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