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The Foster Father

Catherine Sloper, in the clear, chilly masterpiece Washington Square, must explain to the handsome, corrupt fortune-hunter, Morris Townsend, that if she marries without her father’s consent, as she is willing to do, her own adequate fortune will not be augmented at the time of her father’s death. Dr. Sloper has correctly diagnosed, as it were, the insidious moral infection of the suitor, a wastrel who could not possibly be in love with his plain, awkward, naively trusting daughter. Townsend, however, is desperately in need; he is bent upon real money rather than Catherine’s sufficient income. He believes that if she pressed her case with more astute insistence she could bring her father around from the threat of disinheritance. The poor daughter knows better. Her reason comes forth at last in a painful recognition: “He is not very fond of me.”

Catherine is abandoned to enduring misery and pain. Although still chaste, she brings to mind a poem by Robert Burns about a rustic, betrayed girl. “And my fause luver staw my rose/ But ah! he left the thorns wi me.” Henry James’s fiction is rich in dramatic arrangements between parents and children. The childless bachelor was alert to the fierce conflictions in the will or doom of parents to be themselves, to live out a daily expression of their nature as singular beings for whom being a parent is only one of a stinging swarm of obligations, desires, follies, willed or accidentally improper involvements. The parents in their history and destiny have been shaped by years of experience, accumulated scars, agreeable turns, and disappointing outcomes. To these, small children look on as a sort of invited guest until they grow up so strangely themselves as to be not a reproduction but often a counterreaction. In the stories of James it is not always the young ones whose fate is at stake, but the grown offspring entering the world with the troublesome baggage of their parents’ journey through life.

The fictions do not have the atmosphere of autobiography, do not hint at the author’s life as the son of the learned, distinguished, loving and lovable, if somewhat balmy and improvident, Henry James Sr. and the steady, affectionate Mary Walsh James. The biographers, Leon Edel and the more recent Fred Kaplan, would have it otherwise; they find a stressful relation with his brother William hidden in the pages as well as homoerotic threads in the careful weavings.

In the teasing, flirtatious, elaborately composed prefaces for the New York Edition of his work, published between 1907 and 1909, James likes to tell of the “germ” or “seed” of an anecdote heard at the dinner table, a little acorn from which a “great oak” might grow. Like a waiter receiving a tip, modest enough, James puts the gratuity into an investment fund of striking possibilities for growth. Even Washington Square, his own fireside tale of lower Manhattan, improbably came to him from an anecdote related by the actress Fanny Kemble.

The Pupil” begins: “The young man hesitated and procrastinated: it cost him such an effort to broach the subject of terms, to speak of money to a person who spoke only of feelings and, as it were, of the aristocracy.” The speaker, or not speaker, is a young graduate of Yale and Oxford, Pemberton, who has taken a position as tutor to Morgan Moreen, the sickly son of an American family traveling about Europe. Wages, which the elder Moreens cannot pay, are somehow to be made up for by the special charm and precocity of their little boy. “He’s a genius—you’ll love him,” the mother says, and to a degree that is true.

The pupil, Morgan Moreen with his damaged heart, is indeed a precocity of candor about the disreputable family. For himself, the tutor feels it would be improper to speak about the invisible wages; for that bit of politesse the boy calls him a “humbug.” Instead, young Morgan remembers the fate of a treasured nurse who finally left unrewarded for her services, only to have the parents insist they had paid every penny owed to the poor woman. In the pain of so much knowledge left like dust in the household, the child denounces the lying and cheating: “I don’t know what they live on, or how they live, or why they live!” Their snobbery, immunity to insult in the pursuit of fashionable connections, the way they move from city to city, from hotel to hotel, leaving a stack of unpaid chits—all of this is the ancestral heritage of the child, along with the genuine love the family feels for the boy, their free treasure.

The tutor, Pemberton, is also down on his luck after a mediocre career at Oxford and a time spent seeing the world. He is alive to the charm and oddity of his pupil and it is with regret that, by way of an offer to tutor a rich boy, he is forced to take off. The rich boy is a dolt and when Mrs. Moreen sends a scribbled note saying, “Implore you to come back instantly—Morgan dreadfully ill,” he returns. The end of the tale is somewhat in the shade, as fictions by James are likely to be. However, without seriousness of intention, Morgan and Pemberton have chatted about going away together, settling somewhere. Suddenly the mother, claiming the tutor has stolen the boy’s affection for the family, insists that he take him in fact. Morgan: “Do you mean he may take me to live with him…? Away, away, anywhere he likes?” The boy’s joy, the impractical obligation, leads the tutor to hesitate for a moment and, in the moment, Morgan is suddenly stricken and dies. Like Miles in The Turn of the Screw, “his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.”

In the unforgettable story, little Morgan Moreen is a neglected child, suffering not from absence or indifference, but from moral neglect. He is like a child visiting a parent imprisoned for fraud, receiving the hugs and kisses and yet always coming away with the terms of the indictment. Good society shuns the Moreen parents, his brothers and sisters are energetically engaged in shady maneuverings, and the tutor will soon learn of the family’s bold effrontery. Morgan is a genetic anomaly. His quick and candid revelations to the tutor may be thought almost unnatural, but they serve as an original and tragic moral awareness that literally breaks the child’s heart.

In the preface to the story, a “thumping windfall” related by a medical friend during a train journey, the “dear” Moreens are viewed in an unexpected light. The Moreens and I, James writes, go back to the “classic years of the great Americano-European legend; the years of limited communication, of monstrous and unattenuated contrast, of prodigious and unre-corded adventure.” Now, he laments the despoiling of the sacred cobbles of the great, old cities “through which the unconscious Barbarians troop with the regularity and passivity of ‘supplies,’ or other promiscuous goods, prepaid and forwarded.”

The wandering tribe in their assault on Rome, Nice, and Venice can speak a number of languages, but only the sick boy has an aspiration to culture. No matter. It would appear that the family’s feckless snobbery, their immunity to insult, the sad, rejecting emotions of their son, do not overwhelm the author’s back-looking affection for one condition—their impecuniousness. James came to prefer Bohemian ne’er-do-wells to the loaded Americans he had seen on the continent in the subsequent years.

The Turn of the Screw, a “ghost story” of such dense complication it might be a strange craft washed up on a beach with a tattered black flag and crew missing. Critics have dived into the watery grave and surfaced to denounce each other, offer this piece of debris and that, and at last haul the mysterious vessel into a maritime museum. There the piratical thing can be viewed as you will. The story is land-locked for the most part, but skull and crossbones fly in the meadows.

James said the tale was a shameless bit of hackwork, “a piece of ingenuity pure and simple, of cold artistic calculation.” That may be, but it is a brilliant composition, as humanly deep and convincing in psychological interplay as anything in his vast repertoire. The story is told in the first person by way of a manuscript left at her death by the unnamed governess, the star of her plot. In fact the manuscript was dictated by James to his dour typist, and the governess would not have been pleased. She is a young woman, inexperienced, daughter of a poor country parson. She answers an advertisement, journeys to a fine house on Harley Street in London for an interview. The employer is a handsome man, rich, busy, a lively bachelor about town. He is the uncle of two young children who have been left in his care when their parents, one his younger brother, died. The orphans are settled in a grand old house in the country, under the care, in the absence of the previous governess, of a good-natured, loyal housekeeper and “plenty of people to help.” Once the young woman is engaged as governess he makes a rather heartless demand, “his main condition,” which had led previous applicants to turn the post down. The condition: “That she should never trouble him—but never, never; neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone.” Gratefully unburdened of his charges, the attractive uncle “held her hand” and thereby entered the dreams of the poor daughter on her first escape from the prosaic vicarage.

At the estate, the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, is welcoming and the little girl, Flora, is astonishingly beautiful; the boy, Miles, is to return from school the following day. In the interval, the majestically raddled plot begins. The guardian has forwarded an unopened letter which says, without giving particulars, that the child has been expelled from school and is never to return. The kindly housekeeper, deeply fond of the boy, is offered the letter which she, illiterate, cannot read. But what has he done, the little thing not yet ten years old? The governess then offers a “mere aid” of her own. “That he’s an injury to others.” They discuss the nature of boys and agree that a certain amount of mischief is suitable and even agreeable, but then the governess oddly adds that one wouldn’t want a boy to contaminate and corrupt. Injury to others, contaminate and corrupt: dire intrusions from the brisk vocabulary of the new inhabitant settled in a large bedroom, the best in the house, in a landscape “a different affair from my own scant home.”

The inquisitive governess wants information about her predecessor and with her acute grasping of nuance senses that the housekeeper did not approve of the departed one. She learns that the lady, Miss Jessel, went off and did not return from her holiday and it was later told by the master that she had died. Died of what? Mrs. Grose does not know the answer and uncomfortable with the inquisition abruptly excuses herself. Young Miles returns and is beautiful and lovable “with something divine” in his being—for the governess.

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