‘In the Cage’ by Henry James (1898) – 138 pages
The novellas of Henry James are a good way into his fiction, and ‘In the Cage’, written in 1898 which is quite late in his career, serves as a gateway to his later major works. The story here is more rooted and down-to-earth than in other of his work and is thus more approachable.
A nameless young woman works in a separate area of a grocery store, in the cage, preparing telegrams for customers. She is not really that young, perhaps about 25 years old. She is engaged to Mr. Mudge, the grocery store manager. Mr. Mudge is a man on the rise hoping to manage five grocery stores in the near future. However our young woman is hopelessly bored with his scrupulous attention to all the mundane everyday details of running grocery stores.
So what does fascinate our young telegraph operator? That would be her job or at least certain aspects of her job. The people who send telegrams are the social elite of the town to arrange their hotels and travel plans. Even though the lowly telegraph operators are supposed to feign disinterest in the subject matter of these telegrams, they can not help but find out intriguing and salacious details of their customers’ lives. For example the married Lady Bradeen arranges assignations with the dashing young man Captain Everard. They each often come separately in to the telegraph office to arrange the times and the places for their secret trysts. The telegraph girl looks on in wonder at the illicit doings of these rich people.
“What twisted the knife in her vitals was the way the profligate rich scattered about them, in extravagant chatter over their extravagant pleasures and sins, an amount of money that would have held the stricken household of her frightened childhood, her poor pinched mother and tormented father and lost brother and starved sister, together for a lifetime.”
Our young telegraph operator takes a personal interest in making sure all the details are correct in the telegrams which these two lovers send. She is captivated by their social lives and romance.
Captain Everard is not upper class himself. One day our telegraph operator meets him on the street as she is going home from work. They sit together on a bench and share some moments holding hands.
I will not reveal any more of the plot.
I’ve read a fair amount of the fiction of Henry James, and found ‘In the Cage’ refreshing in that it did not seem so precious or convoluted as some of his other work. It is a straightforward story of a young working class woman being very practical in arranging her own future yet enamored of a style of life that is beyond her reach.
I must say that the four major characters in ‘In the Cage’, Mr. Mudge and Lady Bradeen and Captain Everard and most of all the telegraph woman, are presented in dramatic and sympathetic fashion, and this short novel is a joy to read.