Wednesday, October 12, 2016

“People don’t care for what you write” - some Henry James ghost stories of the non-Halloween variety

How are imaginary readers doing with my imaginary readalongs?  Great, I imagine.  I’ve taken Goethe to Sicily in Italian Journey, where he is horrified by the Villa Palagonia, a baroque folly near Palermo.  “[Y]ou will sympathize with anyone who has to run the gauntlet of this lunacy.”

As for Henry James, I thought I would cover a couple of his ghost stories now, gentle ones, though, not scary, completely inappropriate for Halloween, “The Private Life” (1892) and “The Real Right Thing” (1899).  Both are examples of James using ghosts to literalize a metaphor.  Both are about – what else – writers.

The earlier one may be the least ghostly ghost story ever.  The conceit is that people can be different in private and in public, which is true.  One character has no private self.  When not with people, he vanishes.  Another, a successful writer, is so different that he simultaneously exists in private and in public.  While his public self is socializing, his private self is back in his room, writing.  “[B]ut why was he writing in the dark?”  Because the private one is the supernatural creature, I guess.

The emphasis on the mechanics of the supernatural activity, once it is discovered by the Jamesish narrator and another character, an actress, is what makes the story a real ghost story.  They take the business seriously enough to learn how it works and then cynically exploit it.

“I wish you’d let an observer write you a play!” I broke out.

“People don’t care for what you write: you’d break my run of luck.”

And this is before James had his smashup writing for the theater.  There’s quite a bit of good self-deprecating writer comedy in “The Private Life.”

“The Real Right Thing” is of an entirely different hue, black to be specific.  This is the deceased author’s wife:

her large array of mourning – with her big black eyes, her big black wig, her big black fan and gloves, her general gaunt, ugly, tragic, but striking and, as might have been thought from a certain point of view, “elegant” presence.

Middle James is transforming into Late James here, isn’t he?  Mrs. Doyne wants the young writer Withermore (!) to write a biography of her husband:

It alarmed Withermore a little from the first to see that she would wish to go in for quantity.  She talked of “volumes” – but he had his notion of that.

Some writer humor here, too, although this story’s tone is generally sad.  Because Doyne is so recently deceased, all of his papers are in his study, so that is where the biographer works.  He feels at times that he is in the presence of the dead writer, is even assisted by him.  This “fancy” is so strong that he finds himself “waiting for the evening very much as one of a pair of lovers might wait for the hour of their appointment.”  On the one hand, the biographer is so immersed in his task that he feels he is in the presence of his subject, on the other, he is having an affair with his subject’s ghost.

Unlike in “The Aspern Papers,” where the biographer becomes an outright villain, it is never clear in this story what “The Real Right Thing” might be.  Should the biography be written or not?  Is there really a ghost, or is the biographer’s experience all psychological?  If there is a ghost, it is a gentle, undemonstrative one, who just wants to be left alone.  This is a ghost story where the only fear (“’he makes us dim signs out of his horror’”) is experienced by the ghost.


  1. Hm, the biographer in the Aspern Papers is an outright villain, eh? Callous and ruthless, perhaps, egotistical and manipulative...but a villain? His target, the older Bordereau lady, is as calculating as he is. Monomaniacal as Ahab, ungallant, thoughtless. OK, maybe a bit of a villain.

  2. The desk-rifling is a villainous moment, a line crossed. And obviously the incompetent attempts to manipulate Tita. If the story ends in her apotheosis as a heroine, the the narrator is the villain. Of course in his own telling, he is the hero and everyone else is the villain.

  3. The idea that even after we're dead, we can still experience horror is more than a little disturbing. JCO went one step further in one of her short stories, showing how we all go mad after we die.

  4. Oh yes - the single scariest moment in the story.

  5. Regarding "The Real Right Thing," I can almost make myself believe that Doyne's wife is manipulating the biographer, is the presence in the room opening drawers and suggesting letters to be read and taking away documents. After all, Mrs Doyne is able to move about in the same room as Withermore without his seeing or hearing her. And her thoughts are never directly reported. I'm not sure how that squares with the end, of her giving up the project along with Withermore. I'll have to think about that.

  6. Completely plausible. At some point, she changes her mind, becomes anxious about the biography, so has to manipulate the biographer to give it up. Or maybe she cares only about the part about herself, about it being written like she wants, not published. Or maybe ----

  7. And there are those hints that Withermore begins an affair with the Widow Doyne after the events of the story.

  8. James is in his "Figure in the Carpet" mode in this story. It is full of what look like puzzle pieces. Maybe that's what they are, but also maybe not.

    I am beginning to see what a radical move James had made.

  9. Postmodernist detective story Henry James. The surfaces are clear and almost still, but there's a strange chaos just underneath.

  10. Chaos, yes. And "still" is perfect - as a mood piece, "The Real Right Thing" is about the stillest James I have ever seen.