Literature: April 2008 Archives

I have, of late, had the sometime pleasure of the company of a young American woman of my acquaintance at luncheon. While the venues, cuisines, and surroundings of our après-midi repast were variable and dependent upon the circumstances and opportunities available to us, they have always been of the greatest pleasure and entertainment to me.

Miss Archer is at once a very determined young lady, but one also tinged with the streak of independence set firmly in the ground of a graceful and enhancing naiveté, which conduces to my enjoyment of our conversational aperitifs.

I've grown somewhat concerned because whereas her talk was mostly of the many men who saw her and implored her favors while she remained on the Touchett family estate, more and more I am hearing of a person of interest who seems to have netted our pretty little bird without her own knowledge. And the more I hear of Osmond, the more concerned I become, because it occurs to me that there is some information circulating about him that does not redound to his credit. While one can never take seriously what circulates on the street or even in the salon, it has been my distinct displeasure to make the acquaintance of another member of the pretty scene that Miss Archer has laid before me.

Miss Archer never fails of speak of Madame Merle in anything but the most glowing terms, expressing only admiration for this widow, who, as Mr. Touchett has observed on occasion lacks any blot whatsoever on her record. One must wonder about such a record--how recent it must be and what must have been, with some great aplomb, expunged from that on-going document. My own sense of Madame Merle is not nearly so flattering to that personage. There is something about her that is, perhaps subtle is the word, but I think wily is closer to the sense. She seems to fashion les tableaux to fit the needs of the moment, and one cannot help but wonder what those needs might be. Mr. Touchett himself has confided to me that she is a woman of great and unrealized ambitions—and perhaps that view has colored my own of her character. For all I know she may be as spotless as she appears to the casual observer.

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I Have a Theory


Like Miss Archer herself, I am filled with useless theories and baseless speculations. But it occurred to me, while reading The Portrait of a Lady that Henry James himself resides within the novel in the skin of Henrietta Stackpole.

Ms. Stackpole tells Isabel that she has no affinity for inanimate objects and she doesn't care to write home about places and mere scenery. Her interest is in people and how they interact and what they are. She sees, of course, with her own blinders in place. However, she does see.

Henry James, for all of his skill with character, lacks any sense of place or time. You read through the book not knowing what people are dressed in, where they are standing, what the scenery is like. Isabel Archer's entire trip trough London is summed up in a short paragraph of about three sentences. We have no opportunity to visit with her the British Museum, much less to sit a moment under those grand trees of Kensington Gardens.

Yes indeed, James makes short shrift of scenery and, indeed, almost any form of set decoration. And we have characters who wander about in a largely and mysteriously featureless world. It amazes me how bereft of this sort of detail the book is.

On the other hand, it simply isn't required for what Mr. James wishes to divulge to us. And so, in that sense, it is handled perfectly.

However, I have theory. . .

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The Wacky World of Henry James


As typified by two passages from the current read:

from The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James

Isabel was sure moreover that her mild forehead and silver cross referred to some weird Anglican mystery, some delightful reinstitution perhaps of the quaint office of the canoness.

[Harriet Stackpole speaking with Lord Warburton]

". . . . I don't approve of you, you know; I feel as if I ought to tell you that."

"Don't approve of me?"

"Yes; I don't suppose any one ever said such a thing to you before, did they? I don't approve of lords as an institution. I think the world has got beyond them--far beyond."

"Oh, so do I. I don't approve of myself in the least. Sometimes it comes over me--how I should object to myself if I were not myself, don't you know? But that's rather good, by the wayl--not to be vainglorious."

"Why don't you give it up then?" Miss Stackpole enquired.

"Give up--a--?" asked Lord Warburton, meeting her harsh inflexion with a very mellow one.

"Give up being a lord."

"Oh, I'm so little of one! One would really forget all about it if you wretched Americans were not constantly remind one. However, I do think of giving it up, the litter there is left of it, one of these days."

"I should like to see you do it!" Henrietta exclaimed rather grimly.

"I'll invite you to the ceremony; we'll have supper and a dance."

Critics note that much of James's work is about this conflict between the Old World and the New World, with the New representing innocence and rugged individualism and self-determination (as noted in the character of Miss Archer herself.) Having not read sufficiently in his oeuvre to make such sweeping judgments, I'll accept the advise of the critics. If so, in these interchanges we see some of the downside of innocence and self-determination--a kind of naive arrogance that can pronounce with impunity on things it does not understand and look down upon all things foreign as "quaint" and "charming" or unlikeable institutions.

There is a price to pay for this sort of arrogance and previous reading has led me to believe that Miss Archer, much to her woe is to be brought up sharp against it.

Whatever the case, I'll keep you informed. And hopefully you can be as amused as I am.

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Henry James is one of those writers who seems to be four or five or six different writers depending on when the work you are reading was written. There is an evolution of complexity and theme and intent throughout his work and in the first great work of the "middle period," there is a command of style, language, character, and incident that yields both a lovely and luxurious prose and a novel of high drama if of little incident.

from The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James

He was far from the time when he had found it hard that he should be obliged to give up the idea of distinguishing himself, an idea none the less importunate for being vague and not the less delightful for having to struggle in the same breast with bursts of inspiring self-criticism. His friends at present judged him more cheerful and attributed it to a theory, over which they shook their heads knowingly, that he would recover his health. His serenity was but the array of wild flowers niched in his ruin.

And again, something not often associated with James, humor:

Of their opinions Isabel was never very definitely informed; but it may interest the reader ro know that while they had recognised in the late Mr. Archer a remarkably handsome head and a very taking manner (indeed, as one of them had said, he was always taking something), they had declared that he was making a very poor use of his life.

And from a conversation between Ralph Touchett and his mother:

"No, I don't think I pity her. She doesn't strike me as inviting compassion. I think I envy her. Before being sure, however, give me a hint of where you see your duty."

"In showing her four European countries--I shall leave her the choice of two of them--and in giving her the opportunity of perfecting herself in French, which she already knows very well."

Ralph frowned a little. "That sounds rather dry--even allowing her the choice of two countries."

Block by block and word by careful word, the sentences pile up together to erect an edifice, a carefully constructed picture of a person and a personality. As in Daisy Miller, the first impression is of someone somewhat brash and perhaps a little (in the terms of the day) "saucy," but definitely of interest. We know, of course, that the end, foreshadowed in the beginning by Mr. and Mrs. Touchett's marriage, is not likely to be a happy one--the reader is nevertheless compelled down the avenue paved by such rich bricks to discover not only what happens but who Isabel Archer is.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Literature category from April 2008.

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