Friday, May 18, 2012

James tells, James shows - some scene that the newspapers would have characterized as lively

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.


  1. No doubt that was why he was such a failure as a playwright.

    1. I haven't read the plays, but, thinking of the dialogue exchanges in his books, I have a suspicion they'd seem unbearably coy and precious, not much more than characters making meaningful silences out loud at one another for two hours -- although they might not be like that at all.

      The phrases like "Frieda cried with a long wail" always feel to me like bits of elegance, musical beat-making, more than descriptions of any action these characters might actually, really, in their real fictional lives, perform. "I have to put them there," I can imagine him saying, "these people would look too bare and exposed if I didn't."

  2. You wonder, don't you. Maybe I should try The Awkward Age, which I think is almost all dialogue, in order to prove myself wrong, or, though unlikely, right.

  3. Washington Square contains a counter-example for my "argument" in Chapter XIII. After a brief "establishing shot," he short chapter is nothing but dialogue. James even makes do with only a couple of "said"s. The entire chapter is only 628 words, two pages in my Penguin edition.

    One of the characters is an inveterate ironist, or a smart aleck, so the scene is plenty punchy. The characters are bare and exposed, but in this case they have their own defenses.

  4. Sometimes James reminds me of Eliot....emotion disguised as intellect.

  5. Yeah, the emotion is always at the center. But then the long "telling" passages are thinking about emotion, meaning James has to find the logic in the movement of the emotions. The logic is often one of association or intuition - not necessarily very logical logic. Intellect on the subject of emotion, maybe.

  6. That could be the disguise, a thinking, pattern-making way of writing that imitates intellect without having the evident meat you'd find in one of his brother's philosophy books, or a book of physics, or, in fiction, Proust. So say that he hides intellect as he hides the furniture, putting down signposts that indicate the presence of intellect without actually giving it to you.

    He very elaborately, kindly and gently points out whatever-it-is, but whatever-it-is is a thing that nobody can create except him, and then he doesn't create it.

  7. James is never going to just show us the figure in the carpet, even though we know it must be there.