ghosts

Henry James: All of his Ghost Stories Part 3: The Romance of a Certain Old Clothes, De Grey: A Romance & The Way It Came [Summary & Analysis]

Henry James Ghost Stories The romance of a Certain Old Clothes, De Grey A Romace, The Way It Came

This article contains three romantic ghost stories written by Henry James: The Romance of a Certain Old Clothes (1868), De Grey: A Romance (1886), and The Way It Came (The Friends of the Friends) (1896).

This article series provides a summary of each short ghost story, the ending or the twist and a short analysis. 


Henry James (1843-1916) was an American Author of literary realism and literary modernism. But he has also written ghost stories, stories of the supernatural and the spiritual. His themes compose romance, the fear of marriage, the doppelgänger motif and of course the supernatural that subtly sneaks into real life, ever posing the question if the paranormal is real or not. Often with an unreliable narrator, told in the first person, the events can be explained either by the existence of a real ghost or something that the mind conjured up. His ghost story genre lies in the genre of Romance, where the magical co-exists with everyday life, which creates an eerie uncanny feeling. His stories are always based in the real world of human action, psychology and morality. It therefore is up to the reader to interpret the story as they wish, which can lead to wonderful lively discussions. 

This article contains three of his romantic ghost stories with female protagonists upon whom doom befalls when it comes to love. The stories deal with the fear or hope of marriage, which leads to death, a curse or jealousy.


The Romance of a Certain Old Clothes (1868)

The Story:

‘Towards the middle of the eighteenth century there lived in the province of Massachusetts, a widowed gentlewoman, the mother of three children, by name Mrs. Veronica Wingrave.’ The eldest child was a boy, Bernard who was of good English descent, but alas, not clever. The other two children were both girls, Rosalind and the youngest Perdita, who both inherited the intellect of their father. 

When Bernard turned 16 years old, his mother sent him out to England to complete his education at the university of Oxford. In his twenty-fourth year he took a ship home, but he didn’t return home by himself. With him he brought Mr. Arthur Lloyd. A gentlemen whom both sisters fancied and competed for his affection. 

After several months of secret admiration, Perdita confessed to Rosalind that he had proposed to her and they would soon be married, an announcement already known to Mrs. Wingrave and Bernard. Rosalind is clearly jealous but swallows her pride and wishes her sister “every happiness, and a very long life.” ‘There was something in the sound of these words not at all to Perdita’s taste. “Will you give me a year to live at least?” she said. ‘In a year I can have one little boy – or one little girl.”’

In arrangement towards the wedding Perdita was bestowed with many fine dresses and clothing of the most wonderful materials. Peridta is perfectly happy, but Rosalind is left behind, alone. After the marriage ‘Rosalind suffered in no small degree from Perdita’s absence; and her affliction was not diminished by the fact that Rosalind had fallen into terribly low spirits and was not to be roused or cheered but by change of air and company.’ 

But Perdita’s happiness doesn’t last. When Bernard is to be married, Arthur attends the wedding alone, while his Perdita was expecting their heir. After the wedding Arthur took Rosalind horseback riding, but on retiring to the house, he heard the news that Perdita has given birth to a girl. She fell ill after giving birth and by hearing upon the reason why Arthur wasn’t present at the birth, her condition diminished after first seeming to do better. 

At her deathbed Perdita made Arthur promise to lock away all the fine gowns for her daughter. It was her pride and she wished for her daughter to have them. 

The Ending:

After Perdita has passed away Mrs. Wingrave took over the care for her grandchild. But when Arthur missed his daughter too much, Rosalind went up to Boston with the little child to accompany her. She stayed a while and Arthur thought of her as a ‘devilish fine woman’ and married her. But Rosalind failed to become a mother herself and they suffered heavy losses of money. ‘It was a revolting thought that these exquisite fabrics who’ll wait the good pleasure of a little girl who sat in a high chair and ate bread-and-milk with a wooden spoon.’

So she convinced Arthur at last to let her open the trunk, so that the gowns and dresses wouldn’t go to waste. That evening Rosalind didn’t show up for supper and Arthur went looking for her. He found her in the attic next to the trunk. ‘On her limbs was stiffness of death, and on her face, in the fading light of the sun, the terror of something more than death. Her lips were parted in entreaty, in dismay, in agony; and on her balanced brow and cheeks there glowed the marks of ten hideous wounds from two vengeful ghostly hands.’ 

Analysis:

This is a gothic tale of psychological suspense with a supernatural horrific outcome. The themes comprise envy, sisterly rivalry and jealousy and even acting upon it. But it is enhanced by the restrained and expected demeanor of two young women of a certain higher class. Restrained in their emotions, always holding back, keeping secrets, hiding true feelings, but evenly restrained in their overall lives, dependent on a gentleman to marry to ascertain a good and guarded life. 

The supernatural element is a final act of unleashing that anger, letting go of all restraints after being liberated in death, reflected by the red marks on Rosalind’s face. This supernatural final act seems to come out of nowhere, but throughout the story, some foreboding subtle hints are planted, for example when the two sisters have a hypocritical conversation before the mirror. It’s a cautionary tale that has a very critical and modern, maybe even a careful feminist, take on how restrictions and meeting expectations isn’t desirable or profitable at all, especially not for a woman’s well-being. 


De Grey: A Romance (1886)

The Story:

‘It was the year 1820, and Mrs De Grey, by the same token, as they say in Ireland (and, for that matter, out of it), had reached her sixty-seventh spring.’ She became a woman of her age and a widow. Nevertheless she was placid and elegant, handsome and amiable and had suffered no misfortunes, blessed with good health. But for Mr. Herbert her live-in priest, she lives in seclusion even more so now her son Paul has left for Europe upon reaching his twenty-third year.

Mr. Herbert was an English gentleman and an intimate friend of the late George De Grey with whom he traveled across Europe. ‘But in Venice, for reasons best known to themselves, they bitterly and irretrievably quarreled. Some persons said it was over a card-table, and some said it was about a woman.’ De Grey went back to America and Herbert repaired to Rome, to a monastery studying theology. After De Grey married Mrs. De Grey he wanted to reconcile but died soon after Herbert arrived, who has stayed ever since and became Paul’s tutor. 

Now Mrs. De Grey is in need for companionship of a gentlewoman. Attending church she notices two strangers, an ill looking woman and her daughter. When after a couple of weeks the daughter attends church alone with such sadness on her face that Mrs. De Grey felt the need to inquire about her sorrow. The girl’s name was Margaret Aldis and she was taken in by Mrs. De Grey to serve as her companion. ‘Here, steeped in repose and physical comfort, rescued from the turbid stream of common life, and placed apart in the glow of tempered sunshine, valued, esteemed, caressed and yet feeling she was not a mere passive object of charity, but that she was doing her simple utmost to requite her protectress, poor Miss Aldis bloomed and flowered afresh.’

And gazing upon a portrait of Paul she immediately lost her heart. But Herbert tried to attenuate her affection. A letter from Paul changed everything, in which he tells Mrs. De Grey he had married, but that his wife died shorty after and that he was coming home. Upon this Herbert’s face turned pale and ghastly white. ‘He rose to his feet, seized her in his arms, and pressed her on his neck. “My child! my child” he cried, in a broken voice, “I have always loved you! I have been harsh and cold and crabbed. I was fearful. The thunder has fallen! Forgive me, child. I’m myself again.” But his troubles were far from over.

When Paul returned home, Margaret’s affections weren’t vanished and upon looking at her, Paul too fell in love. 

The Ending:

When Paul and Margaret fall in love, never has anyone witnessed such a happy love. Which concerns Herbert even more and he confides in Margaret to warn her. He tells her about the family curse that goes far back in time. ‘“One of the race, they say, came home from the East, from the crusades, infected with the germs of the plague. He had pledged his love-faith to a young girl before his departure, and it had been arranged that the wedding should immediately succeed his return. Feeling unwell, he consulted an elder brother of the bride, a man versed in fantastic medical lore, and supposed to be gifted with magical skill. By him he was assured that he was plague-stricken, and that he was in duty to bound to defer the marriage. The young knight refused to comply, and the physician, infuriated, pronounced a curse upon his race. The marriage took place; within a week the bride expired, in horrible agony; the young man, after a slight illness, recovered; the curse took effect.”’ This fate was brought upon every man in this race ever since. And now that Herbert found out that it wasn’t his bride whom Paul loved dearly, but Margaret, he fears for her life.

Margaret doesn’t head his warning and defies the curse. Mrs. De Grey has out-lived her husband after all. But it wasn’t a loving marriage and his first real love died. “I revoke the curse, I undo it. I curse it!” she said solemnly. 

But when the marriage arrangements were in full preparations, Paul became ill, pale and acquired a sudden morbid intensity, while Margaret became fresh with energy and charm and full of confidence and more mature. While the lovers make plans for the future, Herbert urges her to leave to save them both. But it’s too late and they’re too much in love and young of heart. When one day Paul doesn’t return from horseback riding, Margaret goes out looking for him and finds him, sick and hurt, and dying. She then realizes she has killed him.

Analysis:

This is a true love story that tries to defy the curse of death. Mrs. De Grey still doesn’t want to believe in a supernatural curse upon her son’s life. Whether or not it was in fact a supernatural family curse, it is stated that it is always the survivors who suffer the most. The curse didn’t allow Paul and Margaret to be together for their love was sincere and genuine. Their love doomed not only both or either one of them, but also the survivors. For Herbert did come to love Margaret and probably so did Mrs. De Grey. The foreboding gloom hovering over the couple in love, was implied by Herbert several times. First there are the rumors about George and him being in love with the same woman in Venice. Then his emotional outburst, his worried gaze and finally his warning to Margaret. It’s a devastating story with a supernatural twist, that you can either deny, or accept as a ghost story of romance.


The Way It Came (The Friends of the Friends) (1896)

The Story:

This is a peculiar story of a women about two of her friends. ‘I know perfectly of course that I brought it upon myself; but that doesn’t make it any better. I was the first to speak of her to him – he had never heard her mentioned.’ She knows a woman and a man who just have to meet, for they are too similar to each other in every way. They are in fact bound by a ghostly experience. When the woman was 18 she was with her aunt and cousins abroad visiting a museum. Then she saw her father there, who was still in England, sitting on a bench. When she approached him, he vanished. At that time back in England he had died. The same sort of thing happened to the man. He saw, when his mother was back in Wales his mother standing with her arms open to welcome him. As he approached her, she vanished and she also had died that instant.

So the Narrator proposes a meeting and both agree, but the joke is, that meeting never happens for the most ordinary reasons. They even have the same friends who speak to him and her about the other. ‘The odd thing was that both parties were amenable; it wasn’t a case of their being indifferent, much less of their being indisposed. It was one of the caprices of chance, aided I suppose by some opposition of their interest and habits.’ It’s a shame really. ‘They were so awfully alike: they had the same ideas and tricks and tastes, the same prejudice and superstitions and heresies; they said the same things and sometimes did them; they liked and disliked the same persons and places, the same books, authors and styles; any one could see a certain identity even in their looks and their feature.’ (…) ‘But the great sameness, for wonder and chatter, was their rare perversity in regard to being photographed.’ 

And after a year they still haven’t met. ‘The right occasion for each was the occasion that would be wrong for the other. On the wrong one they were most punctual, and there were never any but wrong ones. The very elements conspired and the constitution of man reinforced them. A cold, a headache, a bereavement, a storm, a fog, an earthquake, a cataclysm infallibly intervened, The whole business was beyond a joke.’

Finally 5 years later, the man asked the Narrator to marry her, after their long acquaintance. She accepted his offer, only if he were to give her a photograph of himself to put on the mantlepiece. So he gives in. When her friend visits her to congratulate her, she stares at the photograph. And now in position to arrange something for her future husband the Narrator makes an appointment for him and her friend to finally meet. But her friend says she’s afraid. And when the day comes, she had heard that her husband whom she hasn’t seen for seven years, had died. This also stirs an unrest in the Narrator. Still she comes, but the Narrator’s husband doesn’t show, for she herself had left him a note to prevent the meeting from happening. Of course the Narrator feels very guilty when the widow shows, but hides what she has done. Instead the woman confesses that ‘There was some one she wanted so much to see that she couldn’t wait till her husband was buried.’  When she leaves the Narrator asks if she will attend her wedding. ‘“If I am, he won’t be!” she declared with a laugh. (…) “I shall never, never see him!” It was with those words she left me.’

When her husband-to-be hears of this he’s mad and surprised that she would think he would fall in love with her and thus prevented the meeting. ‘He kissed me at this and when I remembered that she had done so an hour or two before I felt for an instant as if he were taking from my lips the very pressure of hers.’

When the next day the Narrator goes to visit her friend to tell her about the deceit as she promised her husband-to-be, she finds that she had died last night. ‘I felt for a moment as if I had killed her.’ When she goes to her husband-to-be to bring the news he is astonished. He said he had seen her standing in his room, that night. “ I saw her living – I saw her to speak to her – I saw her as I see you now!”’ She came to see him at last. But they didn’t speak, she just looked at him; for twenty minutes. They try to retrace her steps from the Narrator’s house to the “Gentlewomen,” to his place, to the train and then her own home. They argue if this could be done. Sure he must have been dreaming. And how if he had never seen her and there’s no photograph of her, would he have known it was her? She ensures him she was dead while he knows she was alive. ‘She’s gone; she’s lost to us for ever: so what does it matter now?” He bent over me, and when his face touched mine I scarcely knew if it were wet with my tears or with his own.’

The Ending:

So the Narrator comes to the conclusion that they still never had “met” when they attend the funeral with mutual friends. The matter isn’t discussed any further between them and each hold their own view. A week before the wedding-day and three weeks after her death the Narrator still has to look something in the face; her jealously. So she sits down with her husband-to-be and says that their situation has altered, that another person has become between them. Because she is not dead to him. His peculiar powers now work against her. She says he still sees her every night, that she comes to him. She wants him to choose between them. Suddenly he says. “How on earth do you know such an awfully private thing?” “You mean because you’ve tried so hard to hide it?” (…) “You love her as you’ve never loved, and, passion for passion, she gives it straight back! She rules you, she holds you, she has you all!” (…) I can renounce you, but I can’t share you; the best of you is hers; I know what it is and I freely give you up to her for ever!”’

‘He made a galant fight, but it couldn’t be patched up; he repeated his denial, he retracted has admission, he ridiculed my charge, of which I freely granted him moreover the indefensible extravagances.’ (…) ‘I didn’t pretend for a moment that he and she were common people. Pray, if they had been, how should I ever have cared for them? They had enjoyed a rare extension of being and they had caught me up in their flight.’

They didn’t marry and never married anyone else. Six years later she hears of his death. ‘(…) it was a response to an irritable call.’ 

Analysis:

The Way It Came is in a way similar to The Turn of the Screw. It too has an unreliable narrator. Who acts upon her own suspicions. She is jealous and deceives both the man and woman so that they do not meet. It is therefore questionable if the ghost is real, or if it’s just jealousy.

On the other hand both the man and woman have told her about their encounters with a ghost, the woman’s father and the man’s mother. So why shouldn’t the man see the woman when she is dying or has just died. But it’s also questionable if the man and woman are both psychic or that the dead, his mother, her father and now she have a certain gift to appear to those they have loved the most in life. If the former is true, it’s his gift that conjures up her. And if the latter is true, it’s her gift to appear to him. Either way, the Narrator must have always suspected that did the two of them ever should meet, they were bound to be together. 


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