Should I write about what Henry James does especially well rather than what is missing from The Spoils of Poynton? Ignore the missing furniture and instead trace the twisting of Fleda Vetch’s conscience while under emotional stress? The latter is the purpose of the novel, not the crafting of original metaphors or the polishing of mellifluous phrases.
Well, it is all a work in progress, so I am going to continue to complain. Complaining is a way to learn, yes? No? Today’s complaint is contradictory: James does not have enough scenes in The Spoils of Poynton, and James should have fewer scenes in the novel.
I am just inverting the old “show, don’t tell” advice, following a recent post by Rohan Maitzen. Henry James seems to be at his best when he tells, when he frees himself from the constraints of scene. Sometimes he is telling background, summarizing a character’s past or something like that, but often he is following the thoughts of a character – in Spoils, the thoughts of young Fleda as she thinks through her romantic and ethical problems. James abandons anything but the vaguest sense of location or action or detail, nor does he pretend to give us much in the way of Fleda’s exact thoughts.
He is not writing a Virginia Woolf novel. Think of the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway, when we go shopping with Clarissa. We are always in her head but at the same time are constantly reminded of her surroundings, of her physical location – she has just gone down her front steps, she is looking in a particular shop window, she has stepped off the curb, but is all the while thinking of her past and the people she used to know. The technique makes it difficult to tell a story where any amount of time passes. Readers of To the Lighthouse know how Woolf handles that problem.
James can instead use a few pages to cover days or even weeks of mental progression. In Chapter XIII, for example, Fleda has moved in with her father in London. A passage covers her activity (summary: none, “[h]er only plan was to be as quiet as a mouse”) and another passage describes her father and his activities, including his “objects, shabby and battered… old brandy-flasks and match-boxes, old calendars and hand-books” – it turns out he is a collector, too, but a collector of junk. And then two solid pages of Fleda’s thinking about her relations with the other characters in the novel.
“This continued a fortnight, at the end of which the feeling was suddenly dissipated” by a visitor, which moves us to Chapter XIV, a single scene, which in James seems to mean a minimal amount of establishing detail – “She poured herself a cup, but not to take it; after which, without wanting it, she began to eat a small stale biscuit” – and then talk talk talk filled out with “Owen looked conscious,” “Fleda cried out with a long wail,” “Owen honestly exclaimed,” and more semi-elegant variation. Competent enough, but James’s showing is rarely up to his telling.
That biscuit is the only concrete object in the chapter, and it returns at the beginning of the next. Fleda and Owen are interrupted; the biscuit falls on the floor because of “some precipitate movement” by Fleda.
For Mrs. Brigstock there was apparently more in it than met the eye. Owen at any rate picked it up, and Fleda felt as if he were removing the traces of some scene that the newspapers would have characterized as lively. (Ch. XV)
In a novel that is really about exceedingly, excruciatingly small matters of decorum and conscience, a nibbled biscuit making a scene “lively” is perfect. I wish James had summarized more of the chatter, but not at the expense of the biscuit.