The most frequently reprinted, and best, of the James tales I read recently were “The Siege of London” (1883) and “Lady Barberina” (1884), both 90-pagers with many short chapters – little mini-novels. The first is a return to the usual James theme of Americans in Europe, as one could guess from the title, with one particularly vulgar American lady as the siege engine, while Lady Barberina is an Englishwoman dragged to New York City by marriage. The stories, and the women, contrast pleasingly.
Mrs. Headway, the battering ram, is much-married, not quite respectable, and from San Diego, New Mexico ( James’s New Mexico is a reminder that he was a fantasy writer). None of this makes the character interesting to James. Here is the problem:
There was something in Mrs. Headway that shocked and mortified him, and Littlemore had been right in saying that she had a deficiency in shading. She was terribly distinct; her motives, her impulses, her desires, were absolutely glaring. She needed to see, to hear, her own thoughts. (Ch. V)
A “deficiency of shading”! Jamesians gasp in horror. I was rooting for Mrs. Headway.
A visit to an English country house results in a rare bit of Jamesian description. Some deer are “scattered like pins on a velvet cushion over some of the remoter slopes,” which is easy enough to picture, unlike “the grayness of evening beginning to hang itself on the great limbs of the oaks” and even better “the trees had an air of conscious importance, as if nature herself had been bribed somehow to take the side of country families” (all from Ch. VII).
“Lady Barberina” had a good one (the characters are in a conservatory): “The gloom was rosy with the slopes of azalea, and suffused with mitigated music, which made it possible to talk without consideration of one’s neighbors” (Ch. II). There is a “band of music concealed in a bower of azaleas,” thus the odd phrase about the music. It is an odd sentence all around, which is not a complaint.
As with the other tales from this period, “Lady Barberina” is comic and satirical, with plenty of jokes, although it is not a pure humor piece like others I have mentioned. It has a story, characters, some ethical complexity, etc. Characters debate a question “with the moral earnestness of a pair of Bostonians” (Ch. V) – can’t accuse James of that. Or here an American couple wonder if an American doctor can dare marry an English aristocrat:
[Husband]: “Young female members of the British aristocracy have married coachmen and fishmongers, and all that sort of thing; but they have never married you and me.”
[Wife]: “They certainly haven’t married you.” (Ch. IV)
If The Bostonians is not funny I am going to be so irritated. I feel that if I have accomplished nothing else I have at least finally understood Henry James’s sense of humor.