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.