Thursday, October 29, 2015

"He has a genius for upholstery" - not an ironic comment about the style of Henry James, but it could be

Chapter 36 begins strangely:

One afternoon, towards dusk, in the autumn of 1876, a young man of pleasing appearance rang at the door of a small apartment on the third floor of an old Roman house.

This is at the 65% mark.  Has the printer accidentally bound the beginning of a different James novel in the middle of my copy?  Why the sudden fuss about dates?  The man asks for Madame Merle, who is a character I know.  He turns out to be Mr. Edward Rosier, who I do not:

The reader will perhaps not have forgotten that Mr. Rosier was an ornament of the American circle in Paris…

This reader certainly had forgotten.  James has, it turns out, leapt ahead three years (thus the date) and reset the novel.  For three chapters he pretends, with a straight face, that having solved the problem of Isabel Archer’s marriage, he is now interested in the courtship of Mr. Rosier and Pansy Osmond, the strange, doll-like sixteen year-old who is now an odd, porcelain nineteen year-old.

I have a lot of skepticism about the practice of searching through James for homosexual characters, but Rosier is so gay.  He seems to want to add Pansy to his collection of knick-knacks.  “He thought of her in amorous meditation a good deal as he might have thought of a Dresden-china shepherdess.”  I am glad James provides no further details.

Later, Rosier proves his devotion by, well

“It’s very easily told,” said Edward Rosier.  “I have sold all my bibelots!”

Isabel gave, instinctively, an exclamation of horror; it was as if he had told her he had had all his teeth drawn.  (Ch. 50)

That’s one of my favorite lines in the novel.  He sells his trinkets for nearly a million bucks, current dollars, by the way.

Earlier, Isabel and Edward have this exchange, about Isabel’s husband:

“He must be very clever.”

“He has a genius for upholstery,” said Isabel.

“There is a great rage for that sort of thing now.”  (Ch. 38)

In some ways reading A Portrait of a Lady is akin to reading Jules Laforgue’s poems about commedia dell’arte clowns who live on the moon.  The characters in The Portrait of a Lady are a rarefied bunch.  The fiction of Ronald Firbank is now possible.

I did not mean to write so much about this marvelous minor character.  I meant to write about the subtly indirect ways James fills in three years of history for the important characters (it takes six chapters to finally get back to Isabel’s point of view).  But I might as well finish him off.

Whatever suspicions I have about Rosier’s love for a doll, the love affair turns out to be quite real for the doll herself, real to the point of genuine pathos, and real to Isabel, which is how the whole subplot transforms into the main plot.  I have some arguments with James’s bantering dialogue – maybe I will write about that tomorrow – but it allows Pansy one fine moment.

“Oh yes, I must indeed.  I can’t disobey papa.”

“Not for one who loves you as I do, and whom you pretend to love?”

Pansy raised the lid of the tea-pot, gazing into this vessel for a moment; then she dropped six words into its aromatic depths.  “I love you just as much.”

I so enjoy the line without dialogue that I almost wish James had left me guessing about the six words.

27 comments:

  1. "I have sold all my bibelots" is a sentence I must now work into every future novel I write. I was saving "Bibelot" for a character name, but now...I'm going to engage in a crude stereotype but I can't help stating that James was incapable of preventing the purses from falling from his mouth when he wrote some dialogue for men who were constitutionally incapable (if they had been real) of either thinking, feeling, or saying such things. And it's what makes James so subtle, leaving Wilde playing desperately for the balcony belly laugh.

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  2. Yes, well said. When people describe James as a "realist" - well, I never think anyone is a realist, but James, come on!

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  3. In his preface to a late edition of Portrait, James talks about the characters around Isabel, how they are in fact less than real (less than James' idea of fictional reality, that is), how they are merely part of the architecture of the narrative that allows him to talk at length about Isabel. He dragged them into his novel because they were necessary furniture on the stage, not because he had any real interest in them. He was making grotesques, puppets, and he knew it.

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  4. Regarding Rosier and the pursuit of Pansy, James includes a lot of images of dolls and porcelain and other (breakable) collectibles, because Rosier (and other men in the novel) are essentially collectors, people who buy and sell the idea of experiences rather than actually having them. More foils for Isabel, who is authentically alive, of course.

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  5. I suppose this is why moments, like the one with Pansy I mentioned, catch my attention, moments when the furniture comes to life. When even a puppet like Pansy can be alive for a few lines. It's impressive.

    Rosier is the simple version of the "collector." Ralph Touchett more complex, Osmond even moreso, I guess.

    James took a risk by dumping the Eliot (Trollope, Dickens, everyone) dual-plot. There is only one protagonist, one way forward. Everything has to orbit Isabel. It makes the fictional world a little more pinched. It's also what makes the fake-out I describe above enjoyable - wait, now the book is about Pansy? No, of course not!

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    1. James, in that same preface, calls Eliot and Dickens and a few other authors cowards for not attempting a book that narrows the focus to one character, to a woman in particular.

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    2. Stevenson! I am curious what James meant by that. Stevenson had trouble writing women at all, much less using one as a single protagonist.

      Anyway, I see what you mean: "by which pusillanimity in truth their honour is scantly saved" etc.

      I am reminded why I am not reading these prefaces at this point: I find them to be really difficult.

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    3. Yeah, the preface is all written in Late James. But it's got that "the house of writing has many windows" section, truly beautiful and useful. When you get around to reading The Ambassadors, you should read that preface, too. It's a little masterclass in structuring a novel.

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  6. "Pansy raised the lid of the tea-pot, gazing into this vessel for a moment; then she dropped six words into its aromatic depths."
    I love that line. Maybe my favourite sentence in Portrait even.
    Pansy bothered me a bit at the beginning- her passivity and submissiveness was too much emphasised, her talk sounded odd, she was too much like a doll, but later, in a few scenes, she became real. That one you mention. The passage where Pansy meets Warburton and then goes to bed without saying a word about him to Isabel, and Isabel cannot know what's on her mind. The scene in which the 2 talk and Pansy says to Isabel that she knows Warburton doesn't truly care for her.

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  7. It's my favorite line, too; certainly my favorite that is not a joke, at least, along with Ralph breakfasting on sunshine.

    Those other Pansy scenes are good, too. The character seems like she should be a misfire, but no.

    I need to borrow some things from your new post on metaphors.

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    1. Yeah. Specifically, Florentine sunshine.
      You're quick. I'd just put that up.

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  8. Your thoughtful embrace of James's novel persuades me that I need to revisit it soon; I look forward to once again enjoying James's love of describing place and objects, and his even more obvious love of beautiful sentences, loves which I think trump his passion for characterization and plotting.

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  9. Well, my RSS reader is quick. My limited experience is that Florentine sunshine was fairly nourishing, but not as much the Florentine cappuccino from the little stand at the Central Market.

    RT, are you thinking of the same Henry James? My greatest frustration with him is that he almost never describes objects or places. He describes interior states of people and adjuncts to those states. He uses settings in interesting ways, but he does not care at all if I can see them. You sound like you are describing Zola. Everything is in the service of characterization, in this case, as Scott notes, of a single character. The novel's title is accurate.

    Nor am I convinced that his sentences are particularly beautiful, but now we have moved to an old argument. No need to redo it on my side. Ignore as is pleasing and useful. But if anyone wants to make the case for beauty, with copious, melodious examples, I am all ears.

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    1. Yes, James. I prove again my peculiar inability to read as others read. I should be shot at sunrise. Fire when ready.

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  10. Hmm, no, the next step is where you say "What I meant by beauty is..." or "I am thinking of lines like..." and after a couple of rounds I say "Ah, I see what you mean, how interesting."

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    1. I direct you to my most recent posting.

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  11. That's about this! You gotta be kidding!

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  12. No, my folly here is a symptom of the underlying causes for the decision. My infirmaties overwhelm me now and then. Yes, I'm overwhelmed by senescence and other health issues. Onward!

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  13. There has been no folly here, beyond the folly inherent in an interest in literature.

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    1. You're wrong. I have been foolish in my folly. My cognitive disruptions and follies undo me. Enough!

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    2. And please see my latest posting at Beyond Eastrod Redux.

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    3. I was thinking of make next year heavy on Henry James. But I'm not going to burn down Wuthering Expectations.

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  14. One of the problems with Victorians - not just characters in Victorian novels, but Victorians - is deciding who is gay and who is homosexual and who is both (or neither).
    You can't get much more gay than Tissot's famous portrait of Fred Burnaby https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Gustavus_Burnaby#/media/File:Frederick_Gustavus_Burnaby_by_James_Jacques_Tissot.jpg or much more heroically Victorian than Tissot's life. Field Marshall Lord Kitchener was a life-long bachelor and woman-hater who kept the skull of his enemy the Mahdi as an ink-stand. When he wasn't writing about effete young men puncturing the vanity of the Edwardian upper-class Saki had been a colonial policeman and war-correspondent and died in action as a sergeant dreaming of settling in Siberia. Kitchener and Saki both embroidered tapestries as a hobby - as did the actor Ernest Thesiger, author of Adventures in Embroidery, who asked about the Battle of the Somme described it is as "Dreadful, my dear, absolutely dreadful. The noise. And the people."
    It really was "all so unimaginably different and all so long ago."

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  15. Roger, thanks for the pointer to the painting. I had not seen it. Yes, you can really see how the codes of masculinity have changed - that shiny breastplate, those legs! I suppose what we call camp is a response to that change.

    In The Portrait of a Lady, the contrast with the gay Rosier is the more ambiguous Gilbert Osmond, who also collects trinkets and is an aesthete - he is the one with the genius for upholstery - but who is also more masculine and sexually attractive to women. John Malkovich, who played him in the Jane Campion movie, was the perfect actor for the role. He is hard to interpret, but he makes the simpler Rosier easy to understand. Rosier is campy.

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  16. I meant "You can't get much more gay than Tissot's famous portrait of Fred Burnaby ...or much more heroically Victorian than Burnaby's life." of course, though Tissot himself - possibly helping his consumptive mistress kill herself with laudanum and reverting to roman catholicism- was also characteristically Victorian in his way, though it wasn't a Jamesian way.
    If I remember rightly, Campion's film is an argument and commentary with James's The Portrait of a Lady as much as a film of it.

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  17. Comments could use an edit function.

    Yes, that is how I remember the movie, as an explicitly feminist adaptation of the novel. I hadn't even read the book, but I could see that.

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