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Horatio at the Bridge

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So, before I go bounding into Henry James, let me make a few notes.

First is that I truly love the nineteenth century novel, in English and otherwise.  I’ve read French drama and French poetry, and mostly it leaves me cold, but I love Balzac.  I can read Tolstoy even though I think he’s a pig, and I can read Dostoyevski nearly nonstop because I love him.

I also love Dickens, and I’m always brought up short when Robert suggests that one of the things likely to turn students off reading is giving them a Dickens novel in high school.  I wish somebody had given me a Dickens novel in high school.  Instead, I read Dickens all on my own, in one big sweep, when I was about ten or eleven years old.  He had practically an entire bookcase to himself in the upstairs “classics” room at our public library.  The room is gone these days, and the library has been updated, and it’s too bad.  Dickens will be with all the crappy stuff in the regular stacks.

The second thing is that I love Henry James, as far as I’ve read him, which is pretty far.  It’s just a little odd that I haven’t read two of his most famous books, The Turn of the Screw and The Wings of the Dove.  I’m reading The Wings of the Dove right now, and that’s sort of what I want to talk about.

Before I do, though, I’d like to point out that my absolutely favorite James novel, The Princess Casamassima is unusual in a respect important to what follows.  The Princess of the title is a lot of things, but for the purposes of the plot of that book she is not a commodity on the marriage market.    There’s an inference made that she was once, and that that is what has led to her rather irregular situation, but the book isn’t about that.

James’s books, however, do tend to be about that–about the buying and selling of women in marriage.  Almost all of James’s heroines are either desperately looking for a way to marry, or are endowed with large fortunes that make them the target of other people’s ambitions for marriage. 

That’s almost triply true of the characters in The Wings of the Dove, which is in fact a complicated plot to make it possible for two people to marry who “don’t have the means.”

Before I go into that as it applies specifically to this book–and to other James books–I’d like to point something out.

Robert at one point complained that the people in Dickens view money as something you sort of just come across, or inherit, or something–not as something you earn, in other words.

But that’s not true, not in Dickens, and not in James either, in spite of the fact that neither gives us main characters who spend their lives doing that.  Dickens has quite a few side characters who make very decent livings, and in fact rise from poverty to comfort–they just aren’t the characters about whom the story is told.  The same is true of Trollope, who often uses solid middle class barristers to contrast with high flyers like Phineas Finn or wastrel aristocrats who go into Parliament as another way to spend money. 

And, yes, Horatio Alger does give us characters whose stories are about rising from rags to riches (although the couple I’ve read got the hero where he was going at least as much from luck and/or a fortunate marriage as from hard work and perserverance).

But even if I liked Alger’s work better–I found what I read of it sort of clunky and formulaic–I’d still not be interested in reading the same story about the same people over and over again. 

And the nineteenth century novel generally (Dickens is actually somewhat–but only somewhat–of an exception) was both aimed at and written about a class of people for whom such a story was literally senseless.

The issue, in the vast majority of these novels, is not making money, or even getting it, but being able to live a very particular kind of life among a very particular kind of people, something that would be virtually impossible for somebody who was self-made.

For women, it would be worse than impossible.  A woman could of course make a living–many women did–but she could not both make a living and be “respectable,” except in some cases as a writer.  And being “respectable” is what the point is here. 

There is a very real sense in these books that a life that is not “respectable” is ugly and difficult to endure, a nasty, dirty, low thing that is shameful in and of itself.  It is certainly all of that for women.

For men, the situation is somewhat less clear.  It was indeed possible for a man to earn his fortune and still be “respectable,” but in order for that to be the case, he had to have started out as a “gentleman.”

That is, he had to have a certain kind of accent, a certain kind of manners, a set of social behaviors and assumptions that were largely closed to anybody who, say, had not been to an English public school. 

All the British writers of this period that I can think of–and Jane Austen in the period just prior–took the superiority of “respectable” life for granted, so much so that descriptions of or encounters with other classes and ways of life tend to be entirely negative.

That goes for descriptions of and encounters with the aristocracy as well as with the lower classes.  Trollope gives us Plantagenet Pallister and Lady Glencora, but they are unusual even for him, and Planty Pall is an upper middle class professional who happens to have been handed a Dukedom.  He works like a pack mule the entire time he’s in the House of Commons, and then he works like a pack mule again when he ends up in the House of Lords.

American writers are not so automatic in their acceptance of respectability–and Edith Wharton is about as jaundiced an eye as you can get on this world–and James therefore is never entirely comfortable with absolute appreciations of “respectability.”

He gives us Isabel Archer, in The Portrait of a Lady, as a kind of epitome of all things perfect in the behavior of a gentlewoman, but he’s always a little unhappy with the way things are set up.  And he’s neither naive nor in denial. 

If part of “respectability” at this period is to be free of the taint of buying and selling–and it is–then James can see quite clearly that the respectable world is in no way free of it.  All his heroines are bought and sold, the rich ones as well as the poor ones.  They are bought and sold, and the buying and selling either destroys them or leaves them bearing up heroically in the emotional waste it has made of their lives.

That said–and I want to go on with that thought as it relates to The Wings of the Dove–what the issue is in these books is not “how to have a comfortable income,” but “how to live a life of respectability.”

And such a life would not be available to someone who earned his income the way Horatio Alger’s characters are supposed to have earned theirs.  The very acts of earning income in those ways would disqualify them for the only life the characters in the novels of James, and Trollope (and sometimes Dickens) think is worth living.

Ack.  It’s a nice day.  More later.

Written by janeh

May 7th, 2010 at 11:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Horatio at the Bridge'

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  1. I’m sometimes at a loss to understand people who loathe Dickens. I enjoyed him when I read him as a teenager.

    When my son was a junior or senior in high school, he was reading Great Expectations, and I decided to read it again so we could discuss it. Holy crap. What an amazing story. It was bright, lively, and funny as all hell. But it would take an extraordinary middle- or high-schooler to derive all the subtlety and humor that Dickens put in there. Those stories were not written for children. They were written for adults with some experience of the world, and an appreciation for the vicissitudes of life.

    Making kids, even college kids, read Dickens may well be counterproductive. Some will get the superficial aspects of the story and enjoy it, like I did. But they surely won’t appreciate it as well as a mature reader, and many of them will simply be turned off by all those dreary concerns that touch them not at all at their age.

    As for the rest of the Victorian crowd, most of them I didn’t like when I was younger, either. The massive concentration on the marriage wars and the respectable life just doesn’t resonate for me. I’d rather hang around with murderers and those who pursue them.


    7 May 10 at 1:25 pm

  2. I’ll stand by my “pile of money” critique for Dickens and company. Yes, he knew it was possible to make money, but clearly felt–as Jane points out–that unless you already belonged to the gentry or nobility, running around making money made you less than respectable–and certainly not a fit subject for a novel. Even the exceptions were expected to stop once they’d restored the family fortunes. Victorian Britain actually had quite a bit of social mobility, and you can watch authors from the Brontes on choking on it. Austen knew better, having a brother “in trade,” and and two in the Navy, and spends most of PERSUASION mocking an imprudent aristocracy for objecting to social rise through merit.

    I don’t remember pushing Horatio Alger.

    As for Dickens, every English teacher I know loves him. No one else I know does, and the English teachers always sound surprised. You’d think they’d be used to it by now. That’s the sort of thing which fosters the notion that the Required Reading List is derived from taste rather than “objective merit.” Jane’s use of Milton is the only time I’ve ever heard an English teacher speaking of not liking a work she assigned.
    Maybe Dickens would be different today, but GREAT EXPECTATIONS and THE YEARLING–both 7th Grade–stand out in my mind as the point at which English lessons became an ordeal. I was in “college prep” English from 7th Grade on, so many of us read for pleasure. But none of us read Dickens for pleasure. Dickens, SILAS MARNER and a Hemingway short in Freshman English stand out as the low points in the ordeal, with Shakespeare and Poe as oases in the literary desert.

    I SAY AGAIN I am well aware that school is not there to please the student. But if the gym teachers are smart enough to realize that they can get more exercise out of the kids in sports than they’d get out of endless calisthenics, and the cooks in the cafeteria know that kids will eat more nutritious food if it looks and tastes better, the English departments ought to consider that if students liked what they read, they’d read more and improve their fluency. That students dislike something is not proof that it’s beneficial to them. Pain is not always “weakness leaving the body.” Sometimes, it’s Nature’s way of saying “don’t DO that.”

    Unabashed plug: If you want a funny, touching and reasonably accurate look at social mobility in 19th Century England, put down the Dickens, and go get a copy of Georgette Heyer’s A CIVIL CONTRACT. You won’t regret it.


    7 May 10 at 4:04 pm

  3. Well, I’m not and never was an English teacher. I only ever did the bare minimum required English courses in university. And I like Dickens and loved Silas Marner and read everything (almost, there are three early books she tried to hide and I only read one of those) Heyer ever wrote.

    I don’t know that I ever formally studied much Dickens in high school – I know we did an excerpt from Great Expectations. Mostly, I read them on my own.

    It’s not just English teachers who like Dickens and other Victorian writers.


    7 May 10 at 5:38 pm

  4. Sure isn’t. I love 19th century writers, but didn’t actually switch onto Dickens until I reached my early 20s, probably because Dickens was never a set writer for study during my high school years, and my time was consumed reading those who were, eg Jane Austen, Emily Bronte and Thackeray to name just three. Like Cheryl, I also liked Silas Marner.

    Nevertheless, I can understand why people would have difficulty enjoying Dickens at school age. Old heads on young shoulders, like Jane’s, are pretty scarce among teenagers, and I think one needs a degree of life experience and maturity to really engage with Dickens’s world. I doubt if modern middle-class kids could even begin to empathise with his characters. Or with Jane Austen’s for that matter.


    7 May 10 at 10:13 pm

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