her. But she is calm and well enough until Hartley informs her that Mr. Brympton is in the house. That's her death-stroke, that's when she collapses. Now, as Mr. Brympton comes rushing in, saying he's "going to meet a friend," he must be expecting to see Mr. Ranford with his wife. That explains his dismissal of his wife ("It seems that's done for me"). But instead of seeing Ranford, he sees Emma - and he knows it is the ghost who pulled the strings. I still don't know why Ranford "leaned a trifle on a stick he carried," but it definitely indicates a change in him, as he had been so "handsome and cheerful" when Hartley saw him at his house. "Mr. Brympton noticed it too, for the red spot came out sharp on his forehead." So the stick is given great significance in the story's last sentences. What does it mean?

But there are still more mysteries. Who summoned Mr. Brympton home? For he arrives quite purposefully, pushing his way into his wife's room "to meet a friend." As if somebody tipped him off. And, again, *why* does Emma lead Hartley to Ranford's house? It's something terribly important, maybe the key to the story - but Emma isn't able to tell her what she wants, and Hartley never understands what she's supposed to do. Warn Ranford of danger? Summon him to Mrs. Brympton's side? What? We don't know, and to me, this is the central unsolved mystery.

You know, at first I thought this was a flimsy, perhaps faultily put together story. I read a lot of "bad" stories full of plot holes, and found it hard to believe an Edith Wharton story would have any. Now, I conclude that she was experimenting. I am sure *she* knows what happens and what the story is all about, she has answers for everything even if we haven't quite figured them out yet. Perhaps she was trying to see just how little she could get away with telling us, how much bafflement would work. I think she overplayed the mystification, but it's certainly a viable experiment, and perhaps an interesting stage in her thinking about how to parcel out information in a mysterious "ghost story."

Thanks, Dagny, for unraveling for me the mystery of the Yahoo photos. I have regaled myself with all the pictures, and now I do see what you all mean about Wharton's chin. I think she looks quite anxious, doesn't she?

Diana Birchall

Re: "Lady's Maid's Bell:" Effective for a Film

What makes for a good film differs from what makes for a good verbal narrative. A couple of books I read more than 2 years ago now estimated that on average 37% of the original story scenes of a narrative is transposed into a film; the rest is either made up or added on, or the film-makers takes a stray detail or comment, an undramatized scene, and turns that into a film. That 37% may count and, thinking about the story, there's a lot that filmable in it. A narrative can emphasize the intangible and subjective; a film must show us something external to see. The film can also merely by showing us an actor moving silently away or making a gesture explain what is left unexplained in a story. So some great ghost stories would probably make bad films. "The Lady's Maid's Bell" has a lot of external action for its size. Perhaps the film-makers played upon the bell after which the story is named -- an eerie echoing uncanny sound? I can see this story could make an effective series of dramatic scenes and opposing characters.

As to the story, we still don't know why the title. It isn't the man's stick or cane. Why send Agnes for Hartley everytime the bell rings? What is Mrs Brymptom afraid of? Emma obviously, but why is one servant any stronger against Emma than another?

It's an effective story for atmosphere and suggestiveness about women's lots, attempts to ameliorate their lives anyhow, and men's allowed brutality. But it's not in a league with Wharton's others.


Date: Fri, 12 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] The Lady's Maid's Bell - Wharton Makes Us Work

Diana wrote:

. . . why the husband says that ambiguous line as he steps over his dying wife, "It seems that's done for me." Does he mean "done for me" as in "I'm finished," or "that's done for me," meaning his love or usage of his wife?

My very first instinct on reading that line was more like "I'm finished," but that didn't seem to make sense to me. Reading the three lines again:

"Sir, sir," said I, "for pity's sake look at your wife!"

He shook me off furiously.

"It seems that's done for me," says he, and caught hold of the dressing-room door.

I then took it to mean that he was replying to Hartley's plea to look at his wife and he meant that someone else (Ranford) was looking at (to) his wife for him.


Subject: [Womenwriters] The Lady's Maid's Bell

A stray thought: it may be that Emma hated being called by the bell. In Mary McCarthy's memoir she speaks of her wealthy grandmother having a hidden bell under the carpet which she'd discreetly hit. Fanny Burney wrote that what she hated worse, the humiliation which was the least hard to bear was being "rung" for.

Perhaps the husband would call Emma by that bell.

A man's cane or stick is of course a phallic symbol and we can link the bell to imagery of a woman's vulva.

We should not forget the ghost is also a projection of the author. I have been struck by this in those stories by women whose theme is the oppression of women, their exploitation, powerlessness. The ghost story by its very nature: the first person narrative, the distancing of the ghost, the triangular story of irretrievable guilt/justice and injustice/evil- malignity-mischief tends to displace this from the reader's consciousness. But it's there, and especially the type of woman's ghost story chosen by Lundie in Restless Spirits.

Ellen Date: Sat, 13 Dec 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] 'The Lady's Maid's Bell'

I've really been enjoying all the postings on 'The Lady's Maid's Bell' and have just re-read it- I still don't feel as if I understand it fully, but I definitely think it needs to be read more than once. As with other ghost stories, I find I can get more sense of the shape if I read a second time from the start in knowledge of the ending.

I now agree with Ellen that this story is not as ambiguous as I thought at first, in terms of whether the ghost really appears or is just a phantom conjured up by Hartley's overwrought imagination after her illness. There are clear hints that other people see the ghost too - including Mr Blympton's question when Hartley turns up at the bedroom door: "How many of you are there, in God's name?" There's also Mrs Blinder's refusal to enter into the subject of Emma Saxon, or the mysterious closed bedroom, at all, always turning back to her cookery at key moments. I liked the humour of her ending one section of the story by rushing back to her pastry, and another by rushing off to cook her Victoria ham. Another pointer to the ghost having a "real" presence in the house, outside Hartley's mind, is the fact that she sees Emma before she knows who she is, and before she has seen the picture.

IAll the same, nobody else says outright that they have seen the ghost, and nobody else hears the bell ringing - so Hartley is never quite sure that others see what she sees.

Ellen wrote:

What's left ambiguous is the relationship between Emma and Mrs Brympton: how did Emma die? why is she now haunting Mrs Brympton? I feel that Emma caused Mrs Brympton to die; she was trying to lure Hartley into bringing Ranford back to the house so as to trap the lovers.

II also took it that Emma is somehow taking a revenge on her mistress, and luring Ranford to the house in order to precipitate their discovery, so I was quite surprised to see that, in her introduction to 'Restless Spirits', Catherine Lundie takes the opposite view. She sees Emma as returning to protect her mistress, to prevent her secret relationship from being discovered. Lundie writes:

"Edith Wharton's 'The Lady's Maid's Bell' is a tale about an upper- class New York couple who are utterly incompatible. The brutal Mr Brympton casts responsibility for this on his reserved wife, blaming his alternating bouts of sexual exploitation and neglect of her on the fact that she makes their home 'about as lively as the family vault'. When the ghost of Emma Saxon, Mrs Brympton's maid and companion of twenty years, mutely appears to Hartley, the new lady's maid, Hartley is unable to break through caste to piece together the scattered clues that suggest her mistress has a secret that needs protecting. Sexual victimisation, helplessness, class barriers - these are all untold female stories that the silent Emma symbolises. Wharton does not tell a simple tale of goodness besieged by evil, yet it is clear that Mrs Brympton, the "angel" whose servants "worshipped the ground she walked on," is a legitimate Victorian angel in the house nonetheless. Neither she nor the women who serve and love her are able to rescue Mrs Brympton from her fate as Mr Brympton's wife."

After reading this passage, I can see that it is possible to read the story as if Emma is protecting Mrs Brympton - she somehow rings the bell the first time to summon Hartley when her mistress needs her at night, and the second time to make sure Hartley is there to come between wife and husband, and to stop Ranford from being discovered. But to me this reading doesn't quite add up - because it is Emma who summons Ranford, and because the incident ends in the wife's death. Maybe Emma draws her to the grave to protect her from her husband's rage, and to be reunited with her?

My feeling is that the two lady's maids ought to be more central to the story than Lundie's reading suggests, and that their feelings for their mistress must be more complicated than worshipping her. I had been expecting a revelation in this story about how Emma died, and how the two children died - but then, as Diana pointed out, so many questions are left unanswered, and so in a way the story is unsatisfying. All the same, I do find it atmospheric, and, since my first reading, have found myself remembering the image of that silent ghost standing there waiting, and drawing Hartley after her through the snow.

Diana wrote:

Many interesting possibilities have been advanced, but *still* nothing quite explains to me why Ranford is leaning on his stick in the end, and why the husband says that ambiguous line as he steps over his dying wife, "It seems that's done for me." Does he mean "done for me" as in "I'm finished," or "that's done for me," meaning his love or usage of his wife? We need a literary detective here. I wonder if somebody has written about this in any Wharton lit crit.

I agree with Dagny that, reading this in context, it seems as if he means "that" - ie, looking at his wife - is being done for him, by someone else, i.e., Ranford. But maybe the pun here is intentional, because this incident has also "done for him" in terms of putting an end to his marriage.

II wondered if Ranford leaning on his stick was a clue to the fact that he had indeed been there, although the husband never sees him because Emma steps in the way, and that Ranford had somehow been injured - perhaps that "slight noise" in the room is him falling.

IThanks to Ellen for pointing out that the ghost can be seen as a projection of the author. I really like this idea - it's the ghost that shapes the story, forcing the characters together for the final confrontation. And, in this case, the ghost is silent, just as Wharton also is silent, leaving us guessing about her intentions.

Well, this is turning into an early-morning epic, so I'd better finish here!

All the best,

Re: "The Lady's Maid's Bell"

Judy wrote:

After reading this passage, I can see that it is possible to read the story as if Emma is protecting Mrs Brympton - she somehow rings the bell the first time to summon Hartley when her mistress needs her at night, and the second time to make sure Hartley is there to come between wife and husband, and to stop Ranford from being discovered. But to me this reading doesn't quite add up - because it is Emma who summons Ranford, and because the incident ends in the wife's death. Maybe Emma draws her to the grave to protect her from her husband's rage, and to be reunited with her?

This is what always bothered me too, Judy. I wanted to believe that Emma was devoted to Mrs. Brympton. Believing that this is so, I have to conclude that Mrs. Brympton's death was an accident, that the ghost didn't mean to frighten her to death.


I've also been looking at some biographical material on Edith Wharton, and was struck by the fact that she herself nearly died of typhoid as a child - the same illness she gives to Hartley in 'The Lady's Maid's Bell'. So Hartley is possibly someone who has come back from the brink of death.


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