The Romance of Certain Old Clothes – a short story by Henry James

Henry James

Today I remembered that I still have a lot of short stories left to read this year for my project, so I drew a card and found the ten of spades, which pointed me to the story, “The Certain Romance of Old Clothes,” by Henry James. James’s writing is somewhat of an acquired taste. Many describe him as “too wordy,” and I would have to admit that this often feels true. In spite of this, I have managed to read a lot of his work over the years. My book club even read one of his longer stories, The Turn of the Screw, one of the more famous ghost stories in literature. This story I read today, also categorized as a “ghost story,” is much lesser known – I think for good reason.

Read the story for yourself online here.

I didn’t find it too much to my taste. **Spoiler Alert** First of all, there is no ghost until the last page of the story, which takes place in the pre-revolution America of the 18th century. It deals with a “single mother family” of a woman (“a widowed gentlewoman”) her son, and her two daughters. Her son Bernard is sent off to England to be properly educated and returns with a friend, Arthur Lloyd, who we quickly learn is fated to pick one of Bernard’s charming sisters, Rosalind and Perdita, as his bride.

This “selection process” seems an excruciatingly long affair, and, despite the agreeable nature of the two young ladies, becomes too much of a burden for their gentle natures to overcome, and jealousy inevitably comes a calling when Arthur’s favor settles upon Perdita. Rosalind’s jealousy, AND Perdita’s disappointment in it, leads to a kind of “civil estrangement.” When complications arise during the birth of Arthur and Perdita’s first child, a daughter, Perdita is crushed to learn that her husband, absent at the time of these troubles, was with Rosalind (though innocently, it seemed to me).

Although the daughter survives, Perdita does not, and in a fit of spiteful deathbed bitterness, extracts an oath from Arthur that he will not give away any of her fine gowns, except one to be saved for their daughter, knowing that Rosalind covets them. The surviving sister, somewhat predictably, moves in to claim Arthur, scandalously not long enough after the death of her sister. She does have the decency to delay inquiring about the gowns and when she does is initially gently rebuked, but becomes more insistent and almost nagging, finally weakening Arthur to the point where he throws up his hands and concedes.

Only in the final paragraph, when the greedy Rosalind heads to the attic to open the trunk of clothes, does the bitter ghost “appear” (actually it doesn’t even appear in the story, we only learn of its attack after the fact) to protect the coveted wardrobe.

I have one Henry James story to go in my 2011 short story project. It’s “The Middle Years,” which I remember nothing about other than I really enjoyed it many years ago when I read it for the first time. I added it to my “hearts” suit (favorite stories to read again) when I created my list of 52 stories to read. I look forward to that one, but The Romance of Certain Old Clothes will likely not be re-read by me.

What do you think of Henry James? What have you read by him?

Sent from my iPad


  1. Dale said,

    October 31, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    “The Turn of the Screw” is the only Henry James work I’ve read. I liked it, but it didn’t “Wow” me. “Wordiness”, or lack thereof, is something that is kind of interesting to me, now. If someone can write something in ten words or in 100 words, I’m going to take the ten words. I’m sure there are going to be exceptions to this rule somewhere (Tolstoy, perhaps?).


    • Jay said,

      October 31, 2011 at 4:05 pm

      Hi Dale,

      I’ve read Daisy Miller, Portrait of a Lady, and The Aspern Papers by him also. Most of them were pretty tough going for me, probably Daisy Miller being the least so. I have had his “The Ambassadors” gathering dust on my shelf for possibly decades now…

      I did read his short story “The Middle Years” at the coffee shop this morning. It was really good and melancholy – if those two things can go together. It’s about an aging author who has been ill and is realizing how ‘his best work is likely behind him’ etc., etc. Very poignant.



  2. JaneGS said,

    November 1, 2011 at 11:36 am

    I really want to like Henry James but he and I have yet to have a satisfying mind meld. I struggled through a few novels in college, and then read Turn of the Screw last year. It was okay but not phenomenal. I read The Asperan Papers and Old Clothes shortly after and didn’t care for either at all–slogging is the best word to describe my experience with these two.

    I enjoyed your review of Old Clothes more than I liked the story itself 🙂


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