Penny said, “Was it Henry James you’re working on?”
“Er… yes,” said Nick.
She seemed to settle comfortably on that, but only said, “My father’s got tons of Henry James. I think he calls him the Master.”
“Some of us do,” said Nick. He blinked with the exalted humility of the devotee and sawed off a square of brown meat. (123, ellipses in original)
Nick is the aesthete and hedonist who stars in Alan Hollinghurst’s finely worked The Line of Beauty (2004). I fuss and fume about reading more Henry James, and then when I do read more I write nothing about it. So how about a run at The Spoils of Poynton (1897), published seventeen years after Washington Square.
Since it was all he had, he said, “Actually, I’ve always rather wanted to make a film of The Spoils of Poynton…” Monique settled back with an appreciative nod at this, and Nick felt encouraged to go on, “I think it could be rather marvelous, don’t you. You know Ezra Pound said it was just a novel about furniture, meaning to dismiss it of course, but that was really what made me like the sound of it!” (187, ellipses in original).
Me, too! Mrs. Gereth and her late husband were tenacious collectors, assembling the perfectly furnished house, but Mrs. Gereth is likely to lose the collection if her nitwit son marries the wrong wife (a wife with bad taste – “It would be her fate, her discipline, her cross, to have a frump brought hideously home to her,” Ch. I). But what if the son marries poor but discriminating Fleda? Fleda would like that, too, unless, the path to marriage violates any number of agonizing but small qualms of conscience, the latter making this a James and not a Trollope or Zola story. All of that is surely enough story for a short novel.
Where Washington Square shuffled four characters, Poynton makes do with only three, with the young woman again the center of the novel’s universe. Scott Bailey comments on how funny and rapid Washington Square is; Poynton is the same, with 22 chapters in 180 pages (in the Library of America edition) and the sharp, obsessive Mrs. Gereth getting most of the laugh lines. See the frump above – that sentence is very much in Mrs. Gereth’s voice, as is this:
To get away from [the ugly house] and out into the air, into the presence of sky and trees, flowers and birds, was a necessity of every nerve. The flowers at Waterbath would probably go wrong in color and the nightingales sing out of tune; but she remembered to have heard the place described as possessing those advantages that are usually spoken of as natural. (Ch. I)
I suppose I have to hear Mrs. Gereth’s voice correctly, just as I do to laugh with Hollinghurst up above, to get the joke of “usually spoken of as natural,” but the flowers and nightingales that have “probably” gone wrong should be all the clue I need that Mrs. Gereth is adept with comic hyperbole.
Washington Square is, I am informed, one of the last products of James’s early period, while Spoils is from his middle period. What all of this means I cannot say. Some thickening of the Jamesian prose is evident, but as I see in this passage the convoluted voice is at the service of a convoluted character, one who performs the voice. Mrs. Gereth is a step on the path to the snappish aunts found in P. G. Wodehouse novels. Come to think of it, her confident, ill-educated, weak-willed son Owen is not all that far from Bertie Wooster.
I am not quite ready to enroll with Nick in the ranks of readers who call James “the Master,” but I can spend another day or two at Poynton.