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.
The governess, an inspired narrator of past events and the conflicting emotions that enshroud them, has the glorifying position of being in charge and for this elevation she freely expresses vanity and determination. But being in charge calls for the underside of command, watchfulness and suspicion. “I now saw that I had been asked for a service admirable and difficult; and there would be a greatness in letting it be seen—oh in the right quarter!—that I could succeed where many another girl might have failed.”
The “ghost” must appear and it will not be in the attic but on a late afternoon walk. It is a man, staring hard at the governess, a stranger and fearful, but she forbears the opportunity to mention the terrifying appearance until on a Sunday morning there he is again, at the window, staring. In the midst of this threatening visitation, the governess has one of her gifted, sudden intuitions: “…It was not for me he had come. He had come for someone else.” Mrs. Grose enters the room and the exquisitely ordered interrogatory matter proceeds:
An extraordinary man. Looking in.
What extraordinary man?
I haven’t the least idea.
Have you seen him before?
Yes—once. On the old tower.
Was he a gentleman?
At this point, James confounds the reader by a reversal of the manner in which the governess has received information about the past: Mrs. Grose had given the hints for the flights of fancy of the new member of the household. However, as they go on about the face in the window it is the governess who describes him: red hair, queer red whiskers, handsome, wearing good clothes somehow not his own, looking like an actor. “Peter Quint!” the housekeeper cries out. He is now dead, having fallen while coming home “in drink” from a local pub.
Quint came to the estate as valet to the guardian on a previous visit and being in poor health was left to recover in the country air. Miss Jessel will arrive and the lonely house will be aflame with activity distressing to Mrs. Grose. Serious lovemaking between the two shatters the peace of the housekeeper, especially since Miss Jessel was a lady and Peter Quint a “base menial.” The two were impudent, reckless, and with the boy, Miles, Quint was “too free,” a troubling matter left hanging in the air. The new governess, unnamed as she is, has had her apparition given the name of Peter Quint and in a rush of perception decides he has come for the boy. As the tale unravels, Miss Jessel will float in the infernal mist. She is a frightful figure in suitable black, appearing while the governess and little Flora are outside in the pleasant grounds. The child takes no notice, a signal of her alliance, her corrupted state of collusion with the fascinating, malignant past.
At the beginning of the story, the governess insists that the children loved her, but her dissolute curiosity, her protective, oppressive intrusion will alienate them. Their harmless escapades to annoy her will only serve as interesting proof of their possession by evil spirits forever immune to the offered exorcism. “They’re lost” is the pronouncement.
Mrs. Grose says that Miss Jessel, although a lady, was infamous and Peter Quint a horror. Nevertheless, Peter Quint had his qualities; the guardian liked his company and for little Miles he could have been an interesting diversion; a rascal, free in his language, a handsome, careless young man of the people. In any case he was a man, flinging about the place, and in his concentration upon seducing the respectable Miss Jessel there is no reason to believe, as some critics do, that he sexually seduced Miles. But Peter Quint, with his red hair, easily seduced the imagination of the governess.
A devastating scene with Flora, Mrs. Grose, the governess, and the evil, “pale and ravenous demon,” Miss Jessel. Flora has slipped away and when she is at last spotted, the ghost of Miss Jessel arrives like a cloud. But Mrs. Grose does not see her, nor does Flora. To the girl, the governess insists, “She’s there, you little unhappy thing—there, there, there, and you know it as well as you know me!” Thus the resolution of the tale begins as Flora attacks the menace of the governess:
“I don’t know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have. I think you’re cruel. I don’t like you!” Then, after this deliverance, which might have been that of a vulgarly pert little girl in the street, she hugged Mrs. Grose more closely and buried in her skirts the dreadful little face. In this position she launched an almost furious wail, “Take me away, take me away—oh take me away from her!”
“From me?” I panted.
“From you—from you!” she cried.
Flora and the housekeeper depart for London, leaving the governess alone with Miles and with the opportunity to assault him about the misbehavior at school. Miles offers that he “said things.” To whom had he said things? To only a few, “those I liked.” And they must have repeated the remarks to those they liked. There is a penetrating knowledge here of the gloomy sludge of youthful experience. Those I liked betraying one to those they liked; I and they, an acute and pitiful perception of the trench warfare of schoolchildren.
In the prodigious fearfulness of the last few pages, the importunate mistress of inquisition will ask, “What were those things?” Miles averts his face and she falls upon him as if to force a humbling concreteness for her enlightenment. Then yet another visitation from the unquiet graves—“the white face of damnation”—and Miles, having perhaps been told about the previous emanations, in terror asks, “Is she here??…Miss Jessel, Miss Jessel!” No, it’s not Miss Jessel, “But it’s at the window—straight before us. It’s there, the coward horror, there for the last time!” Peter Quint—you devil! Miles looks around the room again, Where?
The governess has her supreme moment. It’s all over because “I have you.” The child utters a cry of “a creature hurled over an abyss” and
I caught him, yes, I held him—it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.
Miles, left alone with the triumphant, unearthly governess, dies in her ghostly arms.
James included the story in the prefaces for the New York Edition written some ten years later; an edition in which he excluded the perfect Washington Square, perhaps finding it too local for the fervent illumination of Americans abroad. The Bostonians was put aside, denying the imperious Olive Chancellor, Verena the forlorn elocutionist, the dashing Southerner Basil Ransom—not one agreeable to living Bostonians. About The Turn of the Screw, James may have been surprised by the enthusiastic reception here and there of his “bit of hackwork.” For aesthetic reasons he declined to offer details of the two wicked goblins and asked the reader to consult his own knowledge of evil. Reading today, one might ask just what the evil of the “ghosts” was, beyond the adjectives and shudders of Mrs. Grose.
The children when first introduced to the governess are surpassingly beautiful and serene, showing no mark of the beast, or beasts. Even Miles, expelled from school, is charming, pleasant, giving no sign of the humiliating scene he has endured. It is the governess who poisons their days and nights with the heavy oppression of her assumed protection, her cunning questions and rampaging suspicions. Flora flees her presence in horror and Miles, despite his previous failure, pleads to be sent away to another school. When he learns that the ferocious governess has banished the ghost and now all is well because Miles is hers, she has him; he dies of the fear of her. Throughout the governess is before us in action; her perverse miasma of family blight is more evil than the infamy of Miss Jessel and the freedom of Peter Quint.
What Maisie Knew is an elegant novel of wild imagination. Today it might be found among anecdotal, fitfully researched books that appear under the foreboding title Children and Divorce. That marketplace, if it knew of Maisie, would declare it a singular illustration of a couple’s legal breaking apart not useful as a statistical entry. On the other hand, it could not meet two more original parents who have in the mysterious ways of nature given birth to a child.
The story begins, as such will, in the courts. The father, by his wife “bespattered from head to foot,” has been appointed to keep the child, but to refund a sum of twenty-six hundred pounds the wife put down for the child’s maintenance. That money the father has squandered, but in the battle a compromise has been reached. Also the child, Maisie, has been broken in two and is to spend six months with each.
The parents, mother Ida and father Beale Farange, are pugilists, facing each other with growls and grunts, left and right hooks in the marriage ring. Their personal equipment is very striking. “They made up together… some twelve feet three of stature.” The mother, Ida, had “a length and reach of arm conducive perhaps to her so often having beaten her ex-husband at billiards, a game in which she showed a superiority largely accountable, as she maintained, for the resentment finding expression in his physical violence.”
The father, Beale Farange, “had natural decorations, a kind of costume in his vast fair beard,…and the eternal glitter of the teeth that his long mustache had been trained not to hide….” He had been trained in his youth for diplomacy and momentarily attached, without a salary, to a legation which often enabled him to say, “In my time in the East.” Indeed the parents are comic figures—comedians who will trip you if you cross their path. Little Maisie first court-ordered to stay with her father finds him showing her letters from her mother, but instead of giving them to her, throwing them in the fire. She is dangled on the knees of his cigar-smoking friends, pinched and tossed about. At last her term with her mother arrives and when the bejeweled, crimson-painted face appears the first words are: “And did your beastly papa, my precious angel, send any message to your own loving mamma?” Maisie answers as if she has been asked for the correct time of day. “‘He said I was to tell you, from him,’ she faithfully reported, ‘that you’re a nasty horrid pig!'”
In the care of children, James shows a marked preference for women of the lower classes, ill-educated, homely, familiar with the rebuffs from their “betters.” Thus Maisie will have Mrs. Wix, who has lost her own daughter on a crossing on Harrow Road, crushed by a hansom. Her governess, Miss Overmore, if not as malign as the spectral hireling in The Turn of the Screw, is an ambitious visitation of a more practical nature, an easy-enough alliance with the divorced father. While the mother, Ida, has foregone her months with Maisie in favor of a time abroad with a gentleman, Miss Overmore and Mr. Farange find the child’s extended presence quite heavy and go off together to Brighton to find a school to place her in.
The mother Farange could not abide the pretty Miss Overmore and employs Mrs. Wix for the child’s companion when she must suffer her court-ordained rights. Mrs. Wix arrives with a message to Maisie: “You must take your mamma’s message, Maisie, and you must feel that her wishing me to come to you with it this way is a great proof of interest and affection. She sends you her particular love and announces to you that she’s engaged to be married to Sir Claude.” A discussion of this matter with Miss Overmore about the idea that her mother’s marriage would establish a special hold on the child is countered by a sly retort about what that would mean if the father were to marry:
[Maisie:] “Do you mean papa’s hold on me—do you mean he’s about to marry?”
[Miss Overmore:] “Papa’s not about to marry—Papa is married, my dear. Papa was married the day before yesterday at Brighton. …He’s my husband, if you please, and I’m his little wife. So now we’ll see who’s your little mother!”
Maisie, blinking, absorbing her world of ravaged sophistication, is thought to be dumb and indeed in the torrent of wanton insinuations she assumes an air of “harmless vacancy.” She is told by one side of the embattled forces that her mother “loathes you” and by the presiding officer of the other side that “your father wishes you were dead.” Her mother is not only engaged to Sir Claude, they are married, and Maisie accepts that she now has four parents, even if in her now precocious experience “they struck her as after all rather deficient in that air of the honeymoon of which she had so often heard….”
Sir Claude, like a handsome knight on a white steed, gallops to the rescue of the pummeled offspring of his wife because, in his way, he genuinely likes children and in this instance could not like any child less than he likes his long-armed wife, her mother. He appears at the door of her new little mama, the former Miss Overmore, to take the child for her ordained spell of residence with her first mother. Sir Claude is younger than his wife and Miss Overmore is younger than the toothy Beale Farange; on the doorstep there is, naturally it must be named, a flirtation between the two.
Sir Claude, always spoken of as beautiful, is one of the author’s most appealing and credible male creations. He’s a blade, not a saint, and from the doorstep meeting with Maisie’s stepmother, plotting, with the lady’s voracious assistance, to see her again. With Maisie, he’s comradely, honest inso-far as the circumstances permit, humorous. When Maisie asks him if he is afraid of his wife, his answer is “Rather, old man!” The two go about town, buy sweets as they please, share a complicated interlude on the coast of France, and talk about the conditions of their curious lives. The married couples it soon appears are not together. The mother, when not supposedly off for a billiards competition in Brussels, is seen in the park on the arm of a peculiar alliance. The stepmother has moved to her own place and divorced a not unwilling Mr. Farange; Maisie’s mother has divorced Sir Claude and that leaves the two free for an alliance that breaks Maisie’s heart. James shapes his young charges with touching affection and sympathy and yet their endings are dole-ful; the beautiful Flora in The Turn of the Screw flees disaster with the loyal, illiterate, uninspiring Mrs. Grose and Maisie ends in the arms of the pessimistic, needy Mrs. Wix. The grown-ups in this superb novel will do as they will or as they must. The licentious ronde is composed with viva-city and speed, free of the scrupulous painter’s usual second and third coats.
The Awkward Age is written for the most part in dialogue or conversation. The oddity of this glittering novel is that conversation, the plot, is seen as a sort of airborne disease, disabling the heroine, making her unfit for marriage in the manner of a deflowering. Nanda Brookenham is eighteen, the year of her coming-out, as we would have it; here in London it is spoken of as a coming-down to mingle freely in her parents’ drawing room, to hear the badinage of her mother’s set.
At the time of composition, only three or four months it took, James was still smarting from the disaster of his drama Guy Domville, and perhaps wished to illustrate his command of action through dialogue. Indeed he had always mutely spoken his prose, which accounts for the large number of italicized words, even words such as the and that to give the vocal stress. As the preface to The Awkward Age indicates, he is contemptuous of the theater of his time, the “strait-jacket” which renounces the finer thing for “the coarser, the thick, in short for the thin and the curious for the self-evident.”
Bewailing the lack of intellectual distinction, here are his thoughts on Ibsen:
What virtues of the same order would have attached to The Pillars of Society, to An Enemy of the People, to Ghosts, to Rosmersholm (or taking also Ibsen’s “subtle period”) to John Gabriel Borkman, to The Master Builder? Ibsen is in fact wonderfully a case in point, since from the moment he’s clear, from the moment he’s ‘amusing,’ it’s on the footing of a thesis as simple and superficial as that of A Doll’s House—while from the moment he’s by intention comprehensive and searching it’s on the footing of an effect as confused and obscure as The Wild Duck.
It must be said that James in reviews written later was more “measured” about Ibsen, but the outburst in the preface to The Awkward Age is of interest because it indicates the suffering he endured throughout his life about the public’s rejection of his manner, his style, his evasiveness so intensely and vigorously elaborated. The prefaces also give a poignant clue that James was aware of the fragility of some of his “seeds” as they try to hold ground in the downpour of fiction.
At the turn of the century, it was felt by many that England was afflicted by a drastic change in social life. The class system was so greatly weakened one couldn’t tell a lord from a manufacturer of leather goods; the latter, if very rich, might soon be a lord. Civilities, deportment, standards were uncertain and a man of the world needn’t know which fork to use. Mothers with a daughter in the marriage market became as beady-eyed and calculating as a speculator in the stock exchange. James seemed to feel the decadence of the atmosphere to be lamentable and such is the challenge of his novel The Awkward Age.
It is a drawing-room novel, a meeting of the up-to-date and the out-of-date. Mrs. Brookenham, forty-one, has a daughter, Nanda, eighteen, and a very special friend, Mr. Vanderbank, or Van, thirty-four. They are in the England of 1899, the year of publication, to be judged by a man, Mr. Longdon, fifty-five years old. He is unmarried, lives in the country on his comfortable income, is making his first visit to London in thirty years. At the opening of the novel, Mr. Longdon emerges from one of the teatime gatherings at the Buckingham Crescent establishment of Mrs. Brook, as she is called. The older gentleman had been in love with Lady Julia, Mrs. Brook’s mother, and he has come to town to see what has happened to the daughter of the lady, long dead, who rejected his suit, a rejection he has never recovered from since he is, and rather proudly, the sort who does not recover from the days of dazzling hope. What Mr. Longdon learns of the daughter, Mrs. Brook, does not please him; in fact, “I think I was rather frightened.”
In the rain, he shares a “four-wheeler” with Van and they end up at Van’s place and talk until midnight, setting the tone, as it were. Van is charming, light-hearted, well born, not rich, indeed the only member of the set who has a job. Mr. Longdon sees a portrait of Nanda which she has given to Van and, while he questions the propriety of such an exchange, he is struck by the fact that Nanda is the very image of the lost Lady Julia and it will be his mission to save her.
In Mrs. Brook’s set there is a duchess, widow of a Neapolitan grandee whose niece, little Aggie, she is keeping in a kind of purdah to assure a proper marriage, but says she would offer her to “the son of a chimney-sweep if the proper guarantees were there.” There is Mr. Mitchett, the son of a bootmaker but very rich and very badly dressed in garments that have nothing in common save “the violence and independence of their pattern.” Mitchett, genial and unassuming, will marry the violently protected little Aggie who, once released, is soon on the town. There is Lord Petherton, of a “certain pleasant brutality,” who lives off Mitchett. And Mr. Cashmore, “who would have been very red-haired if he had not been very bald”; and whose straying wife, Fanny, is much discussed. Mrs. Brook’s husband, Edward, according to the crunching images of the duchess, figures in the drawing room “only as one of those queer extinguishers of fire in the corridors of hotels. He’s a bucket on a peg.”
Van is the prize of the circle; he is handsome, agreeable, available but not dependent. He might be elsewhere if he chose, but here he is, amused, aware of the great charm and wit of Mrs. Brook and of her splendid effort to keep her boat afloat. Mr. Longdon is much taken with him; indeed he had known Van’s mother, who was a special comfort to him in the loss of Lady Julia before going off herself to marry another. Mrs. Brook is in love with Van and a competition, hidden and astute, comes about when she learns that Nanda is also in love with him. “He’ll never come to the scratch,” the mother says.
Nanda, once down, is a serious, intelligent girl, strong in the defense of certain friends who are not quite respectable for an unmarried girl—that vulnerable condition. She is polite about the curiosity the men in the set are free to have about her; and penetrating about her pretty mother’s gallantry in hanging on with very little money and a worthless son who borrows from everyone with the deftness of Fagin’s crew lifting pocket handkerchiefs.
The conversation to which Nanda has been exposed is entirely personal, more than a little cynical; it is gossip of an eloquent and relentless sophistication, rich in discoveries about the wives of the husbands and the husbands of the wives in the group. The many matters the gossip ignores are as interesting as what it squeezes from the lemons at hand. London itself does not often appear with its place names and diversions; the city is atmosphere. There is no mention of politics, nothing of the religious and intellectual turmoil of the period. At the time of writing, Queen Victoria is having her second Jubilee and will live a few more years; Gladstone has recently died and the superb object of gossip, Disraeli, although dead for some years, was a dramatic figure in the youth of Mrs. Brook and her set. Here, the conversation is about whether Lady Fanny will bolt and like Anna Karenina go off with her lover to some little Italian town. It must be said that the talk, if somewhat wrapped in too many shawls of intimacy, is brilliant.
Mrs. Brook and Van are the spectacular accomplishment of the novel; their provocative interchanges are candid on the surface and yet swirling about in undercurrents of emotion, motive, self-awareness, and self-protection. Since Nanda, approaching nineteen, must be married sooner rather than later, Mr. Longdon advances the plot and the conversation by an offer to Van: if he consents to marry the young girl she will have a considerable settlement, money, made over to her. His reason: “I want her got out…. Out of her mother’s house.” Van, taken aback, says he cannot commit himself without time to consider it. Mr. Longdon proposes, as an inducement, to name the sum, a sum Van refuses to hear. Nanda is not to know, but Van delivers the news to Mrs. Brook and to Mr. Mitchett, honorably telling Mr. Longdon later that he has done so:
[Van:] “We had things out very much and his kindness was extraordinary—he’s the most beautiful old boy that ever lived…but I feel I can’t arrive at any respectable sort of attitude in the matter without taking you into my confidence—…though till this moment I’ve funked it.”
[Mrs. Brook:] “Do you mean you’ve declined the arrange ment?” … Her lovely gaze widened out…. “You have declined her?… Do you imagine I want you to myself?”
[Van:] “…When he mentioned it to me I was quite surprised…. He’s ready to settle if I’m ready to do the rest.”
[Mrs. Brook:] “Of course you know …that she’d jump at you…. What is it he settled?”
[Van:] “I can’t tell you…. On the contrary I stopped him off.”
[Mrs. Brook:] “Oh then…that’s what I call declining…. You won’t do it…. You won’t do it.”
Mr. Mitchett enters and they discuss, chat, about the matter and whether Nanda might get more money if Van refuses. Of one thing, Mrs. Brook is still certain: “He won’t go in.” The banter back and forth seems to distress Vanderbank, as if perhaps it is an indictment of “the liberal fireside” to which Nanda has long been exposed, thereby creating some oblique disadvantage to herself, her life. On the other hand, he has no wish to marry her or her mother. Nanda, ultimately aware that Van is just a friend and nothing more, will tell Mr. Longdon that he did his best: “Oh, he’s more old-fashioned than you.” And that in the eerie resolution would seem to be the exact truth of the tale.
Little Flora was to have the middle-aged Mrs. Grose and little Maisie to have as her companion the bereaved Mrs. Wix. For Nanda, kind, intelligent about the way things are and forgiving of them, it is to be Mr. Longdon. He has his country place, lovely gardens, and indeed quiet. With some jealousy of the withholding Van, he puts it to the young girl: “You understand clearly, I take it, that this time it’s never again to leave me—or to be left.” So it is yes, tomorrow. For Nanda, never to leave.
In 1915, in the midst of World War I, James gave up his American passport and became a British citizen. It was a year before his death and having spent most of his adult life in Britain, he did not want to be booked as an alien while he was reporting for work with refugees and the wounded; and no doubt it seemed the proper thing to do. However, in his fictions the new citizen was not pleased by the rapid changes in British life starting at the end of the nineteenth century. He struggled to find a useful spot of environmental contamination from which to dramatize the inchoate mudslides. Thirty years earlier, Anthony Trollope, in his large novel, The Way We Live Now (1869), proposed as the landscape of decline and social corruption the history of a great capitalist speculator, Melmotte, and his illusory shares that sent an idle Lord this and Lord that into bankruptcy.
For James, in The Awkward Age (1899), the tea-table of Mrs. Brook is the instrument of a vanished propriety and the dilution of suitable ways to raise a young daughter. But just what is the substance of the inflammable conversation in Mrs. Brook’s house? For the most part it is clever talk about money, the marriage market, and certain indiscreet follies. In the preface, James analyzes favorably the practical French manner of keeping the “hovering female young” out of the drawing room altogether until they are married. In America, he writes, the young female may be present, but the talk on such occasions is properly trimmed to the innocuous; perhaps a retreat to the weather or the day’s passage at school until, mercifully for the adults, the young one curtsies and departs.
Mr. Longdon, with his scrupulous fidelity to the social censorship of the past, is offered as a moral hero; but the true prince is Van, who refuses Mr. Longdon’s bribe in exchange for the rescue by marriage of the threatened Nanda. In support of his theme of untethered conversation, James shows a reluctance or an incapacity to compose scurrilous dialogue; such is the charm of the conversation he actually produces, even though it may not serve as sufficient motivation for Mr. Longdon’s “I want her out of the house.”
In these stories, James creates a span of mistreatment that is death, a drastic removal, for the young boys, Morgan Moreen in “The Pupil” and Miles in The Turn of the Screw. Morgan’s parents demonstrated neglect by moral or immoral frivolity; the indifference of the guardian in the “ghost” story, his giving the children over to the care of a young woman he spoke with for scarcely more than five minutes is a casual risking of their lives. The young girls, Maisie and Nanda, are stronger, able to survive the instability of their parents and the loss of the “beautiful” young men with whom they have innocently fallen in love. Survival is to be a sort of dimness as they pass into the charge of the caring ones, a twilight escape. The fictions show an acute disillusionment with family life, perhaps a bachelor’s cool eye on the common sentiments.
On the other hand, such fondness for children has a dreamlike quality to it, an enchanted protectiveness. Although we cannot quite imagine James comfortably in the presence of a baby, his affection has in it some of the sweetness of the charming Sir Claude who, when asked why he had taken up with Maisie, says: “I’m not an angel—I’m an old grandmother…. I like babies—I always did. If we go to smash I shall look for a place as responsible nurse.”
May 17, 2001