The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Lady Ferry" (1879)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Lady Ferry was created by Sarah Orne Jewett and appeared in “Lady Ferry” (Old Friends and New, 1879). Jewett (1849-1909) was an American short story writer and naturalist. Jewett is an underrated writer whose work is of the highest caliber, and “Lady Ferry” is among her best.
The narrator of “Lady Ferry” tells a story of her youth, when her parents had to go on a long sea voyage and she was sent to stay with her father’s elderly cousin Matthew and his wife Agnes in a rural section of Maine. Before she leaves the narrator hears her parents discussing “madam,” who lives at the ferry and has been there, unchanged, for a long time, at least since the narrator’s father was a boy. The narrator’s father, in fact, muses aloud that Madam, despite her advanced age, will never die, something he finds sad: “She ‘had not changed’ since my father was a boy: ‘it was horrible to have one’s life endless in this world!’”1 The narrator is intrigued, and when she visits Matthew and Agnes and their servant Deborah she is made welcome and told of Madam. Madam is “Lady Ferry,” an elderly woman who has lived in the same house with Matthew since anyone can remember. The narrator enjoys exploring the house and chatting with Agnes, and it is by accident that she encounters Lady Ferry in the garden. The narrator finds that Lady Ferry is not so frightening as she thought, and in fact is rather pleasant to talk to, but she also talks about historical figures as if she had been their contemporaries. Lady Ferry seems to have forgotten that Queen Elizabeth is dead, and when the narrator says, “Why, every one must die...there is a funeral somewhere every day, I suppose,” Lady Ferry responds, sadly, “Every one but me, every one but me, and I am alone.”2 Later, Agnes tells the narrator not to mind what Lady Ferry says, and never disagree with her: “it hurts and annoys her, and she soon forgets her strange fancies.”3 Martha, the maid, tells the narrator that Lady Ferry is something of a local legend, that there are stories that she will never die and that she used to wander about many years ago. The narrator grows to accept Lady Ferry’s presence in the household, although she does sometimes think of legends of the Flying Dutchman, the Wandering Jew, and Peter Rugg, the missing man. The narrator misses her parents, but becomes comfortable at the house. She calls again on Lady Ferry, who told Agnes that she liked the narrator, something out of character for Lady Ferry. When the narrator sees Lady Ferry again Lady Ferry talks sadly about how her funeral will be tomorrow, “at last,” something the narrator takes seriously. Lady Ferry shows the narrator a little jewel case, quite worn, and the narrator kisses Lady Ferry’s face, something Lady Ferry is softly delighted with. The next day there is no funeral, and things are the same as they ever were.
After this the narrator visits Lady Ferry often, and Lady Ferry is often possessed by the idea that she is about to die. One day a middle-aged gentleman visits, and Lady Ferry greets him with pleasure, calling him “Captain Jack McAllister,” his grandfather’s name, and asking after the ship Captain Jack piloted. Lady Ferry, while she asks after the grandfather, is youthful and even gay, but when she is told that Captain Jack was lost at sea seventy years ago, the light goes out of her eyes and she looks sorrowful, hunted, and old. She leaves, and the narrator goes after her and finds her in the garden, where “I was not surprised to hear her say that they had killed the Queen of France, poor Marie Antoinette! She had known her well her in her childhood, before she was a queen at all.”4 The narrator one day looks through cousin Matthew’s library and finds a old, dusty, odd shaped little book, a journal which tells stories about the Indians and about the town of Boston. One of the stories is about Mistress Honor Warburton, “who was cursed, and doomed to live in this world to the end of time.”5 The narrator naturally thinks of Lady Ferry, but she loses the book before she can read to the end of the story to find out what happened to Mistress Warburton. Then, one night, the narrator has what she thinks is a dream, a real feeling dream, in which a party is being thrown in Lady Ferry’s rooms. A harpsichord is playing, and several couples wheel through a slow, stately dance. All the guests are dressed well; Lady Ferry is dressed in a brocade gown with a “tall quaint cap, and a high lace frill at her throat, whiter than any lace I had ever seen.”6 Lady Ferry bids the guests farewell and watches them row their boats across the river, and the narrator returns to bed, in her dream. The next morning Matthew mentions that two of the boats were carried off by the tide, and the narrator finds, in the grass of the garden, a silver knee buckle, which must have been dropped by one of Lady Ferry’s “ghostly guests.” Then, a day or two later, Lady Ferry visits Martha’s grandmother, and her grandson says that the night before he saw Lady Ferry “in that dark place along by the Norway pines...she went by me, and I was near scared to death. She looked fearful tall–towered way up above me. Her face was all lit up with blue light, and her feet didn’t touch the ground. She wasn’t taking steps, she wasn’t walking, but movin’ along like a sail boat before the wind.”7
Eventually the narrator has to return home to her parents, and she says a sad farewell to Lady Ferry. The narrator does not return to the house for many years. As an adult, in Amsterdam, in a bookshop, she finds a copy of the book she’d lost at the house, and she reads the full story of Mistress Honor Warburton, who returned to Boston but disappeared again.
She endeavoured to disguise herself, and would not stay long in one place if she feared that her story was known, and that she was recognized. One Mr. Fleming, a man of good standing and repute, and an officer of Her Majesty Queen Anne, had sworn to Mr. Thomas Highward that his father, a person of great age, had once seen Mistress Warburton in his youth; that she then bore another name, but had the same appearance.8
When the narrator does return to the house it is owned by someone else, Matthew, Agnes and Martha being long dead. The narrator looks for, and finds, Lady Ferry’s grave. The narrator asks the ferryman about Lady Ferry, and he tells her that “she had lived to be very ancient, but she was dead.”9
Sarah Orne Jewett is commonly described as a major “regional” writer. This is damning with faint praise, for the quality of her work is at least on par with Henry James’, if not James’ superior. “Lady Ferry” may or may not be Jewett’s masterpiece, but even if it is not it falls little short of perfection.
“Lady Ferry” is evocative and sad; Jewett does a splendid job of fostering and maintaining the mood, and she wonderfully delivers a sense of Lady Ferry’s tragedy, of outliving her friends and contemporaries and becoming a regretful immortal, tired of life and humored rather than respected by those who know her. Jewett nicely evokes the feel of rural Maine of mid-nineteenth century. Her descriptions can be beautiful, and her characterization, delivered via understatement and dialogue, is excellent. Jewett has a wonderfully naturalistic touch, especially in the dialogue, so that the recreation of rural life feels perfect. The ambiguity behind the story is comparable to that of “The Turn of the Screw,” but rather than use the ambiguity of a possibly unreliable narrator, ala Henry James, Jewett presents her ambiguity through a reliable and honest narrator, and leaves the reader with a sense not of aggravation but of mystery and magic.
Written by Jewett when she was only twenty years old, “Lady Ferry” is a masterpiece.
Print: Sarah Orne Jewett, Lady Ferry and Other Uncanny People. Ashcroft, BC: Ash-Tree Press, 1998.
1 Sarah Orne Jewett, “Lady Ferry,” Old Friends and New (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1879), 180.
2 Jewett, “Lady Ferry,” 194.
3 Jewett, “Lady Ferry,” 195.
4 Jewett, “Lady Ferry,” 212.
5 Jewett, “Lady Ferry,” 213.
6 Jewett, “Lady Ferry,” 215.
7 Jewett, “Lady Ferry,” 218.
8 Jewett, “Lady Ferry,” 223.
9 Jewett, “Lady Ferry,” 227.