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.

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