boof. when edith wharton sets out to write a ghost story, she does not mind taking her sweet time about it. which is a little zzzzz for some readers (koff handraise koff) but absolutely perfect when you consider the story’s beginning. i am going to type out about a page of the text, which may seem like a lot, but i had to read a lot more than one page, so you’re welcome.
to gloss: american couple (boyne, mary)is planning to move to the english countryside and making enquiries of a friend (alida) about suitable choices for their preferences – they are looking for a rustic experience with few amenities and hopefully also a g-g-g-ghost.
lyng is proposed:
”Oh, Dorsetshire’s full of ghosts, you know.”
“Yes, yes; but that won’t do. I don’t want to have to drive ten miles to see somebody else’s ghost. I want one of my own on the premises. Is there a ghost at Lyng?”
His rejoinder had made Alida laugh again, and it was then that she had flung back tantalizingly: “Oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it.”
“Never know it?” Boyne pulled her up. “But what in the world constitutes a ghost except the fact of its being known for one?”
“I can’t say. But that’s the story.”
“That there’s a ghost, but that nobody knows it’s a ghost?”
“Well— not till afterward, at any rate.”
“Not till long, long afterward.”
“But if it’s once been identified as an unearthly visitant, why hasn’t its signalment been handed down in the family? How has it managed to preserve its incognito?”
Alida could only shake her head. “Don’t ask me. But it has.”
“And then suddenly—“ Mary spoke up as if from some cavernous depth of divination— “suddenly, long afterward, one says to one’s self, ‘That was it?’”
She was oddly startled at the sepulchral sound with which her question fell on the banter of the other two, and she saw the shadow of the same surprise flit across Alida’s clear pupils. “I suppose so. One just has to wait.”
and wait you shall! both characters and readers will have to wait for wharton’s elaborate stage-setting – the house, the grounds, mary’s relationship to her husband and her relationship to his working life, manners and etiquette and female modernity and etc etc etc.
there are a lot of very long sentences, making this twice as long as any other in the series (although the walter de la mare one published this year might be close; we’ll see):
There was something wrong about the piping of the hot house, and she was expecting an authority from Dorchester, who was to drive out between trains and make a diagnosis of the boiler. But when she dipped into the damp heat of the greenhouses, among the spiced scents and waxy pinks and reds of old-fashioned exotics,—even the flora of Lyng was in the note!—she learned that the great man had not arrived, and the day being too rare to waste in an artificial atmosphere, she came out again and paced slowly along the springy turf of the bowling-green to the gardens behind the house. At their farther end rose a grass terrace, commanding, over the fish-pond and the yew hedges, a view of the long house-front, with its twisted chimney-stacks and the blue shadows of its roof angles, all drenched in the pale gold moisture of the air.
let’s shave this down some, edith: boiler broken. man come fix. nice day. many flowers. man not come.
now let’s get to the ghost, shall we?
because eventually, there is a ghost. i’m not going to fault anything written in 1910 as being ’predictable,’ since things written in the longago are how things get to be predictable in the first place, but it’s a long road to get to an ending neither scary nor surprising nor even charmingly antiquated.
if you like wharton’s writing, you will probably like this. i’m not sure if i do quite yet – i liked Ethan Frome, didn’t like Summer, and this one is too short to tell for sure (although too long in pretty much every other way).
mission statement copied from my review for One Who Saw
this holiday season, i am going to read through ‘seth’s christmas ghost stories’ line on biblioasis, and i encourage you to do the same. the books are so cute and tiny, you can stuff someone’s stocking or dreidel with ’em! the cover art and interior illustrations are by seth, and they are seasonally spoooooky, blending the spirit of halloween with christmas cheer the way nature, and jack skellington, intended.
5 more to go!