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.