Is Abortion the Underlying Issue in Edith Wharton’s “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell”?
Edith Wharton has long been tied with Henry James – another East Coast socialite with strong ties to Mother England – both for their social backgrounds and for their Irvingian manner of storytelling, but their affinity for the psychological ghost tale – complete with vague, unsettling conclusions – is what drew me to Wharton’s “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” (1902) last night. Aside from her monumental masterpiece, The Age of Innocence, I had never read much of Wharton, and after a few years of abstinence, I decided to immerse myself in a pile of her infamously profound ghost stories. “The Eyes” and “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” left me unsettled, to be sure, and made my dreams indistinct and murky, but it is the latter that still grappled with my interpretive faculties in the morning. Rather than merely review it, I feel compelled to offer my interpretation of its eerily enigmatic ending.
Recalling a slew of Gothic pieces – including Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story,” James’ Turn of the Screw, J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Madam Crowl’s Ghost,” and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre – “Maid’s Bell” features family secrets being exposed to an intentionally excluded female servant through sensational (and often supernatural) agencies. Admittedly, its ending will irritate you; it is vague, inconclusive, and borders on anticlimax, without resolving a single question that the reader harbored. The ending is fundamentally comparable to Screw, having a bizarre, psychological maze of self-doubt, intrigue, and suspicion that climaxes in the supposed victim’s death (apparently) from stress. Like James’ master-tale, Wharton’s both piques and provokes our patience, and while it concludes in a train wreck of mystery and shock, its coquettish conclusion is the key to its categorization as a splendid supernatural tale (like Screw) rather than a quaint guilty pleasure (like the majority of Victorian ghost stories). I expected the conventions of Gothic fiction, and while I was tantalized with them, none were fully delivered. And yet, these same conventions – or the allusions to them – provided me with a shadowy suggestion of clarity, and using these roadsigns, I divined what I believe to be the solution to this enigmatic tale of treachery and suspicion.
Abortion. Or infanticide, or stillbirth. This subject was horrendous well into the Edwardian period (though that didn’t prevent it from being enlisted as a subject by borderless artists such as Thomas Hardy and Frank Wedekind), and while contraception, women’s sexual rights, and abortion-within-marriage grew in popularity amongst the middle class after Victoria’s 1901 death, the subject was still tender at best.
Before I proceed, a word of caution: Wharton’s tale is designed to be vague – a technique used to compel the intellectual involvement of readers. As such, it is not meant to have a single, clear-cut solution. This is not the “truth” of the story; this is an interpretation, one which I have reason to trust.
“Maid’s Bell” has a basic plot surrounding a new servant girl and her mysterious employers (cf. “Madam Crowl’s Ghost,” “Old Nurse’s Story,” Screw, and Jane Eyre). Hartley, the maid, is brought in to replace Mrs. Brympton’s deceased lady’s maid, Saxon (and – she later learns – a series of maids who have suddenly quit in the interim). Mrs. Brympton is a young woman in very poor health. Her two children have died, her husband is neglectful, and she is beside herself with grief after the death of Saxon, her loyal maid for twenty years. Mr. Brympton, she quickly learns, is a lecherous, even dangerous womanizer, and during his lengthy, suspicious absences, Mrs. Brympton is attended by an attentive (male) friend named Ranford. When Hartley arrives, she notices a strange, white-faced woman in the hallway, a woman who does not appear at the servants’ dinner. Later she learns that her room – formerly a sewing room – is across the hall from her predecessor’s quarters, which are kept locked and unoccupied – a subject which the servants are wary to discuss, avoiding it to the point of absurdity any time Hartley broaches the subject.
In the middle of the night, Hartley is awoken by a clanging (unused) servant’s bell calling her to Mrs. Brympton’s side. She hears Saxon’s door unlock (presumably from within) and open, while footsteps rush down the hall. Wary of the mysterious noises, Hartley nonetheless rushes to her mistress’s side. Mr. Brympton seems somewhat distressed by her arrival, and Mrs. Brympton dismisses her after sleepily mistaking her for Saxon. After this bizarre event, Hartley becomes severely concerned, suspecting her lady of being suicidal, and incapable of wrenching information from the nervous servants. After confirming (from a photograph), the previous, white-faced apparition to be Saxon, she awakens to find Saxon standing over her. More curious than afraid, she follows the vision to Ranford’s house where Saxon stands poignantly under an elm tree before disappearing. (HERE COME THE SPOILERS) The following night Hartley is again woken by the bell and sees Saxon watching her as she rushes to her mistress. Aware that someone – apparently Mr. Brympton, returning unexpectedly – is in the house – she wakes the lady of the house, warning her of his approach. Turning white, the mistress falls over in a fit, dying, which hardly seems to bother the master (he laughs smugly). However, he hears a sound from within her room. Opening the door, he sees Saxon, and covers his face. In a moment she disappears. Later, Mrs. Brympton is buried. Ranford attends, pale, weak and in mourning, and Mr. Brympton spends the entire service staring angrily at his presumed rival.