Monday, August 31, 2015

The Europeans - James argues against a life totally devoid of festoons

In The Europeans (1878), the Europeans come to America to visit their cousins.  The Europeans are themselves Americans who were born in Europe and have been thoroughly Europeanized, to the extent that the brother is a kind of French painter and the sister a Baroness.

“She is married to a German prince – Prince Adolf, of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein. He is not the reigning prince; he is a younger brother.”

Gertrude gazed at her informant; her lips were slightly parted.  “Is she a – a Princess?" she asked at last.

“Oh, no,” said the young man; “her position is rather a singular one.  It's a morganatic marriage.”

“Morganatic?” These were new names and new words to poor Gertrude. (Ch. 2)

The Americans, or more precisely Bostonians, who are mostly a bunch of wide-eyed sheep, are stunned and baffled by the exoticism of their cousins and their notions of interior decorating.  “There were India shawls suspended, curtain-wise, in the parlor door, and curious fabrics, corresponding to Gertrude's metaphysical vision of an opera-cloak, tumbled about in the sitting-places.”  I actually read The Europeans several years ago, and this is one of the bits that really stuck with me, that these descendants of Puritans were  freaked out by the draping of scarves.  By, really, color.  But in the case of the character at hand, the cousin Gertrude, deepened.  “’What is life, indeed, without curtains?’ she secretly asked herself; and she appeared to herself to have been leading hitherto an existence singularly garish and totally devoid of festoons” (Ch. 4).

For her father, though, the Europeans are not much more than “an extension of the field of possible mistakes; and the doctrine, as it may almost be called, of the oppressive gravity of mistakes was one of the most cherished traditions of the Wentworth family.”

I know that I am becoming a better reader of James because I find “an extension of the field of possible mistakes” awfully funny.  The part after the semi-colon almost overdoes the joke.

If all of this sounds amusing but a little mild as social comedy goes, yes, The Europeans is a novel that stays small.  It is charming but the stakes stay low.  There is some evidence in the text that Henry James wrote the novel in haste – there are some shortcuts.  If this were the best of Henry James, James would be forgotten.  But it gains some interest from those better works.  It pairs quite nicely with “Daisy Miller,” which had been published a few months earlier and which is better.

The novel opens with a nice picture – I wonder if James had a painting in mind – of a Boston tram in a May blizzard, viewed by the European siblings from their hotel room, a piece of pure Shklovskian make-it-strange:

The window-panes were battered by the sleet; the head-stones in the grave-yard beneath seemed to be holding themselves askance to keep it out of their faces.  A tall iron railing protected them from the street, and on the other side of the railing an assemblage of Bostonians were trampling about in the liquid snow.

I have trouble with James’s lack of interest in the materiality of his scenes, but those headstones, that is pretty good, and the paragraph stays strong as the sister puzzles over the tram, and why so many people want to ride it during a blizzard.

A lot of people who dislike James would like The Europeans, if you could somehow conceal the author’s name.


  1. i'm freaked out by "the draping of scarves" as well. i guess i haven't delved into lit. of the 1890's deeply enough. and the leaning gravestones seems a bit clunky; or maybe not clunky, but there's something there that grates a bit. (punning not intended). otherwise it has a seemingly distinctive jamesian voice as compared to "the golden bowl" for instance...

  2. The scarves turn the Baroness into an American undergraduate Bohemian, which is not so inaccurate.

    I don't hear the clunk. Metaphors, writers, more metaphors! Metaphors, in literature, are life. Heaven knows I hear plenty of clunkiness in Henry James, and see plenty of flat writing.

  3. Love “an extension of the field of possible mistakes" Could be my new definition of human endeavour.

  4. It is a great line, the one about mistakes. It goes in the Henry James self-help book.