“Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showcasing all its figures so distinctly, -- making every object so minute visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility, -- is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests. There is the little domestic scenery of the well-known apartment; the chairs with each its separate individuality; the centre-table, sustaining a work-basket, a volume or two, and an extinguished lamp; the sofa; the picture on the wall,--all these details, so completely seen, are so spiritualized by the unusual light, that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of the intellect. Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo this change, and acquire dignity thereby. A child's shoe; the doll, seated in her little wicker carriage; the hobby-horse,-- whatever, in a word, has been used or played with, during the day, is now invested with a quality of strangeness and remoteness, though still almost as vividly present as by daylight. Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. Ghosts might enter here, without affrighting us. It would be too much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a form beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak of this magic moonshine, with an aspect that would make us doubt whether it had returned from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside.”
This is how Nathaniel Hawthorne defines the genre he called “romance” – a realistic world which is familiar and well-known, yet serves as the lobby or terminal of the realm of fairies, ghosts, and magic. This is suitable in that it provides a definition for the following story’s title, but it also provides a convenient definition of Henry James’ supernatural fiction writ large. Nearly all of James’ spook tales are Hawthornian romances – borrowing at times from Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe – and the “Romance of Certain Old Clothes” is perhaps the best example. Unlike most of his fiction, it has a historical setting – colonial Massachusetts – and it is notable that this was Hawthorne’s favored era. James’s first ghost story is also one of his finest. It may disappoint devotees of the Gothic tradition (indeed, all of these stories will), for the supernatural element is tremendously subdued, only raising its head at the very end, but by that point, a genuine chill will begin to crawl up the spine.
This "Romance” is a story that pays deep homage to the early American masters, especially Irving (“The Adventure of the German Student”) Poe (“The Black Cat”), and Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter), whose fiction often concerned the consequences of forbidden curiosity, moral hypocrisy, shameless greed, social climbing, and the unspeakable power of the unconscious mind to pronounce itself. All three masters at various points dealt with the trope of the Bluebeard’s chamber – a forbidden room, trunk, or intimacy which is violated at the peril of the curious – and James’ Bluebeard trunk is no less grim or intimidating because it is a trunk filled with ladies’ clothes. Bound fast by three iron padlocks and brooding in the attic, it may not frighten us until the ending, but when it is finally violated, our suspense is assured.
The story is set in colonial New England during the early 18th century and follows the loves and jealousies of two beautiful sisters: Rosalind and Perdita. They are close to one another, but motivated by a barely noticeable but unconsciously potent sibling rivalry. When a wealthy, young American man named Arthur Lloyd returns to Massachusetts after studying in Europe, he is introduced to the sisters by their brother, Bernard, a classmate of his from Oxford.
While the girls play coy in public, in private they are deeply competitive and aggressively seek to win Lloyd’s heart away from the other. While they don’t even mention their rivalry to each other, both are convinced that the other is plotting against them. When Perdita finally wins the day, Rosalind hides her disappointment when her sister tells her of their engagement, but Perdita is put back on her guard when she catches Rosalind admiring herself in the mirror while wearing her sister’s wedding dress. It is at this point that the sisters are forever divided by distrust – their sexual rivalry demands that Rosalind part ways from the newlyweds to maintain marital stability.
Lloyd and Perdita move to Boston and have a daughter, but she dies soon after, not before making her husband promise to leave her collection of clothes untouched until her daughter is old enough to wear them herself. He agrees, and after her death, the dresses and jewels are locked in a trunk and secreted away in the attic. Unsurprisingly, Rosalind inserts herself back into Lloyd’s life as a nursemaid for her young niece, but she ultimately succeeds in securing his heart and the two are married not long after.
Three years pass and although Rosalind has succeeded in taking over Perdita’s role as wife and mother, she is not satisfied: she must have her clothes, too. Lloyd is still loyal to his first wife, however, and refuses to break his promise, even if it means an unhappy marriage. Undeterred, Perdita finds the key to the lock and sneaks into the attic one day. Hours pass, and she doesn’t come down for dinner, causing Lloyd to have the house searched. There, in the dim light of the attic, she is found in front of the opened chest: she is dead, and her pale face is still reddened by the welts from two slaps across the face – “ten hideous wounds from two vengeful, ghostly hands…”
“Romance” is one of the best ghost stories to emerge from the United States during the nineteenth century. A deeply British genre, Americans had little to do with either supernatural fiction or the so-called “classic ghost story” until the age of Lovecraft and Bierce. Poe’s fiction was typically rationalized by unreliable narrators, and Fitz-James O’Brien was more Irish in sensibilities than American, but Henry James reveled in the traditions of Britain, and his first clear supernatural tale is done in a manner that checks all of the boxes necessary to be classified a “classic ghost story”: it has an eighteenth century setting; it involves a storied family that has fallen on hard times; the focus of the plot is on a human drama with supernaturalism acting more as a plot device than a setting; the supernaturalism is subtle and understated, but when revealed, it is extreme and distressing; tension is planted early on, nourished liberally at places, and allowed to take center stage in the third act; a moral lesson – the dangers of envy amongst family – is the heart of the story; the setting is realistic rather than grossly Gothic (in a plain village rather than a Spanish castle filled with traps and dungeons), but the natural elements are romantic (gloom, murk, and moonlight create a deep sense of foreboding).
Like the tales of Charlotte Riddell, Mrs Oliphant, Rhoda Broughton, Amelia Edwards, Wilkie Collins, and J. S. Le Fanu, James is more concerned with illustrating a human problem (in this case, sibling rivalry and social envy) than thrilling readers with ghastly details. I certainly have a voracious taste for the gruesome and ghostly, but I have deep respect both for James’ restraint throughout the tale (there are no glaring portraits, gliding figures in hoods, or spectral messages whispered in empty rooms) and his commitment at the end. In fact, it is this commitment to hold back 95% of the haunting until the final 5% of the story that earns “Romance” its reputation as America’s first great ghost story.
The ending is savage, unexpectedly fatal, and allows a peak at the astonishing volume of female rage and depth of feeling which (as the story repeatedly testified) this society demands be repressed. The red slap marks on Rosalind’s face are a distinctly female manner of assault, and one which a well-bred woman would neither dream of delivering, nor receiving. Having violated her sister’s legacy, Rosalind is viciously assaulted by her sibling’s ghost in a way that we sense the spirit would have relished in life, but never would have dreamed of taking such a violent liberty.
To have been slapped so brutally that the marks still shine on her face (presumably) hours after her death, Rosalind has clearly earned the deep hatred of her attacker, and it is with this powerful image that James directs us to beware the powers of repression, for a repressed person is a dangerous person – one whose emotions are forbidden the opportunity to breathe in public will grow sick and perverted in the confines of a shut-away mind.
There is a hint of this, too, in Rosalind herself, whose little-discussed curse – the sarcastic wish that her sister have a long life and plenty of children – may be considered prophetic and perhaps even supernatural. Perdita certainly appears to be on the mend from childbirth until her sister is mentioned, which sends her into shadow and death. Even the picture of Rosalind smugly admiring herself in her sister’s wedding finery with a look on her face that sinisterly suggests “heaven knows what audacious visions” has a sense of supernatural import. Ultimately, “Romance” is a deeply dark warning against the repression of passion and the nurturing of grudges. Beautifully written, masterfully controlled, and ingeniously manufactured in the classic style of the English ghost story, it is nonetheless one of America’s finest examples of the literary supernatural tale.