QUAINT #11 Salome da Costa from “The Story of Salome” by Amelia B. Edwards

Amelia B. Edwards, author of "The Story of Salome". Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Salome da Costa was created by Amelia B. Edwards and appeared in “The Story of Salome” (Storm Bound, Tinsley’s Christmas Annual, 1867). Edwards (1831-1892) was an author who became notable in her lifetime as an Egyptologist. During a trip to Egypt she became horrified at the destruction wrought to monuments by looters, and so founded the Egypt Exploration Fund, one of the first major archeological societies.

“The Story of Salome” is about Harcourt Blunt, who is doing the Grand Tour of Europe with his friend Coventry Turnour. In Venice Turnour sees a lovely Jewish woman in a Oriental
merchandise shop in the Merceria, and Turnour, being the type who falls in love easily and often, is taken with her. Blunt goes with him to the shop and is forced to agree with Turnour that the woman, whose name he discovers is Salome, is beautiful. But Blunt discourages Turnour from pursuing the match, and within a week’s time Turnour agrees with him. The pair continue the tour and then separate in Greece, with Blunt continuing on to the East. A year later Blunt is back in Venice, doing some sketching. He recalls Salome and goes looking for her. The shop in the Merceria is gone, and Blunt, who does not even know Salome’s last name, decides to give up looking for her. He goes to the Jewish cemetery to do some sketches, and finds a newer cemetery beyond that, and in that cemetery he sees Salome, in her mourning clothes, sitting next to a grave.

They exchange glances, but Blunt is too intimidated by her beauty to say anything, and so he leaves. He burns with the desire to see her again and wants to know more about her, especially whose grave she was visiting, so he returns to the graveyard and takes a rubbing of the gravestone (which is in Hebrew, which Blunt can’t read) and sends it to a learned professor friend of his.

But his friend the professor is a slow correspondent, and Blunt is on fire to see Salome again, and so he returns to the cemetery once more, and there he sees her. They exchange glances again, and her expression is “so strange and piteous,” but he lacks the nerve to say anything to her, and so he leaves without speaking. He goes back to the cemetery the following day and, screwing his courage to the sticking point, strikes up a conversation with her. She points out the headstone and says, “A Christian soul lies there…laid in earth without one Christian prayer–with Hebrew rites– in a Hebrew sanctuary. Will you, stranger, perform an act of piety toward the dead?”

He agrees, and goes to find a clergyman and a stonecutter. Finding a clergyman is easy enough, and so portions of the Christian burial service are read over the grave. But no stonecutter will do the task of carving a grave in the headstone, as the Jews of Venice are now rich and powerful and such an act would offend them as well as being sacrilege and illegal, but Blunt does the job himself anyway. But she does not come to the cemetery that night to see. On returning to his hotel he discovers a letter from his friend the professor. The letter says that the headstone is for one Salome da Costa, who died the previous autumn. Confused, Blunt visits the chief rabbi of Venice, who gently breaks it to Blunt that there is no other Salome da Costa in Venice. Blunt wonders if Salome was a secret Christian, a question that troubles the rabbi but which the rabbi admits may have been the case. And so Blunt knows why Salome was so beautiful and why she had “that look of dumb entreaty in her eyes–that tone of strange remoteness in her voice.” He returns to Venice, year after year, hoping to see her, but he never does, and is sure that their place of meeting “will not be here.”

“The Story of Salome” is not a fear-inducing ghost story. Edwards didn’t write those. Some describe “Salome” as a love story, but there is no love affair to speak of. Blunt falls for the ghost of Salome, but how does she feel about him? She is surely grateful to him for showing her true faith to the world and in doing so freeing her ghost, but there is no evidence that she is in love with him, and in life she was unfriendly toward him. “Salome” is more in the genre of gentle or at least unthreatening ghost stories, similar to Edwards’ “Phantom Coach” and “The Four-Fifteen Express.” Terror is not Edwards’ intention with “Salome;” achieving some form of closure is. So there is a type of sentiment here that is lacking in the harder and more frightening ghost story.

“Salome” is not particularly moving–Salome herself is too vague as a character to move the reader–but there is a definite skill in the writing of the story. Edwards puts her personal knowledge of Venice to good use here, nicely recreating the city.

Some critics have seen “Salome” as anti-Semitic. Salome’s father is described as a “Shylock,” and Edwards treats the idea of a Jewish woman converting to Christianity in too blithe and approving a manner, but the Jewish characters are treated as individuals and not as interchangeable members of a single class. None of them speak in the anti-Semitic patois many Victorian authors applied to Jewish characters. It is hard to see any ill intent in “Salome.”

Salome da Costa, in life, was lovely, and a good daughter. But she wasn’t a good Jew, cherishing “some secret doubt” about the faith of her birth and wanting to be buried a Christian. After her death she could not rest quietly buried beneath Jewish rites in a Jewish cemetery, and so she haunted Harcourt Blunt until he could have her properly put to rest. As a ghost she is stunningly beautiful, hauntingly so, and wears her mourning black.

About the Quest for Unusual & Adventurous International Notations & Tales (QUAINT).

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