Posts Tagged ‘Henry James’

‘The Aspern Papers’ by Henry James – A Literary Predator Acts with Hypocrisy and Duplicity in Venice


‘The Aspern Papers’ by Henry James    (1888) – 96 pages

Our nameless narrator comes to Venice for one purpose. The ancient lady Juliana had at one time a romance with the famous poet Jeffrey Aspern who died young, and she is known to have in her possession some valuable letters and other papers of Aspern’s, and our narrator wants them at nearly all costs. He concocts a scheme to rent some rooms from Juliana and her niece Miss Tita in their Venice palazzo and somehow get hold of the papers. Although our narrator has no romantic interest whatsoever in the niece Miss Tita, he rents the apartment at an exorbitant fee with a ruse to pretend to court Miss Tita in hopes of gaining access to the Aspern papers that way. Or perhaps he can grab the papers in the confusion that will arise when the old lady dies.

Our narrator in ‘The Aspern Papers’ is a predator, but not a predator of these women whom he makes abundantly clear he has little or no interest in. Our narrator is a literary predator. By his own admission, he will practice hypocrisy and duplicity in order to get the Aspern papers.

I can arrive at the papers only by putting her off her guard, and I can put her off her guard only by ingratiating diplomatic practices. Hypocrisy, duplicity are my only chance. I am sorry for it, but for Jeffrey Aspern’s sake I would do worse still. First I must take tea with her; then tackle the main job.”

After Juliana rejects his efforts to talk her into giving him the papers, he plays with the affections of Miss Tita. I won’t go any farther into the plot than this, but Henry James does seem to treat this scoundrel narrator more lightly than he deserves. Our narrator’s hypocrisy is that he pretends to like Miss Tita at all.

As is my usual pattern with Henry James novels, I was originally put off by the upper class twit-iness of the writing. When our narrator says he’d like to take care of the garden at the palazzo, he immediately says he will hire some gardeners to tend it for him. Then he also has a gondolier to haul him around Venice and I imagine a couple of servants to clean up his rooms.

However I then got beyond the twit-iness, and became deeply absorbed in the plot. By the end, I was hanging on every sentence. I finally had to admit that this novel or novella was very well done, even though Henry James’ distaste for women shines through to the very end.


Grade:   B+



‘Daisy Miller’ by Henry James – A Severe Reading Setback

‘Daisy Miller’ by Henry James  (1878) – 80 pages


If you want to retain a good opinion of Henry James, don’t read ‘Daisy Miller’.   When you read this novella, you realize that it was written by a haughty snobbish upper class twit.   James’ total contempt for us common people shines through.

The story of Daisy Miller is told through the eyes of a twenty-seven year old man named only Winterbourne.  Winterbourne is an American who has plenty of real money, so he travels around with his aunt to only the finest hotels and resorts in Europe.   In the town of Vevey in Switzerland there is a hotel that is even grand enough for Winterbourne, “being distinguished from its upstart neighbors by an air both of luxury and maturity.”

There Winterbourne meets a rambunctious little American boy named Randolph who introduces him to his pretty older sister, Daisy Miller.

“They were wonderfully pretty eyes, and indeed Winterbourne had not seen for a long time anything prettier than his fair country-woman’s various features – her complexion, her hair, her nose, her ears, her teeth.  He had a great relish for feminine beauty.”    

Winterbourne is really attracted to Daisy, but first he must determine if her money and her behavior are worthy of his refined attention, so he hovers around Daisy for the rest of the novella.   By watching her, he determines that Daisy is kind of a free spirit, and of course Winterbourne severely criticizes her for that.

The Millers decide to relocate to Rome, Italy, and Winterbourne hears rumors about Daisy.

“The girl goes about alone with her foreigners.”

So Winterbourne immediately rushes to Rome where presumably he finds an even more luxurious and exclusive hotel, so that he can continue to hover around Daisy.  He finds out that the free spirit Daisy has gotten involved with an Italian guy called Giovanelli who claims to be a Count.  Winterbourne can tell just by looking at the guy that he doesn’t have any real money, so he pesters Daisy to ditch the Count.  Daisy doesn’t ditch the Italian Count, so soon she becomes a shame and an embarrassment to her entire hotel of snooty people.

Of course in a Henry James story Daisy Miller must die for her sins, and she gets a mysterious fever.  After she dies, Winterbourne moves on to an even more posh elegant hotel in Geneva.

After reading a couple of other works by Henry James, I was just getting to the point where I could stomach his pompous pretentious ways, but I must report that ‘Daisy Miller’ was a severe setback in my regard for Henry James.


Grade:    C-


‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James – Less Brain and More Form than Middlemarch?

‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James   (1881) – 608 pages   Grade: A-

{92A1E96D-8DF2-4854-9DE1-A00801EBE277}Img400‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James starts out as a sunny drawing room comedy on the order of Jane Austen where the young woman visiting England from the United States, Isabel Archer, quickly turns down marriage proposals from two rich suitors because she wants to see Europe first.   The world is just opening up for Isabel, and she wants to remain independent.

The first suitor is Lord Warburton who owns several huge estates throughout England as well as mansions in France and Italy.  One wonders what kind of knucklehead would turn down an offer of marriage from Lord Warburton.  The other suitor, the American Caspar Goodwood, has the misfortune of owning only one cotton gin company.

Isabel is staying with her banker uncle Mr. Touchett who promptly dies and settles a fortune on Isabel.  In all my years I’ve never been bequeathed a large sum of money by someone I barely knew, but perhaps I’m not as pretty and spirited as Isabel Archer.

Then Isabel begins her travels to the European continent by going to the Touchett’s estate in Florence, Italy, and there she meets the villains of our story, Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond.  Yes, things take a nasty turn and instead of being in Jane Austen’s sunny drawing room we are stuck in a terribly sad George Eliot marriage.

Isabel falls helplessly in love with the superficially charming but calculating schemer Gilbert Osmond.  Madame Merle has told him about all the money Isabel now inherited, and he wants it for himself.  Madame Merle is his partner in crime who introduces him to Isabel.  Soon Isabel and Osmond are married and living near Rome with Isabel’s new teenage stepdaughter, the unfortunately named Pansy.  After the marriage, the cynical Osmond has got the money, and he doesn’t have much use for Isabel except to crush her soul.

The story in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ is told with passion and energy. The warm and witty repartee between the various characters is simply amazing.  It quickly became apparent that ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ would become my favorite Henry James novel.  The characters and plot are as striking and memorable as a George Eliot novel.

There is some evidence that in writing ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, Henry James was reacting to George Eliot’s novel ‘Middlemarch’ which I consider perhaps the greatest of all English language novels.  Both novels are about a bright young woman making an unfortunate marriage.  It seems to me that her first marriage is a momentous occasion in any woman’s life.  She must give up the life she was leading before for a new life, and it is so easy to make the wrong decision.  Perhaps Isabel reflects James’ thinking with her belief that “a woman ought to be able to make up her life in singleness, and that it was perfectly possible to be happy without the society of a more or less coarse-minded person of another sex.”

After reading ‘Middlemarch, James wrote that his future works are “to have less ‘brain’ than Middlemarch, but they are to have more form’.  I do believe that James succeeded in the ‘less brain’ goal, but I’m not sure about the ‘more form’ part of the equation.

8515505286_9c22d63401_zHenry James makes no apologies about solely writing about the upper class; that is one thing that I find it difficult to stomach about him.  It still annoys me that Henry James apparently considered poor people or even the middle class to be unworthy of inclusion in his novels.  Instead we get the richest of the rich traipsing from one vast estate to another.  Certainly writers must write about those they know, and I suppose James does a great job of pinning down these super rich types, However I do believe that his works are limited by him restricting his subjects strictly to the absurdly rich.

George Eliot dealt with the entirety of her society, and thus I find many of her works more meaningful to me.   So my final advice would be to definitely read ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ but read ‘Middlemarch’ first.

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