Above, right: “Once I tried to go back; but she turned and looked at me.”
Illustration by Walter Appleton Clark for Edith Wharton,
“The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” Scribner’s Magazine 32 (1902).
(Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library)
Table of Contents
I: Until Death Do Us Part . . . and After: Marriage
The Lady’s Maid’s Bell (1902)…Edith Wharton…27
The Readjustment (1908)…Mary Austin…46
The Shell of Sense (1908)…Olivia Howard Dunbar…52
Spunk (1925)…Zora Neale Hurston…62
A Legend of Sonora (1891)…Hildegarde Hawthorne…68
II: The Tie that Binds: Motherhood
The Children (1913)…Josephine Daskam Bacon…73
Broken Glass (1911)…Georgia Wood Pangborn…91
The Little Gray Ghost (1912)…Cornelia A. P. Comer…99
Hunger (1907)…Katharine Holland Brown…112
The Giant Wistaria (1891)…Charlotte Perkins Gilman…123
III: The “Other” Woman: Sexuality
At La Glorieuse (1898)…M. E. M. Davis…133
The Past (1920)…Ellen Glasgow…154
Secret Chambers (1909)…Mrs. Wilson Woodrow…175
Her Letters (1895)…Kate Chopin…192
IV: Madwomen or Mad Women? The Medicalization of the Female
The Second Wife (1912)…Mary Heaton Vorse…203
Her Story (1872)…Harriett Prescott Spoffor…217
The Gospel (1913)…Josephine Daskam Bacon…235
Clay-Shuttered Doors (1926)…Helen R. Hull…252
V: Shades of Discontent: Widows and Spinsters
Lois Benson’s Love Story (1890)…Anne Page…271
A Dissatisfied Soul (1904)…Annie Trumbull Slosson…284
Mistress Marian’s Light (1889)…Gertrude Morton…300
Luella Miller (1902)…Mary E. Wilkins Freeman…305
“You’re wondering why I take this so cool, as if it wasn’t anything so much out of the common. . . . It appeared to come about so natural, just in the course of things. . . .”
– Annie Slosson, “A Dissatisfied Soul”
These homely words of explanation, spoken by Annie Slosson’s Mrs. Weaver about the day her dead sister-in-law walked through the front door, could stand as a motto for all of the tales collected here. In these ghost stories by turn-of-the-century American women, there is free and easy passage between the natural and supernatural worlds. This does not mean that the appearance of a ghost isn’t frightening; even the placid Mrs. Weaver feels “‘a swimmy feeling in my head and a choky feeling down my throat, and a sort of trembly feeling all over.'” Yet she sees no point in making a fuss: “‘I says, ‘Why, good-morning, Maria, you’ve come back.’ And she says, ‘Good-morning, Lyddy: yes, I have.'” Mrs. Weaver is not alone in her no-nonsense attitude toward the supernatural. Her emphasis on realism and the everyday ”’we sort of got used to it after a spell, as you do to anything'” is characteristic of most seers of ghosts in these stories. In the worldview espoused by the authors gathered here, the doors stand wide open between living and dead, present and past, natural and supernatural.
The present collection itself hopes to open a door into a part of America’s literary past that has been closed for the better part of a century. 1 Although aficionados of the ghost story will probably recognize the names of Edith Wharton, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Ellen Glasgow, they will not likely be familiar with those of Gertrude Morton, M. E. M. Davis, or Anne Page. Yet these women, and others whose tales appear here, had enormous popular success with the ghost story in the turn-of-the-century United States.2 These authors contributed a uniquely feminist chapter to the annals of supernatural literature. Unlike most fiction produced during this heyday of the genre, with its male narrators, ghosts, and protagonists, American women’s ghost stories revolve very much around a female world. The narrative voice is (almost always) female, the characters are (almost entirely) female, even the ghosts are (almost without exception) female. Male characters are generally peripheral, because they show themselves to be antipathetic to the very possibility of the supernatural. As Mary Heaton Vorse’s Beata realizes with resignation in “The Second Wife,” her husband “couldn’t admit what he had seen. In his man’s world such things couldn’t be.”
But for what reasons do these restless spirits return? And why have their authors brought them into being in the first place? Men’s supernatural fiction of the same era is usually discussed as a demonstration of the weighty social concerns and cultural anxieties of an increasingly technologized civilization. Critics conclude that the genre allowed male writers to give voice to their culture’s tension between material and spiritual conceptions of the world. 3 In contrast, women’s ghost stories, which have received much less critical attention, are most often assessed as less substantial, less worldly. Even critics who champion the stories tend to describe them in terms of the “female fears,” “female rage,” “female desire,” or “female pain” that emerges through their focus on issues of vulnerability and marginality. Although this description is valid on a certain level, authors do not produce texts solely out of private experience. Women’s ghost stories are also shaped by their particular intellectual, economic, and political milieu; they too grow out of social concerns and cultural anxieties, albeit some different ones than those experienced by men. If one can detect fear, rage, desire, and pain in these tales, then one must logically ask: what exactly are the authors afraid of? enraged by? desirous of? pained by? In other words, why are these women, like the female characters they raise from the dead, such restless spirits?
When examined in social and cultural terms, ghost stories by turn-of-the-century American women reveal themselves to center on the institutions and ideological issues that shaped their authors’ lives. Marriage, motherhood, sexuality, mental and physical health, spinsterhood, widowhood: over and over, with chilling insistence, the stories confront these themes. Through them the authors explore the deeply entrenched ideologies of womanhood: the “angel in the house,” the sanctity of motherhood, “passionlessness”that had evolved over the course of the nineteenth century in the United States. Depicting women of different classes (and, to a lesser degree, races), the tales simultaneously reflect and question the era’s cultural discourses on the nature and role of the female.4 As such, they provide a rich and valuable source of insight into the all-pervasiveness of the ideologies in these women writers’ lives. Set in all corners of the United States, from Maine to Louisiana to the Midwest, these are exclusively ghost stories of American women’s lives, a fact that makes them additionally unique.
The decision of these authors to employ the ghost story genre is a significant one. The supernatural is intertwined with the American literary mainstream of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Authors as diverse as Washington Irving, Herman Melville, Ambrose Bierce, and Henry James capitalized on the literary possibilities of the supernatural, using it as a forum through which to investigate otherwise unapproachable moral, psychological, and political issues. For the women writers, its function was similar; the ghost story acted as allegory, allowing them to explore issues they felt needed addressing. At the same time, it shielded them from the critical recrimination to which they were more vulnerable. The allegorical nature of the ghost story enabled them to displace their grievances onto supernatural forces, thereby safely giving voice to the political “other” of their messages. Within this process, then, the ghost itself often acts as (speaking) symbol for the writers’ dissatisfactions.
For this reason, perhaps, ghosts in American women’s stories are unusually likely to retain the personality and in some cases even the physical form that they had while living. By the turn of the century, this type of ghost was seen as more or less passé in men’s ghost stories, belonging as it did to the older, “largely decorative” gothic tradition as Jack Sullivan deprecatingly calls it. Connoisseurs of the ghostly tale preferred a “more actively loathsome, menacing quality.” The distinction is captured in more imaginative terms by H. P. Lovecraft: “[W]here the older stock ghosts were pale and stately, and apprehended chiefly through the sense of sight,” the newer ghost is “a sluggish, hellish night-abomination midway betwixt beast and man and usually touched before it is seen.” But to utilize this type of being would be to defeat the purpose of the supernatural encounter in American women’s ghostly fiction. While encounters between living and dead in traditional, male-authored ghost stories occur as “just deserts for past wickedness” or simply “through incautious enthusiasm, folly, or sheer bad luck,” 5 the reason is entirely different in the stories collected here. As Lynette Carpenter and Wendy Kolmar point out, “[W]omen characters realize their commonality with the ghostly women and children they encounter and are often called upon to understand and act upon the messages brought by those who haunt their houses.”6
The stories in this volume are organized thematically in order to highlight their social and cultural contexts, and a summary of themes follows. There are, naturally, interconnections between each story and a number of themes; these tales can be read in a variety of ways, as their appeal is wide-ranging. They should prove both intriguing and entertaining to readers of all sorts.”
Until Death Do Us Part…and After: Marriage
“What the Presence had wrought upon him in the night was visible in his altered mien. He looked, more than anything else, to be in need of sleep. He had eaten his sorrow, and that was the end of it as it is with men.”
– Mary Austin, “The Readjustment”
The institution of marriage, to judge by the frequency with which it is written about, is the topic that most haunts turn-of-the-century American women writers. This is not surprising, as the marriage relationship was considered the primary source of a woman’s identity. The rapid industrialization and commercialization of nineteenth-century America resulted in an ever-widening separation of male and female spheres. While men spent increasing amounts of time in the workplace, women were relegated more and more to home and family. Charged with preserving values and creating a safe haven for husband and children, women was to be the angel in the house. Her presumed suitability for such a role was grounded in the assumption that females were morally superior to males, itself a cornerstone for the ideology of “true womanhood.” This popular ideal of womanhood had by midcentury become firmly established, and although it operated most powerfully in the lives of middle-class, white women, it was held up as a model to all females, regardless of class or race. The “true woman” was expected to be the embodiment of purity, piety, submissiveness, and domesticity.
The ghost stories on marriage, however, tell the secret, the disallowed story, of the reality behind “home as haven” and what it really means to be a true woman or an angel in the house. They provide thought-provoking, often painful examinations of the marital relationship, exploring infidelity (of both husband and wife), sexual and psychological abuse, marriages of convenience, and the less dramatic but also tragic mismatching of partners.
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 victimization, helplessness, class barriers these are all untold female stories that the silent Emma symbolizes. 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.
In Mary Austin’s “The Readjustment,” a dissatisfied wife returns to haunt her husband, seeking a deeper meaning to the emotionally stunted life they had led together. The communication between husband and dead wife is facilitated by a nameless neighbor woman, who isn’t surprised when she finds that Emma Jossylin has returned. In fact, she comments to herself, it would be “‘[a] sight stranger if she wouldn’t.'” For Emma was a woman who “had always wanted things different, wanted them with a fury of intentness that implied offensiveness in things as they were.” But when the neighbor gets the pathetic Sim to finally bare his “small soul” to Emma, revealing that he had loved her, her presence clings close. It becomes apparent that Emma, even with her overwhelming superiority and ambitions, would have cared for him willingly had he once confided in her. Austin shows that marriage, even one of such unequal partners, involves a torturous commitment, the strength of which is demonstrated in this story by its transcendence of death. Yet even as the burden of responsibility fell on Emma in life, it falls on her (and the neighbor) in death, for it is she who tries to achieve peace for this torn couple. Emma Jossylin must “readjust” to her new state by accepting that her marriage could not have been any more fulfilling than it was, that her husband was incapable of giving any more than he does under the pressure of her haunting.
Olivia Howard Dunbar’s “The Shell of Sense” also features a wife willing to postpone her heavenly reward to see her husband once again, but Frances returns because she loved Allan and cannot let him go. Frances’s posthumous narrative is concerned with the actual state of death, and the victory of the spiritual over the merely human is what allows Frances to deal with her sense of betrayal when she finds that her marriage had been a farce: her husband had been in love not with her, but with her sister. The tale gives the lie to the nineteenth-century marital ideal, for this apparently successful example is proven to have been a charade due to the emotional infidelity of one partner and the duping of another. Significantly, the blame is put on the husband. His primary concern has always been with himself, the narrative points out first in his emotional desertion of his wife, and then in his hurried willingness to dismiss her claims after her death. The fact that he kept Frances “wrapped in the white cloak of unblemished loyalty” was more a function of necessity than a sign of decency; Theresa did not fall in love with Allan until after her sister’s death, and she would never have listened to his protestations before it. It is only Theresa’s sympathy, her recognition of Frances’s feelings of betrayal, that allows the earthbound spirit of her sister to be freed.
Zora Neale Hurston’s “Spunk,” set in the autonomous Black community of Eatonville, Florida, displays the incorporation of African beliefs about the spirit world into African American oral and literary traditions. Is also demonstrates that the “man-instinct of possession” (to borrow a phrase from Kate Chopin’s “Her Letters”) is alive and thriving in this Black community. The ”object” of whom possession is under dispute is Lena Kanty, a woman who has openly taken a lover in preference to her weak and cowardly husband. The store-porch community, which acts as a kind of ancient chorus, validates her choice: “‘Now you know a woman don’t want no man like that.'” The statement is telling in another way while the tale foregrounds the contest of the two men and the prowess of Spunk Banks, it is the supremely desirable Lena who holds the reins of power. Spunk, although not the marrying kind, is ready to settle down with her. Joe’s love for Lena is so great that he transcends death to “‘have it out wid the man that’s got all he ever had.'” Hurston uses the supernatural as a corrective to Spunk for his morally irresponsible behavior. But what about Lena? Two men are dead for love of her; all the bravado about possession takes on great irony when they die and she lives. And although her lamentations at Spunk’s wake are “deep and long,” she will not mourn forever, as the community implicitly recognizes: “The women ate heartily of the funeral baked meats and wondered who would be Lena’s next. The men whispered coarse conjectures between guzzles of whiskey.” Ultimately it is Lena who gets what she wants, and this will eventually take the form of a third spouse.
Hildegarde Hawthorne’s “A Legend of Sonora” is a triumph of atmosphere and compact horror. Secretly learning “of her lover’s betrayal and unwilling to live without him, Maria takes matters into her own hands and rewrites the role he has chosen for her. Instead of playing the woman scorned, she decides to play the immortal beloved. She greets him dressed in bridal white, bearing a “loving cup” of wine. Sharing the wine from the chalice-like vessel, they pledge their troth to one another. Then Maria speaks the closing words on what is, unbeknownst to him, a bizarre wedding ceremony: “‘Let us never be parted any more.'” With these words of benediction, Maria’s love becomes her partner for eternity, and their spirits perpetually reenact their death scene in essence, the walk down the aisle. It is surely of significance that the horseman who encounters the ghosts is another young man, riding along jauntily, humming a love song. Maria’s life story is transformed before the reader’s eyes to a living legend, one that will teach the terrified young man lessons of fidelity and commitment.
The stories in this section provide an honest exploration of the abuses that can be committed in the name of love and marriage, and they reveal a dissatisfaction with, even a bitterness over, the ideology of domesticity. Their seriousness of theme and the fact that they vastly outnumber ghost stories on any other subject suggest the centrality of the institution of marriage in the lives of American women of the time. At their least dramatic, they reveal women’s disillusionment with the marital relationship. At their most dramatic, their heroines accept death as a welcome alternative to continuing a loveless partnership.
A sense emerges from these stories that the ideologies of love and marriage in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America, in all their various articulations, were obviously lacking in something. And that something, according to these stories, was predominantly a failure to allow a woman to be herself. Rather, she was expected to be someone’s wife, to act only in relation to him; to fail to do so was a violation of true womanhood. Such a creed of self-effacement did not allow for women’s real personalities or needs, but rather rendered them invisible. All this sounds terribly gloomy, yet the tales are anything but, as they offer subversive and empowering alternatives to long-suffering wifehood. Ultimately, the supernatural allows these wives a satisfaction beyond reproach or control.
The Tie That Binds: Motherhood
“Her life was mortgaged to the child. This business of being a parent is something you don’t forget nor get away from not in Heaven or in Hell! It is the tie that holds forever. It is the thing that binds His duties on the shoulders of God Himself!”
– Cornelia P. Comer, “The Little Gray Ghost”
Motherhood is another subject that appears with almost obsessive frequency in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women’s ghost stories. As the marriage stories confront the basic conflict of how to be both person and wife, these tales address the issue of how to be both person and mother. This was revolutionary, because American literature, like the culture at large, refused to acknowledge the inexorable demands of motherhood. Where is the discussion of a mother’s inevitable confrontations with pain, disease, and death in the fiction of the day? Where is the mention of the sheer physical exhaustion of mothering a child? What about the endless self-sacrifices, the lifelong commitment, the feelings of entrapment? These unspoken but very real aspects of motherhood are glossed over in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fiction, sentimentalized to the point of innocuousness, and their supposed absence is used as further evidence of woman’s innate fitness to be a mother. Society expected women to be fulfilled through motherhood, and any woman who openly questioned the “sacred duty,” even in fictional format, would have been vilified.
Seldom in mainstream fiction could a woman show feelings of frustration with or exhaustion from the demands of motherhood, and only by reading against the grain can we see these tensions at all. But in American women’s ghost stories, the mother-child bond exerts a stranglehold from beyond the grave, and all of its ramifications can be explored. These tales usually fall into two categories. In the first, a child returns from the dead in order to find a woman to mother it in the afterlife. Although motherhood is occasionally sentimentalized, the sentiment is undercut by the demands of the child ghosts, for these are not childish spirits waiting contentedly to greet their mothers in glory. These are beings earthbound until they can coerce a woman to sacrifice her life to mother them in the next world. The fact that the appearance of the dead child is received not so much with terror or surprise as with a sense of the inevitable is chilling in itself.
“The Children” by Josephine Dodge Daskam Bacon (a story marked by an unfortunate anti-Semitism) provides a good example of this type of tale. It also contains many disturbing implications about wifehood and motherhood, for two young women are devastated by their loss or lack of children more than by their loss or lack of husbands. The drive to seek her fulfilment in motherhood has led Mrs. Childress to a mild insanity. Her maid, Sarah, who has lost her own children, corroborates and participates in this insanity. Sarah’s unreliable narration emphasizes the weirdness of the situation in which these women live for eight years, and the whisperings of the supernatural act as metaphors for it. The materialization of the female child represents the ultimate fulfilment for Mrs. Childress, yet there is a price to pay for having finally achieved motherhood. Sarah, as surrogate mother to the ghost children, also pays a price, but a lesser one. And in a sinister passing on of the role of mother, she goes on to bear a boy and girl child, named for the ghostly children whom she and her mistress had brought into being.
The second most common category of ghost stories on motherhood are those in which a dead woman is unable to achieve the “peace that passeth understanding” because she has left a child on earth. The woman is forced by the very fact of her motherhood to return from the beyond in order to protect or make provision for the child. Like those in the first category, these stories are almost without exception domestic and undramatic, and there is no terror, only pathos, in the figure of the ghostly mother. Although the stories lack the chill of those featuring the child ghost, it is amply replaced by the feeling, never articulated but made painfully clear, of a tie that binds into eternity.
In “Broken Glass,” a tale by the interestingly named Georgia Wood Pangborn, we have a classic portrayal of the tortures suffered by a dead mother for her orphaned child. Pangborn also deals specifically with the institution of motherhood as it is affected by class and culture, which very few ghost stories of the period do. Pangborn examines the pervasiveness of the maternal ideal when she tells the story of Mrs. Waring, a mother who is able through leisure and money to devote herself fully to the nurture of her children. But she has missed the true meaning of motherhood, as she learns when haunted by the ghost of an immigrant working-class mother, one whose own daughter is in Mrs. Waring’s service as nursemaid to her children. The story insists that motherhood is a universal vocation, one that rises above the boundaries of class, culture, race, and even time and space.
Cornelia A. P. Comer’s “The Little Gray Ghost” is the heavily undercut tale of Carruthers, a fey man of Scottish origin. He is one of the Chosen, people whose mission it is to give advice to the spirits of the newly dead to help them move on. He meets his match in a spirit he calls the Little Gray One, who had in her young life known “lawless passion, mother-love, the agony of separation from her own, jealousy, hatred, the red rage that murders.” Earthbound because she has committed suicide and left her child orphaned, Kitty Dundas is on a mother-mission to persuade Carruthers and his childless wife to adopt Teresita. Although Carruthers, through selfishness, stubbornness, and racism, refuses and becomes “hag-ridden,” he is finally won over when he realizes the strength of Kitty’s responsibility and consequently of her torture the fact that motherhood “‘is the tie that holds forever.’”
In Katharine H. Brown’s “Hunger,” Eleanor (who had been orphaned at an early age) remembers, when her own baby babbles about the “gone-away lady,” her own childhood vision of a young woman who had haunted her bedside. In a sympathy born of her new motherhood, Eleanor gradually comes to realize that the vision was actually the ghost of her dead mother. Eleanor’s self-pity for her own orphaned loneliness vanishes as she realizes that this young mother was the one most truly deprived; Eleanor’s lack of comprehension through the years, the frozen way in which she had greeted the nocturnal visitations, had denied the ghost the chance to mother. So now the earthbound spirit has turned to the new baby, her grandson, with her frustrated love, as Eleanor recognizes: “‘Oh, you poor little love! You poor little hungry, eager thing! He’s yours too, dear. Yours and mine.'” Although the story fulfils the most saccharine requirements of fiction on the mother-child bond, its sentiment is undercut by the agony endured by the unfulfilled mother-spirit. The references to hunger and deprivation throughout the tale leave an overall impression of pain that is only slightly diminished by the tale’s “resolution.” In fact, nothing is actually resolved; having her daughter’s understanding and her grandson’s love does not seem to free this restless spirit, who is seemingly condemned to an eternal purgatory of vicarious mothering.
“Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Giant Wistaria” is a tale within a tale that does not fall into any category, for both its mother and child have died. Grounding her tale in a New England made known by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gilman, like Hawthorne, gives us a story of a young woman and an illegitimate child. Estrangement from her own mother, separation from her infant, and imprisonment privations forced on her by her father drove her to desperation. Even if she had managed to escape her prison, the young mother would have been a Hester Prynne, penniless and scorned in a hard land. Like Kitty Dundas, she chooses not to live. But unlike Kitty Dundas, she realizes that death will not release her from responsibility for her child, so she commits both infanticide and suicide. The mother ghost has had to wait a century for the sympathy of three young women to “tell” her tragic story. Their sympathy shows us that Gilman does not intend us to condemn the woman for her actions. So too does the carnelian cross she wears, Gilman’s reinterpretation of Hawthorne’s scarlet letter. That this young mother wears the symbol of Christ, not the symbol of adultery, implies that she and her innocent child, far from being the “blot,” “stain,” or ”shame” of Samuel Dwining’s interpretation, were blessed by God. Yet even blessed motherhood is powerless against patriarchal puritanism, symbolized by the giant wistaria that confines the woman even in death.
In their reworking of the sentimentalized mother-child relationships of nineteenth-century fiction, the ghost stories on motherhood, although a nonrealistic genre, have a distinct quality of realism. In these tales, as in those that explore the marital bond, there is little of gothic drama, of vindictive jealousy or undying passion. They are fairly subdued stories, with a peculiar, creeping horror that lies in their insistence that, dead or alive, you cannot escape the responsibilities of motherhood.
The “Other” Woman: Sexuality
“In heaven’s name,” I cried irritably, “who is she?” “Don’t you know?” She appeared genuinely surprised. “Why, she is the other Mrs. Vanderbridge. She died fifteen years ago, just a year after they were married, and people say a scandal was hushed up about her, which he never knew. She isn’t a good sort, that’s what I think of her, though they say he almost worshipped her.”
– Ellen Glasgow, “The Past”
Complex concerns about women’s sexuality appear in a large number of ghost stories. Many of these stories are about marriage as well; fictional explorations by women writers of sexuality outside marriage were still quite rare at this time. 7 But these tales focus especially on issues of sexuality and are marked by a strong dichotomy of good and bad, asexual and sexual. In three of the tales included here, two women (one dead, one alive) are bifurcated into categories of the demonic and the divine. In the fourth, the woman is herself bifurcated into separate roles of lover and wife. This duality is a reflection of nineteenth-century American culture’s double-edged view of women’s sexuality. It had been only within the past century or so that the traditional Anglo-American conception of women as a sexually voracious “daughter of Eve” had been reversed to one of woman as a primarily moral and spiritual being. Americans were busy canonizing Victorian womanhood, but the older notion of woman’s sexual nature was only shadowed, never entirely eclipsed. As a result, literature and art was riddled with portrayals of the two-sided nature of woman. These stories are enthralling in their expression of what was clearly a cultural preoccupation.
M. E. M. Davis’s “At La Glorieuse,” set on a Louisiana plantation and redolent of Southern gothic, is a prime example. As the tale opens, young Richard Keith is wooing the daughter of the house, sweet and innocent Félice Arnault. Yet the old mansion has another inhabitant: its dead young mistress, faithless in life and death, whose posthumous libido is so strong that she must seduce even her daughter’s lover. Hélène Pallacier, with her pagan ancestry, her exotic beauty, and her totems, vamps Richard from beyond the grave, and he perversely spurns the gentle charms of the pure (and living) Félice in favor of her dead mother. When Richard is finally freed of Hélène’s enthralment and decides to return to Félice, confident that she will be waiting because she “is not the kind of woman who loves more than once,” he is, ironically, only too right. And so Hélène of the monstrous sexual appetite still manages to claim victory over her pure rival, “Sister Mary of the Cross, who in the world had been Félicité Arnault.”
In a startling number of the ghost stories on sexuality, the two female rivals are the first (now dead) and second wives of the same man. Being a second wife was a common enough phenomenon in those times, when men were frequently widowed by disease or complications arising from childbirth. The anxieties attendant on filling the role of second wife to a husband with previously set expectations and standards, sexual and otherwise, must have been enormous. Living as she did in the first wife’s house, sleeping with her husband, and often caring for her children, a second wife was haunted continually by the memory of the woman she had replaced. In the stories here, this metaphorical haunting becomes literal. The second wife’s anxieties are justified, for she is not dealing with a benevolent spirit who seeks to ease the path of her successor, but with the restless dead apparently jealous, competitive, and vengeful. The second wife perceives the first wife as evil, and this evil has its locus in the first wife’s beauty, her passion, and her hold over the husband, which the second wife can never achieve.
In Ellen Glasgow’s “The Past,” the present Mrs. Vanderbridge’s health succumbs to the pressure of the first wife’s haunting until she discovers a packet of love letters that reveal the first wife’s secret: an adulterous affair. The second and morally superior Mrs. Vanderbridge burns the letters rather than revealing their secret to her husband, an action that lays the ghost to rest. So the second wife finally gets her man, but only by being the willing instrument of evil, the concealer of sexual sins. Through her decision not to expose the rival who has been destroying her marriage, Mrs. Vanderbridge suggests that she has guessed the real reason behind the ghost’s “animosity and bitterness”: the ghost is unable to rest because Mrs. Vanderbridge has the power to change her husband’s memories of the first wife. By destroying the letters, the second wife blots out the sins of the past, thus restoring the first wife to her original young and loving self. The dead woman’s need to preserve her image as angel in the house is what keeps her from resting in peace, an incredible testimony to the strength of the ideal of female purity and a curiously subversive example of appearance versus reality in the sexual arena.
“Secret Chambers” by Mrs. Wilson Woodrow (née Nancy Mann Waddel) also pivots on the takeover of second wife by first. Although initially the two wives have diametrically opposed personalities, when second wife Sylvia is exposed to the same deprivation of love and companionship as the “feminine Narcissus” Adele, she begins to respond in the same way. Yet even when Sylvia unconsciously reënacts the final scene of Adele’s life, Arnold does not realize his responsibility for the fate of his first wife. Arnold distinguishes between the two women on the basis of their relationship to him alone: the first wife was passionate and demanding, and the second is passionless and undemanding. Passion is equated with selfishness and egotism, while passionlessness is seen as altruistic. Of course Arnold does not recognize that his objections to Adele reside in the demands she makes on his own passion and egotism. Even more significant is Sylvia’s extreme sympathy for and attraction to Adele. She likes living the “more thrilling and intense” life of Adele, and ultimately the two wives seem more like coconspirators than rivals. This point acts subversively to undermine the seemingly conventional ending, which forecasts a roseate future in which Adele has been laid to rest.
In stories of first and second wives, the second wife perceives herself initially as the perfect wife, a paragon of sense and sensibility. She is calm, self-assured, rational, everything that the first wife apparently was not. She acknowledges that she is not as beautiful or passionate as the first, but with her society’s distrust of female beauty and passion, she is able to dismiss these qualities with the faintly smug assurance that her tamer beauty and more temperate personality are better for him. When her marriage begins to fail, however, and her own personality starts to splinter, the first wife’s attractions take on increasingly sinister implications and a strange appeal. In these tales, the second wife strives desperately to dismiss the first wife as the one who failed the one who stifled her husband, sickened into hysteria, committed adultery, went mad, killed herself. Yet in spite of her efforts to dismiss this other the beautiful one, the brilliant one, the one her husband loved first the first wife is her most powerful temptation. This point is crucial: the demonic/divine construct in Western patriarchal culture pits women against one another, thus controlling their sexuality and guaranteeing their sexual accessibility to men. Yet here the paradigm is both exposed and critiqued, as the two women join forces, however briefly, against the male power to which they have both been subject.
The unnamed female protagonist of Kate Chopin’s “Her Letters” is her own “other woman.” One man’s lover and another man’s wife, she separates the two roles so successfully that her husband has no suspicion that his wife had a sexual side until after her death. “Her Letters” is not a ghost story in any conventional sense, centering as it does on the love letters of this adulterous wife. Yet the tale uses metaphors of the supernatural to describe the power of the wife’s letters over her widowed husband. The woman feels no guilt, no regret as she recalls her love affair; although characterized by passion, it was also a mating of souls. In a delightful turning of the tables of nineteenth-century sentimental fiction, the husband in this story is the victim of his wife’s infidelity. But is he at all responsible for his victimization? Although this woman gave only a pale version of herself in her role as wife, he was content to believe that a real woman was only a patchwork of socially approved, wifely characteristics: “cold and passionless, but true, and watchful of his comfort and his happiness.” He gradually becomes obsessed with the letters, until his wife’s meaning to him (in spite of her years of devotion and his happiness and satisfaction with her) is reduced to the suspicion that she had been unfaithful. The deliberate absence of authorial comment leaves the reader searching for a clue as to Chopin’s intentions. That clue is the package of letters, and the fact that they are her letters, not to be shared by husband and wife. Although the letters are a symbol of the wife’s dissatisfaction with her sex life and marriage, it is the husband’s man-instinct of possession that gives them the power to haunt him.
Ghost stories on the subject of sexuality defy categorization more than any others. While the authors are making statements, conscious or not, about the sexual ideology that affects their lives, the tales exhibit a certain ambivalence. Their fascination, even obsession with bad women suggests a fascination with sexuality itself. And their male characters, whose weakness and selfishness in the face of women’s passion or need indicates that they are to be condemned, seem to embody society and its restrictive sexual ideology. All of this adds up to a dissatisfaction with and possibly even a confusion over what a “good woman” should be in sexual terms. These tales are unquestionably the most dramatic and exciting in the entire genre.
Madwomen or Mad Women? The Medicalization of the Female
“If it were true, it were enough to craze me; and if it were not true, I was already crazed. And there it is! I can’t make out, sometimes, whether I am really beside myself or not; for it seems that whether I was crazed or sane, if it were true, they would naturally put me out of sight and hearing, bury me alive, as they have done, in this Retreat.”
– Harriet Spofford, “Her Story”
The influence of a burgeoning medical and psychiatric practice on society’s perception and treatment of women also makes its way into the ghost stories. These tales are particularly poignant if one speculates on the medical history of women’s nervous illness and its connection with ideologies of the female mind and body. Over the course of the nineteenth century and into the early decades of this one, a widespread belief in woman’s susceptibility to illness developed in the United States. Medical literature propagated the theory that the nineteenth-century woman had a greater delicacy of constitution and was more prone to physical and mental debility than her grandmother. When this invalid woman emerged in American society, she also emerged in its fiction. By midcentury she had become a standard feature in much American literature by both male and female writers.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the medical profession became increasingly interested in the concept of nervous diseases. The advent of Freud and his school ushered in a new era in the treatment of women’s nervous disorders, removing it in large part from the arena of gynecology and into that of psychology. The result was an erosion of the territory that marked the boundaries between mental and physical in the diagnosis of women’s illnesses. Nervous illness, although originating in the body, was often manifested in the mind, and so treatments ministered to both. The medical profession became an increasing presence in American society and the American home as time wore on. Extending its voice of authority over behaviors previously not considered in medical terms, it influenced the experience of and cultural response to emotional distress. As a result, lay attitudes toward female behavior began to change. Confusion over medical distinctions between mental and physical in the diagnosis of women’s nervous illnesses caused people to start to perceive as aberrant what might have been accepted in earlier times as a passing illness or dismissed as eccentricity.
“The Second Wife” by Mary Heaton Vorse is a case in point. The tale is told from the viewpoint of the tranquil Beata, second wife to Graham Yates. Graham’s first wife, Alène, had been a woman of “peculiar loveliness and charm” and a “fascinating personality.” Yet several years back she had been stricken with an “illness of the spirit” and had called upon her friend Beata to come and stay with her. But instead of regaining her health under Beata’s care, Alène sickens, subjecting both husband and friend to “gathering nerve-storms” and “terrible, meaningless, heart-rending scenes,” drawing them into “the hell where she lived” until she finally dies from an overdose of sleeping potion. And six months after her marriage to Alène’s husband, Beata finds her personality being invaded by that of his first wife. Beata is aware of what is happening, but she finds an insidious attraction in Alène’s life of intense emotion, so unlike her own. Her husband sees the gradual takeover of her personality, yet he dismisses it as nervous illness: “‘You’ve had a lot of odd little streaks lately, Beata.'” When Beata finally confronts Graham with her newfound knowledge that Alène had committed suicide, not because of her poisoned nerves, but because her husband had fallen in love with her friend he refuses to acknowledge it, even in the face of the metempsychosis he witnesses. Graham, whenever his (current) wife exhibits deep passion and emotion, rejects her as mentally unstable and no longer worthy of him. By forcing Beata to live through her own suffering at having been labeled ill, misunderstood, and condescended to, Alène has achieved a triumph in finally making herself understood. Vorse’s story clearly chafes against the medical definitions of women and illness, but it is unable to do more than chafe. For Alène loses her husband and then her life. Beata is alive and still has Graham, but his refusal to recognize the intervention of the supernatural means that she will always be mentally suspect in his eyes.
“Her Story” by Harriett Prescott Spofford is another tale in which a husband uses the label of mental illness for his own comfort and convenience. It is a monologue told by a woman who has found her voice only after spending ten years in the insane asylum to which her husband committed her. The delineation of the narrator’s “symptoms” is brilliant because they can be interpreted in two ways. The first interpretation, a product of late nineteenth-century thought, is that the story represents the hysterical hallucinations of a jealous wife: it is to this explanation that husband Spencer adheres, with a little persuasion by his evil ward. But Spofford, a member of an old New England family and heir of that region’s longstanding preoccupation with women-as-witches, creates another level of meaning by her use of gothic motifs and supernatural suggestions. These indicate that there is more here than just a tale of a woman driven to madness; that the narrator is not the victim of her own failing mind, but of a supernatural force beyond her control. This second interpretation of her symptoms, one of an earlier time in American history, suggests that the story presents “the bizarre and sometimes delusional experiences that characterized the various “possession” behaviors of witchcraft victims. Despite the ease with which a hysteric’s symptoms could be conflated with possession behaviors, Spofford subtly weights her evidence in favor of the latter. The very specific nature of the narrator’s affliction/persecution by the witch/ward’s “familiars,” the muttering voices, and so on supports this interpretation.
The popular view of the Victorian era’s treatment of women’s illnesses is that droves of Victorian women were unjustly labeled mad and packed away. Yet this view is inaccurate, the result of critical discussions that have been isolated from medical or cultural context. More recently, studies of women’s nervous disease in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reveal many varieties, even gradations, of both illness and treatment. Although there were mental institutions and hospitals, there were also a plethora of private “retreats” or “asylums” that advertised their services, without stigma, even in the best magazines. These were frequently resort-like places where the rich and famous (largely female) could “get away from it all.” The picture of this era’s treatment of female nervous illness that still prevails, however, stems largely from writings of the time from Charlotte Bronte’s Bertha Rochester, imprisoned in her attic in Jane Eyre, and from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s unnamed narrator in her bar-windowed, yellow wallpapered attic room in The Yellow Wallpaper.
Josephine Dodge Daskam Bacon’s “The Gospel” implicitly provides a complete refutation of Gilman’s fictionalized experience with the rest cure. Bacon takes the reader step by step through a fictional rendering of the rest cure and the ways it prepares the protagonist to return, a wiser and stronger woman, to the domestic duties she has deserted through nervous illness. Bacon also provides this woman (and the reader) with a warning in the form of a ghostly mentor, who discovered “the gospel” of domesticity too late. Following a vow made as she was dying, the spirit spends eternity preaching this gospel to women who have fallen from their destined path of domesticity. Bacon’s tale reflects some contemporaneous trends in medical thought: while illnesses of both body and mind were still being treated with physical cures, many theories stressed the power of mind over body. Thus Bacon’s protagonist is able to get better because she wants to; she simply needs a little ghostly guidance to know what she wants!
Helen R. Hull’s “Clay-Shuttered Doors,” published in 1926, shows us society’s changing expectations of the figure of the female invalid. Thalia Corson is pronounced dead at the scene of an accident caused by her careless husband. Yet when Winchester pleads with her to come back to him, insisting, “‘You weren’t hurt. That was nothing,'” she returns through “clay-shuttered doors,” believing that he loves and needs her. Thalia soon realizes her mistake, but decides to remain long enough to play out her social role in his big business merger. Evidence that she repeatedly revivifies herself is ignored by Winchester, who refuses to believe that there is anything wrong with Thalia but her own fragile constitution: “‘she’s so damned nervous, you know.'” He continues to ignore his wife’s bizarre behavior, alternating between the search for a quick fix sending her to a “nerve specialist” or on a holiday and the consolation he finds in the arms of a “gaudy lady.” Underlying his attitude is the assumption that Thalia’s nervous illness is a matter of an intent to be ill, of ”’whims.'” Thus when she brings herself back for the last time, serving her final function as hostess, Winchester is “angry rather than concerned” by the odd manner in which she receives a tribute to her part in the deal. And while he storms, “‘I’m going to stop this nonsense!'” Thalia lies dead, killed for the second time by his cruel carelessness.
The stories in this section suggest that beliefs about the interconnections between the female mind and body are the most powerful of any imposed upon women. It is as if women, once persuaded by their culture to start thinking of themselves as “nervous,” to interpret even the slightest signs of stress as mental illness, begin to doubt themselves, to the point that their power of self-assertion fails entirely: Alène commits suicide; Spofford’s unnamed narrator refuses to tell her doctors the true story that will set her free; Dr. Stanchon’s patient allows him to browbeat her in the name of medicine; Thalia Corson continues to smooth the way for her husband’s business deals and refuses to correct his wilful misconceptions about her “illness.”
These are not empowering tales, though many of the ghost stories in this collection are. In these, women are victims, silenced by the voice of patriarchal authority, both medical and marital. Although these tales resist the power of the medical discourse on women’s illness, the women in them are ultimately powerless. It is only Bacon’s protagonist, who submits and is therefore “cured,” who escapes. Although there is a fifty-year span between the tales here (the largest span of any section), there is a frightening sameness about cultural constructions of gender and illness: women continue to be threatened by invalidism and by the interpretation and subsequent dismissal of their actions as evidence of mental illness. It is crucial to understand that these stories pivot as much on the man/woman relation as they do on the mind/body relation. In each, clear gender lines are drawn between those who have the power to define illness and those who must accept being defined as ill. It is only the supernatural that allows the women in these tales to subvert, however temporarily, that power.
Shades of Discontent: Widows and Spinsters
“To her mother Lois’s lack of beauty was an unpardonable fault . . . if she had been handsome, like herself, the mother thought, she would have married, but an unmarried woman couldn’t look for the consideration that was shown to her married sisters. She, of course, was useful, but not of much account in the world.”
– Anne Page, “Lois Benson’s Love Story”
The nineteenth century brought a greater freedom of choice for American women in matters of courtship, marriage, and single life. Among women who did not wed, the single lifestyle varied greatly, according to race and class. White, middle-class women often had the means to enjoy their independence or to pursue a career. But for those without social status and financial means, a single life could be one of economic hardship and social marginality. Unmarried women on the whole were considered social failures, and consequently were viewed with condescension or pity. Portrayals of single women in literature of the period range from the comical old maid to the bitter-tongued, frustrated spinster, but none are quite depicted with seriousness. These characters almost always find a “purpose” in life through self-sacrifice and devotion to others. Part yet not part of someone else’s family, they are content to stand in the shadows while their lovelier sisters bask in the love of husbands and children. Yet ghost stories that focus on the state of single women speak to the discontent of this way of life. The dissatisfaction felt by these characters arises not simply from the lack of a mate. A constellation of privations and pettinesses afflicts their existence, often as a result of attitudes toward single women, their duties and their worth.
Frequently, a woman such as the title character in Anne Page’s “Lois Benson’s Love Story” had to give up her ambitions in order to support widowed or aged parents. For these women, spinsterhood meant hard work and self-sacrifice. Lois’s self-centered and mean-spirited parents consider her dedication no more than their right; hers “was the service of a faithful slave, and was accepted by both as such.” Yet, writes Page, “Lois Benson herself was no saint, and she carried her cross at times with only a wayward spirit”: the distinction between love and obligation is often blurred for her. So when the dream visions begin, the physically and emotionally starved Lois feeds on them in secret, scarcely daring to hope that they may have some meaning in this world. Even when she learns that Reuben is a real man, she still cannot believe they will ever meet, so conditioned is she to disappointment. Only when her dream visions cease and her negative expectations are fulfilled does the full irony of the title become apparent. Lois picks up the cross of her existence, knowing “her life will be a long, unbroken road upon which, wearily and alone, she must journey.” Seldom in fiction have the glorified duties of the spinster appeared so shorn of rhetoric. Page paints an unrelieved picture of a stark, purposeless existence.
Many single women who were unable to afford their own homes lived with relatives or friends, an arrangement that presumably provided them with emotional support as well. Yet for Maria Bliven of Annie Trumbull Slosson’s “The Dissatisfied Soul,” warm welcomes and the affection of a network of family and friends are just not enough. According to the narrator, Mrs. Weaver, Maria “‘was the fittiest, restlessest, changeablest person I ever saw or heard of; and never, never quite satisfied.'” The source of Maria’s restlessness is never pinpointed by the less-than-analytical Mrs. Weaver, yet one can deduce that there is a reason why Maria never stayed anywhere “‘long enough at a time for anybody to get tired of her.'” Maria’s claim on her various hosts is, after all, quite slender. She is only Mrs. Weaver’s first husband’s sister, and that good lady repeatedly sings the praises of her second husband for allowing Maria to visit so often. The nearest blood relative she has is just a half-brother. Whatever its genesis, Maria’s dissatisfaction with her lot is so great that even when she dies, she is unable to “‘stay put, as you might say.'” But being back in life (and with the Weavers again) does not suit her either, and it is with grim determination that Maria declares, ”’wherever they carry me this time, I guess when I wake up I shall be satisfied.'” Dissatisfied with what life had to offer her, she apparently finds peace in the afterlife, for this second time she stays put. Although Slosson’s story is humorous (due largely to the deadpan narrative of Mrs. Weaver), the character of Maria Bliven is not.
Contrary to popular belief, the number of women who lived single lives in nineteenth-century America was actually quite small. Studies have shown that, by the turn of the century, more than ninety percent of all women married. Historians posit that, although women had greater lifestyle options than in previous centuries, they were still socially, economically, and sexually vulnerable without husbands. In addition to a desire for the respectability and security that marriage brought, women were attracted by their century’s greater emphasis on romantic love as a basis for union. White Americans were living longer than they had in the past, and thus their marriages lasted longer. Yet for all the gains in life expectancy, death rather than divorce still ended most marriages, in many cases when the marriage partners were relatively young.
Gertrude Morton’s “Mistress Marian’s Light” belongs to a long tradition of New England fiction in which women are widowed by the sea. When news comes that Mistress Marian’s betrothed is lost at sea, she is rendered senseless. But when she arises, with hair “as white as the foam that dashed against the rocks,” she is convinced that her lover is not dead. After several years spent happily in the service of others, during which she nightly places a light for her lover in the window, she disappears. Did her lover come to claim her in a phantom ship, as one tipsy old sailor avers? Or did she return, without telling anyone, to the unknown parts from whence she came? On hot summer nights, at the time of year when her lover’s ship foundered, a light appears in the untenanted cottage window. Even after the cottage falls to ruins, a light can be seen hovering a few feet above the ground where it had stood. At first glance, this gentle tale would seem to suggest that Marian’s love and constancy lived on, distilled to this one ghostly light. But in supernatural fiction, manifestations occur only when spirits are not at rest! This suggests a more chilling meaning to Mistress Marian’s tale, a meaning corroborated by the “timid young maiden” in a merry sailing party, who senses the eternal longing behind the fact that “‘Mistress Marian’s light is still burning.'” Instinctively she seeks protection from Marian’s fate by nestling closer to “the skipper at the helm.”
While natural disasters accounted for the widowing of many women, others were left along through the ravages of diseases such as tuberculosis and diphtheria. Even though life expectancy had increased at the end of the century, both women and men died much younger than they do today in the United States. In Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “Luella Miller,” a number of characters die young, but not from natural causes! The title character is at first glance the ideal Victorian woman, beautiful and decorously helpless. But when the people who “do for her,” including her husband, start dropping dead, that helplessness takes on vampiric connotations. This overly dependent wife/widow is held up for scrutiny throughout the tale by the narrator, a sharp-eyed, acid-tongued spinster. Luella Miller seduces others into caring for her many and selfish needs, draining the life out of them. She doesn’t particularly seem to mind being a widow, as long as someone else takes care of her. Lydia Anderson, on the other hand, is a hard-working, self-denying, self-reliant, God-fearing, law-abiding woman. Yet she has lived a life of bitterness and repression, and her portrayal of Luella as vampiric seems suspect, due to her continued jealousy of the long-dead woman. A large part of the story’s power comes from Freeman’s dual narrative structure. Lydia’s storytelling is skillful, but it is the frame narrative introducing Lydia and her story and later providing details of her death that belies any ambiguity about Luella’s vampirism. The conclusion that Lydia is subject to the same fate as Luella’s other victims is supported by her obsessive retelling of Luella’s story, the manner of her own death, and the fact that it is her death, the “sequel,” “which has become folklore in the village.”
There is no real horror in the stories about widows and spinsters. There is, however, a dread inherent in the details of everyday life for many of these characters, in large part because their daily lives are such a grind. One particularly noteworthy difference between these tales and the others in this volume is that here, women are workers. Whether peeling potatoes or feeding the livestock, they are far from the leisured ladies in the majority of the other tales. This could reflect the fact that, as widows and spinsters, these women were in marginal positions. Alternately, their status as single or widowed women could have become a more noticeable feature when they had to work. Although the nineteenth century idolized the home as a haven, it was in reality a workplace. The protagonists in these tales work for themselves, but in the other stories they employ other women to work for them. This issue is addressed, directly and indirectly, in a number of the tales, from “Broken Glass” or “The Children” to “Secret Chambers” and ”At La Glorieuse.” In each case, the seeing of spirits causes women to form peculiar bonds across divisions of class, race, and work status.
“Upon my soul . . . if I were superstitious, if I were a woman, I should probably imagine it to seem a presence!”
– Olivia Howard Dunbar, “The Shell of Sense”
Women have traditionally been forced by their subordinate position in society to see both sides of things, to maintain an insider/outsider stance. The style and content of these ghost stories by turn-of-the-century American women are in keeping with this stance. They reveal a conscious challenge, not only to the epistemology of traditional ghost stories, which “assert that there is a knowable reality, but to dominant notions of reality in a patriarchal culture. The stories, through the narrative strategies of the supernatural, are able to reveal a powerful aspect of women’s reality that continually effacing oneself, putting one’s own needs to the side, leads one to the position of ultimate outsider: the ghost.
These women writers were clearly haunted by thoughts and issues deemed unspeakable. As ghost stories, they vary in what Edith Wharton called the “thermometrical quality,” the ability to send a shiver down the reader’s spine. Many of Wharton’s stories and those of her female contemporaries revolve upon the horror that could lie in a woman’s everyday life. These women are not dealing with fantastic worlds; they are dealing with their own. Thus, in telling the stories of their lives through the medium of the ghost story, they give us tales that are both uncannily realistic and strange. Ghost stories, as Gillian Beers cleverly points out, are about the “insurrection, not the resurrection of the dead.” 8 I would add that the real insurrectionists, the real restless spirits, are the authors. It is very exciting that their still-resonant tales are available once again.
1. The research that led to the uncovering of this body of fiction was prompted by Alfred Bendixen’s Haunted Women: The Best Supernatural Tales by American Women Writers (1985), a collection of thirteen stories by eleven authors. In that volume, Bendixen points out that American women’s ghost stories suffered from critical neglect, a wrong that has since begun to be redressed. Lynette Carpenter and Wendy Kolmar have edited a volume of critical essays called Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women. This excellent anthology includes essays on both nineteenth-and twentieth-century American women writers of ghost stories, from Sarah Orne Jewett to Toni Morrison. I am particularly indebted to Carpenter and Kolmar’s introduction and to Kathy Fedorko’s “Edith Wharton’s Haunted Fiction: ‘The Lady’s Madi’s Bell’ and The House of Mirth.” Prior to the publication of this anthology, critical discussion had been limited to the occasional article on an individual author who has remained well known, such as Wharton or Freeman. What Did Miss Darrington See? An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction, edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson and with an introduction by Rosemary Jackson, spans the period from 1850 to 1988 and collects the works of women from the United States, England, and Latin America. Salmonson and Jackson provide an interesting, comprehensive, feminist overview of the field. Victorian Ghost Stories by Eminent Women Writers and The Virago Book of Ghost Stories edited by Richard Dalby and introduced by Jennifer Uglow, are important anthologies of British women’s ghost stories that include several American women’s tales.
2. The tales range from 1872 to 1926, with a high concentration in the 1890s to 1910s. Some appeared in single-author collections, but the majority found a market in the periodical press not just ladies’ magazines, but in family, high-brow, and sensational periodicals too. They were very much a part of mainstream popular fiction.
3. Supernatural fiction, per se, has itself received much less critical attention than other related genres like the gothic. And, as mentioned, the majority of criticism focuses on male authors. See for example Julia Briggs, Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story (London: Faber, 1977); Michael Cox and Robert Gilberts, eds., “Introduction” to The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989); Louis S. Gross, Redefining the American Gothic from Wieland to Day of the Dead (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989); Howard Kerr, Mediums, and Spirit-Rappers, and Roaring Radicals: Spiritualism in American Literature 1850-1900 (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1972); Howard Kerr, John W. Crowley, and Charles L. Crow, eds., The Haunted Dusk: American Supernatural Fiction, 1820-1920 (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983); Alan Gardner Lloyd-Smith, Uncanny American Fiction: Medusa’s Face (London: Macmillan, 1989); H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (New York: Dover, 1973); Peter Messent, Introduction to Literature of the Occult: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981); Peter Penzoldt, The Supernatural in Fiction (London: Peter Nevill, 1952); Donald R. Ringe, American Gothic: Imagination and Reason in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1982); Dorothy Scarborough, The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917); and Jack Sullivan, Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood (Athens: Ohio UP, 1978).
4. To my regret, the stories in this anthology are limited, with the exception of Hurston’s “Spunk,” to the productions of white women. The lack of published stories by women of color in the last century was due to a lack of opportunity; that these women were also feeling “haunted,” were also expressing themselves in ghost stories, is unquestionable given the rich tradition of the supernatural in non-Western cultures. A glance at the proliferation of supernatural elements in mainstream writing by women of color today supports this claim. See Elizabeth Ammons’s Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century for information about women of color writing in this period. See also her introduction to Short Fiction by Black Women, 1900-1920, a volume from the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers series, for a full discussion of publishing opportunities available to African American women. The stories collected here are also heterosexual in focus. The only ghostly tales I know of from this period that depict lesbian relationships are Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s “Since I Died” and Alice Brown’s “There and Here,” and are already available in What Did Miss Darrington See?
5. Sullivan, 6; Lovecraft, 102; Cox and Gilberts, xv.
6. Introduction, Haunting the House of Fiction, 14.
7. One notable exception is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), a novel that likewise questioned the ideology of motherhood and that drew much critical revilement.
8. Gillian Beers, “Ghosts,” Essays in Criticism 28 (1978): 259-64.