A Divorce Novel: Edith Wharton, The Children (1928)

‘The incurable simplicity of the corrupt’: Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The Children

Edith Wharton’s nineteenth novel The Children, published in 1928, is less impressive than the others by her that I’ve posted about here recently: The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. It’s still interesting, and highly unusual in its central theme – the attraction an older man feels for a girl who at the time they meet is not yet fifteen.

Martin Boyne is a globe-trotting engineer who takes on projects in exotic places.
Wharton carefully presents him from the start as a ‘critical, cautious man… whom nobody could possibly associate with the romantic or the unexpected.’

This complacent timidity is about to be sorely tested when a troupe of seven children with their nanny boards his ship and he first sees the eldest child, Judith, who acts as surrogate mother to her siblings and ‘steps’, as the offspring of her feckless parents’ numerous other marriages and acquired stepchildren are known.

“Jove – if a fellow was younger!”
Men of forty-six do not gasp as frequently at the sight of a charming face as they did at twenty; but when the sight strikes them it hits harder…it rather disturbed [Boyne] to be put off his quest by anything so out of his present way as excessive youth and a rather pathetic grace.

My Virago Modern Classics edition

My Virago Modern Classics edition

Wharton is often unfavourably compared to her friend and mentor, Henry James, and at times she did indeed imitate his sophisticated psychological probings of his characters’ subtly described thoughts and actions, and he too was to explore the girl-woman type in a corrupt adult world in stories like ‘What Maisie Knew’. As the above extract shows, however, she writes here in a plain, even colloquial style, and makes little attempt to explore her male protagonist’s musings; they are simply presented to us as free indirect discourse, with no narrative comment. Neither does she enter into Judith’s mind: we’re simply told frequently how ‘charming’ she is, and are given her animated, precocious but often immature dialogue.

This sets up the central feature of the novel: Boyne’s vacillating motives and impulses are largely a mystery even to himself, and it is this that gives the novel its most compelling aspect.

Boyne quickly learns that these are the children of Cliffe Wheater and his wife, whom he remembers as ‘rather aimlessly abundant’ – an apt description, we later learn – both of whom he had known at Harvard and subsequently in ‘the old social dance of New York’. Wheater had since become ‘one of the showiest of New York millionaires’ whose only interests since his marriage had been in ‘Ritz Hotels and powerful motor-cars’ – and a ‘steam-yacht’.

It’s the depiction of this egregiously selfish, idle and shallow rich set that’s another of the most interesting and successful features of this uneven novel. They pass their time trying to stave off boredom by following each other from one fashionable Mediterranean watering hole to another, indulging in ‘wasteful luxury’ on the quest for pleasure, while flirting, divorcing and sleeping with each other and neglecting their children. This is very much a Divorce Novel, dealing with ‘the compromises and promiscuities of modern life.’

Their children are allowed to run wild, largely untutored. Judith, we learn, is barely literate, and one of her closest friends had killed herself while her drug-addled mother and Judith’s were ‘heaven knows where’.

Boyne is shocked to learn, early on, that one of the Wheater children, Blanca, had been engaged ‘to the lift-boy at Biarritz’ when at the time of meeting her she’s ‘barely eleven’. Judith blithely points out that she’d been engaged to ‘a page at a skating-rink’ at about the same age. The guidance that their corrupt parents should have provided is non-existent, and they have become superficially sophisticated, but profoundly morally adrift – like their parents.

Not surprisingly the Wheater children and their antics dominate the novel. The trouble is I didn’t find them at all amusing or charming. There is some distasteful national stereotyping about the two who have an Italian parent – they are lazily presented therefore as volatile and passionate (‘”don’t be foreign”’, their nurse admonishes one of them at one point – I don’t find this as funny as Wharton seems to expect me to). The ones with circus-performer parents are forever engaging in acrobatics. They are consistently depicted with just their one identifying characteristic. Blanca is obsessed with ‘chic’ couture dresses; her twin, Terry, is studious and sickly. Zinnie, whose mother is a glamorous movie-star, is vain, sly and selfish.

Their dialogue is set out with toe-curling whimsy: the first example of many occurs when Martin offers the children oranges as an incentive to visit a cultural site and this exchange ensues:

“An’masses of zoranges?” Zinnie stipulated, with a calculating air…and Bun…turn[ed] handsprings on the deck, [and] shrieked out: “Noranges! Noranges! NORANGES!”

Although like Martin we feel sympathy for their plight, left to fend for themselves as their fickle and crassly materialistic parents pursue their hedonistic and amorous adventures – they are aptly called ‘hotel children’ – their histrionic antics become tediously repetitive, their attitude importunate, manipulative and greedy, as cartoonish as their parents’ .

The plot is driven by Judith’s fierce maternal devotion to her little brood, and her passionate attempts to keep them together, while their various parents change partners and threaten to take back the offspring who originally belonged to them.

When Judith and her wild bunch of siblings burst into Boyne’s tranquil, adult world, he loses all sense of decorum and judgement, and takes on the role of guardian, apparently unaware of the probable true motive for his doing so: his sexual desire for adolescent Judith. Here he is as early as p. 35, when his attempt to cultivate in her a love of art and culture by visiting an Italian cathedral has ended in failure – she’s both bored and bemused by it:

…he was disappointed, for he was already busy at the masculine task of endowing the woman of the moment with every quality which made life interesting to himself.

“Woman – but she’s not a woman! She’s a child.” His thinking of her as anything else was the crowning absurdity of the whole business.

Here Wharton’s narrator offers a rare incisive comment on Boyne’s moral confusion, though even here it can be seen as his own self-castigating thoughts.

Even Rose points out to him that he’s in love with Judith, but he refuses to entertain the possibility. The portrayal of this pretty but vacuous girl is troubling: she’s too naïve and ingenuous to convince us that Boyne is attracted to her mind; she’s innocently childish and ignorant, despite her premature exposure to corrupt, amoral adult behaviour and decadence. Neither is she a Gigi type who will blossom under his tutelage. She has a certain impulsive charm, but Boyne’s real motive is clouded in his own mind.

One of the most peculiar scenes, which arouses in me a certain disquiet, is the one in which Judith turns to Boyne in a crisis and he plies her with two cocktails and a cigarette, and then realises this may have been ill-advised. What was he thinking?

Even worse is when Rose’s 60-year-old lawyer visits and Boyne watches him watching Judith as she sleeps during a country picnic, projecting his own desire jealously on to the slightly older man. The narrative as usual gives us his thoughts, which begin with his reflection that the girl ‘looks almost grown up – she looks kissable’. Then he turns his gaze on lawyer Dobree, the other man:

…it was manifest that Dobree’s thoughts were racing; and Boyne knew they were the same thoughts as his own. The discovery shocked him indescribably.

This duplicity is compounded when, that evening, Boyne tells Rose his suspicions:

“Dobree looks at her like a dog licking his jaws over a bone.”
“Martin — !”
“Sorry. I never could stand your elderly men who look at little girls.”

After this adolescent outburst Boyne goes on to ask sarcastically why Dobree doesn’t ask Judith to marry him if he’s so ‘dotty’ about the girl. He’s dumbfounded when Rose tells him Dobree has just proposed to her. The ‘tumult of his own veins’ turns to confusion at this announcement, and he laughs:

[but] his laugh had simply mocked his own power of self-deception, and uttered his relief at finding himself so deceived.

Rose goes on to tell him that Dobree said to her that he thought Boyne was in love with Judith; Boyne is furious:

“Shows what kind of a mind he must have. Thinking that way about a child – a mere child – and about any man, and decent man…as if I might take advantage of my opportunities to – to fall in love with a child in the schoolroom!”

Even Boyne at this point realises he’s protesting too much, as that little hesitation so tellingly indicates, and he sinks into a chair, ‘hot, angry, ashamed’.

Although the hedonistic selfishness of the parents’ circle is portrayed with venomous narrative power, none of the characters is rounded or fully convincing – they are types, not individuals. Only Boyne, who focalises the story throughout, comes across with any kind of complexity. But ultimately his self-evasions, emotional timidity and sexual murkiness are more annoying than sympathy-evoking.

That this worldly, middle-aged man should ditch a sophisticated and beautiful woman his own age, with whom we are often told he’s been in love most of his adult life, in favour of a callow child with a mildly pretty face and no depth of character, is a situation that’s presented with inconsistent success, as I hope my quotations reveal. Judith is no Maisie.

There is some excellent writing, however, and the novel is worth reading. For example when Judith escapes with her brood in search of Boyne’s protection, he and Rose are incredulous at the circumstances the girl describes that led her to adopt such an extreme course; she sums these up with the precocious perception of which she’s capable when examining the amorality of her parents’ circle:

“If children don’t look after each other, who’s going to do it for them? You can’t expect parents to, when they don’t know how to look after themselves.”

There’s poignancy in this child’s premature wisdom, expressed with such heartbreaking lucidity.

I’ll finish with one passage that is worthy of the earlier, more satisfying novels of Wharton’s that I’ve read. Here is Boyne about to meet Rose in the flesh after the interval of five years during which he’d travelled and worked, and she’d been widowed:

He could never think of her [Rose] as having been really young, immaturely young, like this girl about whom they were exchanging humorous letters, and who, in certain other ways, had a precocity of experience so far beyond Mrs. Sellars’s. But the question of a woman’s age was almost always beside the point. When a man loved a woman she was always the age he wanted her to be; when he had ceased to, she was either too old for witchery or too young for technique.

That aphorism with its symmetrically patterned syntax is a rare moment of an omniscient, observing narrative voice commenting with almost Wildean wit on Boyne’s psycho-sexual ambivalence, and it shrewdly shows him as both clever and perceptive while blind to his own defects of character: he goes on to admit to ‘a faint return of the apprehension he always felt when he thought of his next meeting with Mrs. Sellars.’ Maybe he was never really going to commit to her, and the dalliance with pert, pretty little Judith was more of an excuse to run away, and to resume his melancholy, solitary existence far away from messy human entanglements.

These are my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear if any of you had a different reaction.

Others to write about this novel include heavenali here, and Tom’s blog Wuthering Expectations discusses Wharton’s short stories in several perceptive posts here.

He had missed the flower of life: Edith Wharton, ‘The Age of Innocence’

The names of the characters aren’t exactly subtle in this vitriolic portrait of upper-class New York City society in the 1870s (though the novel, Edith Wharton’s twelfth, was first published in 1920): the protagonist’s is the doubly Jamesian Newland Archer, while his pretty but vacuous fiancée is May Welland (may well land) – tellingly described as a ‘young girl who knew nothing and expected everything’.

Virago Modern Classics edition

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics paperback edition

The plot is equally straightforward: the upright (almost smugly so) Archer, from one of that small, intermarrying set of wealthy socialite families to which May also belongs, has his complacently mapped-out life upset when the beautiful, troubled Countess Olenska comes back into his circle. He had known her before her marriage to a dashing but morally corrupt Polish count collapsed, amid stories of her husband’s brutality and serial infidelity. She escaped back to the city of her birth, where she believed her family and former friends would support her. Instead they treat her as a pariah, as if she is the guilty one; in their world it is not done for wives to desert their philandering husbands – they’re supposed to endure everything with a sweet smile and pretend all is well.

It’s a more plot-driven novel than The House of Mirth, about which I wrote recently. The style is less aphoristic and adorned, too; this makes its tone of moral outrage more powerful. Ultimately, however, I found the heroic stoicism and indomitable sense of honour of Newland Archer a little hard to take. He professes to be disgusted by the hypocrisy of his male peers, and therefore finds it impossible to compromise the honour of the woman he truly loves, or his own sense of duty. Here’s an early narrative comment about him that hints at this thinly concealed arrogance:

In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York gentility…Singly they betrayed their inferiority; but grouped together they represented “New York”, and the habit of masculine solidarity made him accept their doctrine in all the issues called moral.

That he continues to live in this corrupt world of venal indulgence makes his honourable stance seem less noble. It’s not so much that he can’t act as immorally as everyone else – he seems almost to lack any kind of truly moral agency.

It’s an interesting and largely rewarding read, however. There are still some wonderfully witty and penetrating comments on American mores and society, like this on the very first page; the privileged rich are leaving the opera house, which they frequent largely to see what the rest of their set are up to, and to be seen and gossip about the latest peccadillos. The narrator points out that it’s better to catch a ‘Brown coupé’ after the performance than to wait for one’s own coachman –

It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.

Newland is swayed by generous thoughts about the lack of freedom enjoyed by women in his social circle, but

Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern.

 He can readily foresee that his marriage would become

What most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

 And so it turns out: his and May’s marital existence is one of ‘deadly monotony’, in which appearance was everything, and Newland is unable to break free from what’s expected of him –

It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free…

It’s a mad world they live in, and there seems no impulse to do anything to change it:

In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs…

 More echoes of the Master there (also, weirdly, of Saussure). Maybe Edith Wharton was too angry with that dull group of the tediously wealthy in which she’d moved (until she could stand it no more and decamped to France for the latter part of her life, ditching her good-for-nothing husband on the way) to come closer to emulating the penetrating gaze and measured psychological insight of her friend Henry James.

The ending is shocking, and aptly rounds off this withering indictment of the New York social set that would soon be even more tellingly portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.

 

Edith Wharton, ‘The House of Mirth’

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The House of Mirth (1905): Virago Modern Classics edition

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth (Ecclesiastes, 7:4)

House of M coverIt’s fitting that I sit down to start writing this piece on the anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth – Jan. 24, 1862. She was born into that ‘aristocracy of wealth and tradition’ that Leon Edel describes in his Life of Henry James, whose influence on Wharton’s writing was immense (they first met in 1903, when she was in her fortieth year and he was 60; he found her refined but ‘a little dry’). She never needed to work for a living, having inherited a large fortune. But her circumscribed world of wealthy cosmopolitan socialites was beginning to succumb to the arrivistes who are represented in this novel by the sinister entrepreneur Rosedale – a Jewish stockbroker/speculator whose depiction as a social climber is tainted by the anti-Semitism considered acceptable at the time.

The privileged, luxurious Manhattan world – ‘this crowded, selfish world of pleasure’– was imbued with a hypocritical sense of traditional decencies, strict social codes based on superficial appearances and good manners whilst murkily compromised deeper down.

At the time of their first meeting in 1903, James was working on The Golden Bowl, his intense and complex psychological portrait of a flawed aristocratic marriage, and its impact on a naïve young woman who learns and grows in maturity as a consequence of her husband’s venality. It’s interesting that Wharton’s House of Mirth, published a year after James’s novel, though set in New York, not England (where James had settled, and where his novel was set), has a plot and themes in some ways similar, but different in important ways. Even her title derives from the same book of the Old Testament.

Portrait of Lily Bart (via WikiCommons, public domain)

Portrait of Lily Bart (via WikiCommons, public domain)

As I have written in earlier posts, James was interested in the restricted, frustratingly limited prospects of the ‘American girl’ in a society that demanded of her little more than ornamental charms with which she would be expected to snare a wealthy husband, and which deplored any kind of independence of spirit – this would have been considered subversive. The ‘flatness and futility’ of fashionable New York was what Edith Wharton knew intimately; she, like James, opted for the woman’s view of it, but with a unique insight that he could only imagine. She had struggled for moral and artistic independence in a society in which women were more at the mercy of convention than men; she was able to depict a woman who was born to be an ‘artistic object’:

A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart (quoted by Nina Bawden, in the Introduction to the VMC edition).

The novel opens when Lily is 29 and still unmarried. Her father had foolishly lost his fortune and both he and her mother are dead. She lives with her unloving aunt in New York, who distributes to her niece sufficient to get by, but which is never enough for extravagant Lily, who had been spoiled as a girl, and who naturally assumed that her beauty deserved luxury and indulgence. As a consequence she is ‘horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money’, as she confesses to Lawrence Selden in the opening chapter. She was ‘not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty’, and has a ‘naturally lively taste for splendour’, she reflects later. Selden is the novel’s cowardly hero, and Lily makes the fatal error of believing that his self-satisfied, sanctimonious lectures on the vulgarity and venality of the society they both circulate arise from his truly virtuous moral rigour. What she fails to perceive is that this supercilious attitude is a pose; at heart he hypocritically enjoys the social life he outwardly scorns. They share a mutual attraction, but she considers him unsuitable marriage material because he works for a living (as a lawyer), and isn’t rich enough for her needs. When she needs him most he lets her down cravenly.

She confides in him, in this early and ill-advised tête-à-tête (to visit a bachelor unchaperoned in his rooms, smoke his cigarettes and chat intimately like this would be considered ill-bred, ‘fast’ and morally compromising) that her only hope, as her financial situation reaches crisis-point – she has amassed huge gambling debts on top of her usual extravagances with jewellery and clothing – is to ‘calculate and contrive’ to marry a rich man. But her looks are beginning to fade, and her plight is becoming desperate.

That she has failed to catch a rich husband so far is a result of her impetuous nature and naïve habit of pursuing immediate gratification, over-confident that something better will always turn up. Consequently she has let go several big, wealthy fish at the last minute in order to indulge a fleetingly more enticing whim. This childish recklessness is tempered by an intermittent but genuine moral sense of the ‘great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at’, with its ‘vacuous routine’ of trivial parties and rancid gossip. Lily would love to have that freedom which Seldon calls ‘the republic of the spirit’, but as a woman this is not accessible to her.

There are several estimable reviews of this novel online (links at the end), which summarise plot and characters thoroughly. I shall restrict my remarks now to the style of the writing, which in my view is the novel’s strength. The plot, skilfully constructed and pacy, with dramatic reversals and a colourful cast of wealthy, leering men and scheming, treacherous women, is perhaps at times a little contrived and strained: poor Lily’s ‘hateful fate’ is made clear from the start. As Jonathan Franzen suggests in his piece (see below), we read on largely because we sympathise with her, despite her often exasperating selfishness and childish impetuosity, her contradictory blend of an ingenuous naturalness (‘sylvan freedom’, Selden considers it) and shimmering artificiality. There’s a lot of Becky Sharp about her: she uses her charm and beauty to attract a rich man, but lacks the ruthlessness of the other women in her social circle which would provide her with the security she craves. Even in extremity there’s a courageous spirit in her:

Misfortune had made Lily supple instead of hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one.

 Even though she has the means with which to blackmail her way out of her ultimate crisis, she refuses to stoop to such behaviour – her own destruction is the outcome. When she’s betrayed and cruelly shunned by society, and staring into the abyss, Lily shows a heroic, noble spirit, even when confronting ‘the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations’ of the poverty she has no resources to cope with. As one of her circle, Mrs Fisher, says of Lily’s fluctuating fortunes:

‘Sometimes…I think it’s just flightiness – and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for.’

I’d like to finish with a look at some of the  barbed, epigrammatic narrative comments. This is an early description of Lily about to stalk her prey – a shy wealthy dullard called Percy Gryce:

She had the art of giving self-confidence to the embarrassed, but she was not equally sure of being able to embarrass the self-confident.

Such parallel structures can seem trite, but the chiasmus here is wittily shrewd.

Character portraits are often Wildean in their acerbity: this is the socialite Mrs George Dorset:

…she was like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room.

 Finally, a passage which caustically reveals the moral lesson Lily begins to learn at the novel’s midway stage, as her plans go awry and her reputation suffers:

She was realising for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.

 

There are numerous reviews online; I’d recommend Trevor Berrett’s post at the Mookse and Gripes website, and Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article. I’ve just read JacquiWine’s post and find I’ve quoted several of the same passages! Hers is a judicious reading of this classic novel.

 

 

 

 

 

Ivy Compton-Burnett, ‘A Family and a Fortune’

Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novel A Family and a Fortune, published in 1939, is the only one of her twenty novels that I have read so far, but from what I have gleaned from other reviews and articles about her, they are all mordantly witty, surgical explorations, written almost entirely in the form of elegantly expressed dialogue, of the painful vicissitudes of comfortably well-off country gentry at a late Victorian-early Edwardian period of English history. Hilary Mantel, for example, refers to each one as ‘a gavotte on needles’.

The plot is complicated and eventful. It concerns the dramatic impact on the Gaveston family (and their circle) of a large inheritance; there are several deaths, a broken engagement, and various other twists and narrative turns.

In ‘A conversation between Margaret Jourdain and ICB’ in the Turtle Point Press ‘Traveltainted’ online literary magazine here (MJ was ICB’s housemate-companion for much of her adult life; she died in 1951), Compton-Burnett cheerfully agrees that she has very little interest in ‘exposition and description’, and prefers to hear her characters’ voices. Authorial comments or free indirect discourse are sparse; much of the wickedly pleasurable experience of reading this novel derives from the brilliantly orchestrated, extended sequences of internecine warfare conducted through acerbically epigrammatic drawing-room or dining-room family conversations in the Gavestons’ large country house.

Unfortunately for me, this makes it almost impossible to demonstrate the exquisite skill shown by the writer, for each speech depends on the whole context of the entire conversation, for each one is intricately woven into the whole sequence of discourse; to quote a short extract out of context would not do the longer sections justice.

Often it is difficult to determine who is speaking to whom, for the characters tend to converse in fairly large family groups, without the author ascribing a name to the speaker, or making it clear which of the group they are addressing. This means one has to read closely and attentively, and often, I found, re-read – but it’s an effort that I recommend you make, for the dialogue has some of the wit of Wilde, the insight and wisdom of Austen, and the technical dexterity and psychological subtlety of Henry James – with a touch of the bleakness and darkness found in later masters of suggestive, elliptical dialogue such as Pinter and, weirdly, Beckett himself.

What I can do is to quote a few sections in an attempt to illustrate some of the other rewarding aspects of what second son (of three) Mark Gaveston calls ‘our family drama’ (the Freudian note is apposite). His late-middle-aged father, Edgar Gaveston, is married to Blanche, whose sister Matilda (Matty), two years her senior, comes to live, along with her elderly father, Oliver, and her much-put-upon companion, Miss Griffin, in the Lodge House on the Gaveston estate, having come down in the world and grudgingly sought charitable refuge. Far from showing gratitude for Blanche and her family’s generosity, Matty displays nothing but venomous selfishness and resentful self-pity for her straitened circumstances, and she verbally skewers each of the Gavestons remorselessly, while bullying the unfortunate Miss Griffin, and anyone else who has the misfortune to enter into her sight. The Gaveston family is completed by the presence with them for much of his adult life of Edgar’s kindly, slightly younger bachelor brother, Dudley, whose inheritance of a large fortune precipitates the action of the novel.

The cover of my beautifully designed PMC edition of 1962

The cover of my beautifully designed PMC edition of 1962

Character description is one of the only occasions when the author ventures into authorial comment of any kind. When Matty first appears at the Gaveston house, this is what we are told about her:

 A fall from a horse had rendered her an invalid, or rather obliged her to walk with a stick, but her energy seemed to accumulate, and to work itself out at the cost of some havoc within her…She had never met a man [ie potential marriage material] whom she saw as her equal, as her conception of herself was above any human standard. She may also have had some feeling that a family would take her attention and that of others from herself. [This portrait is frequently shown to be accurate in Matty’s conversation later, for example:]‘Dear, dear, it is a funny thing, a family. I can’t help feeling glad sometimes that I have had no part in making one.’

Dialogue is not always unnaturally poised, literary and stylised, as most critics have complained – although it is often baroque and deviously allusive; here’s Matty, talking to the assembled characters around her, when Dudley’s huge inheritance has been revealed:

‘I too might have been left a fortune…Well, a man was in love with me or said he was; and I could see it for myself, so I cannot leave it out; and I refused him – well, we won’t dwell on that; and when we got that behind, he wanted to leave me all he had. And I would not let him, and we came to words, as you would say, and the end of it was that we did not meet again. And a few days afterwards he was thrown from his horse and killed. And the money went to his family, and I was glad that it should be so, as I had given him nothing, and I could not take and not give. But what do you say to that, as a narrow escape from a fortune?’

This speech could hardly be simpler in structure or vocabulary, with its multiple paratactic ‘ands’ and ‘buts’, those colloquial largely monosyllabic expressions and the repeated discourse marker ‘well’. This shows how the author’s skill resides not just in the beautifully wrought, subtly nuanced prose conversations, but in her ability to reveal character indirectly like this in passages of realistically, apparently straightforwardly ingenuous, dialogue. But Matty’s bitter irony at the end of this speech is breathtaking. Whether she intends to reveal so much of her sordid nastiness, or realises she’s doing so, is part of the ambiguous effect. Did she even have such an experience, or is she just making up a story about another horse accident victim to highlight her own devious self-depiction as a worse sufferer, who persists in projecting a monstrously distorted image of herself as a martyr, a long-suffering saint?  And Compton-Burnett herself acknowledges in the interview cited earlier that wrong-doing in a novel is more ‘spectacular’ and attracts more sympathy from a reader than virtue, and makes a ‘more definite picture or event’; the villain tends to ‘usurp the hero’s place’. Egocentric Matty seeks revenge on the whole world for what she perceives as the injustices life has meted out to her.

Money – a central theme and topic of conversation – is also a device for revealing characters’ flaws, defects and occasional merits (Edgar’s daughter Justine’s stern moral probity and her little brother Aubrey’s adolescent but precocious wit, for example), as Dudley’s inheritance is disbursed to then withdrawn from the other Gavestons with the plot’s rollercoaster swoops; this is Dudley, on announcing he’s to give his brother’s rancid sister-in-law, Matty, a small allowance out of his inheritance – but a generous sum nonetheless:

‘Two hundred a year is a tenth of two thousand, and it must be mean to offer anyone a tenth of what you have. It sounds as if I were keeping nine times as much for myself. I hope Matty will not hear before she goes. People don’t resent having nothing nearly as much as too little. I have only just found that out. I am getting the knowledge of the rich as well as their ways. And of course anyone would resent being given a tenth.’

‘Riches are a test of character and I am exposed’, he says soon after, when Matty writes him an unctuously ambiguous note to thank him. He is one of the few characters to emerge with much dignity. All the others reveal more or less unflattering aspects of themselves as they respond to the fluctuations of their fortunes in the light of Dudley’s (and hence their own) changes of circumstance. Watching this process unfold is fascinating and often darkly, deliciously humorous.

The dialogue distributes ambiguities, multi-faceted, hinted-at underlying meanings and innuendo, lurking insidiously below the apparently innocent surface remarks; these in turn often lead to discussion and metapragmatic debate as to what the speaker might really have meant, and how their words could or should be interpreted. It’s a heady mix.

An example of this: Dudley has announced his departure to arrange some legal matters, and his thirty-year-old niece, Edgar’s only daughter Justine – a wonderfully drawn, outspoken character, who has some stirring verbal duels with formidable Aunt Matty – has asked for one of the menfolk to take her aunt’s arm to help the self-proclaimed invalid; Matty snaps,

‘I think I may stay here, dear. I am not so able-bodied as to keep running away on any pretext…’

‘I think it would be better to forget your office [senior woman of the household at that point] for once. Too duenna-like a course is less kind than it sounds.’

‘It did not sound kind, dear. And the words are not in place. There is nothing duenna-like about me. I have no practice in such things. I have been a person rather to need them from other people.’

 As always she wrings every last drop of self-pity out of a speech intended for once by Justine to be attentive to her aunt’s needs, and a dramatic situation in which her family – even the perennially exasperated Justine – are trying to be helpful.

‘Yes, I daresay, Aunt Matty [Justine replies]. I did not mean the word to be a barbed one.

Oh, I think you probably did, Justine, and doesn’t Matty let you know it!

After one of the final critical plot developments, Dudley is stung into an uncharacteristically critical and heartfelt outburst against his brother Edgar, who has unapologetically and shamelessly stolen Dudley’s fiancée Maria Sloane from him to replace his deceased wife, and Maria is forced to contemplate the awkward position she now occupies, in another rare moment of authorial comment; this is Dudley to Edgar:

‘You may be glad to be left with your wife, and I shall be glad to leave you. I shall be glad, Edgar. I have always been alone in your house, always in my heart. You had nothing to give. You have nothing. There is nothing in your nature. You did not care for Blanche. You do not care for your children. You have not cared for me. You have not even cared for yourself, and that has blinded us. May Maria deal with you as you are, and not as I have done.’

Maria stood apart, feeling she had nothing to do with the scene, that she must grope for its cause in a depth where different beings moved and breathed in a different air. The present seemed a surface scene, acted over a seething life, which had been calmed but never dead. She saw herself treading with care lest the surface break and release the hidden flood, felt that she learned at that moment how to do it, and would ever afterwards know…

This may not be a novel to rank with Austen or James, but it’s not far off, in my view. But I think for many it will be an acquired taste. I’d be interested to hear what others who’ve read it think.

 

 

 

 

The tenacity of disreputable avenues

The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick (NYRB Classics, paperback, 2010)

It’s a new academic term and I’m teaching several new courses. They all need researching and preparation, so my time for blogging is even more constrained than usual. My posts will probably be sporadic for a while. But I’d like to keep some sort of record going of highlights of what I’ve been reading and doing now that autumn is here.

I mentioned recently that I’d not enjoyed Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter as much as other things of his that I’ve read. Then I had a negative experience with William Gerhardie’s Of Mortal Love.

Since then I’ve whizzed rapidly through the new William Boyd novel, Sweet Caress, but considered it, like the Gale, too plot-centred and episodic. Like Any Human Heart it traces the whole life experience of its central character – a photographer named Amory Clay, but unlike the story of Logan Mountstuart (who is said to have been based on Gerhardie) this novel failed to engage me. The reviewer in the Guardian was much more impressed: link here.

E Hardwick NY StoriesNext I read The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick, a typically handsome edition by the reliable NYRB Classics people. In Feb. last year I wrote about her autobiographical novel, Sleepless Nights, a fragmentary, structurally audacious work that was both challenging and rewarding (they reminded me of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, published just three years earlier). These stories are also well written: the quality and style is varied, but on the whole I enjoyed them immensely.

There’s an informative and interesting Introduction by Darryl Pinckney, who points out that Hardwick (1916-2007) struggled to produce long forms of fiction, and published very few shorter works – partly because of her obsessive perfectionism in her language (the Flaubertian insistence on the ‘mot juste’), and a tendency to feel that she was better suited to non-fiction. The stories originally appeared in prestigious publications like The New Yorker and Partisan Review.

The earliest stories, dating from 1946-56, reflect the themes of exile and flight from her small-town Kentucky youth from which she came to feel alienated (she writes of ‘the family demons’ and the brutal ‘hostilities’ of the familial in the story ‘Evenings At Home’), and of escape to the big city – where I sense she also never felt fully at ease or at home. Nevertheless she is intrigued by the buzz and dynamic energy of metropolitan life, and portrays it in shrewdly observant, often sensuously textured prose that is poetic in its cadences, but tends towards a detachment that can sometimes chill.

Later stories begin to show the avant-garde style and narrative fluidity that I posted about in my piece on Sleepless Nights. They often concern women whose lives’ central concerns were the men with whom they became romantically involved, and who generally disappointed them or caused as much emotional turmoil as fulfilment. Maybe this is at least partially a consequence of her turbulent marriage (1949-72) to the mercurial Robert Lowell. There’s this wonderfully witty aphorism in the story ‘Yes And No’:

Nothing so easily unbalances the sense of proportion in a woman of artistic ambitions as the dazed love and respect of an ordinary man.

At the story’s end she reflects caustically on the man who is eternally ‘not quite good enough’.

Later pieces become more impressionistic and start to adopt a skewed first-person narrative voice, offering verbal portraits of people in the urban setting that she inhabits and shares with them, but which she anatomises at times with clinical scrupulousness and curiosity, but with with an artist’s perception. There are frequent flashes of deceptively unflashy wit and weird obliqueness that are reminiscent of some of Robert Walser’s work (like his sketches in Berlin Stories, also published by NYRB).

Let me try to give a flavour of Hardwick through some quotations from across the collection: I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts were if you’ve read it.

There are some deftly Jamesian touches, for example, in ‘The Classless Society’: the character called Dodo had hunted for an aristocratic English husband in Florence, where she’d lived ‘in an inexpensive pensione’ for several years without finding a suitable candidate, or even ‘an attractive, penniless Italian of noble birth.’ As the literary-academic characters around her vie with each other to appear witty and intellectual, Dodo struggles:

“Who are you?” Dodo suddenly said to [Clarence]. “Are you terribly brilliant, and all that?”

 “Yes, I must confess I am,” Clarence replied, with an elaborate flourish of self-mockery. “I am very frightening with my great brilliance.”

 Dodo did not laugh. She was as free of irony as a doll. A mind like that, Clarence thought giddily, lives by sheer superstition.

 I like the subtle shifts of register and viewpoint here: it’s a technique (focalization) handled almost as skilfully here as anything in Austen. There’s the omniscient narrator’s presentation for us of the slightly dim, ingenuous Dodo, but it’s the cruel arrogance of Clarence that Hardwick is more interested in, hence the shift to free indirect thought, but all is tempered by the narrator’s deft insertion of the stiletto-like adverb ‘giddily’.

That passage also has a characteristically acerbic simile that reveals and dissects the character; here are two more – one slightly cliched, the other working harder, in ‘The Purchase’: Frazier is a young Turk ‘action’ painter, trying to goad an older, more conservative but also more established artist called Palmer, whose star is fading, into buying one of his canvases.

“So?” Thomas Frazier said, with a negligent, burly composure that neither assented nor disagreed. A profound and bullying impudence emanated from Frazier, like steam escaping from a hot valve…Whatever the merit of the two men’s work, they faced each other in a condition of tribal hostility, like the appropriate antagonism of the Army and Navy teams on the football field.

These extracts so far indicate the largely conventional narrative technique in Hardwick’s stories. Here are some examples of the later, more innovative style.

This, from ‘The Bookseller’, is what I’d call transitional – the first person narrator shows an inclination to veer off into omniscient mode, and stranger imagery:

Roger does not drink, but he eats quite a lot of apples, pizzas, and hamburgers, and makes many cups of coffee in his electric pot…He is one of those brought up by well-to-do parents sent to good schools, to France for a summer – who, on their own, show no more memory of physical comforts than a prairie dog.

Soon after there’s this about Roger the bookseller:

No matter – the patrician in him is not entirely erased and lingers on in an amiable displacement, remaining in his contentment to keep pace with just where he is…

Shades again, perhaps, of mid-to-late period Henry James (as well, perhaps, as a hint once more of Austen’s ironically percipient narrators; ‘an amiable displacement’ is perfect).

‘Back Issues’ is one of the later, more impressionistic pieces; here’s a delightful and typically multifaceted passage from it (which loses much of its impact by being detached from the equally well crafted sentences that precede and follow it):

And the cafeterias with chopped liver, tuna fish and egg salad brought in at dawn from some sinister kitchen? Yes, the tenacity of disreputable avenues; and yet all is possible and the necessary conditions may arrive and bottles and pencils, hats and condoms will go to their grave.

 Here can be seen Hardwick’s audacious, polyphonic blending of ostensibly mundane lists of concrete things which are transformed into something transcendent by that mysterious interrogative punctuation and gear-shift from concrete noun monosyllables to polysyllabic abstraction. Like jazz improvisation, it startles and delights with those jarring juxtapositions and contrasts of register (‘the tenacity of disreputable avenues’ is beautifully highlighted by the brash banality of the inventory either side of it). That rising, confident, poetic tone of finality and stately certainty is brilliantly counterpointed by the expression of the theme of mutability (the bathetic ‘hats and condoms’) at the close. This is prose as densely packed and meticulously modulated as an Imagist or pre-1923 TS Eliot poem (what exactly might those ‘necessary conditions’ be, and why is there uncertainty about their ‘arrival’?)

And there I’d better stop.

 

 

Betrayed by her singer: Henry James, ‘The Aspern Papers’

This first appeared in slightly different form at The Mookse and the Gripes site on July 15th.

The Aspern Papers – more a novella than short story – was published in 1888, soon after “Louisa Pallant”, which I wrote about here and again here recently. It therefore seemed logical to tackle this one next, but I very nearly didn’t write about it — it just didn’t at first satisfy as much as the others I’ve written about here and at the Mookse. I thought I’d explore why this might be.

I find it necessary to talk about the ending as I go along, so if you haven’t read the story yet you might want to do so and (I hope) return here afterwards.

Like so many of his ‘tales’, James based this one on an anecdote he was told, as recorded in his Notebooks, during his stay with friends in Florence in 1887. It concerned a ‘curious adventure’ that befell Edward Silsbee, ‘the Boston art-critic and Shelley worshipper’ or ‘Shelley fanatic’:

Miss Claremont [more usually spelt Clairmont], Byron’s ci-devant mistress (the mother of Allegra) was living, until lately, here in Florence, at a great age, 80 or thereabouts, and with her lived her niece, a younger Miss Claremont – of about 50. Silsbee knew that they had interesting papers – letters of Shelley’s and Byron’s – he had known it for a long time and cherished the idea of getting hold of them. To this end he laid the plan of going to lodge with the Misses Claremont – hoping that the old lady, in view of her great age and failing condition would die while he was there, so that he might then put his hand on the documents, which she hugged close in life.

His scheme is initially successful: ‘the old woman did die’, having spent the last nine years of her life in Florence, where she died in 1879;

and then he approached the younger one – the old maid of 50 – on the subject of his desires. Her answer was – “I will give you all the letters if you marry me!

He adds wryly that his informant said that Silsbee was still running.

From this scanty ‘essence’ James developed his novella, delighting, as he puts it in the Preface to the New York edition (1907-09), in ‘a palpable imaginable visitable past’ in which the ‘divine poet’ is connected with James’s own modern world.

Edition used: Everyman Collected Stories, vol. 1 (ed. J. Bayley, 1999), pp. 815-910

Edition used: Everyman Collected Stories, vol. 1 (ed. J. Bayley, 1999), pp. 815-910

He changes quite a few of the details of the anecdote he had heard. The English Miss Clairmont becomes the American Juliana Bordereau, while the younger woman is either her niece or grand-niece, Tita (renamed Tina in the New York edition). The location is shifted to Venice. Shelley (with elements of Byron) becomes the New York poet Jeffrey Aspern: in this same Preface James makes several references not just to Shelley but also to Byron; he postulates ‘an American Byron to match an American Miss Clairmont’. This too is significant, as we shall see.

The end of his Notebook entry adds that a Countess Gamba, who married a nephew of Byron’s last mistress, had inspired the telling of the anecdote, for her family was in possession of ‘a lot of Byron’s letters of which they are rather illiberal and dangerous guardians’. They refused to publish any of these papers, scorning attempts to persuade them that it was in the literary public’s interests to let them at least be seen. Their contents he describes as ‘discreditable to Byron’, and the Countess admitted that ‘she had burned one of them’.

These details are found in The Aspern Papers; our unnamed narrator’s ungallant response, at the end of the story, in rejecting Miss Tita’s offer of the papers in return for his marrying her, is brutal, and her reaction is to tell him next day that she had ‘done the great thing’ and burnt the papers, ‘one by one, in the kitchen.’

This is surely fair enough, for James makes us privy, as he does throughout the story through the device of free indirect discourse, to the narrator’s cruelly unpleasant thoughts when she proposes her humiliating, ‘embarrassing’ (for both of them) offer of her hand:

That was the price – that was the price! And did she think I wanted it, poor, deluded, infatuated, extravagant lady?

His rationalizations conveniently excuse his rejection:

I could not pay the price. I could not accept. I could not, for a bundle of tattered papers, marry a ridiculous, pathetic, provincial old woman.

He bemoans having succumbed to ‘that most fatal of human follies, our not having known when to stop’.

Like Silsbee, he runs for it. This first ungentlemanly reaction is succeeded by shame; he blushes, hiding his face from the gondolier who is rowing him to cowardly safety away from the dilapidated palazzo. He wrestles feebly with his jaded, guilty conscience. When he does finally consider the possibility that ‘her delusion, her infatuation’ might have been his own ‘reckless work’, that he had made love to her, just to get the papers, he tells himself –

I had not, I had not; I repeated that over to myself for an hour, for two hours, till I was wearied if not convinced.

Back on land, bewildered, it exhausts him to think that he ‘had been so much at fault’, had ‘unwittingly but none the less deplorably trifled.’ This uncharacteristic but fleeting shameful thought is brusquely quashed:

But I had not given her cause – distinctly I had not. I had said to Mrs Prest [a friend who had first given him the idea to lodge at the palazzo in order to have a chance at the papers] that I would make love to her; but it had been a joke without consequences and I had never said it to Tita Bordereau. I had been as kind as possible, because I really liked her; but since when had that become a crime where a woman of such an age and such an appearance was concerned?

His capacity for self-delusion and –justification is ugly but horribly convincing, so artful is James’s narrative technique. Consider how, when his resolve falters next day – ‘Was I still in time to save my goods?’ – and he returns to the decaying palazzo, having restored his ‘passionate appreciation’ of the papers, he has changed his viewpoint: ‘I would not unite myself and yet I would have them’ – though he has been unable to devise an alternative stratagem for persuading Tita to part with them.

It is a typical feature of a James story that much of the interest in the narrative resides in his presentation of the protagonist’s point of view. For an apparently scholarly, intelligent literary biographer our narrator knows himself (and others) very imperfectly; shortly after Juliana’s death had left Tita feeling isolated and vulnerable, and before the marriage offer she decided would provide her lifeline, he’d weighed up his options (in a manner reminiscent of the equally unattractive narrator in “The Pension Beaurepas” who also briefly considered behaving like the hero in a romance and whisking Aurora away to her beloved America – a point I discussed in my recent post on that story):

I certainly was not prepared to say that I would take charge of her. I was cautious, not ignobly, I think, for I felt that her knowledge of life was so small that in her unsophisticated vision there would be no reason why – since I seemed to pity her – I should not look after her.

He had earlier thought he might have killed Juliana by allowing her to catch him on the point of rifling through the desk in which he believed she had secreted Aspern’s papers: ‘Ah, you publishing scoundrel!’ she’d cried. When she fell in a dead faint he bolted, touring Italy for twelve days, with the rankling feelings that her accusation had some foundation, grudgingly admitting to himself that he ‘had not been very delicate’, while indecisive whether to do the decent thing and stay away, or return to see how things stood with Tita. Of course he can’t resist returning to have another go at the papers.

Very soon after this return his selfish, misogynistic callousness re-emerges in his thoughts: ‘I could not linger there to act as guardian to a piece of middle-aged female helplessness.’

I think my initially lukewarm response to this story was indicative of my superficial reading. I’d seen it as a too-neatly constructed narrative in which the two climaxes – Juliana’s swoon and Tita’s humiliation – were melodramatic and contrived. Now I’ve looked at the story more closely I appreciate its subtleties. As I’ve gone on at too great length already let me end by pointing out a few more of these qualities to add to what I hope has become apparent in what I’ve said and quoted so far.

First there’s the ingenious double plot: the cat-and-mouse game of ‘watchings and waitings’ (James’s words in the Notebook) played by the narrator as he heartlessly schemes to acquire the Aspern papers is matched by Juliana’s own predatory stratagems, in a way he only dimly perceives (‘Do you think she has some suspicions of me?’ he asks Tita early on, for he soon reveals his plans to her, hoping to enlist her support in his plans). He toys with the notion in chapter 5 that there is ‘a trap laid for [him]’ and his putative wealth, that he had presented himself to Juliana ‘in the light of a victim’, and several times refers to her as an ‘old witch’, a ‘terrible relic’, her room when he enters it is likened to that of ‘an old actress’, she is ‘very cunning’ and ‘a sarcastic, profane, cynical old woman’; yet he unwisely prides himself on his superior duplicity, and he is the one at the end left filled with ‘chagrin’ at his ‘intolerable’ loss. Meanwhile the reader is alerted to what he fails to perceive in Juliana. This is largely done through the frequent, suggestively ambiguous narrative references to darkness and light, clarity or obscurity of vision, and to eyes.

Juliana habitually wears a ‘horrible green shade’ that covers her eyes, making her face resemble a ‘mask’. This means the narrator can’t really see what she’s thinking, but the implication is rendered clear to the reader: she sees through him from the start. He dimly, dimwittedly realises that the mask means that she can ‘scrutinise’ him ‘without being scrutinised herself.’ At the same time it

increased the presumption that there was a ghastly death’s-head lurking behind it. The divine Juliana as a grinning skull – the vision hung there until it passed.

 He’s so greedily intent on his literary spoils that he allows this perception to turn into a speculation that her appearance simply confirms that she must be at death’s door – ‘then [he] could seize her papers.’

When Juliana catches him about to rifle her desk he sees for the first time ‘her extraordinary eyes’ that make him ‘horribly ashamed’.

My final thought concerns the possibility that some critics have entertained that Tita is in fact Juliana’s daughter, not her niece. I can find no evidence in the text to support this theory, but it is odd that Tita seems to have spent her entire life at the palazzo in sequestered ‘seclusion’ (‘We have no life,’ she frankly, sadly tells the narrator; ‘[t]here’s no pleasure in this house’.) The narrator sees the two ladies as ‘like hunted creatures feigning death’; they receive no visitors, there’s no ‘comfort’ in their ‘darkened rooms’, or contact with the outside world.

Is this a sign of the old lady’s guilt, her shame once her infatuation with Aspern had died out, leaving her with an illegitimate daughter that she shields from the world’s view? It’s true that she demands an extortionate rent from the over-eager biographer as a kind of dowry for Tita; the younger woman tells him frankly ‘the money is for me’, yet this unromantic ‘pecuniary question’ simply convinces him that Juliana is too greedy to see that he intends to ‘take an advantage of her’.

This raises the question about the narrator’s extraordinarily obsessive desire (his ‘eccentric private errand’ he calls it euphemistically) to obtain the papers. He justifies this with the airily aesthetic justification that his quest is part of his ‘mystic companionship’ with other Aspern scholars, that ‘moral fraternity’ who he sees himself as part of ‘in the service of art’:

They had worked for beauty, for a devotion; and what else was I doing? That element was in everything that Jeffrey Aspern had written and I was only bringing it to the light.

What could be in the letters that hasn’t already been written about Aspern? The narrator tells us that the god-like Aspern returned to Italy for Juliana’s sake when she was just twenty and beautiful, that there was something ‘positively clandestine in their relations’, and that he’d written some of his most sublime verses about his love for her, ‘works immortal through their beauty’. The narrator’s view as early as chapter 1 is that his early death was the only ‘dark spot in his life’ – ‘unless the papers in Miss Bordereau’s hands should perversely bring out others’:

There had been an impression about 1825 that he had ‘treated her badly’, just as there had been an impression that he had ‘served’, as the London populace says, several other ladies in the same way.

He had always been able to find evidence, however, to acquit Aspern, in those previous cases, of ‘shabby behaviour’. The Bordereau case is still unresolved, hence his desire to acquire the papers for some answers.

Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrochio, in Venice

Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrochio, in Venice

‘By what passions had she been ravaged? By what sufferings had she been blanched?’ the narrator wonders in chapter 4; there is a ‘perfume of reckless passion’ about her and he has ‘an intimation that she had not been exactly as the respectable young person in general.’ Was this a sign that her ‘singer had betrayed her’? That her ‘fair fame’ had suffered some obscure ‘imputation’? Did the letters Juliana hoards ‘affect her reputation’, he asks Tita at one point, to which she gives him a ‘singular look’, a ‘kind of confession of helplessness’; “Do you mean she did something bad?” she eventually replies. Is this an allusion to Juliana’s being her mother?

In chapter 7 the old lady asks him if ‘it’s right to rake up the past’, batting away his defence that he likes the ‘discoveries’ made by questing critics by retorting that they’re ‘mostly lies.’ When he defends them as often being the truth, she responds that the truth ‘is God’s, it isn’t man’s’.

In chapter 5 the narrator considers the women are ‘worse off than Carmelite nuns in their cells’; he later learns that Juliana was Catholic. This accords with the fact that Claire Clairmont converted to Catholicism in later life. She had thrown herself at the tender age of eighteen at the rakish Byron, first by bombarding him with increasingly frank letters, and borne his daughter after what may well have been their one sexual encounter. He rapidly tired of her (he described her as ‘that odd-headed girl’, a ‘fiend’). When Allegra was barely one she was persuaded by the Shelleys to hand her over to the father’s unwilling custody; Byron was by then living in – no surprises here – Venice. When the child was just three he broke his promise to care for her personally and placed Allegra in a convent, where she died two years later, breaking Claire’s heart a second time. She continued to send Byron importunate, melancholy, obsessive letters. Maybe it’s inflammatory correspondence of this kind that Juliana has kept so carefully guarded.

Or maybe they were part of a cache of her voluminous correspondence with others in the Shelley circle. One critic has suggested that Claire was less attracted to Byron (and possibly Shelley) than she was to Shelley’s eventual second wife, her step-sister Mary (and it’s also possible to detect a homoerotic element in the narrator’s reverential hero-worship of Aspern; it can be seen as a story of wished-for and undesired, past and future, fruitful but disastrous consummations, while our narrator is ultimately hopelessly impotent as a literary or romantic ravisher). Claire wrote to Mary often (and to her poet husband, with whom many believe she not only had an affair but another illegitimate child), despite Mary’s finding her increasingly tiresome and wilfully wild. Although I find this a little speculative, it might also explain some of the hints alluded to above about the dark secrets that might lie in the Aspern papers, and our narrator’s obsession: rather than being a ‘rich dim Shelley drama’, as James calls it in his Preface, perhaps it’s a sordid, scandalous Byronic one. Whatever the case, I think you’ll enjoy the teasing, mysterious, densely textured story that James managed to concoct out of this titbit of Romantic gossip. It’s pertinent that James, that most private of writers, who guarded his detachment from sexual entanglements fiercely, and burned many of his own letters, encouraging his correspondents to do the same with the ones he had written them, should dramatize this duplicitous invasion of privacy with its anomalous role allotted to snooping literary biographers, and its paper-burning at the end.

Although it’s dangerous to indulge in the ‘biographical fallacy’, it’s tempting to see traces in the story of James’s own growing unease in his relations with his emotionally needy Venice-based friend Constance Fenimore Woolson – maybe she owned incriminating letters from him that he’d rather were burnt, Edel speculates in his biography. Certainly his portrayal of the once-beautiful Juliana is dominated by the delineation of her manipulative cunning that is more than a match for our narrator’s, so that we are left with a typically Jamesian bleak view of the appeal of romantic attachments, the female psyche, and the mutable shallowness (and danger to men) of feminine beauty and attractiveness.

We can’t even know for sure whether Juliana ever actually possessed any papers – the narrator never sees them, and has only witnesses as unreliable as himself to vouch for their existence. These are the moral, ethical ambiguities, paradoxes and complexities that I failed to detect initially, and which provide much of the story’s satisfying richness.

 

 

 

 

 

Henry James, “Louisa Pallant” revisited

When my piece on Henry James’s 1888 story ‘Louisa Pallant’ first appeared on the Mookse and Gripes site on May 14 (and again here on this site), it inspired several interesting comments and queries. I’ll answer them briefly there, but thought I’d take the opportunity here on my own site to expand a little on some of the thoughts they produced in my mind.

First there’s the odd, repeated use of religious terminology by Louisa about her daughter Linda (of whom she had said to the narrator, her former lover, that ‘she’s a bad, hard girl, who would poison any good man’s life!) – a query raised in a Mooke and Gripes comment by Betsy Pelz:

‘You make my reparation – my expiation – difficult!’

When the narrator, the uncle of the young man (Archer Pringle) who Louisa fears her daughter has ‘marked’ as a suitably eligible (ie wealthy) target for marriage, repeats these expressions a little later, she adds:

‘She’s my punishment and she’s my stigma!’

She goes on:

‘She’s cased in steel; she has a heart of marble. It’s true – it’s true. She appals me!’

I believe this startling condemnation fits with the portrayal of Louisa throughout the story. In its second section the narrator reflects on her ‘improved and degenerate’ nature; she was, he feels, ‘spiritually speaking, vulgarised’, sceptical. She strikes him as ‘having seen more of the evil of the world than of the good’, and

her devotion to her daughter had been a kind of religion.

In training and educating Linda to ‘reach a high point’ she had made of her daughter ‘the star of her mother’s heaven’, the ‘source of the only light’ on her path: she ‘stood her in stead of every other religion.’ Linda’s role, as taught by Louisa, is that of ‘an educated angel.’

This spiritual-religious imagery is clear and sustained. Soon after the ‘reparation/expiation’ references Louisa’s language develops the theme:

‘It’s a satisfaction to my own conscience – for I have one, little as you think I have a right to speak of it. I have been punished by my sin itself. I have been hideously worldly…and I have taught her to be so…’

 

She goes on to describe Linda’s ruthless ambition to ‘climb up to the top and be splendid and envied there – to do it at any cost or by any meanness and cruelty, is the only thing she has a heart for. She would lie for it, she would steal for it, she would kill for it!’

There could be an allusion here to Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, where Satan takes him to a high point and offers him all he can see. The narrator feels that Louisa has been suffering from this ‘knowledge’ about Linda:

It relieved her to warn and denounce and expose. ‘God has let me see it in time, in his mercy,’ she continued; ‘but his ways are strange, that he has let me see it in my daughter. It is myself that he has let me see, myself as I was for years. But she’s worse…than I ever intended or dreamed’ […Louisa] looked up at the faint stars with religious perversity.

 

James is intent, then, on portraying Louisa in this ambiguous, paradoxical way: her desire to save Archie from Linda’s clutches has a quasi-religious fervour and she adopts a tone at times like this almost of an evangelical preacher; but he is at pains to show, ironically, that this sits badly with her own previous moral lassitude and history of instructing Linda in the wiles of sexual deception in order to satisfy her worldly desires through her attractive appearance and demeanour (a devilish strategy which had worked for Louisa, ten years earlier, when she attracted then jilted the narrator).

It seems to me that James mixes this type of language and imagery with that of another famously scheming, worldly and cynical, sexually perverse couple in Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons; this becomes particularly apparent in Louisa’s very next words; she sees that the narrator believes that she is ‘acting a part’ by warning him so pointedly about Linda’s evil nature:

‘Your suspicion is perfectly natural: how can anyone tell, with people like us?’

 

Interesting to see she includes the narrator in this perception, and he doesn’t demur; on the contrary, ‘these last words brought tears to my eyes’, he says. Later she links her morality and calm hypocrisy with Linda’s: she points out again that everything between them is ‘implied’, and ‘nothing expressed’; there is ‘our perpetual worldiness, our always looking out for chances’. Such things must be withheld from spoken discourse between ‘persons who like to keep up forms.’ This of course reminds us that we can’t fully trust anything Louisa says – including her account of Linda’s viciousness (although in the final paragraph of the story the narrator confides that he is ‘convinced that [Linda’s] mother was sincere.’ But he is, by his own admission, hardly the most perceptive of narrators – a Jamesian hallmark.)

On two separate occasions the ‘comedy’ of worldly deception being played out by Linda with Archie is referred to, first when the narrator is suspiciously considering whether Louisa’s hostility towards her daughter was just ‘a deeper artifice’ (the devil is the great artificer), a ‘plan of her own for making sure of my young man’, seen by her as ‘a great catch…might she not have arranged this little comedy, in their personal interest, with the girl?’

Later, Louisa herself refers to the way Linda contrived to have Archie take her out for a romantic rowing trip on the lake as ‘a part of all the comedy!’ Like Valmont and de Merteuil, the narrator and Louisa are ex-lovers; like them, Louisa is skilled in the use of sexual seduction as a weapon or tool with which to achieve her selfish ends; she too has made men her victims (our narrator in particular) with her cruel games and manipulative skills. Like dramatists (or purveyors of fiction?) Laclos’s two ancien régime aristocrats stage-manage their perverse sexual dramas for their own gratification. Louisa claims to have undergone a kind of conversion followed by repentance and desire to atone – this religious terminology therefore serves brilliantly to highlight the dramatic nature of that putative reversal; both she (to all appearances) and the narrator as a consequence experience a moral, almost spiritual epiphany which causes them, in their own ways, to forgive (the emotionally wounded narrator) and atone for previous cruelty (Louisa).

Another literary parallel that occurs to me is that Louisa’s ‘making’ her child into what she calls a ‘monster’ of cruelty resembles Mary Shelley’s protagonist in Frankenstein, who also creates a monstrously destructive, vengeful and vindictive creature who turns in jealous fury on the ‘parent’ he feels has wronged him in creating him.

As Louisa tells the narrator, she will have ‘done [her] duty’ if she succeeds in saving Archie from Linda. ‘It isn’t for you that I do it; it’s for myself’, she tells him. His response is to acknowledge bemusedly that he can’t ‘penetrate’ her reasons. Elsewhere she suggests ‘if I hadn’t thrown you over I couldn’t do this for you’. But as I indicated in the previous post on this story, James leaves us wondering whether Louisa’s motives in warning off Archie are as selflessly expiatory as she leads the narrator (and readers) to believe; it could simply be that she thinks a richer target than Archie might be found.

Finally: in earlier posts on the stories of Henry James I have made reference to the significance of the Point of View of narrators and characters. In this story, too, there is explicit use made of this term; Louisa tells the narrator that Linda hasn’t discussed her devious schemes with her mother:

‘Lord! for what do you take us? We don’t talk over things to-day. We know each other’s point of view and we only have to act. We can take reasons, which are awkward things, for granted.’

‘But in this case she certainly doesn’t know your point of view, poor thing.’

‘No – that’s because I haven’t played fair. Of course she couldn’t expect I would cheat. There ought to be honour among thieves. But it was open to her to do the same.’ [She goes on to explain: Linda could have ‘fallen in love with a poor man; then I should have been done.’]

 

The ambiguity in this story and the shifting ‘points of view’ of its characters are typical of James’s narrative skill and artistic genius. Once again I commend the story to you. Even minor Henry James stories like ‘Louisa Pallant’ have much to offer.

Henry James, ‘Louisa Pallant’: a little masterpiece of concision

A version of this post appeared at the Mookse and Gripes site on May 14.

Written during Henry James’s residence in Florence in 1887, ‘Louisa Pallant’ was first published in Harper’s magazine in 1888. Like most of his short stories, it has a first person narrator who plays a significant, and far from omniscient part, in the action.

James summarised the outline of the story in his Florence notebooks:

The idea of a worldly mother and a worldly daughter, the latter of whom has been trained up so perfectly by the former that she excels and surpasses her, and the mother, who has some principle of goodness still left in her composition, is appalled at her own work. She sees the daughter, so hard, so cruelly ambitious, so bent on making a great marriage and a great success at any price, that she is almost afraid of her. She repents of what she has done – she is ashamed.

 

This tentative outline goes on to suggest that the narrator should be ‘an elderly American’, the uncle of the naïve young man whose wealth the daughter fixes her sights on; in the finished story, however, much of this changed. ‘I don’t see why’, James ended this notebook entry, ‘this shouldn’t be a little masterpiece of concision.’ It is.

James was beginning to tire of his customary ‘international theme’: stories about the cultural clash between Americans and Europeans, often involving the quest for a ‘great marriage’ to suit the ambitions of a scheming young person. His attitude to marriage as represented in his fiction was ambivalent: it was often depicted as something to be avoided, a danger to the freedom or integrity of those involved – yet the pursuit of freedom and personal fulfilment was a central theme of most of his stories.

James was also beginning to lose his belief that Americans had a finer moral nature and a more innocent, unblemished character than decadent Europeans. By 1888 he was beginning to think that there was, in his biographer Leon Edel’s words, ‘a claustrophobic ignorance’ within that innocence.

The opening line of ‘Louisa Pallant’ is one of James’s finest:

Never say you know the last word about any human heart.

William Boyd used the last three words of that striking sentence as the title of his 2002 novel, in which he, like James, portrays his characters as possessing multiple possibilities and selves.

James’s unnamed American narrator first sees Louisa Pallant on the terrace of the fashionable Kursaal in Homburg, where he is languidly awaiting the arrival of his twenty-year-old nephew, Archer (a recurring and significant name in James’s fiction) Pringle, who is also enjoying a leisurely tour through Europe. His mother has entrusted his welfare to her brother, the young man’s uncle. We learn that the uncle had been in love with Louisa ten years earlier, but she had thrown him over in order to marry money. Ironically, her husband had lost his fortune and died, leaving her a destitute wanderer, living (like some of the characters in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’, about which I wrote recently HERE) in cheap pensions while seeking a rich, preferably titled husband for her ‘remarkably pretty’ 22-year-old daughter, Linda.

Although the handsome mother and daughter ‘were very quiet and decorous’ our narrator perceives something in their demeanour that shows they were accustomed to attracting admiring attention, but he also sees something about them that is ‘not altogether honourable’ – he hints that the mother is, as it were, displaying Linda to ‘the public stare’, while apparently ‘ashamed to exhibit her own face’ (she’s wearing a veil). His first thought is that he needs to protect his young ward from such people ‘and the relations he should form.’ He suspects Archer knows little about life and this makes him feel ‘uneasy’ about his responsibilities.

As the story progresses it is hardly a surprise that Archer should indeed succumb to the beautiful Linda’s charms. At first the uncle is unable to see any contrivance in her behaviour: she seems so ‘fresh and fair and charming and gentle and sufficiently shy…She was simpler than her mother…A girl who had such a lovely way of showing her teeth could never pass for heartless’ is his rather naïve initial perception. It is Louisa who assures him otherwise.

The strongest aspect of this rather slight short story is the portrait of the narrator and his flawed interpretation of the intrigues he finds himself caught up in: ‘She had not treated me well and we had never really made it up’, he reflects on this first encounter. Louisa’s ‘heartless behaviour’ in dumping him causes him to conclude that he had ‘forgiven her’ but that it had been a lucky escape not to have married ‘a girl who had it in her to take back her given word and break a fellow’s heart, for mere flesh-pots.’ That Louisa had given out the message at the time that he had driven her off with his ‘insane jealousy’ before she met Pallant is the narrator’s not entirely reliable account of her cynical tactics; we are never able to tell for sure how accurate his point of view is. And of course, as my previous pieces about these stories by James have indicated, he is the master of the narrative exploration of the point of view.

This narrative ambiguity is seen constantly. At the end of this first conversation with his former sweetheart the narrator reveals that Louisa shows a worldly awareness of the wealthy match his sister had made by marrying into the New York Pringle family; she remembered that they were a ‘disgustingly rich lot’, but this is relayed to us while the narrator tells her about the imminent arrival of his nephew. Instead of suspecting her motives – that she sees Archer as a likely target for Linda – he is instead deflected into a wounded self-pity when Louisa suggests he should have had children, and would have made a good father:

She could make an allusion like that – to all that might have been and had not been – without a gleam of guilt in her eye; and I foresaw that before I left the place I should have confided to her that though I detested her and was very glad we had fallen out, yet our old relations had left me no heart for marrying another woman. If I was a maundering old bachelor to-day it was no one’s fault but hers.

 His pain and confusion here are narrated through this internal indirect discourse with a rich blend of pathos and revelatory ironic humour. The more he insists he hates Louisa the less we believe him.

This opening section ends with Louisa apparently questioning the uncle about his nephew’s financial prospects; she concludes that his responsibility for Archer must weigh heavily on his conscience:

 

“Well, we won’t kill him, shall we, Linda?” Mrs Pallant went on, with a laugh.

“I don’t know – perhaps we shall!” said the girl, smiling.

 The stage is set for an intriguing and artfully realised dénouement. I commend the rest of this story to you: can Louisa be believed or trusted when she warns the uncle to remove his nephew from Linda’s dangerously alluring influence – he later sees the girl as ‘the result of a process of calculation’, an ‘educated angel’ – or is this mother, with her history of duplicitous selfishness, simply playing her part in a devious plan? Because we rely on the narrator’s imperfect point of view we can never really ‘know the last word’ about these human hearts. It is characteristic of Henry James’s artistic genius that he refrains from spelling these things out.

Endnote: I hesitate when categorising these tales: although he became a British citizen, James was American born and never truly lost his American sensibility, no matter how Europeanised he became. Hence the category ‘Literature’ – neither English nor American!

Colm Tóibín, ‘Nora Webster’

Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster was published in the autumn of 2014. I’ve recently finished reading the Penguin paperback edition. It’s superb.

The author has said (in an interview in 2013 in the Guardian newspaper in the UK) that he’s ‘against story’:

 People love talking about writers as storytellers, but I hate being called that.

Nora Webster Nora Webster has little plot or ‘story’ to speak of. It shows in chronological sequence how Nora, whose husband Maurice, a schoolteacher, has recently died, struggles to deal with the commiserations of well-meaning family and neighbours as she tries to support her two grieving sons, who still live with her, and her older daughters who have left home. It is set in the late 60s in the sleepy southeastern Irish town of Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s own birthplace). Like women the world over she has to sublimate her own pain and grief while nurturing her emotionally wounded, damaged but needy children. What comes less naturally is learning how to live her life alone; she had previously lived a largely vicarious existence – the needs, tastes and opinions of her husband, and to a lesser extent, her family, had supplanted her own. She must learn how to live bereft of the husband she loved deeply; this means learning a new kind of freedom, and to accept the unwillingly acquired solitude and painful independence that comes with it.

The novel shows with deft sympathy how she undergoes a series of epiphanies to achieve this state. She has to exorcise the ghost of Maurice before she can find out who she is.

As such I see a thematic influence not so much from James Joyce (whose early style is clearly discernible in Nora Webster) and other Irish writers, whom early reviewers tended to adduce, as from Ibsen’s Nora of A Doll’s House. I shall focus here on this aspect of the novel, and on Tóibín’s beautifully lucid, restrained prose style.

Both Noras had played an unquestioning, quietly submissive role in the patriarchy they lived in, until the crisis came, and they were forced to reassess, after which they discover themselves, their resilience and their need for autonomy. From the novel’s opening page we see this passive aspect of women in Irish (or any other) society: Nora’s neighbour Tom has called to offer his condolences. She spends much of his visit anxiously wishing he’d go:

 He was speaking as though he had some authority over her…she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated.

Shortly afterwards, having taken her two boys on a visit to Dublin to see their sister Fiona, Nora is surprised and a little nonplussed to see her daughter’s maturity and growing independence. She wants to say something as they part, but feels that Fiona is ‘downcast’:

 For a moment, Nora felt impatient with her. She was starting her life, she could live where she liked, do what she liked. She did not have to get the train back to the town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her.

 Nora plainly feels envious of Fiona’s comparative freedom to choose, and frustrated with her own circumscribed, provincial life, with the responsibilities and constraints that convention and motherhood imposed.

Here too we see the quietly powerful style the writer adopts to convey the interior life of Nora; most of the narrative is in the form of domestic quotidian detail and internal monologue – and in this respect it resembles the Joyce of Dubliners. Back home, for example, the boys having gone to bed,

she wondered if there might be something interesting on the television. She went over and turned it on and waited for the picture to appear. How would she fill these hours? Just then she would have given anything to be back on the train, back walking the streets of Dublin…[she turned off the TV, ‘irritated’ by the canned laughter on a comedy show] The house was silent now. [She opened the book she bought earlier then put it down.] She closed her eyes. In future, she hoped, fewer people would call. In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.

 Tóibín is able, in such apparently banal scenes, in that deceptively unadorned prose, to show us a woman’s complex, treasured inner life in the process of growing and changing in response to the the life endured in the external, intrusive world. Here I’m reminded of Eveline’s existential dilemma (in Joyce’s story of that name, about which I wrote on the Mookse and Gripes site HERE), sitting in her dusty, dusk-filled room, longing to escape from the cage of domestic duty, with a brutal father and humiliating, mind-numbingly tedious shop job, and wondering if her lover is her liberator or potential oppressor. Both narratives show a woman attracted to solitude but feeling a paradoxical impulse towards human warmth and companionship – and love.

After her husband’s death Nora has no choice but to take the offer of a job as a clerk at local firm Gibney’s, which is where she had formerly worked with admired efficiency for eleven years, ‘barely tolerating her mother at home’ – Ibsen’s Nora had discovered she was confined to the role of ‘plaything’ for her father until the putative liberation that marriage brought; she too then found, as a relatively young, unfulfilled mother, that she had simply been handed over from one emotionally stunted existence, subservient to a man’s wishes, to another. When she is told of the job offer Nora recalls this time in ‘the distant past’ without relish:

 …Nora viewed the office in Gibney’s as a place where they had spent years working merely because the right chances did not come to match their intelligence, an intelligence that, as married women, they had cultivated with care.

 

This thought leads inevitably to others:

 She thought of the freedom that marriage to Maurice had given her, the freedom once the children were in school, or a young child was sleeping, to walk into this room at any time of the day and take down a book and read; the freedom to go into the front room at any time and look out of the window at the street…letting her mind be idle…but as part of a life of ease that included duty. The day belonged to her, even if others could call on her, take up her time, distract her.

 

With raw immediacy Tóibín develops Nora’s irresistible train of thought:

 Never once, in the twenty-one years she had run this household, had she felt a moment of boredom or frustration. Now her day was to be taken from her…Returning to work in that office belonged to a memory of being caged…Her years of freedom had come to an end; it was as simple as that.

 

Sure enough, when she starts work all the tedium and petty tyrannies reappear, and she longs for ‘the feeling of pure freedom’ when she is able to leave the office and go home.

Like Ibsen’s Nora, she has to learn what her opinions are. The narrative is set against the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland; Maurice had been a staunch supporter of Fianna Fáil, and she had deferred to his political views. Now she realises she can think for herself, assert herself independently. At first this personal exposure is unnerving, but she slowly comes into her own. This growth is portrayed with immense skill and is the most rewarding, heart-warming aspect of the novel.

Music is the other main source of her personal liberation. There’s a marvellous scene that occupies several pages, set in a pub where a man begins to sing. This brings about an epiphany that is characteristic of Tóibín’s subtle mastery of the portrayal of Nora’s inner being: we see her remember hearing this song at a wedding. She struggles to recall whose it was. She remembers feeling proud to be married to Maurice. Then her mood changes:

 In all this noise and confusion, she felt a sharp longing now to be anywhere but here. Even though she often dreaded the night falling when she was in her own house, at least she was alone and could control what she did. The silence and the solitude were a strange relief; she wondered if things were getting better at home without her noticing. Since she was a girl, she had never been alone in a crowd like this. Maurice would always decide when to leave or how long to stay, but they would have a way of consulting each other.

 

Notice again how delicately the narrative displays her inner growth. She’s learnt to love her own company, but is beginning to sense, like Ibsen’s Nora, that there is an element of wrong in preferring solitude to human company, and in not having a choice about how to act or be, always having to defer to her man. Her thoughts continue:

 …she was often irritated by the way in which Maurice’s mood could change, how anxious he would be to go home one minute, and then how eager he could become, how easily involved with company the next minute, while she waited patiently for the night to be over.

 And then the revelation comes:

 So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing.

 

I don’t recall reading another novel with such a moving, engaging account of one person’s experience of the transforming power of deep emotional trauma. It’s a novel that reaffirmed my faith in the ability of a great novelist to enhance one’s own life through the process of reading their work. Colm Tóibín is an apt pupil of that other literary master of his: Henry James. They both have that empathetic insight into the character of ‘an engaging woman’ that takes one’s breath away. Another writer who comes to mind in this regard is Evan S. Connell, whose novels about Mr and Mrs Bridge I reviewed here, here and here – with a nod towards the influence of Mme Bovary.

Other reviews deal with aspects of the novel I’ve not touched on here: the nuanced depiction of Nora’s two boys and the two older girls, for example, who play their part in Nora’s tentative emancipation.

Max’s customary perception is well to the fore in his recent piece on this novel here at Pechorin’s Journal: he’s particularly good on the family drama: Nora’s relationship with her children and with the ‘love of her life’, Maurice; also on the visceral depiction of Nora’s grief and depression, and the links with the novel’s prequel, Brooklyn, with which it shares a number of themes, and compared with which Max finds Nora Webster less impressive. I find them both outstanding.

 

 

 

 

 

Henry James, ‘The Point of View’

A version of this piece was posted at the Mookse and Gripes website on 9 April.

Henry James wrote two stories in epistolary form: the first was ‘A Bundle of Letters’, published in the expat magazine The Parisian in 1879; the second was ‘The Point of View’, which appeared in 1882. James takes full of advantage in both tales of the scope for ironic presentation of the letter-writers’ antithetical impressions of travelling American and European characters, of the nations through which they pass, and of the people they encounter. He mischievously counterpoints their disparaging or effusive viewpoints with those of the characters they profile.

Several of the characters in these stories appear in both tales, as well as in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’, about which I wrote here (on the Mookse and Gripes site, and at this blog here). The three stories tended to be published together, along with ‘An International Episode’ (about which I wrote here and here), representing as they did the ‘international theme’ that dominated James’s fiction for so long.

I shall focus on Aurora Church, who was chafing under the controlling grip of her mother in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’. Mrs Church anticipated this sequel by saying in the earlier story, when explaining to the young narrator why she preferred Europe to America, for herself and her daughter:

 ‘And I wish,’ she continued…’that I could give you our point of view. Don’t you wish, Aurora, that we could give him our point of view?’

‘Yes, mamma,’ said Aurora.

‘We consider ourselves very fortunate in our point of view…’

 

At the Pension Beaurepas in Geneva Aurora befriended her compatriot, the spendthrift Sophie Ruck. She found the hierarchical society and customs of Europe – that her mother so admired – cloying, and despaired of the maternal plan to find her an aristocratic European husband.

‘The Point of View’ consists of eight letters dated 1880. The first and last are by Aurora. In the opening letter she writes to another young American woman expat (in Paris) about her arrival at New York City on a transatlantic liner. Here we see the approach James took in both these epistolary tales: she presents her correspondent with her intimate, vivid impressions of the places she visits and the people she meets. She explains that she has finally persuaded her sceptical mother to allow her to come to America and has just three months in which to find a suitable (i.e. rich) husband.

Aurora is acrid about her mamma’s oppressive regime: she was ‘dreadfully severe’ on the voyage out to Europe when she was only five, and ‘is severe to this day; only I have become indifferent; I have been so pinched and pushed – morally speaking.’

Aurora in Europe craved and envied the freedom of ‘the American girl’. Now she has her chance. As her name suggests, she is at the dawn of a new life, or so she hopes.

Not surprisingly she is delighted to find herself delivered from the stifling confinements of Europe: ‘I have never had so much liberty in my life,’ she says. Mamma, equally unsurprisingly, is less sanguine, as Aurora explains with her customary blend of levity and asperity:

 She is not in a hurry to arrive; she says that great disillusions await us. I didn’t know that she had any illusions – she’s so stern, so philosophic. She is very serious.

 

Mamma had realised that the dowerless Aurora ‘should never marry in Europe’. We can see in such extracts the dry ironic humour of which these stories are full. The characters unwittingly reveal their weaknesses and partialities, their selfishness and prejudices.

In passing Aurora lets slip that ‘the poor little Rucks’ – including her erstwhile friend Sophie – ‘are bankrupt’. We never hear their fate, but must assume the worst. Aurora, who had only nurtured the friendship for her own ends, seems callously unperturbed.

She goes on to describe some of the other passengers, whose own ‘points of view’ we shall be privy to in subsequent letters. The Europeans largely find America brash, vulgar and over-indulgent towards its young people; the Americans’ views we shall see. As in the earlier ‘A Bundle of Letters’ there is much sardonic humour to enjoy as we see the writers’ contrasting or conflicting views of each other exposed in the acerbic confessional manner that a letter to an intimate friend or relative allows. James’s evident pleasure in matching the correspondents’ style to their character is infectious.

The main romantic interest in this story is embodied in Aurora’s suitors on the ship: the aesthete Louis Leverett (who also features in ‘A Bundle of Letters’, where once again he is attracted to an interestingly picturesque young woman, a flirtation which he languidly tires of) and the ‘roaring Yankee’, Marcellus Cockerell. (Their names are aptly chosen.) Each of these young men expresses in his letters the extreme opposite views of all things American and European, and as Aurora approvingly suggests to her friend, ‘They have a particular aversion to each other, and they are ready to fight about poor little me.’ But despite this coquettish pride, she’s also realistic:

 I am not crazy about either of them. They are very well for the deck of a ship, but I shouldn’t care about them in a salon; they are not at all distinguished. They think they are, but they are not…I should get dreadfully tired of passing my life with either…au fond they don’t quite believe in me.

 

This viewpoint is presented without comment, of course, given the epistolary nature of the story, and this is its distinctive feature. Aurora displays here the kind of incisive analytical detachment of the author himself, but he causes her to express herself so clinically (and accurately) that I find her attractively intelligent and percipient, but also (understandably) a little vain.

Still there is the usual Jamesian interest in the travails of a young woman engaged in the necessary pursuit of a husband capable of satisfying her own intelligence as well as the demands of a pressing social system in which she lacks autonomy. James has an extraordinary understanding of the contradictory innocence and dogmatism, exacting standards (her mother says Aurora is insistent she would marry no foreigner who was not ‘one of the first of the first’) and indulgent lassitude of such a vivacious young woman as Aurora, with her native American sensibilities influenced by the atrophied Europe in which she has been raised. She knows mamma expects her to marry no American whose ‘pecuniary situation’ fails to meet her expectations.

Leverett is a Jamesian Europhile. He detests being back in crudely democratic America, where all is monotonously plain, tepid and mediocre; Europe for him has exciting extremes of beauty and ugliness. James has him write in a louche, affected style to highlight his self-consciously aesthetic pose:

 I feel so undraped, so uncurtained, so uncushioned…A terrible crude glare is over everything; the earth looks peeled and excoriated; the raw heavens seem to bleed with the quick, hard light.

 

He would agree with Mrs Church’s dismissal of America as ‘the country of the many’; she adds in her letter –

 In this country the people have rights, but the person has none.

 

The American citizen, she complains to Mme Galopin, ‘is recognized as a voter, but he is not recognized as a gentleman – still less as a lady.’

 

But it’s James’s sly revelations about the intentions of Aurora’s two admirers that are so engaging in this story. Leverett is shown in his letter to be self-absorbed, and interested in Aurora mostly because she has the good taste (as he sees it) to listen to him attentively. He ungallantly concludes, as he decides to drop her, that she ‘almost understood’ him!

 

Cockerel, on the other hand, derides the very places and people of Europe that the Europhile correspondents admire. It’s this witty symmetry that is one of the main strengths of this admittedly rather slight story. Although he finds Aurora a ‘rather interesting girl’, his attentions are insincere – he knows he could never marry such an impoverished young woman; besides, as he confides to his sister in his letter, ‘She has been spoiled by Europe’ – a taint he would never be able to ignore.

 

Mrs Church confides in her letter that Aurora accuses her of giving her a ‘false education’ in Europe so that she is not considered marriage material: ‘No American will marry her, because she is too much a foreigner, and no foreigner will marry her, because she is too much of an American.’

 

James is careful to balance his characters’ barbed accounts, however. Cockerel, rudely dismissed by Leverett as a ‘strident savage’, sums up his homeland’s superiority to Europe:

 

We are more analytic, more discriminating, more familiar with realities. As for manners, there are bad manners everywhere, but an aristocracy is bad manners organized.

 

Read this story for these opinionated, stylized, often Wildean outpourings of epigrammatic bigotry and insight. In this group of related stories he strove to show nuanced gradations of viewpoint in his representatives of each nation. This didn’t prevent the first reviewers from finding this story distastefully unpatriotic towards America.

 

Read it too for Aurora’s final letter, which rounds off beautifully all that’s gone before. Here we see a glimpse of the profound sympathy James demonstrates for his young female characters. He had recently completed The Portrait of a Lady, which began to be serialized in 1880. That full-length novel is the masterpiece of his early period, a fully developed account of the ‘engaging young [American] woman’ whose choices are misguided, yet she persists in ‘affronting her destiny’. James’s concern is with the ways in which Isabel Archer continues the attempt, in a naughty world, to make her own choices and learn to live with the consequences, always striving for a kind of liberty.

 

There is much to admire also, however, in these thematically similar miniatures: Aurora is in some ways Isabel Archer without the windfall fortune. See what you make of Aurora’s apparent destiny at the end of ‘The Point of View’.