Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Romance of Certain Old Clothes

Henry James (1843–1916)
From Henry James: Complete Stories 1864–1874

Detail from The Bride, 1856, oil on canvas by English painter Abraham Solomon (1823–1862). (WikiCommons)
When Henry James was twenty-two years old, he published in the pages of The Nation a review of Aurora Floyd, the latest novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, an English author who three years earlier had published the extraordinarily popular Lady Audley's Secret. James criticized the excesses of Braddon’s “sensation novels,” as they were called: “Bigamy, murder, and arson are exceptional. Miss Braddon distributes these materials with a generous hand, and attracts the attention of her public.” He compared Braddon’s novels with other sensational romances and made a comment in passing that would inform all future discussions of his later novella The Turn of the Screw:
A good ghost story, to be half as terrible as a good murder-story, must be connected at a hundred points with the common objects of life. The best ghost story probably ever written—a tale published some years ago in Blackwood's Magazine—was constructed with an admirable understanding of this principle.
The unnamed tale praised by James, as many of his readers would have known, is Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Haunted and the Haunters” (1859), in which its narrator enunciates the author’s view “that the Supernatural is the Impossible, and that what is called supernatural is only a something in the laws of nature of which we have been hitherto ignorant.” The implication, then, is that a tale of the inexplicable, to be successful, needed to have its basis in reality.

When James wrote his review, he had published only two of his 112 stories and novellas. Three years later, he published “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes,” his eighth work of short fiction—and the first of eighteen tales of a genre James referred to as “quasi-supernatural” or “gruesome,” ten of which are often categorized as ghost stories. While one can find in this ghostly tale subdued hints of his readings of sensational literature, the most obvious influence is the Gothic fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Four years earlier, when Hawthorne died at the age of 59, James was devastated: “I sit on my belated bed, I say, and yield to the pang that made me positively and loyally cry,” he recalled in his memoir Notes of a Son and Brother. For much of his career James would seem both to incorporate and to resist Hawthorne’s influence. “If you have a mind to, you can see Nathaniel Hawthorne in Henry James’s work at the very beginning, in the middle years, and perhaps most impressively in the last masterpieces,” the literary scholar Peter Buitenhuis more than half a century ago. “Everywhere you look in James you find Hawthorne.”

In 1879 James published Hawthorne, a book-length work of literary criticism, in which he expressed his mixed feelings about the stories and novels by the idol of his youth. “There is in all of them something cold and light and thin, something belonging to the imagination alone, which indicates a man but little disposed to multiply his relations, his points of contact, with society.” This lack of connection to the world outside Hawthorne’s door was, in James’s view, displaced by the confines of the imagination—and even the fantastic:
Hawthorne was a man of fancy, and I suppose that in speaking of him it is inevitable that we should feel ourselves confronted with the familiar problem of the difference between the fancy and the imagination. . . . I am often struck, especially in the shorter tales, of which I am now chiefly speaking, with a kind of small ingenuity, a taste for conceits and analogies, which bears more particularly what is called the fanciful stamp.
James had foreshadowed this criticism in various places, included an 1874 review of one of the melodramatic novels of Hawthorne’s son:
Mr. Julian Hawthorne, who is doubtless weary of being contrasted with his father, has not the latter’s profundity or delicacy; but he looks at things in the same way—from the imagination, and not from observation—and he is equally fond of symbolisms and fanciful analogies.
“The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” was James’s first attempt to bridge the chasm between the real world and the imaginative one. Set in colonial Massachusetts, this Hawthorne-like story about sibling rivalry ends with an unambiguously supernatural element. Unlike most of James’s earliest stories, it was revised and reprinted in his story collections, once in 1875 and again in 1885. Yet the story fell short of the standards he later developed for himself—the supernatural twist is sudden, sensational, and explicit—and he excluded it from the 26-volume New York edition published between 1907 and 1909. As T. J. Lustig writes in Henry James and the Ghostly, “Opening the Pandora’s box of romance, James discovers that in practice there is a contradiction, or at least an incompatibility, between realism and the ghost story.”

Nevertheless, the story still has many fans: it has often been included in anthologies of Gothic and horror fiction (including American Gothic Tales, edited by Joyce Carol Oates), and it was recently one of several Henry James stories adapted as an episode of the acclaimed Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor.

Notes: The father of the Willoughby sisters names them after Shakespearean characters: Viola is the lead character of Twelfth Night, and Perdita (“the lost one”) is the daughter of the King of Sicily in The Winter’s Tale. The French expression belle jeunesse means “beautiful youth”; empressement translates as “alacrity.” The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), a novel by Oliver Goldsmith, tells the story of the burdens endured by the title character’s family after the bankruptcy of the firm in which much of his fortune is invested.

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Toward the middle of the eighteenth century there lived in the Province of Massachusetts a widowed gentlewoman, the mother of three children. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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