Edith Wharton’s Faithful Ghosts
“Do you believe in ghosts?” is the pointless question often addressed by those who are incapable of feeling ghostly influences to — I will not say the ghost-seer, always a rare bird, but — the ghost-feeler, the person sensible of the invisible currents of being in certain places and at certain hours.
The celebrated reply (I forget whose): ‘No, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them,’ is much more than the cheap paradox it seems to many.”
– Edith Wharton, Ghosts
It’s no wonder that a Halloween party caps the tourist season at the elegant estate writer Edith Wharton designed at the turn of the century and inhabited for many years in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Even Wharton’s fans may not realize that, along with novels like the Age of Innocence, Ethan Fromme and the House of Mirth, she also wrote ghost stories. One of the most haunting images from the 1937 collection, Ghosts, is a Pekingese, “small and golden brown, with large brown eyes and a ruffled throat,” who “looked like a large tawny chrysanthemum.”
The dog is one of four that appears when the lone narrator, a prospective buyer visiting friends in Brittany, explores a deserted estate named Kerfol. The first three — the Pekingese, a black greyhound with a lame leg and a “long-haired white mongrel” — stand “looking … with grave eyes” as the fourth, “a white pointer with one brown ear,” watches from a window. All four dogs defy the narrator’s expectations by remaining silent and slinking beyond his reach as he walks deeper into the property, then they reappear again only to stand motionless and mute.
The story concludes with an account of judicial records in which the wife of the Lord of Kerfol is accused of murdering her husband, who is found “dreadfully scratched and gashed about the face and throat, as if with curious pointed weapons.” In her testimony, the wife relates her “desolate” loneliness when her husband would go off for months without explanation. Unable to bear children, she is alone in their gloomy estate until he returns, each time with an exotic gift.
One of these presents is a “sleeve dog,” which is small enough to fit in a kimono. When the husband suspects his wife of being overly familiar with a neighboring nobleman, he strangles the dog as well as three other strays she had taken in. On the witness stand, the wife relates how, during the night of her husband’s death, she heard a pack of dogs snarling. The narrator’s visit coincides with the day the husband died.
Whether or not visitors believe that The Mount — Wharton’s former Lenox, Massachusetts estate — is haunted, they can certainly thrill to its ghost stories.
Many visitors swear they’ve seen a face outside the bathroom window in the third story, or inexplicable lights and orbs in the stable. But why would the Mount be haunted by dogs? Maybe it’s because Wharton the writer of ghost stories was also a lifelong dog lover.
Dogs were Wharton’s constant companions after her father surprised her at age four with a Spitz she named Foxy. Pets were also one of the few interests that she and her husband, Teddy Wharton, would share in their childless marriage. In their first (and best) years together, their days were filled with Jules, Teddy’s terrier, Mouton, Edith’s poodle, and her two long-haired Chihuahuas, Mimi and Miza. With Teddy often gone to the family’s main estate in Newport, Rhode Island, the dogs kept Edith company when she first began writing at their home in New York. Following the publication of three of her poems, she gained the confidence to start her first book, The Decoration of Houses, and developed her lifelong routine of writing in bed with the dogs tucked in beside her.
Mimi died a year after the Whartons had purchased the 113-acre property in Lenox on which Edith would design The Mount. Mimi’s hillside grave, visible from the library and sitting room, was the first of four in the estate’s pet cemetery.
The family’s next dogs were the Papillons, Nicette and Mitou; after their deaths, Edith only owned Pekingese: Tootie, Choumai, Petite Tootie, Coonie and Linky. They provided her with comfort through her troubled marriage, a possible nervous breakdown, a brief affair, frequent trips back and forth to Europe, divorce (after Teddy, apparently bipolar, spent a large portion of her trust fund, thus forcing the sale of The Mount) and the end of her life in the south of France.
Friends said that the Pekingese temperament was much like Edith’s own: stubborn, proud, dignified and independent.
Do Miza, Mimi and Wharton’s other pets haunt The Mount as the ghost dogs of her story inhabit Kerfol? Visitors looking to discover the truth might want to keep in mind Wharton’s words from The Age of Innocence: “There are moments when a man’s imagination, so easily subdued to what it lives in, suddenly rises above its daily level, and surveys the long windings of destiny.”
Ellen Girardeau Kempler is an award-winning poet, founder and chief navigator of Gold Boat Journeys , curator of Beyond the Bucket List on Rebelmouse, and creator of the placepoet photostream on Instagram. Visit Contently for a representative portfolio of her essays, interviews and articles on travel, culture, destination marketing, social media, work-life balance and the environment. This piece originally appeared on Black Balloon Publishing’s airshipdaily.com.