Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Lady's Maid's Bell by Edith Wharton

I'm a day late with Short Story Monday again this week, but I suppose a Tuesday post is better than none at all, especially if it's a story by Edith Wharton! I found The Lady's Maid's Bell on line and decided to print it out and take it along on my travels last weekend. What I expected to be a story about New York's Gilded Age (like The Custom of the Country or The House of Mirth) turned out, instead, to be a ghost story.

Alice Hartley, a lady's maid recently recovered from a bout of typhoid, has trouble finding a new position until an old friend sends her to Mrs. Brympton. The new employer, herself youngish and somewhat of an invalid, lives year round in the country and is in need of a maid/companion following the death of her long-time maid Emma Saxon. Hartley is told that it will be a dull, gloomy job, but she will be fine as long as she stays clear of Mr. Brympton, who is rarely at home anyway.


Upon arriving at the house, we get the first hint that all may not be well. Hartley is shown to her room upstairs and notices another woman, also dressed as a maid, standing in the hallway. However, the housemaid leading the way doesn't seem to see her at all and is instead concerned that a door, meant to be locked, has been left open. We also learn that since the death of the beloved maid Emma, the Brymptons have had trouble keeping a lady's maid for more than a few days.

One night, the bells rings in Hartley's room (odd since Mrs. Brympton has said she does not use the bell). Unusual footsteps are heard in the hall and Hartley rushes to her mistress's side. Mrs. Brympton calls out for Emma and then claims to have been dreaming. She tells Hartley that the bell was not rung and instructs her to return to her room. Before she leaves, Mr. Brympton asks, "How many of you are there, in God's name?"

Soon afterwards, a photograph of Emma Saxon is found. She is the same woman Hartley saw in the hall, but nobody in the household seems willing to talk about her.

I won't say much more about the plot, except that some of the events seem to make little sense. Nonetheless, this was a very compelling Gothic style story. I have my idea of what happened and would love to hear yours if you decide to read this story.

During my reading, I was reminded of Henry James' The Turn of The Screw (1898). Of course, Wharton and James were great friends. The Lady's Maid's Bell was published in 1902, the same year Edith Wharton moved into her 'first real home', The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts. James spent a great deal of time there, even having his own guest suite, and it's fun to imagine the two of them strolling through the gardens discussing ghost stories!

To see other Short Story Monday posts visit The Book Mine Set.





15 comments:

  1. This sounds like a good one. I have never read Wharton before and may need to start here since my curiosity is puqied.

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  2. BookPsmith -
    I love Wharton's novels, but have never read her stories until now. This was not at all what I was expecting! When we visited The Mount last summer, I bought her biography by Hermione Lee (and I hope to read it soon).

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  3. I haven't read any Wharton before either. Pure oversight on my part. Good to hear there's stuff online.

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  4. I would love to hear your review of the bio. Just from what I read in Novel Destinations she sounded like a fascinating person and I would like to know more about her friendship with James. Does the Lee bio dedicate many pages to it or do you know if there is a separate book about their relationship?

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  5. John,
    I didn't realize so much of her work could be found on line either. Many of her stories are here -

    http://www.readbookonline.net/stories/Wharton/63/

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  6. BookPsmith,
    Wharton certainly does sound like a fascinating person! Judging from the index of Lee's bio, James is a prominent figure in the book - nearly a full page of index references. I don't know of any book that is devoted solely to their relationship. Hopefully I will get to the book later this year.

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  7. ohhh, I love Edith Wharton, and I love ghost stories. I'm going to read this right now!!

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  8. Lisa -
    If you love Wharton and ghost stories, then this one will be perfect for you! Let me know what you think.

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  9. I just read this book and loved it until the end. What happened? I don't get it and I can't find an explanation online.

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  10. Dena - I'm embarrassed to admit that I can't remember the end, and it's only been a little over 2 years! I do remember being confused and having to decide what I thought really happened. This one was definitely open to interpretation, and I never found anything online that stated the authors intent. Now you have me curious, so I'll reread it sometime during the Halloween season. Thanks for reminding me...and thanks for visiting my blog, too.

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  11. Frustrated with the ending....would love to discuss with someone who has read the Lady's Maid Bell.

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    1. Donna and Miss Spenser - I really wish I remembered the ending well enough to discuss with you... I just remember it as being open to interpretation. It's probably time for me to reread!

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  12. I read this story and watched the film and loved it until the end. Glad to know I'm not the only one digging for some illumination on the mystery.
    Adele Gibbes, author of The Playhouse Mystery Series.

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    2. Adele Gibbes - Thanks for taking the time to comment. Had no idea there was a film based on this story... I'm off to see if it's available through Netflix.

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