Henry James has some great descriptions of people in The Bostonians. Maybe too many for what he is doing, even, like he is a comic who gets going on a riff and does not want to stop. And why would he as long as he jokes keep coming. After James spends almost three pages at the beginning of Chapter 14 describing the ludicrous Mrs. Tarrant (several excerpts given yesterday), he gives her another long paragraph at the chapter’s end – half the short chapter, just to linger with a character who barely appears again.
Mrs. Tarrant, with her soft corpulence, looked to her guest very bleached and tumid; her complexion had a kind of withered glaze…
The descriptions are often of a curious mixed kind, visual yet as much about personality or attitude.
… she had no eyebrows, and her eyes seemed to stare, like those of a figure of wax [solidly visual]. When she talked and wished to insist, and she was always insisting, she puckered and distorted her face, with an effort to express the inexpressible, which turned out, after all, to be nothing.
In a sense this is visual, in that I can imagine a face doing something like that, but the good trick is the way James expresses the inexpressible, which turns out to be something. My favorite line follows:
She had a kind of doleful elegance, tried to be confidential, lowered her voice and looked as if she wished to establish a secret understanding, in order to ask her visitor if she would venture on an apple-fritter.
We all know that look, right? The confidential apple fritter understanding look?
James is working with a comic method I associate with Wodehouse, or Douglas Adams, where the unlikeliness of the comparison, the impossibility of really imaging it, is by itself funny, yet the comparison stamps the character. Yes, that is who she is.
The masterpiece in this sense is Olive Chancellor, the Boston Brahmin turned feminist activist who is one of the combatants for the hand of the lovely, magical Verena Tarrant. Her physical description is minimal, but James frequently describes what she is , and who is constantly characterized in way that is possibly cruel but fills her with life:
It was the usual things of life that filled her with silent rage… (Ch. 2)
… there was culture in Miss Chancellor’s tables and sofas, in the books that were everywhere, on little shelves like brackets (as if a book were a statuette)… (Ch. 3)
Great efforts were nothing new to her – it was a great effort to live at all… (Ch. 14)
In the middle of the book James surprised me by mentioning that Olive Chancellor used to go on dates – “she accompanied gentlemen to respectable places of amusement” – which sounds painful for all involved.
She always felt that she was too prim; her lips stiffened themselves as she spoke. But the whole affair had always a primness; this was discernible even to Olive’s very limited sense of humour. It was not so religious as going to evening-service at King’s Chapel; but it was the next thing to it. (Ch. 15)
Humorless people are so funny, at a certain distance. My great complaint about The Bostonians is that the heroic, insufferable Olive Chancellor drops out of it too often.