This review was first published on Pol Culture.
“The Lady Maid’s Bell” (1902) is Edith Wharton’s first work of short fiction in the ghost-story genre. It is not one of her more successful efforts. She appears to be aiming for ambiguity with the mystery at the story’s heart, but the results are frustratingly opaque. Alice Hartley is a young woman who is hired as a domestic at a country estate. She is to be the personal maid of the lady of the house, who suffers from a nervous disorder and is often bedridden. The former maid died the previous spring after twenty years of service, and the lady cannot keep anyone in the position. Alice doesn’t find the job the most comfortable herself. The problems don’t include dislike of her mistress or the other servants; she gets along well with them. But her mistress’ husband is a disagreeable boor whose only positive feature is that he’s almost always away. The mistress may also be having an affair with a neighbor, and some of the instructions for Alice are inscrutable. Despite the ubiquity of bells in the house, she is never to be summoned by one; the housemaid will fetch her whenever she is needed. But all discomfort pales beside Alice’s awareness of an unacknowledged presence in the house. The ghost of the mistress’s former maid appears to haunt the place. The ghost also seems very protective of the mistress, and wants something from Alice towards that end. It’s on this last point that Wharton’s generally superb narrative craftsmanship fails her: one is never able to make sense of the ghost’s motives. She seems to want Alice’s help, but what is the point of her compelling Alice to follow to her to the house of the mistress’s possible lover? Or her leading Alice to the mistress’s bedroom during the woman’s final confrontation with the husband? Ambiguity means the text supports multiple interpretations. The text in this instance doesn’t support a single one. It’s impossible to understand what Wharton is getting at in the final scenes, and the riddle of the ghost posed by the earlier ones remains impossible to answer. The story is a surprising failure by one of the masters of English-language prose fiction.