A slow smouldering

Old Place, Linfield, Sussex, one possible model for Poynton
(credit: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4639885)

Henry James: The Spoils of Poynton
Edited with an introduction by David Lodge, notes by Patricia Crick
Penguin Classics 1987 (1897)

This is an extraordinarily intense novella: intense in its use of language and intense in its unremitting focus on just two or three characters. First and foremost in the cast list is Fleda Vetch, a young woman whose superior quick-wittedness and taste are balanced by her apparent plainness and moral rectitude; next is the manipulative Mrs Adela Gereth, a widow to whom the unmarried Fleda becomes a companion. Owen Gereth, Mrs Gereth’s son, has lately inherited Poynton Place, thereby becoming a most eligible if rather vapid bachelor. Further down the cast list come Mona Brigstock, a philistine but strong-minded young woman, as manipulative as Mrs Gereth, and her mother Mrs Brigstock. Fleda’s sister Maggie and a scant handful of other individuals have even more minor parts, either walk-on/walk-off or completely offstage.

I use the phrase cast list intentionally: James apparently used his failed attempt at writing for the stage to better effect here. We have set ‘scenes’, played out on a limited number of stage sets; and — in the manner of Ibsen, for instance — all the attention is placed on the psychological drama. The main crises of the narrative, and the final climactic incident, essentially take place ‘offstage’; foregrounded are the ever-evolving to-and-fro of relationships and interactions.

And what are these relationships and interactions? Essentially they’re founded on the fact that Mrs Gereth’s impressionable son Owen has fallen for the pretty but rather vulgar Mona, who it soon becomes clear will have no intrinsic appreciation for the antique treasures that the elder Gereths have accumulated over a lifetime at Poynton. Under the terms of her late husband’s will Mrs Gereth will be forever separated from both the house and its possessions unless she can persuade Owen to fall for a more suitable young woman, one with taste and sensitivity, one who can cajole Owen into letting his mother continue in residence; in short, one Fleda Vetch.

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