Thursday, January 19, 2017

it beat every novel in the shop - In the Cage by Henry James

By chance, I read a second Henry James story with a working-class protagonist, possibly the only other one, In the Cage (1898) a ninety-page novella about – well, to return to my information management idea, here is the opening sentence:

It had occurred to her early that in her position – that of a young person spending, in framed and wired confinement, the life of a guinea-pig or a magpie – she should know a great many persons without their recognising the acquaintance.

The heroine never gets a name, although soon after the novel ends (“next week”) she will become Mrs. Mudge, and if that’s an improvement, no wonder James hides her name.  We see the cage of the title, but what is it?  It is a telegraph office; the young woman is a telegraph girl.  Although perhaps out of his element, James builds the story around a setting he would have observed closely many times.  Maybe that partly explains why Casamassima’s Hyacinth was a bookbinder, working in the kind of shop James likely visited himself.

This particular telegraph office is in a gourmet grocery store, so that it was “pervaded not a little, in winter, by the poison of perpetual gas, and at all times by the presence of hams, cheese, dried fish, soap, varnish, paraffin, and other solids and fluids that she came to know perfectly by their smells without consenting to know them by their names” (Ch. 1).  Thus, her office has a gourmet clientele; thus she entangles herself in the extramarital affair of two upper-class clients.  “They were in danger, they were in danger, Captain Everard and Lady Bradeen; it beat every novel in the shop” (Ch. 12).

The telegraphist goes so far as to continually delay her own marriage, to Mr. Mudge, because of her interest in the soap opera, which may involve the semi-subconscious desire for Captain Everard, who is so tall, and polite, and played by Hugh Grant in the hypothetical film version: “There were moments when he actually struck her as on her side, arranging to help, to support, to spare her” (Ch. 4).

“In the Cage” is from the same year as “The Turn of the Screw,” a clue that the heroine may be seeing some things that are not there, especially regarding her own importance in the story.  Not that it is all her own invention.  Just that her emphasis is too strong.

Today, the story would be turned into a thriller, with the cad enticing and seducing the telegraph girl in pursuance of some pointless scheme until the inevitable chase scene which ends when he is skewered on a giant telegraph needle.  Or maybe he is captured when he is locked in the cage – how ironic!

The workings of the telegraph office are quite interesting, the young woman’s restlessness sympathetic, and the original U.K. cover outstanding.

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