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Literature / The Romance of Certain Old Clothes

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Published by Henry James in 1868, this tale is set in Massachusetts "towards the middle of the eighteenth century," and concerns the rivalry of two sisters, Rosalind and Perdita Wingrave, for the affections of their brother Bernard's friend Arthur Lloyd — and its tragic outcome.

It is one of the Henry James stories that is adapted in The Haunting of Bly Manor.

Certain romantic old tropes include:

  • Cain and Abel: Inverted Trope, in that it is the younger sister, Perdita who murders the older sister, Rosalind — and does so from beyond the grave.
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  • Cain and Abel and Seth: What's more, the oldest rather than youngest sibling, Bernard is neutral in the Sibling Rivalry, and like Seth, he survives the story and presumably lives on to enjoy the Wingrave fortune while taking care of his beloved mother Veronica.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Bernard, the brother of Rosalind and Perdita, is named after his now-deceased father Bernard Wingrave.
  • Death by Childbirth: Perdita dies bearing Arthur's daughter.
  • Disappeared Dad: Mr. Bernard Wingrave, the elder, died soon after fathering his three children, leaving his wife Veronica to raise them on her own. It is possible that the absence of a strong father figure may have left Rosalind and Perdita too unrestrained by authority, causing their rivalry to grow out of control.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Perdita's ghost kills Rosalind for touching her old clothes. Of course, it's really more about their rivalry over Arthur Lloyd than it is about the clothes.
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  • Flat Character: Arthur Lloyd doesn't really get much characterization beyond being the love interest over whom Rosalind and Perdita compete. He makes three important decisons in the story: to marry Perdita; then to marry Rosalind; finally to break his promise to Perdita regarding the titular chest of Perdita's old clothes. We never learn why he favored Perdita over Rosalind; it's Rosalind's effort which leads to his taking Rosalind as his second wife; and Rosalind flat-out nags him into letting her have Perdita's old clothes. Arthur comes off as rather passive, even weak-willed, in all this.
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: The elder Bernard Wingrave is described as a gentleman, and it is mentioned that he had a strong love of literature and of William Shakespeare in particular, which is why his two daughters were named Rosalind and Perdita.
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  • Gold Digger: Perdita accuses (the absent) Rosalind of this on her own deathbed. This is more than a little hypocritical, as Perdita plainly has much enjoyed spending Arthur's money.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: The early part of the story is much concerned with the contest between Rosalind and her younger sister Perdita to win the hand of Arthur Lloyd. This is a very mannered competition, including subtle turns of phrase, and (notably) attractive clothing. There's reason to think neither of the sisters are really as calm about this as they pretend, especially given Rosalind's reaction to hearing of Perdita's engagement to Mr. Lloyd, and even more so years later, when Perdita's ghost murders Rosalind for touching her old clothes.
  • Hypocrite: Perdita accuses Rosalind of being a Gold Digger who only wants to marry Arthur Lloyd to live in luxury, but plainly enjoys her husband's wealth herself in much the same ways she imagines her sister desires.
  • Hypocrite Has a Point: Perdita was right that one motive for Rosalind to marry Arthur was his wealth, and indeed the climax is precipitated by Rosalind's desire for finer clothes than Arthur can currently afford to buy her.
  • Last Request: The dying Perdita makes her husband Arthur Lloyd promise to keep her old clothes under lock and key and never give them to anyone but her infant daughter. It is Rosalind's nagging Arthur into breaking this oath and Rosalind's attempt to possess the clothes which precipitates Perdita's ghost to kill Rosalind.
  • Love Triangle: One of the main subject of the story is Rosalind and Perdita's on-the-surface polite, under-the-surface emotionally-intense, contest to marry Arthur Lloyd.
  • Meaningful Name: Three of them.
    • The family name is "Wingrave," which is exactly what both sisters gain by marrying Arthur Lloyd.
    • "Perdita" means "lost." Perdita is the first of the sisters to die and her fate as a vengeful ghost implies that she is not having a happy afterlife.
    • "Rosalind" means "beautiful rose," and Rosalind is an ornamental sort of woman who most desires to be beautiful in fine clothing, which leads to her murder by Perdita's ghost
  • Nice Guy: Bernard Wingrave (the younger) is described as a good honest fellow who is generally liked, and does absolutely nothing mean to anyone in the tale.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Perdita appears to be summoned only by the breaking of Arthur's oath to keep her old clothes safe for their daughter, and only to attack the person who dares try to handle them. The exact way in which she slays her sister Rosalind is unclear — it might be a direct Poltergeist attack, outright materialization or the stigmata of a Death Touch — but the result looks like this, after most of the day:
    Narrator: Rosalind had fallen backward from a kneeling posture, with one hand supporting her on the floor and the other pressed to her heart. On her limbs was the stiffness of death, and on her face, in the fading light of the sun, the terror of someting more than death. Her lips were parted in entreaty, in dismay, in agony; and on her blanced brow and hceeks there glowed the marks of ten hideous wounds from two vengeful ghostly hands.
  • Punny Title: The story is a "romance" both in the old sense of being an interesting emotionally-intense tale, and in the more recent sense of a love story. Also, "old clothes" can be seen as referring to both sisters, in different senses; Rosalind finds herself at one point an Old Maid, and Perdita is after her death the emotional "old clothes" which Arthur Lloyd abandons to wed Rosalind.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Rosalind and Perdita compete for the hand of Arthur Lloyd; each marries him in turn; first Perdita, then Rosalind, and each of them die young, indirectly in consequence of marrying him.
  • Sibling Murder: Of a most peculiar sort. Perdita dies in childbirth, leaving Mr. Lloyd to marry Rosalind, who covets Perdita's old clothes and on obtaining them is slain by Perdita's ghost.
  • Sibling Triangle: The Love Triangle between Rosalind and Perdita for Arthur Lloyd is intensified by the fact that the two women are sisters. They literally sleep in the same bed and dress in the same room together, which means they can see each other's preparations to impress Mr. Lloyd.
  • Widow Woman: Mrs. Veronica Wingrave, the "gentlewoman" mother of Bernard, Rosalind and Perdita. She doesn't get much characterization beyond being a good woman and caring mother, which puts her implicitly in the "Wonderful Widow" category.
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