Years ago I was convinced I was a Henry James heroine. Was I an innocent American? Check. Was I an Anglophile? Check. Would I err in marrying an Italian prince who wanted my money? No money, no check. I was devoted to Isabel Archer of The Portrait of a Lady, Maggie Verver of The Golden Bowl, and Milly Theale of The Wings of the Dove.
James, born in New York City, spent much of his life in England. In 1907 he expressed regrets. In Colm Toibin’s introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Ambassadors, we learn that James told the novelist Hamlin Garlan:
If I were to live my life over again, I would be an American. I would steep myself in America, I would know no other land, I would study its beautiful side. The mixture of Europe and America in me has proved disastrous. It has made of me a man who is neither American nor European. I have lost touch with my own people and I live here alone. My neighbors are friendly but they are not of my blood, except remotely.
His American heroes are similarly torn. They fall in love with the beauty of Europe, but too often discover that sophisticated Europeans are debauchees or preying on them for money. He perfects this theme in the early twentieth century during his “Golden period” in his three masterpieces, The Golden Bowl, The Ambassadors, and The Wings of the Dove.
The hero, Lewis Lambert Strether, in his mid-fifties, travels to Europe for the first time on an errand for his fiancee, Mrs. Newsome, a rich widow who funds the journal he edits. Her son, Chad, is entangled with an “undesirable” French woman: Strether is to lure him home with the offer of a lucrative job in the family factory.
Just off the boat in Chester, England, at the hotel where he is to meet his fussy, gloomy American friend, Waymarsh, he becomes acquainted with Maria Gostrey, an American who lives in Paris. These two have similar senses of humor.
When she hears his name, she recognizes it as the title of a Balzac novel, Louis Lambert.
Oh I know that!” said Strether.
“But the novel’s an awfully bad one.”
“I know that, too,” Strether smiled. To which he added with an irrelevance that was only superficial: “I come from Woollett, Massachusetts.” It made her for some reason–the irrelevance or whatever–laugh..
James was a Balzac freak, though the connection between Louis Lambert and Strether is “woolly” to me. Louis Lambert is one of Balzac’s philosophical novels: when Louis, a philosopher and a former child prodigy, goes to Paris, he has trouble balancing his despair over materialism with love for a beautiful woman. In some ways, Strether has the same problem balancing what he sees in Paris with actual human relationships.
In Paris, Maria is his touchstone: she interprets the city for him. And it is complicated. Chad’s relationship with a beautiful married French woman, Madame de Vionnet, is perplexing. She is separated from her husband, who will not divorce her. And at first Chad is confused: he thinks her lovely daughter has bewitched Chad. It doesn’t occur to him that Chad and Madame de Vionnet are committing adultery.
The brilliant Madame de Vionnet sets out to charm him. He sees how much she has “improved” Chad. Gradually Strether decides Chad is better off in Paris, and writes to Mrs. Newsome praising Madame de Vionne. Mrs. Newsome is furious: she sends her daughter and son-in-law to Paris as ambassadors, along with her son-in-law’s sister, a charming American girl who is also meant to lure Chad.
Strether fights for Chad’s Parisian life. Later, Strether discovers that his romantic view of the relationship between Chad and Madame de Vionnet is not quite accurate.
James takes us into his multilayered world and we are inside the head of a hero from Woollett.
We forget what it’s like to be 21st-century Americans.
And that’s why I love James.