I have always liked nineteenth century Victorian novels. I find them only too true. They have a keen way of getting at the heart of things, you know. (I just finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. Please pardon me if I can’t quite shake his roundabout, flared-nostril rhythms.)
When asked to describe my favorite books — George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady – it can be awkward to enthusiastically endorse white male authors who wrote about aristocrats. (Okay, George Eliot was a white female writing under a pseudonym.) However, like a hipster with her Indie musician, I take reverse pride in my appreciation for these thoroughly vetted classics.
What is so revelatory? George Eliot puts it this way, in her masterwork Middlemarch:
“If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
It’s the nuanced narration of ordinary life that turned me on to Henry James when I read Portrait of a Lady, often cited as his best book and inconveniently for me, his first book I read, sending me down an ever-loyal slope of slightly more underwhelming reads from Daisy Miller to Wings of a Dove until I hit bottom with his last and most excessive book, The Golden Bowl.
Zadie Smith has an essay called “Middlemarch And Everybody,” which I discovered in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. She talks about James, Eliot, and a variety of other topics. I had always felt the similar strain of psychological complexity running through Eliot and James, but I was glad to find a kindred, more articulate spirit in Ms. Smith. As a successful writer of contemporary fiction and not inconsequentially, a person of color, she states with added authority and eloquence what the Victorian novel offers to our modernized sensibilities:
“Why do we like them so much? Because they seem so humane. We are moved that…[Eliot] is so alive to the mass of existence lying unnarrated on the other side of silence.”
She summarizes George Eliot’s unique style as poetic, in the language of one of Eliot’s characters:
“To be a poet is to have a soul…in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge…”
This discerning, feeling voice sounds a lot like Henry James’s “sympathetic narrator,” the stylistic gift that led me to suffer through all 1496 pages of The Golden Bowl. I have emerged less blinded by the light, and can provide a bottom-line analysis for anyone who is entertaining a first-time foray into James:
Portrait of a Lady
Isabel Archer is a young, single, recently orphaned American facing a precarious financial situation and possessing a strong will to live independently. We meet her on an estate in London, the home of her British aunt, Lydia Touchett, who has invited her to experience Europe. James paints a vivid profile of Isabel’s charms — her combination of naiveté, sincerity, pride, curiosity, and innate intelligence — capturing the reader’s sympathies and the affections of Isabel’s uncle, Daniel, several rejected suitors, and her sickly cousin, Ralph. When Daniel dies, Isabel inherits a vast portion of his estate.
Ironically, Isabel becomes less and less in control of her destiny after inheriting her uncle’s estate. Due to her own misjudgments, her seemingly charmed fate slowly deteriorates. After turning down several suitors, she accepts the proposal of a snobby American expat who objectifies her and cheats on her.
Isabel’s disappointments feel tragic because James so carefully establishes her competence, then carefully, sympathetically describes how she faces the task of living with her mistakes. Maybe it’s such a beloved classic because it’s an eloquent meditation on the simple fact that life isn’t fair. “Once she saw through a glass, darkly, now she is the less deceived… Of how many Victorian novels could that sentence serve as shorthand” — this is Zadie Smith’s succinct analysis.
As for The Golden Bowl? Yawn. It’s all this stuff about seeing through the glass darkly, being deceived, plus oppressive, repetitive symbolism (a golden bowl that shatters at the peak of the deception, really?) told through choppy, cloying syntax, separated by oh, so many commas. But I can’t say it was pure misery. It transports you to a different universe, and true to form, the seemingly naive protagonist turns out to be the most interesting and calculating character of them all. Feel free to read the plot summary below, or if you’re a glutton for punishment, the whole thing. I’ve finally had too much of a good thing and I’m ditching Henry James in favor of Mary Karr’s memoir, Lit, with sentences like “my first therapist’s name was — I shit you not — Tom Sawyer.”
The Golden Bowl
Maggie Verver is the daughter of a rich American art collector. She and her father have an unusually intimate relationship, having served as each other’s primary companion for many years, traveling the world on behalf of his collection. The book opens as Maggie prepares to marry an Italian prince. He takes a patronizing view of his future wife, openly wedding her for financial gain. Meanwhile, Maggie has trouble cutting emotional ties with her father.
To assuage Maggie’s guilt and to escape the older women now vying for his attention, Mr. Verver eventually marries Charlotte, Maggie’s childhood friend, a poised, cosmopolitan young woman, less privileged than Maggie. However, Charlotte and the Italian Prince have a lingering romantic connection that is first established when Charlotte and the Prince go shopping for Maggie’s wedding present and come close to purchasing a golden bowl.
Charlotte gradually enters into an affair with the Prince, Maggie becomes increasingly suspicious, and her suspicions are confirmed when she visits the London antiques shop with the golden bowl. The shopkeeper shows her the bowl and she suddenly realizes the truth.
The golden bowl then becomes a metaphor for the pristine, perfect deception that all four parties have partaken in, living in close, claustrophobic proximity on a lavish London estate. Maggie observes it in restrained silence with increasing comprehension. When she eventually confronts the Prince, her restraint seems to alter his perception of both Maggie and Charlotte, to Maggie’s advantage.
In the end, Charlotte and Mr. Verver move back to America. Maggie triumphs, given a fresh start with the Prince and their son. Wah wah.