A Henry James Binge: “The Other House” and “The Spoils of Poynton”

I paid $1 for a used copy of Henry James’s The Other House (NYRB Classics).  I had never heard of it, for reasons which became clear as I read on. The prose is un-Jamesian, consisting of short, spare sentences rather than elegant, serpentine periods.   Divided into three short books, it reads like a three-act play.

This plot-driven novel may well be the right choice for non-James fans.  It is very short, and almost a genre novel.  It is not quite a whodunit, but there is a murder.  One might call it a psychological horror novel.  The moral is, Be careful what you wish for.  Words can be weaponized – and that happens here. 

The premise of the novel depends on a deathbed promise exacted offstage by Julia Bream from her husband, Tony Bream. After giving birth to their daughter, she feels ill and is convinced she is dying.  The doctor can’t find anything wrong but insists that Tony humor her.  And so Julia elicits a promise that Tony will not remarry within their daughter’s lifetime.  That last phrase seems very lawyerly – and yet its inclusion proves to be fatal.  To ensure the fulfillment of the promise ,  Julia repeats it to her neighbor, Mrs. Beever, asking her to repeat it to all in the house. Julia had an evil stepmother, but it is hard to see this promise as a safeguard for her baby.  Asking Mrs Beever to repeat the promise publicly can also read a a warning:  Women, keep off.

Julia has reasons for jealousy. Two attractive young women are in the house, Julia’s best friend, Rose Armiger (whose name means “arms-bearer”),  and Jean Martle, a very young, pre-Raphaelite beauty, who is staying with Mrs. Beever in the house across the bridge. Rose, a clever, plain woman who becomes beautiful when she is animated, is the most complex character in the novel, though whether anyone can be more complicated than the Machiavellian Julia I cannot say.  All the men except Tony are in love with Rose.  In fact, when her fiancé returns from China, Rose refuses him. 

So doesn’t Rose have everything? Well, she doesn’t have Tony.

The other young woman, Jean Martle, attracts Tony. His reaction to Jean makes us understand why poor Julia wanted an eye kept on Tony:  while she is dying, he is admiring Jean’s masses of red hair and flirting .  

Julia does die.  And when four years later, the same set of people meet again, the situation becomes very – shall I say complex? 


This novel, though a fast read, is not one of James’s best.  The characters have little depth.  Once he reveals the identity of the villainess, we continue to see her only on the surface.  Her character lacks the intricacy of Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove, or Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl.  The women in The Other House are not materialistic like Kate and Charlotte, but it doesn’t prevent bad behavior. 

What I think about this novel is:  it is James’s beach book.  It is what you read when you have read all or most of James.


Do Read Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton!
             
On the other hand, I was enthralled by a third reading of The Spoils of Poynton,  a masterpiece that examines the fine line between collecting objets d’art and materialism.

Mrs. Gereth’s house, Poynton, is filled with a collection of precious objects.  She and her late husband scrimped and saved to buy them. 

But the novel begins with a friendship. Mrs. Gereth meets Fleda Vetch at the Brigstock family’s hideous country house, Waterbath.  Mrs. Gereth and Fleda are skulking in the garden Sunday morning to avoid the other guests. They begin to chat, and discover that they have similar tastes, and even deplore the same people.

The following excerpt  is very Jamesian, witty,  exquisite, convoluted, and stylistically stunning.  Mrs. Gereth is very much a collector, and as such has her eye on Fleda Vetch.


This girl, one of the two Vetches, had no beauty, but Mrs. Gereth, scanning the dullness for a sign of life, had been straightway able to classify such a figure as the least, for the moment, of her afflictions. Fleda Vetch was dressed with an idea, though perhaps with not much else; and that made a bond when there was none other, especially as in this case the idea was real, not imitation…. for a minute, as they sat together, their eyes met and sent out mutual soundings. “Are you safe? Can I utter it?” each of them said to the other, quickly recognizing, almost proclaiming, their common need to escape. …That the poor child no less quickly perceived how far she could now go was proved by the immense friendliness with which she instantly broke out: “Isn’t it too dreadful?”

“Horrible—horrible!” cried Mrs. Gereth, with a laugh, “and it’s really a comfort to be able to say it.”


The Brigstocks’ house is particularly horrible to Mrs. Gereth because of the mass-produced furniture and decorations that reflect no one’s taste.  And  Mrs. Gereth is so taken with Fleda’s wit and understanding that she invites her to Poynton .  Fleda is hungry for knowledge – she is ecstatic to learn about art.

And then a threat to the collection looms.  Owen is engaged to Mona Brigstock, one of the daughters of Waterbath.  On a visit to Poynton, Mona shows no interest in the objects and paintings: she tells Vleda she wishes there were a billiards room and “a winter garden.”


Money matters to Mona, though.  When she learns  that Mrs. Gereth plans to move the things to the dower house, she realizes they must be valuable.  She tells Owen she will not marry him unless the collections remain intact at Poynton.  She nags Owen to hire lawyers and sue his own mother.


And so begins the battle between Mrs. Gereth, the collector, and the materialists. her son and his fiancee.  Mrs. Gereth genuinely delights in her things, loving the details of the work, as does Fleda.  But Owen is riled up and insists he is the master of Poynton, and that he has inherited his mother’s collections.  And Mona  is greedy;  she will deprive Mrs. Gereth of her lifetime collections just for the sake of ownership.


Are Owen and Mona in love?  Owen seems cowed by Mona.   Mrs. Gereth’s hopes for her collections depend on something less tangible than the legal courts:  can she manipulate  Owen into falling in love with Fleda?

And poor Fleda!  She loves Owen, who says he loves her and wishes they could live together in the dower house.  But Fleda’s ethics are so strict that she insists on a plan of action unlikely to end in anybody’s happiness. And that is primarily because she doesn’t understand Mona Brigstock.  She cannot imagine that Mona would not be, ultimately, as chivalrous and generous as Fleda.

Fleda’s naivete may prove disastrous, as did Julia’s in The Other House.  But I guarantee that you will not predict the ending of The Spoils of Poynton.

Jill Biden’s Coffee, What I’m Reading, & Guerilla Housework

On the morning of March 1, Jill Biden went to Brewer’s Cafe, a Black-owned business in Richmond, Virginia, and ordered a cup of drip coffee. I gravitate toward fun features rather than political news, and was thrilled to discover “common ground” with Dr. Biden.

Jill Biden at Brewer’s Cafe

Jill Biden is a new kind of First Lady, obviously brilliant, an instructor of English at a community college, and she has an Ed.D. from the University of Delaware. A boutique coffee habit turns her into one of the java people. She was working: she stopped for coffee on the way to speak on a panel at Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In the article at The Washington Post, the stop at the cafe is a light preface to the larger issue of her visit to the Cancer Center. The reporter possibly overthinks it: “Maybe the first lady wanted to support small businesses. Maybe she wanted to signal to Black Americans that President Biden was serious when he said his administration would not abandon them. Maybe she just likes places that are touted as having some of the best French macarons and coffee in their respective towns. Her press office would not comment.”

I may be naive, but isn’t a good cup of coffee the perfect brain boost before work? You can want good coffee, and decide to support a small Black-owned business.

By the way, I read a few weeks ago that the book on Dr. Biden’s bedside table was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I do hope she’s allowed to read this without being told it’s a photo-op!

And so it goes…

WHAT AM I READING? I just read Henry James’s The Golden Bowl for the third time, and am scandalized by the evil Charlotte’s schemes to commit adultery with her friend Maggie’s husband, Amerigo, her former lover. To make it more Jamesily intricate, Charlotte has married Maggie’s father, Adam Verver, a wealthy collector of art and antiques. In the introduction to the Penguin, Gore Vidal finds wicked Charlotte more interesting than Maggie. But my guess is that many of us women find ourselves siding with Maggie. This is an intricate, beautifully-written page-turner. Europeans always marry rich Americans in James’s novels.

GUERILLA HOUSEWIFERY. At the best of times, I have a hard time with housewifery. Clearing the surfaces of tables is the extent of my daily housework. I do not vacuum and scrub the floors daily. Marie Kondo had no effect here. You will not find me folding the laundry: my method with sheets is to roll them up and sort them according to fitted and flat. If they get mixed up…! That’s our life-style

I am still recovering from the weekend a friend stayed and decided to clean my house. I feebly begged her to stop, because I was too exhausted to help. When I went into the kitchen to grab a glass of water, she lectured me on why I should never mix bleach with…something! That would not be a problem of course, because it would never occur to me to squirt more than one cleaning product on anything! Plus did I have two cleaning products?

The gift of guerrilla housecleaning–and I do believe it was meant to be a gift– became just another contest in the never-ending tournament of femininity–I lost when I wasn’t even in the round!

“Remember when X cleaned the house,” my husband sometimes says.

“Please don’t use that against me,” I say.

The guilt of inadequate housewifery never stops, and studies of housework make me cynical. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey, most women say they spend 5.7 hours daily doing housework and looking after the family. This raised a red flag for me: What housework, I wondered, do they find to do for 5.7 hours?

In this last year of the pandemic, I have begun to have a glimmer of compassion for cleaning maniacs. The house seems dirtier now that my husband and i both work at home, and it is not the time to hire a maid. The kitchen has become a treacherous repository of what I call “attack groceries”: a six-pack of paper towels falls off the refrigerator onto my head, I sweep up 100 blueberries after a box of blueberries jumps off the edge of the counter, I find rings on the coffee table when SOMEONE I love fails to use a coaster. I swear so much I need to cover the cats’ ears.

I need to reorganize the kitchen. But first I have to get a good cup of coffee.

So Near and Yet So Far: What Would You Do to Acquire a Favorite Writer’s Papers?

One of the highlights of a trip to London was staring at the manuscript of Jane Eyre at the British Museum. I could hardly see it in the dimly-lit glass case, but it was there. So near and yet so far. That was my first inkling of what scholars must feel when they get their (gloved) hands on a manuscript.

I was thinking of this the other day when I read Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, a strange comical novella about a besotted scholar who will do anything to acquire the papers of Jeffrey Aspern, his favorite dead Romantic poet. The papers are reputed to be in the hands of the dead Aspern’s ancient mistress, Juliana, who has already refused the request of another scholar. So how can he get his hands on the papers?

The artful narrator daringly pretends an interest in Juliana’s garden so he can persuade her to rent him an apartment in her dilapidated Venetian villa. And Juliana’s niece, Tina, inadvertently becomes his collaborator: she innocently reveals that Juliana still has the papers in her bedroom. Let me just say that the narrator can’t resist searching for the papers even when Juliana is on her deathbed. Is such bad behavior rewarded? Read the book.

Barbara Pym is well-known for her charming novels about witty spinsters, indexers, librarians, and much-sought-after vicars. In her posthumously-published novel, An Academic Question, the narrator, Carol, is a bored faculty wife. Her husband thinks she should get a job, but she does not want to join the band of frowsy faculty wives who file things in the library to get out of the house. Instead, Caro volunteers at a nursing home, where she finds herself reading aloud to an elderly anthropologist who has not written up all his research. Her anthropologist husband and the chairman of his department want to get their hands on these papers. How far will they go?

In Doris Langley Moore’s hilarious novel, My Caravaggio Style, a bookseller and impecunious biographer decides to forge a manuscript of Byron’s alleged “lost” memoirs. He plans to “find” themanuscript in his aunt’s attic so he can sell it to an irritating American collector. Let us just say that things get out of hand.

Doris Lessing is one of my favorite writers, but let me be clear: I have no desire to go through her papers. Let the biographers go through her papers! When she announced she would not publish a third volume of her autobiography because she did not want to hurt people who were still alive, I respected that decision. But, ironically, Lessing was barely in the ground before Jenny Diski, an excellent writer who sometimes went too far, published her memoirs of Lessing, who took her in when she was a homeless teenager. I was appalled by Diski’s hatred of Lessing.

Anyway, I eagerly await a biography of Lessing. Shouldn’t one be coming out soon?

The Marriage Trap: Henry James’s “The Awkward Age”

Henry James’s The Awkward Age, published in 1899, is a striking, garrulous novel, not without a note of hysteria. It unfolds like a play, in dialogue and drawing-room scenes (sometimes the characters go into the garden); and was written after the failure of James’s play, Guy Domville, in 1895.

Some of you like garrulity, some do not. I admire James’s wordy dialogue, and am not in the least perturbed by periodic sentences. Oratorically and decoratively it all makes sense to me. But the plot is a different thing: we are startled when the ostensible heroine, Nanda, a beautiful, decidedly unpoetic young woman, introduced very late into society by her sexually competitive mother, Mrs. Brooks, turns out to be a manipulator of men. And yet she does it all under a mask of goodness, and indeed she knows no better, and is in a way good.

There is no main character in The Awkward Age; rather, there are main characters. Nanda is offstage in the early scenes, much discussed by the people in her witty mother’s social circle. We get to know the men before the women; in this book particularly, James hints at the possibility of asexuality, or perhaps homosexuality. The first scene features Vanderbank, known as Van, the sophisticated, impecunious lover of Mrs. Brooks. His new friend, Mr. Longdon, a wealthy man in his late fifties, has come to London to revisit his past, and is interested in Nanda, who looks exactly like her grandmother, to whom he once proposed.

Usually James is brilliant in his delineation of women: think Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, or Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl. Nanda is elusive, not very interesting, but so very pretty that all admire her. Mr. Longdon mistakes beauty for innocence, though Nanda’s best friend is a fast young woman who is not quite-quite. Soon all the men are hovering around Nanda—Vanderbank, Longdon, and Mitchy, a smart, funny man whose father made his money by trade. I do love Mitchy, the most sincere character in the book!

Of course Mrs. Brooks plots to marry Nanda off, with the help of Mr. Longdon’s money and sponsorship, while at the same time she schemes to keep the men in her circle under her thumb. Nanda also schemes, but not for money. She wants to help her mother. And yet her matchmaking mirrors her mother’s, resulting in a friend’s miserable marriage.

We ask ourselves, What is the deal here, Henry James? I have seldom met so many characters so little interested in sex and marriage. By the end, we understand Nanda’s ambivalence, and the role of her mother in it. In my view, only Mrs. Brooks is truly corrupt, but Nanda has somehow been spoiled, too. And yet Nanda has a chance left: she may escape into innocence, after innocently causing much misery.

Fabulous Plot-Oriented Escape Reads: Ada Leverson, Susan Howatch, & Early Henry James

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…and a book!

It isn’t officially the holidays, but you may be plotting your holiday reading, or perhaps taking the break before the holidays.  

Here are a few notes on three fabulous plot-oriented escape reads to add to your TBR.   

bird of paradise leversonAda Leverson’s Bird of Paradise (1914).   Leverson, a friend of Oscar Wilde, is best known for The Little Ottleys (Virago), a witty trilogy which consists of Love’s Shadow, Tenterhooks, and Love at Second Sight. I recently read one of her lesser-known novels, Bird of Paradise, and found it equally charming.

The heroine, Bertha Kellynch, is exceptionally intelligent, fashionable, and very much in love with her husband Percy, who describes her as a bird of Paradise.  Leverson emphasizes Bertha’s uniqueness.  She is not just beautiful: she gives sensible advice. Her lovelorn friend Madeline pines for the affections of a caddish aesthete who lends her architecture books; her snobbish mother-in-law dithers at an at-home party until Bertha steps in to chat with a nouveau riche former chorus girl;  and Bertha deals tactully with her former boyfriend, Nigel, who visits her house a tad too often and makes his wife jealous. We know everything will end well, beccause Bertha is so calm, but there are a few tense moments in this sweet, comical novel.

the wonder worker howatchSusan Howatch’s The Wonder Worker.  About 10 years ago, one of my former English professors taught a class on Howatch’s brilliant six-book Starbridge series, which is slightly reminiscent of Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  Starbridge is a fictitious Anglican diocese in England which seethes with intrigues.

I recently read The Wonder Worker, which is set at St. Benet’s Church in London in the ‘80s.  It is entrancing.  I dare you to put it down!   Howatch describes the chaos of a ministry of healing which goes astray.  The charismatic Nicholas Darrow changes strangers’ lives but neglects his family;  his wife Rosalind, a successful businesswoman, has grown to despise his hypocrisy and wants a divorce; Lewis Hall, a priest who was Nicholas’s former spiritual adviser, has a troubled past and rages in his diary about his ambivalence toward women and hatred of modern times; and Alice, an obese gourmet cook, stumbles into the church to get out of the rain and finds help for her dying aun; she also finds a job as the cook at St. Benet’s.  I couldn’t get enough of this book; it is the first of a trilogy.

9780140390827Henry James’s The American.  Do you like your Henry James with a plot?  That is not his strength, but this early novel  does have action. Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman, travels to France and meets Claire de Bellegarde, a beautiful widow whom he wants to marry.   Her aristocratic family does not think he is good enough for her. There are complications and Gothic elements:  dire family secrets,  a mysterious death, ties to a nunnery… you  won’t think this is  James at all.

Henry James’s “The Bostonians”

If you are a fan of Henry James, you probably peruse his elegant sentences in your study or office where husband, cats, dogs, in-laws, friends, and political canvassers are unlikely to interrupt you.  While reading The Bostonians, NEVER open the door to well-meaning Democratic presidential canvassers, because they’ll talk your ear off just as verbosely as James’s political enthusiasts do in The Bostonians

The Bostonians, published in 1886,  is a strange, intricate, often playful narrative about a tussle of love and politics between the sexes, set appropriately after the Civil War.  Though this novel is not his his subtlest, it is very enjoyable.

In this partly satiric novel, an emotional tug-of-war is fought between post-Civil War progressives and conservatives. Naturally, the well-educated New Englanders are the best-organized.  The Bostonian abolitionists have triumphed, and now they are fighting for women’s suffrage.

The Bostonians is also a twisted love story,  in which two suitors contend for the affections of Verena Tarrant, a young woman who is an up-and-coming lecturer for the Women’s Movement.  Olive Chancellor, a wealthy, neurotic spinster in Boston, becomes obsessed with Verena, to the point that she pays off Verena’s unsuitable parents so she and Verena can live together undisturbed.  She insists she is training Verena—but her sexual feelings are obvious to the reader.  Whether Verena returns them is unclear—it seems unlikely—but their friendship is not only close but characterized by hysteria and sexual jealousy.   At one point, Olive tries to procure a promise that Verena will never leave her for a man.  Realizing she has gone too far, Olive does has the sense to withdraw this request.

Olive’s rival is her cousin, Basil Ransom,  who lost his estate in Mississippi during the Civil War.  He is an unsuccessful lawyer in New York City and an arch-conservative writer whose right-wing essays have  not been published.  He believes women belong in the home, that only the most intelligent should be educated, and and that masculinity is undermined by the rise of the suffrage movement.  

Some critics read this novel as a satire of the women’s movement, and it is true that Olive is not James’s cup of tea, nor anyone else’s.  On the other hand, he is sympathetic to an aged abolitionist-turned-feminist, Miss Birdseye, who has given everything she has to various causes, and to Dr. Prance, who is so absorbed by her medical studies that she ignores all politics.  In her view, there are few differences between men and women.  

Verena is the character we all love.  She is charming, kind, talented, and very smart.  She does not want to hurt Olive, who has taught her so much; the two are genuinely close friends.  But Olive’s tantrums whenever a man approaches, especially Basil, with whom Verena falls in love, are unmanageable.  Verena is willing to sacrifice everything for Olive, or thinks she is.  Fortunately, Henry James will not be cruel to Verena–but he undercuts the traditional “happy ending.”  We reluctantly realize that neither the hysterical Olive nor the domineering Basil are likely to make Verena  happy.

The unfavorable portrait of  lesbians does seem to be common in 19th- and 20th-century literature.  In D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox, two women, Banford and March, struggle to run a farm on their own, but a fox keeps stealing their chickens.  When a soldier (another fox) shows up and begins to work for them,  March, the more “masculine” woman, is threatened.  (I haven’t read this in years, so I’m not quite sure if the women are lesbians or if it’s only latent.)  I can’t think of any other anti-lesbian novels at the moment, but I’m sure I’ve read some.

The Bostonians is beautifully-written, sometimes comical, other times frustrating and horrifying.  I can’t pretend I agree with James’s politics, but then what are they?  He’s not entirely on either political side in The Bostonians.  Whatever he believed, this is a classic.

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