The Ghostly Rental

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

The Ghostly Rental first appeared in magazine form in Scribner’s Monthly for September 1876. It appeared alongside The Lass O’Lowrie’s by popular Anglo-American novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett, who was born in Manchester (UK) and was most famous for her novel Little Lord Fauntleroy. It is one of a number of ghost stories that James wrote throughout his career – from the early tale The Romance of Certain Old Clothes to the late masterpiece The Turn of the Screw.

The Ghostly Rental

Arthur Rackham – The Old Man

The Ghostly Rental – critical commentary

The folk tale

Very unusually for Henry James, this story is closer to the form and content of a folk story than a tale in the realistic mode which was the usual genre of his choice. In this sense it is not unlike the tale Benvolio which he composed around the same time.

Many of the elements of a folk tale are present: an unspecified location and date; a mysterious old house hidden away down an unfrequented country lane; a wizened old man exhibiting bizarre behaviour; neighbours who shun the location in apparent fear; a setting in a cemetary; a back story of violence resulting in death and a ghost – all revealed by an old crone; and a conclusion of death, fire, and destruction.

There is no reason why James shouldn’t indulge himself in this literary form – and there are distinct echoes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville in his treatment of the subject. But it can hardly be held up as a success in his repertoire of tale telling.

The ghost story

In terms of the traditional ghost story, the most interesting feature of this tale is that whilst it combines all the elements of ‘mystery and imagination’ listed above – it doesn’t actually contain a ghost at all.

Captain Diamond has been hoodwinked by his daughter. She has been renting the house from him by impersonating a ghost – whose existence in his mind is a reflection of the guilt he feels for having (as he believes) killed his own daughter.

No justification or explanation is offered for her actions. She says that her father has forgiven her so long as he thought she was dead, and admits that her stratagem in tricking him has been ‘folly’. She also sees an apparition of her father shortly before he dies. But none of these elements contribute to any dramatic coherence in the tale.

The Ghostly Rental – study resources

The Ghostly Rental The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

The Ghostly Rental The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

The GHostly Rental Complete Stories 1874—1884 – Library of America – Amazon UK

TheGhostly Rental Complete Stories 1874—1884 – Library of America – Amazon US

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

The Ghostly Rental The Ghostly Rental – read the original publication

Red button Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

Red button Henry James at Mantex – tutorials, biography, study resources

The Ghostly Rental – plot summary

An un-named narrator recalls his earlier years as a student of theology. Waling in the countryside one late winter afternoon he takes a shhort cut on his way back home at sunset and comes across a large colonial house in a neglected spot. He is so impressed with its mysterious appearance and its gloomy ambiance that he decides it must be haunted.

Further on his journey back home he enquires at another house about who owns the ‘haunted’ house. A woman tells him that nobody every comes into or goes out of the house. A week later he goes back and sees a little old man in a voluminous military cloak let himself into the property, making ceremonious bows as he does so..The narrator looks in through a window to see the old man inside. The old man exits from the house in a similarly curious manner.

Later in the spring the narrator meets the old man in a cemetary. The old man’s face is a charicature of fierceness, yet his manner is gentle and mild. They discuss the existence of ghosts, and the old soldier reveals that he has seen one.

An old woman tells the narrator the back history of the little old soldier, whose name is ‘Captain Diamond’. He killed his own daughter by cursing her for the crime of receiving a young man into her home. And having revealed his secret to a woman admirer, she too died upon telling someone else.

The full story is then revealed. On his cursing her, the daughter dies, but then returns from the dead as a ghost who rents the house from the Captain. When the narrator next meets him, the Captain confesses his crime. The narrator wishes to enter the house – and does so alone. There he encounters the ghost at the head of a staircase.

Some months later an elderly negress visits the narrator to say that her master the Captain is very ill. The Captain asks the narrator to collect the rent on his behalf. When the narrator visits the house, the ghost is revealed as a beautiful young woman – the Captain’s daughter, who is still alive. She has been deceiving her father – and at that precise moment she sees his ghost.

When the narrator returns to the Captain’s house, he has died. That night the old house catches fire, and by the morning is a ruin.

Principal characters
I the un-named narrator, a former student of theology
Captain Diamond an old soldier
Miss Deborah a deformed old woman, the narrator’s housemaster’s sister
Captain Diamond’s daughter
Belinda Captain Diamond’s negro housekeeper

Crawford's Consistency - Henry James portrait

Henry James – portrait by John Singer Sargeant

Ghost stories by Henry James

Red button The Romance of Certain Old Clothes (1868)

Red button The Ghostly Rental (1876)

Red button Sir Edmund Orme (1891)

Red button The Private Life (1892)

Red button Owen Wingrave (1892)

Red button The Friends of the Friends (1896)

Red button The Turn of the Screw (1898)

Red button The Real Right Thing (1899)

Red button The Third Person (1900)

Red button The Jolly Corner (1908)

Further reading


Red button Theodora Bosanquet, Henry James at Work, University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Red button F.W. Dupee, Henry James: Autobiography, Princeton University Press, 1983.

Red button Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, HarperCollins, 1985.

Red button Philip Horne (ed), Henry James: A Life in Letters, Viking/Allen Lane, 1999.

Red button Henry James, The Letters of Henry James, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001.

Red button Fred Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

Red button F.O. Matthieson (ed), The Notebooks of Henry James, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Critical commentary

Red button Elizabeth Allen, A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James London: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Red button Ian F.A. Bell, Henry James and the Past, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993.

Red button Millicent Bell, Meaning in Henry James, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1993.

Red button Harold Bloom (ed), Modern Critical Views: Henry James, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.

Red button Kirstin Boudreau, Henry James’s Narrative Technique, Macmillan, 2010.

Red button J. Donald Crowley and Richard A. Hocks (eds), The Wings of the Dove, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.

Red button Victoria Coulson, Henry James, Women and Realism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Daniel Mark Fogel, A Companion to Henry James Studies, Greenwood Press, 1993.

Red button Virginia C. Fowler, Henry James’s American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas, Madison (Wis): University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Red button Jonathan Freedman, The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Judith Fryer, The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976

Red button Roger Gard (ed), Henry James: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1968.

Red button Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Barbara Hardy, Henry James: The Later Writing (Writers & Their Work), Northcote House Publishers, 1996.

Red button Richard A. Hocks, Henry James: A study of the short fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Red button Donatella Izzo, Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Red button Colin Meissner, Henry James and the Language of Experience, Cambridge University Press, 2009

Red button John Pearson (ed), The Prefaces of Henry James, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Red button Richard Poirer, The Comic Sense of Henry James, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Red button Hugh Stevens, Henry James and Sexuality, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Merle A. Williams, Henry James and the Philosophical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Red button Judith Woolf, Henry James: The Major Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Red button Ruth Yeazell (ed), Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, Longmans, 1994.

Other works by Henry James

Henry James The BostoniansThe Bostonians (1886) is a novel about the early feminist movement. The heroine Verena Tarrant is an ‘inspirational speaker’ who is taken under the wing of Olive Chancellor, a man-hating suffragette and radical feminist. Trying to pull her in the opposite direction is Basil Ransom, a vigorous young man to whom Verena becomes more and more attracted. The dramatic contest to possess her is played out with some witty and often rather sardonic touches, and as usual James keeps the reader guessing about the outcome until the very last page.

The Ghostly Rental Buy the book at Amazon UK
The Ghostly Rental Buy the book at Amazon US


Henry James What Masie KnewWhat Masie Knew (1897) A young girl is caught between parents who are in the middle of personal conflict, adultery, and divorce. Can she survive without becoming corrupted? It’s touch and go – and not made easier for the reader by the attentions of an older man who decides to ‘look after’ her. This comes from the beginning of James’s ‘Late Phase’, so be prepared for longer and longer sentences. In fact it’s said that whilst composing this novel, James switched from writing longhand to using dictation – and it shows if you look carefully enough – part way through the book.

Henry James What Masie Knew Buy the book at Amazon UK
Henry James What Masie Knew Buy the book at Amazon US


Henry James The AmbassadorsThe Ambassadors (1903) Lambert Strether is sent from America to Paris to recall Chadwick Newsome, a young man who is reported to be compromising himself by an entanglement with a wicked woman. However, Strether’s mission fails when he is seduced by the social pleasures of the European capital, and he takes Newsome’s side. So a second ambassador is dispatched in the form of the more determined Sarah Pocock. She delivers an ultimatum which is resisted by the two young men, but then an accident reveals unpleasant truths to Strether, who is faced by a test of loyalty between old Europe and the new USA. This edition presents the latest scholarship on James and includes an introduction, notes, selected criticism, a text summary and a chronology of James’s life and times.

Longstaff's Marriage Buy the book at Amazon UK
Longstaff's Marriage Buy the book at Amazon US

Henry James – web links

Henry James  web links Henry James at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides, tutorials on the Complete Tales, book reviews. bibliographies, and web links.

Henry James web links The Complete Works
Sixty books in one 13.5 MB Kindle eBook download for £1.92 at The complete novels, stories, travel writing, and prefaces. Also includes his autobiographies, plays, and literary criticism – with illustrations.

Henry James web links The Ladder – a Henry James website
A collection of eTexts of the tales, novels, plays, and prefaces – with links to available free eTexts at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.

Red button A Hyper-Concordance to the Works
Japanese-based online research tool that locates the use of any word or phrase in context. Find that illusive quotable phrase.

Henry James web links The Henry James Resource Center
A web site with biography, bibliographies, adaptations, archival resources, suggested reading, and recent scholarship.

Henry James web links Online Books Page
A collection of online texts, including novels, stories, travel writing, literary criticism, and letters.

Henry James web links Henry James at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of eTexts, available in a variety of eBook formats.

Henry James web links The Complete Letters
Archive of the complete correspondence (1855-1878) work in progress – published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Henry James web links The Scholar’s Guide to Web Sites
An old-fashioned but major jumpstation – a website of websites and resouces.

Henry James web links Henry James – The Complete Tales
Tutorials on the complete collection of over one hundred tales, novellas, and short stories.

© Roy Johnson 2013

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