Category Archives: James, Henry

Osborne’s Revenge by Henry James

Emma recently read and blogged about one of my favourite Henry James novels, Washington Square, and I was motivated to return to one of my favourite authors. It was a matter of luck that I selected the short story, Osborne’s Revenge (1868), which clocks in at a mere 28 pages on my kindle, for the story is not only a perfect companion piece to Washington Square, but it’s also quintessential James.

The title indicates where the story will take us, but since this is Henry James, nothing is simple, and a great deal is submerged beneath that oh-so-polite behaviour. The story opens with the statement that “Philip Osborne and Robert Graham were intimate friends,” but to outsiders, the relationship is a “puzzle.”

Disinterested parties were at a loss to discover how Osborne had come to set his heart upon an insignificant, lounging invalid, who, in general company, talked in monosyllables, in a weak voice, and gave himself the airs of one whose nature had endowed with the right to be fastidious, without ever having done a stroke of work. Graham’s partisans, on the other hand, who were chiefly women (which, by the way, effectively relieves him from the accusation occasionally brought against him of being “effeminate”) were quite unable to penetrate the motives of his interest in a commonplace, hard-working lawyer, who addressed a charming woman as if he were exhorting a jury of grocers and undertakers, and viewed the universe as one vast “case.”

Following the advice of his physician, Graham is spending the summer at some medicinal springs in New York. Osborne hasn’t heard from his friend in some time when he finally receives a letter in which Graham confesses that he remains at the springs as he is “charmed” by a young woman he met there. From a mutual acquaintance, Osborne learns that Graham has fallen in love with a certain Miss Congreve, and that an announcement of an engagement was expected when a Mr Holland appeared at the resort and that Miss Congreve precipitously “transferred her favours” to the newcomer. According to the mutual acquaintance, the gossipy witness, Mrs Dodd, Graham is dying from a “broken heart.” Indeed, Graham seems to be shaken by the affair and shortly afterwards, he commits suicide.

Osborne doesn’t recover from his friend’s death and with some notion of revenge, he travels to Newport in order to seek out Miss Congreve….

This is a wonderful early Henry James short story, and as we so often see with this author, the main character (Osborne in this case) is actually outside of the main story–the failed love affair between Graham and Miss Congreve. All of the passion–the courtship, jealousy, despair and suicide have occurred off the pages, and instead we have Osborne left with the aftermath. Once again we see the passivity of Jamesian inaction, the complexities of human behaviour, motivation and psychology, and the turmoil of unexpressed emotion just underneath the surface of polite society.

How would Charlotte or Emily Bronte dealt with such a plot as Osborne’s Revenge? A rhetorical question, of course, but their pages would have included more passion, more action, and yet perhaps James’s subtle story is so exquisite because it’s fairly easy to step into the shoes of Osborne and hover around Miss Congreve as he tries to hate her, struggles with indecision and tries to make her pay for the death of his friend.

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Gabrielle de Bergerac by Henry James

The title Gabrielle de Bergerac from Henry James was new to me when I stumbled across it on Amazon for the princely sum of $2.99 for a Kindle edition. For those who don’t mind reading large amounts of material on the computer, I’ve since found it free online. Gabrielle de Bergerac is set pre-French Revolution, so it’s not standard James fare. It’s not a perfect novella, but it starts off strongly over the discussion of an ancestral portrait. The elderly M. de Bergerac owes the unnamed narrator a sum of money which he realises he can never repay. In lieu of payment, M. de Bergerac offers the narrator one of his paintings instead:

He told me frankly that he saw no way, either in the present or the future, to reimburse me in cash. His only treasures were his paintings; would I choose one of them? Now I had not spent an hour in M. de Bergerac’s little parlour twice a week for three winters, without learning that the Baron’s paintings were, with a single exception, of very indifferent merit. On the other hand, I had taken a great fancy to the picture thus excepted. Yet, as I knew it was a family portrait, I hesitated to claim it. I refused to make a choice. M. de Bergerac, however, insisted, and I finally laid my finger on the charming image of my friend’s aunt. I of course insisted, on my side, that M. de Bergerac should retain it during the remainder of his life, and so it was only after his decease that I came into possession of it. It hangs above my table as I write, and I have only to glance up at the face of my heroine to feel how vain it is to attempt to describe it.

But he does describe it:

The countenance is interesting rather than beautiful,-the forehead broad and open, the eyes slightly prominent, all the features full and firm and yet replete with gentleness. The head is slightly thrown back, as if in movement, and the lips are parted in a half-smile. And yet, in spite of this tender smile, I always fancy that her eyes are sad. … The whole face has a look of mingled softness and decision, and seems to reveal a nature inclined to reverie, affection, and repose, but capable of action and even of heroism.

The narrator, half in love with the portrait of a long-dead woman, presses his elderly friend to tell him the story of his aunt, Gabrielle de Bergerac, and so the narration passes to the elderly Baron who recalls his childhood as the little Chevalier, pre-French Revolution at the Bergerac estate. There’s little money and not much of a social life, and the person to potentially suffer the most from social isolation and the lack of money neccesary to enter into the sort of entertainments that might offer a new way of life through marriage, is Gabrielle de Bergerac, the 9-year-old Chevalier’s aunt. Gabrielle isn’t, however, interested in marriage:

I remember that she frequently dressed in blue, my poor aunt, and I know that she must have dressed simply. Fancy her in a light stuff gown, covered with big blue flowers with a blue ribbon in her dark hair, and the points of her high-heeled blue slippers peeping out under her stiff white petticoat. Imagine her strolling along the terrace of the château with a villainous black crow perched on her wrist. You’ll admit it’s a picture.

The elderly Baron recounts the story of Gabrielle de Bergerac to the unnamed narrator, so we get a story told through another story–a neat framework for a short summer that took place decades earlier. All of the characters in the elderly Baron’s story are dead and he’s now displaced in another country, but he remembers this significant summer when he was 9 and his role in the events that took place.

There’s a frequent visitor to the Bergerac estate–a close family friend, the Vicomte de Treuil. He’s run through his entire fortune and now he lays siege to a wealthy elderly uncle who lives in the “adjacent château, and who was dying of age and his infirmities.”  The Vicomte’s visits bring life to the Bergerac household as his “conversation  was a constant popping of corks.” While the Vicomte is the Chevalier’s father’s closest friend, his fiercest defender is the Baronne:

She had a passion for the world, and seclusion had only sharpened the edge of her curiosity. She lived on old memories–shabby, tarnished bits of intellectual finery–and vagrant rumours, anecdotes, and scandals.

Gabrielle de Bergerac is a beautiful story for its marvellous descriptions of its characters. We know, of course, that all of those involved–with the exception of the elderly Baron are all dead, so this frail old man’s story–filled with nostalgia and sadness and recalled after his death–has incredible, vital power. There are no villains here, and instead James creates well-rounded characters who are trapped by class and circumstance, and through the author’s sagacious eyes, we see the dying embers of a class and culture on the verge of disappearance. The Vicomte, the elderly baron tells us:

was the last relic of the lily-handed youth of the bon temps; and as he looks at me out of the poignant sadness of the past, with a reproachful glitter in his cold blue eyes,and a scornful smile on his fine lips, I feel that, elegant and silent as he is, he has the last word in our dispute.

My kindle version gives the date of the story as 1918 (James died in 1916), but elsewhere on the internet, I see the date 1869, and that Gabrielle de Bergerac first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.  For the subject matter, Gabrielle de Bergerac is an excellent companion story to Balzac’s The Ball at Sceaux.

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The Spoils Of Poynton by Henry James

spoils of poyntonHenry 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.”

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