Henry James’s novel The Spoils of Poynton was first published in 1896. James’s work is often divided stylistically into the early and late periods–with anything written after 1900 falling into James’s late period. Other critics argue that The Spoils of Poynton is the first novel of the late period. Could we describe it then as late-early period or early-late period? I’m being facetious here. But the fact that The Spoils of Poynton leans towards James’s late period does explain the novel’s sometimes convoluted and murky sentences.
So while you can mark me as a Henry James fan, even I will admit that some novels by James are excellent, and then others are much more difficult to read. And whether or not you make it through one of the latter novels may depend on just how determined you are. And it also explains why I find reading too much James in a row rather exhausting. Author Louis Auchincloss states that “the uninitiated” should approach James “in the right order,” and that it’s a mistake to start off with the later novels. Auchincloss divides James into the “first period,” “the Balzac period,” and his “final style.”
The Spoils of Poynton is a wonderful story, but I can see Auchincloss’s point that it’s a novel that shouldn’t be tackled first. Nonetheless, readers who tend to have a fascination with human nature will find The Spoils of Poynton a worthy read that plumbs the depths of human behaviour and motivation.
The story begins at Waterbath, the home of the widowed Mrs. Brigstock and her daughters. The Brigstocks are entertaining house guests–Mrs. Gereth, her son, Owen, and Miss Fleda Vetch. Mrs Gereth suspects that her son, Owen is attracted to the eldest Miss Brigstock, Mona, and she doesn’t really find this too surprising since he has two terrible character flaws: a “monstrous lack of taste” and “exaggerated prudence.” While Mrs Gereth bridles at the idea of accepting Mona as a daughter-in-law, she is drawn to Fleda Vetch, and they find themselves bonded in a mutual dislike of the Brigstock home:
“What was dreadful now, what was horrible, was the intimate ugliness of Waterbath, and it was this phenomenon these ladies talked about while they sat in the shade and drew refreshment from the great tranquil sky, from which no blue saucers were suspended. It was an ugliness fundamental and systematic, the result of the abnormal natures of the Brigstocks, from whose composition the principle of taste had been extravagantly omitted. In the arrangement of their home some other principle, remarkably active, but uncanny and obscure, had operated instead, with consequences that took the form of universal futility. The house was bad in all conscience, but it might have passed if they had only let it alone. This saving mercy was beyond them; they smothered it with trumpery ornament and scrapbook art, with such strange excrescences and bunchy draperies, with gimcracks that might have been keepsakes for the maid-servants and nondescript conveniences that might have been prizes for the blind. They had gone wildly astray over carpets and curtains; they had an infallible instinct for disaster, and were so cruelly doom-ridden that it rendered them almost tragic”
While I love the idea that it takes a special sort of talent to create decor of such monstrously bad taste, the author’s innate snobbery seeps through with the unfortunate reference to the tastes of the working class and the blind–after all not everyone can afford expensive objets d’art, and to knock the tastes of the blind…well it’s a low blow. And there again, for some of us, a cup that sports the slogan “a present from Margate” may signify a gift that represents priceless sentimental value. (I should add that Mrs. Gereth’s thoughts peek through in that same paragraph, but the quoted passage seems to be the author’s description–rather than Mrs. Gereth’s opinion). The working classes are not the subject of James’s interest here. No, he’s fixed squarely on the valuables, the antiques, and the exquisite irreplaceable furniture of Poynton, and the war that takes place over possession of The Spoils of Poynton between the well-mannered upper class ladies, Mrs. Gereth and Mona Brigstock. For, you see, Mrs. Gereth’s home Poynton is the pride of her existence. She has a “passion for the exquisite” and this passion is manifested through the love of Poynton and her painstaking, lifelong drive to fill her home with beautiful, unique and rare objects.
After sharing opinions of the Brigstocks’ bad taste, Mrs. Gereth invites her new friend to see her house and its treasures. Fleda falls in love with Poynton. She admires Mrs. Gereth’s exquisite taste while recognizing that “Poynton was the record of a life.” Each item has been carefully selected and has its own story and precious memory. At this point, Mrs. Gereth, faced with the news that Mona will be the new mistress of Poynton, and that she will have to move to a small, comparatively drab little house, concocts a plan to throw Fleda into Owen’s path. She reasons that while Mona will ruin Poynton, Fleda will preserve its treasures and carry on tradition. And so a battle rages.
While the battle seems to be over Owen’s affections, the true war is for Poynton and its contents. What Owen wants–or thinks he wants–fades next to the fact that he owns Poynton and controls its destiny, and within a short time Mona and Mrs. Gereth are battling with a no-holds-barred style that promises irrevocable damage to any future relationships. Is it a coincidence that Owen choses Mona for his bride? He’s the son of an incredibly strong-willed woman, and he’s chosen one of the few women who can not only stand up to his mother but may also very possibly win the battle for Poynton? And what of Fleda? She seems mousey and just another tool for Mrs. Gereth’s plan to annihilate Mona while ensuring that Poynton remains untouched by bad taste. Mrs. Gereth and Mona are formidable adversaries, but as the battle rages, Fleda too shows a spine of steel. While her stubborn choices dictate the fate of Poynton, is she doing the right thing to take the moral high ground? Or does her behaviour cover a sexual reticence?
The Spoils of Poynton is a glorious tale. James very cleverly creates scenes that encourage our sympathies to sway back and forth. At one point, there’s a strong sympathy for Mrs. Gereth–a woman who’s spent a lifetime creating a shrine to her life with her husband, and now she must endure the pain of seeing it pass away while she moves into a small house nearby. But is her love for possessions healthy? As the story develops, Mona and Mrs. Gereth show their fangs as they play a dangerous game for Poynton, and what Owen wants simply doesn’t matter. Owen’s weakness in the face of these three strong-willed woman dictates that he will fall to the victor–his mother, his fiancee or Fleda.
This great story was occasionally marred by James’s wordy, self-interruptive style, and there are times when I had to stop and reread sentences several times in order to make sense of them.
“No severity of moral law could have taken a higher tone in this implication of the young lady who had not the only virtue Mrs. Gereth actively esteemed.”
I’m still not sure about that sentence. Or this one:
“This admonition had been for her maid, with whom Fleda conferred as at the door a death-chamber; but the girl, without either fatuity or resentment, judges that, since it could render Mrs. Gereth indifferent even to the ministrations of disinterested attachment, the scene had been tremendous.”
A few years ago, I read David Lodge’s novel Author, Author, a book that explored the life of Henry James. The novel presents a sympathetic portrait of Henry James and also explains why some of Henry James’s novels are so good and some so well…difficult to read. Lodge depicted Henry James’s struggles as a novelist, his obsession with writing plays, his depression, and his inability to judge his own work effectively.
As a reader, my fondness for Henry James far exceeds the difficulties I sometimes have with some of his sentences. He’s worth a struggle. And on a final note, even James recommended taking The Ambassadors (1903) “very easily and gently: read five pages a day…but don’t break the thread.”