“Sir Edmund Orme” is one of Henry James’s many tales that revolve around strange apparitions. A fascination with occult (magical, theosophical, mysterious, or even spiritual) phenomena is evident in many of James’s tales and short stories. Like his contemporaries George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and Margaret Oliphant, James wrote a number of texts that feature communication between the dead and the living, clairvoyance, and similar phenomena. Other members of James’s family shared his interest. His father, Henry James, Sr., for example, was a well-known theologian interested in mysticism; his brother, William James, a professor at Harvard University, became involved in experimental psychology such as that led by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in England. In fact, one year after the society’s instantiation in England, William founded the American Society for Psychical Research and conducted scientific experiments on the survival of the human spirit after death, communication with the dead, and telepathy. Critics such as F. O. Matthiessen helped bring the family into fame, while Leon Edel and other major literary critics collected and critiqued Henry James’s work, helping establish him as a leading literary figure.
“Sir Edmund Orme” is an example of James’s many narratives that employ ideas about the occult and spirit worlds. First printed in the Christmas 1891 edition of the populist periodical Black and White, “Orme” was probably designed to entertain a popular audience interested in such ghost stories as Charles Dickens’s famous A Christmas Carol (1843) and George MacDonald’s “Uncle Cornelius His Story” (1871). Moreover, like virtually all of James’s narratives, “Orme” addresses the challenges posed by Victorian codes of decorum and control that placed often unbearable pressures on members of society: As they are presented by James, these pressures could lead to disaster or even death.
“Orme” is framed by an unnamed, first-person narrator who possesses papers that apparently belonged to the also unnamed first-person narrator of the story proper. This recalls the structure of one of James’s most famous stories, The Turn of the Screw (1898), in which an unnamed first-person narrator frames the story. The story, in turn, is related to an audience by Douglas, the owner of the sheets on which the story was written by an unnamed governess. One of the more important differences between The Turn of the Screw and “Sir Edmund Orme” concerns the existence of the ghosts around which the stories revolve. The likelihood of the ghosts’ existence differs in the two stories largely as a result of the narrator’s reliability (or unreliability). While the existence of the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw is consistently in doubt because of the narrating governess’s psychological instability and questionable objectivity, the ghost of Sir Edmund Orme is presented as a matter of fact, for the narrator’s mental wellness, objectivity, and sincerity are not in question. Moreover, the narrator in The Turn of the Screw cannot secure a witness to corroborate her sightings, whereas the narrator in “Sir Edmund Orme” is himself the witness, for he perceives the ghost of Orme, which has been haunting another character, Mrs. Marden, for some time.
In the story, Mrs. Marden is shaken on several occasions by the sight of a gentleman whom no other character besides the narrator is able to see. Once certain that the narrator can, in fact, see him, Mrs. Marden reveals that the gentleman is the ghost of her deceased lover whom she abandoned in her youth to marry Captain Marden, inciting Orme to commit suicide. According to Mrs. Marden, she is being punished for so mistreating her lover, and she fears that the same fate awaits her daughter. Mrs. Marden’s beautiful, coquettish daughter, Charlotte, has stolen the unnamed narrator’s heart along with, apparently, those of a number of other suitors. Fearing that her daughter will abandon the narrator as she herself abandoned Orme, Mrs. Marden tries to prevent the disaster by encouraging the relationship. Charlotte, however, is not interested in marrying the narrator. Mrs. Marden eventually reveals that her own mother and sister had placed a similar pressure on her: Although she did not love Orme, they had promoted her relationship with him. At the end of the tale, Orme appears to Mrs. Marden as she lies ill in bed, Charlotte and the narrator at her side. To accommodate her mother, Charlotte implies that she will, indeed, devote herself to the narrator. Mrs. Marden dies, her punishment executed with a final, ambiguous gasp from an unknowable source.
The story can be read in a number of ways. In one sense, the dead Orme and the living narrator could be said to fight over possession of Charlotte. In another sense, “Orme” can be read as a tale of irony in which Mrs. Marden commits the same error as did her mother before her by virtually forcing Charlotte to love the narrator with no regard for her daughter’s true feelings, thus leading to her ultimate punishment in death. Still another interpretation is the narrator’s own: It is a case of retributive justice in which the spell has been broken by his and Charlotte’s commitment to each other. Yet more readings are possible, and this equivocation, characteristic of Henry James’s fiction, is due to his particularity of language and skillful use of narrative devices that appeal “to wonder and terror and curiosity and pity and to the delight . . . of the mystified state” (Art, 253).
James, Henry. The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces. New York: Scribner, 1937.
———. The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Matthiessen, F. O. The James Family, Including Selections from the Writings of Henry James, Senior, William, Henry and Alice James. New York: Knopf, 1947