- Seeing Edith Wharton's Ghosts:The Alternative Gaze on Page and Screen
The most electrifying moments in Edith Wharton's supernatural fiction are preoccupied with vision and visuality.1 In "The Pomegranate Seed" (1931), for instance, a woman anxiously struggles to read a faint, illegible letter with a magnifying glass before realizing that it was written from beyond the grave. In "The Eyes" (1910), a man lives at the mercy of two haunting eyes that doggedly follow him throughout his adult life. In yet another tale, "Kerfol" (1916), a prospective homeowner visits an isolated estate in Brittany and finds himself the object of the gaze of a pack of silent, ghostly dogs. Indeed, from her first published ghost story, "The Lady's Maid's Bell" (1902), to her last, "All Souls'" (1937), the narratives offer complex meditations on both visual media and the physical practice of vision, with exchanges of glances, privileged sight, voyeurism, and representational objects like paintings and photographs motivating the plots in fundamental ways. In this respect, Wharton's stories draw from the tradition of late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Gothic novels, including early classics like Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and later ones like her friend Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (1898). Wharton is also a distinctly modern writer, however, using her stories as a space to explore the changing relationship of the ghost narrative to vision and visual media in the twentieth century. Wharton pointedly declared in the 1937 preface to her Ghost Stories collection that "the faculty required" [End Page 26] for appreciating supernatural tales had "become almost atrophied" (7). Wondering if anyone "endowed with the gift of seeing" ghosts remained, Wharton explores the techniques that authors use to render "them visible to us" in fiction, asking whether modern technology—especially "the wireless and the cinema"—had diminished our "ghost instinct" and, thereby, the ghost story's force (7, 9, 8).
This essay takes up Wharton's inquiries to investigate the adaptation of her own modern supernatural fiction for a postmodern visual format: television. I contend that the process of adaptation not only lays bare features of Wharton's multilayered visual discourse that have been overlooked in the criticism, but also renders those features literally visible to consumers of Wharton's fiction. To substantiate this claim, I examine three of Wharton's ghost stories—"The Lady's Maid's Bell" (1902), "Afterward" (1909), and "Bewitched" (1925)—alongside their adaptations, which were created for the Granada Television series Shades of Darkness (1983–1986). To date, no one has analyzed these telefilms,2 although Scott Marshall, in his invaluable filmography of Whartonian adaptations, places the first two among "the finest screen adaptations of Wharton's works to date" (19). While some might disagree with this classification, the telefilms are decidedly rich, and studying them in conjunction with the stories, I suggest, produces new insights onto Wharton's theories of perception. These insights emerge, in part, because the screenwriters and directors are deeply invested in the act of en-visioning the original works for a viewing audience. For example, the screenplay writer for Bewitched, Alan Plater, who worked for over five decades in both theater and television, wrote with an eye towards such issues as staging, camera placement, and blocking. Plater, who also penned such popular adaptations as The Barchester Chronicles (1982) and Fortunes of War (1987), described his attentiveness to visual matters in an interview for British Television Drama: "Because I trained as an architect, I've got a bit of visual sense. I actually know where I want the camera to be. I've had some major rows with directors about this. … [T]hey don't like you interfering with what they see as their prerogative. It isn't really, because film writing is about the pictures as well as the people and what they're doing." The process of shifting from one medium (written) to another (multi-sensorial, but privileging the visual) necessarily entails thinking through issues central to Wharton's stories: visibility, invisibility, the act of looking, and the power of the gaze. [End Page 27]
Close readings of both the parent texts and...