The Henry James Review 21.3 (2000) 270-278
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Possessive Matters in "The Ghostly Rental"
Sheri Weinstein, State University of New York at Buffalo
In 1848, Katie and Margaret Fox engaged in toe-rapping shenanigans in the attic of their home outside Rochester, New York. Claiming that they were channeling the ghost of a murdered peddler, the adolescent girls garnered immediate attention and embarked on a sensational, if fraudulent, spiritualist career that would span decades. Although a generic spiritualism was in no way entirely new to the United States in 1848, throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, spiritualists and scholars alike deemed the Fox sisters' act--also known as the "Rochester Rappings"--the origin of Modern Spiritualism.
A charged, hugely popular and multifaceted movement, Modern Spiritualism rested on the assertion that contact with the spirits of the dead provided proof of the immortality of the soul. Such contact would occur through human mediums and through material media such as séance tables, special trance-writing pencils, the planchette (ouija) board, and materialization cabinets. Spawning dozens of spiritualist periodicals and much cultural agitation until its turn-of-the-century wane, the movement's practice entailed inviting spirits and ghosts into the familial home and onto the public stage through the "visionary" inspiration of a human medium's entrancement. In so doing, spiritualism was a pivotal force in a technology-driven American culture, providing individuals with alternate ways of viewing the conversion of power and energy from one form to another.
The human mediums of spiritualism were typically women and generally faced two options: they could hold domestic séances, usually in the parlors of their homes, for friends and family; or, they could become itinerant mediums, traveling to lyceums and auditoriums and trance-speaking for financial profit. However, a third, implicit option and venue for the representation and arguments of mediumship was for women to "enter" spiritualist fiction. Treated as both subjects and objects of spiritualist inquiry, feminine ghosts and mediums appeared in a plethora of spiritualist plots in American fiction throughout the latter decades of the nineteenth century. [End Page 270]
Henry James was just a young child when spiritualism first came into literary and cultural vogue, yet he was highly fascinated by the tropes and possibilities of Modern Spiritualism throughout his literary career. Scant critical work has been done on James's early ghost and spiritualist story, "The Ghostly Rental" (1876)--unduly, the tale "has been met by critical blankness" (Martin and Ober 1). Written shortly after James departed America for England in 1875, "The Ghostly Rental" lays a precedent for subsequent investigations in The Bostonians (1885) and The Turn of the Screw (1898) of the "matters" of dead souls who have returned to haunt and influence the homes that were once theirs.
"The Ghostly Rental" predicts James's long-standing interests in both the possession of matter and the matter of possession. In nineteenth-century spiritualism, "inspirational" and intuitive vision--the inexplicable magic of seeing and knowing--reconceptualize what it means to see and to be seen. Arguing that we do not always know what we see and see what we know, "The Ghostly Rental" takes its cues from Modern Spiritualism and transforms the possession(s) of vision from a reliably physical plane to a metaphysical and extra-bodily world.
In particular, the spiritualized possession(s) in "The Ghostly Rental" contest definitions of privacy as a realm of domestic sanctuary and publicity as a realm of social exposure. Through the "ghost" of Captain Diamond's daughter Deborah, a ghost who is ultimately both real and unreal, material and immaterial, James offers us a spiritualist figure who symbolizes a space between the private and the public spheres and between interiority and exteriority. Deborah represents a model of selfhood that is in fact a "publicized privacy." As a Veiled Lady, albeit more of a ghostly medium than a human, spirit medium, Deborah
embodies the suggestion that the same contemporary cultural processes that worked in one direction to delimit women to dephysicalized and deactivated domestic privacy also helped open up an enlarged...