Sunday, October 18, 2020


Edith Wharton (1862–1937)
From Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937

View of the Château de Tonquédec at dusk in Brittany, 1879, oil on canvas by French artist Félix Jean Clément Choisnard (1846–1924).
“‘I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them,’ is much more than the cheap paradox it seems to many,” Edith Wharton wrote in the preface to the 1937 collection Ghosts. “‘To believe,’ in that sense, is a conscious act of the intellect, and it is in the warm darkness of the prenatal fluid far below our conscious reason that the faculty dwells with which we apprehend the ghosts we may not be endowed with the gift of seeing.”

Wharton died during the preparation of Ghosts, which gathered ten previously published tales of the supernatural with her final story, “All Souls’.” As her last book, it is perhaps a surprising endnote to her five-decade career. “When I first began to read, then to write, ghost stories,” she explained, “I was conscious of a common medium between myself and my readers, of their meeting me halfway among the primeval shadows, and filling in the gaps in my narrative with sensations and divinations akin to my own.” To Wharton, whether ghosts actually “existed” was beside the point: “It is luckier for a ghost to be vividly imagined than dully ‘experienced.’” One might even say “there are no ghosts, but only tellers of ghost stories.” A successful ghost story was one that produced “a thermometrical quality; if it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well.” Yet she feared most of all that modern life was bankrupting readers’ imaginations and their ability to understand and enjoy not only ghost stories but any kind of literature. She rarely received mail after her stories appeared in magazines, but in 1931, when “Pomegranate Seeds” was published in Ladies’ Home Journal, she was “bombarded by a host of inquirers,” many of whom demanded “to be told how a ghost could write a letter, or put it in a letterbox.” In those italics, one can almost hear the echo of Wharton’s exasperated sigh over how her readers have missed the point.

“Kerfol” is unique among her ghost stories because the specters are not humans, but dogs. She recorded her feelings about her own beloved pets in a diary entry in 1924:
I am secretly afraid of animals—of all animals except dogs, and even of some dogs. I think it is because of the Usness in their eyes, with the underlying Not-Usness which belies it, and is so tragic a reminder of the lost age when we human beings branched off and left them; left them to eternal inarticulateness and slavery. Why? their eyes seem to ask us.
Throughout her life Wharton had several dogs at a time; she was a charter member of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and she participated in a campaign to place water bowls for dogs on the sidewalks of New York City. To this day, a cemetery for half a dozen of her dogs is preserved at the Mount, her famous home in Lenox, Massachusetts. When her last dog, eleven-year-old Linky, died, she told a friend, “Now, for the first time, literally, I am faced with real loneliness. . . . Oh, what a train of ghosts will follow her burial today.” Wharton died four months later.

A “train” of canine ghosts haunt “Kerfol,” written during the early months of World War I, when Wharton was living in France. It is the “strangest piece of fiction to come out of her war years,” writes Hermione Lee in her biography of Wharton. Indeed, literary scholar R.W.B. Lewis notes that, rather than vehicles for scary apparitions, some of her ghost stories are “fictional strategies” that allowed her to deal “with intensities of sexual behavior by distancing them into the spectral and legendary.” The real horror in “Kerfol” is spousal abuse. A wealthy bachelor, urged by friends to purchase a home in Brittany, finds the estate of Kerfol devoid of human presence and populated instead by a pack of eerily silent dogs. Directed to a regional chronicle by a local resident, the narrator reads the 200-year-old account of a woman tyrannized by her jealous husband and of his gruesome murder—a mix that Lewis calls “one of Edith Wharton’s finest exercises in the imagination of violence, terror, and the erotic.”

When we first presented this story as a Story of the Week selection more than a decade ago, numerous readers were perplexed by the abrupt, enigmatic final sentence, particularly by the offhanded mention to the famous seventeenth-century mathematician and logician Blaise Pascal. Suffice to say that this name-drop might be read as Wharton’s sly wink at the struggle between the readers’ willingness to believe the story and a rationalism that would try to explain it away. Pascal, like the fictional character Hervé de Lanrivain, became a Jansenist, and he later had a mystical experience. His most famous work, Pensées, is a posthumously published, unfinished manuscript of fragments attempting to reconcile reason and logic with belief in God (see, for example, “Pascal’s wager”), and it was one of Wharton’s favorite books ever since she first encountered Pascal's writings as a young girl. One might imagine Lanrivain, then, recounting his lover’s experiences to Pascal, and the two men attempting to square her story with the “realities” of the world.

Notes: A chemin de ronde is the walkway behind a castle battlement, where defenders would patrol the ramparts. A “Sleeve-dog” can refer to any small dog that can be carried on one arm but often refers to a Pekingese. At the time of the story-within-the-story, Pekingese were owned exclusively by the royal family of China; any dogs outside the court would have been stolen and smuggled—a serious crime. The breed became popular in the West during Wharton’s lifetime and she had several of them. The pardon of Locronan is a penitential ceremony and festival held in July, one of several such pilgrimages unique to the Catholics of Brittany. Robert Arnauld d'Andilly became the head of the Arnauld family after the death of his father; he and his nineteen siblings (ten of whom outlived their father) were all prominent Jansenists connected with the Benedictine abbey of Port Royal. A powerful figure in the French court, d'Andilly used his political influence to defend fellow Jansenists from the attacks of the Jesuits and the condemnations of the popes.

The diary excerpt quoted above is from Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton (2007).

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“You ought to buy it,” said my host; “it’s just the place for a solitary-minded devil like you. And it would be rather worth while to own the most romantic house in Brittany. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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