Henry James, “Louisa Pallant” revisited

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

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

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

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

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

She goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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