Henry James,’An International Episode’

HENRY JAMES: ‘AN INTERNATIONAL EPISODE’.

America certainly is very different from England’

There was an excellent piece on ‘Daisy Miller’ on the Mookse and Gripse site here in 2010; ‘An International Episode’ can be seen as a companion piece. It was published in the Dec. 1878 (a few months after ‘Daisy Miller’) and Jan. 1879 editions of Cornhill Magazine in England. Both stories have James’s famous ‘international theme’ – the collisions between the old world of Europe and the new of America. Both very young female American protagonists attract flawed admirers: Daisy (who seems to be in her late teens) is admired by the Europeanised American, Winterbourne while they are in Switzerland and Italy; and twenty-year-old Bessie Alden, who meets the English Lord Lambeth with his cousin Percy Beaumont when they are visiting America.

Daisy represented that type of ‘new American woman’ that James was to portray so often, but in a guise that was innocently flirtatious, bright, beguiling and woefully ignorant of the social mores, history and culture of Europe; the snobbish forces of the old world conspire to defeat her. Bessie, on the other hand, is more similar to Isabel Archer: she’s a Boston intellectual and democrat.

The plot hinges upon the visit paid to America on business by the somewhat cynical lawyer Percy Beaumont (a worldly denizen, as his name suggests, of the beau monde), accompanied by the rather ‘stupid’ but handsome Lambeth. They are treated with open-hearted frankness and hospitality by the New York lawyer, Westgate, who invites them to stay with his ‘tremendously pretty’ young wife Kitty and her younger sister Bessie at their seaside house in Newport.

Lambeth, on arriving in America, is keen to flirt with the local girls, who seem much more forward than their English counterparts. Percy, however, warns him not to, and, ‘like a clever man’,

had begun to perceive that the observation of American society demanded a readjustment of one’s standard.

This is the story’s central theme; Lambeth is too dim to heed the advice.

James makes Bessie as spirited as Daisy, but less frivolous, ‘tremendously literary’; Kitty describes her to Percy as ‘extremely shy’ and ‘a charming species of girl’:

She is not in the least a flirt; that isn’t at all her line…She is very simple – very serious…She is very cultivated, not at all like me – I am not in the least cultivated. She has studied immensely and read everything; she is what they call in Boston “thoughtful”.

Even Lambeth thinks: ‘If she was shy she carried it off very well’. James seems not fully to make up his mind whether Bessie is as reserved or naive as she seems.

Kitty frequently denigrates America, saying that unlike the English the Americans had ‘no leisure class’, no history or ‘ruins’. Bessie, for her part, is said to be ‘very fond of Englishmen. She thinks there is nothing like them’. Unlike her sister, or the uneducated Daisy, she has an idealistic, naive reverence for the history, traditions and culture of England; she even believes its scenery is less ‘rough’ than America’s – a misconception she has developed through her reading.  Percy is (perhaps with good reason) sceptical about her supposed reserve, and fears that she’s ‘A rum sort of girl for Lambeth to get hold of!’

She rebukes Lambeth, however, for failing to take his responsibilities as a ‘hereditary legislator’ seriously. She is uncritically admiring of England’s ancient traditions, but enough of a democrat to deplore its hierarchical political system and emphasise the responsibilities of its privileged and unelected aristocratic ruling class:

‘I should think it would be very grand,’ said Bessie Alden, ‘to possess simply by an accident of birth the right to make laws for a great nation…It must be a great privilege…very inspiring…I think it’s tremendous.’

But when Bessie grills Percy about his cousin’s ‘rank’, ‘position’ and family she thoroughly alarms him by musing aloud ‘with more simplicity than might have been expected in a clever girl’ that when his father died Lambeth would become the Duke of Bayswater. Percy warns Lambeth: ‘that girl means to try for you.’

I find it difficult to reconcile the portrayal of Bessie as a studious, shy ‘blue-stocking’ with this cynical view of Percy’s (we’re told he’s a much shrewder ‘observer’ than Lambeth) that she’s a disingenuous gold-digger, a typical American looking to marry into the aristocracy of England, and fulfil her dream of living in an historic castle.

The intriguing aspect of this story is the way James shows up the differences between the two cultures, bringing out the merits and deficiencies in both. He carefully shows the frankness, spontaneity, honesty and friendliness of Americans, but there’s an undertone of brashness and vulgarity, too, a feature merely hinted at in the narrative: the young Englishmen are introduced ‘to everybody’ in Newport, ‘entertained by everybody, intimate with everybody.’

These differences are brought into relief when Kitty and Bessie visit England the following year, where Bessie becomes increasingly enlightened about and disillusioned by English society, which is thrown into unflattering relief by contrast with the more liberal, generous American people we saw depicted in New York and Newport. In England the character of Kitty undergoes a curious change; we now see her as more perceptive and wise than she appeared in Newport, where she openly flirted with Percy, and was described ambivalently as ‘spontaneous…very frank and demonstrative’, left ‘to do about as she liked’ by her workaholic husband.

Bessie is starry-eyed, delighted to see all that she had read about in the poets and historians:

 She was very fond of the poets and historians, of the picturesque, of the past, of retrospect, of mementos and reverberations of greatness; so that on coming into the great English world, where strangeness and familiarity would go hand in hand, she was prepared for a multitude of fresh emotions.

She’s also inclined to interest herself in Lambeth again, embodying as he does

an unconscious part of the antiquity, the impressiveness, the picturesqueness of England; and poor Bessie Alden, like many a Yankee maiden, was terribly at the mercy of picturesqueness.

Bessie’s character too seems to have become less ambivalent now she’s in England: the hint of calculating hypocrisy that Percy detected in Newport disappears.

Kitty advises her not to expect too much of Lambeth now he is back in England, where there are a ‘thousand differences’. Bessie is ‘too simple’ and trusting, Kitty suggests; ‘you are not in your innocent little Boston…Newport is not London.’ Lambeth has to pay more heed to ‘consequences’ in London, she warns, astutely aware that his aristocratic family will consider ‘a little American girl’ like Bessie too vulgarly ‘eager’ in pursuing him to England: they will assume, she says, ‘that you followed him’ – that Bessie had ‘come after’ him.

When Bessie describes the English as a ‘great people’, her sister explains they had become great ‘by dropping you when you have ceased to be useful’.

Bessie stubbornly persists in her faith in English integrity, seeing in Lambeth a representative of the ‘nobility’ of that country both in title and character. ‘She liked him for his disposition’, and finds him the epitome of the ‘simple, candid, manly, healthy English temperament’; she also alludes to his ‘bravery’ (though our ironic narrator wryly adds that she had never seen this ‘tested’), his ‘honesty and gentlemanliness’; that she also admires his ‘good looks’ is an indication that this Boston ‘blue-stocking’ is also red-blooded. She naively and romantically views him as

a handsome young man endowed with such large opportunities – opportunities she hardly knew for what, but, as she supposed, for doing great things – for setting an example, for exerting an influence, for conferring happiness, for encouraging the arts. She had a kind of ideal of conduct for a young man who should find himself in this magnificent position, and she tried to adapt it to Lord Lambeth’s deportment, as you might attempt to fit a silhouette in cut paper upon a shadow projected upon a wall.

Sadly this silhouette ‘refused to coincide with his lordship’s image’; in the flesh ‘there was little of the hero’ in him, and at such times even she perceives ‘he seemed distinctly dull.’ She upbraids him as she had in Newport for failing to ‘address the House’ and fulfil his responsibilities as ‘an hereditary legislator’ who ‘ought to know a great many things.’ Lambeth ‘ought to have a great mind – a great character’, she insists; his response is telling: ‘Depend upon it, that’s a Yankee prejudice.’ She admits she finds him ‘disappointing.’ Her idealistic image of the young aristocrat is becoming tarnished.

Gradually Bessie also comes to see the snobbish ways of English society in all their hideousness: ‘I don’t like your precedence’, she tells Lambeth; ‘I think it’s odious’. She means the English hierarchy, and the expectation in social situations that those of higher rank should leave before lesser mortals:

‘It is not the going before me that I object to,’ said Bessie; it is their thinking that they have a right to do it – a right that I should recognise.’

‘…I have no doubt the thing is beastly, but it saves a lot of trouble.’

‘It makes a lot of trouble. It’s horrid!’ said Bessie.

‘But how would you have the first people go?’ asked Lord Lambeth. ‘They can’t go last.’

He’s too obtuse to understand her indignation. ‘No’, she concludes, ‘you have a lovely country…but your precedence is horrid.’ She is unable to induce him to condemn ‘this repulsive custom.’

After Bessie’s epiphany she is able to see English ways for what they really are; as a consequence she is obliged to refuse Lambeth’s offer of marriage. After his ‘protectors’ – his mother and sister – attempt to bully Bessie and her sister out of accepting his offer to stay at the family castle, she realises that their snobbish prejudice against her lack of aristocratic lineage is insufferable. Her only regret, at the story’s end, as she tells Kitty, is that by spurning the son the mother and sister ‘will think they petrified us.’

Bessie’s destiny, then, is very different from Daisy’s: this time it’s American integrity that is shown as superior to old world hypocrisy and callous intransigence. Although Bessie, in maintaining her democratic principles and high-minded Bostonian ethics, may not defeat the forces of hereditary snobbery, she at least shows how a person with a functioning social conscience should behave.

Jayne Joso, ‘Soothing Music for Stray Cats’.

A common thread in my work seems to be an interest in debating what constitutes the right place and space in which to feel at ease, be it psychological, geographical, architectural… In Soothing Music for Stray Cats the main character dreams of finding better ways of negotiating his sense of the disconnectedness of modern life alongside the loss of a friend through suicide. This he attempts to do as he wanders the streets of London finding himself lost at times, at odds with the environment, the urbanity, and at times quite literally with the ground beneath his feet. I wanted to write about someone who managed to walk away from a life that was leaving them feeling empty.

Published by the Welsh imprint Alcemi, 2009

cover Soothing MusicI came to this novel – and the writer who was new to me, which is always a potentially exciting development – via this piece in 3:am.

Mark Kerr attends the funeral of his old school friend Jim, who’d failed to resist the siren call of the open window on the 20th floor of a tower block, and jumped. Mark consequently feels guilty that he wasn’t a better friend to him.

The rest of the novel portrays what it is that impels and prevents us from responding to that call, while acknowledging that we all hear it. That’s the strength of this novel. It’s a fitfully moving dramatisation of a young, mixed-up man’s attempt to make some kind of sense out of the deracinated mess of his life.

It’s also a solid psychogeophrapical account of the big city, with its throbbing trains in subterranean tunnels, brutal architecture and feral or privileged inhabitants, who subsist like rats and lords in the same locales.

Here’s Mark meeting the yuppie guy who’s advertised for a flat-sitter:

While I waited for him to answer I lit up again and wondered how come he was living in a flat and not a house, the guy was loaded, that much I do remember. He was born loaded. Those were his defaults: born loaded, and being a dick; often, and this is unfortunate, but it’s true to say, the two go hand-in-hand, the result being that the bastard winds up with an easy life and is termed, scientifically, as being: an easylife – and a ‘Class A’ tosser. I’d barely inhaled when the door shot open and Ron greeted me with this hearty hug as though in the past we’d been really close mates, and I suppose I should have felt pleased…

And so on. Chatty, engaging, but just a little too bigoted; the blend of low and high registers doesn’t quite somehow ring true. Yes, Ron is a tosser, but Mark is far too pleased with his superior status: his taste in music, his vaguely new-age politics and world view. He doesn’t really have any convictions; he’s a reactionary, a political naïve. My problem with this narrator is Mark thinks he’s cool. Not easy to pull this off in a novel. Joso makes a valiant effort, and very nearly succeeds. She’s good on tossers, that’s for sure. And street rats and depressed samurai student cricketers.

The title comes from a jazz album by Edgar Jones. ‘Nice one’, as Mark’s narrator suggests.

He’s found himself living in an unnamed northern town with a girl he calls Doris, a waif he’d taken pity on and now finds himself saddled with, and doing a dead-end job he hates, in a town he dislikes. Sound familiar? Jayne Joso taps with sporadic sensitivity into the ennui and existential angst of modern urban life in this novel.

It’s a touching love-story, too: he’s attracted to Jim’s sister, but lacks the capacity to express his feelings. He writes passionate love-postcards to her that he doesn’t send.

Redeeming features abound, and these give the novel its uplifting, heartening element: there are the ‘Three Musketeers’: a trio of street kids whom Mark befriends, and they rapidly shift from thieving, vandalising urban rats to supportive, vulnerable, equally distraught victims of the modern world’s crappiness. They redeem each other through kindness, cricket and zen.

The semi-literate narrator has an unusual penchant for (post-)modernist literature: references to Mrs Dalloway and Calvino abound. So how come his narrative voice is so limited?

Which brings me to …. the Japanese student, with his zen/samurai philosophy, another potential suicide. He’s a living exemplum of the old problem: why not end life that’s devoid of meaning? As Camus says, it’s the only logical alternative.

This is a charming, rather fey novel with a heart. I felt deeply moved at the end.

But I’d also have to say I have profound reservations about the demotic narrative voice, with its ‘me grandad’, ‘nice one’, ‘sorted’  street slang; ok, ‘a prize bleedin’ wanker’ is a justifiable way to describe such a person, but this is a dangerous approach – it appears at times too limited. Yes, I understand that’s how Mark would think and talk, but this rather patrician, over-literary reader finds this style too irritatingly colloquial. I love Huckleberry Finn, which employs the illiterate register through the filter of the senscient writer, in my view, more successfully, so  I don’t have a fundamental problem with novels written in a slangy voice; but I found the repeated tics of Mark’s repertoire a little tiresome – that and his industrial capacity for cigarettes: ‘then I Iit up’ is his refrain.

Don’t do this at home, kids.

An interesting novel, then. A voice to watch.

Raisins, Sultanas and Currants: etymological notes

I’ve been working on some Henry James material, and reading Jayne Joso. Meanwhile, here’s a brief seasonal etymological note…

I’m quite partial to cake, and with the Christmas variety looming I was thinking about dried fruit. It occurred to me that I didn’t really know the difference between raisins, sultanas and currants – so I looked them up in the OED [Collins and Chambers provided extra material]:

RAISIN

 A grape partially dried in sunlight or by artificial means, esp. used as an ingredient in cooking or in the production of wine.

First recorded use:

1302–3  …ij fraellis de fyges et Reysingis.

c1330  (▸?c1300)    Reinbrun (Auch.) in J. Zupitza Guy of Warwick (1891) 632 (MED),   Þai brouȝte..Fykes, reisyn, dates.

Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman reisin, reysin… etc., grape, cluster of grapes (c1130), dried grape (first half of the 14th cent.; French raisin  ) < post-classical Latin racimus   (a1310 in a British source) < classical Latin racēmus  [Greek ‘rhax, rhagos’, grape, berry]  It is uncertain whether the following earlier example should be interpreted as showing the Anglo-Norman or the Middle English word:

1278   in J. T. Fowler Extracts Acct. Rolls Abbey of Durham (1899) II. 486   In..ficubus, Raycinys, et novem lagenis vini.

Its pronunciation  as a homophone of reason   (i.e. in modern English /ˈriːz(ə)n/ ) is exemplified by puns in Shakespeare [and]… is still defended by Webster in 1828; it survived longest in U.S. regional usage (southern and south midland), where it is recorded as rare but current in c1960 ( Dict. Amer. Regional Eng. s.v. raisin).

SULTANA:

 In full, sultana raisin: A kind of small seedless raisin produced in the neighbourhood of Smyrna and other parts of Turkey, Greece, and Australia.

 Etymology:  < Italian sultana (Spanish sultana, Portuguese sultana) feminine of sultano  sultan [as in ruler of Turkey, from Arabic for ruler, king, or Aramaic, shultana, power] First recorded use in OED: 1841; with primary meaning of ‘wife or concubine of a sultan’, first recorded use was in 1585.

CURRANT:

  1. The raisin or dried fruit prepared from a dwarf seedless variety of grape, grown in the Levant; much used in cookery and confectionery.

Etymology:  Originally raisins of Corauntz, Anglo-Norman raisins de Corauntz, = French raisins de Corinthe raisins of Corinth [port in Greece from where they originally came]; reduced before 1500 to corauntz, coraunce, whence the later corantes, currants, and corans, currence, currans (found in literature to c1750, and still dial.). Some of the 16th cent. herbalists restored the original form Corinth, which has been affected by some writers down to the 19th cent.

First recorded use in OED: 1334; ?c1390  Lat it seeth togedre with powdor-fort of gynger..with raysons of Coraunte. a1616   Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale (1623 edn) iv. iii. 37   Three pound of Sugar, fiue pound of Currence, Rice.

While on the subject of food names, here’s

FILBERT: a. The fruit or nut of the cultivated hazel ( Corylus avellana).

Etymology:  probably short for filbert-nut (i.e. Philibert-nut), dialect French noix de filbert (Moisy Dict. Patois Normand) from being ripe near St. Philibert’s day, Aug. 22 (O.S.) [St Filbert was a 7C Frankish abbot; cf OHG filu-berht, very bright]. Compare German Lamberts-nuss. First recorded use in OED: c. 1400