Henry James’s The Tragic Muse

tragic-muse-james-d036726715d6465fd69dae933945c933Perhaps I’ve read the best of James. I’ve read his most famous books.  But he wrote many:  20 novels, as well as short stories, travel writing, and autobiography.

So I recently branched out from rereadings and read and very much enjoyed The Tragic Muse (1890). Is it great? Well, not his best, but it is gracefully written and very entertaining.

In James’s later books, baroque language and wondrously complicated structures predominate. His early and mid-career books are simple in comparison.  The Tragic Muse is not simple, but the narrative is straightforward.  This lively, often comical novel explores relationships in a complicated, close circle of family and friends, but it also a fictional study of art.  In many of his novels, characters go to The National Gallery, or buy antiques. But here he also explores the consciousness of artists.

Can you take the arts too seriously? Perhaps.  In The Tragic Muse, two cousins,  Nick Dormer, a politician who lost his seat in Parliament and has discovered he prefers painting to politics, and Peter Sherringham, an English diplomat in Paris who loves the theater, are unexpectedly creative for savvy political men.  Nick wants to drop out and paint, but his career is the hope of his impoverished family:  his father was in politics; he is expected to follow.  Peter’s gift for diplomacy helps an actress and brings him to the verge of flinging away his career when he falls in love with her.

Miriam Rooth, the exasperating muse of the title, is not the heroine–this is not a novel about women–but we follow her career as she struggles to make connections in the theater, escape poverty, and claw her way to the top. She is Nick’s muse, the subject of his first serious portrait, and of course Peter, who helps her make connections, almost gives up everything for love of her.

tragic-muse-james-penguin-81uutgckhlIn the opening chapter, almost all the characters meet in Paris. Their fates would have been different had they not.  Nick has taken his mother, Lady Agnes, and two sisters, Grace and Biddy, to see the annual exhibition of the Salon in the Palais d’Industrie in Paris. Nick meets an old friend, Gabriel Nash, a witty aesthete and novelist, strolling with Miriam and her mother, Mrs. Rooth. They all go to lunch with Peter, who has a job in Paris. And they talk about Julia, Peter’s rich sister, whom Nick is expected to marry.  Julia sends him a telegram saying the parliamentary seat is vacant in her county (or do I mean district?) and she wants Nick to be the candidate.  And thus their relationships are cemented.

Miriam and Mrs. Rooth are odd women out.  They are of a different, unidentifiable class, and no one can quite tell what country they’re from:  they’re international.  Lady Agnes is awfully worried that the Rooths and Gabriel Nash will be a bad influence on Nick (they are).  But this lunch boosts Miriam’s career.  Due to Peter’s kindness and contacts, Miriam meets a famous French actress who informally coaches her.  And he manages to bring out the likable side of stubborn, shy Miriam.  When he asks on a walk if she would mind stopping at a cafe, she laughs and tells an amusing story of their poverty, which gives us a sense of who she is.

“Objection? I’ve spent my life in cafés! They’re warm in winter and you get your lamplight for nothing,” she explained. “Mamma and I have sat in them for hours, many a time, with a consommation of three sous, to save fire and candles at home. We’ve lived in places we couldn’t sit in, if you want to know—where there was only really room if we were in bed. Mamma’s money’s sent out from England and sometimes it usedn’t to come. Once it didn’t come for months—for months and months. I don’t know how we lived. There wasn’t any to come; there wasn’t any to get home. That isn’t amusing when you’re away in a foreign town without any friends. Mamma used to borrow, but people wouldn’t always lend. You needn’t be afraid—she won’t borrow of you. We’re rather better now—something has been done in England; I don’t understand what. It’s only fivepence a year, but it has been settled; it comes regularly; it used to come only when we had written and begged and waited. But it made no difference—mamma was always up to her ears in books. They served her for food and drink. When she had nothing to eat she began a novel in ten volumes—the old-fashioned ones; they lasted longest. “

Most of the book is told from the third-person point of view of Nick or Peter.  Nick is elected to Parliament, but soon drops out to paint, at the urging of aesthete Gabriel Nash, and that destroys his relationship with Julia.  Peter falls in love with Miriam:  it’s inevitable.   Miriam becomes a huge success, is loud and self-centered, and sits for her portrait with Nick.  One keeps expecting a triangle, but that doesn’t develop–thank god!  If there is a heroine, I would pick Julia, the rich young woman who backs Nick in politics. Julia is bright and fascinating and clearly would have made a good politician if she weren’t a woman but is pushed offstage.  Usually James is better with women characters than men, but the women in The Tragic Muse seem undeveloped.

It does, oddly, ramble in parts, as if James couldn’t quite decide what he wanted to say and couldn’t bear to leave out any of his ideas about art.  But it is a character-driven novel–lots of fun to read.

Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove


Yet shall ye be like the wings of a dove, that is covered with silver wings and her feathers like gold.
—The Sixty-Eighth Psalm

Perhaps the most fascinating characteristic of Henry James’s novels is not his exquisite prose but the force of the plots. You don’t need the notes. You read greedily; there is no time for the notes. James is a bit like Dickens.  Both are masters of melodrama.  One will never quite tread the hyperbolically foggy streets of Dickens’ London (where is the fog?), but one glimpses reflections  as one stomps on a guided tour of Dickens’ London, and though there is no tour of James’ London, to my knowledge, you can imagine Milly Theale, the heroine of The Wings of the Dove,  as she wanders through the National Gallery, or Kate Croy and Merton Densher scheming on a bench in Kensington Gardens.

wings-of-the-dove-modern-library-17884be09381b5da747bc607da31b37aIn The Wings of the Dove, the melodrama unfolds like the symbolic wings so often referred to of James’ dove, i.e.,  the heroine Milly Theale. (There are other winged women in Wings: the wealthy Aunt Maud,  interested in Milly solely as the lion of the season, is said by her niece Kate to have the wings of a vulture.)  Milly, a dying American heiress, is a Dickensian orphan, curious and observant, traveling around Europe with Mrs. Stringham, her companion. She is dying of an unnamed disease; but she is determined to live as long as she can, and her doctor indicates that she will live longer if she does what she likes.

Odd as this may sound, and perhaps it is a stretch, I am reminded of Dickens’ orphan Esther Summerson in Bleak House.  Like Milly, Esther is modest, sweet, lively and charming, and though, unlike Milly, she know nothing of her parents, she is connected to wealth.  She  does not die, but is very ill with smallpox, contracted through an act of charity.   Both heroines have a razor-sharp wit beneath the sweetness and both capture the love of those around them. Both are in love with men they aren’t sure they can have.   Could James have written The Wings of the Dove without Bleak House? Well, yes: his cousin Minnie died young, and I think he knew a couple of other young sickly women.  (I’m not doing research:  I’m doing the New Criticism thing.)  But I love Milly and Esther equally.  And I can imagine some readers dismissing Milly as too good, just as they do Esther.

In this reading of The Wings of the Dove, I read an edition with no notes: I wanted the experience of reading as a 1902 reader would. Having just reread The Golden Bowl, I was struck by the similarity of the plots (I wrote about Golden here):   in Wings, Milly is almost the victim of a plot by her charming trusted English friend, Kate Croy, who, when she discovers that Milly is dying, persuades her boyfriend, Merton Densher, to court Milly . Densher does it only to please Kate, and doesn’t quite take in the enormity of what she asks. Milly’s companion, Mrs. Stringham, also wants him to propose, not caring what his motives are, just wanting Milly to get what she wants while she is alive.

A horrific plot! And yet we like Kate so much in the beginning. In the opening chapter, she visits her father, an impoverished middle-aged dandy, and offers to throw in her lot with him and share her small income.  She is living with rich Aunt Maud, who insists that Kate give up her father if she continues to live with her. But Kate’s father says to give him up with his blessing. Follow the money.

And so we see the morals of Kate. She struggles, but there is nothing to convince her of the greater good, or anything but the good of wealth.  She cannot marry Densher, her journalist boyfriend who has no money, if she wants her aunt’s money, and she has never liked anything so much as her rooms at Aunt Maud’s, so she must give him up, too. And so she hatches the plot.  Milly is going to die, so why shouldn’t she and Densher have the money?  That’s her reasoning.

As a young woman, I identified with Milly–I was so silly–and I simply loved her. I still do. Milly has a sense of adventure and a sense of humor and wants so desperately to live:  at the National Gallery in London, she sits on a bench, humorously studying the lady copyists.  And it is this passage that reveals the lonely Milly’s secret dash and fun.

Milly yielded to this charm till she was almost ashamed; she watched the lady-copyists till she found herself wondering what would be thought by others of a young woman, of adequate aspect, who should appear to regard them as the pride of the place. She would have liked to talk to them, to get, as it figured to her, into their lives, and was deterred but by the fact that she didn’t quite see herself as purchasing imitations and yet feared she might excite the expectation of purchase. She really knew before long that what held her was the mere refuge, that something within her was after all too weak for the Turners and Titians.

When Milly discovers the plot, she behaves beautifully, almost too beautifully. But when I was young, I very much hoped I would behave like Milly in similar circumstances.  These days I prefer The Golden Bowl, because  Maggie, who discovers a similar plot, lives.  The older we get, the more skeptical we are of our heroines’ demises.

But James  was traumatized by the deaths of beloved young women.  And so the text takes me only so far, but it is far enough.

Henry James’ Bad Romances: Why Good Girls Don’t Win


Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh! Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh!
Caught in a bad romance
Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh! Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh!
Caught in a bad romance
—Lady Gaga, “Bad Romance”

Henry James wrote soap operas. Why pretend otherwise?  His prose is polished and his exquisite periods deftly-balanced,  but his innocent American heroines are does in headlights and his  plots are melodramatic.  James would have been horrified by the spare lyrics of Lady Gaga’s pop “Bad Romance,” written on a tour bus when she was 23, but he, too, spun “bad romances,” and he too started early.   And is it impossible that Lady Gaga, between gigs, has read a book or two by James? Even pop stars have down time.

the-golden-bowl-james-259020I read James’s best and most famous books first, the three novels of his ‘golden” period, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. Their polish and convolutions fascinated me.  I especially love The Golden Bowl, in which the innocent American heroine, unlike so many of her Jamesian sisters,  triumphs over a double-crossing false friend.  Maggie Verver, the rich, generous, unsophisticated heiress, manages with subtlety and a kind of terrified intelligence to squelch an affair between Charlotte, her old friend, now her father’s wife, and her own husband, the Italian prince Amerigo.  She restores order to her world.

Maggie and her fellow good-girl sisters rarely triumph.  Much as I love The Portrait of a Lady, his  first successful novel, published in 1881, isn’t he awfully hard on  the smart, willful American heroine, Isabel Archer?  She travels in England and befriends wealthy cousins and attracts aristocrats; then she unexpectedly inherits money, which should free her to do whatever she wants.  Unfortunately, after rejecting two good men, Caspar Goodwood, an American, and Lord Warburton, an English aristocrat, she falls in love with an American expatriate in Italy, the sadistic Gilbert Osmond.  To make matters worse, the marriage has been plotted by her charming friend Madame Merle, who has been Osmond’s lover, and, it turns out, is the mother of his daughter, Pansy, who lives with him.   Isabel’s spirit is not quite broken, but she is wounded.  She should leave the marriage, but stays to help  Pansy, who is too terrified of Osmond to act.  Should Isabel stay?  What will happen to Pansy if she does?  It is a knotty dilemma.  Whatever Isabel does, it can hardly be a “win.”

henry-james-washington-squareWhat about James’s early novels?  They follow a similar pattern.  I recently reread James’ other 1881 novel,  Washington Square, which was not very popular when it was published.  It is very short but  covers decades in New York, from the heroine’s youth to middle age.  The heroine, Catherine, is hardly a heroine, or so we are informed:  she is the plain, rather large daughter of the successful Doctor Sloper,  who despises her because she is not talented or beautiful.  Only her widowed aunt, the meddling Mrs. Penniman,  who lives with them, spins romances about Catherine.  Mrs. Penniman has a romantic temperament.

Then at a party, Catherine meets a man.  Actually, he singles her out; he knows who she is. The charming Morris Townsend, whose cousin is about to marry Catherine’s cousin, converses wittily though she says nothing.  Catherine is wearing a red gown with gold trim, about which her father  had chided her, and she thinks the rich gown has attracted Morris.  He fascinates her: he has traveled all over the world, squandered all his money,  and is now back in New York, looking for a gig, while living with his widowed sister and her five children.

And what if his gig could be marrying Catherine?

Jennifer Jason Leigh tries to look like a plain Catherine in "Washington Square."

Jennifer Jason Leigh tries to look  plain  as Catherine in “Washington Square.”

Doctor Sloper forbids the marriage.  He is sure Morris is after Catherine’s money.  He is right.  He tells Catherine he will disinherit her if they marry.  Catherine does not defy him; she plans to wait him out.  She says she doesn’t care about the money and they should be able to live comfortably on her inheritance from her mother.  And even if Morris only wants her money, there will be plenty of it.  Couldn’t Catherine be happy with an unstable husband who wants her money but is charming?  Well…I’m not sure.

On the other hand, Mrs. Penniman cannot help meddling.  She has a little crush on Morris herself and keeps having illicit rendezvous with him.  He is impatient and thinks she wastes his time. Sometimes he is barely polite. Then she goes home and invents things to say to Catherine.

Catherine is  annoyed when she learns of the secret meetings.  Mrs. Meddle claims she is reporting Morris’s feelings for Catherine’s good..

“If you succumb to the dread of your father’s wrath,” she said, “I don’t know what will become of us.”

“Did he tell you to say these things to me?”

“He told me to use my influence.”

“You must be mistaken,” said Catherine. “He trusts me.”

“I hope he may never repent of it!” And Mrs. Penniman gave a little sharp slap to her newspaper. She knew not what to make of her niece, who had suddenly become stern and contradictions.

This tendency on Catherine’s part was presently even more apparent. “You had much better not make any more appointments with Mr. Townsend,” she said. “I don’t think it is right.”

Catherine is solid, much more solid than Morris or Mrs. Penniman.  Surely her father will soften?  He doesn’t. Surely Morris will marry Catherine without the money?  He doesn’t., though her own money is more than sufficient.   Catherine is devastated when he jilts her . Her whole value has been reduced to money.

The years tick by.  She has chances to marry, but does not.   Is she destroyed?  No, she is not. In some ways she has won, by not showing her pain.   But her paranoid father in old age becomes convinced Morris will come back and marry Catherine.  He punishes Catherine monetarily again.  But in a way Catherine triumphs. She didn’t want the money anyway.  As she always said, she had her own.

This odd little novel reminds me of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.  Catherine is more or less Ethan, caught between a sickly wife Zeena and his lively cousin Mattie.  In this case, her father is Zeena and the lively cousin is Mrs. Penniman.  Well, at first I thought it was Morris, but I changed my mind.

None of these books turn out very well, do they?  But I do admire Catherine.  This was the first reading when I genuinely appreciated her.

Sometimes it takes a lot of readings.

I like her stolidity.

On Rereading Henry James: Maggie in The Golden Bowl


For the essential thing about Mr James was that he was an American; and that meant, for his type and generation, that he could never feel at home until he was in exile.”—Rebecca West

the-golden-bowl-henry-james-hardcover-il_570xn-1035222447_jyyrHenry James is a spellbinding American novelist. Ignore his reputation for verbose opacity: his elaborate novels are page-turners. You read on and on at breakneck pace, wondering what will happen next to his innocent American heroines, preyed on by duplicitous American expatriates and Europeans. (The vampirical expatriates and Europeans are often lovers.) The advent of romance is always a danger. “Watch out,” I want to wail to Isabel Archer (The Portrait of a Lady), Maggie Verver (The Golden Bowl), and Milly Theale (The Wings of the Dove) as they become embroiled with devious lovers.  James, an Anglophile educated in New York, London, Paris, Geneva, and at Harvard , moved to Europe and lived in London from 1876-1898 and then in Rye, Sussex, till he died in 1916.  He spent much of the time writing about American heiresses abroad.  He  set most of his novels in England or Europe, while retaining his American point of view.  He was influenced by his friends Turgenev and Flaubert.

We recognize James’s Americans, don’t we?  We identify with them, or at least I do:  it is always a struggle to understand the subsets of American culture, let alone a foreign culture. What does our choice of language mean when traveling in a foreign country? Maggie in The Golden Bowl teases her fiancé, Amerigo,  the Italian prince, that his only flaw is that his English is too good.

“When I speak worse, you see, I speak French,” he had said, intimating thus that there were discriminations, doubtless of the invidious kind, for which that language was the most apt.

I especially love The Golden Bowl, James’s masterpiece, his last novel, published in 1904.  I  recently reread it, admiring the subtle novelistic distinctions  between Americans and European. Beautifully labyrinthine, The Golden Bowl is also extremely entertaining.  Is there a kinder, more generous , intelligent heroine than Maggie Verver? She is equally solicitous for the happiness of her widowed father, a collector of art and antiquities for his museum in American City, and her charming husband Amerigo.  Well, Gore Vidal, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition, prefers her manipulative friend, Charlotte, an American raised in Europe who hates America, and who, it turns out, used to be Amerigo’s lover.   Maggie and her father, Adam Verver, a widower  who  later marries Charlotte, at the nudging of their meddling friend Mrs. Assingham, have no inkling of their spouses’ relationship.

The Machiavilleian Charlotte carefully times all her entrances and exits.  On the eve of Maggie and Amerigo’s wedding she arrives  in London uninvited and stays with Mrs. Assingham.   She manipulates Amerigo into meeting her secretly, allegedly to shop for a wedding present for Maggie. Charlotte is the instigator, reminding him of old adventures; he remains slightly aloof. She  offers to buy him a present, but a gorgeous golden bowl she admires, which is really gilded crystal, has a crack and is rejected.  In the end they buy nothing for Maggie or each other.   After Charlotte and Adam marry , she initiates an affair with Amerigo, on the grounds that Maggie and Adam are too much together and busy with Maggie and Amerigo’s son, the principino.  But when Amerigo and Charlotte return very late together from a long weekend at a country house, Maggie notices and is anxious.  She discovers she is in love with her husband and doesn’t want to lose him.

Critics from Rebecca West to  Vidal have underestimated the subtle Maggie and labeled the Ververs’ close father-daughter relationship  incestuous.  (Where are we?  In a Greek myth?)  I can tell you for a fact that Rebecca West’s short study of Henry James is riddled with errors and her judgements of his work can be bizarre.  She writes, “Decidedly The Golden Bowl is not good as a novel.”  Well, that is the first time I’ve read that!

West writes that Maggie “arranges a marriage” between her father and Charlotte. No, that is not the case. What happens is:  Charlotte once again shows up unannounced in London, staying at Mrs. Assingham’s,  and Maggie suggests to her father that they  invite her to their country house. Maggie is taken aback when her father misinterprets her and offers to write the invitation to Charlotte himself:  she understands the implications better than he does. And then , while Maggie and Amerigo are traveling in Europe,  Adam proposes to Charlotte at the prompting of Mrs. Assingham who tells Adam it would take a burden off Maggie.  The four get along very well on the surface, but Charlotte is smoldering.

So if the Ververs are incestuous, what about  Charlotte, who sleeps with her son-on-law Amerigo, saying the Ververs won’t notice. Eventually we learn the falsity of Charlotte:  she has been one step ahead of everybody in her plans all along, even leaving Rome when the Ververs showed up so the impecunious prince could have a shot at marriage.

What a complicated book, and so many ways to read it.  In Volume 1, The Prince, James superbly, obliquely reveals the complications of the situation mostly concentrating on the sensibilities of the prince, and, fascinatingly, the gossip of the Assinghams. In Volume 2, The Princess, we see everything through Maggie’s nervous perceptions, as she works very hard to keep her husband and protect her father from knowledge of his wife’s crime.   To me Maggie is the heroine:  she even feels compassion for Charlotte, because Charlotte has always been in control, and now has lost.  And Charlotte does not know that Maggie knows.  “Charlotte is great,” she tells her father, who is moving with his wife to American City.  “Charlotte is beautiful.” Charlotte is these things, but she is also a monster.  And her banishment to America City cannot possibly be all that bad:  she has the money she always wanted and needed.

The American Voice: Henry James’s The Europeans

That is all I expect from them,’ said the Baroness.  ‘I don’t count on their being clever or friendly–at first–or elegant or interesting.  But I assure you I insist on their being rich.”
― Henry James, The Europeans

Henry James the europeans 1106872Lately I’ve been immersed in American literature.  It is a great change from my usual propensity for English novels.  And I’ll bet I could identify a writer as American or English by a “blind” test (title and author crossed out) perusal of a few pages.

There is a distinctive American voice, though it’s timbre is hard to describe: there is a rawness, a directness, a purely regional lyricism, and often a wildly  inappropriate humor, whether we’re talking about Faulkner’s The Hamlet, the first in a trilogy about the rise and fall of the trashy Snopes;  Louisa May Alcott’s witty coming-of-age novel, Little Women; or the surreal premise of  David Mean’s Hystopia, a meta-fictional alternate history about the effect of the Vietnam War on Americans, longlisted for the Man Booker prize.

There are exceptions.  Take Henry James.  I love him dearly, but he was an even bigger Anglophile than I.  His novels are basically English novels, and yet his heroes and heroines are often Americans who get duped by sophisticated Europeans.

portrait of a lady james 247718ec278b1c1255ae9bbad67f280bI was introduced to James by Louise Fitzhugh’s children’s classic, Harriet the Spy.  Harriet’s nurse, Ole Golly, quotes James’ The Portrait of a Lady on the subject of afternoon tea. And so Portrait of a Lady was the first James I read. His exquisite prose was unlike anything I had ever read.  And I was fascinated by the heroine, Isabel Archer, because I thought I was just like her (I was not!):  she visits England with her rich Aunt Touchett, wins the affection of her invalid cousin Ralph, turns down the proposal of Lord Warburton (really, Isabel, why?), and has spirited skirmishes with Henrietta Stackpole, her feminist journalist friend, on the subject of whether she should marry the American suitor Caspar Goodwood, who has pursued her to England.  She becomes even more willful when she inherits money.  But the money is her downfall: watch out for mercenary Europeans and American expatriates!

I have never cared as much for James’s early shorter works, but recently spent an evening with The Europeans.

The plot is Jamesian, but this is James before he smooths out his prose style. The theme is  his habitual contrast of national character.  Two European siblings, the children of American expatriates, visit America.  Eugenia, the Baroness Munster, separated from her German husband,  is determined to find a new husband among their rich American cousins, the Wentworths.   But the American landscape puts her off:  she despairs as she looks out a hotel window at the snow, finds the fire in their hotel room ugly, and says she wants to go back to Europe.  Her brother, Felix, an optimistic  artist with a sense of humor, tells her the weather will be better tomorrow.

henry james europeans BlackmurThe American cousins are not quite as Eugenia pictured them.  They are serious New Englanders, with strict morals and a simple country life.  Felix shows up a the Wentworths’ house before Eugenia to announce their arrival; all are at church except one of the daughters, Gertrude, who is avoiding Mr. Brand, a minister who wants to marry her.  She is immediately charmed by Felix, a great change from Mr. Brand.

James’ prose is wordy here, but I promise you he IS the master in later novels.

Now that this handsome man was proving himself a reality she found herself vaguely trembling; she was deeply excited.  She had never in her life spoken to a foreigner, and she had often thought it would be delightful to do so.  Here was one who had suddenly been engendered by the Sabbath stillness for her private use; and such a brilliant, polite, smiling one!  She found time and means to compose herself, however:  to remind herself that she must exercise a sort of official hospitality.

Although Eugenia charms the Wentworths and is invited to live in a small house on the property, she is soon bored.  Her cousins are not as easily manipulated as she’d hoped. Where is her new husband? In fact, she does better with their neighbor Robert Acton, who has a better sense of humor, than with Mr. Wentworth or his son. Gertrude, who is looking to break out of the American mold, is the Wentworth who most admires Eugenia’s manners.

The witty, outgoing Felix really likes the Wentworths, and he has a positive influence on them.

This gets more interesting as it goes along, but I have to say it is not his best.  Try The Portrait of a Lady or The Golden Bowl.  You’ll be much happier!

Henry James’s The Ambassadors

The beautiful Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in Jane Campion's film "The Portrait of a Lady."

Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer in Jane Campion’s film “The Portrait of a Lady.”

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 ambassadors henry james 51nqQRC3gmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Of these three stunning novels, The Ambassadors is my least favorite. Nonetheless, it is a very great book.   I recently reread it and admired it very much.

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..

Balzac Louis Lambert $_35James 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.

Paul Scofield and Lee Remick In The Ambassadors (BBC)

Paul Scofield and Lee Remick In The Ambassadors (BBC)

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.