A Brief Summary of Henry James’ Long Problems

turn of the screw

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, 1898

I’m ready. I’m going to blab about everything that is wrong with Henry James. Well, not everything, because I haven’t read all his “major” novels yet. There is nothing major, in the Clueless sense of the word, about any of his novels as far as I can perceive. Have you ever heard anyone say “Henry James is my favorite author!” I haven’t. He is remembered for being experimental and an influence for the Modernists, but his own work is, frankly, atrocious. I mean it. I worry about the Modern Era in literature that looms before me. If those goobers read Henry James and thought “Yes! This! The world needs more of this,” I worry about their judgment. The Turn of the Screw is perhaps a perfect microcosm of James’ flaws. Taking this novella as an exemplar, let’s get into the problem with Henry James. Have I typed those last five words before? I may have.

Anyway.

  1. Good concept, executed poorly. A young lady takes a job as a governess to two orphans living on their uncle’s remote country estate. The last governess died under mysterious circumstances. Yes! I am ready for these spooky, haunted children. Come to me, spectral governess. I am waiting. . . for nothing. James doesn’t really pull it off. Similarly, What Maisie Knew takes on the concept of divorce, a fascinating topic for the Late Victorian Era, but James does nothing good with it. In a Portrait of a Lady he tries to write about a modern, independent woman and fails spectacularly. It’s as if he thought of and about creative and interesting topics but failed to think up anything worthwhile when he contemplated them.
  2. Turn of the Screw starts out as a frame story. Visitors at a storm bespattered country estate gather around the fireside to share spooky stories. One claims to have the spookiest story of them all, but he must send away for the manuscript. He reads the manuscript. The novella ends. Right there with the last word of the manuscript. Henry James doesn’t close the frame. There is absolutely no value to the introductory portion. The listeners do not comment on the tale after they hear it. They are simply forgotten. He could have simply started with the governess’ narrative. In fact, BBC radio productions and similarly abridged versions do just that, recognizing that the James’ “frame” is unnecessary and pointless. Come at me. I will fight you on this. Oh wait, no one out there actually cares about Henry James enough to defend him, because he just isn’t good enough to deserve that level of devotion.
  3. He circles meaning like a turkey vulture, not daring to descend and eat until…I don’t know what he’s waiting for, really. Conversations drag on in a way that frustrates rather than builds tension. The governess sees ghosts and wants to know if her charges see them too. Rather than ask them, she talks around the topic page after page until you want to shake her and query the children on her behalf “hey, have you been hanging out with your dead governess?” Similarly, in P of and L Isabell won’t ask if Madame Merle happens to have been impregnated by her husband. Instead, James talks around that for a few hundred pages. In What Maisie Knew, James takes dragging-out-indelicate-conversations-with-children to the limit. The entire novel consists of interminable conversations between Maisie and adults who won’t come out and say “are you aware that your parents are having affairs with other people and that such behavior is wrong?” Speaking of repetitiveness. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hung fire. Hang fire, is apparently an expression that means “pause” and the preceding interlude represents what it feels like to read James’ dialogue, in which he uses that expression about as often as he changes speakers. Just sloppy and annoying. Weak writing by any acknowledged interpretation of the term.

I don’t have anything else to say about this story. I have two more novels “The Ambassador” and “Wings of the Dove” to drag myself through before I can put James behind me and dive into his hopefully more competent proteges. Gosh, I hope those books are better than what came before. Cuz, yikes.

You might like The Turn of the Screw if:

  • you like Uncle Silas. Yeah, you’d have to be into Victorian horror enough to have read Uncle Silas. You’d have to have a specific thing for Victorian horror, regardless of quality. Honestly, Uncle Silas is better.

You might not like The Turn of the Screw if:

  • You like stories that are well-told.

Final thoughts: Look, I get it. You’ve gotten this far, and you still want to know about the poor vulnerable governess and the spooky, haunted children. Me too. Watch the BBC production with Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary from Downton Abbey). It’s not bad.

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Henry James Was Essentially a Men’s Rights Activist

bostonians

The Bostonians, Henry James, 1886

I don’t know why Henry James thought satirizing late Victorian feminism would be a good idea. It wasn’t. The Bostonians, the result of this misguided endeavor, is a truly worthless book. I don’t know who he imagined would want to read it. Maybe Men’s Right’s Activists. I stumbled across a review of this book on what turned out to be an MRA website. That’s the type of book this is.

The plot concerns two cousins who get into a fight over a young woman. Olive Chancellor is a well-to-do Bostonian and very active in the Women’s Movement. She invites her Southern cousin, Basil Ransom to visit. At one of Olive’s meetings they are both introduced to a beautiful young woman named Verena Tarrant who is a talented speaker. They didn’t have Netflix in the 1880s, so the ability to deliver some stirring oration was quite a talent. Olive and Basil become locked in a battle for lovely Verena’s soul.

James depicts Olive as cold and joyless. He shows her the type of disrespect that activists are often shown by assuming that her efforts are more a result of her personality than her convictions. She tries to change people’s behavior because she is an egotistical, controlling nag, not because these behaviors are harmful. She is obsessed with the suffering of women, not because women have truly suffered, but because the more downtrodden they are the greater her glory in lifting them up to a higher life. James continually indicates that he sees no merit in Olive’s cause, equal rights for women, by depicting Olive as someone who believes “whatever is—is wrong” and who would “reform the solar system if she could get a hold of it.” Barf. That attitude is so dismissive. James draws feminists as meddlers who want to reform for reformation’s sake. At no point does he demonstrate respect for the idea that all people should be equal.

That disrespect got him in trouble with the literary community. Nobody was interested in his backwards, even for the time, opinions. One doddering old feminist character, Miss Birdseye, was clearly based on Eliza Peabody, a relative of Nathaniel Hawthorne and friend of the Alcotts. Here’s a segment of James’ description of Ms. Birdseye “she belonged to the Short-Skirts League, as a matter of course; for she belonged to any and every league that had been founded for almost any purpose whatsoever.” Cuz, you know, all these loud women talking about feminism don’t even care about equality, they just like being in a club together. To continue with the quote “this did not prevent her being a confused, entangled, inconsequent, discursive old woman whose charity began at home and ended nowhere, whose credulity kept pace with it, and who knew less about her fellow-creatures, if possible, after fifty years of humanitary zeal, than on the day she had gone into the field to testify against the iniquity of most arrangements.” Also, she’s ugly. Yep, Henry James did just depict humanitarianism as inconsequential. I want that on the record. The scorn in that phrase “iniquity of most arrangements” is at the heart of what makes this book worthless. Who the hell is James talking to? Who does he think his audience is? Society had already acknowledged that arrangements were iniquitous. Mocking that idea will appeal to no one except for reactionary assholes like Basil Ransom.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t gotten to the worst part of Ms. Birdseye’s characterization. James states that she is less busy since the end of the Civil Wa, “before that her best hours had been spent in fancying that she was helping some Southern slave to escape. It would have been a nice question whether, in her heart of hearts, for the sake of this excitement, she did not sometimes wish the blacks back in bondage.” Uhhhhhhhhhhh. Where to even start with this one. Yet again, James sees no sincerity in activism. Abolitionists were just in it for the thrills. Now, it is hard to know if James is being dismissive of the efforts of everyone involved in the Underground Railroad or if Ms. Birdseye really did only fancy that she helped slaves escape. Potentially, he could mean that she was so ineffective that she couldn’t bring about an escape. However, he doesn’t have much benefit of the doubt left. So, probably not? The idea that she might wish for the reinstatement of slavery smacks of that dumb philosophical argument that there is no true altruism, because if you feel pleasure when you help someone, you aren’t being truly selfless. I believe it was John Stewart Mill who rolled his eyes hard and said “Wtf do you care if someone who does a good deed feels pleasure? Someone was helped. Someone else felt happy. These are both good things. Shut up, Henry James. What part of feeling good about doing good is objectionable to you, you twisted ratbag?”

This is not to say that feminists and abolitionists are too sacred to be criticized or even mocked. You don’t have to do much digging to find objectionable behavior in either camp. But this is not an instance of one humanitarian holding other humanitarians to a higher standard. This is just one twisted ratbag making fun of people for promoting equality. Yes, the people that these characters are based on were not the intersectional heroes we wish for. However, that’s not what James is lampooning. He’s not mocking them for doing a bad job of striving for equality. He’s just mocking them. The Bostonians was published serially. James’ depiction of Ms. Birdseye was so poorly received that he had to change direction and write a touching death scene for her near the end of the novel.

Woof. 1,000 words already. I’ve covered the first 5% of the book. We need to talk about Basil. He is a Southern gentleman who lost his family fortune when his slaves were freed. Basil has such reactionary political opinions that he cannot get them published. A newspaper editor rejects his “paper on the rights of minorities” because his “doctrines were about three hundred years behind the age; doubtless some magazine of the sixteenth century would have been very happy to print them.” So, Olive and Basil are both ideologues. Basil has the upper hand in their fight for Verena, because he is charming and persuasive, while Olive is the incarnation of an MRAer’s mental picture of a feminist. Basil falls in love with Verena and wants to rescue her from the taint of public life, because women should be hidden away at home. Doing some baking.

Long story short, Verena chooses Basil, because I don’t know, the innate superiority of men? James depicts her as young and impressionable. She only became involved in the Women’s Movement, because of her father’s influence. She sways from one influence to another. James cannot conceive of a young woman who genuinely believes in equal rights or has any convictions whatsoever that won’t fly out of her silly little head as soon as someone mildly persuasive starts talking to her. Verena is clay to be molded by the stronger characters; “it was in her nature to be easily submissive, to like being overborn.”  Which describes exactly zero of the young advocates I know. Although, I can’t claim that a prominent feminist falling in love with an anti-feminist troll and losing her way is absolutely unrealistic. Remember Laci Green, the feminist, sex-positive youtuber who “reached out to the other side,” started dating an anti-feminist troll and immediately started tweeting transphobia? It can happen.

But do we need a novel about it? No.

We have to talk about the book’s queerness. There is an obvious implication that Olive is in love with Verena. They live together, an arrangement that lead to the coining of the term “Boston marriage” meaning a same-sex couple that live together ostensibly as platonic friends, but who are really romantically involved. I can understand how even a tacit acknowledgement of the existence of same-sex relationships during this era is significant, but this book is not the queer classic you deserve. Not by any stretch. James promotes the stereotype of homosexual love as the corruption of malleable young person by a misguided older lover. I don’t need it. You don’t need it. It’s trash and I don’t want to think about it anymore.

You might like The Bostonians if:

  • You’re a Men’s Rights Activist or whatever they’re calling themselves now.

You might not like The Bostonians if:

  • See above.

Final thoughts: Barf.

What does Huck Finn Mean in 2019?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1885IMG_7415

I am feeling anxious. Huckleberry Finn is an intimidating book to write about. It’s a simple story with a complicated maelstrom of moral implications at its heart.  Mark Twain forbade contemplation of that moral center by printing the following notice before the text of Huck Finn “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

I guess I’m going to be banished and shot by Mark Twain’s undyingly facetious ghost, because the novel clearly has a plot and one that hinges upon the moral development of the title character. Perhaps Twain is correct in declaring that the book does not have one clear purpose or moral lesson. He did not write it to promote a cause as Anna Sewell did in writing Black Beauty or Harriet Beecher Stowe did with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, Huck Finn is absolutely about morality. Huck continually debates the ethics of his decisions. The tension between Huck’s impulses and what he has learned about right and wrong from his haphazard upbringing drives the humor, the plot and the thematic thrust of the novel. Fundamentally, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about the moral development of a child in a morally corrupt society. Twain asks us to consider the consequences of trying to teach ethics to young people when our way of living is inherently cruel. My mind spins thinking about the potential applications of this question today.

Let’s set that aside for a moment and treat Huck Finn like any other book. Time to get into the good, the bad and the ugly of Mark Twain’s best piece of writing.

The Ugly:

  • Jim is a stereotype and that flat-out sucks. Forever. There are far too many jokes at the expense of Jim’s intelligence. He is gullible, ignorant and superstitious. I already know that there are no very bright characters in the book and that plenty of the white characters are superstitious too. Do not show up in the comments with that observation. The problem is that Jim is the most superstitious, the least intelligent and the most ignorant character in the book. Also, jokes at the expense of oppressed people have a greater negative effect than jokes at the expense of impowered people. We already know this. Jim does have redeeming qualities. He is the bravest and the kindest character in the novel. But what matters here is that Twain consciously offered the world a book that defied expectations. It depicted “low” language and behavior. It is about a child, but it does not instruct children to behave like conventionally good Victorian lads and lasses. This was all very outside the norm and unexpected. At the same time he chose to offer white people the stereotyped depiction of American slaves that was comfortable and very popular at this time. He could and should have made a different choice and the book is forever tainted. For the love of all good and decent things, do not respond to this paragraph with a comment about considering the historical context or climate. I HAVE CONSIDERED IT. I consider it all the time. Every day for the past ten—approximately—years of my life, I have been considering the historical context of classic literature. It has been considered. It will be further considered. I swear. Don’t come at me with that. Someone always does.

 

The Good:

  • Firstly, “good” is a weak word for the strengths of this novel. It has elements of absolute greatness. Duh. We all know that already, because it’s on the top of the mystical Great American Novel list.

 

  • Huckleberry Finn is one of the purest, most charming and most honest characters in all of literature. He tries to do what’s right when it’s convenient to him, which is a perfectly accurate depiction of childhood morality. Writing the adventures of a partially civilized child was such a brilliant idea on Twain’s part. Huck’s love of freedom and loathing for Victorian restrictions is relatable and interesting.

 

  • The setting is brilliant. Twain explores the iconic Mississippi river lifestyle that he grew up in. We get to encounter weirder and wilder characters than we see in any previous English-language novel. By the way, reviewers though the novel was crass, low trash because of the misbehavior and rough language depicted. I’m not talking about the n-word. They opposed the swearing and the fact that Huck scratches his itches. Hahahahahaha. How the standards for obscenity have changed.

 

  • Do I need to talk about Twain’s use of dialect? Everyone with any exposure to American literature has heard someone gush about the style of Huckleberry Finn. It’s unique and groundbreaking. You already know.

 

  • Jim’s depiction is troubling, there is no getting around that. But the relationship between Huck and Jim is still heartwarming and effective. This poor urchin flees from his abusive father into the not precisely care, but companionship of a runaway slave and these two lowest members of the Southern social structure find true and unjudging friendship in each other. It’s a beautiful and romantic concept that Twain did not execute perfectly. So, give him credit for trying, if you so wish, or you can despise him for his stereotyped depiction of Jim. There is no right way to feel about this novel. I’m certainly not going to tell you how to react to it. Your reactions are your own and they are valid, unless you’re a terrible person.

 

  • So much biting satire. Twain goes after the hypocrisy of Southern institutions, customs and ideas with incisive humor. I particularly like blows he strikes at:

Southerners (I always leave the first R out of that word and get autocorrected) who oppose enfranchisement. He delivers a tirade against votes for black people from the lips of the vilest character in the book, making him seem like such an idiot for holding this belief.

Mob justice.

Hattfield-and-McCoyesque rivalries. This part is mostly satirical, but ultimately moving. His depiction of Huck’s trauma from witnessing pointless loss of life rings true and is very effective.

 

The Bad:

  • You don’t have to take my word for it, Hemmingway had the same thoughts about the ending of Huckleberry Finn. He thought the book was the best novel yet written, but he also wrote that the end “devolves into little more than minstrel-show satire and broad comedy.” Truth. Hemmingway said a lot of unfair, unkind things about a lot of people, but this one is accurate. When Jim is captured and Tom Sawyer puts him through a series of ridiculous trials meant to replicate the experiences of the Count of Monte Cristo among other famous literary captives, the narrative swings hard into frankly worthless territory. This part is hard to read. I am staunchly opposed to corporal punishment, but I wanted to leap into the pages and throttle Tom Sawyer. A man’s life is at stake! This is serious. Stop playing around, you idiot. Yes, there’s a twist; I know. The same invectives can be hurled at Twain, though. He arrives at the critical moment in the text. Huck must finally decide if he will actively help Jim escape—yes, he has been doing that all along, but he found ways to rationalize it—and Twain is occupied with silliness inherited from his lesser word The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It’s a problem.

 

  • The n-word. The word is uncomfortable to read. I didn’t read this book when I was a child, because I was too uncomfortable with this word. I will write more below on whether I think the book is appropriate for school children. However, I think the use of the n-word is not a reason to toss this book aside and never read it. That was the word used at the time. Of course Twain uses it. He is depicting the language and culture of his youth. I’m not suggesting that you should feel comfortable with it. It’s a horrible word with a horrible history. However, I think it is ok to sit in that discomfort for the space of 300 page long novel, if you’re white. That word is part of a history that we wish we could forget, but that we must remember to face the legacy of slavery that persists to this day.

On to the question of whether Huck Finn is appropriate for a school curriculum. I have thought about this a lot and discussed it with educators. Obviously, I don’t think it should be banned, because banning books is harmful and ridiculous. I think that this novel could be an excellent teaching tool in the right hands. Twain was trying to write and anti-racist book and missed the mark by a mile. That’s a great opportunity to get students talking about how to be an ally. However, I think this text could do a lot of harm in the wrong hands. It’s hard to know how a group of students will respond to it. I can understand not wanting your child or your child’s schoolmates exposed to the stereotypes and language contained in the novel. Also, no student of color should be forced to confront the triggering language in this book. Of course, if a student is going to read any book from this time period, non-fiction slave narratives are much more important than Huckleberry Finn. Every single person who spends more than six months in this country should be required to read A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Nobody needs to read Huck Finn. It’s optional.

I must return to the moral maelstrom before I’m done. Throughout his time with Jim, Huckleberry struggles to resolve his desire to stay with Jim and his sense that it is wrong to help a slave escape. This tension is the heart of Huck’s character and the heart of the novel. Huck feels that he is mistreating Ms. Watson by not returning Jim to her, “What did that poor old woman ever do to you that you could treat her so mean?” Ms. Watson had been kinder to Huck than anyone else in his life to this point and here he is, depriving her of her chattel. There are other valid interpretations of this ethical quandary, but it seems to me that Twain is skewering the idea that morality could exist in the slave-owning South. Ms. Watson, who tries to instill religion in Huck, represents Southern morality, yet Huck’s sense of obligation to her is what leads him to consider the reprehensible act of returning Jim to bondage. When he decides to reveal Jim’s location he feels “washed clean of sin for the first time” and when his loyalty and affection for Jim triumph and change his mind he says, “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell” and “take up wickedness again.”  That is the sense of right in wrong instilled in this child by his morally bankrupt society. That is the level of corruption inherent in slavery. Huckleberry’s position outside the confines of “respectable” Southern society allows him to behave in a way that is truly moral, despite his moral training. Twain demonstrates the hypocrisy of Southern religiosity during this time and the impossibility of teaching morality to a child when your life is founded on cruelty. His depiction of Jim undermines this message, and of course my interpretation is colored by my own beliefs, but that is the weighty moral nugget I see at the center of this book.

 

Final Thoughts: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not a comfortable book, but it does deserve consideration as a Great American Novel. America is not uncomplicated. We don’t deserve an uncomplicated, ethically pure Great Novel. I’m worried that my review may come off as too favorable, given the problems with Huck Finn. Those problems are serious, and no amount of stylistic merit or literary innovation can remove the sin of racism from this book. Nothing balances that out.

There was no chance that Twain, raised in mid-19th century Missouri, was going to write an inoffensive book about that time and place. He did write the only novel about the slave-owning South written by someone who experienced it. Now, I could be wrong about that. Probably some other such novel exists, but I can’t find them. Generally, slavery was too indelicate a subject for Victorian publishers. Twain was only able to find a publisher for Huckleberry Finn after he’d established himself as a literary celebrity. The literary canon is nearly silent when it comes to slavery. This book has value for its uniqueness if for nothing else. At the risk of being repetitive, I’ll close by saying again that of course non-fiction slave narratives are much more valuable and important than this novel. You should read three of those before you read or reread Huck Finn.

A Country Doctor is not the Book about Women Doctors that You Deserve

 

img_7352A Country Doctor, Sarah Orne Jewett, 1883

I had such high hopes for A Country Doctor by Sarah Orne Jewett. It’s about a Victorian lady doctor! Hooray! And it is set in Maine, where I currently live. And it’s written by a woman. I was so ready to love it.

But it just isn’t good.

Firstly, there is a grand total of one, just one, pitiful sad lonely one scene in which our hero Nan—or whatever, I finished reading this book today and I already forgot the main character’s name, but we’ll call her Nan. I’m 90% sure it’s Nan.—actually practices medicine. Just that one scene. She relocates a man’s shoulder. Which is probably not the medical term for fixing a dislocated shoulder. I don’t care about this book enough to look up medical terms.

The beautiful, eerie, shimmering spirit of a good book haunts this novel, but Sarah OJ tragically murdered it. I want to know about the fiery, wild spirit of the young girl who would grow up to defy society and become a doctor. Unfortunately, OJ just hints at Nan’s wild youth through long and tedious conversations that adults have about her. Ugh. Imagine if Little Women or Anne of Green Gables was just conversations among adults and the scrapes the girls get themselves into were never directly narrated. I thought I was done with long conversations about the politics of Victorian medicine when I finished Middlemarch, but I guess not.

OJ focuses most of her wordcount on Nan’s peculiar family history. Nan’s mother was an uppity farm girl who married above her station. Mom’s in-laws were cruel. Dad died young. Mom took to drink and tuberculosis. After contemplating doing away with herself and her young child, the drunk, consumptive Momma delivers the child to her grandmother before expiring from her illnesses. Mom asks the attendant country doctor to look after her child. Her own mother is standing right there, but she asks the doctor to take on this random baby. Apparently, that was something you could do in the 1880s.

In time grandma passes away and the doctor takes little Nan to his own home. She takes to medicine. Thus commences the debate as old as women in the work place “can she have it all.” Obviously, in the 19th century a woman could not have a job and a husband. Obviously, a man appears and falls in love with Nan. Spoiler: she loves him too, but decides she is unsuited to marriage and that her one duty is to become a doctor. The shoulder relocation scene occurs during their brief courtship. Which means that the only example OJ gives of her protagonist’s medical prowess serves to demonstrate the effect of that skill on young men who wish to marry her. Nothing to do with personal accomplishment or utility to the greater good, just “what will the boys think?”

We know from the title of the book that Nan is going to choose medicine over men, so OJ’s attentiveness to this crisis in Nan’s life has no urgency. Her actual medical career serves as an epilogue to the central question of will she choose marriage or a career. Granted, this is an important topic to see inaugurated in literature. Sadly, Sarah Orne Jewett threw Can-She-Have-It-All a rather inept debutante ball.

My favorite part of the novel was the moment when two wives discuss how much easier cooking is with their newfangled stoves while their husbands discuss how much they miss the old-fashioned stoves. Too true, OJ. Too true. Often, men don’t understand how much work the women are doing to keep the house in order.

OJ’s most profound moment lies in Nan’s assertions that she is unfit for marriage. While it is unfortunate that her relatives cannot simply accept that she’d rather be a doctor than a wife, OJ takes some time to consider the idea that not all women are suited to being wives, home makers or mothers. Men at that time could choose whether they wanted to be husbands and fathers. However, women without independent means had no choice but marriage. When marriage is your only choice, marriage is not truly consensual. Neither is the sex within that marriage.

You might like A Country Doctor if:

  • You need it for your Ph.D. thesis on Victorian women in literature.

You might not like A Country Doctor if:

  • I think I laid that out for you already.

Final Thoughts: The topic and the themes of this novel are all I could ask for, but the execution is poor. I would be very interested in reading a history of women in medicine, though. Fascinating topic.

Henry James and the Myth of the Independent Woman

portrait of a ladyThe Portrait of a Lady, Henry James, 1881

I half enjoyed this book. Which is to say, I enjoyed half of it. The first half.  Then it went off the rails. I suspected this might happen. When a writer describes a female character as intelligent and independent, I get a bit excited, but I’m also apprehensive. So many writers directly characterize a woman this way, then proceed to depict dimwitted and passive behavior from this supposedly brilliant and forceful woman. They want you to think “gee, these situations are so complex and demanding that even a smart, strong woman has lost her way.” Instead, I think: don’t make claims about characters that you have no intention of substantiating!

Even our beloved Jane Austen is guilty of this disappointing deception. She describes Lizzy Bennet as quick and decisive, but during the slightest crisis, Lizzy just cannot decide what to do. The turning point between her and Darcy is the moment when she’s befuddled, and Darcy charges off on a horse, knowing exactly what to do. Because what this sharp, intelligent woman needed all along was a man to swoop in to make decisions and act on her behalf.

Back to the book at hand. Henry James tells us that Isabel Archer is an independent, intellectual woman. Brimful of ideas. Capable of startling action. At the beginning she seems quite quirky. He introduces her brilliantly, as a young woman so unconventional she’s more interested in introducing herself to dogs than to her own relatives. This is the Victorian Era, when propriety required one to announce one’s presence as a guest in someone’s home before playing with their dogs.

Isabel’s strange, cold-blooded aunt snatched her from Albany to England, where she meets her ailing uncle and his invalid son, Ralph in their English country estate, Gardencourt. Isabel is such a success in England, that several suitable suitors propose to her and she turns them down. James doesn’t provide any real substantive reason for her refusals, which is fine. You don’t need a reason to not marry anyone, Isabel. You do you. When she refuses a wealthy aristocrat, her cousin and uncle think she’s so original, they’d love to see what surprising thing she’d do if she had enough money to make what she wanted out of her life. So, Ralph and the dying uncle conspire to leave the bulk of the uncle’s money to Isabel. At this point the novel goes sour.

Previous to her windfall, I bought into Isabel’s character. I too, was excited to see what she would make of her life. The characterization of the family at Gardencourt is subtle. There are worlds of detail to analyze. Just the first half of the novel contains enough material for several Ph.D. theses on self-perception versus reality. It’s great. I was riding high on the wave of expectation James builds around Isabel. I was enjoying the prose. Then it all came tumbling down.

As I passed the half-way point, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the discrepancy between Isabel’s characterization and her behavior. James says she’s intelligent, but I think she says “I don’t understand you” more than she says anything else. She’s supposed to be intellectual, but she doesn’t engage in any intellectual activities. She does refuse to marry an aristocrat when everyone expects her to take such a fabulous opportunity, but that is the one independent thing she does. She spends the rest of the book being extraordinarily passive. It is so disappointing to me that Henry James decided to write about an intelligent and independent woman, but couldn’t come up with anything intelligent for her to do or say. She’s supposed to be so fascinating and modern, but the one concern he has with her is “who will she marry and what will the consequences be?” Just like every other woman in the history of novels. I wanted her to start a political movement or build a hospital or at the very least become a painter or dancer or just do something interesting. One interesting thing. Well, I would have liked for her to do a lifetime of interesting things, but I didn’t get one out of Henry James. Not one.

Isabel does end up marrying someone and he’s terrible. This is in the second part of the novel when things fall apart. James doesn’t really explain why she marries this man. Far after the fact of their marriage he offers the small illumination that he appeared smart and poor, so he seemed like a worthy person to share her newfound wealth with. Poor Isabel was projecting. He’s not what he appeared. Their marriage makes her miserable. She finds out a terrible secret about him. That’s the whole story. A woman inherits wealth unexpectedly and makes an unfortunate marriage. Her husband has a scandalous secret, which I guessed immediately upon his introduction to the story. James’ hints are beyond heavy-handed.

Early on I liked James’ prose and I liked the richness of his depictions of Isabel’s thoughts. However, there are so many elements of this novel, reputedly his best, that seem objectively bad to me. Objective is not quite the right word. We cannot measure the quality of prose objectively. Yet, there is a consensus about “strong writing” and “weak writing” and so much of this is not strong. If a creative writing class were to workshop this novel here’s the criticism James would have to absorb:

  • the narrator’s description of characters does not match their behavior
  • Isabel’s husband’s characterization is weak. He completely demoralizes his wife, but I’m not sure how. How exactly the marriage falls apart is never described. This is a problem, because their relationship is the crux of the story.
  • So much showing, very little telling. It’s almost as if the writer is afraid that he cannot write human behavior effectively, so he describes it instead of demonstrating it.
  • Please, please break up your paragraphs. There are so many long, long paragraphs that include perfectly natural places to break into a second paragraph.
  • There are several passages that read like sitcom phone conversations, where you can only hear one speaker, so they repeat the other speaker’s dialogue in the form of a question. For example, “Her husband has a very bad manner. Did I enjoy my trip to America? Why should I have enjoyed it? I didn’t go for my pleasure.” This is unnatural and I don’t see any reason to do it, when it’s just as easy to break the paragraph.
  • I struggle with the pacing. The first 250 pages give Isabel’s thoughts in such detail, but then her most critical decisions are not explained and there are huge gaps in time that seem unjustified.
  • So much of what the narrator states needs to be unpacked. I’ll give one glaring example “he had neither innocence nor weakness, so he had no practical philosophy.” I’m not sure what that really means. But more importantly, if you want us to believe that he has no innocence, have him do something that betrays a worldliness and lack of innocence. If you want us to believe he has no weakness, give us a scene that demonstrates this. What does it even mean that he has no practical philosophy? Have some faith in your readers. Write human behavior and let them interpret it. These characters rarely do anything. They just sit around having their feelings described. I read 500 pages about these characters, but I couldn’t give you an example of a typical behavior for any one of them, because there is so little actual behavior in the novel.
  • It seems obvious that Isabel’s husband is very controlling of women, because of how controlling he is of his daughter. If you want us to believe that Isabel is intelligent, she should have picked up on that.
  • If you want us to believe that Isabel is independent, she needs to be less passive and devoted to her horrible husband. What exactly is so modern and interesting about this woman whose sense of propriety trumps her need for personal happiness? Why do we end with her going back to her husband?

I could keep going. It seems to me that the only reason Henry James is in the cannon is his detailed description of characters’ conflicting thoughts. I’ve read that this influenced modernists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and I believe that. However, I strongly believe that we should be honest when someone makes art that is bad, but contains a spark of an idea that other artists took and made into good art. That’s what Henry James is shaping up to be. I still have, sigh, three more books by him to read.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that there is an interesting and independent-minded woman in the book. It isn’t Isabel, it’s her friend Henrietta Stackpole, a feminist journalist. This book should have been about her. But I guess she’s not a “lady” in his mind, because he uses her for . . . comic relief? Well, no, the book is mostly humorless, but Henrietta does seem to be the butt of a joke somehow. James doesn’t take her seriously. He should. She’s everything he claims his main character is.

Final thoughts:

There are so many good late Victorian novels on the theme of marriage as a prison for women. Better on every level. Nearly anything by Thomas Hardy, George Elliot’s Middlemarch. Anne Bronte wrote a novel about a woman who leaves her abusive husband 53 years earlier. The Portrait of a Lady is insufficient, as a work of art and as a social statement. Fail.

Introducing Henry James

unspecifiedThe American, 1877 and Washington Square, 1880

Hello. Please welcome Henry James to the blog. Or don’t. He isn’t particularly welcome. I have read one short story, one novella and four full length novels by the fellow and I don’t care for him. The short story, Daisy Miller, was very pretty good, but everything else fell flat. I am not going to list the defects of James’ prose style now, because everything I have read by him contains the same flaws. I plan on working up a post on his many shortcomings to avoid the tedium of detailing them in every post. Dude wrote a lot of novels. You don’t need to read the same screed eight times. Today I will discuss two of his earliest novels and detail the flaws that are specific to them.

Henry James was American but spent much of his life living overseas. He was very concerned with culture clashes between Americans and Europeans. The titular American is a chap called Christopher Newman, a wealthy industrialist who ventures to the Continent in search of culture and a wife. Christopher Newman. Get it? He’s a new type of man that stale European bluebloods have not encountered. And you can tell he’s a good guy, because Christ appears in his name. I rolled my eyes when I first encountered this name. So heavy-handed, Henry. Our American hero is earnest, hard-working and self-assured. He has the excessive confidence of a tall, rich, American man.

The story opens in the Louvre with an entertaining scene in which poor Newman is duped into buying a poor copy of a painting by a pretty, opportunistic French mademoiselle. I was ready for wily Noemi to tempt him into a life of idleness and dissolution. Get in there and corrupt his Puritanical morals, girl. Sadly, Christ-opher is incorruptible. Instead, another character gets involved with her and pure, innocent Christopher is shocked when she becomes the mistress of a rich man. How dare she attempt to escape poverty! Before this scenario transpires Chris has befriended Noemi’s father and the two of them discussed her sexual purity for absolutely no reason. Sensing Christopher’s high-minded morality, the father tries to ingratiate himself by stating that he would kill his daughter if she ever ruined herself. When Chris hears about her ruination, he turns up at the father’s door like “Well…you better go kill her now.” Seriously. He is disappointed that the father doesn’t murder his daughter. Really.

Elsewhere in the novel, James attempts to update the Gothic novel for the late Victorian Era. In Gothic romances a young villager falls in love with the pure maiden who lives in the castle. Her evil wardens mistreat her and conspire against him. Against all odds, he persists, rescues her, and turns out to be the long-lost son of some nobleman. The angels of heaven descend to bless their holy matrimony. Newman stands in for the plucky villager. He came to Europe in search of a wife and he has very high standards. Chris spouts off copious entitled piffle about his search for an ideal wife. He sees this paragon as a reward due to him for his hard work. What is the point of the wealth he has accumulated if he doesn’t have “a beautiful woman perched on the pile, like a statue on a monument. She must be as good as she is beautiful, and as clever as she is good. I can give my wife a good deal, so I am not afraid to ask a good deal myself. […] I want to possess, in a word, the best article in the market.” Did you just throw up in your mouth a little? I did. I know that Henry James is taking a jibe here at the American obsession with money. The very words Newman chooses are redolent of Capitalism. But, we must remember that he is the hero. He is portrayed as a good and pure Christian who deserves the fantasy wife he seeks even though he only seeks her as a symbol of “victory over circumstances.”

Christopher soon encounters the exact embodiment of his fantasy, his “dream realized,” in the person of Claire de Cintre, a widow and member of an aristocratic French family. Unfortunately, the last three quarters of the novel center on this romance and it is not a very convincing one. Claire is quite boring. James does not make his reader fall in love with her. However, in true Gothic style, Christopher is willing to brave the contempt of her evil relatives in his attempts to win her hand. It’s all quite dull. Ultimately, she is too good and pure to disobey her mother. She becomes a nun. Newman returns to America in despair and remains in despair forever.

If The American has a silly and dramatic plot, and it does, Washington Square veers hard in the other direction. He examines how the scenario of the maiden wishing to marry an unsuitable man would play out in contemporary New York with no drama, just realism. Our male lead is Dr. Sloper, an eminent physician and misogynist. His wife dies, leaving him with a daughter whom he does not respect. Dr. Sloper thinks very highly of his own intellect and does not esteem Catherine’s intellect at all. Probably, if he had given her more credit from the outset, she would have accomplished more intellectually and developed more common sense.

A fortune hunter named Morris Townsend starts sniffing around Catherine, who is a bit of an old maid. Dr. Sloper does not believe that anyone could love Catherine for her own merit and forbids her to marry him. Poor Catherine somehow has some self-esteem despite being raised by such a pig of a father. She wishes to marry Morris. Dr. Sloper is right about Morris, but express his reservations in an honest conversation. He is too much of a misogynist for that. Instead he sees the question of her marriage as a competition between himself and the man who wishes for her hand. Who has more influence? Who will she obey? Catherine has never defied him before, and he believes that his paternal sway over this meek and humble girl will reign triumphant. In a way he wins, the two never marry because he threatens to disinherit her if she marries him. Catherine is happy to be well off with Morris, but Morris only wants her if she comes with a giant dowry.

The scuffle between the Morris, Dr. Sloper and Catherine does not end in a marriage. Instead Catherine loses respect for her father, because of his disrespectful and manipulative treatment of her. After the doctor’s death, an impoverished Townsend shows up at spinster Catherine’s door and expresses his regret. He should have taken her when he had the chance. Would she like to go out for oysters? No she would not. She is perfectly happy with her needlework and charity work and doesn’t need him.

On the surface, Washington Square sounds like an interesting reexamination of the well-worn archetype of the defiant daughter. There are some good bits of dialogue. I did take some pleasure in James’ subversion of the dramatic and romanticized elements of these stories into prosaic, everyday reality. However, prosaic reality isn’t all that fun or interesting. The characters are dull and flat. I didn’t care much whom Catherine married. It’s not a long book, but it still seemed bogged down in minutiae.

You might like The American or Washington Square if:

  • you are writing your Ph.D. on Henry James for some reason.

You might not like The American or Washington Square if:

  • see above. I think I covered it.

Final Thoughts: These books are just plain bad.

The Forgotten Woman Who Created the Detective Novel

leavenworth case

The Leavenworth Case, Anna Katharine Green, 1878

You have probably never heard of Anna Katharine Green. I certainly hadn’t before I started researching notable 19th century novels. This is a travesty because this woman GAVE BIRTH TO THE DETECTIVE NOVEL. Yes, I am screaming.

She wasn’t quite the first detective novelist or even the first American woman to write in the genre. One other lady whom no one remembers beat her to that distinction, Seeley Regester. But, Anna K was a pioneer. She was the first to publish a series of novels featuring the same detective. What? Yes! She pre-sherlocked Sherlock. I’m so excited I can’t think of verbs. She invented the nosy older lady detective, pre-marpling Marple. And she introduced the first girl detective. A trail of evidence that leads straight to Nancy Drew!

Anna Katharine Green. Remember that name. I’m smiling just thinking about her. What a woman. What a genre starter. Wilkie Collins loved her. Agatha Christie cited her as an influence. Obviously. Arthut Conan Doyle made a point of visiting her when he traveled to the States.

Her first novel is The Leavenworth Case. Our narrator is a young and presumably handsome lawyer whose boss is conveniently laid up when his longtime client and good friend is MURDERED IN COLD BLOOD. Convenient because, this means dashing young Mr. Raymond is sent to comfort and advise the murdered man’s two beautiful nieces. His whole world is shaken when the police inquiry immediately casts suspicion on one of the bereaved ladies. But how could anyone suspect such a lovely creature of  such a foul deed? Horrors.

Our chivalrous hero sets out to aid the eccentric lead detective, Mr. Gryce, out of curiosity, but mainly with the intention of proving that neither of New York’s finest debs could possibly commit such a grizzly deed. I know, confirmation bias. It’s ok though, because Mr. Gryce does make a fool out of him after making good use of his ability rub elbows with high society.

I was surprised by how well Anna Katharine Green tricked me. I’ve read so many books, I can usually guess the outcome many chapters away, but she lays down so many great false paths of suspicion. The actual murderer only popped into my head as a potential suspect fleetingly, before she convinced me that it must be someone else.

I’ll admit, the book is a bit melodramatic, but hey, so what. It’s such good fun. I am going to read more of her stories and I can’t wait to do so. I need to meet the original Ms. Marple and the original girl detective, who appear in later books, not this one. It’s truly delightful. If you’re a mystery fan, you owe Anna Katharine Green some of your time. She birthed your genre for you and it was hard, thankless work. She deserves to be remembered.

You might like Anna Katharine Green if:

  • you’re a fan of classic mystery writers like Conan Doyle and Christie
  • you enjoy period pieces and murder mysteries

You might not like Anna Katharine Green if:

  • mysteries just aren’t your thing

Final Thoughts: Read The Leavenworth Case. Just do it. Anna Katharine Green deserves a renaissance. Or read one of her other novels. At the very least listen to one on librivox.org. It’s free. There are 42 mysteries for you to choose from! Enjoy, darlings.