Tag Archives: Henry James

Retarded Evolution

‘You don’t know what it is to have been loved and broken with. You haven’t been broken with, because in your relation what can there have been worth speaking of to break?’ (553) – Henry James, The Golden Bowl

IMG_2150When I searched the library stacks for The Golden Bowl there were several volumes on the shelf. I always look for the physically smaller book as I have to carry it around. But I want to want to hold it as well. I was strongly put off by the cover of one of the copies, which met the correct proportions, but as it was an ugly shiny movie poster of a cover, it bothered me on many levels. However, it had a forward by Gore Vidal – too long to read at that moment…so I reluctantly checked the copy out.

Their lips sought their lips, their pressure their response and their response and their pressure; with a violence that had sighed itself the next moment to the longest and deepest of stillnesses they passionately sealed their pledge (259).

If you are familiar with the story, or have been the unfortunate viewer of the film whose equally hideous poster picture adorned my book, then you know two things:
1) It’s a Henry James novel, therefore the extremely vivid and passionate passage above…isn’t going to end well.
2) It’s a Henry James novel, so the extremely vivid and passionate passage above is an anomaly of straightforward desire meets straightforward action – a rare thing in James’ worlds.

After all, ‘Does one ever put into words anything so fatuously rash?’ (221), not in a James novel they don’t, that’s for damn sure. But what he does put into words is the excruciating process of self and socially induced censorship. The ocean of difference between what one thinks or feels and what one says or shows is displayed by James in naked detail – and it is painful. After one particularly long heartfelt speech James drops in this sentence: Some such words as those were what didn’t ring out…”  Ha! Oh Dear man, no! – God forbid one says what they want or mean! Truly, I had an epiphany, perhaps a rather obvious one, but still I was powerfully struck by the thought – what a different world it would be if people could actually communicate honestly with one another…a completely different order.

‘No – nothing is incredible to me of people immensely in love’ (204).

James gives glimpse of love’s ability to pierce the inner worlds. But love is never Love when it can’t conquer social mores or social climbing – never mind the emotional retardation required to meet those conquering heroes of the modern age – conventions and ambition. The father and daughter Verver’s marry for convention’s sake to the lover’s Charlotte and Amerigo, who each marry a Verver (respectively) for ambition- the results are predictably depressing.

‘They believe in themselves. They take it for what it is. And that,’ she said, ‘saves them’ (299).

So says the delightful Mrs. Assingham to her husband, the Colonel, who represent the only open and true relationship of the entire story. They joyfully and hilariously speculate about the inner, hidden, smothered lives of the Ververs, The Prince, and Charlotte. And they are not wrong – to believe in oneself is a sadly rare but beautiful thing – and when two people believe in each other – ah! that’s the very thing.

He had noticed it before: it was the English, the American sign that duplicity, like ‘love’, had to be joked about. It couldn’t be ‘gone into’ (51).

We are taught right from the start what not to say. We have no educational or cultural methods by which to be honest, respectfully, with one another. We are so molded to suppress what we say and how we act that a certain numbness creeps in and for many people the ability to really feel, or know what one feels is lost altogether. Feelings are suspect, troublesome, weak and ‘womanly’. And yet, in the end, to feel is all that matters, it is all the experience this life can really offer us.

As with Charlotte, just before, she was embarrassed by the difference between what she took in and what she could say, what she felt and what she could show (228).

The Golden Bowl goes very deep into the mental processes that result in warped and smothered emotional lives. So deep, sometimes the reader feels lost in the labyrinth of a character’s mind. But the result is a true and tortured account of the energy it requires to try to figure out other people’s motives and intentions when nobody can, or will,  simply state what they are. The intensity of the examination is consuming. The novel is subtle and ambiguous – for the majority of it I just wanted someone to like, someone to root for, but James never offers up a hero – all are duped- mostly by themselves.

The shiny smarmy Hollywood cover of my book started to make a sort of sense – I couldn’t stand to touch it, I want nothing to do with it! The ending, which I have seen outlined by some as a declaration of love, was for me anything but. It was a confirmation of the shallowness of a life lived for the sake of keeping up appearances, it was the effectiveness of a person’s ability to construct emotional blinders – to purchase, with one’s soul, a deal with society while losing the possibility of an authentic life. It was an ending that deflates one’s heart – see? it seems to say – nobody cares about you, Heart.


* title from pg. 520 of Penguin Books edition – “What retarded evolution, she asked herself in these hours, mightn’t poor Charlotte all unwittingly have precipitated?



Life is Poetry

Life, lived on the same plane as poetry and as music, is my distinctive desire and standard. It is the failure to accomplish this which makes me discontented with myself (3).
Lady Ottoline, quoted in Lady Ottoline’s Album.

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

As I read Selected Letters of André Gide and Dorothy Bussy the name of Lady Ottoline came up with some frequency. By an odd coincidence I happen to have the book, Lady Ottoline’s Album, in my possession (with a postcard of the portrait of Ottoline by Dorothy’s husband, Simon Bussy, laid in). Last year when I worked as a companion to elderly (mostly) women, I had a client who delighted in knowing and discussing what I was reading, which delighted me, naturally. More often than not she had a personal connection: Isak Dinesen? “My husband had lunch with her, she was like a bird! All she ate was fruit and champagne!” I loved that- to quote my youngest son, that’s  “my always dream!” But I digress.

When it was time for me to move on, she told me to take whatever books of hers I wanted to “start my library.” I hadn’t the heart to tell her that I was  in the process of a massive book downsizing to make my move manageable, not to mention the fact that I am actually a full fledged book-accumulating adult, but when one is 104, I guess I would seem a mere girl starting out in life….Anyway, at the very least, on sentimental grounds, I couldn’t resist. And of course, I cherish them now, as they recall her to my mind.

One of the books I choose was Lady Ottoline’s Album, but I had not yet read it. André Gide and Dorothy Bussy had reminded me, but it wasn’t until yesterday, whilst in the midst of a quasi-quarterly cleaning and reorganization spasm that I came upon it.

André Gide

André Gide

It had not, until this moment, occurred to me that Ottoline was a woman who would allow me to make love to her, but gradually, as the evening progressed, the desire to make love to her became more and more insistent. At last it conquered, and I found to my amazement that I loved her deeply, and that she returned my feeling (38) Bertrand Russell, quoted.

Lady Ottoline seems to have been the type of woman who had an exquisite understanding of the excellence of social interactions- conversation, humor, passion, intellect – the poetry of life. Pursuing the myriad photographs in the book one can’t help being fascinated by her face -her countenance is strangely appealing- she should be unattractive, and yet, she is, in fact, quite strikingly beautiful.

The list of guest that she hosted is extraordinary, she had a knack for attracting artists and writers to her home, Gide and Russell, of course, but also Yeats, D. H.  Lawrence, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Hardy, Henry James, Auden, Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf, among others:

“…I remember spending some dark, uneasy, winter days during the first war in the depth of the country with Lytton Strachey. After lunch, as we watched the rain pour down and premature darkness roll up, he said, in his searching, personal way, “Loves apart, whom would you most like to see coming up the drive?’ I hesitated a moment and he supplied the answer: “Virginia of course.” (78) – Clive Bell, quoted.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

The book is comprised of her and her famous guest’s writings or letters and a huge array of photographs that Ottoline, for the most part, took. An intimate peek into the lives of a wonderfully influential group of people. The photos of these towering figures in casual moments, is fascinating, and extremely endearing…I can’t stop picturing Yeats, described perfectly by Stephen Spender as having “something of the appearance of the overgrown art student” (100).

Despite Lawrence’s rather scathing sketch (presumably of Ottoline) in Women in Love, which would seriously breach their friendship, (and yet seems a plausible description)…she is a mesmerizing woman. Her relationships, by all accounts burned bright; there is a ferocity about her that makes me trust Lawrence….but still, her insistence that life be lived as poetry – reduced to pure feeling and experience, is so appealing. I suppose Lawrence wondered if she ever really achieved her desire.

Nevertheless, She and Lawrence, have philosophical congress. Concentrated in our bodies, for good or bad, life is meant to be felt, loved, and savoured. It is a lovely little book- an erstwhile golden age, elegantly composed by a passionate woman who had, truly, a genius of repose.

*Lady Ottoline’s Album: Snapshots & Portraits of Her Famous Contemporaries (and of Herself) Photographed for the Most Part by Lady Ottoline Morrell from the Collection of her Daughter Julian Vinogradoff. Edited by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, with an Introduction by Lord David Cecil.

Oh For Peripeteia!

forge a path

I read Moll Flanders many years ago and I remember being highly impressed by the peripeteia that she experienced in her tale. I wondered, at the time, if life was really like that. Would I have chapters? Twists and turns? Part 1, part 2, an epilogue?

Given the last 18 months, I’ve only to accidentally marry my brother to have a good chance of convincing Defoe’s resurrection so to pen my eponymous novel. It remains to be seen if my tale will fall into the picaresque genre, but we won’t think about that. Why think when you can read?

I was reminded of my mentor Moll while reading E.M.Forster’s wonderful book Aspects of the Novel (another very fine recommendation from John Crowley). The book is composed of a series of lectures Forster gave at Cambridge in 1927. He is so charming; also opinionated, erudite and quite funny. He compares works of literature to exemplify what novels are fundamentally composed of: story, people, plot, fantasy, prophesy, pattern and rhythm.

One of my absolute favorite things to do, although, sadly I rarely do it, is wine tastings. I love the side by side- this is different than that- I like this better than that–    activity. That is what Forster does. He wants to talk about prophesy in novels, for instance, so he compares two similar moments in two very different books, in this case- George Elliot’s Adam Bede to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Each passage beautifully tells of a person facing death for crimes committed in spirit if not in actual fact, and they are similar. But as Forster describes the difference: Elliot is preacher and Dostoevsky is prophet. To read the difference is exhilarating.

“Dostoevsky’s characters ask us to share something deeper than their experience. They convey to us a sensation that is partly physical-the sensation of sinking into a translucent globe and seeing our experience floating far above us on its surface, tiny, remote, yet ours.” 

Aspects of the Novel is a joy to read on many levels: the excerpts, the comparisons, the analysis, not to mention fulfilling my fantasy of sitting in an English lecture hall circa 1900. I have a longing for a large hat and corset…

“The human mind is not a dignified organ, and I do not see how we can exercise it sincerely except through eclecticism.” – E.M. Forster