Thursday, May 17, 2012

Things were of course the sum of the world - James novel without furniture

The last time I read a novel about furniture, the book was, not surprisingly, full of descriptions of furniture.  I shared some of the best “showroom scenes.”  The novel was The Maias, greatest Portuguese novel, etc., etc.  You remember.

The Spoils of Poynton is a different kind of novel about furniture.  Even though an extraordinary collection of furniture and art (but, James emphasize, mostly furniture) supplies the title of the book, the novel includes almost no descriptions of furniture.  Descriptions, heck – almost nothing is even named.

Fleda Vetch, the appreciative heroine, first sees the collection at the beginning of Chapter III.  Or, as only Henry James would say, “the palpitating girl had the full revelation.”  Fleda is ecstatic – she “dropped on a seat with a soft gasp and a roll of dilated eyes.”  The collection is “an exquisite work…  all France and Italy.”  Yes, but an example?  “[B]rasses that Louis Quinze might have thumbed,”  “Venetian velvets,” "cases of enamels.”

“Things” were of course the sum of the world; only, for Mrs. Gereth, the sum of the world was rare French furniture and oriental china.

One object, a Maltese cross, is singled out later in the novel and made use of for various plotty purposes, but even it gets nothing more description than “a small but marvelous crucifix of ivory, a masterpiece of delicacy, of expression, and of the great Spanish period” (Ch. VII).  Knowing that the collection has things of a period is more important than knowing what those things are.

Although James deliberately refuses to inventory the spoils, he is unafraid to employ concrete objects, as long as they are vulgar.  A “lady’s magazine,…  a horrible thing with patterns for antimacassars” is the source of some physical comedy in Chapter VI.  Mrs. Gereth’s knot-headed son has no taste for nice things, as shown by his own room, “the one monstrosity of Poynton: all tobacco-pots and bootjacks,” including “such an array of arms of aggression and castigation that he himself had confessed to eighteen rifles and forty whips” (also Chapter VI).  Still, the attitude towards poor things is more important than the things themselves:

The house was bad in all conscience, but it might have passed if they had only let it alone.  This saving mercy was beyond them; they had smothered it with trumpery ornament and scrapbook art, with strange excrescences and bunchy draperies, with gimcracks that might have been keepsakes for maid-servants and nondescript conveniences that might have been prizes for the blind.  They had gone wildly astray over carpets and curtains; they had an infallible instinct for disaster, and were so cruelly doom-ridden that it rendered them almost tragic. (Ch. I)

If you skim the quotations, as one does, please return and let your eyes linger on “prizes for the blind” and “almost tragic.”  The paragraph as it continues remains this good.  Two snobby aesthetes, Fleda and Mrs. Gereth, are letting loose on their host, making this a nice example of free indirect writing attached to multiple characters.  It does not matter which bits belong to one character and which to the other:  they are in perfect concord and will be friends for life.

The aesthetics of Henry James in essence, isn’t it?  Non-visual, non-sensual.  Just mental, minds on their own, minds engaged with other minds.  The thought of Mrs. Gereth that I put in the title is obviously not meant to flatter her, but James perhaps means it as a more severe indictment of her than I first realized.

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