The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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September 12, 2010

R.I.P. V: 'Pomegranate Seed'

Illustration for 'Pomegranate Seed,' published in The Saturday Evening Post (April, 1931) and reproduced in Edith Wharton A to Z, by Sarah Bird Wright (1998).

Since I was in a perilous mood, and since I'm still in a temporary limbo between books, I thought I'd see how Henry's friend Edith crafted a ghost story. (I knew that she had written some, but couldn't remember reading any.) Fortunately, Edith Wharton A to Z (a wonderful book to keep on the nightstand) took me to 'ghosts,' and this interesting bit...

In her unpublished autobiography 'Life and I,' Edith Wharton asserts that until she was 27 or 28 she could not sleep in a room containing a book with a ghost story. She dates her fear to the reading of a 'robber-story' when she was recuperating from typhoid fever in Germany at the age of four. It was 'perilous reading' coupled with her 'intense Celtic sense of the supernatural,' and brought on a serious relapse. She had to have a light in her bedroom, in addition to a nurse-maid in order to sleep, and she could feel 'it' behind her on the doorstep when returning from walks, leading to a 'choking agony of terror.'

... and to a list of some of her best stories drawing on the supernatural, including this one, which (let's look under P) was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1931.

It's interesting, given the above, that this story begins on a doorstep, when Charlotte Ashby, newly married to a widower, pauses before entering:

...this veiled sanctuary she called home, always stirred her profoundly. In the very heart of the hurricane she had found her tiny islet -- or thought she had. And now, in the last months, everything was changed, and she always wavered on the doorstep and had to force herself to enter.

The trouble, it seems, is that her husband, Kenneth, has been receiving a series of hand-delivered letters, in pale grey envelopes, letters which trouble him deeply and which he will not discuss.

...All I know is that every time that woman writes to you --'
'Why do you assume it's a woman?'
'It's a woman's writing. Do you deny it?'
He smiled. 'No, I don't deny it, I asked ony because the writing is generally supposed to look more like a man's.'
Charlotte passed this over impatiently. 'And this woman -- what does she write to you about?'
Again, he seemed to consider a moment. 'About business.'
'Legal business?'
'In a way, yes. Business in general.'
'You look after her affairs for her?'
'You've looked after them for a long time?'
'Yes. A very long time.'
'Kenneth, dearest, won't you tell me who she is?'
'No, I can't.' He paused, and brought out, as if with a certain hesitation: 'Professional secrecy.'
The blood rushed from Charlotte's heart to her temples. 'Don't say that - don't!'
'Why not?'
'Because I saw you kiss the letter.'

It's not a spoiler to say that Charlotte becomes obsessed with discovering who has written the letters, and that though it's not spelled out we aren't left in much doubt as to what happens in the end. Edith Wharton's prose is much simpler than Henry James', and her descriptions of characters and settings are spare, just sketching in the necessary outlines. She builds suspense the way a good mystery writer does, and the turn to the supernatural (I did tell you up front that it was a ghost story...) seems like a very natural way for the story to end.

There was no direct indication in the story (at least to my eyes) of the meaning of the title. Apparently, Edith was impatient with readers who asked her that question, and 'lamented their lack of education.' Let's just note that it comes from the Greek legend of Persephone, and leave it at that. If you like vintage mysteries, as I do, I think you would be satisfied with this ghost story.

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Kailana said...

I really must read something by her!

Chrisbookarama said...

Edith Wharton is one of my favorite writers. I'm having a hard time finding her short stories though.

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