This article contains the summary and analysis of Henry James’ romantic gothic ghost story The Romance of a Certain Old Clothes (1868).
This article series provides a summary of The Romance of a Certain Old Clothes, the ending or the twist and a short analysis.
Henry James (1843-1916) was an American Author of literary realism and literary modernism. But he has also written ghost stories, stories of the supernatural and the spiritual. His themes compose romance, the fear of marriage, the doppelgänger motif and of course the supernatural that subtly sneaks into real life, ever posing the question if the paranormal is real or not. Often with an unreliable narrator, told in the first person, the events can be explained either by the existence of a real ghost or something that the mind conjured up. His ghost story genre lies in the genre of Romance, where the magical co-exists with everyday life, which creates an eerie uncanny feeling. His stories are always based in the real world of human action, psychology and morality. It therefore is up to the reader to interpret the story as they wish, which can lead to wonderful lively discussions.
This article contains one of his romantic ghost stories with female protagonists upon whom doom befalls when it comes to love. The story deals with the fear or hope of marriage, which leads to death, a curse or jealousy.
The Romance of a Certain Old Clothes (1868)
‘Towards the middle of the eighteenth century there lived in the province of Massachusetts, a widowed gentlewoman, the mother of three children, by name Mrs. Veronica Wingrave.’ The eldest child was a boy, Bernard who was of good English descent, but alas, not clever. The other two children were both girls, Rosalind and the youngest Perdita, who both inherited the intellect of their father.
When Bernard turned 16 years old, his mother sent him out to England to complete his education at the university of Oxford. In his twenty-fourth year he took a ship home, but he didn’t return home by himself. With him he brought Mr. Arthur Lloyd. A gentlemen whom both sisters fancied and competed for his affection.
After several months of secret admiration, Perdita confessed to Rosalind that he had proposed to her and they would soon be married, an announcement already known to Mrs. Wingrave and Bernard. Rosalind is clearly jealous but swallows her pride and wishes her sister “every happiness, and a very long life.” ‘There was something in the sound of these words not at all to Perdita’s taste. “Will you give me a year to live at least?” she said. ‘In a year I can have one little boy – or one little girl.”’
In arrangement towards the wedding Perdita was bestowed with many fine dresses and clothing of the most wonderful materials. Peridta is perfectly happy, but Rosalind is left behind, alone. After the marriage ‘Rosalind suffered in no small degree from Perdita’s absence; and her affliction was not diminished by the fact that Rosalind had fallen into terribly low spirits and was not to be roused or cheered but by change of air and company.’
But Perdita’s happiness doesn’t last. When Bernard is to be married, Arthur attends the wedding alone, while his Perdita was expecting their heir. After the wedding Arthur took Rosalind horseback riding, but on retiring to the house, he heard the news that Perdita has given birth to a girl. She fell ill after giving birth and by hearing upon the reason why Arthur wasn’t present at the birth, her condition diminished after first seeming to do better.
At her deathbed Perdita made Arthur promise to lock away all the fine gowns for her daughter. It was her pride and she wished for her daughter to have them.
After Perdita has passed away Mrs. Wingrave took over the care for her grandchild. But when Arthur missed his daughter too much, Rosalind went up to Boston with the little child to accompany her. She stayed a while and Arthur thought of her as a ‘devilish fine woman’ and married her. But Rosalind failed to become a mother herself and they suffered heavy losses of money. ‘It was a revolting thought that these exquisite fabrics who’ll wait the good pleasure of a little girl who sat in a high chair and ate bread-and-milk with a wooden spoon.’
So she convinced Arthur at last to let her open the trunk, so that the gowns and dresses wouldn’t go to waste. That evening Rosalind didn’t show up for supper and Arthur went looking for her. He found her in the attic next to the trunk. ‘On her limbs was stiffness of death, and on her face, in the fading light of the sun, the terror of something more than death. Her lips were parted in entreaty, in dismay, in agony; and on her balanced brow and cheeks there glowed the marks of ten hideous wounds from two vengeful ghostly hands.’
This is a gothic tale of psychological suspense with a supernatural horrific outcome. The themes comprise envy, sisterly rivalry and jealousy and even acting upon it. But it is enhanced by the restrained and expected demeanor of two young women of a certain higher class. Restrained in their emotions, always holding back, keeping secrets, hiding true feelings, but evenly restrained in their overall lives, dependent on a gentleman to marry to ascertain a good and guarded life.
The supernatural element is a final act of unleashing that anger, letting go of all restraints after being liberated in death, reflected by the red marks on Rosalind’s face. This supernatural final act seems to come out of nowhere, but throughout the story, some foreboding subtle hints are planted, for example when the two sisters have a hypocritical conversation before the mirror. It’s a cautionary tale that has a very critical and modern, maybe even a careful feminist, take on how restrictions and meeting expectations isn’t desirable or profitable at all, especially not for a woman’s well-being.
Read more about Henry James:
- Henry James: The Turn of the Screw [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Altar of the Dead [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Beast of the Jungle [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: De Grey A Romance [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Ghostly Rental [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Great Good Place [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Jolly Corner [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Last of the Valerri [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: Owen Wingrave [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James The Real Right Thing [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: Sir Edmund Orme [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Third Person [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Way It Came [Summary & Analysis]
- The Turn of the Screw (Henry James) review