?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Edith Wharton's "Kerfol" and ghost stories

Dear friends and readers,

I had really thought my last blog on Fuller's The Convent and Atwood's Lady Oracle might be my last blog for a while on the gothic.  But I find it's still very strongly on my mind, partly because I'm now writing the paper for this coming pair of conference (now called Gothic Intertexuality in Northanger Abbey -- the title changes daily), because I'm also teaching "Exploring the Gothic" at GMU, and I'm reading yet more gothics with friends online.  Over on WWTTA a few weeks ago now I posted a URL to Wharton's semi-parodic vampire story, "Mr Jones", and much to my surprise, several people read it, and all made comments, interested ones. Since then I sent along a URL to "Afterward" and we talked of the film series Shades of Darkness, to say nothing of people getting interested in, taking out of the library or buying Susan Hill's Woman in Black, and also watching it online through a utube presentation.

Well I bought myself this lovely paperback of the complete ghost stories of Wharton some time ago, and when I read Catherine Delors's blog delighting in "Kerfol", which includes a photo of Wharton when young and pretty:



I sat down and read it myself.  Very powerful.  Here is the illustration by Laszlo Kubinyi (who illustrated all the tales in this Scribner's volume):



It harks back to the archetypal Bluebeard tale and forwards to Susan Glaspell's short play, Trifles.  Anne Williams retells the story of Bluebeard and says this paradigm as well as the Psyche one is found repeatedly in female gothics. I hope I don't have to retell the Bluebeard story. In Trifles a wife has been accused of murdering her husband and two of her friends with their police husbands come to the now desolate apartment, the men to search for evidence against the wife. The women talk another room from where the evidence is said to exist -- a rope to hang the husband. They see a bird cage where there's a strangled bird and in their dialogue it emerges the wife led a desperately lonely domineered life with her only joy that bird. It becomes clear the husband was intensely jealous of any love the wife had for anything and killed the bird. The woman don't seem to realize they have conjured up a sufficient excuse for the wife killing a mean cruel murderous man but they also seem to fall silent suddenly.  They express fear that if they say anything on the wife's behalf this way it will incriminate her for she is pleading innocent.  And the play ends.

The opening of the tale resembles the opening in Mr Jones. A rich and privileged 20th century woman comes to an ancient castle/mansion. In "Mr Jones" Lady Jane has inherited it and decides to stay; the narrator of "Kerfol" is nameless; she is coming to see if she should buy an ancient castle called Kerfol.  As with "Mr Jones" she quickly confronts remnants of an older world. In "Mr Jones" it was a sarcophagus where a powerful lord is buried and his monument decorated with all his dates, honors, paraphernalia, and on the bottom three words "Also his wife." "Mr Jones" is one of those many gothics where the story has a hard time getting told: the center is Lady Jane at last wresting a key from the absent Mr Jones (from his housekeeper) and finding in a drawer in a muniment room a manuscript which is written by a woman of the later 18th century, Lady Juliana, a cripple kept imprisoned by Mr Jones (so he is very old)  and her own attitudes: she blames herself as unworthy and deserving punishment.  Well she's getting or got it.


Lady Jane's only fleeting glimpse of Mr Jones contemplating the papers in this desk

"Afterward" also opens on two people who are charmed by a very old house and playfully (foolishly) long, they say, to live in a haunted one.

In "kerfol" what happens as our modern heroine walks deeper and deeper into the grounds, passes the chapel and gets to the dry moat, dogs appear one by one and watch her.  After a while they form a crowd, a circle.  Our anxiety for our heroine is stronger because unacknowledged by heroine or narrartor; the suspense is unnerving, the atmosphere increasingly alarming, chilling.  As a reader I was riveted, alarmed, I wanted to tell our heroine to go back, go back (!) as I felt  these dogs may leap on her at any time and devour her.  She just carries on, nervously addressing them, but they do not bark just stare.  This is a version of a werewolf story too, only they simply gaze at her. She returns to the wife of the real estate agent, Lanrivain and tells the Madame what she saw.  The Madame's voice drops and says she's always wondered (why no one rented this estate) and tells our heroine there are no dogs at Kerfol at all.

The next day Lanrivain hunts out "a shabby volume" from the 18th century, a history of trials at the Assizes and our heroine reads the story at the heart of the tale -- this is one that has an easier time getting told than say "Afterward" or "Lady's Maid's Bell' (which never gets told clearly at all).  We learn of the marriage of one later 17th century French lord, Ive de Cornault, a hard mercenary man who has been allowed to gets away with whatever he wants because the world at the time gave him the power -- to Anne de Barrigan.  How he shut her up in a castle and never let her even walk in a park, to keep her as he pleased for his pleasures, only she never got pregnant, so she began to adopt dogs. As she adopts each one, she finds it strangled and put on her pillow afterward. One by one. As a side issue, one that does not emerge clearly until the trial, it seems she was attracted to a handsome kindly squire called Lanrivain, doubtless an ancestor of the present estate agent?

I was left to surmize that the dogs had seen in this modern woman a version of their mistress, Anne de Cornault.  What they did in the later 17th century is finally tear to pieces this cruel man, Ives, and then there is a court case in which Anne is accused of murder and in danger of a terrible death (women who murdered their husbands no matter how treated were subject to be burnt to death).  What ensues is how the court is bored and irritated by these "trifing" stories of the death of dogs. I remembered the word "trifling" but when I returned to write this blog I discovered it was ratther "trivial".  "Trifling" was my mind making an intertext with Glaspell's play.

Anne tells the jury she did not murder her husband but was terrified of him "because he had strangled my little dog." Those in the courtroom smile. The voice of the narrtor (by the time of the tale turned slightly archaci) tells us that in this era a nobleman cuold hang his peasant and many did so.   Nonetheless, one judge shows some sympathy and lets the wife tell her story, and a "chill" is sent through the courtroom when she says that her husband said she resembled a portrait of a great-grandmother with her dog "lying i the chapel with her feet on a little dog."

This gets her nowhere as a defense.  We are made to realize what the court is interested in is the story of Lanrikain, the handsome young man she had liked and how the husband twisted around one of the dead dogs necks a necklet she had given to Lanrikain. They attribute the husband's behavior to jealousy and want to ferret out if the wife committed adultery.  The situation of imprisonment and punishment of a wife by a husband based on this accusation of adultery is exactly the paradigm underlying the Duchess of C******** by Genlis and Smith's Montalbert. Among the details Wharton implies is the wife is tortured to make her tell the truth -- meaning a truth the court wants to hear.  Sarah Maza in her Private Lives and Public Affairs talks of how torture laced such proceedings at each turn. Kubinyi's drawing of the wife's face implies the husband would beat her on the face.  The jealousy, the demand for total possession and obedience is found in Trollope's realistic story He Knew He Was Right -- tellingly I've seen people say of Trollope's story the husband had the right to be jealous and the wife should have given in to him to keep peace (which means live in a form of isolation) as well as accuse the husband of being unmanly for not being sure of himself (for his sexual anxiety).  Sexual anxiety does not reach the surface in tales of older times.

Well, after the court fails to come to a decision, and much argument about details about the dogs (the sort of real trivia lawyers use to delay and distract), the wife is turned over to a church court and they give her to the husband's family who in Wharton's quiet savage irony for a horror of a  life, "shut her up in a the keep of Kefol, where she is said to have died many years later a harmless madwoman." Harmless to their interests.

Well here we have all the elements outlined by Anne Williams, Eugenia DeLaMotte, Michelle Masse (who discusses "Kerfol" and other of Wharton's ghost stories. The cruel male hegemonic pattern.  And the elements Jack Sullivan in his Elegant Nightmares and Eve Sedgwick in her Coherence of Gothic Conventions outline.  The uncanny and terrifying eruption of atavastic past and the malignity or mischievousness, at best indifference and alienation of the surrounding outside paranormal world.   Not to omit someone barricaded from what they should normally have access to.


Kubinyi's "Miss Mary Prask" -- I'll try to read this in the coming week as the articles I've read praise it

My edition of The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton has remarkable illustrations for each story. Beyond  all Whartons' ghost stories, it contains (from A Backward Glance) her memory of her near fatal encounter with typhoid fever, teh experience of which and hallucination from high fever she connected with her penchant for writing ghost stories.  Several essays on Wharton I've read too argue for the brilliant art of these stories, a few of which are parodic at the same time as Wharton to bring out her woman's perspective, delves sexuality indirectly, displays women's condition and subjugation then and now (often through the class system too), and sa dialogue with the unconscious and deep psychic dynamics.  The other night I watched Terence Davies's film adaptation of Wharton's great House of Mirth (with Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart) and need to watch again so I can write about it.

Her connection to Austen? Summer is a rewrite of S&S  (heroine seduced, impregnated and abandoned as poor by a Willoughby characer, forced to marry a man who is sly, mean old and we last see her walking up the stairs to him); House of Mirth takes a central paradigm from Mansfield Park:  Lily is the Mary Crawford character done in and left to perish by Seldon, an Edmund Bertram and his moral friend, a Fanny Price; a third novel whose title escapes right now reworks some of the paradigms of Emma.

Ellen

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
misssylviadrake
Sep. 20th, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC)
Captivating
Linda replied:

"I was also totally captivated by this story. It is a good one.

To be fair, I must add that the husband did not begin killing the dogs until he discovered there was a kind of relationship between his wife and Lanrakain. What was chilling is that neither husband nor wife mentioned the affair of each dead dog as it occured--but instead continued to sit across from the breakfast table each time as though it was business as usual. What a lack of rapport and intimacy this suggested.She was mentally imprisoned as well as physically.

The wife was not blameless--she was having a sort of non-sexual mini-affair with Lanrakain. Of course, she was desperate because of her husband's tyranny and abuse. But she was expecting Lanrakain at midnight the night of her husband's death.

The court scene was also very interesting and revealing. We see how little the jury cared for her interests and rights. She barely got to tell her story--and then no one cared about her point of view. No one in the courtroom cared about her at all. She only escaped imprisonment because of bureaucratic absurdities. It is a clear statement about how unimportant women were in that time.

The ending continues that theme. She is imprisoned by her husband's relatives--she is a totally trivial, expendable person. All of her adult life, she was valued by no one except the dogs and Lanrakain. Wharton's unemotional, matter-of-fact presentation of this does make it ironic.

Linda"
misssylviadrake
Sep. 20th, 2010 07:19 pm (UTC)
No excuse whatsoever: remember Trollope's He Knew He Was Right
To which I replied:

It's no excuse whatsoever. The dogs themselves are valued though the no excuse I utter is about far more than that. To allow this is to allow the Duchess of C*******'s husband cruel pre-dungeon behavior.

The parallel with HKHWR highlights and suggests that in the case of a realistic novel you felt that the husband's was unreasonable and unjustified: Louis's jealousy may be read as ignited by Emily's flirtatiousness, but it must be admitted that we see very little of this, and what is seen could be all in Louis's mind. You then said that you felt he was way out of line. Such behavior would imprison the wife utterly.

When one turns the gothics into realistic stories, sometimes more is seen. HKWHR has a sort of gothic story inside it.

Ellen
misssylviadrake
Sep. 21st, 2010 11:48 am (UTC)
In reply to Cathernie's blog (linked in)
Just to thank you again for mentioned my two listservs and me, Catherine. For those who want to read a slightly different take (though out of the same understanding of the story), my blog on "Kerfol" is at:

http://misssylviadrake.livejournal.com/28768.html

I'm not sure Wharton is the most French of English writers. Burney is very French, and there have been numerous women who write and read in French and English. Marguerite Yourcenar and Michelle Roberts are two modern examples; there is a continual going back and forth among some actresses and actors -- the woman who played in "Night" and "Sous la Sable." Then some English texts are very much to the taste of French women (Woolf) and vice versa.

I liked the story for its chilling terror as the dogs begin to surround the modern heroine and then how they backed away: they saw she was a friend not an enemy. The enemy was the husband and anyone like him. The heart of it was a werewolf tale except it was shaped by the kind of insight and events we read in Susan Glaspell's Trifles where a husband strangles his wife's bird, her only companion. When she murders him (probably from physical abuse too but we can't no evidence) she too is put on trial for murder. Only she is in no danger of being burnt to death.

So I liked the exposure of what women had to endure in the later 17th century too. There are places they still must endure this kind of treatment (as in stoning in Muslim countries).

The style, the quiet sardonic ending. And it fits Wharton's other ghosts stories and themes and interests in her novels.

Ellen
misssylviadrake
Sep. 25th, 2010 01:31 pm (UTC)
abusive husbands
I read yours and the above link. Although these stories are Gothic and filled with cruel Husbands it makes a point of how little worth Women had! They had no rights in the Court System and the further back you go Men inherited their property rights as well. Stranger still is that Women today get into abusive relationships or Marriages...stalked and murdered through a system that still fails them! Ex-Husbands and boyfriends are many times treated as Domestic problems even when under a restraining order!

Marilyn Watson
misssylviadrake
Sep. 25th, 2010 01:32 pm (UTC)
Abusive husbands
Quite so, Marilyn! I also described at length the plight of women under the Ancien Regime in Mistress of the Revolution.
You are right about this being a continuing problem today. In the US it took the death of Nicole Brown Simpson for dome...stic violence to begin to be taken seriously. In France, we had the horrible death of actress Marie Trintignant at the hands of her boyfriend. The latter was freed in 2007, only 4 years after her murder...
http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?GRid=7726260&page=gr
misssylviadrake
Sep. 25th, 2010 01:34 pm (UTC)
Abuse of power in a system
I taught two of the Wharton stories in my classes this semester and I could not get students to discuss this aspect of the stories at all. Not a bit. I would remark on the power of the husbands and abjection of teh women, and not a peep. They'd turn to another topic. One class heavily male and the other half-male half-female. People can't tell the difference between personal exposure and attack of a system. Ellen
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

Latest Month

September 2018
S M T W T F S
      1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30      

Tags

Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Tiffany Chow