Now, as to what the devil all of this means. The sign posts of Gothic fiction direct us to suspect several possibilities. There are several elements which bear examining, thirteen in particular. The solution I propose is that Ranford and Mrs. Brympton have had an affair during one of Brympton’s philandering escapades, the result of which was a pregnancy. There are several possibilities of what happened thereafter, two which I will iterate:
1 – the pregnancy was detected and, amidst much grief, the couple, with the help of Saxon, acquired an abortifacient from the chemist (e.g. pennyroyal), and the drugs achieve their purpose at night, when the miscarriage occurs – an event which Saxon was summoned to assist by the nocturnal bell.
2 – the pregnancy, whether detected or not, resulted in an accidental miscarriage induced from shock at one of Mr. Brympton’s early returns (probably meant to interrupt his wife and her suspected lover). Panicked and in a horrible state, she summons Saxon, who helps to spirit away the miscarried child and care for her mistress.
In either event, the following results: the fetus is buried beneath an elm tree in Ranford’s yard by his consent, Mrs. Brympton is left anemic and wrecked by the blood loss and emotional toll, and Saxon dies from stress and grief over her mistress’s misery. Saxon’s spirit, still concerned for her mistress, relives the horrible event and begins to psychologically possess Hartley, leading her to suspect the events without any intellectual or physical evidence. The following are the road signs which lead me to this conclusion:
1 – The servants know what is happening – and what has happened; while many questions are not answered it is impossible to deny that answers exist.
The servants know something is up/has happened, and refuse to answer Hartley’s questions, making lame excuses and dodging her direct inquisitions with nervous, almost guilty avoidance. They appear ashamed and afraid. Whatever happened is not a mere spooky bump in the night; it is a disturbance that injects them with shame and disgust. Compare this to Gaskell’s “Old Nurse’s Tale” and Jane Eyre among others: this is more than a ghost flitting through the halls of an English manor – something many owners would have prided themselves in (Canterville Ghost) – this has a tie to a dark event in the household’s recent history.
2 – Saxon’s room is locked and avoided, and her bell is inconveniently unused.
Saxon’s influence, personality, memories, and impulses still permeate the room, which is kept locked as if symbolically immuring an uncomfortable memory by denial and repression (compare to Poe’s “Black Cat” and “William Wilson”). Her existence, death, and haunting are to be ignored because they represent something deeper than heebie-jeebies. Likewise, her bell is unused despite the gross and awkward inconvenience. Its use clearly reminds the household of some event associated with the bell’s ring which fills them with discomfort.
3 – Saxon makes herself known to her replacement – making sure that she is seen and recognized.
At first Saxon seems ominous like the ghosts of “Turn of the Screw” – she flits through halls ominously. But it quickly becomes apparent that she must be trying to enlist Hartley’s help, not scare away her replacement as might be first supposed. She goes to efforts to be noticed – with ease – and eventually (though somewhat artlessly) identifies herself with a photograph, quickening Hartley’s understanding of the events and prompting her to ask more questions of Saxon’s life, death, and afterlife.
4 – The bell rings at night, alerting Hartley to a presumed problem with Mrs. Brympton.
The English ghost story has several tropes that are unmistakable. One is that ghosts are prone to perpetually reenact events that are germane to their remaining on earth. They might pace in a room where they died, be seen wearing the clothes they died in, or be noticed walking down the pathway where they journeyed to meet a lover but were killed en route. J. Sheridan Le Fanu makes use of this often (“Chapelizod,” “Strange Disturbances,” “Justice Harbottle”) as well as Gaskell (“Old Nurse”), Broughton (“Pretty Bobby”), Edwards (“Phantom Coach”), Nesbit (“John Chatterton’s Wedding”), James (“Disappearance”), and Blackwood (“Eavesdropping”). If an action is repeated in a ghost story, it is likely because it was an action critical to the ghost’s life, and related to their death: likely it is a reenactment of a lifetime event.
5 – Saxon seems to desire to partake in attending to a serious issue.
Hartley is gravely concerned for her mistress on both occasions that she hears the bell, and is anxious for her safety. If Saxon, who goes ahead of her both times, is responsible for implanting these psychic impressions, then the matter which caused the bell to ring in her lifetime was one of grave importance, leading us to question what the event may have been and if it’s nature could be the cause of the servant’s unease.
6 – These disturbances have clearly happened before, indicating that Saxon is trying to accomplish something.
As four other maid’s have left, it is clear that Saxon is constantly trying to elicit their attention and enlist their help – if we assume this is the cause of her haunting. That being said, it appears that she has a physical goal. Like in “Martin’s Close,” “Four-Fifteen,” or “Madam Crowl’s Ghost,” there must be a wrong to set right, or, as in “Behold, it was a Dream!,” “The Singal Man,” or “The Bus Conductor” a tragedy to prevent.
7 – Her ultimate aim seems to be to alert Hartley to something existing beneath Ranford’s tree.
This is the most significant sign post. Contemporary readers would know that when ghosts pause under trees, over bare ground, or beside buildings, it means that something important is buried there – often times their own bodies, or the body of a significant person. While Le Fanu exhibited this in “Haunted House” and “Madam Crowl,” James in “Story of a Disappearance,” and Edwards in “Was it an Illusion?,” it was perhaps even more popular as a device in “authentic” stories of ghosts, some of which attained national prominence. For instance, the Red Barn Murder, the Greenbrier Ghost, and the ghost of a framed and murdered footman were known for identifying their burial places by standing over them. The sign is unmistakable: Saxon pauses over a specific piece of ground on Ranford’s property because something buried (read: symbolically denied and repressed) is hiding there.
8 – The lady dies from a shock precipitated by the suggestion that her husband has come home unexpectedly at night. Additionally, she dies at all – a post sign in Victorian fiction.
That she is shocked by his return means that she has something to hide from him – perhaps even that she is reminded by the incident in question due to Hartley’s unsolicited and bizarre warning. That she died implies guilt. In ghost stories where a visitation results in a death (“Screw,” “Old Nurse,” “Eddy on the Floor,” “Shadows on the Wall”) – whether suicide, eventual death, or sudden death – a secret link is implied between haunted and haunter. Either a wrong has been committed by the haunted (“Squire Toby’s Will”), or the haunter has come to collect a coconspirator in either a legal, social, or moral misstep (“Vincent Pyrwhit”). Since we may assume that Saxon and Mrs. Brympton were deeply close to one another, the later seems the more likely possibility. In this case the common crime is conspiracy to commit abortion at the “worst” (by Victorian standards), or complicity in a sexual affair at the best (by our estimations).
9 – The lady’s health is already terrible, and the spirit of recent tragedy still lingers over the servants and house.
“[I]t's not a cheerful place I'm sending you to. The house is big and gloomy; my niece is nervous, vaporish” is Hartley’s warning. The servants and the house itself are pervaded with a contagion of mourning, despair, remorse, and desperation. While her two children have died, this is referred to but once and doesn’t appear to be important to the plot. Something palpable has occurred – the result of which, even if indirectly, has been Saxon’s death.
10 – Antagonism bordering on jealousy exists between Ranford and Brympton, and Ranford’s closeness to the lady renders him tottering and pale-faced at her funeral; her burial he conspicuously chooses to avoid.
It is virtually incontestable that an affair – emotional at the very least – has taken place between the lonely wife and her attentive male friend. Brympton appears to be entirely certain of this, caring more about monitoring Ranford’s reactions than even feigning sorrow to keep up appearances. For his part, Ranford is notable absent from the burial. It may be too close of a reading, but might we suppose that he is sickened at the prospect of watching another member of his unlawful family being lowered into the earth?
11 – Hartley is strangely suspicious of the lady’s suicidal impulses, particularly in relation to the chemist’s drugs.
Abortion would certainly be best induced by a chemist’s preparation of pennyroyal, ergot of rye, diachylon, or slippery elm rather than the highly dangerous knitting needles commonly used to cause miscarriages in the lower classes, and the chemist’s appearance would certainly alert an attentive Victorian audience to the possibilities of his relationship to the Brympton family. Her seemingly random fear for her mistress’s inclination to self-harm (fostered by nothing but the woman’s perennial gloom) might suggest a psychic nudge from Saxon, who may either be genuinely concerned for the mistress of her lifetime (considering her (possible) previous enlistment of the chemist for nefarious purposes), or trying to draw Hartley’s attention to the man’s possible role in the little drama. As it is, his preparation – lime-water, AKA calcium hydroxide – is a common , which the chemist calls safe enough to feed to a baby by the bottle-full. Which brings us to…
12 – The motif of dead children or the safety of infants flit subtly throughout the text.
Besides the brief mentioning of the two dead children, there is the chemist’s non-sequitur, “you might feed it to a baby by the bottleful” is particularly telling. There is a sense of absence and lack – of a failure to generate and a loss of fertility – that haunts the text and suggests an alternative reading to its opaque conclusion.
13 – Brympton is immediately labeled as a dangerous philanderer. His reaction to his wife’s demise is revoltingly heartless, and is responded to by a scolding vision of Saxon.
With a single look – concise even for women’s intuition – Hartley realizes (or it is externally suggested to her by Saxon) that the master is a lecher, although (like Jane Eyre, though unlike the narrator of “Turn of the Screw”) her plain looks protect her from molestation. The impression is immediate and suggestive, and can be said to morally (even Biblically) excuse an affair on the lady’s part. Perhaps just as importantly, it immediately suggests violent sexuality to the text, making the existence of an abortion/miscarriage (or a less likely infanticide) more noticeable in a story where the suspected woman’s marital binary is a well-documented philanderer. Were he simply a gambler or an otherwise non-sexual cad, the suggestion might not be as apparent. To a Victorian audience which would be immediately titillated by the suggestion of extramarital sex, the groundwork would be laid to suspect the “worst” of the long-suffering wife.
While Wharton – infamous for her examinations of sexual politics (her 1917 novel Summer famously confronts abortion and women’s sexual rights) – may be cloaking an abortion or extramarital miscarriage in subtext (rather easily interpreted by Victorian readers of ghost stories, both fictional and “authentic”), that is not to say that her story is a puritanical indictment of a sexually-active woman. It may, in fact, be a strong feminist tale, lamenting the inability of two strong female characters to protect the sexual agency of their female mistress/companion in a world of violent masculinity and patriarchal double-standards (Hartley’s manhandling of her neglectful master is particularly inspiring). Indeed, if this is the interpretation that we glean from this notoriously confounding tale, then our sympathy is with Mrs. Brympton and her mourning attendants who are forced to bury their grief from a world which ignores and condemns their concerns, even as Mrs. Brympton and Ranford may have stolen into the night to dig a hole beneath an elm tree to deposit the physical manifestation of a passion denied them by their patriarchal society.