Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Henry James comes home - Who would have carried Plummeridge’s portmanteau?

The next Henry James novel I am going to read is What Maisie Knew (1897), spurred by Lakeside Musing and others, but since the last one I read was The Portrait of a Lady (1882), and I want to know what happens next.  James used his short fiction, his “tales,” and some of his earlier novels to prepare himself for his big statement, his masterpiece.  He worked on characters, ideas, and points of view.

James is the kind of writer who discovers what he wants to write by writing, but he has a strong enough conceptual sense that he does not want to risk improvising it all on the spot.  He works towards something; what that is he learns along the way.  That is the impression I have gathered.

How many writers are able to work their notes for a novel into polished commercial magazine fiction?  That by itself is impressive.

I read five “tales” written between Portrait and The Bostonians (1885-6), which I take as a the next major James novel.  The Princess Casamassima, even longer than The Bostonians, was serialized in a different magazine around the same time.  Maybe that one is also a major novel.  I have not read either.  James was as inexhaustible as Trollope at this point.  The “tales” are “The Point of View” (1882), “The Siege of London” (1883), “The Impressions of a Cousin” (1883), “Lady Barberina” (1884), and “Pandora” (1884).  Next would be “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” (1884) which I read a few years ago and which anyways does not fit the amusing pattern of Americans returning to America from Europe.

It is a good jokes, as if he sent his characters to Europe and now has to bring them home.  In “Point of View,” this is almost literally the case, since it opens with a young woman from “The Pension Beaurepas,” published three years earlier and set in Switzerland, on an Atlantic ocean liner, “soon to enter the Bay of New York.”

The piece is barely a story but more of a collection of gags, a bundle of letters, all written by different people, back to Europe with impressions of America.  For all I know all of the letter writers are characters from old James stories.  That would be great.

Here is the Honourable Edward Antrobus, M.P., writing to his wife about the inconveniences of train travel:

I have sometimes thought it was a great mistake not to bring Plummeridge; he would have been useful on such occasions.  On the other hand, the startling question would have presented itself – Who would have carried Plummeridge’s portmanteau?

Then he goes on about his tin tub, and who carry his valet’s tin tub, etc.  The conceit is that this letter is written in the upper berth of a sleeping car, and that the M.P. is completely freaked out that the sleeping cars are mixed sex and that there is a woman in the berth directly below him – “behind the same curtains.”

It is the purest piece of comic writing I have ever seen from James, with just a hint of a story, about that woman from “The Pension Beaurepas” and her attempts to marry an American.  Otherwise, mostly a humor piece.  And it brings James back to America.

14 comments:

  1. I have read somewhere that James is both inexhaustible and exhausting, but to me he is intimidating and infectious; I've gotten my bad habit of using too many semicolons by reading James. My hat is off to anyone who attempts all of James; go for it! I will read with interest your Jamesian postings.

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  2. These shorter pieces certainly help keep off the exhaustion, compared to James's novels, although five in a row may have been too many.

    It also helps that none of these tales are meant quite as seriously. They're light, playful.

    Maybe I will note that I am definitely not attempting all of James!

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  3. My very limited reading James never led me to anything light and playful; so I guess I need to take another flight into James's universe of words because I could use something light and playful now. Give me your best Rx advice.

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  4. Hmm, we may disagree about definitions. I doubt any of it will work as medicine. What have you read?

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  5. "Daisy Miller," "The Turn of the Screw," and couple of other short titles are all that I remember (but I know that I read others). I've just "signed up" for _What Maisie Knew_ at Lakeside Musings. I might as well jump into the deep end of the Jamesian waters. It will be a challenge.

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  6. I think of "Daisy Miller" as being pretty light. Playful, in its way, too. No surprise that it was a big hit for James, actually popular.

    If you are in the mood for a comedy of manners, "The Siege of London" and "Lady Barberina" are the best of this last batch I read. Both in the 90 to 100 page range, both written in the earlier James style. What Maisie Knew looks more thickly written. A good, good challenge.

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  7. Thanks! I look forward to reading what you and others say about WMK. I'll add the short stories to my TBR list. Again, thanks.

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  8. If I may butt in, Washington Square is a light delight to read; and so are The Abasement of the Northmores, The Friends of the Friends and The Middle Years.

    As an added bonus, after reading those 4 short works you're guaranteed to become a Henry James fan.

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  9. Everyone please save "The Friends of the Friends" for the ghostly Henry James Halloween.

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  10. I think Plummeridge is a valet rather than a butler. A valet's sole job is taking care of his master's appearance, comfort, and general convenience. You can get an idea of the qualities expected of valets from their most famous fictional examples, Jeeves and Figaro.

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  11. Yes, a valet. You are right. A big enough error that I will make an edit, thanks.

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  12. Pretty sure The Princess Cassimassima is a Dickens novel, not James. Dickens on a bad day. Never got through it.

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  13. Yet also a Turgenev novel? The existence of this novel confuses me.

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