“The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”, by Edith Wharton
I’ve been working my way through R. W. B. Lewis’ selection of Edith Wharton’s best short fiction over the past few weeks, and I’ve found it very enjoyable. I thought I might discuss a few of my favorites over the next little while. I probably won’t (necessarily) review the stories in detail, and there will be spoilers. Because come on! But I’ll warn before risking really messing up a story.
First (in chronological order, that is) is Wharton’s first ghost story (she wrote quite a few). This is “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”, first published in Scribner's Magazine in 1902. As I finished the story, I thought to myself, OK, what just happened? Am I too slow to understand? But a quick look at the internet revealed that that reaction is pretty much universal. And I should add that I really liked the story – I just didn’t understand the ending fully.
So what do we know happened? The story is told by a servant, a lady’s maid (though whether or not the title bell is hers is in question). Her name is Alice Hartley, and she’s just recovered from typhoid fever, and is having a hard time finding a position before ending up at Mrs. Brympton’s remote country house. Mrs. Brympton is a youngish wife, frail, with her two children having died, and with an unhappy marriage. But she’s popular with the servants, and her brutish, coarse, husband is unpopular. (Hartley is happy to realize that her lingering sickliness makes her unattractive to Mr. Brympton.) The only peculiar things are the woman Hartley sees in a hallway, who no one else admits to knowing, and the fact that Mrs. Brympton will never summon Hartley with the bell.
We soon realize that the mysterious woman Hartley sees is the ghost of Mrs. Brympton’s much loved earlier lady’s maid, Emma Saxon, who had died a few months before. And one night, while Mr. Brympton is visiting, the bell rings. Hartley responds – but sees the Emma Saxon’s ghost – and an angry Mr. Brympton. On another occasion, the ghost leads Hartley to the house of Mr. Ranford, a neighbor who is Mrs. Brympton’s closest friend. (Too close? Hartley swears nothing improper happens.) It seems Emma Saxon is trying to send Alice Hartley a message, but Hartley can’t decode it.
Finally, as Mr. Brympton returns unexpectedly one night, the bell rings again, and Hartley sees Emma Saxon again, and rushes to her mistress, just as her husband comes upstairs … Mrs. Brympton faints, and soon dies, and Mr. Brympton says, strangely, “It seems that’s done for me”, and Emma Saxon’s ghost returns, reproaching him. At the funeral, Mr. Ranford seems to be limping. And that’s more or less it.
So what really happens? What was Emma Saxon’s message? What happened to Mr. Ranford?
It seems to me that the most conventional answer is roughly this: the Brymptons had an unhappy marriage. Mr. Brympton was often away. Mr. Ranford, a much more sympathetic man, began a relationship with Mrs. Brympton (sexual or not may not matter much). Mr. Brympton found out, and objected violently. (Especially perhaps as he may have been denied his “marital rights”, possibly with the help of Emma Saxon’s ghost.) Hence his statement “It seems that’s done for me [his marriage, that is]”. And why does Mrs. Brympton die? Just frailness? The stress of two perhaps difficult pregnancies? Fear? As for Mr. Ranford’s limp, perhaps Mr. Brympton had a fight with him.
We note that Alice Hartley, the narrator, insists that Mr. Ranford and Mrs. Brympton never acted inappropriately, and the reader tends to believe her, as she is the narrator, and a sympathetic character. But is she always truthful? Interestingly, she says at one point that she never lies – just exactly as she is telling a (justified) lie. I don’t think her testimony on this matter can be trusted.
I think all this makes a fairly sensible explanation, but perhaps it seems to fall just a bit flat.
What else could be going on? One reader suggests that Mrs. Brympton’s final illness was the result of a botched abortion. And why an abortion? Could it be that the baby was Mr. Ranford’s, and that the timing means that Mr. Brympton will know this? Or could it simply be that she can’t bear to lose another child? Or that she can’t bear to have a child for Mr. Brympton (who would, surely, have raped her if he got her pregnant)?
What of Emma Saxon? Is there any suggestion that her relationship with Mrs. Brympton was more than simply that of lady and lady’s maid? I have to say I don’t really think that’s meant to be implied.
Does anyone have any other notions?