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
Henry 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.