Review: Dara Downey, American Women’s Ghost Stories in the Gilded Age

Ann Patten

 

Critics of American gothic fiction often have noted something exceptional about U.S. horror.  A common position holds that because the U.S. lacks the long history of Europe – we have no depraved nobles, no dungeons with chains, no real turreted castles (except ersatz versions ), our stories must be about some haunting buried deep within the terra incognita of the mind and thus are especially ripe for Freudian analysis.  It is very refreshing indeed, then, to encounter Dara Downey’s new, scholarly volume, American Women’s Ghost Stories in the Gilded Age, where she eschews this psychoanalytic approach in favour of “Thing Theory” as her guide to unlocking the truths the stories contain (43).  Where Freudian perspectives might urge readers to recognise haunted houses and female uncanny manifestations as inciting masculine fears around castration and return of the repressed familiar, Downey shows us that the tooth-grip of material objects like the house itself and its contents might be more haunting.  For example, she observes,

For a table to be used as a table does, of course, involve it in the world of human action, subjecting it to human whim and desire.  But a table harbouring lurking splinters is a monster with sharp teeth, not because it has some unimaginable form of inner life, nor because the man (or indeed woman) of the house is a tyrannical monster, but rather because it forces its owners to be careful every time they rest their elbows on it, to keep children away from it, and to spend time fruitlessly attempting to smooth and polish it. (7)

Thing Theory holds that “objects had very real effects on the lives, health, and sanity of those who lived among and through them” (43).  To this, Downey examines how the unique features of nineteenth-century commodity culture in America gave objects the power to mesmerise, captivate, enslave, haunt, or make life generally better or worse.  Downey’s book is an enquiry into how material objects cast such a spell.   The objects are NOT occult; Downey shows us, rather, that women writers of the period often used tropes from the occult to make statements about the goods’ power to rule the roost.

Whatever about Americans not having history, it seems universally agreed that in the U.S. the accumulation of “stuff” in houses is a constant preoccupation for middle-class women.  As Downey points out, these women would appear, however, to have a love-hate relationship with their things.  On the one hand, Victorian clutter appeared to have the power to transform domestic space into places of retreat from the cold realities of the world outside.  Objects, thus imbued with sentiment, even acted as charms, helping women to lure and keep the men in their lives; and shopping for the items could prove to be quite a lot of fun.  On the other hand, once this stuff was home, women had to pay for it, and not strictly in monetary terms, but through what Edith Wharton noted as “life’s shabby compromises.” [1]  Women were saddled with the responsibilities to keep the objects in good nick and they had be complicit in their responses to the men who often financed their purchases (or the house itself) and for whom all this decorative fuss was intended to please.  Recent episodes of Dermot Bannion’s Room to Improve on RTÉ, however, would suggest that some men don’t give a fig about the décor.  Downey’s book raises interesting questions, then, about whether the decoration of houses really did exist for men, or rather for the women themselves as they fell under the influence of some kind of ghostly hegemonic force.

Downey looks at nineteenth century material and visual culture and comments on stories which “literalize” the house as female and literalize female iconography (15).  Ensnared by ideologies of the domestic, the female protagonists are quite plainly “fitted to the frame” of domestic portraits, statues and photographs and become either fixed to a point or rebelliously elusive by becoming the furniture and creating all kinds of mischief as poltergeists.[2]  Downey is careful to point out that the women in these stories are “profoundly ambiguous avatars of female empowerment and protest, inspiring fear as often as they feel it, [thereby] challenging the readerly instinct toward identification and sympathy” (38).  Readers are unsure if, like most uncanny manifestations, these objects (or women) are friends or foes.

Assiduously researched and footnoted, Downey’s study recovers many women writers from the nineteenth century that are unfamiliar to modern readers but whose stories deliver messages still relevant today.  Writers like Edna Worthley Underwood, Elia W. Peattie, Emma Frances Dawson, Lurana W. Sheldon, Mrs Wilson Woodrow, M.E.M Davis and Harriet Prescott Spoffard may not be the household names that Charlotte Gilman Perkins and Edith Wharton were, but together, with Perkins and Wharton – also addressed in Downey’s study, these women certainly have quite a lot to say about female experience in the house.

The most canonical story examined in the book is Perkins’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), where objects are revealed as more than distracting frippery; they function metonymically as active, “malevolent agents” that enforced a harmful ideology of the domestic (40).  So systemic was this ideology across America that the narrator in Perkins’ story literally cannot see the other women who are similarly imprisoned in the wallpaper.  Thus, she accepts the diagnosis of her own psychosis as an individual rather than as a collective malaise.  Chapter Two is, necessarily, the most theoretical chapter in the book, drawing as it does on the work of Freud, Todorov, Poe and Marx.   Downey’s discussion of their theories helps readers to appreciate better the gendered nature of the transposition of the very selfhood of women with the objects that surrounded them.

Nineteenth-century culture was so obsessed with associating women with ornaments, women actually became ornaments.  Downey identifies that a cultural mind-set for thinking of women as “ornaments of society” existed as early as 1803, when the phrase is mentioned in the anonymous piece “Advice to the Fair Sex.”  Though the expression reappears in the William Thackeray’s 1848 British novel Vanity Fair, Downey’s analysis demonstrates that the concept for identifying women as objects swirled around in the supernatural imagination particularly in America in the Gilded Age.  The ornamental nature of women, of course, returns to the realm of realist fiction and expresses its apotheosis in the character of Lily Bart in Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth.  Lily Bart cuts such a tragic figure precisely because she loses her status as bauble on men’s arms when she reaches a certain age, unmarried.  Material circumstances force her to fend for herself outside the home.  She has a stint working alongside other girls making hats (that will help “baublize” other women), but lacking the inner resources to keep a job, Lily Bart then makes a series of poor judgements, which further contaminates her marriageability, to the point where she spends her nights, sleepless in cheap boarding houses and her days, walking the streets or loitering on park benches.

Downey shows us how dangerous a prospect this was: women on urban streets could easily be taken for “streetwalkers” or prostitutes and boarding houses could easily be construed by men as having brothel potential.   In the chapter Downey devotes to Emma Frances Dawson’s story, “An Itinerant House” (1896), we learn about the boarding house that was once run by a now deceased Mexican-American woman Felipa.  The house literally moves around the city; even the patterned wallpaper within the house refuses to sit still.  Both the woman (of uncertain origins) and the house are literally “at loose” in the city.  Downey’s reading identifies how women often became scapegoats for the dangers associated with city life as they became linked with licentious spending and moral temptation by their very proximity.  Men could merely rent a room, with no strings attached, in houses where they might actually brush up against women.  Sexual desires along with fears of potential disease attended these new forms of exchange.  “An Itinerant House” exposes the corrupting force of the city, its effect on women and the unfair identification of women with this corruption.

As in “The Itinerant House,” in Mary E. Wilkins’ “The Southwest Chamber” (1903) a less genial female spirit, a curmudgeonly Aunt Harriet, also resists the feminine spectral.  She materialises in the drapes, in the chintz-patterned sofa, and as an image in the mirror; the latter in particular, as Downey explains, parodies the manner in which nineteenth-century mourning culture objectified women, even in death.  Female corpses were routinely photographed to be memorialised for ever more.  Aunt Harriet is such an unpleasant character, whose cupidity has her “still trying to control her assets and her nieces from beyond the grave,” readers are left with the feeling that some women are better off forgotten and that memorialising them just hurts (93).  Their images, frankly, pain us to be around.

Downey adds something new to the critical frame as she questions the customary reading position that insisted on America’s blankness.  Metropolitan and manufacturing centres in the Northeast, the Midwest, and in gold rush towns like San Francisco did produce some pretty formidably opulent estates.  Principles of Jacksonian Manifest Destiny encouraged pioneers to throw out new tentacles across vast tracts of open space and sheer wilderness.  These spaces were not as completely blank as official narratives like to suggest; there were, of course, the Native American Indians.  However, as America absorbed huge waves of immigrants from places like Ireland – coming not necessarily in search of religious freedom as earlier, more ideological settlers, but to feed their families and enhance their fortunes, the entire thrust of efforts in urban centres as well as on the frontier was centred round improved material conditions.   Downey’s book studies how American women writers turned this emphasis on materiality into a new world gothic lament.

Her chapter on Elia W. Peattie’s “The House That Was Not” (1898) explores the self-defining American narrative that insisted on the country’s blankness.  She shows us how frontier narratives required dangerous levels of female self-sacrifice, “to assure male profit and the forward movement of the nation” (127). In an appropriate nod to Thoreau, Downey questions the often celebrated “virginity” of the land in remote locales on the prairie.  The house in Peattie’s story appears then disappears; it’s here one day and gone the next and no one can bear to countenance the female protagonist Flora’s appeals for satisfactory explanations about what actually happened there.  The evanescent nature of the house further deprives Flora an object (in this case a house) on to which she might fix her attentions in this sparse landscape and thereby learn the history of the place.  Without access to the knowledge of the tragedy that befell the earlier overworked pioneer wife and mother who once lived there, Flora risks repeating the same fate.

Downey’s the final chapter rounds out her book with an argument that a most modern source of unease began when the American economy shifted at the turn of the last century from a producerist to a consumerist engine.  The superabundance of goods corralled the brightest brains to think of ways to invest material objects with fetishized meanings so that they could be gotten rid of and space created in the market for even more goods to be consumed, thus enriching the insatiable appetites of capitalists.  The vexing thing was the objects didn’t always accept the meanings attached to them.  In fact, the meanings attached were more often quite slippery.  Sometimes the objects agreed to the cloak of sentimentality given them; other times they violently rejected to be so subdued; at still other times, the objects were plainly indifferent.  Like indecisive lovers or indeed the vagaries of marriage itself, one day the goods held potentials full of significance only to return to a more prosaic function the next, inert and inflexible as a heavy Victorian wardrobe.  In Madeline Yale Wynne’s 1895 story “The Little Room” (1895), for example, sometimes the titular room is a tiny china closet, at other times, it’s an elaborately decorated parlor, providing the women who discover it a gateway to a truly enchanted realm.  At other times, it’s simply not consistent in delivering its supernatural powers: some days, it’s just a tiny china closet, patently refusing to remember the previous good times together.

But what’s more, sometimes the women come in search of the room as a lavish parlor and are exasperated to find only the tiny china closet.  At other times, they come looking, not for the parlor, but the tiny closet.  The women are driven crazy because it’s not clear what they want from the room.  The little room, as an object, is able to hold conflicting desires: it simultaneously seduces with the promise of luxury and unsettles as the women fear their loss of self-control.  Downey makes the excellent point that in budding department stores, goods were displayed in a way to provoke in women exactly the same reactions.  Objects in display cases and in shop windows similarly drove women demented in their apparent power to both help make a house a home and blow the family budget.

As Downey points out, much of the tension in this story turns on the female protagonist’s inability to discern the real from the imaginary, a hallmark feature of the uncanny which expresses itself most acutely in times of broader societal shifts in values.  Downey helpfully quotes Karen Halttenen on the shifts that were taking place in both the domestic realm and culture more generally at this time:

“the living room replaced the parlor as the most important room in the middle class home around the turn of the century, and personality replaced character as the dominant conceptualisation of the self.”[3]

Here Downey explains that as property became detached from “the harsh economic sphere,” it became “situated as the vehicle for affective bonds and personal integrity, moral depth displayed through material surfaces” (170).

This observation is absolutely germane to the American ghost stories Downey analyses, but it also reminds this reader of certain transnational problems.  The ability of goods to operate anthropomorphically in bolstering human personality was a phenomenon not confined to America.  How about poor ole Oscar Wilde who, in the 1870s in England, “found it harder and harder everyday to live up to his blue china”?[4]  Did the detached, unhinged nature of goods emanate purely out of production surpluses in America or could the origins be traced to nineteenth century Europe and the movement of Aestheticism, fuelled as it was by the forces of imperialism which brought goods back from colonial ports?  The glove in Elizabeth Bowen’s uncanny tale “Hand in Glove,” attacks the vanity of its wearer with the same violence as the nightcap does in Wilkins’ “The Southwest Chamber.”  And how much of an American ghost story writer was Wharton when she spoke four languages, grew up with a German governess, and spent the major part of the literary career and life outside the U.S.?

Further, it would appear that objects do not only haunt women. The male protagonist of Henry James’s 1898 story is as gravely tormented by the eponymous “figure in the carpet.”  A male art collector in C.H.B. Kitchin’s “The Chelsea Cat” (1952) is positively spooked by the imported porcelain figurine he purchased at auction, which simply won’t behave in the china cabinet.  And the young boy in D.H. Lawrence’s (1926) uncanny story is not strictly away with the fairies, he’s away with the titular “rocking horse.”  Like the rooms and the houses examined in Downey’s study, the ability of goods to haunt seems to have floated around quite a bit, defying our will to “fit it to a frame.”

These points do not detract from the argument Downey puts forth in this volume, but illustrate how it might be extended to broader territory.  As she says herself in the Afterward, “there is far more to be done” (179) in examining the relationship between gender, domestic space and objects.  Specifically, she refers here to the work of Shirley Jackson, whose work most definitely is appropriate to this field of enquiry.  One suspects Downey has another book in her about how this framework for looking at consumer goods develops over the twentieth century.  She has choices: she could extend the field beyond white middle class women to include questions, such as the effect race has on this relationship, as she acknowledges herself; but further, she might also comment on the degree to which some men grow similarly haunted by material and visual culture and how these hauntings were (or became) transnational.  Either way, this reader commends Downey and the rigour of her scholarly book and heartily wishes her every success.

Notes

 

[1] Edith Wharton, The Gods Arrive (1932; New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1960) 322.

[2][2] Downey here quotes Emily Dickinson’s poem 510, “If was not Death, for I stood up,” on page 14.

[3] Karen Halttenen, “From Parlor to Living Room” in Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America: 1880-1920. Ed. Simon J. Bronner. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1990.  Quoted on p. 165.

[4] Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987) 43-44.  Also see Qi Chen, “Aristocracy for the Common People: Chinese Commodities in Oscar Wilde’s Aestheticism” in Victorian Network 1.1 (Summer 2009): 39-54, 39.

 

Works Cited

Chen, Qi. “Aristocracy for the Common People: Chinese Commodities in Oscar Wilde’s Aestheticism” in

Victorian Network 1.1 (Summer 2009): 39-54.

Ellmann, Richard.  Oscar Wilde.  London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987.  43-44.

Halttenen, Karen. “From Parlor to Living Room” in Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in

America: 1880-1920. Ed. Simon J. Bronner. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1990.

Wharton, Edith.  The Gods Arrive.  1932; New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1960.