Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Spoils of Poynton (1896)

For once, my rooting around in all these obscure Henry James novels has paid off. Caveats: Well, first, I'm not sure how obscure The Spoils of Poynton counts as being. I recall it being assigned in an undergraduate class, in a volume that paired it with another short James novel, The Aspern Papers, an interesting tale in its own right (and which might equally have been the assigned reading). I want to say the difference between The Spoils of Poynton and others I've been reading and mildly carping about lately (The Other House, The Tragic Muse, The Reverberator, The Princess Casamassima, The Bostonians) is that James appears to have finally given up his quest for topicality, either with issues of the day or flirtations with genre and/or theater. He's just hammering out a little thing here with all the stuff he likes: European customs (again, it's pretty much all British characters), the appreciation of collecting and collections and all attendant matters of taste, and one Fleda Vetch, who wanders into the action to become Mrs. Gereth's sidekick. The conflict is between Mrs. Gereth and her son Owen, over the furniture and art she has amassed and must now give up, because he is about to marry a woman who insists that it all "goes with the house." Owen inherited the house when his father died (some years ago in the story), contingent upon his marriage, an eventuality that has arrived. It's a great symbol James has struck on here with the furniture and bric-a-brac, better captured I think in his original title, The Old Things. Fleda Vetch is the best part, a wonderful apparition, stepping out of the pages of a Jane Austen novel as the impoverished cousin with exquisite manners and taste and her feet on the ground. The tensions get to a nice fever pitch when it appears Fleda and Owen have fallen in love with each other. I don't like the ending, but that's only because I like these three characters so much: Mrs. Gereth, Owen, and Fleda Vetch. The whole thing is handled with authority, confidence, and humor. It may not be James at his "greatest" but I hazard to say it's James at his best.

"interlocutor" count = 6 / 256 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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