Friday, September 4, 2015

“Oh, I shall mind what I read!” - Europeans in America, Americans in Europe - one more Henry James post

“He is a dear good fellow,” the young lady rejoined.  “And he is a perfect husband.  But all Americans are that,” she continued smiling.

“Really!” Lord Lambeth explained again; and wondered whether all American ladies had such a passion for generalising as these two.  (“An International Episode,” Ch. II)

Little joke there from Henry James.  All American ladies in Henry James stories from 1877 through 1879 have this passion for generalizing.  That’s pretty close to true.

I am not convinced that James’s international theme is all that substantive, but it was plenty important for James.  It gave him plenty of fine social comedy, at least.  Here two Englishmen are having their first meal in America.  Lord Lambeth is not the “clever one.”  He is an idiot.  His great triumph in the story is to realize that he is an idiot:

“Don’t you know, what’s-his-name’s, close to the thingumbob?  They always set an English waiter at me.  I suppose the think I can’t speak French.”

“No, more you can.”  And the elder of the young Englishmen unfolded his napkin.
his companion took no notice whatever of this declaration.  “I say,” he resumed in a moment, “I suppose we must learn to speak American.  I suppose we must take lessons.”

“I can’t understand them,” said the clever man.

“What the deuce is he saying?” asked his comrade, appealing from the French waiter.

“He is recommending some soft-shell crabs,” said the clever man.  (Ch. I)

Wodehouse refugees.

The Daisy Miller is “An International Episode” is actually an anti-Daisy Miller, a person no one will mistake for a frivolous flirt, well-read and knowledgeable about history and culture.

“Ah, well, you know,” said her companion [Lord Lambeth again], “those things are often described by fellows who know nothing about them.  You mustn’t mind what you read.”

“Oh, I shall mind what I read!” Bessie Alden rejoined.  “When I read Thackeray and George Eliot, how can I help minding them?”

“Ah, well, Thackeray – and George Eliot,” said the young nobleman; “I haven’t read much of them.”  (Ch. III)

In a shocking turn, almost unprecedented in modern fiction, Bessie Alden not only learns from novels but turns out to be right to have done so.  Lord Lambeth should have read more, or better, novels.

“The Pension Beaurepas” begins with Stendhal and Balzac and includes a funny parody of Père Goriot, with the Daisy Millerish daughter blowing through her sick father’s money.  This Daisy Miller really is a shallow nitwit, interested only in shopping.  She helped me see some of the nuance in the Daisy Miller of “Daisy Miller” who is sharper than she seems.  James is always rearranging the pieces in his stories (this one in fact has two Daisy Millers, one of whom is Europeanized and aspires to Daisy’s freshness and innocence).  Where Miller’s father stays in Schenectady, and Bessie Alden’s brother-in-law stays in New York, the sad sack father of the dim Daisy of “Pension Beaurepas”  is the comic high point of the story.

…  I inquired of my friend whether he had been long in Europe.

“Well, it seems precious long,” he said, “but my time’s not up yet.”  (Ch. II)

Europe, for the American businessman, is a prison that for some reason has expensive shops where his wife and daughter can bankrupt him.  The story is not really about him or his family – Simon Lavery’s post on “Beaurepas” has the actual story – but James ends the story with the stoic, depressed father.

“Don’t wait for me,” he said, sitting there on his stool, and not meeting my eye.  “I’ve got to see this thing through.”

Another American victim of Europe, or more precisely, another American victim of Americans in Europe.

2 comments:

  1. I had no idea Henry James was so funny. I'll have to give him another try.

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  2. I don't remember "The Turn of the Screw" being at all comic. No doubt there are other examples. But James is mostly a comic writer.

    It has been a surprise to see him, in passages, look so much like Wilde-Saki-Waugh-Wodehouse.

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