The Lady’s Maid’s Bell

dark hallway for the lady's maid's bell

Edith Wharton

Wharton is famous for her novels dissecting the habits and hypocrisies of the late nineteenth century American upper class, but, while this short story is set in that world, it is very different. Firstly, it is narrated, not by a member of that upper class, but by a servant, a lady’s maid, and secondly, it is a ghost story where little is clear but much is implied.

Structured in four sections, the opening part quickly establishes the narrator – a young lady’s maid recovering from illness and needing work – and the setting – a ‘big and gloomy’ house presided over by Mrs Brympton, a ‘nervous, vapourish’ lady whose ‘children are dead’ and whose last maid ‘died last spring’. All the traditional elements of a gothic tale of the supernatural are quickly in place. In some ways, it is reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw, a novel by Wharton’s friend Henry James, published four years earlier. Wharton’s story, though, does not aim for the same pitch of horror as James’ novel.

Mysteries in the House 

Neither does it take long for mystery to make itself clear. Firstly Mrs Railton, the friend recommending the job, is quick and sudden t say that Hartley should ‘keep out of [the husband’s] way’ when at the house, though he is frequently away. A mysterious woman is seen in a passageway, but is unnoticed by the housemaid showing Hartley around. Odd doors are open which shouldn’t be. Mrs Brympton is reluctant to use a bell to summon her maid and Mrs Blinder, the cook, ‘grew confused’ and ‘went white’ when questioned about the former maid, Emma Saxon, and her old room. Without the narrative confirming it, the reader is led to believe that the mystery woman spotted by Hartley on her arrival was the ghost of Emma Saxton.

Two Contrasting Men 

The second section introduces the two key men in the story, Mrs Brympton’s husband and her friend, Mr Ranford. The two are strikingly different, as Ranford is a kindly man, with a smile ‘like the first warm day in spring’ and a kind word for all the servants. He is an intellectual, a great reader, sharing books with Mrs Brympton. Wharton presents Mr Brympton in a highly contrasting way, ‘a big fair bull-necked man, with a red face and little bad-tempered blue eyes’. He is disliked by the servants, ‘coarse, loud and pleasure-loving’. Hartley has a keen idea of what kind of pleasures, too, noting that on their first acquaintance, he ‘looked me over thrice’ and she ‘knew what the look meant’. Though he dismisses her as ‘not the kind of morsel he was after’, he has quickly been established as a sexual predator. Wharton also shows that a feminine rapport is established between Hartley and her mistress; Hartley understands Mrs Brympton’s predicament and sympathises with her, while Mrs Brympton is ‘kind’ to Hartley and ‘invents errands’ to give her the opportunity of invigorating walks in ‘the good country air.’ Both this relationship and Hartley’s privileged position are clear when she overhears an argument between husband and wife from Mrs Brympton’s dressing room and makes a noise ‘to give my mistress warning’, which she takes by calling her in. Though a snatched fragment of dialogue, the reader is left in no doubt that the argument is caused by Brympton’s jealousy of his wife’s friendly relationship with Mr Ranford.

Ghostly Encounters 

Various elements are brought together when Hartley is surprisingly summoned in the middle of the night by her bell. She is convinced that someone from the locked room responds to the call before her, and when Brympton opens the door he explains ‘How many of you are there. In God’s name?’ followed by Mrs Brympton uttering ‘Emma’. She is lying ‘weak and still’ while Brympton is ‘red and savage’. Again, Wharton makes nothing explicit, but there are suggestions that the ghost of Emma Saxon has prevented some kind of abuse, perhaps connected with the argument previously overheard. Certainly further questions about the nature of Mrs Brympton’s relationship with Mr Ranford are raised in part III when she creates a subterfuge for Hartley to take him a note ‘before Mr Brympton is up.’

The ghost plays a more striking role in the final part of the story, and both her interventions are connected with Ranford. The first is the strange leading of Hartley, flowing willingly, out of the house, along the ‘wood-path’ and ‘across the open fields to the village’ through the snow, a significant distance. Confirming Emma Saxon’s supernatural status, Hartley notices the ‘she left no foot-prints’ as she leads the way to Ranford’s house. There, with no explanation, she disappears, leaving Hartley to faint at Mr Ranford’s feet. The second intervention creates the climax of the story, as Hartley is once again woken by ‘the furious ringing’ of her bell. She rises and sees Emma Saxon at the head of the stairs, where noises indicate that Mr Brympton has returned unexpectedly from his cruise to the Caribbean. Mrs Brympton’s reaction when Hartley goes to warn her indicate all is not well – ‘she gave a startled look’, ‘she turned pale’, she speaks ‘harshly’ and a ‘dreadful look came over her’ before she faints. Brympton arrives and it is clear he expects to find someone else with his wife, ignoring her prostrate body and making for the dressing room, from which they hear noises, ’to meet a friend’. But the person who emerges from the room is not Mr Ranford, but Emma Saxon, and for only the second time in the story, she is seen by Brympton as well as Hartley – he ‘threw up his hands as if to hide his face from her.’ At that point Mrs Brypton dies.

Emma Saxon

But who or what is Emma Saxon? We know about her when living, as the devoted servant and friend of Mrs Brympton, though her death is never explained. In Hartley’s narrative, she is always associated with the ‘locked’ room. This can be interpreted in different ways. One suggestion is that she represents something ‘locked’ away, a secret which cannot be told. As her appearances are associated with Ranford, we could speculate that she was a sympathetic facilitator of a relationship between him and her mistress and that is the untold secret. Her appearances, particularly the final two, would support that. It leaves her death a mystery – has Mr Brympton got something to do with that? Is that why he ‘threw up his hands’? Another interpretation of the locked room is that it represents death itself – it is a space which only Emma Saxon can inhabit; nobody else is allowed in and the staff are afraid of it. It is her space. It is notable that her ghost is always seen on thresholds, in doorways, on passages and paths. She is always between one place and another, supporting the idea that she inhabits that liminal world between life and death.

Ghosts or other supernatural happenings in gothic literature are often used to explore the psychology of the protagonist. Throughout the narrative, Wharton gives us the voice of Hartley as objective and clear; as she says, ‘I’m a truthful woman by nature’. She tries to rationalise her first sighting of Emma Saxon, deciding that she is the friend of another servant. This reassures the reader that she is rational and careful. But Wharton begins the story with a paragraph of preamble, which is more than just scene-setting. It establishes that Hartley had been ill, a fairly recent immigrant in the United States with no family to fall back on, and is in financial straits. No wonder she readily accepts Mrs Railton’s suggestion of the job. But note that she has had typhoid, and evidently quite severely. It is an illness associated with delirium, and it has hospitalised her for no less than ‘three months’ and as Mrs Railton says, still looks ‘so white’. Wharton is therefore quite careful to include in the story the possibility that Emma Saxon is a post-illness hallucination, a product of a still fevered mind.

FHowever, Hartley, Emma Saxon and Mrs Brympton also represent female relationships, and women’s understanding and protection of each other, often in the face of ignorant and possessive men. But perhaps there is some understanding of Mr Brympton too – he is lonely in ‘an unhappy match’, sitting ‘half the night over the old Brympton port and madeira’ and perhaps only knows how to respond with masculine aggression. As Hartley herself says, men of the upper classes ‘keep their feelings to themselves.’