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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What All Souls’ Day meant for Edith Wharton

All Souls’ Day (November 2) had a special meaning for Edith Wharton. In 1935 she dedicated her memoir, A Backyard Glance, to “the friends who every year on All Souls’ Night come and sit with me by the fire.” Remembering dear ones was an annual custom for Wharton. Writing on All Souls’ night in 1921 she led off her litany of “all my dead” with her childhood nurse, “my darling Doyley,” and included Henry James and Howard Sturgis.

Over the course of her life Wharton moved from having a phobic terror of an “undefinable menace” to becoming one of literature’s most accomplished practitioners of the ghost tale. In her autobiographical fragment “Life and I” she recalls how as a nine-year-old recovering from a bout of typhoid fever she was given a “robber-tale” which proved “perilous reading” and brought on a serious relapse:
When I came to myself, it was to enter a world haunted by formless horrors. I had been naturally a fearless child; now I lived in a state of chronic fear. Fear of what? I cannot say—& even at the time, I was never able to formulate my terror. It was like some dark undefinable menace, forever dogging my steps, lurking, and threatening. . . How long the traces of my illness lasted may be judged by the fact that, till I was twenty-seven or eight, I could not sleep in the room with a book containing a ghost-story, & that I have frequently had to burn books of this kind, because it frightened me to know that they were downstairs in the library!
By 1909, when she wrote her poem “All Souls,” she had clearly recovered. Two lovers tryst among the graves in the churchyard:
And where should a man bring his sweet to woo
But here, where such hundreds were lovers too?
Where lie the dead lips that thirst to kiss,
The empty hands that their fellows miss,
Where the maid and her lover, from sere to green,
Sleep bed by bed, with the worm between?
For it’s turn of the year and All Souls’ night,
When the dead can hear and the dead have sight.
“All Souls’” was also the title of her very last story, completed in February 1937—just six months before her death. In her preface to Ghosts, the posthumously published collection including the story, she wrote, “Ghosts, to make themselves manifest, require two conditions abhorrent to the modern mind: silence and continuity.” Although the narrator claims “this isn’t exactly a ghost story,” “All Souls’,” with its focus on an injured elderly woman alone in a large mansion on All Souls’ night, becomes a masterful study of silence:
Silence – more silence! It seemed to be piling itself up like the snow on the roof and in the gutters. Silence. How many people that she knew had any idea what silence was – and how loud it sounded when you really listened to it?
Seventy-five and in poor health, Wharton poured a litany of anxieties into her last story, as her biographer Hermione Lee illuminates:
The title was a private reference to her long annual habit of sitting alone, remembering her dead . . . But whereas in Wharton’s own life these vigils were consolatory, the story is one of pain, loneliness and terror. Her long-vanished life at The Mount, the loss of her dear old servants, her dread of helplessness in old age, her experience of solitude and illness, her horror of what was happening in the world, and, deepest down, what she never spoke of, her fear of death, are all felt in this last story.
Of related interest:
Related LOA works: Edith Wharton: Novels, Novellas, Stories, and Other Writings (the five volumes include A Backward Glance, the poem "All Souls," the story "All Souls'," and the biographical fragment "Life and I")

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