EVERYTHING IN THIS POST IS A SPOILER
Last October, I was looking through some notes my students had taken on an old collection of ghost stories and thinking back to my own reading of the collection about twelve months earlier. Snippets of their thoughts kept striking me and I was trying to figure out which ghost story I was reminded of. I couldn’t place it until: I wasn’t thinking of a ghost story at all! I was thinking of Mette Ivie Harrison’s The Bishop’s Wife!
And naturally so, as I consider it. Excepting the obvious absence of a spectral manifestation, all the pieces of the genteel ghost tale are present in one of the tale’s subplots: the missing wife of Tobias Tortensen.
(Off topic, but for me, the most emotionally pure point of the novel is when Tobias’s son speaks at his father’s funeral. I grew tears. And was it just me, or did I smell a reference to Speaker for the Dead?)
The story that most struck me as being parallel to the missing wife’s was “The Haunted Orchard” by Richard Le Gallienne in which a French girl who died broken-hearted haunts the man renting her old digs from her uncommunicative parents. (Second place not to be discussed: “A Ghost” by Guy de Maupassant.)
He is haunted by her voice floating through the orchard, and is eventually led to a “treasure-trove . . . under the apple-tree . . . [a] buried treasure of an unquiet, suffering soul . . . a number of love-letters written mostly in French in a very picturesque hand.” These letters tell the story of how the love of her life abandoned her and how she then wasted away, dead by nineteen. Which might not seem to have that much in common with Helena Torstensen, but we know so little of her true story, that making comparisons is difficult. We do know that what she did leave behind was lost in a garden and a shed, that her loved ones never speak of her, that her story is more buried than she is. Although Helena never makes a spectral appearance, she has haunted Tobias’s second wife their entire marriage, and she comes to haunt the bishop’s wife as well.
In short, The Bishop’s Wife contains the ghost story of Helena Tortensen because she has unfinished business—largely in that she is an unfinished personality. She’s a ghost, whether we see her or not. And while she became a ghost through an uncertain tragedy, the novel ends with her seemingly having made friends with her husband’s second wife.
Helena also reminds me of an Audrey Niffenegger novel in the way the “ghost” may be unseen and unthought of, yet remains part of the family—relationships endure. Which, I need not emphasize, is a very Mormon idea.
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