What Maisie Knew, Henry James (1897)

The mother had wished to prevent the father,…from ‘so much as looking at the child;’ the father’s plea was that the mother’s lightest touch was ‘simply contamination.’ These were the opposed principles in which Maisie was to be educated….Nothing could have been more touching at first than her failure to suspect the ordeal that awaited her little unspotted soul.

6117068In What Maisie Knew, Henry James captures the plight of a child caught between her parents in a bitter divorce. The settlement decides Maisie must be split from each parent for 6 months out of the year, but their hatred for each other keeps her from the other for longer periods of time. Beale and Ida Farange are selfish, neglectful and indifferent toward their daughter. Their meanness is not lost on the child, who with a touching candor sees she is in the way of her parents as they look for other partners and is well aware they don’t love her.

Her parents remarry, her father to Maisie’s governess, the beautiful Miss Overmore. Ida marries the kind, but weak Sir Claude. While at her mother’s she is given a new governess, the plain, gossipy, but devoted Mrs. Wix.

After her parents cheat on their spouses, Sir Claude and the new Mrs. Farange begin an affair. With her parents having abandoned her, Sir Claude decides he wants to be responsible for Maisie and to the best of his ability tries to parent her, along with Mrs. Farange. But with her parent’s relationship in mind, Maisie fears this new ‘family’ will not last either. She loves Sir Claude, but is afraid her stepmother will make their life unstable. With Mrs. Wix also vying for her charge, Sir Claude gives Maisie an ultimatum to choose between himself and Mrs. Farange and Mrs. Wix. She chooses security and stability, even though the package it comes in would probably not, unless the players were known, be obvious to others.

My Thoughts

As the book progresses, the passage of time is a little fuzzy; Maisie grows far too mature to be only a child of six or seven as she is when the book opens and by the end the reader is not at all sure of Maisie’s age. I believe this is deliberate to show that it is not her age that matters as much as the story in general, which is an “every girls’” story of divorce or at least one where the circumstances are this dire. James wants to show the selfishness and immorality of parents who put themselves first over the safety and welfare of their child.

James gives Maisie an awareness of her circumstances as seen through the immorality and narcissism of her parents. While her tale is harrowing, James manages to get into the head of this little girl and make her strong, bright and full of wonder regardless of the insecurity of her childhood. Many entirely inappropriate conversations are said in Maisie’s presence, but she hasn’t the age or life experience to fully understand their meaning. And while the reader knows the nightmare, Maisie sees only the present moment with her innocence intact.

_______________

Title: What Maisie Knew
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1897
Pages: 275

Challenges: Classics Club

 

Washington Square, Henry James (1880)

Father: The principal thing that we know about this young man—leads us to suppose that, however much he may value your personal merits, he values your money more….If Morris Townsend has spent his own fortune in amusing himself, there is every reason to believe that he would spend yours.

Daughter: That is not the principal thing we know about him…He is kind, and generous, and true…and his fortune—his fortune that he spent—was very small!

 

washsquarebookCatherine Sloper is the only child of Dr. Austin Sloper, a well-respected physician among the upper classes of New York City. Mrs. Sloper died a week after giving birth to Catherine and left her a large inheritance. Upon Dr. Sloper’s death, her inheritance will greatly increase. In this lies the tension between the two.

When Catherine is 10 years old, Dr. Sloper’s widowed sister, Lavinia, comes to live with them as a companion and confidante to Catherine with the expressed mandate from Dr. Sloper that she “make a clever woman of her.” But that order is an utter failure and instead, Catherine grows into an extremely modest young woman with a dullness of wit and creativity. In social situations she prefers to lurk in the background which has given her a lack of romantic as well as general experience of the world.

washsquare4
Washington Square Park, 1890

These character traits put off young men, even with the expectation of a large fortune, so Catherine is rarely courted. Disappointed that he produced an unremarkable child, her father acknowledges, at least, her faithfulness and affection to him. Catherine is not aware of the specifics of his disappointment, but makes up for what she feels by having developed the sense that all her decisions in life must please her father and in that sacrifice resides her own happiness.

But the unexpected happens when Catherine meets Morris Townsend, a friend of her cousin, who has recently returned from Europe. He begins courting her with Aunt Lavinia encouraging the couple to the irritation of Dr. Sloper. Townsend has no job, which is suspicious enough since he just returned from abroad. His intuition tells him not to trust Townsend, but Catherine has fallen in love.

Dr. Sloper is aware that his unworldly daughter would always be prey to fortune hunters, so it is with an eye trained to ferret out these deceivers that he sees Townsend. To prove his intuition, he goes to the home of Townsend’s sister, with whom he lives, and discovers not only did he spend what little inheritance he received from their parents in Europe he has no money or interest in getting a job. As poor as the widowed Mrs. Montgomery is, she supports him. After a difficult and lengthy conversation in which Dr. Sloper shares his reservations about his daughter marrying her brother, she acknowledges his fears and parts with these words, “Don’t let her marry him!”

When Dr.Sloper lays down the law that Catherine is not to marry Townsend, she is distraught. She cannot disappoint him and is convinced he just needs time to get to know Townsend. And so begins a battle of wills, a game cat and mouse over who will break first. Catherine’s duty to her father is just as strong as her desire for Townsend. In a bid to rid Catherine of her affection for Townsend Dr. Sloper takes her to Europe for an entire year. They rarely bring up Townsend’s name, but upon their return her father is stunned at her anxiousness to see him. When he threatens to disinherit her, leaving only her mother’s money if she marries him, she responds with, “if only you would get to know him…”

Would it help her father’s argument to tell Catherine of his conversation with Townsend’s sister and the true motive of his interest in her? It might, but he doesn’t. His pride dictates that Catherine’s duty and faithfulness to his wishes must be the only reason she gives up Townsend, not the evidence of an ulterior motive. To make matters worse and more complicated Townsend is persuaded by Aunt Lavinia to wait it out for she too believes Dr. Sloper only needs “to get to know you.” Townsend urges Catherine to elope, but she puts him off several times. Such an act is a betrayal of her father she could never commit. He has finally had enough of her hesitation and leaves her; whether for good, she is not sure.

My Thoughts

washsquare2If this sounds like a melodrama, you’d not be far off. In true Henry James fashion the reader is privy to all the internal strife and conversations each character experiences in his or her mind. This is a hallmark of any of his novels, long or short, and in this I am always reminded he is the younger brother of the great 19th century psychologist William James. But in this novella the mental processing works very well making this simple story richer, with the actors fully fleshed by their thoughts.

The narrative moves fast despite the psychological wrestling. This device may not be to every reader’s liking, but it gives a depth to a character’s internal process and struggles making their actions clear. There is never a doubt as to why a character in a James novel acts the way he or she does!

The obvious question is, of course, did Catherine marry Townsend or not? It took discipline not to jump to the end to find out. I was surprised!

______________

Title: Washington Square
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Bantam Classic
Device: Paperback
Year: 1880
Pages: 159

Challenges: My 2019 Author Reads

Daisy Miller: A Study, Henry James (1878)

“What has she been doing?”
“Everything that is not done here. Flirting with any man she could pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all the evening with the same partners; receiving visits at eleven o’clock at night.”

 

Daisymiller

Published in 1878, Daisy Miller is one of Henry James’s early works. It foreshadows his reputation as a chronicler of the exploits of late 19th century American expatriates in Europe. For a novella, it is bursting with action and the detailed thought processes of his characters that distinguish his longer works. I am reading several James this year along with his friend and contemporary Edith Wharton, both of whom have given me a new appreciation of the novella.

Daisy Miller is a young American woman traveling abroad in Europe with her younger brother and mother. The first stop for the Miller family is Switzerland where one day Miss Miller, who is looking for her brother throughout their hotel, runs into the young Mr. Winterbourne. He is visiting his aunt and is immediately attracted to her unconventional manner. He finds her refreshingly honest and forthright, when for example, she speaks to him right away without being formally introduced by a third party suggesting he accompany her on an outing. Recounting this meeting with his aunt she tells him Daisy Miller is “common” and warns him to stay away.

daisymiller2
A Spring Evening, G. A. Sartorio. Rome, 1902

This criticism of Daisy’s behavior characterizes much of the story and leads to her estrangement from the rest of the expat community, both in Switzerland and Rome where the Millers travel next. But Winterbourne is smitten even though his association with her is a threat to his own good reputation, and though she is hot and cold to his advances which confuses him he cannot let her go.

Their outings are unchaperoned and Daisy does not seem to understand this great faux pas. When she tells Winterbourne her mother is moving the family to Rome and demands he visit her, he gladly tells her his aunt has taken a house there, but business in Geneva will keep him awhile. When he arrives he finds Daisy the talk of the Roman expat community for similar “offenses” as in Switzerland. She not only openly goes out with several Italian men, she often goes alone with a Mr. Giovanelli in what seems to be a serious relationship.

Daisy is an interesting character because she is not particularly likable throughout most of the novel. She flirts shamelessly with her gaggle of men only to discard them all to favor one—yet, she still wants to see Winterbourne, while everyone can see she is seeing Mr. Giovanelli exclusively. Daisy’s mother is weak and unable to advise her and when her female friends try to counsel her she shuts them down. Their concern is that she is too young and naive to understand that her future in this very conventional society is at stake. Toward the end, however, I saw a young woman who is consciously bucking a system that she finds unfair. Why shouldn’t she spend time with people she likes? And what of it, if those people she likes are men?

As the weeks in Rome go by, Daisy is shunned and her reputation in tatters. The American women of the expat community are quick to point out to the vacationing European contingent who themselves are uncomfortable with her conduct, that “her behavior was not representative—was regarded by her compatriots as abnormal.”

Winterbourne is scolded by his friends for continuing to see her; though he does wrestle with his observations of her actions questioning whether she is really so innocent as to not understand how she is perceived or does she just not care? And is his willingness to excuse her behavior due to his honest attraction or is it just his “free-spun gallantry?” When he tries his own hand at counseling her what is at stake:

“I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do.”


Conclusion
daisymiller1
Colosseum, Ellis. Rome, 19th-century

Daisy continues to disregard any criticism her behavior, walking with ‘the Italians’ in the evenings despite being warned of the dangers of Roman fever—malaria—at that time of day. Her friend Mr. Giovanelli a native of Rome and aware of this danger for non-Romans takes her to the Colosseum one evening, because she wants “to see it in the moonlight.” Sadly, it is not long before the fever’s devastating effects do their work.

What did Daisy Miller want with her life that the conventions of the day made impossible for her? It isn’t really a girl’s actions in such a strict society that gets her in trouble, but the wagging of the matriarchs’ tongues, I think. Affected by Daisy Miller’s life and her untimely passing Winterbourne thinks of her often and one day realizes that she only wanted respect.

One day he spoke of her to his aunt—….She [Daisy] sent me a message before her death which I didn’t understand at the time. But I have understood it since. She would have appreciated one’s esteem.”

___________________

Title: Daisy Miller: A Study
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Bantam Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1878
Pages: 52

R.I.P.XIII-Lucky Thirteen for this Scary October

RIPXIII

 

Readers Imbibing Peril or R.I.P. is a gathering of readers taking advantage of the encroaching darkness* of autumn to read books of mystery, horror, Gothic, suspense, the dark fantasies, thrillers and so on. It starts in September, though I usually join in October. Any reading format is game as are films, tv, web series. Don’t think of this as a challenge, but as a community of appreciators of the Dark…cue scary music. For more details you can go here. It’s not too late to join.

I made my list, read my first book and will start posting next week.

 

IMG_5292.JPG

 

The Historical Fiction
Mistress of the Art of Death, Ariana Franklin

The Classic
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

The Short Stories
Poe, HP Lovecraft

The Films
The Turn of the Screw, Fall of the House of Usher

I never used to read these kinds of books….just too scary. And I certainly never thought I would read an HP Lovecraft, the master of “Oh. My. God!” But after getting “horror baptized” with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward for a reading challenge a couple of years ago, I was stunned by how drawn I was to the story and realized good story telling is good story telling….as long as I am in a room with lots of lights….And now I am back for more!

In choosing the right reading challenges for me I have grown as a reader through the books I have chosen as well as discovering new ones from reading the posts of others.

Happy Scary October!

__________________

*I just realized this is a northern hemisphere concept. What must it be like to celebrate Halloween in the Spring with the light getting longer?!

The Bostonians, Henry James (1886)

 

bostonians

 

Of course, I only speak to women—to my own dear sisters; I don’t speak to men, for I don’t expect them to like what I say. They pretend to admire us very much, but I should like them to admire us a little less and to trust us a little more…When I see the dreadful misery of mankind and think of the suffering of which at any hour, at any moment, the world is full, I say that if this is the best they can do by themselves, they had better let us come in a little and see what we can do. Verena Tarrant

…you ought to know that your connexion with all these rantings and ravings is the most unreal, accidental, illusory thing in the world. You think you care about them, but you don’t at all. They were imposed upon you by circumstances, by unfortunate associations, and you accepted them as you would have accepted any other burden, on account of the sweetness of your nature. Basil Ransom

Boston in the 1880s was one of the national hotbeds for the first wave of feminism. The early supporters of suffrage and equal rights for women were former abolitionists, reformers and liberal Christians who advocated for the poor, had harbored runaway slaves before the War and exposed the inequality of the classes. Lectures in homes and in public halls abounded as women took to the stage to voice the long history of the injustices perpetrated against them and to defend the right to full participation in every facet of public and private life.

This is the city in which Olive Chancellor lives and imagines a better world for women. A young, wealthy feminist she has given her life to the cause of suffrage and women’s emancipation. But an error in judgment occurs when her sentiments get the best of her and she invites a distant cousin from Mississippi to visit. Believing her mother would have wanted to make contact with their Southern relatives, she has taken up that mantle after her death. Basil Ransom, who shows up at her door one evening could not be more traditionally Southern in his demeanor or his views on women. Somewhat older than Olive he fought for the South, an act that places him squarely at odds with his Northern cousin and the milieu in which he finds himself.

At her suggestion, which she later regrets, she tells him she is going to hear a well-known speaker on women’s rights and he is free to join her if he wishes. This tragic invitation, for Olive at least, is worse than the one that invited him to meet her in the first place. It is at this gathering both become entranced by young Verena Tarrant, a dynamic speaker who is on the verge of becoming this generation’s speaking authority for women. At least this is what Olive believes when she invites Verena to live with her so that they can learn and study together and prepare Verena for her mission in life.

But from the beginning of his first vision of “that charming creature,” Ransom never believes Verena’s sincerity to the Cause. He is convinced she doesn’t believe what she says and as the months progress he mocks and ridicules her to her face and to those around her. Olive cautions her:

There are gentlemen in plenty who would be glad to stop your mouth by kissing you! If you become dangerous some day to their selfishness, to their vested interests, to their immorality—as I pray to heaven every day, my dear friend, that you may!—it will be a grand thing for one of them if he can persuade you that he loves you.

Which is exactly what Basil Ransom sets out do as he and Olive battle for heart and mind of Verena. Though Olive tries in many different ways and at several times to physically remove Verena from Ransom’s insinuating presence in their life, he is unrelenting in his desire to take her from this false view of womanhood and bring her to her senses, which is home, husband and children. And yet, for all her protestations against his mockery and her heartfelt pledges of devotion to Olive and their work, Verena is susceptible to his charms and is pulled to him then to Olive, back and forth as she struggles under their force.

What Henry James weaves here is a finely crafted war of wills between these three and the very well-defined supporting characters. Ransom, the die-hard son of the Confederacy, who is often introduced or described as ‘The Mississippian,’ whose traditional Southern values are anathema to his Northern hosts is truly a fish out of water in Boston. While I wrote in my notes that “he is such a pig,” and his views and actions toward Verena are contemptible, I also have sympathy for him. He is a product of his region and culture fighting to preserve it and it is not in his DNA to think women really want to be free of the restrictions men have placed on them, to have their own opinions, to vote, to be treated equally. This is not an excuse for his behavior and he is free to change, yet these sensibilities are very useful for James in giving a clue to his underlying motivations for Verena: “The South may have lost the War, but I captured a Yank.” If it is this deep resentment of the North that motivates him it is personified in Olive who he will rise up against.

I have never thought very hard about interactions between Northerners and Southerners—‘brother against brother’—at the War’s end. How DID people of such opposing political, national and personal beliefs deal and work with each other? How did they become friends or fall in love or enter into all manner of relationships? If, as Olive worried at the lecture over how to introduce Ransom to her abolitionist friends, because not everyone would “care to know a person who had borne such a part in the Southern disloyalty,” how did people heal from this?

Before Verena is set to make her big public lecture debut, she and Olive have secreted themselves away for months to practice and rehearse her speech. Ransom is unable to discover her whereabouts until the event. On the night of the debut, Verena takes one look at him and her resolutions weaken. The lecture is delayed and the audience, who paid good money to see this new speaker, is becoming anxious. Olive sees him as well and sees what it is doing to Verena. As Ransom gets a physical hold of her he whisks her out the door.

Whatever motivates Verena to leave her great work for someone who mocks her, who openly ridicules the women she surrounds herself with and the work she wants to do in the world, is unclear to me. Though she tells Olive at one point that Ransom loves her, he never actually says it; not once does he say to himself that he loves her nor does he tell anyone else. He is only motivated by revenge for the South’s lost cause and vengeance against Olive for her treatment of him.

And whatever Olive’s feelings are toward Verena, in the end she lets her go. Olive knows that if she presses her to state her loyalty to the cause they have worked so hard for, to pledge faithfulness to Olive and the friends they work with she would do it, but “the magic would have passed out of her spirit for ever, the sweetness out of their friendship, the efficacy out of their work.” If Olive and Verena have what is called a Boston marriage in the end, Olive is the bigger person and Basil Ransom is the plunderer.

Poor Verena, caught in the middle, is never really allowed to know herself and to understand what she wants. And for me that is the biggest mystery of all. As she is forced out of the hall by Ransom, she says, “Ah now I am glad!” when she hears Olive stepping up to the stage to give the lecture herself, something she has always refused to do. Does Ransom interpret these words as a victory for him? Or are they in support of her dear friend? And why is she in tears?

“It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed.

A Personal Note

This is my first Henry James, so I can only speak of his writing style from this book, which is dense and explanatory. In the notes to my edition I was reminded his brother is William James, the celebrated American psychologist and philosopher and I do not know what effect, if any, that had on James or this particular book. Because part of the denseness of the writing comes from the mental conflicts James describes in depth, we know more about the characters’ psychological state than what they look like.

This compelled me to read the book in two days. I really needed to know what was going to happen to everyone! And then I wanted to get these preliminary thoughts down. I am a little disappointed in my rapid reading of the novel and don’t advise it for others. I hope to read this again in a few years, because I know there is a richness and profundity that was missed.

______________

My Edition
Title: The Bostonians
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1984
Pages: 433
Full plot summary

RBR TBR, Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Victorian Reading Challenge

Hawthorne, Henry James (1879)

My Edition:hawthorne
Title: Hawthorne
Author: Henry James
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Device: Paperback
Year: Originally published, 1879. Published by Cornell U Press, 1997.
Pages: 145
For a plot summary

This is such an odd little book.

Like many people I enjoy reading comments and critiques from one writer about another. I relish the mention of a title or recitations of a sentence or two; when one well-known writer cites another and gives a passage some meaning in the context of a story. So when I saw this critique of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work by Henry James I was excited and intrigued.

James (1843-1916) wrote this as a contribution to the English Men of Letters series. He was the only American contributor and Hawthorne (1804-1864) was the only American subject. James wrote this in his mid thirties and had yet to publish much of his own great novels.

I have read several of Hawthorne’s novels—The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance and some short stories, but I have not read any Henry James. I have become particularly interested in Hawthorne and hope to read more of his work as well as those about him. So, while I came to this book a bit biased, I was not prepared for a James who was so patronizing, cutting, passive aggressive and snobby, and who seemed to be writing more about the provincialism of American culture and its inferiority to that of Europe using Hawthorne as an example, than of critiquing Hawthorne himself.

“…the flower of art blooms only where the soil is deep, that it takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature, that it needs a complex social machinery to set a writer in motion. American civilization has hitherto had other things to do than to produce flowers and before giving birth to writers it has wisely occupied itself with providing something for them to write about.”(p. 2)

According to James it was a shame that Hawthorne wasn’t English, as his saunters and walks through a European wood and meeting men of a higher civilization would have “been a very different affair” in terms of his talent. America was missing all the points of reference that make for culture. In a famous list, James states the deficiencies of America that make it impossible to create culture. It has

…no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot! (p. 34)

And on and on like this for most of the first half of the book. Realism, the technique James is known for is absent from Hawthorne’s work he states and chides him for, yet also admitting Hawthorne probably did not know what it was. I found myself thinking this book is more about James, who is critical of a life that is missing something, the deficiencies, rather than what is.

The Blithedale Romance is James’s first critique of a novel, which is Hawthorne’s account of his months spent at the experiment in community living, Brook Farm. James describes the book as admirable and picturesque. Most of what James writes about,  however, are the Transcendentalists, calling Henry Thoreau, “a delightful writer” and Emerson, the only “writer in whom the world at large has interested itself.” (p.66)

He does call The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne’s masterpiece, “and will continue to be, for other generations than ours….” (p. 87) Which sounds positive until he states, “Something might at last be sent to Europe as exquisite in quality as anything that had been received…” From anywhere else, meaning all those other countries with sovereigns and courts and castles…Talk about a left-handed compliment. (p. 88)

It is often hard to follow James in this book. As soon as he compliments Hawthorne, there is always a caveat. “It cannot be too often repeated that Hawthorne was not a realist.” (p. 98) Yet, “He had a high sense of reality—his NoteBooks superabundantly testify to it…he never attempted to render exactly or closely the actual facts of the society that surrounded him.” (p. 98) The House of the Seven Gables for James was an ‘imaginative’ work. And that is up for debate, as this book must be one of the most detailed novels of period, setting and character of all time!

I confess I have not done research on James, which might bring some of his style and reason for writing this to light, as well as how this book was received when published and what is thought of it now. One of the unintended consequences is that it gave me a very negative view of James and will probably affect my future reading of his work. The word ‘jerk’ comes to mind, yet admittedly, the reason for his jerkiness is intriguing, which means I probably will at some point read more about him, as well as his novels…

This book qualifies for the Reading New England Challenge