Tag: deception

Henry James, “The Great Condition” (1899)

henry james the great condition

From Jules et Jim.

Smack into Downton Abbey syndrome again–the angsts of wealth, uncertain pasts, unsurely marriageable futures. These are contrived problems of course, hard to sympathize with their sufferers or to associate the word suffering with them. But the suspension of disbelief also requires the suspension of prejudice however justified. Within that world, James is mordant: This is about “the rich, the bloated Braddles,” Bertram Braddle in particular. He and his friend Chilver had spent 10 weeks in what sounds awfully like a hunt for American women before returning, disappointed, to England. It’s only on the way back that they meet one worth celebrating: “She was a person to whom they couldn’t possibly have had a letter; she had never in her life been to Newport; she was on her way to England for the first time; she was, in short, most inconsistently, though indeed quite unblushingly, obscure.” But Chilver falls in love with her, although Braddle has “joylessly” claimed her.

James is at least derisive of the useless men’s lifestyle: “Henry Chilver had found it salutary to sit and imagine himself ‘reading’. But Braddle had always been, portentously, a person of free mornings – his nominal occupation that of looking after his father’s ‘interests’, and his actual that of spending, though quite without scandal, this personage’s money, of which, luckily, there seemed an abundance.” They try to figure out the woman’s past. Chilver supposes that Braddle being in love lights the way to her past.

“For reading her clear?” Braddle broke in. “How can you ask – as a man of the world – anything so idiotic? Where did you ever discover that being in love makes a searching light, makes anything but a most damnable and demoralising darkness? One has been in love with creatures such that one’s condition has lighted nothing in the world but one’s asininity. I have at any rate. And so have you!”

So they try to figure out her deep dark secret, her “slips,” if she’d had any–or more than one. “She hasn’t really any references,” the distraught Braddle says as if on the slave docks of Montgomery, eliciting the, at least somewhat, proper response: “it’s not as if you were engaging a housemaid.” Of course that’s exactly what it might as well be for these gentlemen. Braddle speak of her hidden past as fact, indicting her as a man never would be for whatever might lurk in his rotten closets. She had a past in California and the Sandwich Islands. “I don’t fancy a Sandwich Islands past,” bigoted Braddle says. She had a husband and a little girl. They died. He doesn’t sympathize with her loss. He blames her for having no mementos of either. Dripping with distastefulness, he also blames her for having given piano lessons “on account of some of the persons she may have given them to.” This woman should run from Braddle at the speed of western winds. So then these two idiots figure that if Braddle asked her to marry him, he could find out all about that wretched past. Oh, the romance, the originality. (Clever Chilver: he might be trying to scare Braddle off, if he finds out what he doesn’t want too much know. Not to have the woman for himself, but maybe because he is really after Braddle. These boys.)

It then turns into something of an Abbot and Costello routine. Mrs. Damerel makes a marriage to Braddle conditional on a six-month embargo of revealing her secret. He can’t wait. He goes off traveling, stalking her past. The engagement is off. Chilver marries her. Braddle is incensed–not at the marriage, but that Chilver has neither asked of her secret nor is he telling him, or willing to tell him, about it. Chilver doubled the embargo, telling Damerel he’ll wait a year, if he’d ask even then. Braddle is disbelieving. The two friends almost break up. But Braddle is too addled to the mystery to break off. He’ll wait the year. Fifteen months later he shows up at Mrs. Chilver’s. Mr. Chilver still hasn’t asked to know the secret–so Mrs. Chilver tells Braddle in their first encounter since the dis-engagement. Of course he’s again beside himself.

But she reveals the obvious, with a condition: that he never tell anyone:

 “Then I invite you to make the inference most directly suggested by the vanity of your researches.” He looked about him. “The inference?” “As to what a fault may have been that it’s impossible to find out.” He got hold as he could. “It may have been hidden.” “Then anything hidden, from so much labour, so well—” “May not have existed?” he stammered after she had given him time to take something from her deep eyes. He glared round and round with it – seemed to have it on his hands before the world. “Then what did you mean—?” “Ah, sir, what did you? You invented my past.” “Do you mean you hadn’t one?” cried Bertram Braddle. “None I would have mentioned to you. It was you who brought it up.”

There is justice in the end. She’s made a fool of Braddle’s assumptions, and James teaches us a lesson about idle imagination, so much of it premised on the idiocy of class and male pretensions. There never was anything. Mrs. Chilver’s gift to her husband, James would have us believe, is to let him keep thinking there was something and to think himself delicate for not asking about it: she is protecting his ideal. The story couldn’t have found a better first home.

The Anglo-Saxon Review, June 1899

Flannery O’Connor, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (1953)

Lucynell Crater and her daughter Lucynell Crater, who’s 30 but whose mother will lie and say is 15 or 16, live in a paid-off home somewhere in rural Alabama. One-armed Tom T. Shiftlet (not the name) sidles up to the porch one day, sizing up Mrs. Crater quickly: she has some money, she’ll let him live and eat on the property in exchange for carpentry work but not money, and eventually she begins pushing her deaf-mute daughter on him, hoping he marries her. “Lady,” he tells her, “people don’t care how they lie. Maybe the best I can tell you is, I’m a man.” At least he warned her: he lies. Then again, so does she. And both do it in such good humor. They’re both angling. He really wants that car sitting unused. Not the woman. But the woman, the daughter, is the conduit to the car. The daughter Lucynell learns to say bird, thanks to Shiftlet. It’s the hinge. “Mr. Shiftlet already knew what was on her mind,” meaning the mother’s mind.  Next: marriage. He agrees. But he bargains for money to take her to a hotel and feed her, his version of a honeymoon, or so he lets Mrs. Crater think. She agrees to give him $17. By then he’s fixed and painted the car. The couple leave after a wedding that leaves Shiftlet dissatisfied:

The last line says it all. He drives off with younger Lucynell, a character lumped in there to contrast Shiftlet’s shiftiness with her purity, and otherwise more of a device than a character. His spirits fall with every mile: she was extra weight. She falls asleep at a diner. He tells the guy at the counter she’s a hitchhiker and leaves her there. He picks up a young boy who wasn’t hitchhiking but carrying a suitcase, then starts sounding sinister, or preachy, to the boy as he reminisces about his own mother, “an angel of Gawd.” The boy jumps out of the car. Shiftlet drives on and prays: “Break forth and wash the slime from this earth.” The title of the story was a sign on the road, about being careful. O’Connor doesn’t just have Shiftlet paint the car: she paints every scene in varied shades, her colors suggesting various symbols. But the symbolism can leave me feeling like that boy in the car: happy to leap out.

Kenyon Review, Spring 1953

Henry James, “A Landscape Painter” (1866)

Jasper Francis Cropsey

Jasper Francis Cropsey, ‘The Valley of Wyoming.’ This large studio work was commissioned in 1864 by Milton Courtright (1810 – 1883). Courtright was born and raised on his family’s farm in the heart of the Wyoming Valley. In his account book, Cropsey recorded a payment of $125 from Courtright on August 4, 1864, and three additional payments in January, March, and May 1865, totaling $3, 500. On August 8, Cropsey made at least two preparatory drawings of the site (now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). One of these served as the basis for the oil sketch for this painting (see 25.110.63). This final version of the picture was shown at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1865. It retains an original frame and plaque with a poem written in 1809 by the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell. (From the Met.)

Locksley is a wealthy, or particularly good-looking” man who was engaged to a “most mercenary” miss Leary who wanted him for his money, broke that engagement, and died at 35. The story is his journal, in the possession of a woman who frames the story in her introduction. Locksley seeks a place to isolate himself and paint. He meets Captain Richard Blunt, former seafarer and inveterate liar, and sets up in his idyllic house and retreat. He wants to stand on his own merit. If that fails, “I shall fall back upon my millions.” Blunt has a 27 year old daughter who provides for the household by teaching kids piano. Esther is “honest, simple, and ignorant,” of course, because this is Henry James. Still, it’s an idyll. The captain lies, but so does he: “Which is the worse, wilfully to tell, or wilfully to believe, a pretty little falsehood which will not hurt any one? I suppose you can’t believe wilfully; you only pretend to believe. My part of the game, therefore, is certainly as bad as the Captain’s. Perhaps I take kindly to his beautiful perversions of fact, because I am myself engaged in one, because I am sailing under false colors of the deepest dye.” He and Esther exchange insults, tiresomely, much like da Tanka and Mileson in the William Trevor story. She was engaged previously but didn’t want to get married until her beau got rich. He went and got rich in China, without her. That may explain what Locksley sees as her sourness. Now she’s been friends with a Mr. Johnson, but turns his marriage proposal down flat, even though she’d told Locksley that she’d marry the first who asks even if he’s “poor, ugly, and stupid.” Eventually she agrees to marry Locksley. When he tells her to read his diary, she tells him she’s already read it. She knows he’s rich. “You deceived me, I deceived you. Now that your deception ceases, mine ceases,” she tells him. “It was all make-believe virtue before.” He calls her a false woman. “No–simply a woman,” she tells him, bringing out James’s misogyny again. “Come, you be a man.”

The Atlantic Monthly, February 1866.

Chekhov, “Le miroir déformant” (1883)

The first story in the Pleiade edition, not incliuded in the Constance Garnette edition. An immediately vivid scene-setting–the dread, the dankness, the age of the hall of paintings of the narrator’s ancestors), the rain on the window panes, the way the paintings seem to address the narrator for breaching their long isolation (“Tu mérites une correction, mon petit !”) and that brilliant image of the echoing cough: “Nos pas résonnaient dans toute la maison. Le même écho qui répondait jadis à mes aïeux renvoyait le bruit de ma toux.” The husband points out a deforming mirror to his wife, the same mirror that one of his ancestors would never go without. It shows him grotesquely deformed. But when she holds it, she screams, faints, and becomes ill for days until he finally relents to her pleas to have the mirror again. Once she does, she rejoices: the mirror deforms all her ugliness into beauty. They both stare at the mirror, because he can finally see his wife as a beauty.

Spectator, 1883, Nr. 2