Sunday, October 24, 2021

Miss Mary Pask

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

Image of ghost produced by double exposure, 1899, photographer unknown. National Archives (UK).
When Edith Wharton was a child, she fell deathly ill with typhoid fever. While she was recovering, she begged to be allowed to read again, and two friends lent her a book with “robbers & ghosts,” which contained scenes that terrified her nine-year-old imagination and brought on a relapse. It was a book that would have never been permitted by her parents; Wharton’s father had even banned from his library the works of the Edgar Allan Poe, who he regarded as “an atheist and blasphemer.”

When she recovered from her illness a second time, “it was to enter a world haunted by formless horrors,” she wrote in “Life and I,” an autobiographical fragment published decades after her death. “I had been naturally a fearless child; now I lived in a state of chronic fear.” She suffered from hallucinations for several years and was stricken with terror whenever she had to wait “for the door to be opened . . . before It caught me!” She confessed that “till I was twenty-seven or eight, I could not sleep in the room with a book containing a ghost-story, & that I have frequently had to burn books of this kind, because it frightened me to know they were downstairs in the library!”

By the time she was forty, Wharton graduated from burning ghost stories to writing them. Between 1902 and her death in 1937, she published the eleven stories later collected in her final book, Ghosts, including “All Souls’,” the story she finished shortly before her death. Wharton’s supernatural tales had far more to do with disturbed (and disturbing) people and human interactions than with spectral images—and sometimes they resolved their mysteries without actually resorting to paranormal phenomenon. Like the rest of her fiction, many of her ghost stories featured women characters who, various readers paradoxically observed, were indecent or too sophisticated, vulgar or snobbish, immoral or prudish:
I received what is surely one of the tersest and most vigorous letters ever penned by an amateur critic. “Dear Madam,” my unknown correspondent wrote, “have you never known a respectable woman? If you have, in the name of decency write about her!” It seems a long way from that comminatory cry to the point of view of the critic who, referring the other day to the republication (in an anthology of ghost stories) of one of my tales, ‘The Lady’s Maid’s Bell’, scathingly said it was hard to believe that a ghost created by so refined a writer as Mrs. Wharton would do anything so gross as to ring a bell!
During the 1920s, when she was in her sixties, Wharton published a number of her major works in a women’s magazine called Pictorial Review, which had been established in 1899 as a vehicle to promote and distribute dress patterns for the American Fashion Company; by 1930 it boasted more than two million readers. Four of her novels, including The Age of Innocence, were serialized in its pages, and four of her shorter works, including two ghost stories, appeared there as well. “This publishing relationship put Wharton’s work in front of a new audience, drew the attention of the film industry, and increased her readership exponentially,” literary scholar Noreen O’Connor writes in an essay examining how the magazine transformed Wharton’s audience, her fortune, and the public perception of her writing. “The new publishing arrangement also paid handsomely; McCall’s and The Delineator engaged in bidding wars with Pictorial Review for rights to publish Wharton’s work.” Each of her novels during the 1920s earned her from $18,000 to $40,000 for the magazine rights alone, and she earned far more in royalties as nearly every book became a best seller. At least six movie adaptations were made between 1918 and 1934, including a now-lost silent film version of Glimpses of the Moon that used dialogue title cards written by F. Scott Fitzgerald (most of which probably didn’t end up in the final cut). A hit Broadway production of The Age of Innocence in 1928–29 earned Wharton another $23,500.

“Miss Mary Pask” was one of the two ghost stories published in Pictorial Review. The verdict from Wharton’s contemporary critics was mixed: While praising the story for its mood and setting, a reviewer in The New York Times faulted the “trickery” of the story as derivative of Poe’s tales (which, to be fair, it is—deliberately so). Other critics seemed desperate to find fault with her stories from the period. A critic in the North American Review dismissed “Miss Mary Pask” as “silly” and “inconsequential”; what he found particularly galling was that the thoughts of the emotionally frail narrator were ungrammatical. Equally contemptuous of half a dozen other selections that had appeared in women’s magazines, the reviewer ended by suggesting that if “Mrs. Wharton is determined to continue the inviting path of short story writing,” then she should consult the “familiar, yet incomparable, O. Henry and read, read and read him again.”

Yet, as so often seems the case, her “inconsequential” story has been resurrected by scholars and critics in the last half century. Among its earliest fans was the novelist Louis Auchincloss, who singled it out in his 1961 biography of Wharton as one of her better, “more ominous” ghost tales. More recent readers have focused on the subversive element that none of Wharton’s contemporary male reviewers could bring themselves to mention: the not-so-subtle sexual desires and pent-up loneliness of the spectral woman encountered by the story’s narrator. Wharton herself says that, as a ghost, Mary Pask can “express at last what the living woman had always had to keep dumb and hidden.” Or, as the late British scholar Nickianne Moody rephrased it, “women have to be dead before they can say what they feel or think,” particularly if they are speaking to a man. Once the story’s final secret is revealed, readers who revisit the earlier dialogue between the narrator and Mary Pask will find that it takes on an entirely different cast. “In this little story that seemed at first to be a charming trifle in Wharton's ghostly oeuvre,” writes cultural historian John C. Tibbetts, “there is a terrible social insight that is devastating.”

Note: Baie des Trépassés (Bay of the Dead), is on the west coast of Finistère, in Brittany, France.

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It was not till the following spring that I plucked up courage to tell Mrs. Bridgeworth what had happened to me that night at Morgat. . . . 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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