A study of condescension, manipulation, Machiavellian scheming in a love quadrangle. The rich Gertrude plays with poor Richard and almost-as poor Severn, the latter a wounded veteran of the civil war still ongoing. One of the questions neither posed nor answered is why Richard isn’t at the war. He joins it only at the end, out of a need for redemption. No telling what he was doing meanwhile other than drinking whisky and tending his farm. No “Lamp of Psyche” here, no wondering or questioning why, though he’s 24 years old, Richard did not go to war. He loves Gertrude. She claims not to, but she wants to fix him. “I propose, with your consent, to appoint myself your counsellor.” He is insecure enough to accept: “He wished that he might incontinently lay bare all his shortcomings to her delicious reproof.” She hooks him up with Severn. It doesn’t go well when both men realize they’re competing for Gertrude, while Gertrude is playing the game, playing with “her long blockaded ports.”
And so it goes for poor Richard: “He was good enough to be better; he was good enough not to sit by the hour soaking his limited understanding in whiskey. And at the very least, if he was not worthy to possess Gertrude, he was yet worthy to strive to obtain her, and to live for evermore upon the glory of there having been such a question between himself and the great Miss Whittaker. He would raise himself then to that level from which he could address her as an equal, from which he would have the right to insist on something.”
A stroll in the country with Severn and a fourth wheel doesn’t go well. Richard is upset. Before long the fourth wheel is the Machiavellian Major James Lutterel, scheming to bag himself Gertrude, pretending to be Poor Richard’s friend. Richard falls ill, Severn and his broken heart go back to war where he gets killed, Gertrude briefly considers marrying Luttrell, then not. She marries no one. The story picks up intricacies and interest as it wears along its 60 pages, one of James’s longest, but in the end the circling around Gertrude is shallow, and Gertrude herself is uninteresting. It’s too much plodding for too little payoff.
The supernatural in stories can be hokey, a device to deceive realism by getting out from under its burdens, as when evidence is refuted with faith–or rather, as when a faith-based argument is introduced in an attempt to refute evidence. But isn’t fiction itself the ghost a writer conjures to bridge the otherwise unbridgeable gap between truth and a reality overwhelmingly reliant on, if not made up of, perceptions?
Ashton Doyne was a “great” writer. He died unexpectedly. His wife lets the young George Withermore’s publishers know she wants him to write her husband’s biography. Withermore admired Doyne and jumps at the chance to spend his nights with his master’s papers–swimming in his sheets. He quickly feels Doyne’s ghostly presence and comes to look forward to it, to “the possibility of an intercourse closer than that of life.” There are clear suggestions of eroticism between the two men as Withermore researches him, “the great fact of the way Doyne was ‘coming out’. He was coming out too beautifully — better yet than such a partisan as Withermore could have supposed.” But Withermore then senses that Doyne leaves him, and discovers from the widow that Doyne has flitted over to her. Withermore worries, as she does, about the wisdom of writing the biography. James explores the ethic of the biographer, a profound question:
There is an out: do the dead have rights? James clearly suggests that they do, that they’re not exactly dead, and he wants an artist’s life to be left as the artist’s work, nothing more: “The artist was what he did–he was nothing else.” Which is to say that understanding the artist is a pretext to invade a privacy extraneous to the artist’s work. That’s arguable, and there are endless lines that can and must be crossed: how is one to separate an artist’s private correspondence, and its artistry, from the artist’s work, for example?
Doyne and Withermore want to do “the real right thing.” They give up on the biography.
What do you do when you stupidly shoot at a seagull and kill a child instead? Why, you marry his mother. Bingham is the rich friend of the narrator. He has learned not to indulge in “this monstrous hereditary faculty for doing nothing and thinking nothing,” though he doesn’t do much or think much in this story. The doing is limited to his vacationing with the narrator, his shooting the child, and his immediately turning to devising ways to atone toward the woman, even as the child’s body is lolling about in the carriage, “the desire to obtain from the woman he had wronged some recognition of his human character, some confession that she dimly distinguished him from a wild beast or a thunderbolt.” Realism in James at times surrenders entirely to his thematic fixation, itself making props of characters. Mrs. Hicks is repeatedly described as intelligent and full of integrity, but we never see it. She’s a bit of a flat character here, and of the child himself all we know is the image of him as a “pale-faced little boy, muffled like an invalid” in the moments before he is killed. Incredibly, he is thrice blamed: first by Bingham for going on the rocks, where he supposedly shouldn;t have been, then by his mother, who says she told him he shouldn’t have gone there, then by the narrator: “Her little boy has hurt himself.” But the story is breezily, almost humorously toned, anticipating the Maupassant approach and twists, with Bingham’s marriage to Mrs. Hicks at the end, though they remain childless: he could not give her back what he took. By then he’s grown as “stout” as Pierre Bon-Bon.
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.
George Inness’s “Autumn Oaks,” 1878. From the Met: “The composition of this picture is splendidly orchestrated, with a striking effect of unity and emphasis that did not exist in Inness’s early works. He apparently painted this just after his return from four years abroad. His experience of painting in Italy and France led him away from naturalistic effects with much disparate detail toward coherent arrangements in which a single motif dominates, and everything else is subordinate. Here the sunlit trees dominate the entire landscape, their richness intensified by the deep foreground of shadow and blue violet tones of the lowering sky.”
Miss Adela Moore, a not pretty but agreeable looking young woman just, at 25, over the threshold of life, agrees to be her brother’s servant, managing his affairs. Right away we have this: “She was becoming – so she argued – too impersonal, too critical, too intelligent, too contemplative, too just. A woman had no business to be so just.” One September day her brother laves for some business elsewhere: “yet now that he was at a distance she felt a singular sense of freedom: a return of that condition of early childhood when, through some domestic catastrophe, she had for an infinite morning been left to her own devices.” But even though “She felt a delectable longing to do something illicit, to play with fire,” alas she is no Connie and the man who is certain to come calling is no Arnold Friend. The stranger in this case is Thomas Ludlow, 28, “one of the best liked and one of the best hated of men.” This being James, certain descriptions must be written by a sniffing nose: “A certain crudity of manners and of aspect proved him to be one of the great majority of the ungloved.” (James in an earlier version of the story had him “belong to the great vulgar, muscular, popular majority.” He must’ve felt intimidated by the muscles.) He’s into Paleontology, Adela’s brother’s field, which is why he was calling. To see him. Adela was the default choice. And so the flirtations begin, with dialogue about “pulling and stretching” worthy of Bogart and Hepburn in “The African Queen”: “She was curious to measure the duration of her acquaintance with this breezy invader of her privacy, with whom she so suddenly found herself bandying jokes so personal. She had known him some eight minutes.” They begin to dance around flirting. She doesn’t want to let him walk off. While she’s getting her shawl, the minister friend she’d been interested in drops by. Ludlow tells him Adela is not there. She’s surprised, but they go for a walk. Ludlow thinks he’s got the “gift of pleasing women who were worth the pleasing.” But the story is all contortions of feelings and flirts, parries and retreats, as if James were the coquette, not Adela, though she’s no less annoying. And How many times James has to crush Ludlow as “a working man,” “a very common fellow,” “uneducated,” “the vulgar son of vulgar people,” all words he improbably ascribes to Ludlow as Ludlow tells the story of his life? This isn’t the story of a flirtation, it’s the story of superiority. At least there’s a built-in finality to the encounter: Ludlow sails the next day for Europe where he intends to study for five years. She now flirts with the idea of seeing herself with him, “rapidly floating seaward.” She’s glad her brother is not home when they return. So he puts it to her directly: “do you wish me to stay?” She answers like the prissy coy player she is discovering herself to be: “What I ask of you is whether, if I should so request you, you would say ‘yes’.” Ludlow doesn’t bite. “Come, you must not trifle with a man.” They part, Ludlow settling for preserving a three-hour romance rather than spoiling it. We are glad he does.
The Galaxy 1 (4), June 15, 1866, Stories Revived (3 volumes, London: Macmillan & Co., 1885).
Mrs. Despard is married to a colonel off in India or somewhere. Miss Hamer is engaged to a Mr. Grove-Steward off in India or somewhere. Barton Reeve is running after Mrs. Despard. Philip Mackern is running after Miss Hamer. Both men whose women are being prowled about return from their Indias. Mrs. Despard will reject Barton reeve out of loyalty to her husband (“What I may feel for him–what I may feel for myself–has nothing to do with it”), however horrid he is to her. The final scene between Mrs. Despard and Reeve is powerful for its latent violence. Miss Hamer will drop her fiance for Mackern in a scene of feelings “so divine a thing that lips and hands were gross to deal with it.” A study in symmetry, otherwise too often marred by Henry’s arid rainforest style. Example:
“I dare say my predicament makes me a shocking bore,” Reeve says. I dare say it kind of does.
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 narrator is a writer: it’s Henry James, sort of. John Delavoy is a famous writer who’s just died. Miss Delavoy’s his sister. Mr. Beston on publishes the Cynosure, a trendy literary magazine. The narrator wrote a piece about the late Delavoy that he wants placed in Beston’s magazine. He comes to know Miss Delavoy, and like her. But Beston doesn’t like the essay, it’s too literary, too revealing of the actual substance of Delavoy’s work. Beston calls it “indecent.” He is more interested in gossip, “personal” stuff, and in a portrait by Miss Delavoy of her brother, which she produces but then asks to have returned once she learns Beston is refusing to run the narrator’s piece, out of fear, ostensibly, of losing 5,000 subscribers, a figure that soon rises to 10,000. He is “the mighty editor.” Beston refuses to return the portrait or to run the essay. The portrait is published, the issue sells hugely. The narrator places his piece elsewhere, and marries Miss Delavoy.
Lizzie Crowe is often described as “shallow.” But it is Henry James’s story that better fits the description. Lizzie and Jack Ford promises themselves to each other just before Jack goes off to fight in the Civil War. Lizzie is the ward of Jack’s mother, the widowed and rigid, jealous Mrs. Ford who considers Lizzie “shallow” and no good for her son. The engagement is “an abasement incurred by John,” though again the way Lizzie is portrayed is more of an abasement projected by Henry James:
Mrs Ford sends Lizzie off to another town for a while, where Lizzie meets Bruce, an older man who immediately sets chase for her, and continues to do so even as Jack is dying nearby. Lizzie hears Jack is dying. She’s distraught. “Like most weak persons, she was glad to step out of the current of life, now that it had begun to quicken into action.” She is referred to as “this little girl.” It’s reminiscent of Updike referring to Janice as a “mutt” and “stupid.” Of Lizzie, James writes: “I do not mean to say that her sorrow was very poignant, although she fancied it was.” Such debasing of the character, amplified by James unnecessarily and haughtily plugging himself inw ith the first person. Imperious. And: “Her intellect was unequal to th stern logic of human events.” I’m not sure what James intends with this story, why he sets Lizzie up to be such a failure. It’s cruel and pointless, fictional torture. Worse: “Let us hope that her childish spirit was being tempered to some useful purpose.” She promises herself to Bruce. Jack recovers, is brought home. Bruce is persistent, sidles up to Lizzie again and again. Lizzie goes to Jack’s bedside, promises herself to him, he tells her he’s dying, and to marry Bruce. He does so with a brief, stupid soliloquy:
She goes on a long walk, returns, rejects Bruce, who’s of course at the gate–dying and mourning be damned–but he continues the chase. End of story. The goodreads analysis below is instructive.
The Misogyny Continues: “The Story of a Year” (1865) by Henry James
In this his second published novella Henry James, still in his early twenties, again reveals the misogyny in his first published but unsigned story, “A Tragedy of Error.” In this second, acknowledged story Lizzie Crowe is forced by the Civil War to forgo the presence not of a husband, as is Hortense Bernier in “A Tragedy of Error,” but of her fiancée. In both stories James appears to be imagining a woman he himself might marry and looking for reasons why he should not. We know from no less an authority than Leon Edel that James felt his masculinity threatened by the company of males who served, as he did not, in the Civil War. Here he imagines that he himself is the wounded veteran, Jack Ford, admired for his sense of duty but, from the perspective of most modern readers, clueless on the subject of women.
Jack, who has just proposed to Lizzie as James’s story begins, receives his military posting immediately after we overhear the couple talking over what their engagement means to each of them. Jack, along with Mrs. Ford (his widowed mother) and the narrator, all use the word “shallow” to characterize Lizzie whose own words and behavior bear out that description. A motherless young woman under Mrs. Ford’s guardianship, Lizzie has learned how simple, coy and merely “pretty” men wish women to be and decides to wear that obliging makeup. When Mrs. Ford calls Lizzie “shallow,” Jack not only agrees but says that is why he loves her. No mystery about her: he can see right through to those shallow depths.
I find only one place in the story where Lizzie indicates her awareness of how socially constructed that supposed shallowness is. She asks Jack directly if he thinks it horrid for a woman to act on reason and duty rather than sentiment and, not receiving a direct reply, says she plans to spend their unavoidable time away from each other educating herself practically on their future: “Women are such fools, Jack! I mean to learn to like boiled mutton and history and plain sewing and all that. Yet when a girl’s engaged, she’s not expected to do anything in particular.” To have acquired a man, in other words, is generally regarded as the pinnacle of female achievement.
In the one year they are apart, however, Lizzie lives up to her reputation for shallowness. While she does struggle a little toward fidelity to Jack, she can’t help romanticizing her forlorn situation, shying away from the ugly realities of Jack’s battlefield experience and her self-absorbed, if understandable need to find a man.
Lizzie remains, then, essentially fickle: nothing like the wife that the author of her character would need if he were to marry.
There was another obstacle to Jack’s (and Henry James’s) marrying a woman like Lizzie. Not only does Jack’s strong willed mother advise him against marrying her shallow guardian but connives with a friend to invite Lizzie to a visit where she not unexpectedly meets her second lover, the dashing but vaguely drawn character of Bruce. James’s own reluctance to marry might well have had at least part of its source, then, in the disapproval of his managerial mother.
But we might additionally look elsewhere in an effort to explain the unhappy fictional fate of Jack’s and Lizzie’s engagement to marry. Not only did James have real life doubts about his own masculinity and fears that his mother would reject his choice of a mate, but when he wrote this story he was still deciding whether to carry on his career as a writer. I think he considered that vocation as heroic in its way as Jack’s yearlong absence from Lizzie to serve in the military. But writing, especially as much of it as James was to do, would require absence from any wife far longer than the one described here in “The Story of a Year.”
James published this very first of his stories in February 1864 and never collected it in book form, finding it unworthy. Hortense has been living in a seaside resort with her lover Louis of two years when she receives a letter from her husband, Monsieur Bernier, announcing his return. She panics. She plots killing him with a boatman and former sailor with a shady past. But that morning Louis goes to meet Bernier at the boat, and Bernier takes another boat to go ashore. Louis, unaware of his lover’s plot, boards in the killer’s boat. And is killed. Almost funny, slapstick. Lots of preachy lines. A breezy, forgettable read.