Kerfol, and other Edith Wharton ghost stories
I began with Mr. Jones and was fascinated by it. The multiple layers, the historical depth (the backstory takes place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries), the sense of humour, the class issues. Afterward, another story, deals with the issue of guilt and the cultural and social differences between America and Great Britain, a theme developed at length, though in a different tone, in The Buccaneers.
Kerfol particularly appealed to me because it is set in France, and, as I wrote before, Edith Wharton is the Frenchest of all American writers. The premise is reminiscent of other ghost stories: Kerfol (the name means “house of madness” in Breton) is a grand, isolated, decaying chateau in Brittany, and its owners are anxious to sell it “for a song.”
The narrator fails to meet the keepers of the place, but instead sees a host of oddly silent dogs of every description. When he returns to the friends who had directed him to Kerfol, he is handed an account of the trial of Anne de Barrigan, wife of the lord of the place at the onset of the 18th century. What followed was eerily similar to the early years of Gabrielle de Montserrat, the heroine of my novel Mistress of the Revolution. Yet I had not read Kerfol when I wrote it… Both young ladies are impoverished noblewomen, married very young to far older and richer men who treat them with unspeakable cruelty. Both are prisoners in the houses of which they are supposed to be mistresses.
There are differences, though: the conduct of Anne’s husband, the Baron de Cornault, remains firmly within his rights as lord and husband, and even within the social standards of the time. “No one was found to say that Yves de Cornault had been unkind to his wife,” writes Wharton with bitter irony. And yet poor Anne is sentenced by her husband to a life of eternal loneliness. Every dog she owns, or only befriends, is strangled by the Baron.
This misery only ends with the Baron’s violent and mysterious death. Anne is of course the prime suspect, and she stands trial for the murder of her husband, another area of great interest to the lawyer in me. Anne is acquitted. In earlier days, she might have been tried for, and convicted of witchcraft, but no judge, not the Church itself, believes in witchcraft in 18th century France.
I will not reveal what Edith Wharton herself calls the “grey ending” of the story, though I feel it is a very dark shade of grey. Another touch of irony? Anne only finds herself in a different kind of prison, as dreary as the one devised by her late husband. Yet it is not she who haunts Kerfol, nor her murdered husband…
For more discussion of Wharton’s ghost stories, see this blog at Reveries under the sign of Austen.