Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Henry James's novel about furniture - He blinked with the exalted humility of the devotee.

Penny said, “Was it Henry James you’re working on?”

“Er… yes,” said Nick.

She seemed to settle comfortably on that, but only said, “My father’s got tons of Henry James.  I think he calls him the Master.”

“Some of us do,” said Nick.  He blinked with the exalted humility of the devotee and sawed off a square of brown meat.  (123, ellipses in original)

Nick is the aesthete and hedonist who stars in Alan Hollinghurst’s finely worked The Line of Beauty (2004).  I fuss and fume about reading more Henry James, and then when I do read more I write nothing about it.  So how about a run at The Spoils of Poynton (1897), published seventeen years after Washington Square.

Since it was all he had, he said, “Actually, I’ve always rather wanted to make a film of The Spoils of Poynton…”  Monique settled back with an appreciative nod at this, and Nick felt encouraged to go on, “I think it could be rather marvelous, don’t you.  You know Ezra Pound said it was just a novel about furniture, meaning to dismiss it of course, but that was really what made me like the sound of it!”  (187, ellipses in original).

Me, too!  Mrs. Gereth and her late husband were tenacious collectors, assembling the perfectly furnished house, but Mrs. Gereth is likely to lose the collection if her nitwit son marries the wrong wife (a wife with bad taste – “It would be her fate, her discipline, her cross, to have a frump brought hideously home to her,” Ch. I).  But what if the son marries poor but discriminating Fleda?  Fleda would like that, too, unless, the path to marriage violates any number of agonizing but small qualms of conscience, the latter making this a James and not a Trollope or Zola story.  All of that is surely enough story for a short novel.

Where Washington Square shuffled four characters, Poynton makes do with only three, with the young woman again the center of the novel’s universe.  Scott Bailey comments on how funny and rapid Washington Square is; Poynton is the same, with 22 chapters in 180 pages (in the Library of America edition) and the sharp, obsessive Mrs. Gereth getting most of the laugh lines.  See the frump above – that sentence is very much in Mrs. Gereth’s voice, as is this:

To get away from [the ugly house] and out into the air, into the presence of sky and trees, flowers and birds, was a necessity of every nerve.  The flowers at Waterbath would probably go wrong in color and the nightingales sing out of tune; but she remembered to have heard the place described as possessing those advantages that are usually spoken of as natural.  (Ch. I)

I suppose I have to hear Mrs. Gereth’s voice correctly, just as I do to laugh with Hollinghurst up above, to get the joke of “usually spoken of as natural,” but the flowers and nightingales that have “probably” gone wrong should be all the clue I need that Mrs. Gereth is adept with comic hyperbole.

Washington Square is, I am informed, one of the last products of James’s early period, while Spoils is from his middle period.  What all of this means I cannot say.  Some thickening of the Jamesian prose is evident, but as I see in this passage the convoluted voice is at the service of a convoluted character, one who performs the voice.  Mrs. Gereth is a step on the path to the snappish aunts found in P. G. Wodehouse novels.  Come to think of it, her confident, ill-educated, weak-willed son Owen is not all that far from Bertie Wooster.

I am not quite ready to enroll with Nick in the ranks of readers who call James “the Master,” but I can spend another day or two at Poynton.


  1. I haven't read Poynton but it sounds fun. Have you read The Aspern Papers yet? It's more comedy, as is The Coxon Fund. James' longer short works are well worth the time. Is "longer short works" an acceptable construction?

  2. Oh, Hollinghurst. *The Line of Beauty* was the last text we read in my introduction to British twentieth century lit course, so in my head I always associate it more with Woolf than Henry James. I completely forgot about that piece of the puzzle.

    Have you read his newest, *The Stranger's Child*, yet?

  3. The recent Hollinghurst - no, how is it? Just this one and Swimming Pool Library. He would be a good writer for me to "keep up" with - absolutely fantastic at the sentence & scene-building level. Great with character. Mediocre with plot, so I would warn 90% of book bloggers to stay away from him. Not the ones who visit Wuthering Expectations, though.

    I will bet any and all takers $10 that Aspern Papers will be the next James I read. James had a strong sense of the difference between "tales" and "novels" that were about the same length - what that difference is I do not know - so "longer short work," why not.

  4. Have you seen the dramatised version of this? I found it to be excellent.

  5. I became bored reading this and gave up. I didn't much like Washington Square either.

    I shall be attempting the ultra-late James' work A Small Boy and Others next month, I think. I keep meaning to read it, but I find the first page somewhat impenetrable.

  6. Not to spoil the ‘Spoils’ but what did you think of the ending. If Fleda had been more brisk she might have got her share of the plunder and if less honourable won the beautiful but blank Owen.

  7. The ending, good question. James pulls in a deus ex machina, but a suitably ironic one that must have been irresistible. I did not resist it, either. The haste vs honor contrast is good.

    Guy, no. Do you mean the 1970 version? That's all I found on imdb. No idea it existed. The cast is cure good.

    It was odd, actually, how much Spoils had in common with Washington Square. I had not had any idea. I really picked it for the reason I said, because of that nonsense in the Hollinghurst novel. Maybe I'll write about the boring part tomorrow. obooki is not wrong.

  8. In a moment of reading synchronity, Patrica Meyer Spacks discusses The Spoils of Poynton in her book On Rereading. apparently when she was a new teacher the English department decided all frehsmen would read the same book and that was it. They loved it so much, "Fleda Vetch!" became the class cheer. And now you are talking about the book. Obviously I am really going to have to read it now!

  9. I believe that anecdote tells us a lot about the kind of students that could be found at Wellesley circa 1960.

    Good luck to any prof today trying to get the class to cheer "Fleda Vetch!"