ghosts

Henry James: All of his Ghost Stories, Part 4: Sir Edmund Orme, The Third Person & The Last of the Valerri [Summary & Analysis]

Henry James Ghost Stories Sir Edmund Orme,

This article contains three unusual ghost stories written by Henry James: Sir Edmund Orme (1891), The Third Person (1900) and The Last of the Valerri (1874).

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 ghost stories that have not so much a dark feel, but tell about a benign ghost, a humorous story about a presumed ghost and an old pagan deity. They all cause some inconvenience and stir up some truths about the main characters and raise some conflict in the character’s lives. 


Sir Edmund Orme (1891)

Story:

Narrated by an unknown man a written statement is found about a strange tale. ‘I found these pages, in a locked drawer, among papers relating to the unfortunate lady’s too brief career (she died in childbirth a year after her marriage)…’ It tells the story about a young man who falls in love with the beautiful Charlotte Marden. But it doesn’t tell the story of their courtship, but a strange tale that relates to it in a sinister way. This is his story.

Not only is the Narrator very fond of Miss Marden, her mother, her very likeness has taken a fondness to him as well, for mysterious reasons. ‘It already struck me, in this pair, that the resemblances – the more so that it took so little account of a difference of nature.’ (…) Then there were looks and movements and tones (movements when you could scarcely say whether it were aspects or sound), which, between the two personalities, were a reflection, a recall.’ 

But when his friend Captain Bostwick takes a stroll with Miss Marden and the Narrator sits with Mrs Marden, something odd happens. ‘She stood a few seconds, with the queerest expression in her face; then she sank upon the seat again and I saw that she had blushed crimson.’ It was as if she had seen somebody in the crowd that frightened her. Still, the Narrator and his friend are invited to dinner, and are welcomed by mother and daughter as good friends. 

When one day in church the Narrator takes the opportunity to sit next to Charlotte, another odd thing happens. A man has sit down next to her, without making a sound, but goes seemingly unnoticed by anyone else. After church Mrs Marden rushes to the Narrator. ‘“Did you see him?” He says he has, how could he have not. But Mrs Marden stays awfully secretive about the whole affair. 

Till one day, the Narrator sees the gentleman again. ‘This time I saw him better, saw that his face and his whole air were strange. (…) He held himself with a kind a habitual majesty, as if he were different from us. Yet he looked fixedly and gravely at me, till I wondered what he expected of me.’ At last Mrs Marden tells him this man is in fact the ghost of Sir Edmund Orme. He was a man she had wronged. He loved her dearly, and their mothers deeply wanted them to get married. But she met another man Captain Marden and fell in love with him and broke Orme’s heart. He died of it and since then he has haunted her, by appearing at the side of Charlotte. Especially when a man loves Charlotte as much as he did her mother and when this love isn’t reciprocated. It’s a constant reminder of what Mrs Marden did to him and a warning to her daughter not to make the same mistake. But this might be very well the case, as she seems to string the Narrator along, while there are many other suitors. 

While Mrs Marden shares her secret and burden of the heart with the Narrator she’s about to make the same mistake as her mother. So the Narrator decides to tell Charlotte  about Edmund Orme. ‘The way to save her was to love her, and the way to love her was to tell her, now and here, that I did so. Sir Edmund Orme didn’t prevent me, especially as after a moment he turned his back to us and his head on his arm, against the chimney piece, with an air of gradual dejection, like a spirit still more weary than discreet.’ She thanks him, but wants to be left alone. Although Mrs Marden seems much more lighthearted and unburdened. 

Now, the Narrator understands why the ghost of Sir Edmund Orme is always watching. ’He looked strange, incontestably, but somehow he always looked right. I very soon came to attach an idea of beauty to his unmentionable presence, the beauty of an old story of love and pain. What I ended by feeling was that he was on my side, that he was watching over my interest, that he was looking to it that my heart shouldn’t be broken. (…) It was a case of retributive justice. The mother was to pay, in suffering, for the suffering she had inflicted, and as the disposition to jilt a love might have been transmitted to the daughter, the daughter was to be watched, so that she might be made to suffer should she fo an equal wrong. She might reproduce her mother in character as vividly as she did in face. On the day she should transgress, in other words, her eyes would be opened suddenly and unpitiedly to the “perfect presence,” which she would have to work as she could into her conception of a young lady’s universe.’

The Ending: 

The Narrator decides to leave both mother and daughter be for a while. After three months he visits Charlotte and her mother again. ‘“Do you like me a little better?” I asked. (…) I had no sooner spoken than she laid her hand quickly, with a certain force, on my arm. “Hush! – isn’t there some one there?” She was looking into the gloom of the far end of the balcony.’ At last the ghost has made himself appear to Charlotte. 

The next morning Mrs Marden had taken seriously ill, but wants the Narrator and her daughter to be together. ‘“She has told me – she has told me!” her mother went on. “That you spoke to her again – that you’re very admirably faithful.” (…) “I spoke – I spoke, but she gave me no answer,” I said. “She will now, won’t you, Chartie? I want it so, I want it” the poor lady murmured, with ineffable wistfulness.” Still the only thing Charlotte says is that he is very good to her. 

‘A form had constituted itself in the other side of the bed, and the form leaned over Mrs Marden.’ But the Narrator tries to ignore him and so does Mrs Marden. ‘Charlotte got up to give me her hand, and with the definite act she saw. She gave , with a shriek, one stare of dismay, and another sound, like a wail of one of the lost fell at the same instant on my ear.’

Analysis:

This is a ghost story but with a benevolent ghost. At least to the main character, the ghost still haunts Mrs Marden and acts as a warning for Miss Marden. The ghost of Sir Edmund acts in a protective way to the main character to not fall under the spell of either Mrs Marden or Miss Marden. The first claiming him for herself as a confident and a good suitor for her daughter, the other for leading him on. They are both seen as a threat to his well-being and are being punished for the mother’s previous acts for misleading her suitor. Are men feeble hearted and are women devious vultures? And did she eventually marry the main character? Is the wife spoken of who died in childbirth in fact Charlotte or another woman? 


The Third Person (1900)

The Story:

‘When, a few years since, two good ladies, previously not intimate nor indeed more than slightly acquainted, found themselves domiciled together in the small but ancient town of Marr, it was as a result, naturally, of special considerations.’ They were cousins, Susan Frush and the 10 years younger Amy Frush inherited the house from their aunt. The two women couldn’t be more different from each other in appearance and in spirit but also what they have done so far with their lives. 

But they both shared that they have never married. And they both shared a curiosity to their ancestors who have lived in this very house. When they have come accustomed to each other they decide to explore the house, for buried secrets. The more sinister, the better, they didn’t even draw the line at murder, it feels so very romantic. One day they found a hidden box, not with treasure or coins alas, but with letters and documents. They give them to their friend the vicar Mr Pattern to go through them, who also has an interest in the village’s history, to report to them his finds. 

One evening when they both got upstairs to bed, Amy heard her cousin and friend scream. She rushed out and met her on the landing. ‘“There’s someone in my room!” They held each other, “But who?” “A man.” “Under the bed?” “No – just standing there.” (…) “In strange clothes – of another age; with his head on one side.”’ 

They decide to spent the night in Amy’s room but soon come to the conclusion that it must have been someone who can’t really hurt them, for he could have done so that night. It must be a ghost. ‘The element in question, then, was a third person in their association, a hovering presence for the dark hours, a figure that with its head very much – too much – on one side, could be trusted to look at them. They had it at last – had what was to be had in an old house where many, too many, things had happened, where the very walls they touched and floors they trod could have told secrets and named names, where every surface was a blurred mirror of life an death, of the endured the remembered, the forgotten, Yes; the place was h -, but they stopped at sounding the word.’

When Mr Pattern had gone through the papers, letters and documents he has to tell them a dark tale of one of their ancestors. Cuthbert Frush was hanged! Not for murder, sadly so, but for smuggling, much less romantic and much more vulgar. The cousins figure that his appearance must have something to do with the unearthing of the chest that woke him up. But strangely enough they are both happy, he did. Especially when Amy also gets to see him, standing by the fireplace. 

But their new housemate stirs up some trouble between the cousins. They don’t talk about him anymore, and he even causes them to rival each other and they even get jealous. Their once sisterly bond, is slowly turning them into silent strangers. Till one day they have come to realize that it’s enough. 

The Ending:

They have both come up with a solution to get rid of the ghost. ‘What was definite was that they have lived into their queer story, passed through it as through an observed, a studied, eclipse of the usual, a period of reclusion, a financial, social, or moral crisis, and only desired now to live out of it again.’ 

‘The great questions remained. What then did he mean? what then did he want? Absolution, peace, rest, his final reprieve – merely to say that saw them no further on the way than they had already come. What were they at last to do for him?’

Each cousin comes up with a different solution according to their spirits. Susan’s plan fails. She donated money to the government to make up for Cuthbert’s smuggling. But that doesn’t seem to make him go away. Then it’s Amy’s turn. She asks if Susan can miss her for three days, but stays away for ten days. When she finally returns, they feel freed of Cuthbert. So what did Amy do, asks Susan. Amy went to Paris and smuggled back home a Tauchnitz. It was after all, bravado what Cuthbert longed for. One last smuggle. 

Analysis:

This is a humorous romance ghost story about two gentlewomen spinsters. The two cousins have never been married and the need for romance, to dive into their old family history makes up for that. And when they dig up old smugglers tales from Cuthbert, they both get what they have longed for. Real ghost or not, the mere thought drives the two apart from each other, competing for a man’s attention, even if it is a ghost. Conveniently it is a ghost, for neither one can proof that he visits them. 

But they luckily come to realize that no man is worth to quarrel over or to let them ruin their bond. Both make an attempt to please the ghost, and the smuggling of a Tauchnitz does the trick. Tauchnitz was a German publisher that also printed the early paperbacks, in the English language, but only to be sold on the continent, forbidden to be allowed to compete with British publishers, they couldn’t be brought to England even if many tourists or holidaymakers did.


The Last of the Valerii (1874)

The Story:

The story is narrated by a painter who is the godfather of Martha. The story begins when Martha introduces to him her new fiancé an Italian Count Camillo Valerio. ‘He had a sunken depth of expression, and a grave, slow smile, suggesting no great quickness of wit, but an unimpassioned intensity of feeling which promised well for Martha’s happiness.’ After their marriage Martha is as much in love with the Count as with his villa in Rome and to restore it to its old grandeur. She even sets her heart into making the gardens an archeological site, for ancient treasure may be hidden in the earth. 

The only thing the young couple can’t agree on is their religion. While Martha is a devout Catholic, Camillo is raised a Catholic, but doesn’t care for it, while Martha is willing to renounce her faith. But Camillo convinces her that everyone is entitled to their own religion or faith. ‘Their life was a childlike interchange of caresses as candid and unmeasured as those of a shepherd and shepherdess in a bucolic poem.’ 

While the painter is their guest he notices something in the Count. ‘But he seemed to me to have either a strange reserve or a strange simplicity; to be fundamentally unfurnished with “ideas.” He had no beliefs nor hopes nor fears, – nothing but sense, appetites, and serenely luxurious tastes. As I watched him strolling about looking at his finger-nails, I often wondered whether he had anything that could properly be termed a soul, and whether good health and good-nature were not the sum of his advantages.’ The painter worries that if Martha grew tired of his looks, he would have nothing intelligible to offer. ‘One accomplishment indeed the Count possessed which would make him an agreeable playfellow; he carried in his pocket a collection of precious fragments of antique pavement,  – bits of porphyry and malachite and lapis and basalt,  – disinterred on his own soil and brilliantly polished by use.’ 

The Count reluctantly lets Martha search for treasure. ‘“Let them lie, the poor disinherited gods, the Minerva, the Apollo, the Ceres you are so sure of finding,” he said, “ and don’t break their rest. What do you want of them? We can’t worship them? If you can’t believe in them, don’t disturb them. Peace be with them!”’

His attitude changes immediately when they indeed find an old statue in the likeness of Juno. ‘Then full in the sun and flashing it back, almost, in spite of her dusky incrustations, I beheld, propped up with stones against a heap of earth, a majestic marble image. She seemed to me almost colossal (…) Her marvelous beauty gave her an almost human look, and her absent eyes seemed to wonder back at us.’ 

The Ending:

The Count changed from thereon. He placed Juno in the Casino which he locked up and nobody but him was permitted to look at her. He had become silent and paid no more attention to his wife. To her dismay as well as the painter’s. He seemed possessed. But he himself proclaimed he was ‘prodigiously happy!’ He had found his new faith in the old gods. ‘It was in the caves and woods and streams, in earth and air and water, they dwelt.’ 

The painter searches within for a solution. The explorer tells him: ‘But I have fumbled so long in the monstrous heritage of antiquity, But I have learned a multitude of secrets; learned that ancient relics may work modern miracles. There’s a pagan element in all of us,  – I don’t speak for you, illustrissimi forestier,  – and the old gods have still there worshippers. The old spirit still thorns here and there, and the Signer Conte has his share of it.’ 

He decides to tell Martha what he has discovered. He tells her about the Count’s worships and when they go to the Casino they find an altar with blood on it and the Count is missing. Martha then decides to take the Juno down and bury her where they found her, to entrust her to the earth. This seems to break the spell and when the Count returns home, he looks at his wife with wonder and love. 

Analysis:

This isn’t so much a ghost story but a pagan tale of ancient gods of nature that still have a spell over us. Although the emphasis lies on the Count, who is affected for the worse, the sense of nature shines through the whole story. Seen through the eyes of a painter he not only describes the splendor of nature but also paints it. But while this is only in a two dimensional way, it affects the Count in his being, his soul if you may, a soul the painter doubted he had. Maybe the empty space is filled with the beauty of Juno, until Martha herself removes it and he sees her natural beauty. Juno was after all, the goddess of women and marriage. 

But there’s more to the story, for the overseer of the excavation is described as a dwarfish figure, an urchin and so is his demeanor, almost as if he has something underworldly about him. His digging descends them into the earth, digging up Juno. When gazing upon her the Count descends, a trip to his underworld, unearthing his own beliefs, separated from the world above and his wife. It’s also about religion, each their own, and communicated that people’s heritage isn’t only culture and looks, but religion as well, rooted deeply inside. It’s a story about nature and human nature, while living in a modern age. 


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