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.

Let me start my brief commentary with a quotation from chapter XXII, at the end of the book, after Fleda has received from Owen a letter which ends with the sentence, “You won’t refuse if you’ll simply think a little what it must be that makes me ask.”

Fleda read that last sentence over more times even than the rest: she was baffled — she couldn’t think at all of what in particular made him ask. This was indeed because it might be one of so many things.

This bafflement absolutely epitomises the veil of obscurity that permeates the novel, much like the pall of smoke that might come from a great conflagration. Here, however, it is the fire of passion. Passion takes many forms in The Spoils of Poynton, whether Mrs Gereth’s for the ‘spoils’ themselves, the mutual attraction between Owen and Fleda that emerges only slowly, or the cupidity that Mona displays in seeking to have the ‘spoils’ return to Poynton — for Mrs Gereth, to circumvent the possibility of Mona will obtain possession of the mansion’s treasures, has removed them all to her dower house in another part of southeast England. The haze from all these passions hangs over the whole of the novella — witness the way that we too, like Fleda, have to read some sentences over more times than the rest, such as when it is often not clear which woman — Fleda, Mrs Gereth or Mona — is being referred to by the casual use of “she” and “her”. The author’s long sentences, with their several subordinate phrases, only add to the opacity.

For me this obscurity of language made the start of the novel quite laborious but a little perseverance soon became its own reward, and I soon found following the cut-and-thrust of stratagem and countermove quite addictive. I was both amused and bemused by the thoughts and actions of the principal characters, Fleda and Mrs Gereth, alternately frustrated and cheered by what transpired next. The action flits between the mansions of Waterbath and Poynton, the dower house of Ricks and the homes of Fleda’s family, between hotel and train station; the time scale ranges over several months (maybe as much as a couple of years) from seasonally pleasant weather to the baleful advent of winter.

These shifts and fluctuations are doubtless designed to parallel the changing fortunes of the protagonists. In many ways they are like the sudden settlings inside a bonfire that’s slowly smouldering at its core before, all of a sudden, the whole thing violently bursts into flame.

One might hope for and expect a fairytale ending, perhaps with Fleda as Cinderella and Mrs Gereth as fairy godmother; or could it be a late 19th-century Pride and Prejudice, featuring Fleda as Elizabeth Bennet and Owen as the enigmatic Mr Darcy of Pemberley? But James is clearly aiming for a more realistic outcome, even if some might call ‘foul!’ at the way it is all wrapped up. (Here I am reminded more of the climax of Jane Eyre.) The fact is that everyone in the novel loses out to some extent, and all for different reasons — some personal, some circumstantial. For all that very little appears to happen, two or three crucial actions determine which way the plot moves, and those moves prove decisive for the inevitability of the final resolution.

What I found quite delicious were many of James’ turns of phrases, some authorial, others from individuals assessing others’ characters. Owen, for example is typified (chapter VIII) thus: “He had his delicacies, but he hid them away like presents before Christmas.” Mona Brigstock, when Poynton’s treasures are moved out, is described as “moved not by the privation but by the insult.”

Mrs Gereth in particular has some ringing judgements to make: of Fleda she says (XVII) “our situation is such that [Owen] communicates with me only through you and […] you’re so tortuous you conceal everything;” later she tells Fleda “You’re not quite a saint in heaven yet.” Of her son she says (XVIII), “Owen’s a blockhead [and] disgustingly weak,” to which Fleda the perennial rescuer can only say, “It’s because he’s weak that he needs me.” Fleda herself notes (XXII) that Mona’s “a person who’s upset by failure and who blooms and expands with success.” The tragedy is that many these incisive remarks are the result of characters’ retrospective reflections.

This edition includes an insightful introduction by David Lodge which underlines the novel’s deliberate ambiguities. I chose to read this after the main text, along with extracts from Henry James’ own notebooks which outline the gestation of The Spoils of Poynton. Interestingly, the reader will find many of the familiar names originally in different guises — Poynton was to be Umberleigh, for a start. Fleda Vetch was conceived as Muriel Veetch, Owen appears first as Albert and Mona Brigstock as Nora. In a way it’s a shock to discover these individuals were not as we first meet them; but perhaps this only accentuates the ambiguities that Lodge writes about and the obscurities that I encountered.

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19 thoughts on “A slow smouldering

  1. Such veiled ambiguity throughout! Interesting that everyone loses out to some extent at the end, that there are no happy endings. The only James I’ve read (The Turn of the Screw) is the same – ambiguous, veiled and secetive. Perhaps James enjoyed this ambuiguity, something of a product of the end of the century rather than the beginning, do you suppose?

    1. I haven’t read enough fin de siecle literature to judge if what you say is true, mostly having consumed early 19C novels, but what you suggest sounds very plausible, Lynn. Certainly I’ll give Henry James another whirl (in a manner of speaking), maybe even The Turn of the Screw!

      No happy endings? Possibly, though it does turn out rather bleak. What’s fun is enjoying the rollercoaster ride!

      1. Sometimes it is the journey with novels, isn’t it? There are a few I’ve read (particularly Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist) where I loved the book as a whole but was thoroughly disappointed with the ending. This particular example didn’t answer a major question she raised early on – a no-no as fair as I’m concerned!

  2. You’ve made me want to read this this novella, and to return to James in general.

    “The author’s long sentences, with their several subordinate phrases, only add to the opacity”: this sentence of yours reminded me of the pleasures of reading Henry James, and the many thoughts and meta-thoughts to which his sometimes-tortuous, certainly ambiguous, sentences give rise. Your post also reminded me that I’ve been meaning to read Colm Tóibín’s The Master; maybe this summer. Thank you for this review.

    1. This was my first go at reading James, but it won’t be my last! Glad the review enthused you, Josna.

      I’ve seen so many reviews of Colm Tóibín’s work (pretty much all in the Guardian) that I almost feel I’ve read him but, alas, I haven’t. Sometime, sometime.

          1. There was an interesting discussion by him of his latest novel in a recent Guardian review, drawing parallels between quid pro quo killings in Northern Ireland and in Classical Greek literature.

            1. Funnily enough, I just opened my latest issue of the London Review of Books last night and there was a l-o-n-g review of the novel. But I fell asleep before it made the connect between Greek drama and the novel! Thanks, I will look for the Guardian review. It might be something to reference when teaching about “the Troubles.”

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