Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A secret understanding about an apple-fritter - Henry James makes an effort to express the inexpressible

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.


  1. I haven't read this since university, but will return to it as I work my way through all of HJ. Still on the stories vol. 1...Great character sketches here whet my appetite.

  2. All of Henry James - an achievement, that will be an achievement.

    The characters in this novel are such a pleasure.

  3. I have for years thought of The Bostonians, along with The Spoils of Poynton, to be among James's most accessible full-length work. We are presented in each with a power triangle (love is not always involved) of a young woman, a virile potent young man, and a woman of power and/or cunning, a dynamic well outside of what a reader normally expects. Since James's "grand style" had not yet evolved into the near-impentrability of the late novels, these books, along with "What Maisie Knew," read relatively straightforward. I say "relative" because they are, after all, Henry James, not Mark Twain.

    I haven't read the book for years but, once again, you make me want to go back. Now that I've almost certainly pulled the bookmark on La Regenta, maybe I'll be free after I finish Dickens's Dombey and Son for Dickens Universe next month (Dombey and Son would, of course, make an excellent book for this exceptional blog).

  4. Yes, well said. I would add Washington Square to the "accessible" list, another power triangle, come to think of it, with the father in the "powerful woman" slot. Stylistically, none of these books are more difficult than George Eliot.

    It is funny that you mention Dombey and Son, since I wrote a post long ago - it is in my middle style - about the perilous thickening of style Dickens was facing around that time.

    That novel more than any other helped me see - made me more attentive to - how Dickens changed over time.

  5. You write:

    It is funny that you mention Dombey and Son, since I wrote a post long ago - it is in my middle style - about the perilous thickening of style Dickens was facing around that time.

    That novel more than any other helped me see - made me more attentive to - how Dickens changed over time.

    I respond:

    That to me is one of the fascinating adventures available to me in reading. I very much like to "study" how authors change for better or worse over time. A great example is Shakespeare, and two more recent examples that interest me are Hemingway and Flannery O'Connor (with the latter making remarkable progress and improvements in her all too brief lifetime).

    Now, let me throw you a question since you seem to be an experienced Henry James reader: What do you think are his "crowning achievements" among his huge accomplishments in fiction? I would like to read the "best" but -- with regrets -- have neither the time nor the ambition to read all of Henry James.

    Postscript: I still hope to get through all of Shakespeare before I kick the bucket, but the bucket looms large on the horizon for me as it does for most septuagenarians.

  6. I believe real Jamesians would say his best novels are the three big late ones, The Ambassadors and so on, but I have not read any of them.

    I have now read a lot more James than I had a year or two ago, but it still does not seem like that much. I will never read all of James, either.

  7. Tom: I'd love to read your dombey and son comments. You can send them to christopher.lord@dickensjunction.com.

    I have read all three of the late James novels: The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, and The Ambassadors. All are difficult, but all have wonderful and powerful endings, rare in novels of any date. Lambert Strether's moment of "knowing" in The Ambassadors is one of the great moments in English-language literature, and when Maggie walks around the table near the end of The Golden Bowl, I was gobsmacked. With James everything is about "knowing," and in those two novels when the lead character "knows" something, it's awesome. I need to re-read Wings of the Dove. All are tall peaks; all are worth scaling.

  8. I've read the big three and although I think they're great I still prefer Portrait of a Lady. The later works are difficult and I found reading them aloud when one gets stuck helps, I belief that James was dictating at that point.

    I read The Bostonians a couple of years ago, My notes express displeasure with the stage door melodramatic, way too long, ending. I ranked it as one of James' cannibal novels, two characters in search of devouring the life force of a third. Some great scenes especially the walk in Central Park.

  9. Good, I knew some genuinely experienced James readers would say something.

    "cannibal novels" - that's good. The ending in the theater is pushing things, yes.

    My three DOmbey and Son posts are 1) I finished it, 2) characters, and 3) style I didn't reread them; I promise nothing. Time has passed.

  10. I think I prefer The Ambassadors of all James' novels. It's difficult only in the sense that it's a sly novel, the point-of-view character caught in a grand irony invisible to him, the narrator leaving the reader to figure it out with oblique clues. The language, however, is straightforward. There's a long exterior scene, where the protagonist goes for a jaunt outside of Paris, which is just beautiful.

  11. A jaunt, I just put up a post about a jaunt.

  12. Guess I'm going to go read my own notes on this now. Is Olive Chancellor the Annie Fields character--who also contains elements of Katherine Loring/Alice James relationship. Thwarting a Boston marriage: that's comedy, Henry James comedy.

  13. After reading this novel, I was left a little baffled by the association of the term "Boston marriage" with it. Is it supposed to include cults? Because Olive Chancellor is more like a cult leader.

    1. Good point. I managed to catch up with myself, or at least my 2008 Bostonians self, and I remember a few things now, but I'm more confused/baffled than ever.

      There are all sorts of real/fictionalized characters in the book, and they mixed up and smashed together. I was quickly distracted by fictional/fictionalized characters, reading Blithedale shortly after Bostonians, and there's plenty of Zenobia in Olive C., and of course Blithedale itself is an actual cult. Those original American feminists were an intriguing bunch. I was pleasantly shocked by the way that James used Annie Fields and her library and residence on Charles Street, with the back windows looking out on the river, as the setting for his story and Ransome's arrival in Boston. But it seems like the antagonism James feels towards his Olive character is mostly based on his mixed feelings towards Katherine Loring.

      The other note I take away from looking back is wondering about ways in which the novel didn't work and was unpopular, how James left it out of his NY Edition, and how it was slighted in terms of critical attention. But we can enjoy reading it and find it fascinating.

  14. James's characters here have so much more life in them than any of Blithedale's abstractions.

    James omitted Washington Square, too. Writers get a vote, but fortunately so does everyone else.