Edith Wharton’s Ghosts

Edith Wharton’s home, the Mount.

“Oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it,” an English lady tells an eager American couple at the start of one of Edith Wharton’s stories.

The one, of course, is a ghost. The Americans are newly rich and thus in need of an estate. Their manor need not have either hot water or electricity. Their sole requirement is that there be a ghost in residence, and the only haunted house their hostess can offer is a country home, in Dorsetshire, whose ghostliness is as vague as a ghost itself. In “Afterward,” one is only sure of having seen a ghost, well, afterward.

The story appeared in Tales of Men and Ghosts, a collection published in 1910, while Edith was still living with her husband, Teddy, at the Mount, the estate in the Berkshires that she designed and expanded as her writing income allowed. The House of Mirth not only made her a best-selling author and celebrity when it was published in 1905, it paid for her elaborate gardens. The Mount was sold in 1911—the specter of divorce loomed—and after the Whartons moved out, the place became famous as a haunted house. An extremely haunted house, in fact, whose ghosts do not bother with ambiguity or disguises, as in the opening pages of “Afterward,” but freely roam the hills and halls at all times of day and night. I had gone to the Mount on a guided tour of the haunted grounds, hoping to overcome my fear.

What was I afraid of? Nothing specific, and everything all at once. Just as it’s the “rare bird” who sees ghosts outright, it’s unusual to know what single, precise thing haunts you. The “ghost-feeler,” according to Edith, is more common—aware of the presence of ghosts, but abstractly. What would happen if I actually saw one? I hoped that I could mumble a few words of awkward, apologetic exorcism and feel less haunted by my own anxiety, the “vague dread” I recognized in Edith’s ghost stories.

The sign for the Mount was half hidden from the road, beneath the twilit shadows of skeletal trees. A man with a salt-and-pepper bob who resembled a millennial Vincent Price coolly checked my name off a list. His beard was as neatly groomed as the lawns. A groundskeeper, I learned later, amused.

“How many of you believe in ghosts?” asked our tour leader, a warm and knowledgeable woman in black, from a podium in a dark barn. Nearly every person in the group of two dozen adults raised their hand.

In a preface to her ghost stories, Wharton writes, “I do not believe in ghosts, but I am afraid of them.” Following an attack of typhoid as a child, Wharton writes in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, that she returned from the brink of death with “chronic fear” that felt like a “choking agony of terror.” Well into young adulthood, she would not sleep without a light and a maid present in her room. “It was like some dark, indefinable menace, forever dogging my steps, lurking, and threatening,” she writes, and I could not help but think of Hilary Mantel’s childhood encounter with an indescribable evil in her family’s garden. Must all women be visited by terror so consistently and from such a young age? The rumors of paranormal activity at the Mount began after the house become an all-girls school in the forties, and intensified when the theater troupe Shakespeare and Company took residence there in the seventies. The performers were kicked out more than a decade ago in a landlord-tenant dispute that seemed, publicly, not related to the supernatural. Even so, nothing attracts the devil more than a group of adolescent girls, except for maybe a group of actors.

Before the tour began, blurry, enlarged pictures were displayed as evidence on a large bulletin board under the heading “Ghostly Phenomenon Caught in Photos” and subcategorized as “faces in windows,” “entities seen and unseen,” “the unexplained,” and “ghostly orbs.” The group was reminded to keep handy the flashlights that were passed around. I could discern nothing but unlit hallways and shadows in the photographs and the unexplained was left that way. The time had come to meet the ghosts of the Mount.

Charles—the caretaker employed by the Whartons—manifests regularly in the stables and carriage house, we were told, as an orb of light that dances and vibrates responses to yes-or-no questions, as a voice that bids goodnight to solitary employees, as fragrant cigar smoke, and as heavy footsteps from the top-floor apartments where he lived with his family. Silence and continuity are the conditions under which ghosts flourish, writes Wharton. They’re the same conditions that strike me as necessary for writing. Isolation and loneliness are thematic cornerstones for Wharton, whether emotionally among New York high society or living hand to mouth on a farm amid the bleakest conditions of a long winter. It’s not hard to imagine the villagers in Ethan Frome throwing the stones in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or Frome himself taunting Merricat Blackwood over a stale cup of coffee in a drab diner.

Charles did not appear, and we moved on to the apartments upstairs by way of the hayloft. Rotting shutters and ladders were barely visible in the dark. Here, we were told, a workman once saw a crouching figure that, when prodded to pass a hammer, stood up, a shadowy wraith with glowing eyes. “He left and never came back,” said our guide of the workman, with a smile. A weak laugh passed among the group. We were told the story of the chambermaid who hanged herself just above where we standing. She found herself pregnant, but her lover refused to marry her. With no options, she made sure that he would see her. It seems as if most small towns have a story like this one, and I wrote in my notes a reminder to send a donation to Planned Parenthood. We then shuffled into the apartments of Charles and his family, where the ghoulish decor was perfection: crumbling chairs alone in otherwise empty rooms, and old-fashioned toys in dark corners, early-twentieth-century wallpaper in mauve and chartreuse underneath disfigured gray water stains, ribbons of paint whose curls revealed rust and rotted wood. In one room, there were two detective chairs, perhaps left by Shakespeare & Co. or the Ghost Hunters crew, who had been to the Mount to film two episodes. No ghosts were spotted, and we went into the woods, where the shadow-man could be spotted hulking between Norway spruces.

Finally, we made our way to the main house, by way of the pet cemetery. Wharton loved dogs. Her most charming and least scary ghost story is about a pack of dogs who avenge a mistress locked in a tower by her cruel husband. Standing behind the tiny headstones, I caught sight of the mansion and its gardens for the first time. Wharton modeled it on an English manor, Belton House, itself haunted by its own shadow-man. Walking across the lawns, we paused to take in the what view we could in the dark. White stucco with dark green shutters framed its many windows. The opening passage of Shirley Jackson’s most famous book came to mind: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within.” During their final years of marriage, Teddy Wharton had grown increasingly and uncontrollably hysterical; he probably suffered from manic depression, as had his father, who died in an asylum. It was Henry James who urged Wharton’s final separation from her husband, after witnessing at least one “violent” incident at the Mount.

Despite my efforts to remain as close to the others in the group as I could politely manage, I was herded toward a mirrored wall in the entrance hall of the mansion. I thought of the mirrors from Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”: “A dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides.” Carter’s dark humor seems descended directly from the lips of Hartley, the titular maid in Wharton’s “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell.” Where Hartley notes that she is not the master’s preferred “morsel,” Carter’s Bluebeard is a “gourmand.” Wharton’s lady’s maid, and her housekeeper at the Mount, was a woman named Catherine Gross, who, we were told, still walks the marble halls, her loyalty to Wharton extending beyond the grave. Our guide had heard those footsteps for herself.

The only room where I felt truly frightened was Teddy’s study. Wharton was a designer, and writer, for whom symmetry was the most important element, and yet Teddy’s room was strangely asymmetrical and unbalanced. The double doors from the outside are a facade and the molding sharply interrupts a tall, arching ceiling. In a palace, it is a tiny space. When a psychic visited the estate, he claimed to see a man trapped in the room, threatening to dismember a woman with an ax. I was tempted to stare at my toes or close my eyes, but I kept them open. I was there to see for myself. When else would I get the chance to look directly at what scares me? Suddenly, a young woman with long curls screamed and jumped. She felt something pull her hair. This ghost, it seemed, was not interested in me as a morsel.

In the bedroom, our guide told us that Wharton remained superstitious, always pointing her slippers in a certain direction to protect herself from “hobgoblins.” In the window of her bathroom, a face sometimes appears in photographs, and we were encouraged to take out our cameras. Finally, at the end of the evening, we stood on the servants’ stairs for thirty seconds of silence. “Let us know you’re here with us,” implored the guide. Was it on those very stairs that Wharton imagined Hartley running into her mistress’s violent husband “in such a state that I turned sick to think of what some ladies have to endure and hold their tongues about”? Had she encountered her own husband in that state? I heard only the breath of my neighbors.

Afterward, I knew that I had seen a ghost, but it was none of the apparitions named on the tour. I had felt the real fear of a woman whose only chance to escape an unstable marriage was through the unlikely success of her writing. How have the fears of women changed so little in the course of a century? The “native demon of worry” trails closely still. The picture I took of the haunted windowpane showed only empty glass, but along the paths and hallways of the Mount appeared the characters of literary horror descended from Wharton and her ghosts, women whose sanctuary from “dread” and “disquietude” was in the stories they wrote. In the immortal love of Wharton’s story “Bewitched,” I saw Karen Russell’s vampires. In the black figure that roams the hills and crouches in corners, I saw the creature that stalks Mrs. Caliban’s neighborhood. In the eyes that follow the narrator around in “The Eyes,” I saw Carmen Maria Machado’s murdered girl with bells for eyes. In Laura van den Berg’s grieving widow from The Third Hotel, I saw the continuation of “Afterward.” I saw all these women and their monsters, and I felt at home among them, if not at peace.

 

Nicole Jones is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in VICE, VanityFair.com, the Harper’s Magazine website, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and others. Her memoir, Low Country, is forthcoming from Catapult in 2021.

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