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Saturday, May 7, 2011

Henry James - The Other House

Henry James- The Other House- published 1896
Having just read The Other House and trying to sort out my feelings about it. It is kind of perverse, and not always pleasurable, but it picked up pace toward the second half of the novel and from that point it left me breathless to know what would happen.  Most James novels center around conflicts of moral character, but this is one of the few where there is also a substantial plot involving a fortune, a deathbed promise, a love triangle (or quadrangle?) and a murder, complete with a body. I have long admired Henry James but I don’t generally consider his work as being much of a “pleasure read”. He’s legendary for constructing vast run-on sentences that go on for a page and a half. Almost as if he’s deliberately aiming not to be understood, he creates impenetrable thickets of double negatives that force the reader to  labor over passages, reading them six or seven times just to tease out what the heck he’s saying.  One possible reason for this irritating habit is that he switched in mid-career from writing in longhand to dictating to a tape recorder and having a secretary transcribe his words. Apparently this freed him from having to worry about where his sentences began and ended. Perhaps without intending to, he greatly influenced the development of the stream of consciousness technique used by Virginia Woolf and others. But even if reading James requires more effort than I’d like, nobody matches him for insight into the dark, squirrelly corners of the human heart. He is unparalleled at elucidating the intertwining, contradictory motivations of passionate people who find themselves cruelly imprisoned by Victorian standards of propriety. His books are all about proper English manners that often conceal ungovernable passions and bad intentions.

The Other House revolves around two well-to-do British families who live next door to each other. Their well-appointed, capacious country homes provide the setting for the action, with luscious gardens, manicured lawns, and servants bringing tea. The action concerns six young people and two older, wiser characters who stand aside and observe the goings-on, first with bemusement, and later with horror.  The young people comprise three couples, but everyone is in love with someone they can’t have or is promised to someone they don’t want. Their interactions are like an elaborate dance with the figures briefly meeting, clasping hands, and releasing each other in order to switch partners.
The story  begins with a young wife who thinks she's dying, but before she dies she means to extract a promise from her handsome, charming husband not to remarry during their daughter’s lifetime. Tony (even his name conveys his unselfconscious magnetism) agrees to this only as a way of humoring his wife, because he’s convinced she’s just being morbid and nobody- not even the doctor - really believes she’s going to die. But then she does die unexpectedly, from complication of childbirth.Her childhood friend, Rose, and another young woman, Jean, are both engaged to other people, but are both hopelessly in love with Tony. He is attracted to them both, but is honor bound to remain forever unavailable. The result is an uneasy stasis, where everyone attempts to maintain a friendly-brotherly-sisterly relation to one another. Underneath that, however, there is a subtle struggle of wills taking place.  Years elapse while everyone lives uncomfortably with his or her unfulfilled wishes and unspoken assumptions. The tension gradually builds as each character entertains the unspoken thought: What if the child should die? Then wouldn't Tony be free to remarry? It's understood that they have all actually considered this ghastly possibility, and everyone is so careful not to give the appearance of seeking any advantage from the situation. Creepy, isn’t it?
My favorite character, and the one in whom I most feel Henry James’ authorial presence, is Mrs. Beever, a proper Victorian dowager who wields her power of personality over everyone. She is fiercely devoted to her son Paul, and wants to see him happily married to Jean, whom she has pre-selected for him. Paul goes along with her scheme but he’s diffident and frankly doesn’t have his heart in it. Here’s a passage from the novel where she is struggling to come to grips with her disappointment in Paul: "He looked at her with an air he sometimes had, which always aggravated her impatience, an air of amused surprise, quickened to curiosity, that there should be in the world organisms capable of generating heat. She had thanked God, through life, that she was cold-blooded, but now it seemed to face her as a Nemesis that she was as a volcano compared with her son."
Rose Armiger is the most fascinating character and she is the only one Mrs. Beever can’t succeed in dominating. In fact, Rose proves to be more than her equal in strength of will and adroit maneuvering. At first I admired Rose for refusing to be cowed and for being smarter than almost everyone, but soon her cleverness starts to take on a tinge of evil. By the end of the novel her character has basically descended into madness.
The internet is a wonderful invention. A little research resulted in two nuggets that afforded me tremendous insight into this novel and its place in James’ career.  First: Lynn Sharon Schwartz wrote an article for The Threepenny Review in the fall of 2000 which takes note of the fact that this novel actually started out as a theatrical play that was never produced. Between 1890 and 1895 James all but abandoned writing novels and tried very hard to be a playwright instead. It was a disastrous move. Only two of his plays were produced and one of them, Guy Domville, resulted in James being jeered and hissed off the stage. After this horrible experience James returned to novel writing and created some of his renowned masterpieces, like Wings of a Dove and The Golden Bowl. But first he took the premise of this unborn play and reworked it into a novel. Here I quote Schwartz:
True to its roots, The Other House reads like a play fleshed out with detailed stage directions: “Gradually, as she talked, he faced round again; she stood there supported by the high back of a chair, either side of which she held tight.” Books First, Second, and Third correspond to three acts, set in a drawing room, a garden, and another drawing room, with characters coming and going, mostly in twos and threes, twining and untwining their intricate relationships; the scenes, or chapters, are crowded with incident and end abruptly at cliffhanging moments, usually when a new character enters, as in French drama.
Here’s the other little nugget: In 1968, one Dorcas Ann Turner, B.A., did her masters’ thesis on “Henry James’s Tales of Tormented Children”. Her starting point was that James’s traumatic botched venture into the theater brought up deep-seated feelings of being a tortured youth (his difficult relationship with a harsh father and a more successful brother may have also played a part). Most of the novels of this middle period deal with the theme of a child who is the innocent victim of selfish, irresponsible and depraved adults.  It’s a brilliant deduction, and so true! It has made me want to go back and re-read What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age and his shorter works, Turn of the Screw and The Pupil. I plan on blogging about some of these in the future.


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