The Haunting of Bly Manor is a gripping ghost story from start to finish, but its strongest point is the standalone eighth episode.
Titled "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" (after the Henry James story that inspired it) and shown entirely in black and white, the Netflix show's eighth episode finally reveals the backstory of Bly Manor and the Willoughby sisters. But who is Viola Willoughby, what was her inspiration to be in the show, and (perhaps most important) how did she die?
Warning! Spoilers for The Haunting of Bly Manor ahead!
Who is Viola Willoughby in The Haunting of Bly Manor?
In Episode 8 of The Haunting of Bly Manor, it's revealed the ghost that's been seen on the grounds is actually Viola Willoughby, who lived and died in the house during the 17th century. Her spirit was tied to the gowns she loved so much, and she made her husband promise they would be kept for her daughter. However, her jealous sister Perdita opened the trunk with the clothes instead, and Viola killed her from beyond the grave.
Viola's husband and daughter then threw the trunk into the lake out of precaution, but Viola's love for her daughter and the hope of seeing her again kept her tied to the house with a sort of gravity, where she is doomed to walk the halls looking for her. Over the 300+ years since Viola's death, her memory faded, causing her appearance to become blurred into a terrifying blank face.
Was Viola Willoughby a real person?
Viola's character is pulled from the Henry James short story The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, but her name is completely different. The Haunting of Bly Manor swapped the names of the sisters, so in the books, Perdita is the one who dies prematurely, while her sister Rosalind is the one who opens the trunk and meets an unfortunate end.
The first names aren't the only thing that changed. Henry James actually wrote two different versions of The Romance of Certain Old Clothes: one where the sisters had the last name Willoughby, and one where they had the last name Wingrave. This is the inspiration for the Willoughby sisters' name, but also the Wingrave family who inhabit the house in 1987 when the bulk of Bly Manor takes place.
How does Viola Willoughby die in The Haunting of Bly Manor?
The specific illness Viola suffers from is not mentioned in the series. However, she's seen coughing up blood and going very pale, all symptoms of the classic Victorian disease consumption (now known as tuberculosis). Known as the White Plague, this disease was used to kill off heroines in all kinds of literature, from Mimi in the opera La Bohème to Fantine in Les Miserables. She doesn't die of tuberculosis, though. A "mercy killing" smothering by her own sister Perdita is what finally kills her.
But it's important to note that Viola doesn't really die. Her love for her family — and her rage at her sister — not only keeps her on the mortal plane, but it also prevents everyone else who dies in Bly Manor from ever truly leaving the grounds as well.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is now streaming on Netflix.