The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

A new post for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts is the house that Edith Wharton built. She designed it as an elegant retreat from New York society in which she could write and her mentally ill husband, Teddy, could hopefully find some peace. The couple lived within its white stuccoed walls from 1902 to 1911, by which point their marriage was on the verge of collapse and Wharton was a respected author. The Mount became a National Historic Landmark in 1971, and it remains a museum dedicated to Wharton, putting on public lectures and panel discussions, dramatic readings, workshops, concerts, and film screenings. It also has a reputation as one of the most haunted houses in America. In grounds which include an Italian walled garden, a Georgian Revival gatehouse, a stable, and a pet cemetery, the Mount, complete with dark shutters, a coarse stone base, balustrade, and cupola, certainly looks the part. There are ‘ghost walks’ for the tourists, and the paranormal reality series Ghost Hunters broadcast two shows from the house, where, it is said, pale faces gaze from the windows of empty rooms, footsteps can be heard along the marble halls (believed to be Wharton’s maid, Catherine Gross), and shimmering orbs dance in the moonlight. Like something out of a novel by Shirley Jackson, the spirit of a pregnant chambermaid who hanged herself when her lover rejected her has been seen swinging from the upstairs landing where she died. The apparition of a man ‘with glowing eyes’ was reported by a builder working in an upstairs apartment, while a shadowy figure has been seen wandering the woods that surround the house for decades. Mediums have claimed that the heart of the house is Teddy’s study, in which several female visitors have reported having their hair pulled.

Rumours of hauntings began when the house was converted into a school for girls in the 1940s. These stories intensified after the Mount became the base for a Shakespearean theatre company in the 1970s, although it wasn’t paranormal activity that drove out the actors but a dispute with their landlords. And although it is quite a creepy-looking house, it is more than likely that the root of most if not all of these eerie legends are the ghost stories of Wharton herself, transposed onto the house in which she wrote several of them while making her name as a serious novelist.

Wharton had modelled the Mount on Belton House in Lincolnshire, a 17th century country house where, incidentally, a black-clad spirit is reported to haunt the bedchamber reserved for royal visits. The build was a collaboration with the architect and interior designer Ogden Codman Jr, a close friend with whom she had co-written The Decoration of Houses (1897), a popular and influential manual of interior design that eschewed Victorian ornament in favour of classical symmetry, simplicity, and order. Despite the success of The Decoration of Houses, financing the project was tight. Wharton was in a legal battle with her brothers over her mother’s will and she was still some years away from literary success and a stable, independent income.

Wharton wrote prolifically at the Mount, producing six novels including her literary breakthrough, The House of Mirth (1905), and her masterpiece, Ethan Frome (1911). She also authored four nonfiction books on interior design and travel there, a collection of poetry, and three collections of short stories, ending with Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910). She wrote fondly of the house in her memoir, A Backward Glance (1934), though she said little about her husband’s degenerating state of mind, his numerous infidelities, or the verbal and physical abuse she experienced behind those dark green shutters. ‘Teddy Wharton seems to be losing his mind,’ Codman had written while working on the house, ‘which makes it very hard for his wife.’ Instead, the trauma of this loveless, childless, and volatile marriage seeped into her fiction. If there is any sort of ghostly presence in the Mount, it is probably the echo of a brilliant, lonely, and frightened woman whose only possibility of escape from her miserable marriage was through her writing.

Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862. Her family’s immense wealth and attendant social status was founded on real estate, and legend has it that they were the origin of the phrase ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. They wintered in New York, had a summer house in Newport, and travelled extensively in Europe. Wharton began writing stories as a child, something her family discouraged as not being a suitable direction for a young lady of quality. She came out as a debutante in 1879 and in 1885 married Edward Robbins ‘Teddy’ Wharton of Boston. Edith was 23, Teddy was 35. Like his wife, Teddy came from old money. The couple shared a love of foreign travel, but he was not her intellectual equal. He was by all accounts an imperious man, also subject to hysterical mood swings and periods of intense despair, a manic condition inherited from his father, who had died in an asylum. Teddy took his many frustrations out on his wife, and close friends including Henry James urged her to leave him. By 1908, Teddy’s mental illness was deemed incurable. Wharton had meanwhile begun an affair with William Morton Fullerton, a foreign correspondent for The Times, and the couple finally divorced in 1913 after 28 years of marriage.

Wharton relocated to France the following year, despite the outbreak of war, and lived there for the rest of her life, visiting the US only once, in 1923, to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale. During the Great War, Wharton worked tirelessly to support refugees, the unemployed, the injured and the infirm, using her society connections to raise money and her literary connections to raise awareness, encouraging America to enter the war. In 1916, she was awarded the Légion d’honneur for her war work. Wharton was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1927, 1928, and 1930 (losing to Henri Bergson, Sigrid Undset, and Sinclair Lewis), and counted among her close friends Lewis, James, Jean Cocteau, André Gide, and Theodore Roosevelt. She never remarried.

Unsurprisingly, isolation, loneliness, and loveless marriages haunt Wharton’s realist fiction, which is an elegant commentary on the mores of the class to which she belonged through the ‘Gilded Age’ of American ascendancy – a period of industrialisation and rapid growth followed by war and economic depression. The House of Mirth, for example, charts the downward spiral of the high-born but penniless Lily Bart as she searches for a suitable husband until she is destroyed by the elite New York society that she is at once part of and excluded from. The bleak and claustrophobic Ethan Frome (1911) is the story of a tragic love triangle between poor farmer Ethan, his bitter and profligate wife Zeena, and her cousin Mattie, who is as warm as Zeena is cold. In her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence (1920), the New York lawyer Newland Archer cannot marry the women he loves, the unconventional European divorcee Ellen Olenska, because of the social constraints and disapproval of his class, who steer him towards Ellen’s more socially acceptable cousin.

Although perhaps less well known as a writer of ghost stories, Wharton’s supernatural fiction continues to explore these themes by other means. Her relationship with the genre is fascinating. Her first ghost story, ‘The Fulness of Life’, was published in Scribner’s in 1893, only 18 months after she started writing for the magazine; her last, ‘All Souls’’ – not just her final ghost story but the last story she ever wrote – was written especially for an anthology of otherwise previously published stories, Ghosts, in 1937, the year Wharton died. Compiling this collection of what she considered her best supernatural fiction and writing ‘All Souls’’ was Wharton’s final authorial act. In her preface to Ghosts, she wrote that ‘I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them.’ This fear went back to her childhood. When she was nine, she contracted typhoid and was bedridden for weeks. All she could do was read, and although her mother restricted her access to novels, two friends lent her a children’s book that was considered to be innocuous. This was not the case. ‘To an unimaginative child the tale would no doubt have been harmless,’ she wrote in her posthumously published memoir, Life and I (essentially the first draft of A Backward Glance), continuing: ‘but it was a “robber-story” and with my intense Celtic sense of the supernatural, tales of robbers and ghosts were perilous reading.’ The title of this book remains a mystery, but perhaps because of her sheltered life, or more likely amplified by fever, the shock of reading triggered a relapse from which she eventually awoke changed:

When I came to myself, it was to enter a world haunted by formless horrors. I had been a naturally fearless child; now I lived in a state of chronic fear. Fear of what? I cannot say – and even at the time, I was never able to formulate this terror. It was like some dark, indefinable menace, forever dogging my steps, lurking, and threatening; I was conscious of it wherever I went by day, and at night it made sleep impossible, unless a light and a nursemaid were in the room.

Bizarrely, though Wharton was a declared fan of the uncanny tales of Scott, Hawthorne, and Poe, the supernatural fiction of M.R. James and Walter de la Mare, and a champion of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw – ‘which stands alone among tales of the supernatural’ – she further confessed in Life and I that she could not bear to sleep in a room with a book containing a ghost story until she was almost 30, adding that ‘I have frequently had to burn books of this kind because it frightened me to know they were downstairs in the library.’ (As with Teddy’s illness, these recollections were omitted from A Backward Glance.) It is notable that in these obviously traumatic memories, the fear was never of the supernatural but its textual representation. The young Wharton was not afraid of ghosts per se, but of books about ghosts…

To read the complete piece please click here


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s