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’.

Henry James, ‘The Pension Beaurepas’

This is a version of the piece to be posted next week on the Mookse and Gripes website

‘The Pension Beaurepas’ was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1879. In this story, James satirises two types of American abroad in the guise of two families staying at the Geneva pension run by the redoubtable Mme Beaurepas: the Ruck family from New York City, who represent the rich, uncultivated ‘new money’ families like Daisy Miller’s (Trevor Berrett wrote about her story at the Mookse and Gripes website here) – who show little enthusiasm for the history, culture or scenery of Europe, while demonstrating the principles of liberty, innocence and democracy. The other family are polar opposites to the Rucks: the Europeanised American Mrs Church and her daughter Aurora (and, incidentally, our narrator). Mrs Church had brought Aurora to Europe from their American home sixteen years earlier when the girl was only five.

The young, unnamed American narrator of the story explains at the start why he has come to stay at this pension:

I was not rich – on the contrary; and I had been told the Pension Beaurepas was cheap. I had, moreover, been told that a boarding-house is a capital place for the study of human nature. I had a fancy for a literary career.

Already we can see the subtle presentation of the familiarly ambiguous James narrator: an ingenuous, studious, slightly pompous young man very like himself, with his own literary-cultural hypersensitivity, and a propensity for close observation of his fellows, while at the same time demonstrating a reluctance to engage fully in the life he so attentively observes – a timidity seen in Winterbourne, the disengaged narrator of ‘Daisy Miller’ — and which culminates in a singularly unflattering (to him) episode at the end of this story to which I’ll return shortly.

The first strand in the plot reworks the King Lear theme in Balzac’s Le Père Goriot: Sophy and Mrs Ruck relentlessly spend Mr Ruck’s money, unaware that he has become bankrupt. In ‘An International Episode’, about which I wrote in the Mookse and Gripes last time here, also posted on this blog here Kitty Westgate, whose husband (a work-obsessed counterpart to “tragic” Mr Ruck) hardly appears in the narrative, so busy is he in his lucrative law business, says this:

An American woman who respects herself must buy something every day of her life. If she cannot do it herself, she must send out some member of her family for the purpose.

The narrator says of Mrs Ruck and Sophy, near the story’s end:

“Between them they are bleeding him to death.”

I shall focus here though on the second theme in the story: that of the American Girl. In ‘Daisy Miller’ she’s portrayed, through Daisy, as a charming mix of frankness and spontaneity,  brashness and vulgarity, but essentially, like all American girls, according to Winterbourne, “exceedingly innocent”, even when at her most coquettish and immodest.

Sophy is representative of the Daisy Miller type of feisty American girl. She is “a lively brunette” is the narrator’s initial impression, and “very pretty”, “decisive” and opinionated (like Daisy). When she learns that Aurora is “dying to go to America” but “her mother won’t let her”, she says indignantly:

“If I were you my mother would have to take me.”

The narrator is clearly more attracted to Aurora, who is a less dauntingly assertive, more retiring version of the American girl. She and her mother are described by a fellow guest as having “a tournure de princesse”, and it is as a kind of democratic princess that James usually portrays young American women.

Aurora has never been out of the house alone, and sadly describes herself as having been in Europe, with its social constraints for young women, “always”. She is desperately homesick and frustrated by her imperious mother’s control:

“American girls are so wonderfully frank. I can’t be frank, like that. I am always afraid.”

Our narrator perceives, as Sophy does, however, that her native spirit hasn’t been entirely quashed. She tells him, for example, with ingenuous “coquetry”, that her “figure was admired” in France –

But I was an innocent youth, and I only looked back at her, wondering. She was a great deal nicer than Miss Ruck, and yet Miss Ruck would not have said that.

The perceptive Mme Beaurepas tells the narrator that Mrs Church’s restless migration across Europe via its cheap boarding houses is because “She is trying to marry her daughter.” Whereas Daisy Miller and her family lacked the “culture” to catch an aristocratic and wealthy European husband and were “intellectually incapable of that conception”, Aurora simply lacks a “dot”, as she calls her dowry. What adds poignancy to Aurora’s position is that all she really longs for is the freedom she believes her compatriots enjoy. As the narrator says to her mother:

“…in America young girls have an easier lot. They have much more liberty.”

Mrs Church is not convinced that this is a desirable condition:

“We are very crude,” she softly observed…”There are two classes of minds, you know—those that hold back, and those that push forward. My daughter and I are not pushers, we move with little steps. We like the old, trodden paths; we like the old, old world…we like Europe, we prefer it.”

She calls upon Aurora to endorse her “point of view” – a phrase which was to become a key concept in James’s fiction, as we shall see – and the girl dutifully does so —

with a sort of inscrutable submissiveness. I wondered at it; it offered so strange a contrast to the mocking freedom of her tone the night before…

Geneva, Jardin Anglais wikiThis conflict of views comes to a crisis when Aurora and Sophy walk alone in the English Garden in Geneva. The narrator and a fellow boarder encounter them there, and are shocked to see them so “insufficiently chaperoned”.  Aurora’s rebellious spirit flashes out, in a speech very like Daisy’s when found in a similarly compromising situation with her Italian admirer:

“Which is most improper – to walk alone or to walk with gentlemen? I wish to do what is most improper.”

She explains that she is in a “false position”, and here is where she becomes less ingenuous than Daisy:

“I have to pretend to be a jeune fille. I am not a jeune fille; no American girl is a jeune fille; an American girl is an intelligent, responsible creature. I have to pretend to be very innocent, but I am not very innocent.”

“You don’t pretend to be very innocent; you pretend to be – what shall I call it? – very wise.

“That’s no pretence. I am wise.”

“You are not an American girl,” I ventured to observe…

“There’s my false position. I want to be an American girl, and I’m not.”

“Do you want me to tell you?” I went on. “An American girl wouldn’t talk as you are talking now…She wouldn’t reason out her conduct…”

“I see. She would be simpler. To do very simple things that are not at all simple – that is the American girl!”

She tells the young man she anticipates having “the most lovely time” in New York if the Rucks invite her there – because there at last she would have “absolute liberty”. Her mother adores “European society”, and Aurora knows she’ll be punished for the liberties she is taking at that moment with him – and her mother duly arrives and whisks her away in a closed cab.

Later Mrs Church tells the narrator that she disapproves of the Rucks and their uncultivated vulgarity. She intends to remove Aurora from the “pernicious influence” of “this deplorable family”.

The story ends with her doing just that. Before she fulfils her promise, however, Aurora has one final, revealing conversation with the narrator, to tell him that she and her mother leave for Dresden the next day. He suspects she has sought him out in the pension’s garden that evening to break this news, and he feels very sorry for her, and finds her “interesting” and “charming”. He realises this “insidiously mutinous, young creature was looking for a preserver.” For a moment this is a heroic role he finds tempting to play; he tells her he knows she desires the “liberty” taken for granted by other American girls. Her mother, she replies

“…has so perverted my mind that when I try to be natural I am necessarily immodest.”

She has said her piece, and now waits to see what he will do. As she turns to leave he has a momentary impulse to leave with “this yearning, straining young creature” and pass into “mysterious felicity”. But it doesn’t happen:

If I were only a hero of romance, I would offer, myself, to take her to America.

Like Winterbourne, however, he is unwilling to act decisively when faced with the prospect of a romantic relationship.

The story is, then, more of an example of what James later called “portraiture” – a sketch rather than a developed, textured story. But it is an interesting example of his developing portrayal of the consequences of the innocence of the American girl coming into contact with the decadence and hierarchical social rigidities and atrophied morality and customs of the Old World. He shows how both worlds have their attractions and charms, but both are flawed in their own ways.

We meet Aurora again in a story published soon after this one. Its title is the term employed crucially by Mrs Church in ‘The Pension Beaurepas’, as noted earlier: it’s called ‘The Point of View’.

 

Henry James,’An International Episode’

HENRY JAMES: ‘AN INTERNATIONAL EPISODE’.

America certainly is very different from England’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry James, ‘Daisy Miller: A Study’

The donnée for ‘Daisy Miller’ was an anecdote told to Henry James (1843-1916) by his friend Alice Bartlett in Italy a year or so before its first publication in 1878. James transformed this wisp of narrative into a vividly realised comedy of social manners which ends with a delicately sketched scene of pathos and loss. He subtly evoked the tourist haunts of Vevey in Switzerland, where the story opens one June, and Rome, where it ends the following January, having spent several years of his life in these places that were so fashionable with the new waves of moneyed Americans dutifully following their Baedeker guides to the tourist honeypots of old Europe.

John Singer Sargent's portrait of James (1913), National Portrait Gallery website

John Singer Sargent’s portrait of James (1913), National Portrait Gallery website

James knew that recently-appeared type: the ‘American girl’ from Schenectady (home of the newly self-made rich, not of those with ‘old money’) disembarking from her transatlantic liner full of brash confidence, in the ‘tournure of a princess’. With their air of regal independence such ‘stylish young girls’ are ‘not the least embarrassed’ to find themselves unchaperoned in the company of strange young men. When Daisy encounters the story’s protagonist, the wealthy Frederick Winterbourne, a twenty-seven year old dilettante, on the terrace of the Trois Couronnes hotel, noted for its air of ‘luxury and of maturity’, on the shores of Lake Geneva, ‘she was evidently neither offended nor fluttered’ to be engaged with in familiar conversation by this suave stranger to whom she had not been formally introduced, and without the protection of her unvigilant mother.

Winterbourne is visiting his formidably proper aunt, Mrs Costello. He is said to be ‘studying’ in Geneva, that ‘little metropolis of Calvinism’, though it is apparent he expends very little effort on academic pursuits: he is in reality ‘extremely devoted to a lady who lived there – a foreign lady – a person older than himself’, about whom ‘some singular stories’ were told. Our omniscient narrator hints that he is having some kind of illicit dalliance, distinctly at odds with Calvinistic puritanism. Therefore when he is clearly attracted to this ‘beautiful young lady’ on the terrace, the description of her as ‘strikingly, admirably pretty’ is evidently filtered through his consciousness:

‘How pretty they are!’ thought Winterbourne…

He is thinking approvingly of the ‘type’ just noted. Her name is Annie P. Miller – a pointedly artisanal surname – but is known as Daisy. If Winterbourne’s name is redolent of his frigidly Europeanised nature (though he is not averse to clandestine affairs), then hers signifies her spring-like, blooming freshness.

In buttoned-up Geneva, he reflects, ‘a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain rarely-occurring conditions’. But here at Vevey the ‘pretty American girl’ shows no signs of constraint. On the contrary, her glance towards him is ‘direct and unshrinking’, though ‘not immodest’ – her eyes, he notes admiringly, are ‘singularly honest and fresh’, and ‘wonderfully pretty’; the word ‘pretty’ is used a remarkable 38 times in the story, most of them with reference to Daisy or her ‘type’ (she is described as ‘beautiful’ three times).

Winterbourne is ‘addicted to observing and analysing’ feminine beauty: that is to be his problem. Like so many of James’s detached, observing male protagonists, he is incapable of committed action or decision-making. He is from the start enchanted but also puzzled by the liberties taken by this young charmer. Like Eveline in the Dubliners story which I wrote about here recently, it’s indecision and inability to discriminate morally and emotionally that’s at the heart of this story.

He notes, on this first encounter, with candidly critical perspicuity, that her face is ‘not exactly expressive’, with ‘a want of finish’. She showed bland ignorance of the culture and history of the place, and he thinks it very possible she is a ‘coquette’. Although she is coltishly spirited, he also observes, with another telling string of derogatory adjectives and negatives, that ‘in her bright, superficial little visage there was no mockery, no irony.’

Her equally precocious little brother Randolph tells him their father is a rich businessman from Schenectady. She ‘chattered’ expansively and unselfconsciously. He ‘found it very pleasant’, but our taciturn narrator conveys a simultaneous sense that she is hardly articulate and certainly uneducated, with her frequent low idioms (as the fastidious Jamesian narrator would say) such as ‘I guess’ and ‘ever so many’.

The narrative voice is then distinctively Jamesian: detached and ironic, it notes at this point Winterbourne’s mixed reaction to all this superficial flirtatiousness: he ‘was amused, perplexed, and decidedly charmed,’ but had never seen anything like this without sensing ‘laxity of deportment’.

He goes on to wonder whether he had spent so long in Europe he had become ‘dishabituated to the American tone’: maybe it would be wrong to accuse Daisy of what passed in Geneva as ‘actual or potential inconduite’. In a revealing passage of narrated thought he weighs up the possibility that ‘they were all like that’, the pretty girls of New York: or ‘was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person?’ His ‘instinct’, along with his ‘reason’, had deserted him (as Eveline’s were to). She ‘looked extremely innocent’, and he’d heard both that ‘American girls were exceedingly innocent’, and that they were not. ‘Innocent’ appears twelve times in the story, nine times in relation to Daisy (twice, interestingly, to Winterbourne himself; he is perhaps the truly innocent party in this tale, in the sense that he doesn’t fully know himself as Daisy does herself); ‘innocence’ appears in relation to Daisy six times.

He was inclined to think that she was just ‘a pretty American flirt,’an ‘unsophisticated’ girl: ‘she was only a pretty American flirt.’ His repetitive, looping, inconclusive internal monologue over, he wonders (ungallantly) how far he can proceed with this new, ingenous kind of coquette.

His flirtation is not approved of by his aunt; she held great social ‘sway’ in New York, and admitted that she was ‘very exclusive’ (another recurring term in the story, one that Daisy predictably scorns). Mrs Costello was, to Winterbourne’s mind, almost ‘oppressively’ adept at negotiating the ‘minutely hierarchical constitution’ of that city’s society. He realises that she adheres to similar proprieties in the expatriate community in Europe. Her view of Daisy was that her ‘place in the social scale was low.’ One does not ‘accept’ such ‘common’ girls, she advises him, no matter how pretty or charming, or how perfectly they dress: ‘I can’t think where they get their taste’, she remarks acerbically. She disapproves of Daisy’s democratic familiarity with the family’s courier, and her mother is no more socially discerning or proper, and she lets her children do as they please. They lack the discrimination, taste or social awareness to be able to distinguish an outward appearance of gentlemanliness from that of the real thing. Winterbourne later realises Daisy and her mother lacked the ‘culture’ to rise to the idea of ‘catching’ an aristocratic husband for her; they were ‘intellectually incapable of that conception.’

She thinks Daisy is not respectable; her nephew agrees that she is ‘rather wild’ and ‘uncultivated’ – but ‘wonderfully pretty.’

 ‘What a dreadful girl! [Mrs Costello exclaims:] You had better not meddle with little American girls that are uncultivated…You have lived too long out of the country. You will be sure to make some great mistake. You are too innocent.’

When he denies this, she retorts with delicious paradoxical wit: ‘You are too guilty, then!’

She’s not just being snobbishly malicious: he’s revealing himself, she means, with shrewd insight, as hypocritical: attracted to Daisy, while aware of her genuinely vulnerable, bourgeois innocence.

The stage is set. If Daisy exceeded even the ‘liberal licence’ of his aunt’s granddaughters then ‘anything might be expected of her’. Unaware of the unflattering sexual ambiguity of such a notion, he realises he is impatient to see her again, and yet, more to his credit, ‘vexed with himself that, by instinct, he should not appreciate her justly.’ This is the lesson he is to learn by the end.

I have given this detailed outline of the story’s early expositional stage to indicate that it is really as much a narrative of Winterbourne’s slow-growing awareness as of Daisy’s, who hardly changes. A typically ambivalent James protagonist, he feels attracted to this beautiful figure with her ‘delicate grace’, but simultaneously repelled by what he perceives as her ‘commonness’, vulgarity and duplicity. This renders him emotionally, culpably impotent. She’s the ‘unprotected daughter’ of a wilfully indulgent mother and absentee father, and this makes him painfully aware of being tempted by what could be perceived as cynically selfish exploitation of her ‘habitual sense of freedom’. She simply doesn’t realise that ‘nice girls’ don’t flirt with their couriers, imperiously demand unquestioning devotion and attention from every new man they meet with ‘frank persiflage’ and coquettish chaffing, or flaunt their innocent conquests in public.

The denouement shows Daisy’s subsequent, inevitable disgrace in Rome. Winterbourne’s glacially sophisticated American friend there, Mrs Walker, tells him with horrified disapproval that Daisy had been ‘going about’ alone with foreigners and had ‘picked up half-a-dozen of the regular Roman fortune-hunters’.  She and her mother were ‘dreadful people’ for behaving with such ill-mannered licence (Mrs Miller is equally reprehensible for failing to control her daughter, in the eyes of this morally corrupt world where being seen to do the ‘right thing’ is more important than actually behaving with moral probity). Winterbourne feebly defends them, calling them ‘very ignorant – very innocent only’, but Mrs Walker is unforgiving in her condemnation: ‘They are hopelessly vulgar’, she insists.

When Daisy insists on introducing her ‘lovely’ avvocato with the charming manner and beautiful moustache to her compatriots’ salons she refuses to accept that she is violating not only European codes, but also those of upper-class Americans who lived there. She delights in having handsome Romans dance attendance on her; Giovanelli (whose name signifies the generic young man he represents) for his part can’t believe his luck, failing initially to understand her flirtatious nature.

Her outrageously licentious behaviour, in the eyes of American-Roman society, culminates in her unchaperoned walk in the Pincio gardens with Giovanelli. Mrs Walker’s attempt to rescue Daisy from public scandal fails:

‘I never heard anything so stiff! [a favourite expression of Daisy’s; she laughs at Winterbourne for being ‘stiff as an umbrella’] If this is improper, Mrs Walker,’ she pursued, ‘then I am all improper, and you must give me up.’

Mrs Walker duly snubs the girl when she turns up later at her salon, writing her off as ‘naturally indelicate’. Daisy is undaunted, and continues to disport herself as she pleases with the foppish young gold-digger.

In a scene that echoes his interview with the disapproving aunt, he defends Daisy as just ‘very innocent’ when Mrs Walker expresses how appalled she is that Daisy has been recklessly exposing herself to all the world with her beau and ‘running absolutely wild’. ‘She’s very crazy!’ is her riposte. She warns him to cease flirting with Daisy, and to stop her making a ‘scandal’, but he persists, confused and besotted.

Yet Daisy had defiantly rebutted Winterbourne’s earlier polite attempt to stop her flouting convention by having a public assignation with her Italian:

‘I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do.’

He sees this as lacking ‘standards’ or a moral code because she has never been given or taught any, but it’s also the typical American girl’s expression of uninhibited independence, the spirit of Huck Finn, arising from a dangerously permissive upbringing as James saw it of the newly rising, over-indulged generations. When snubbed by Mrs Walker Daisy can’t understand why she should behave differently in Rome from how she was accustomed to in New York; ‘I don’t see why I should change my habits for them’, she cries when Winterbourne remonstrates with her about her display in the Pincio, and how it offends ‘the custom of the place’. They are ‘those of a flirt’, he points out.

Of course they are,’ she cried, giving him her little smiling stare again. ‘I’m a fearful, frightful flirt! Did you ever hear of a nice girl that was not? But I suppose you will tell me now that I am not a nice girl.’

He cannot decide, when she talks so brazenly, whether she is innocently honest or depraved and spoilt; our narrator presents this with repeated, self-cancelling negativity once again – she lacks ‘indispensable delicacy’, she’s ‘childish’, ‘too provincial’, has ‘an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence’ or ‘puerility’ – ‘inscrutable’ here signifying his inability to scrutinise with clear perception. These ‘little American flirts were the queerest creatures in the world’, he concludes, his ability to see clouded again. Yet he also wonders whether she has ‘in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced,’ and whether her ‘defiance came from the consciousness of innocence’ or from her sense of belonging to ‘the reckless class.’ Too late he begins to realise hers is a rebellion against class prejudice, and we realise this is not just another ‘international’ James tale of the familiar collision of naive American democracy with corrupt European decadence. It’s more nuanced than that.

We saw earlier that Winterbourne had engaged in amorous liaisons with high-class older local women. Our narrator points out towards the end of the story that he is nevertheless ‘literally afraid’ of such women; ‘He had a pleasant sense that he should never be afraid of Daisy Miller.’

Colosseum: photo by Dillif, Wikimedia Commons

Colosseum: photo by Dillif, Wikimedia Commons

Winterbourne’s eyes are unsealed too late. Her demise, dying of the ‘Roman fever’ – malaria – by exposing herself to the miasma of the evening air in the Colosseum in one of her flightily dangerous romantic excursions, would be seen by society as just desserts. He has not treated her judiciously, he finally discerns.

He’s chastened when the Italian dandy, at Daisy’s graveside, pronounces her truly ‘innocent’ – he ultimately knew she had no intention of marrying him. Sadly Winterbourne tells his aunt that he had done Daisy an injustice. From her deathbed she had sent him a message saying that she ‘would have appreciated [his] esteem’. But he was ‘booked to make a mistake’, as his aunt had warned him. But not in the way she meant: ‘I have lived too long in foreign parts,’ he adds, acknowledging perhaps that it was he who had been tainted by class and European notions of propriety, and had failed to appreciate Daisy for the free spirit she was. When the narrator concludes by telling us drily that he had returned to Geneva and to was ‘studying hard’ and ‘was very much interested in a clever foreign lady’, the ambiguity is poignant.

Has he learnt a lesson, or has he simply reverted to ‘the custom of the country’? Is he sadder and wiser? Or counting himself lucky at a narrow escape from commitment to Daisy’s recklessly independent individuality? The conflicted responses of his protagonist here raise this story above the apparent ‘flatness’ that caused James to add the phrase ‘a study’ to this story that was immensely popular with a reading public which perhaps relished the superficial charms of Miss Daisy more than it divined the darker impulses in her ambivalent, superficially more cultivated admirer.

Henry James, ‘Daisy Miller: A Study’. From Collected Stories, vol. 1 (1866-91), selected and edited by John Bayley, Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, Toronto) no. 244, 1999, pp. 305-64. First published in Cornhill magazine, London, 1878.

 

Sybille Bedford, ‘A Legacy’: Part 1

Sybille Bedford:  A Legacy. Ist publ 1956. Penguin Classics 2005. 368 pp

This is the other book I bought at the ‘name your own price’ bookshop in Exeter, along with the Nooteboom stories that I wrote about in my last post.

I wonder if your recent reading influences – or even taints – your impression of the novel you’ve just finished? Having just read Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose sequence – all five volumes of exquisitely expressed suffering and its cast of grotesques, monsters and victims –  and Nooteboom’s melancholy stories of middle-aged angst (reviewed here last time), I found my reading of A Legacy impaired by the mood instilled by those books. The eccentric cast of characters seemed on first reading a little tedious, and I found it difficult to sympathise with yet another set of the etiolated rich (Melrose) and their varying degrees of world-weariness (Nooteboom).

When I started making notes for this post, however, and dipped back into the novel, I found myself absorbed and delighted by Bedford’s crafted prose. As I marked passages to quote the list just grew: there’s so much to please the reader here, despite the drawbacks of operatic plotting and characterisation in yet another book full of wittily charming (or just plain weird) privileged gentry.

So let’s start what I think is going to be a lengthy piece…In fact I think this will have to be part 1 of two.

Bedford’s own introduction is a good place to start, and I shall make this the basis of Sybille Bedford, A Legacythis first instalment, but shall incorporate some quotations from the novel itself to illustrate what I mean about her prose style, and encourage you to read the novel if you haven’t already .

She begins by acknowledging her admiration for the fiction of Ivy Compton-Burnett and the ‘witty acerbities’ of her dialogue. I’ve never got past the opening pages of any of her novels, but would agree that the speeches she gives her characters fizz along. This quality is found on almost every page of A Legacy.

Another clear influence is Nancy Mitford, another purveyor of dazzling drawing-room repartee in a vanished world; it was Mitford who lent a copy of the novel to Evelyn Waugh  – whose novels can also be seen as an influence on Bedford, including the Catholic elements – and whose review in the Spectator, which he modestly called a ‘tiny warm notice’, thrilled the author and boosted sales. In his review he drew attention to yet another influence: the early and middle period Henry James (‘too large a dose’ of him, he suggested, a little unfairly: Bedford’s range of types of character and geographical/political/spiritual interests are very different from his; but one can see what Waugh means – there’s that crystalline dialogue and eye for social detail and the similar fascination with the clashes in sensibilities between characters (innocent v. jadedly knowing) of varying, mostly sybaritic backgrounds).

The plot is one of the least satisfying parts of the novel. It relates the intertwined stories of three German families in the period roughly between the Franco-Prussian War, around 1870, and 1914. They are ‘somewhat unfortunately linked by marriages’ but ‘wholly unlike each other in habits, values and religions’. They are also ‘divided by their ignorance or pursuit of politics, by geography and by money. All had a lop-sided perception of their time, taking their position as a norm, unaware that they could be seen…as eccentric, even anachronistic members of their respective milieus.’

The Merzes live in ‘solid, upholstered, Jewish Berlin, the city of the disciplines, drives and deceits of the Protestant Prussian North’. They are immensely rich, but little trace survives in them of their cultured, energetic ancestors (here I need to give my first extract from the novel itself):

They had no interests, tastes or thoughts beyond their family and the comfort of their persons…They never travelled. They never went to the country. They never went anywhere, except to take a cure, and then they went in a private railway carriage, taking their own sheets…The Merz’s had no friends, a word they seldom used; they saw no-one besides the family, the doctor, and an occasional, usually slightly seedy, guest asked to occupy the fourteenth place at the table.

The family business has long since been of no interest to the patriarch of Voss Strasse, Grandpapa Merz; he occasionally signs papers when required to and allows his butler – a marvellous creation called Gottlieb, a sort of Addams Family Jeeves who’s been with the family for half a century – to keep them supplied with new banknotes (‘Money, like animals, was unhygienic’ – the narrative is full of throwaway gems like this!)

I wonder whether Bedford chose this name because of its associations with the avant-garde German expressionist-Dadaist-collagist artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), perhaps best known for his ‘Merz’ projects, a title he took from a found text: ‘Commerz und Privatbank’. He edited a journal by that name in the 20s and early 30s, and converted his houses into ‘Merzbau’ installations, the last being in Cumbria, England. The title is an ironically critical allusion to the corrosive nature of capitalist systems. Although he flourished immediately after the end of the First World War, and is therefore associated with the period following the events in A Legacy, his is an apt and provocative name to use for the atrophied family of entrepreneurs in Voss Strasse. Maybe the tendency towards a collage structure in the novel is in part a homage to him. (She may never have known of him, of course, but I find it hard to believe that she wouldn’t be aware of this highly influential and innovative figure in the art world.)

The other two families (back to the Introduction) ‘belonged to the discrepant realities of the Catholic South’ (Baden). The Bernins are ‘obsessed by ecumenical dreams of European dimensions’. They are interested in power and pursue it with dangerous determination – which largely precipitates the more tragic part of the plot:

Count Bernin Sigmundshofen…was an extremely active man, the leader of a powerful Catholic clique, the head of one of the great South German families, and a public figure…He was one of those men who are supposed to have a friend in every chancellery, and he certainly had a relative in many; not only Baron Felden accused him of ambition. He now seems to have been something else: a disinterested man with a cause. He was also a meddler by conviction, had immense experience of  motives and affairs, and…considerable charm.

The von Feldens are more affectionately portrayed as ‘Augustans’ from the ‘retarded eighteenth century’; they are from the conservative Catholic aristocracy, and disinclined to indulge in casuistic plotting like Bernin, as shown in this piece of Bedford’s charming descriptive-historical description from ch. 1 of Part 2 of the novel:

The family was old, landed, agreeably off without being in the least rich and of no particular distinction…[F]or the last four centuries Feldens had looked after their land, diminishing rather than otherwise, filled diplomatic posts of a more decorative than political character and discharged functions at provincial courts. Yet they were neither backwoodsmen nor courtiers, but country gentlemen of cultured, if not general, interests. They drank hock and claret, but they also drank and knew how to make their own wine. They dabbled in the natural sciences; they enjoyed and contributed to those branches of the arts that increase the amenities of living – domestic architecture, instrument-making, horticulture. They were bored by the abstract, bored by letters, and their acceptance of thought was confined to thought about things…They played music like craftsmen, and made objects like artists.

I particularly like the chiasmic symmetry of that last sentence. This light-hearted passage ends, more ominously, despite the comic coda, with a characteristic change of tone by Bedford:

They ignored, despised, and later dreaded, Prussia; and they were strangers to the sea.

They are clearly doomed.  Being skilled in bee-keeping and stag-driving, training geese and keeping unusual pets, and understanding ‘the ruses employed by peacocks’ does not equip such an unworldly family to face and survive the onslaught of the decades after 1900.

The old Baron’s second son, Julius, we realise as the narrative progresses, is the father of the young woman who narrates the novel so obliquely and with so many lacunae and shifts of perspective ; only late on does she disclose that her name is Francesca.  In many ways this novel is technically modernist, despite its ostensibly traditional realist surface, which has more in common with the Thomas Mann novels Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain(who is, anyway, neither a full-on realist or modernist?) One could also make out a case for some post-modern features, such as the demanding collage or fragmentary narrative structure already mentioned (Merz again), which reminds me of other recently read authors: Renata Adler and Elizabeth Hardwick.

Each of these last two southern German families, Bedford suggests in her Introduction, ‘stood confident of being able to go on with what was theirs, while in fact they were playthings, often victims, of the now united Germany, and of what was brewing therein.’

And it is this aspect of the novel, I believe, which raises it above the level of those social comedians I mentioned earlier (except, perhaps, James): the ‘legacy’ of the title is World War I and subsequently the Holocaust.

Bedford’s Introduction goes on to comment on this perspective and on the relatively autobiographical nature of the novel:

Much of what was allowed to happen in these decades [ie 1870-1914] was ill-conceived, cruel, bad (in simple terms); there was also a German dottiness, devoid of humour…Is some of this a foundation of the vast and monstrous thing that followed? Did the private events I lightly draw upon leave some legacy? Writing about them made me think so. Hence the title.

She did no research. She was born in Charlottenburg in family circumstances similar to Francesca’s. She left Germany as a child, however, and when the Nazis rose to power and discovered her Jewish ancestry, impounded her passport. In 1935 she was obliged to enter into a marriage of convenience with the gay English officer, Walter Bedford. This marriage was brief, but she kept the surname for the rest of her life. She felt such an antipathy for Germany, in fact, that she barely visited again.

Most of what she says, therefore, about people and places in the novel is derived from

what I saw and above all heard and over-heard as a child at the age of roughly three to ten, much of which I managed to absorb, retain and decades after, to re-shape in an adult mode. The rest is invention and surmise…metamorphosed by imagination, turned into distillations of a past – expressed by rumours, innuendos, half-truths, vengeful tales as well as pastoral set-pieces and fond recalls.

This gives a pretty accurate picture of the content of the narrative, which I shall return to in more detail next time. It’s intriguing to think of this little girl, sitting at table with these clever, literary adults, being expected to follow their sophisticated conversation, and even to take an intelligent part. Neither is it difficult to see from where she gets the scintillating dialogue and repartee, with its ellipses and ambiguities.

How much of it then was autobiographical? ‘Up to a point, quite a lot – privately and publicly. All the same that legacy is not my story; most of it happened before I was born.’

She goes on to give more of the circumstantial details which she experienced and put into the narrative: the evil schools, the family scandal, the shootings.

The novel was written 1952-55 – ‘years of forebodings and fears: the Bomb, the Cold War’. There is something of that ‘legacy’ that permeates the novel that enables it to transcend what some commentators have accused the novel of: being too sepia-tinted, nostalgic for ‘things past’ in a sort of Proustian haze. This is I think to misread it. The legacy of the title is what happened after 1914, and as we commemorate the centenary of that terrible first War we can see in these pages much of what brought about the disasters of the years that followed in terms of the social disintegration and upheaval that these three families adumbrate through their own private catastrophes, which are narrated against the backdrop of the society of middle Europe across two generations in the half-century leading up to the assassination in Sarajevo.

I began by indicating how my guarded response to this novel had been influenced by my prior reading. I now see that A Legacy resembles Nooteboom’s Foxes in that both books are about memory, a melancholy sense of loss and mutability, but where Bedford has the advantage is that she’s also less inclined to want to forget, or else in re-telling and reshaping true stories she’s more interested in arriving at a clearer truth. Unlike St Aubyn she’s prepared to show some tolerance as she paints her portrait of decadent and flawed high society as it plunges inexorably into an abyss at least partly of its own making. She doesn’t want to preserve that vanished world, as perhaps Mitford and the others she was influenced by (maybe secretly) wanted; neither did she want to see it smashed. She’s able instead to indicate through intelligent, subtle, fragmentary and indirect narrative strategies the mysterious forces that determine the trajectories of people’s lives.

Next time I shall turn my attention more closely to the ways in which she achieved that admirable outcome, with more on the skill with which she manipulates fragments of time and place in the narrative, how she creates memorable characters who are more than social-comical caricatures, and how she writes some of the most interestingly varied and satisfying dialogue I’ve read: she even outshines the brilliant St Aubyn in this respect.

The function of criticism: to be ‘a trifle temperamental’.

This has been a rather disruptive few weeks as building and repairs were carried out on the house. As a consequence a couple of pieces I’ve been pondering for blogposts have had to be put on ice, including one on a volume of stories by Cees Nooteboom which I recently finished reading. So here are a few literary morsels which I hope will whet the appetite for more substantial fare in the near future…

With the painters and plasterers working indoors I had to stash most of my books away in boxes, limiting what was accessible to me to a few random texts. The other day, having finished the Nooteboom, I could find nothing that took my fancy from the few titles still on my last available little shelf, except for an old paperback Peregrine copy of F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit, and Italo Calvino’s essays in a collection called The Literature Machine, first published in Italian in the early 80s, and published by Vintage in paperback in 1997.

N Curry Jul 14 025My literary training in the 70s, first at A level then as an undergraduate, was very much in the Leavisite ‘close reading’ tradition – those who’ve read any of these posts may well recognise the approach. I know it’s no longer fashionable, but it’s the one I’m comfortable with. When I carried out postgrad research into medieval hagiography at Leavis’s old college, Emmanuel, in Cambridge in the 80s the structuralists were in the ascendancy, and I found some aspects of their work of interest, as we shall see when I turn to Calvino in a future post.

This battered old Peregrine book was first published by Penguin in 1962 (but the essays in it first appeared in Leavis’s review, Scrutiny, a decade or so earlier; this edition is dated 1969). I first encountered it at Bristol University in the early 70s, when required to read the seminal essays on Milton, Swift, Pope and Shakespeare (among others scrutinised in the volume).

What caught my attention as I started re-reading it last week, not having looked into this text for several years, was the preface, where Leavis explains the source of its title: it’s taken from T.S. Eliot, The Function of Criticism, and his passage about the ‘quiet corroborative labour’ which the serious and objective critic should strive for in debate with colleagues and ‘fellows’ in ‘the common pursuit of true judgement’. Unfashionable, maybe, but those words still resonate for me.

The other passages I’d like to reproduce here remind me that FRL’s reputation as being a humourless curmudgeon is unmerited. His epigraphs include this from Robert Graves’s autobiography, Goodbye to All That:

At the end of my first term’s work I attended the usual college board to give an account of myself. The spokesman coughed and said a little stiffly: ‘I understand, Mr Graves, that the essays that you write for your English tutor are, shall I say, a trifle temperamental. It appears, indeed, that you prefer some authors to others.’

Wonderful.

In one of two epigraphs Leavis includes from the letters of Henry James there’s this, to WD Howells:

From the website of The Leavis Society

From the website of The Leavis Society

They are, in general, a sort of plea for Criticism, for Discrimination, for Appreciation on other than infantile lines – as against the so almost universal Anglo-Saxon absence of these things; which tends so, in our general trade, it seems to me, to break the heart.

If ‘our general trade’ – those of us who have the temerity to offer our critical judgements in places like this blog, and those who read and comment on them – is Discrimination and Appreciation applied to our careful readings of literary texts, then gods stand up for bastards, as Edmund so succinctly puts it in King Lear. Why shouldn’t lit crit be ‘practical’? What’s so terrible about being discriminating, provided it’s done in a spirit of probing, honest scrutinising corroboration with one’s fellow critics and readers?

 

 

 

‘The Author of Beltraffio’: final part of the critique

My last two posts were about ‘The Author of Beltraffio’. In the first I wrote about the ironic significance of characters’ names in the story and how this indicated the relationships between those characters – notably the central erotic triangle of the eponymous Author, Mark Ambient, and the two rivals for his attention: his wife, Beatrice, and the American narrator – a callow 25-year-old, and a disciple of this Master of aesthetic literature. In the second I began examining James’s literary technique: the dual narrative perspective which created an ironic gap between the young narrator’s unreliable perceptions and those of his older, wiser self – who may also be less reliable than he thinks:

In looking back upon these first moments of my visit to him, I find it important to avoid the error of appearing to have understood his situation from the first, and to have seen in him the signs of things which I learnt only afterwards. This later knowledge throws a backward light…[my italics]

Let’s now continue with the question I finished with last time: how to understand the central theme of the story.

Symonds in 1889

Symonds in 1889: picture for Whitman

The answer is found, I think, in its origins. In his notebooks James wrote that the germ of the idea came via Edmund Gosse’s portrayal of John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), one of the group of aesthetic writers which included Pater, Wilde and Swinburne.  Symonds’ wife, he claimed,   disapproved of her husband’s work and homosexuality. Ambient is said by our young narrator to have been ‘saturated with what painters call the ‘feeling’ of that classic land’ (Italy), which he ‘understood’ profoundly. He’d set several of his novels there. The title of Ambient’s masterpiece may well have been inspired by the Italian high renaissance artist Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1466/7-1516), who worked in Leonardo’s studio. His would be an apt name for such an aficionado of this period’s art to use.

Boltraffio: Portrait of a Lady

Boltraffio: Portrait of a Lady

The narrator, before meeting Ambient, had spent the winter there: ‘Italy opened my eyes to a good many things, but to nothing more than the beauty of certain pages of the works of Mark Ambient’, he says.  As Italy was associated with (homo)sexual tourism at the time, this passage, and the emphasis on Ambient’s Italianism, appear to support the interpretation that the root cause of Beatrice’s fierce hostility towards her husband, and obsessive desire to keep him from contaminating their son, arises from similar causes to Mrs Symonds’: she knows of Ambient’s sexuality, and is terrified that he will ‘poison’ Dolcino with this ‘contagion’. This language seems, as we saw in my previous two posts, too strong to be explained simply as an aversion to her husband’s literary aesthetic.

As we saw last time, Ambient describes their opposing viewpoints as ‘the difference between Christian and Pagan. I may be a pagan…She thinks me, at any rate, no better than an ancient Greek.’ Symonds wrote extensively about Italian art and culture, and on ‘Greek love’ and ethics – he was an unusually outspoken advocate of homosexual attachments.

By employing this ‘ingenuous’ and adoring young American as the refracting lens for such a doomed family drama, James is able to show the underlying origins of the ‘discord’ between Ambient and Beatrice without ever explicitly naming this taboo subject. This would also account for Beatrice’s hostility to the narrator himself. He’d told her of his admiration for her husband: ‘He likes being admired’, she replies enigmatically. He replies that Ambient has ‘many worshippers’. ‘Oh yes’, she retorts, ‘I have seen some of them’, and he finds it ‘strange’ that ‘she was not in sympathy’ with her husband, but dismisses this half-perception as not ‘important’ at the time; on the contrary, it simply encourages him to become more ‘gushing’ and rapturous. He describes her as looking at him as if he were ‘peculiar’; he dimly perceives that she thinks him ‘rather young’, but that ‘people usually got over that sort of thing.’ She declares that she is different from her husband; ‘If you like him, you won’t like me.’ He thinks her ‘positively disagreeable; delicate and proper and rather aristocratically dry’. He becomes patronising and aggressive, and goads her by asking about what her husband is working on at the time. At this point the older narrator comments sardonically: ‘I have every reason now [my italics] to know that she thought me an odious person.’ This sounds like jealousy.

There are frequent uses of terms from the semantic field of perception: ‘You Americans are very sharp,’ said Ambient. ‘You notice more things than we do.’ This may have been meant sincerely by Ambient, but in the context of James’s dual-perspective narrative, it’s clearly ironic, ambiguous, even comically self-deprecating.

More on the ambiguities of ‘seeing’ in the narrative: Ambient is shown reading a Sunday paper – the Observer; the narrator ‘watched’ Beatrice, who had expressed her vehement antipathy towards her husband to him earlier, taking lunch with her husband with apparent ‘good grace’, showing few of the ‘signs’ (again!) of the ‘fanatical temperament’ he suspects her of harbouring – though he goes on, unsympathetically, to describe her ‘air of incorruptible conformity, her tapering, monosyllabic correctness’ which show with ‘a cold, thin flame’. At first he says she ‘looked’ like a woman of few ‘passions’, but if she did have one he supposes it would be ‘Philistinism’ – she’s the ‘angel of propriety’. ‘I saw, more than before,’ he adds, that she was ‘delicately tinted and petalled’ like a plant. Once more, this reads like the spiteful account of a romantic rival. She’s not even perceived by him as fully human; she’s bloodless, vegetable, decorative only, like a corsage, a portrait by Gainsborough, undeserving of the great Master, Ambient (whereas he, of course, would appreciate him and accord him the homage and devotion he merits.)

In a brief moment of rare perspicacity the narrator then sees Ambient as ‘a little of a hypocrite’ for this apparent docility at table, but he quickly explains away this perception. We saw above how another aspect of Ambient’s hypocrisy has already been hinted at but not apparently accepted by the narrator. That the narrator himself at this point might also be perceived as hypocritical is a possibility that the narrator refrains from considering.

Later he ‘suspected’ but ‘afterwards definitely knew’ that Beatrice had ‘taken a dislike’ to him: she thought him an ‘obtrusive and even depraved young man, whom a perverse Providence had dropped upon their quiet lawn to flatter her husband’s worst tendencies.’ She tells Ambient’s sister Gwendolen that she had rarely seen her husband ‘take such a fancy to a visitor’, and ‘measured, apparently, my evil influence by Mark’s appreciation of my society.’  Is this another reference to the narrator’s adulation of his author-master’s artistry, or to a sexual attraction which Beatrice has jealously perceived?

DG Rossetti, Beata Beatrice, c.1864-70

DG Rossetti, Beata Beatrice, c.1864-70

This ‘consciousness, not yet acute’, is partially clarified at the story’s conclusion, after the tragic climax, when the older narrator reflects on what has happened. The crisis is precipitated by the narrator’s urging Beatrice to read the manuscript of Ambient’s work in progress, which the author had earlier lent to him. Gwendolen tells him that the crisis with Dolcino came after Beatrice had unaccountably read the pages, by ‘an author whom she could never abide.’ He agrees it was ‘a singular time for Mrs Ambient to be going into a novelist she had never appreciated’, on the recommendation of a young American she ‘disliked’. He ingenuously describes his younger self picturing her ‘turning over those pages of genius and wrestling with their magical influence.’ When the tragedy duly comes, Gwendolen tells the narrator Beatrice ‘sacrificed’ the boy: ‘The book gave her a horror, she determined to rescue him – to prevent him from ever being touched.’ He thinks it ‘dreadful’ to see himself figuring in this story of hers ‘as so proximate a cause…I saw myself to woefully figure in it.’ With this rather Gothic language the young narrator finally permits us a glimpse of the culpable (treacherous?) role he played in destabilising the Ambients’ marriage. Or is he simply a catalyst – bringing about the inevitable fracturing of relations between a couple married only in name? This seems unlikely, given that this requires the sacrifice of the angelic Dolcino. But he in turn can be seen as another object of the narrator’s jealousy – the embodiment of the physical, heterosexual bond between Ambient and Beatrice. Then again, how do we interpret the narrator’s lyrical, swooning accounts of the boy’s ethereal beauty, if he is so jealous of him?

Other possible interpretations arise. This is the first of several James stories in which a writer or artist plays a central role, and in Ambient’s long discussions with the narrator about the aesthetics of fiction he adumbrates some of the arguments in his extended essay on such principles in The Art of Fiction, published just months after this story. Although James’s position is very different from the posturing ‘art for art’s sake’ faction’s (as represented in part by Ambient), his is nevertheless a plea for high ideals and artistic freedom in the craft of fiction. And his work, written in accordance with those ideals, though popular, didn’t sell well. He was impelled to produce more crowd-pleasing fiction – a compromise which must have rankled. He was also scathing about the purveyors of low-brow, mass-market fiction which sold far better than his own.  The central triangle in this story can therefore be seen as a melodramatic representation of the tensions between high literary art (‘Beltraffio’ ) and the moralist repugnance it elicited in a philistine, puritanical and hypcritical reading public – represented here by Beatrice. As for Gwendolen: she could stand for the poseurs and hangers-on in the Aesthetic movement – the wearers of the moody garments and owners of the soulful, husband-seeking eyes.

The narrator says near the story’s end,

And, à propos of consciences, the reader is now in a position to judge of my compunction for my effort to convert Mrs Ambient.

Who, though, is ‘converted’?  The story ends with the ambiguous disclosure that, shortly before her death, she even ‘dipped into the black Beltraffio.’ James seems to be inviting us to accept the narrator’s inference that she is the one who’d been ‘converted’ by her child’s death (and by inference her husband’s aestheticism: she regrets preferring her son should die than be contaminated by his father); I have tried to show how the dual narrative perspective in the story, however, indicates otherwise. She was surely just proving to herself that her assessment of her husband as a malign, perverse influence on her little boy because of his sexuality was justifiable, and would be confirmed in this other book, his ‘masterpiece’.

As with Pip’s younger narrator, James’s young American’s imperfect perception of the scenes he finds himself caught up, and his myopic, partial presentation of the events he witnessed, presents us with an invitation to share his misinterpretations and vanities, with just the occasional ironic hint from the older narrator to encourage us to see through these ingenuous misinterpretations and possibly deliberate evasions. James’s narrative resists lending itself to a definitive interpretation of events: full knowledge is elusive. It’s probably too simplistic to see the story as just a representation of suppressed homoerotic impulses and feelings. James seems to thwart our efforts to decode the story’s signs, and the disorientating narrative voice, with its shifts in mood and tone (from social-satiric comedy to macabre psycho-sexual melodrama), in focalisation and narrative authority, draw us as readers back into the story’s own self-reflexiveness.

It’s for these subtleties of narrative technique, structure and ambivalence that I feel this story ranks higher in the literary canon (and James’s own) than some commentators would place it.

All pictures are in the public domain via WikiMedia Commons

Henry James, ‘The Author of Beltraffio’: Critique part I

I’ve been trying to condense this post into one piece, but find it refuses to accommodate, so here’s part I of my critical investigation into this story.

Henry James

Henry James

In my last post I wrote about Henry James’s 1884 story ‘The Author of Beltraffio’, where I described it as a ‘puzzling story’. I focused on the ironic significance of the names of the central characters. This time I intend looking more closely at the story’s themes, and at James’s literary technique. All quotations are from the Everyman’s Library edition cited previously.

As we saw last time, the story tells of the ultimately deadly struggle between the decadent-aesthetic author of the scandalous novel Beltraffio and his ‘tremendously moral’ wife, Beatrice, over their cherubic young son Dolcino. Beatrice believes her husband has a ‘pernicious’ influence on the boy’s character and ‘principles’. ‘She thinks me immoral’, Ambient tells the narrator.

Where does this hostility come from? We’ve already seen how venomous she is about her husband’s work and mind. And how come the story starts like a light country-house comedy and then takes a macabre turn?  In order to answer these questions I think it’s useful to examine the narrative approach James takes in the story.

James is famous for his use of ‘point of view’ in his fiction, and this is a phrase that appears repeatedly through the story (three times, for example, on the opening page) – and this clearly indicates the importance he attaches to it in the narrative. Our narrator is repeatedly described as ‘ingenuous’ in the time span of the story. He’s only 25, and a devout fan of Ambient’s. He’d read Beltraffio, which appeared three years before our story begins (when Ambient was 38), five times. He considered it a ‘fascinating work’ and a ‘masterpiece’. James is at pains, that is, to have his American narrator establish his younger self’s persona as naive and innocent – as so many of his protagonists are, in order to create stark contrasts with the often jaded, more mature (usually European) characters with whom they interact with usually abrasive consequences.

Great Expectations: Pip waits on Miss Havisham

Great Expectations: Pip waits on Miss Havisham

James also takes care from the start, however, to emphasise the contrast between this callow young man’s point of view and his more sober, rational self at the supposed time of writing the narrative in the ‘present’, ie about 1884. (Nevertheless, he admits that, looking back on it with his ‘riper judgement’, he admires Beltraffio as much now as he did then.) This is a technique found perhaps most famously in Dickens’ Great Expectations, narrated by a wiser, adult Pip musing on how little he understood in his youth, when the events of the story took place. Now he realises their true and full significance, whereas his unreliable, youthful point of view, from which he presents those events as they happened, shows him misreading them and disastrously misinterpreting them. This in turn enables Dickens to lure the reader into sharing young Pip’s unreliable version, so that Miss Havisham is seen by him as his Fairy Godmother, Estella the Princess to whom he deludedly believes he’s destined to be married, and Magwitch as the Ogre; he later learns, as we do, that these characters were polar opposites to this view, and it’s the painful learning of this lesson that’s at the heart of the novel.

Thus in James’s story, when the impressionable young American arrived at the train station, ‘nervous and timid’, to be met by Ambient, he describes the encounter in terms that would not feel out of place in a frothy romantic comedy:

My heart beat very fast as I saw his handsome face, surmounted with a soft wide-awake…

Ambient knew ‘by instinct how a young American of an aesthetic turn would look when much divided by eagerness and modesty. He took me by the hand, and smiled at me’…

The narrator felt ‘very happy and rosy, in fact quite transported, when he laid his hand on my shoulder’, and describes Ambient as ‘a delightful creature’. His appearance is ‘Bohemian’ – he favours ‘velvet jackets’, ‘loose shirt-collars’, and is ‘looking a little dishevelled’.

DG Rossetti, The Bower Maids, 1872:

DG Rossetti, The Bower Maids, 1872: typically soulful women in aesthetic garb and poses

Arrived at the author’s cottage the narrator describes the pastoral scene, as we have previously seen, in similarly gushing terms: it looks like a copy of ‘a masterpiece of one of the pre-Raphaelites’. Last time I pointed out how Ambient’s sister Gwendolen is likened to a portrait by Rossetti, while Beatrice was a Gainsborough or a Lawrence. James uses the contrasting styles and philosophies of these schools of artists to make his characters’ nature clear: the avant-garde and aesthetic versus the traditional and conventional.

James frequently places reminds us that this rose-tinted narrative is presented in retrospect, repeatedly using the same ‘that was then, this is now’ technique that Dickens uses with Pip; for example there is often an interjected ‘I remember’, which places the reader in this dual zone: the immediacy of the young enthusiast’s unreliable point of view, and the clearer-sighted maturity of the later man:

I remember looking for the signs of genius in the very form of his questions – and thinking I found it.

The house was, ‘to my vision, a cottage glorified and translated; it was a palace of art.’ When they first saw Beatrice and Dolcino in the garden, Ambient remarked that ‘she has got the boy’, in a tone the narrator had not heard before.

I was not fully aware of it at the time, but it lingered in my ear and I afterwards understood it.

This dual chronology places us, therefore, in the midst of action as it happens, but as with Pip’s narration, the American declines to present to us a fully mature and clear interpretation of the significance of what is unfolding as he narrates. Like the extracts just quoted, they tend to hint at something else, but the narrator never fully discloses what really happens. This is where the plot darkens, and the light comedy fades out.

The plot proceeds to show how the fierce struggle for possession of the little boy’s heart and soul between his morally contrasting parents culminates tragically.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Portrait of a Woman, c. 1750

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Portrait of a Woman, c. 1750: the stiff formal pose in a classical setting contrasts strikingly with the loose-limbed, loosely garbed souls in Rossetti

The young narrator is so besotted with Ambient that we see the plot progress largely from a point of view that is sympathetic to him and critical of Beatrice (and Ambient’s phony-Rossetti sister). On first meeting Beatrice, for example, he says she is ‘slim and fair’, has ‘pretty eyes and an air of great refinement.’ But she’s also said to be ‘a little cold’, with ‘a certain look of race’ – he learnt ‘afterwards’ that she was ‘connected’ to several ‘great families’. He refers to the ‘coldness’ in those ‘pretty eyes’ later.  With ironic generosity he refrains from portraying her as one of those poets’ wives whom it’s difficult to see as gratifying the ‘poetic fancy’ of their spouses; there is no ‘obvious incongruity’ in their union, and she’s patronisingly deemed ‘worthy of the author of a work so distinguished as Beltraffio.

The narrator’s portrayal of the visitor in the garden, a ‘jolly, ruddy personage’ whom he guesses to be the vicar’s wife, is also illuminating. When Ambient is shown conversing with her on humdrum matters the narrator expresses his surprise on seeing him even in ‘such superficial communion with the Church of England’. His writings are fundamentally at odds with ‘that institution’, and express ‘a view of life so profane’ and unlikely ‘to be thought edifying’ that he would have expected to find Ambient ‘an object of horror to vicars and their ladies’. He would expect Ambient to subject such people to ‘good-natured but brilliant mockery’.  Looking back from his older perspective he ascribes Ambient’s behaviour to English politeness and ‘keeping up their forms’, which his younger self was unaware of —  as he was of ‘the mysteries of Mark Ambient’s hearth and home.’ He ‘found afterwards’, he goes on, that in his study Ambient had, ‘between smiles and cigar-smoke, some wonderful comparisons for his clerical neighbours.’

In other words, this young man’s counter-cultural Victorian hero is a hypocrite. Why give us this rather unflattering depiction of the author so early in the story? Much of the rest of it gives us copious examples of the narcissistic narrator’s starry-eyed reverence for the aesthetic author. Soon after this scene, for example, Ambient dazzles him with his passionate, startling discourse, and ‘point of view’:

It was the point of view of the artist to whom every manifestation of human energy was a thrilling spectacle, and who felt for ever the desire to revolve his experience of life into a literary form.  On this matter of the passion for form – the attempt at perfection, the quest for which was to his mind the real search for the holy grail, he said the most interesting, the most inspiring things.

The callow American listens ‘open-mouthed’ and ‘astonished’, his ‘youthful mind’ marvelling at Ambient’s artistry, which also startles him and makes him wince.  What is it that is so shocking about Ambient’s aesthetics?  This is a conundrum at the heart of the story, and one which I shall return to in my next post.

 

Significance of names in Henry James, ‘The Author of Beltraffio’

I’ve been working on a piece about the Henry James story ‘The Author of Beltraffio’ for weeks now. It’s gone through two drafts, but I’m struggling to pin it down. As a result I’ve posted nothing here for quite a while, so here’s an interim piece; I hope it whets the appetite for the fuller version, which should will appear soon. I finish work for the summer in a couple of weeks, so that should provide opportunity to complete it.

001The edition used here is from the Everyman’s Library edition of Collected Stories, vol. 1 (1866-91), selected and edited by John Bayley, 1999, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, pp. 729-775; it is also found at pp. 55-112 in the Penguin Classics collection of Henry James stories: The Figure in the Carpet and other stories, edited with an introduction and notes by Frank Kermode; mine is the first edition, 1986. The story was first published in the June and July issues of the newly-established English Illustrated Magazine in 1884, and was reprinted in book form in England and the United States the following year.

Lamb House in 1897

Lamb House in 1897

Henry James was born in New York in 1843, but spent most of his adult life in Europe; from 1876 he made England his home. He became a British national in 1915, the year before his death. In 1897 he bought Lamb House in Rye, Sussex, and lived there for the remainder of his life – a period that David Lodge used as the basis for much of his novel about James, Author, Author (2004). Colm Tóibin, of course, produced a rather superior, artistically more satisfying novel about the latter part of the life of James, The Master, earlier the same year.

Portrait of James by John Singer Sargent

Portrait of James by John Singer Sargent

The theme of this story is typical of much of James’s fiction: the collision of a naive and ingenuous young American, embodied by the unnamed narrator of the story, and the antiquarian-decadent Old World of England, most notably represented by Mark Ambient, the author of the eponymous novel Beltraffio. In my next piece I intend to give a fuller critique of this rather puzzling story. For now I shall focus just on the names of the characters involved, as a prelude to what follows at a later date.

The central characters’ names are all significant, and make important contributions to any interpretation of the story, which deals with a preoccupation of James’s: the tension between his own view that ‘art makes life’ (with sublime fiction – like his own – being one of the fine arts), and the ‘evangelical hostility’ of the puritanical Victorian age towards art; he was a believer in the sacred duty of the artist to his art, and deplored what he considered the trashy fiction of most of his contemporaries, who in his view failed to take their work seriously. The relation of the artist to his public became an increasingly important subject in his later work, and ‘The Author of Beltraffio’ is one of the earliest examples of his treatment of it.

DG Rossetti, Dante meets Beatrice at a marriage feast, denies him her salutation, 1855

DG Rossetti, Dante meets Beatrice at a marriage feast, denies him her salutation, 1855

 Beatrice Ambient: this is the Dantesque and romantic name of the novelist’s wife. This turns out to be one of many caustic ironies in the story, for her conflict with her husband forms the heart of the drama it enacts: Ambient himself describes it as

the opposition between two distinct ways of looking at the world..the difference between Christian and Pagan. I may be a pagan, …She thinks me, at any rate, no better than an ancient Greek.

She has the buttoned-up Puritanism of the typical Victorian, and struggles to wrest their son out of the clutches of a husband she considers to be a corrupting, ‘pernicious’ influence… on ‘the formation of his character, of his principles’. ‘She thinks me immoral’, Ambient tells the young narrator. She has never read his works, which she considers ‘most objectionable’, and is described by her sister-in-law Gwendolen as ‘religious’ and ‘so tremendously moral’. ‘She thinks art should be moral’ and ‘should have a “purpose”’, Gwendolen adds. She has what Gwendolen describes as a ‘hatred’ of literature, and considers her husband’s mind ‘a well of corruption’. His influence is ‘undesirable’ to Beatrice, like ‘a subtle poison, or a contagion’; if she could, says Gwendolen, Beatrice ‘would prevent Mark from ever touching’ their son. ‘We shall probably kill him between us’, says Ambient to the narrator,’…by fighting for him!’

Gwendolen Ambient, Mark’s sister. Sympathises with her brother in the struggle for possession of the little boy, but also considers the writer’s ideas ‘rather queer’. The narrator first describes her as having a ‘modern’ laugh but a ‘medieval’ appearance. In keeping with the Pre-Raphaelite notions of her brother she favours an artistic-looking ‘faded velvet robe…like the garments of old Venetians and Florentines. She looked pictorial and melancholy.’ The narrator comes to realise this is all a pose, and she is in fact rather hypocritical and empty-headed: ‘She was a singular, self-conscious, artificial creature’ whose mind is less extraordinary than her appearance. She’s a ‘restless, yearning spinster, consumed with the love of Michael-Angelesque attitudes and mystical robes’ but without the depth of thought that she attempts to suggest. She is, in fact, ‘vulgar’, and ‘wished to be looked at, she wished to be married, she wished to be thought original…she had no natural aptitude for an artistic development – she had little real intelligence.’ He feels she’s been influenced by her brother, who’s unaware of the ‘perfidious’ image she presents to the world; Ambient simply sees her rather vaguely as making up ‘very well as a Rossetti’. Mrs Ambient, on the other hand, ‘was not a Rossetti, but a Gainsborough or a Lawrence, and she had in her appearance no elements more romantic than a cold, ladylike candour, and a well-starched muslin dress’.

Her name then, like Beatrice’s, has ironic literary-romantic and medieval associations. She figures in Arthurian chivalric legend: Geoffrey of Monmouth and the continuators of the Arthur legend portray her as Merlin’s wife or queen of Britain. The name became popular in England only in the nineteenth century, especially from the 1860s; the central female character in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1874-76) is Gwendolen Harleth. Eliot was aware of the name’s connotations with ‘Celtic romance and natural psychodrama’, and seems to have plumbed Tennyson’s Arthurian poems, which in turn re-work Malory’s, for her character’s moral ambiguity and ultimate marital misery – qualities which add resonance to James’s portrait of Gwendolen Ambient.

Queen Guinevere by William Morris, 1858

Queen Guinevere by William Morris, 1858

Some commentators see the name Gwendolen as related to Arthur’s unfaithful wife Guinevere. If James shared this view then this would add to the sense of irony in his choice of the name for this affected, beautiful but ultimately shallow young woman, who ends her days in a nunnery, devastated by the events that end the story, which are to some extent precipitated by her conversations with the narrator.

Dolcino Ambient is the ‘apple of discord’ between Mark and Beatrice. He’s the cherubic, beautiful son, aged seven or eight. ‘He’s like a little work of art’, gushes the narrator to the child’s father, adding yet another reference to the lengthy list of artistic images in the story.

James might have used this name, Italian like his mother’s, because of its etymological connections with words for sweetness. Maybe too he was thinking of the wayward radical Italian heretic, burnt at the stake in 1307 at the instigation of the famously ruthless Inquisitor, the Frenchman Bernard Gui (aka Guidonis), the Inquisitor of Toulouse and notorious scourge of the Albigensians (1307-23). Dolcino led the Order of Apostles, a vaguely socialistic anti-establishment sect whose members lived a sort of bandit life in the Piemonte hills. Like his mother’s, the boy’s name has links with Dante, who names Fra Dolcino in canto 28 of Inferno.

If so, this would seem to support Beatrice’s view that Mark Ambient would morally poison his son’s character, for Fra Dolcino held decidedly anti-authority views, believing in unconstrained liberality and equality for all – views that would have appalled the little boy’s mother, but probably appealed to the father.

Mark Ambient: his name connotes a person who accommodates to his surroundings or immediate environment. I shall examine in more detail next time an interpretation of the story which sees the scandalous author with his high aesthetic philosophy as essentially a hypocrite, a bourgeois like his emotionally atrophied wife.

 All images here are in the public domain via WikiCommons