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
Lately 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.
I 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.
The 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!