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The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

October 3, 2012 38 comments

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)

[Deep male voice speaking American English with gritted teeth and clenched jaw, the kind that makes non-native English speakers long for a clear BBC voice]

Previsously on Book Around The Corner:

Otherwise, unread blog entries are piling up in my mailbox, sorry, sorry, sorry. I’m still reading The Turn of the Screw and it seems that no tool is going to fix my interest on it. I have to hurry though, or I’ll screw up for my Book Club meeting on Thursday. Yes, I know, the pun is terrible but a weekend of waiting lines turned my brain into mush. I need a fix, cause I’m going down…

Did Emma manage to finish The Turn of the Screw in time for her book club meeting? The suspense is unbearable… Let’s hear her out!

Actually, I had a lot of trouble with The Turn of the Screw and I didn’t finish it on time. I was relieved that the others from the book club felt the same. They had been more conscientious than me and had read the book anyway. I was determined to finish it afterwards, to discover the ending by myself and write a proper billet. Here is the story:

A mysterious gentleman in London has the care of his nephew Miles and his niece Flora. He doesn’t want to get involved in their education and sends them to the country under the care of a governess. The narrator of the Turn of the Screw is that governess. She arrives at Bly, the estate in the country where the children are settled. Mrs Grose is a servant who lives on the estate and took take of Flora until the governess arrives. The governess finds Flora and then Miles quite charming and likeable. Miles was expelled from boarding school for something so awful that it’s never clearly said. One night, while the governess is having a walk in the park, she sees a ghost on one of the towers of the house. She soon discovers that there isn’t one but two ghosts and that they are Miss Jessel, the former governess and a male servant named Quint. She also discovers that the children see the ghosts too.

I’m still trying to understand why I didn’t like it while it’s so praised. I loved the other James I’ve read before, so it’s not the writer. That must be the genre: a ghost story, referenced as a Gothic tale by James himself:

Was there a “secret” at Bly—a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?

I’m French, as you may already know and I wonder if I didn’t have a strong stroke of Frenchness while reading this. First the 17th century, René Descartes and his rationalism came in the way; scepticism won the battle and I didn’t manage to accept the concept of ghost as a prerequisite to the story. Second, what could have Miles done to get expelled from school for such an unnamable thing? The naughty 18th century popped up and twisted my views. And of course, you have the coded letters between George Sand and Alfred de Musset at the beginning of the 19th century. It seemed to me that James had sown seeds of sex and pedophilia between the lines. The ghosts, Miss Jessen and Quint are supposed to be scoundrels but the reader never gets to know exactly what they did. I thought “don’t beat around the bush and just tell us the scandalous details”. Well, was it even possible to give the details in Victorian England? So isn’t the ghost environment just a pretext to tell us entirely another story and get around the censorship?

Here is Mrs Grose talking to the governess; she slips and lets her new friend guess that Quint’s behaviour toward Miles was gross:

And you tell me they were ‘great friends’?”“Oh, it wasn’t HIM!” Mrs Grose with emphasis declared. “It was Quint’s own fancy. To play with him, I mean, I mean—to spoil him.” She paused a moment; then she added: “Quint was much too free.” This gave me, straight from my vision of his face—SUCH a face!—a sudden sickness of disgust. “Too free with MY boy?” “Too free with everyone!” Vous me dites qu’ils étaient grands amis ? – Oh ! pas lui ! » déclara Mrs. Grose avec intention. C’était le genre de Quint… de jouer avec lui… je veux dire, de le gâter. – Elle se tut, un instant, puis ajouta : – Quint prenait trop de libertés. » À ces mots, évoquant subitement une vision de son visage, – de quel visage ! – j’éprouvai une nausée de dégoût. « Des libertés avec mon garçon ! – Des libertés, avec tout le monde ! »

I don’t know exactly what Quint was much too free conveys in English. In French, Quint prenait trop de libertés in this context insinuates inappropriate sexual advances. Later, the idea that sex is behind the whole story pops up again:

To do it in ANY way was an act of violence, for what did it consist of but the obtrusion of the idea of grossness and guilt on a small helpless creature who had been for me a revelation of the possibilities of beautiful intercourse? quelque moyen que j’employasse, je commettais un acte de violence, car que faisais-je, sinon pénétrer d’une idée de grossièreté et de culpabilité une petite créature sans défense qui m’avait révélé la possibilité de rapports délicieux ?

I put the French beside the English because the translation enforces the sexual innuendos. The obtrusion of the idea of grossness becomes pénétrer d’une idée de grossièreté, which sounds quite strange in French. Furthermore, beautiful intercourse becomes rapports délicieux in French, which has an even stronger sexual connotation than in English. Our governess also refers to behaviours which are against nature:

Here at present I felt afresh—for I had felt it again and again—how my equilibrium depended on the success of my rigid will, the will to shut my eyes as tight as possible to the truth that what I had to deal with was, revoltingly, against nature.

All in all, these hints scattered through the text led me into thinking that Miss Jessel and Quint were accomplice and children molesters. I thought that Miles tried to talk about it in school and got expelled for daring to mention such things in school. The children are both described as beautiful and even the governess’s love for her pupil Miles sounded weird and unhealthy. See in the quote here before, she says “MY boy” with my in capital letters when she refers to Miles. How can she be so attached to him in such a short time? It doesn’t sound like maternal love but a feeling as possessive as the one a lover could feel. And when she makes strange comparisons like this…

We continued silent while the maid was with us – as silent, it whimsically occurred to me, as some young couple who, on their wedding journey, at the inn, feel shy in the presence of the waiter.

…it enforces the idea of non-maternal love, doesn’t it?

I can’t help seeing the ghosts as metaphors of the terrible memories of abused children. Is it a final stroke of rationalism? Is it real or does it just means that I can’t accept the idea of a ghost story, that I have to find a rational explanation for it? I don’t have the answer.

Now, why was I so bored when I read it? Clearly, the style was a problem for me. You can’t write gripping ghost stories when you write Proustian sentences. It’s fantastic to describe subtle feelings but it lacks the proper rhythm to build the tension. At least, that’ show I felt. I imagine that in appearance, James was writing for money a story that was fashionable. After all, they were interested in the occult at the time. It wasn’t even creepy, it was just flat and boring compared to Le Horla by Maupassant, for example. However, writing this billet made me think about it and see that there’s more to it than a basic ghost story. And our governess may be an unreliable narrator. Who can attest of her sanity, after all? Perhaps everything happened in her head? She may be mad. And then all my theory about children abuse falls apart…

PS: here’s a fascinating review at The Argumentative Old Git.

Sloper vs Sloper

April 10, 2012 34 comments

Washington Square by Henry James (1843-1916) Written in 1880.

This is my second reading of Washington Square. It is the last book from  Guy’s virtual Christmas gifts and as Tom from Wuthering Expectations is currently in a James project, I suggested that we read it along. So there will be a review on his blog too and I’m curious to read it.

Catherine Sloper is the daughter of a well-off physician with patients among the good society. Catherine’s mother died when she was an infant and the doctor never remarried. Her aunt Lavinia lives with them, the doctor tolerates her because his sister is a poor widow and as he feels that Catherine needs a feminine presence, although Lavinia isn’t what he thinks is best for his daughter. From the start, Catherine is presented as transparent, uninteresting, the perfect wallflower.

She was not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance. The most that had ever been said for her was that she had a “nice” face, and, though she was an heiress, no one had ever thought of regarding her as a belle. Her father’s opinion of her moral purity was abundantly justified; she was excellently, imperturbably good; affectionate, docile, obedient, and much addicted to speaking the truth.

She’s already over twenty and has no marriage prospect despite her thirty-thousand dollars income. Comes Morris Townsend. Handsome, talkative, friendly. He courts her, she falls head over heels for him but her father refuses to give his consent to their marriage. For him, Morris Townsend is only a fortune hunter and his daughter is making the wrong choice. He demands that she gives Morris up. But Catherine resists and the novel turns into the silent fight of two equally strong willpowers.

Dr Sloper is a scientist and he can only see life through the eyes of reason. I think, therefore I am could be his motto. He’s a very proud man, confident in his abilities to judge human nature. Once he nailed someone, he won’t change his mind, whatever happens. He decided that his daughter isn’t intelligent and made up his mind. He decided that Morris Townsend is a gold-digger and he won’t change his mind. He’s incredibly conceited about his abilities and terribly stubborn, which is quite an obnoxious combination for a character.

Dr Sloper would have wanted a brilliant girl, either beautiful or witty. Catherine is only average. Instead of accepting it as a loving father would and help her make the best of her abilities, he judges her and undermines her self-esteem with sarcastic remarks. Tenderness has always been absent from Catherine’s life and it impacts her personality. She’s shy and dull because her father smothers her, she never had a chance to bloom, to voice her opinion.

People who expressed themselves roughly called her stolid. But she was irresponsive because she was shy, uncomfortably, painfully shy. This was not always understood, and she sometimes produced an impression of insensibility. In reality she was the softest creature in the world.

She’s afraid of her father and admires him so much that she never questions his opinion. He can only be right. If he says she’s stupid, it is the Truth. Like him, she follows her reason: she lives under his roof, she has to obey.

The first time I read Washington Square, I mostly saw the unhappy love story and the life of a woman destroyed by an inflexible father. My questions were about the Catherine / Morris relationship and the sincerity of Morris’s feelings. This time I was genuinely fascinated by the fight between Catherine and Dr Sloper. It is merciless; nobody wants to surrender and the match can only end with a KO. The doctor sees it from a detached spot, pulls the strings, sees what happens. He looks at the affair, the events as a scientist makes an experiment on insects to prove a theory. He detests Morris Townsend – who doesn’t help his case behaving like he does. He’s sure his daughter is weak-minded and unable to handle a Morris Townsend.

James is an unreliable narrator. He makes fun of Catherine and leads us into thinking that she’s slow and plain. Actually, she’s not that thick. She just doesn’t have a flirtatious or a romantic bone in her. She’s reasonable, never capricious. It’s all a question of cliché. Catherine doesn’t fit into the lovelorn-young-woman cliché. She’s an Elinor, not a Marianne. Actually, thanks to her formidable father, she despises herself:

Love demands certain things as a right; but Catherine had no sense of her rights; she had only a consciousness of immense and unexpected favours.

People around her misjudge her because she’s shy, reserved, doesn’t burst into tears or throw tantrums. They fail to understand how strongly attached to Morris she can be. She doesn’t have the required traits to attract young men, does she? She’s not graceful, good at small talk or expert in choosing the right clothes. She can’t be attractive to a handsome and highly sociable young man like Morris, can she?

But the more the novel progresses, the more she reveals herself. She knows her aunt Lavinia is silly and she doesn’t follow her advice. When she finally breaks free from her father’s spell, she perfectly assesses him.

He’s not very fond of me. (…) I saw it, I felt it, in England, just before he came away. He talked to me one night- -the last night; and then it came over me. You can tell when a person feels that way. I wouldn’t accuse him if he hadn’t made me feel that way. I don’t accuse him; I just tell you that that’s how it is. He can’t help it; we can’t govern our affections. Do I govern mine? mightn’t he say that to me? It’s because he is so fond of my mother, whom we lost so long ago. She was beautiful, and very, very brilliant; he is always thinking of her. I am not at all like her; Aunt Penniman has told me that. Of course, it isn’t my fault; but neither is it his fault.

This was written before Freud and psychoanalysis. But Catherine kills the father here and becomes an adult. Reaching this conclusion gives her the strength to resist and follow her will. She has good sense and James acknowledges that she’d make a sensible and strong wife, which can be attractive too. He explores the impact of education on children. Without the doctor’s judgemental gaze and constant reprobation, Catherine could have been someone else. James will go further on that path when he writes What Maisie Knew in 1897. Again, I’m amazed at the modernity of his vision of education. A little more love and trust from her father and Catherine would have been a totally different person.

Washington Square is a masterpiece. It’s pure essence of great literature. It has everything: a fantastic style, a suspenseful plot and a thought-provoking theme. James is incredibly funny, with sharp little verbal bullets:

Dr Sloper: You have made yourself believe that I can be tired out. This is the most baseless hallucination that ever visited the brain of a genial optimist.

Or

Catherine: The idea of being “clever” in a gondola by moonlight appeared to her to involve elements of which her grasp was not active.

Or

Catherine “You think too much.” [Aunt Lavinia] “I suppose I do; but I can’t help it, my mind is so terribly active. When I give myself, I give myself. I pay the penalty in my headaches, my famous headaches—a perfect circlet of pain! But I carry it as a queen carries her crown.

Or

Dr Sloper. He preferred Mrs. Almond to his sister Lavinia, who had married a poor clergyman, of a sickly constitution and a flowery style of eloquence, and then, at the age of thirty-three, had been left a widow, without children, without fortune—with nothing but the memory of Mr. Penniman’s flowers of speech, a certain vague aroma of which hovered about her own conversation.

A delight, really. Side characters are well drawn too. Aunt Lavinia or Mrs Penninman can be compared to Mrs Bennett for her silly mind and her tendency to approve of romance. To her own consciousness, the flowery fields of her reason had rarely been ravaged by a hostile force. James says.

To be honest, I still haven’t decided if Morris was sincere or not. Probably not. Who has ever seen a handsome man marrying a plain and dull woman for herself only? I have the idea that James leads the reader by the nose and that things aren’t exactly how they appear. I found myself thinking about the film Le goût des autres by Agnès Jaoui. Again.

She should be playing with toys, not be the toy

April 19, 2011 21 comments

What Maisie Knew, by Henry James. 1897.

Beale Farange and his wife Ida have a stormy divorce. We never get to know what happened between them; we just know the outcome: they hate each other.

It was indeed a great deal to be able to say for Ida that no one but Beale desired her blood, and for Beale that if he could have his eyes scratched out it would be only by his wife.

In the middle of their relentless hatred for one another stands little Maisie. After Beale fails to pay Ida the money granted in the first judgement, they go to court again. This time, Maisie’s custody will be shared between her two parents and she shall spend six months per year with each of them.

They need a governess. Ida hires Mrs Wix. Beale hires Miss Overcome. Maisie gets attached to her governesses “Parents had come to seem vague, but governesses were evidently to be trusted”. Life goes on and Ida leaves England to Italy for an extended period of time. Maisie stays at her father’s longer than planned. This situation suits Ida well as she takes revenge on her former husband by imposing on him his daughter’s presence longer than otherwise needed. This situation also suits Miss Overcome as Maisie’s presence provides her with an excuse to stay at Beale’s house and pursuit her goal and marry him.

When Ida comes back from Italy, she’s married to Sir Claude and Beale is married to Miss Overcome, now called Mrs Beale. Sir Claude is a charming young man who calls himself a “family-man”. He’s interested in Maisie and comes to her father’s house and brings her back with him at her mother’s. That day, he meets Mrs Beale.

Months pass by, the two marriages are in a bad way and Sir Claude and Mrs Beale are attracted to each other. Ida cheats on Sir Claude. Beale cheats on Mrs Beale. The two new partners want to set free and be together. In the meantime, Mrs Wix takes care of Maisie. “The charm of Mrs Wix’s conveying that somehow, in her ugliness and her poverty, she was peculiarly and soothingly safe”.  

I won’t give too many details but I felt terrible when reading What Maisie Knew. I felt a lot of compassion for Maisie and as a parent, reading what was done to her was almost unbearable. How can the adults in Maisie’s life be so childish and selfish? They utilise her. She’s a carrier pigeon supposed to bring hateful messages from one parent to the other. Miss Overcome uses her to marry Mr Farrange. Sir Claude uses her against his wife who frightens him. Mrs Beale uses her to get close to Sir Claude. Mrs Wix is probably the only one who genuinely loves her a little bit but she’s desperately in love with Sir Claude, so she may use Maisie to be near Sir Claude who does spend time with Maisie. No one sincerely loves Maisie for herself without expecting anything else in return but her love.  

In this sad tale, James is ahead of his time for two issues: the divorce and its aftermath and the lucidity of children. Children perceive more than they can express and thus more than the adults think they do. Maisie is no exception.

It was to be the fate of this patient little girl to see much more than she at first understood, but also even at first to understand much more than any little girl, however patient, had perhaps ever understood before.

After that divorce, Maisie’s childhood is over. She can’t afford to be joyful, unconcerned or buoyant. She isn’t a child any more. She learns what she shall say and what she shall hide. She acquires the skill to avoid touchy questions and dodge tricky situations.  

These adults are driven by their passion and have no sense of duty or of responsibility at all. They are unable to ignore their needs to take care of a child. They act on a whim, mix Maisie into their love affairs, retrieve her from a home without thinking any moment of her feelings. A child needs at least three fertilizers to grow: love, security and a solid education. Maisie has none of the three.

The adults around her don’t love her. They pretend to love her because their open love for her serves their interests. They demonstrate their love through hugs, carresses and kisses. But Maisie isn’t so easily deceived. She soon simply states: “Mamma doesn’t care for me”. Coping with indifference is one thing. Facing hatred and underhand manoeuvres is another thing. Reading the passages I had highlighted, I was hit by the raw violence the child had to deal with. Mrs Beale tells her “Have you been a hideous little hypocrite all these years that I’ve slaved to make you love me and deludedly believed you did?” Her mother throws to her face “Your father wishes you were dead”. Mrs Wix confides her “You know your mother loathes you, loathes you simply”. How can a child survive to such verbal violence?

Security isn’t part of her world either. She can be moved from one house to the other at any moment, separated from her governess, almost kidnapped and brought to France. She constantly thinks about how she should act, not to bring any ire on her. She lives with an uncomfortable fear sitting in a corner of her mind:

She therefore recognised the hour that in troubled glimpses she had long foreseen, the hour when –the phrase for it came back to her from Mrs Beale – with two fathers, two mothers and two homes, six protections in all, she shouldn’t know “wherever” to go.

She perceives that the adults face financial insecurity. Her father abandons his home to live with an ugly rich mistress. Her mother seems to survive on her lovers’ income. 

No one cares about her academic education. (Would it be the same if Maisie were a boy?) As their parents are totally unable to overcome their hatred for each other, they can’t agree on the choice of a unique governess who would follow Maisie and change of house every six month. They hire one governess per home, exposing their child to the absence of a stable figure in her life and to an erratic education. After Miss Overcome’s marriage with Beale, Mrs Wix will be her only governess. And what a governess! She was probably elected because she’s ugly and cheap. Maisie receives no structured education; Mrs Wix teaches her what she fancies without any schedule. The school room is poorly decorated, dull, cold showing how little Ida cares for her daughter’ well-being. 

All the adults around her fail her. They see her either as a weapon or as a burden, sometimes as an ally. Ida and Beale are too preoccupied with chasing lovers. Miss Overcome/Mrs Beale is driven by ambition and then by passion. Sir Claude is probably fond of Maisie but too weak to fight against Ida and Mrs Beale’s will and choose duty over passion. Mrs Wix takes her as her confident, exposing her to thoughts and feelings unsuitable for her age.

James shows us the events through Maisie’s eyes which are less and less innocent as time goes by. I wonder what kind of adult can Maisie become after such a dreadul childhood. 

A word about James’s style. I struggled with his prose. Some tortuous sentences needed several reading to be understood. My English isn’t the only cause, I guess James is difficult to read for Anglophones too. Sometimes I just couldn’t figure out where he wanted to take me. He sort of lost himself in circumvolutions full of semi-colons and French use of commas. Like in here:

It didn’t spoil it that she finally felt he must have, as he became restless, some purpose he didn’t quite see his way to bring out, for in the freshness of their recovered fellowship she would have lent herself gleefully to his suggesting, or even to his pretending, that their relations were easy and grateful.

Ouf!! Proust’s long sentences are a summer path in the countryside where a wanderer muses, James’s long sentences are a mountain path taken by a reader who sweats and suffers to reach the summit. A little editing would have been welcome from time to time.

I certainly didn’t have fun reading What Maisie Knew. It demanded a tremendous amount of concentration and the miserable life of this poor little girl overwhelmed the mother I am. However I’m glad I’ve read it. It was one of the books Kay and Jonathan discuss in Un homme à distance. I guess I know the link between Maisie and Kay’s brother.

PS: Thanks to Sarah from A Rat in the Book Pile, I have found another review of What Maisie Knew here.

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