The Bell in the Fog by Gertrude Atherton: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

Have you ever met anyone who had otherworldly qualities? We'll summarize the plot and analyze elements of this mysterious, gothic short story about ghosts and obsession by Gertrude Atherton.


Mysterious Portraits at Chillingsworth

In ''The Bell in the Fog,'' successful American novelist and expatriate Ralph Orth inherits enough money to buy an estate called Chillingsworth in the English countryside of Hertfordshire. (An expatriate is someone who chooses to live outside their native country).

An ivy-covered English manor that might resemble Chillingsworth
A country manor

Orth becomes fascinated with two paintings in a gallery at Chillingsworth: portraits of a boy and a small girl, about six years old. Discovering they were the Viscount Tancred and the Lady Blanche Mortlake, he writes their relative, Lord Teignmouth, who says both children died young. Unable to get his mind off the children and wishing they were his own, Orth writes a fictional novel about their lives.

Portrait of a little girl who might resemble Lady Blanche Mortlake (painting by Eugene Siberdt)
Portrait of little girl

Lady Blanche's Look-Alike Descendant

After publishing the novel, Orth visits friends in Europe for months, then returns to Chillingsworth. During a morning walk, he meets a little girl in his neighbor's woods who looks exactly like Lady Blanche. He's shocked to learn her name is also Blanche: Blanche Root. Her family is from New York, and she and her mother are visiting a relative (Orth's neighbor).

Orth meets Blanche's family. He learns she has six siblings, and that one of her male ancestors committed suicide because of a young lady's actions. Blanche's mother comments on how extremely pale and delicate she is, and Orth thinks of the ''ethereal'' face in Lady Blanche's portrait.

Orth visits another relative of Lady Blanche and learns he was given the wrong story: Lady Blanche didn't die as a child, but committed suicide at age 24. She was a known beauty and heartbreaker who had an extramarital affair with a middle-class man named Root, from whom the living Blanche is descended. Root committed suicide when she broke off the affair.

The obsessed Orth spoils Blanche with gifts and toys, and they spend time together nearly every day during the year her family stays in Hertfordshire. Blanche shows Orth a secret compartment behind her ancestor's childhood portrait, where a portrait of the adult Lady Blanche had been hidden.

Blanche Makes a Choice

When Mrs. Root decides to return to the U.S. to reconnect with her other sons and daughters, Orth asks her to let him adopt Blanche, promising she'll receive a stellar education and become his heir. Mrs. Root says Blanche should decide what she wants to do. Blanche is distressed to have to make the choice: she loves both her family and Orth. Orth tries to convince her that, to her siblings, ''the memory of you will be quite as potent for good as your actual presence.'' However, Blanche responds: ''Not unless I died.'' She decides to return to the U.S. to be with her family, and dies just a year later.


A Gothic Tale

Although Atherton wrote during the literary Victorian period, she wrote gothic horror stories, which were popular during the previous Romantic period. Gothic horror explores the nature of evil, and often features demons, vampires, and other monsters. These stories and novels are set in ancient abbeys, castles, or manors like Chillingsworth, and include mad or psychologically aberrant characters (Orth is obsessive about Blanche).

In particular, ''The Bell in the Fog'' explores the possibility of reincarnation, or the idea that people might be reborn in another body on earth after death. Blanche's resemblance to her ancestor Lady Blanche suggests that Lady Blanche has been reincarnated as an opportunity to make up for misdeeds in her previous life. To further support this, Mrs. Root says Blanche is ''an angel who came to us because we needed her.''

A Tribute to Henry James

Atherton was a strong admirer of the work of Henry James. James (1843-1916) was an extremely successful American writer and expatriate who traveled extensively in Europe and eventually became a British citizen (sound familiar)? Atherton wrote in her autobiography that she had published ''a long short story of which Henry James was the hero and called it The Bell in the Fog.'' In fact, she openly dedicated her story to him.

A 1913 portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent
Henry James

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