An affluent womanizer, Tony Bream. The nicest, sweetest girl, Jean Martle. A desperate lover abroad too long in China, Dennis Vidal. The odd Rose Arminger.
They all seem like characters from the famed game Clue.
Who was the murderer of the little girl Effie Bream; who held this child’s delicate body under the water until she drowned?
In The Other House, Henry James writes an awkward murder mystery vis a vis a novel of manners that begins with some piquant flavor of the supernatural. As in many of James’s works (such as The Turn of the Screw and What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age), a child is in grave danger of a horrific and unnameable threat from the adult world. And as all good fairy tales do, this wayward genre-shifter begins with the death of a damned good mother.
Julia Bream, the ostensibly good mother, experiences a drawn-out death resulting from supposed hysteria (thanks, Dr. Ramage, for your accurate diagnosis) after the birth of her child, Effie. She becomes obsessed with doing anything in her power to articulate how important it is that her playboy husband Tony not remarry after she dies. But this request comes with a reason far beyond that of a wife scared of losing the top place in her husband’s heart. The woman knows that there are many women in her husband’s heart — who doesn’t? — he’s the hottest dish in town. Her fear is that Effie will have a step-mother, as Julia herself did (what princess hasn’t?). Her desire is so pronounced that at every turn the reader waits to see a ghost rise up from the bedroom to physically restrain her husband’s phallus, or to encounter a walking Carrie gown dripping with blood and moaning her warning. Nothing so exciting happens.
Instead, Rose Arminger, Julia’s oldest friend closes Book I with a real struggle of allegiance. She vows to honor her sister-friend’s wishes, and uphold them at any cost; but to do so, she must keep herself from marrying Tony Bream.
And then, once the alluringJean Martle enters, she must stand between two women marrying Tony Bream.
Arminger, who is so two-faced that she is “awfully plain or strikingly handsome” (13), does what seems a good solution all ’round — murder Effie so that there is no longer any child to protect.
The central action of the plot, the murder of the child, is almost glossed over in the story so that it made its effects so much worse to read. The only character who genuinely seems upset simply for the loss of an innocent child, is the marginal servant Mrs. Grantham who is said to be wringing her hands and weeping on a bench outside Wilverley, the “other house,” which belongs to Mrs. Julia Beever, while everyone inside juggles around their desires and hopes for the future in a most disturbing way.
Everyone knows that Rose has killed Effie, and everyone knows why. Tony Bream, the charming dad, steps up and lies that he killed his own daughter so that he could marry Jean, as he knows that he won’t really be punished since, seriously, he is so good-looking that no one will punish him long or hard. Paul Beever observes at the close of the novel that “they like you too much,” and Tony responds “Oh, too much, Paul!” (324).
Rose gets her punishment by having to marry Dennis Vidal, who seems to have been corrupted by his time in China, by returning with her lover to that country. Going to live in China is, apparently for James and Tony Bream alike, as good as going to the guillotine.
While reading the back-and-forth love affairs of Tony Bream, which I found immensely fascinating, and all of the triangles that they create, what I wanted to understand most was the function of this “other house,” and of its “queen mother” (89) Mrs. Julia Beever.
Firstly, Wilverly seems important since the novel is named after it (ostensibly). And secondly Mrs. Beever has Julia Bream’s first name and is also named the “queen mother” early on. But I am completely perplexed (by a James novel, you scoff? How unforeseen!). There doesn’t seem to be any real meaning to be found in Wilverley or in Julia Beever.
To unpack: Beever is mother to Paul who seems like a kind of dud and doesn’t play an overly significant role except to be under his mother’s thumb and to be in love with the evil Rose Arminger. Beever is not a good mother, but neither is she a bad mother. I am open to viewing her as the “queen mother” of a dysfunctional family that includes all of the cast of characters. Sure. But no one ever goes to her for advice or comfort; no one confides in her — she seems completely on the outside…hence the “other house.” She and Paul, both, are left out of the mess at Bounds, yet they are bound up in it too. In this way, they are “others.”
This suggests to me that the “mother” figure is the “other” figure in The Other House. Beever, like the other Julia, watches over but doesn’t act; she is scared and suspicious but can’t do much to stop what is to come. These mothers are powerless and contained to their respective homes. The motherless world is one is which children can be killed simply for reasons of passion.