What's Halloween without a good ghost story concerning a governess? Of course the classic is Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, which I read several years back. Edith Wharton wrote a fair few ghost stories, too, and her The Lady's Maid's Bell reminded me of the James story. Did you know that Elizabeth Taylor also wrote a ghost story (and maybe even more than one--I'm not familiar with all her stories unfortunately), and one that has a governess at its center. It has been anthologized in a few places, but I read it in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Ghost Stories edited by the late Michael Cox (a book I've dipped into before and should really own).
I should know that in Taylor's very capable hands to expect something good, but I was impressed by how she took a common-enough story and made it into something fresh and her own. She turns the tables a bit and offers the unexpected, which took me a little by surprise. It begins very ordinarily (as governess-ghost-stories go) but then the story turns on its head just a little bit.
"Poor Girl" is Miss Chasty the governess, whose first pupil is a flirtatious seven-year-old. He must be something of a shock to her as she comes from a respectable family. She's the daughter of a vicar and it's hoped and expected that her brothers will follow suit. Hilary, her charge, is a precocious young boy whose lively eyes were often "fixed cruelly" upon his governess, "smiling faintly . . . but measuring her timidity." Miss Chasty is just one of a string of governesses. He's not too keen on going away to school, but seems sure that he can avoid leaving home.
"He would answer her questions correctly, but significantly, as if he knew that by his aptitude he rescued her from dismissal."
He knows too much for his age and is wont to lean in towards her, breathing in her scent. His behavior worries her. More worrisome, however, is what Hilary's parents, Mrs. and Mr. Wilson, think of her. Whatever Mr. Wilson lacks in authority (especially in moments of amatory weakness), his wife more than makes up for. And Mr. Wilson has had moments of weakness with previous governesses, though Mrs. Wilson seems favorably impressed by Florence. At least initially. Her first impression of the governess is that she is a plain, pious young woman befitting that of a clergyman's daughter and governess.
Mrs. Wilson often spends time in the nursery watching her son, her "darling boy", in his studies and taking note of Florence. Her visits become more regular when she sees a crimson smear on the lip of the teacup and smells a heavy perfume hanging in the room. Perhaps her first impression was wrong. In this pious young woman, as she looks deeper, she detects an excitability, even feverishness reflecting a crack in her proper exterior. She catches Florence turning the teacup just so to hide the red smear.
Each woman sees, feels, senses something in the nursery. Something hangs heavy about the room affecting each woman in turn.
"The schoolroom this evening seemed to have been wreathed about with a strange miasma; the innocent nature of the place polluted in a way which [Florence] could not understand or have explained. Something new it seemed, had entered the room which had not belonged to her or became a part of her--the scent had clung about her clothes; the stained cup was her cup and her handkerchief with which she had rubbed it clean was still reddened; and, finally, as she had stared in the mirror, trying to reestablish her personality, the affected little laugh which startled her had come from herself. It had driven her from the room."
Mrs. Wilson sees the room as a product of Florence's true nature. For Florence the room has something artificial about it. She feels strange and different when there. Mr. Wilson is only too happy to sit in on Hilary's lessons with Florence. At his wife's behest he watches Florence to discover whether she is an immoral young woman. Yes, he's only too happy to do so.
Well, you can imagine what might happen to a young governess who catches the eye of her master. Both will be disgraced. One sent packing. There's something about the nursery. A ghostly presence. A hint of something happening and Florence plays it out in a sort of shadow action. There are other things you are meant to imagine in this story. The last line is a bit cryptic, like other good ghost stories, Taylor leaves a little up to the reader to sort out, but the twist she offers on the tale is satisfying indeed.
Another enjoyable season of RIP reading has now come to an end. Happy Halloween all.