The Romance of Certain Old Clothes

tutorial, critical comment, plot, and study resources

The Romance of Certain Old Clothes first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly magazine for February 1868. Its initial appearance in book form was as part of the collection A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales published in Boston by Osgood in 1875. This is the first of James’s ghost stories, although unlike his other studies in this genre, his ghost doesn’t make an appearance until the very end of the tale. The family name of Willoughby was changed to Wingrave in later versions of the story.

This is the one of four stories James wrote with the American Civil War as a background. The other stories are Poor Richard (1867), The Story of a Year (1865) and A Most Extraordinary Case (1868).


The Romance of Certain Old Clothes

Woman before Mirror – Jakab Marastoni (1804-1860)


The Romance of Certain Old Clothes – commentary

The melodramatic and Grand Guignol final scene of this tale was very much in keeping with the fashion for ghost stories which became popular at the end of the nineteenth century. This was a period which gave rise to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890) and Dracula (1897), But James was obviously mainly interested in the subconscious sexual sibling rivalry between the two sisters Viola and Perdita. In particular its vivid manifestation in the scene where Viola actually dresses up in Perdita’s wedding clothes in front of the mirror.

It is a work of James’s period of literary apprenticeship, and he would later make use of the ghost story in far more original ways in works such as Sir Edmund Orme (1891), Owen Wingrave (1892), and his most famous tale, The Turn of the Screw (1898).


The Romance of Certain Old Clothes – study resources

The Romance of Certain Old Clothes The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

The Romance of Certain Old Clothes The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

The Romance of Certain Old Clothes Complete Stories 1874—1884 – Library of America – Amazon UK

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

The Romance of Certain Old Clothes Complete Stories 1874—1884 – Library of America – Amazon US

Red button Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

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


The Romance of Certain Old Clothes – plot summary

Bernard Willoughby returns from Oxford University and travels in France with his college friend Arthur Lloyd, who makes a very positive impression on Bernard’s two sisters, Viola and Perdita. The two girls are in competition for Lloyd’s attention, but conceal the fact from each other and from everybody else.

When eventually Perdita reveals that Lloyd has asked to marry her and has given her a ring, Viola feels wounded but tries to be stoical about her disappointment. But after the wedding, Perdita discovers Viola secretly wearing her wedding clothes.

Lloyd and Perdita settle in Boston, Viola goes away to recover from her disappointment, and then Bernard marries.Perdita gives birth to a daughter, then dies, leaving all her clothes in a locked trunk for her daughter when she grows up.

Viola goes to live with Lloyd to look after her young niece, and Lloyd eventually marries her. Three years later she begins to covet Perdita’s collection of clothes, and she quarrels with Lloyd, who refuses to give them up. However, she gets hold of the key to the locked trunk.

When she fails to appear for dinner one night, Lloyd goes in search of her and finds her in the attic, before the open trunk. She is dead, with the marks of ‘ten hideous wounds from two vengeful ghostly hands’.


Principal characters
Mrs Willoughby a widow
Bernard Willoughby her son, who becomes a lawyer
Viola Willoughby her eldest daughter, tall, attractive
Pedita Willoughby her younger daughter, small, unattractive
Arthur Lloyd Bernard’s rich English college friend

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

Biographical

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 Washington SquareWashington Square (1880) is a superb early short novel, It’s the tale of a young girl whose future happiness is being controlled by her strict authoritarian (but rather witty) father. She is rather reserved, but has a handsome young suitor. However, her father disapproves of him, seeing him as an opportunist and a fortune hunter. There is a battle of wills – all conducted within the confines of their elegant New York town house. Who wins out in the end? You will probably be surprised by the outcome. This is a masterpiece of social commentary, offering a sensitive picture of a young woman’s life.
Henry James Washington Square Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James Washington Square Buy the book from Amazon US

 

Henry James The Aspern PapersThe Aspern Papers (1888) is a psychological drama set in Venice which centres on the tussle for control of a great writer’s correspondence. An elderly lady, ex-lover of the writer, seeks a husband for her daughter. But the potential purchaser of the papers is a dedicated bachelor. Money is also at stake – but of course not discussed overtly. There is a refined battle of wills between them. Who will win in the end? As usual, James keeps the reader guessing. The novella is a masterpiece of subtle narration, with an ironic twist in its outcome. This collection of stories also includes three of his accomplished long short stories – The Private Life, The Middle Years, and The Death of the Lion.
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon US

 

Henry James The Spoils of PoyntonThe Spoils of Poynton (1896) is a short novel which centres on the contents of a country house, and the question of who is the most desirable person to inherit it via marriage. The owner Mrs Gereth is being forced to leave her home to make way for her son and his greedy and uncultured fiancee. Mrs Gereth develops a subtle plan to take as many of the house’s priceless furnishings with her as possible. But things do not go quite according to plan. There are some very witty social ironies, and a contest of wills which matches nouveau-riche greed against high principles. There’s also a spectacular finale in which nobody wins out.
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from 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 Amazon.co.uk. 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.

Henry James web links Henry James on the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations of James’s novels and stories for the cinema and television – in various languages. Full details of directors and actors, production features, film reviews, box office, and even quizzes.

© Roy Johnson 2013


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