Posts Tagged ‘portrait of a lady’

Woman reading, artist or photographer unknown

Dear friends and readers,

The title may be off-putting, but Corrigan’s book is an inspiriting book to read in the dark near-dawn hours of a spring into summer morning, one intended to keep the reader company in her journeys with others through books. Corrigan writes of reading as intense adventure, as that which can interweave itself into the deepest fibres of our memories of things we do as we do them, what influences, directs, teaches, and comforts the reader who has that within her to be transformed. Corrigan’s tone is at moment luminous with remembered moments of strengthening and hope.

Sometimes the book feels too Pollyanna (people returning from war are presented as all good feeling about their memories), and sometimes Corrigan may grate on your nerves by apologizing to those who wouldn’t read her book in the first place (a sort of bending over backwards to her readers who do worry about what the non-readers of the world would say). These are minor blemishes, though (they do not go on for very long) and are not the core of a book where reading has meant everything to the writer. It’s a book also about Corrigan’s career writing and teaching about her reading to an imagined community of sympathetic readers and her students.

Marilyn Monroe reading Joyce (Eve Arnold photo)

Corrigan vindicates, reads in front of her reader in the way of Bobbie Ann Mason in her The Girl Sleuth, “extreme female-adventure books” and detective stories. “Extreme female-adventure” books are classic women’s books and l’ecriture-femme by another name. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Villette, Gaskell’s Mary Barton, and (for a modern example) Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing and Black and Blue make visible what the hard adventure of life is for women:

“terrible contests with solitude,” “endurance” of the marriage market and successful socializing. fortitude, “keeping one’s nerves steady, the emotional power of confidence and a thoughtful strong mind, the long nightmare of being linked to a man for life who doesn’t “get you,” who doesn’t begin to understand what means most to you (Kate Simon’s Bronx Primitive).

These are indeed the terrors, the miseries, the small mean hardships of many existences, what withers joy, the enemies of promise.

Such books “got her through” her life, taught Corrigan much — just as Woolf said such books can.

By the time Corrigan gets to the end of her third long section and has told about adopting a Chinese baby girl, her time as a working class young woman at the prestigious and snobbish University of Pennsylvania (so she didn’t have it so bad, did she?), her career as a writer of reviews for the Village Voice and now on NPR, and her long-delayed marriage all the while validating and showing how reading and books have been important in each of her transitions, I felt I was communing with a non-philistine, decently humane presence validating the life of the mind (even if clearly she had been one of the privileged of this world).

The piece de resistance of the book is a long wonderfully refreshing, fascinating and carefully qualified section on Sayers’s Gaudy Night in the context of what women’s communities can be for women, and in vindication of educated women. Corrigan worked at Byrn Mawr. (My goodness.) She dwells on Harriet’s freely entered into relationship with Peter, how he is a knight who rescues her (from death, for she is accused of poisoning her lover-partner in Strong Poison).

Harriet Walter who played Harriet Vane (my gravatar for my Under the Sign of Sylvia blog).

Then onto other women’s books of the 1920s and 30s, more detective fiction by women, memoirs (Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood).

The book’s title is somewhat misleading, for Corrigan also writes it to show the reader that detective fiction by men and women is not simply riveting or terrifying and sad entertainment (when it’s good as in Hound of the Baskervilles, or Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon, Chandler’s The Big Sleep or Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men), but also an indirect means for discussing how it feels to lead a working life where the reader is liberated since the hero or heroine has autonomy, savvy, intelligence, wit. She sees detective fiction as an replacement for the Robinson Crusoe myth (work as seen also in Gaskell’s Mary Barton). The best of them invent communities of people who mirror real milieus of our world and are either therapeutic or worlds split open with all their banal harshnesses and horrors. She convinced me. But then it was 3 in the morning.

Throughout Corrigan brings up analogies with the same ones I so treasured when a girl: Nancy Drew, Little Women, nurse stories (for her it was Sue Barton) and autobiographies (by Agatha Christie including wry comments about how much is made of ten days Christie she fled wife- and motherhood). I wanted to tell her about Bobbie Ann Mason’s Clear Springs and Marge Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats.

Dorothy Lange photo: Girls at Lincoln Bench School, Malheur County Oregon, October 12, 1939

I’ve written before about how important girls books are to them: Girls’ books and women’s lives. The picture by Vanessa Bell (I love the rich reds and yellows) makes visible how good dolls are part of a young girl’s health-giving imaginative terrain. On WWTTA we noticed that although men will often use depictions of women reading to make “come hither fuck-me” pictures of these women for themselves (turning the women’s reading experience into forms of substitute masturbation), women often depict themselves reading in ways that call attention to their class status or inward emotional state, depict themselves as older women reading to children or paint young girls reading.

I’ve not gotten to the last part of Corrigan’s fiction: on what she learned from Catholic martyr stories (Mary Gordon’s Final Payments).

She does talk about the importance of parodies and funny books by women too: her candidate is Austen’s Northanger Abbey; this past Christmas on WWTTA we read Stella Gibbons’ often misrepresented Cold Comfort Farm (she made me want to read Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn), and her favorite poet seems to be Stevie Smith (me too), but enough, it’s nearly 2. It’s pouring, and I had better to bed.

A toute a l’heure, courage mes amies:

The Ballet of the Twelve Dancing Princesses

— by Stevie Smith


The schoolgirls dance on the cold grass
The ballet of the twelve dancing princesses
And the shadows pass

Over their cold feet

Above in the cold summer sky the clouds mass
The icy wind blows across the laurel bushes
The sky is hard blue and gray where a cloud rushes
The sky is icy blue it is like the night blue where a star pushes.

But it is not night
It is daytime on an English lawn.
The scholars dance. The weather is as fresh as dawn.
Dawn and night are the webs of this summer’s day
Dawn and night the tempo of the children’s play.

Who taught the scholars? Who informed the dance?
Who taught them so innocent to advance
So far in a peculiar study? They seem to be in a trance.
It is a trance in which the cold innocent feet pass
To and fro in a hinted meaning over the grass
The meaning is not more ominous and frivolous than the clouds
that mass.

There is nothing to my thought more beautiful at this moment
Than a vision of innocence that is bound to do something
I sense something equivocal beneath the veneer of an innocent
Tale and in the trumpet sound of the icy storm overhead there is
The advance of innocence against a mutation that is irrevocable
Only in the imagination of that issue joined for a split second is
the idea beautiful.


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Isabel Collard (Christine Kavanagh) accused of murdering her brother-in-law and lover, Roger (James Faulkner) and mother-in-law, Harriet Collard (Judy Parfitt) (Blackheath Poisonings, 1992)

Dear friends and readers,

Now I’ve re-watched all 26 episodes of the Palliser films, re-read all my blogs, and am watching for a second time Simon Raven’s 1992 adaptation of Julian Symons’s BlackHeath Poisonings (a pseudo- or imitation, pastiche 19th century mystery text).

I’m staring at the central question the volume I’m aiming my essay at is supposed to answer, Adaptation: British Literature of the Nineteenth Century and Film:

What do particular adaptations of 19th century texts reveal about the ways we understand, respond to, analyze 19th century culture?

and rereading the series of postings on what unites film adaptations of 19th century novels in my Reveries blog. I compared a number of adaptations of 19th century novels:

Hardy Films: Two Tesses and One Jude

The Golden Bowl: films from 19th versus 18th century sources

to a number of adaptations of 18th century novels, stories, texts:

Quills: Sade and Austen

One Duchess and One Cornwall Landowner: 18th versus 19th century sources

In a nutshell, my idea is 18th century films repeatedly delve into sexuality for its own sake and present the issues of each in such a way that we delve deeply into the nature of people’s psychologies interacting with the mores and issues of their particular social groups. This lends itself to abstract social issues like say slavery (as in Amazing Grace where the accent is on the individual’s inner world). The 19th century films turn to social and familial pathologies, attempt a larger picture of society in which these pathologies are formed, and we see how the social roles imposed on people conflict with and/or sustain their deepest needs and desires.

The full truth is, though, the Henry James films don’t fit this neat opposition. Since James was himself a closet gay and his books closet gay books (on a quiet level, see Roderick Hudson), they allow themselves to be used for exploration of sexual issues. For example, Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady.

One has to take into account changes in dramaturgy, technology and the way film-makers think they should and can make films. The dramaturgy of the 1970s is essentially staged plays or playlets, as as capable of holding the viewer as anything from the mesmerizing computerized and radical new modern thematizations of the 1990s and recent poetic cinematographies (1st decade 21st century) are. You must have great actors to carry it off and good scripts. The dramaturgy and cinematography is of the older stage scene kind; no montages, little voice-over, no mesmerizing computers and music. The acting is not quite all but a great deal of it. They build slowly, and slowly the characters emerge, and the story evolves and its worlds are created before us.

The 1990s after 1991 BBC Clarissa (a landmark film in retrospect) use modern computer techniques, zoom, distancing, jump cuts, on location with good cameras, huge sums on places and luxuries — important as all this is — but the outlook. They use overtly sexual scenes and include transgressive (homosexual and lesbian) sex.

Which angle to take perplexes me too:

The authorial one? If Raven’s, then we lose Trollope. Trollope’s Pallisers however well-known and brilliant do not tell the whole story of the man, and especially as by Raven emphasize the upper class material in his vision. By contrast though the same man’s vision is found in Herbert Wise’s Malachi’s Cove out of Trollope’s short story.

how different the angle on Trollope’s vision is provided by his story (part of the source for this film done in Cornwall), this film and the filmic onlocation (Cornwall the cliffs by the sea where the poor made a living gathering seaweed for manure). It’s a startling revelation of Trollope’s ethical vision and inclusiveness.

The generic context: the Pallisers comes before the 1980s and Brideshead Revisited and the later 1970s build up toward sophistication. It is a relatively naive film technically in comparison to what came later, viz., they are not conscious of what they are doing in the way of the 1990s films and thus bare or stripped away from the kinds of intensities of meanings coming out of the images that one sees in Blackheath Poisonings for all its inferiority of story, plot and themes. They rarely use voice-over, have no flashbacks that I can remember, remember strictly within very conventional presentations of sexuality with women strongly repressed (by themselves and through preaching.

Filmic Trollope: Davies has spoken very little of his work on He Knew He Was Right and The Way We Live Now. There are no features in the DVDs of these two, no over-voice commentaries. All I have are articles by Sarah Cardwell on TWWLN. Trollope’s are apparently not “tracer texts,” texts that hit home somewhere so strongly that they become sociological events when they are filmed and generate other filmings close by. The content of such texts becomes traces found in many other works. Not even Barchester Towers can lay a claim to that — though it is remembered as the progenitor of academic politics-mysteries books in Showalter’s Faculty Towers (a study of this subgenre).

For summary and commentary on Diane Sadoff’s Victorian Vogue, see comments.


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Pool, Villa D’Este, Tivoli, from Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Gardens

Dear friends and readers,

Over the month of August on Trollope19thCStudies a very few of us read Henry James’s Roderick Hudson, if not James’s first novel, his earliest in print and still read. I had not read it since I was in my early thirties when I probably read it naively as all I had to go on was (quoting Dean Flowers on the vast superiority of the recent 2 volume biography of James by Sheldon Novick) “the suave sterilities” and evasive misleading generalities of Leon Edel. Since getting on the Net in the mid-1990s, and participating in a Henry James listserv community, coming across and reading Colm Toibin’s The Master and other essays on James, and simply growing up into candour at long last, I’ve become aware of how central to James’s oeuvre is his homosexuality. Still, I was astonished when I was confronted with this frank text, not just for its time and place (homosexuality was still a seriously prosecutable crime, and led to harassment and blackmail by the unscrupulous, as described by J. M. Forster), but for James himself. How it leaps out at us.

At first I thought it might make Roderick Hudson a clearer book than any other James published, but soon discovered that since James didn’t have the courage to build his plot-design around his pair of potential lovers, Roderick Hudson and Rowland Mallet, but rather created an enfeebled version of the conventional courtship and thwarted marriage story of Victorian novels. Still what he has left us with is valuable: a partly hidden because not coped-with story of the howling anguish of a life of a man made to feel what is natural to him is profoundly sick.

To summarize the story: it is ostensibly the story of Roderick Hudson, a young artist who given money to free himself of his boring job and repressive family by the rich idle gentleman, Rowland Mallet, goes to Europe to fulfill his gift. This after he engages himself to Mary Garland, a supposedly super-innocent good young woman (this characterization is part of the flaws of the book). Once in Europe (Italy to be specific) he finds a corrupt society (debauched offstage), most people unable to appreciate fine subtle visions in art (and certainly his kinky statues of beautiful naked young men), encounters Christina Light, the unacknowledged bastard daughter of a ruthless mercenary mother, Mrs Light, and biological father discreetly living off her (Giacosa). Like Roderick, Christina is forced to make a decision (marry a dull prince) which will prevent her ever from having a fulfilled inner life. We are asked to believe they are in love. The real thwarted lover is Rowland Mallet who harasses Roderick to live a compromised existence, invited Mary Garland and Roderick’s ludicrously child-like mother to Italy to follow him, Rowland himself said to be in love with Mary. Driven and angry, depressed, and not knowing how to live out what he is, Roderick throws himself or falls off a cliff.

At the same time or just before reading and posting about this book we had rapidly and briefly read and posted about Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and Martin Scorcese’s film adaptation.

Newland Archer (Cecil Day Lewis) and Ellen Olsenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) in Scorcese’s Age of Innocence (they could stand in a types for a film of the story Roderick and Christina Light)

Not unexpectedly (given the close friendship of James and Wharton and the known parallels of their work and shared milieu), we found the same moral design in both this book and film: a hero and heroine, Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, forced to deny their love for one another because she was a divorce (abused by her husband) and he is pressured into marrying a supposedly innocent but manipulating controlling woman, May Weyland. Wharton’s book ostensibly justifies Archer’s throwing away of his and Ellen’s precious possibility while Scorcese’s film delineates Archer as spending his life as a lost depressive. (For more on this book and film see the comments to this blog.)

Susan Fraiman’s Unbecoming Women, a study of novels of female development sheds unexpected light on Roderick Hudson. One of the chapters is on the humiliation of Elizabeth Bennet. The gothic may be seen as a special or strong instance of such novels I’d say (and it’s no coincidence that Fraiman edited the Norton edition of Northanger Abbey). Novels of female development and female gothics differ from novels of male development and male gothics strongly: men are self-fashioning, travel, gain integration into the world (in gothics they are outcast and exiled); women have a vexed embattled time where they are pushed into conforming and punished when they don’t, all the while driven not really to conform in order to survive.

Now (as we shall see) Roderick Hudson; he is embattled and being pushed to do what he doesn’t want to, be a heterosexual conventional male. And destroys himself or is destroyed (depending on how you look at this).

What follows are a selection of parts of my and other people’s postings as we read the book over a few summer weeks.


John Singer Sergeant, In the Medici Villa, 1907 (the cover illustration for a 1970s reprint of the New York edition of Roderick Hudson).

Chapters 1-3:

What struck me is the homosexuality: how it leaps out at one. Roderick Hudson’s statue of the beautiful young (ripe, luscious, athletic, choose what words seem to you delectable) male water-drinker and how Rowland Mallet can’t resist it. In later books this kind of origination and temperature is marginalized.

Robin Ellis playing such a character, Robert Action in an early Merchant-Ivory-Jhabala Europeans (like Dan Steevens who also played a gay male in Line of Beauty, Ellis played Edward Ferrars in film adaptations of Sense and Sensibility)

“‘The cup is knowledge, pleasure, experience, anything of that kind.’
‘Then he’s drinking very deep,’ said Rowland (Ch 2, p 27, Houghton Mifflin 1977 edition, introd. Edel)

Rowland’s attraction to Roderick is contrasted to the sexless feeling of of Rowland Mallet with his cousin-in-law — suitably distanced in kin and later Roderick with Mary Garland. Again in later books this kind of duo pair will be presented as themselves somehow embroiled. It’s franker here. Later in his life James will have more acquaintance in Europe and people to model characters on. I wondered how much this cousin and American mother reflect either James’s mother or his brother’s wife (about whom recently a book has been written).

Directly parallelling (or contrasting) to Wharton’s Age of Innocence, as Archer is pressured into conforming to his society to live a life of ease and convenience on his wife’s money and amid a respectable money-making firm, Hudson has to fight his family and mother to avoid going into the family business and become an artist. His brother has died in the war — more autobiography. Two of the James’ brothers fought in the civil war and (as I recall) it shattered at least one of them). Some guilt here and remembrance. There is sympathy for Hudson’s mother.

The usual tired ostensibly plot-design of opposition of European as knowing, sophisticated culture and American as innocent, repressed, philistine is put before us. Hudson must go to Europe to learn his art.


Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan in Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady) as the repressed gay male who gives a fortune to the protagonist; Touchett’s living vicariously is excused by his illness, and he is a much kinder figure than the strait-laced blaming Rowland Mallet

Chapters 3-5:

Linda R put it this way: “Only one line really summarizes the action of these chapters as Ellen describes them.

“This is what we’ve got here: one proto-gay man gives the other a forture, setshim free, and sends him off to dangerous places.”

To me what gives James his peculiar stance is the intersection of his homosexual or gay stance with this dual perspective found in Wharton: conformity and wealth, surface respectability (based on hypocrisy) and ease and convenience versus self-fulfillment, precarious (very) independence and living out one’s truth insofar as this is permitted socially. Far more than in Wharton James shows us a strong retreat and critique in both American and European characters — and, partly because of inner conflict and pressure by the conformist characters, a persistent disaster course taken by the central presence where the central character kills himself or dies (in the case of The American the heroine opts out totally), or (just as bad) somehow does not involve himself in life, remains outside and terribly a loser because of this or stays with a decision that means death-in-life (Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady). The parallel books are Daisy Miller say, many of the short stories, “The Beast in the Jungle,” Wings of the Dove (disaster for the heroine), most strongly The Ambassadors (Strether).

The next chapters occurring in the US include satires on the Amercan Strikers at the same time as the middle class respectable characters’ cold response and pragmaticism is acknowledged as prudent.

Another parallel I see with other novels by James is the giving of a character a fortune or some gift which frees him or her, and ends up ambiguous. At the opening of Portrait of a Lady Ralph Touchett enables Isabel to have a fortune. As those who have seen the movie know, this is what does her in since she becomes prey to Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond.

This is what we’ve got here: one proto-gay man gives the other a forture, sets him free, and sends him off to dangerous places.

I do love the exquisitely beautiful descriptions of places; James’s prose is a delight — he’s a wonderful travel writer.

For those who might be bored and the book seems effete let’s say — like Forster’s Passage to India the tea- picnic- scenes will explode, and the book does end in the imagination of disaster that James says his books are often about (in his introduction to Turn of the Screw). So plug on, things will get interesting. I remembered the ending yesterday as I was reading but won’t give it away for I forget how we get to it


Henry James as a young man, photo

Chapters 4-6:

I wrote this in response to people who did not want to take into account what we know of James’s life:

As to James’s homosexuality, I can’t pretend myself not to have read several biographies which simply say he was. The question is whether he was a closet (not practicing gay) or quietly semi-active one — he has letters of correspondence with a few young men which show intense affection and sensuality and they visited and lived with him a couple of times. Colm Toibin’s great fictional biography, The Master, dwells on these incidents.

The old “school” — Leon Edel with his magnficent 5 volume biography took the tack that James was a closet gay, never practiced. This is in accordance with strong reluctance to tell or admit to hard truths — they are seen in Genlis studies I’m just now doing where still two children she had by Orleans are said to be adopted, on the basis of ludicrous stories. Of course we don’t have evidence, if for no other reason than in James’s era he was in danger of arrest. Sodomy was a crime and blackmail was a very bad problem for men. Forster talks about this and didn’t publish Maurice until late in life. The world seems to be filled with people who won’t believe someone had transgressive sex of any kind or an illegitimate child by someone unless we have photographic or DNA evidence.

The recent writers and biographers are divided as to what James’s private life was. Mostly they remain discreet, and I this morning have an article to share with people if they are interests: Michelle Mendellson: “Homosociality and Aesthetic Theory in Roderick Hudson.” If anyone would like to read this, let me know and I can send it separately. Not only can we not search our archives anymore, but we cannot put essays in our files. Mendellson is discreet, because the novel is, and what we have are not two male open lovers, but two male loving friends. She is also protecting her career; Rictor Norton’s two histories of homosexuality, one on the 18th century is similarly discreet in its terminology (I forget their titles, but one is about Mollies in the 18th century).

I’d say that Mary Garland is a kind of convenient cover story: she stands for “innocence” in the US way and the values of keeping to a job, a business, obeying and staying with the family which Roderick needs to break away from to even practice his art. Read with the grain one could say Rowland’s upset about the engagement is as much from his love of Roderick as his supposed yearning for Mary.

LIterary criticism today mostly joins the old themes of Europe versus America with a group of new ones. The book I most recommend (though it’s hard reading) is Eva Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet which has a long section on James. She, among others, regard him as the first writer in English to treat homosexuality almost at all, and certainly with sympathetic imagination, understanding, and as central to his particular repeated story: which is, as in Rowland Hudson, the man who doesn’t engage in life because the terms on which it’s offered, he doesn’t want at all.

I like Azar Nafisi’s long chapter on James in her Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I summarized on my blog, Reveries under the Sign of Austen: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Parts 3 & 4: Austen and James. Nafisi presents herself as an “internal exile” too, refusing to act for ease and convenience; her book is compromised badly because she never admits the revolution in Iran had real economic and social causes (she is utterly pro-capitalist, American) and may be likened to the memoirs of upper class French women about the 1790s, but unlike most of them she analyzes her situation and makes these older books’s ordeals parallel to say someone who refuses kowtow to whatever regime is in charge at this particular moment.

For my part the homosexuailty or sociality leapt out at me. Why? Because I’ve read lots of middle and later James and thought about them. Because in the later books such a relationship is marginalized, and the characters who are loving men are found on the margins or as sheer observers not involved in life and often are impugned in various ways. The characters who indulge quietly live apart as drones (in The Wings of the Dove there is a striking character of this type). There’s a self-hatred going in on James’s depiction of Winterbourne, a deep depression in his depiction of Strether.

So it’s startling and brave and he didn’t do this again in quite this way. This is also his (to me) book about hope lost. I’ve gotten up to Chapter 7 where Rowland and Roderick part. Roderick is beginning to lose his great intensity of idealistic belief, and it’s shattering him.

“Standing in his place as the coach rolled away, he looked back at his friend lingering by the roadside. A great snow mountain behind Roderick was beginning to turn pink in the sunset. The slim and straight young figure waved its hat with a sort of mocking solemnity … ” (p. 129).

It’s poignant, pathetic. I am as taken and interested in Roderick as Rowland. It’s true we are in Rowland’s consciousness much more, or most of the time, but this story of a young person who goes abroad to get in touch with finer art, profound positive attitudes towards the imagination which makes it central to life moves me.

I went to the UK to get away, and just the other day wrote on Women Writers Through the Ages At Yahoo about my first moments coming up to Europe:

When I first came to England and it was just to be for the year, among the first books I read was James’s Golden Bowl. I remember the copy, remember reading it on the train: grey Penguin. I was advised to read Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier (about the north) which I duly did. But for me the memory which counts, Fran and all, is one I have seen analogies in since for Americans abroad. I felt I was coming home. I was thrilled to see those white cliffs of Dover as our boat came up the channel. The Channel was green that day, the sun sparkled. I had been 12 days at sea. It remains with me. There are travel books by Americans (James is one) registering just the same unreal or imaginative feeling.

One reason I love James is his partial rejection of the US and its philistinism. I love his travel books where he is the American seeking culture and an identity to be at home in.

In his books we find again and again his characters do not find an identity. And in Chapter 6 the characters we are introduced to while far more interesting because they are leading genuinely individualistic lives (fulfilling their appetites to some extent) are also sordid in ways the folks back home are not. They prey on one anther desperately to make some money which is scarce for them all. The painter, Sam Singleton has had to change his pictures to sell them and his compromise shames him.

Roderick we are to understand sees what is in front of him. He begins to lose that idealistic spirit which was enabling him to work so “beautifully” as it’s put. One Rowland no longer has: Rowland sees the many sides to life in Europe and when he says why should Roderick not have a “lick” at them, he is using a slightly lascivious term for the experience of Europeans. Sedgwick calls this kind of thing covert language in her epistemology of the closet.

I do have a real criticism of the book so far; it’s curiously empty. James speaks in such general hesitant terms about art, much of the talk lacks content, specific content about what makes this or that statue so nice. It’s all airy kinds of orgastic talk intermingled with ironic underminings by the disillusioned characters (say the art dealer Gloriani). While James is bolder about homosexuality in this book than he will be later, he is unwilling to be bold about what it is that makes Roderick’s art so vivid and alive, so “fresh” and innovative (to use a modern term).


An illustration for an 1890s edition of James’s Ambassadors (by Coburn)

Chapter 7-9: Christina Light who becomes a recurring character

Chapter 7 finds Roderick going to pot: in a vague kind of airy way we are given to understand he becomes debauched: gambling, perhaps drinking and sex. The sex is suggested so diffidently (I feel) because what James has in mind is homosexual sex, but no matter, the point is he stops serious work. He overspends. He is losing his beauty, fine spirit, and (we worry) wearing out his gifts. We see how susceptible he is to other influences. Not a strong character and does not augur well.

Rowland comes to meet him, they return to Rome and he does regenerate, and begin work again. At the end of Chapter 7, beginning Chapter 8 they meet a trio who we saw at a distance before the summer, a particularly vivid sensual and slightly campy portrait (reminding me of Sondheim’s way of sending up upper class types) reappears: an apparently down-at-heels cavalier servente cum-lover, Giacosa, Italian fallen on hard time; the big lady he is attached to (like a dog is the feel or the poodle the lady’s daughter has on a chain), Mrs Light and the beautiful daughter, Miss Light.

Miss Light is an American by ultimate origin though brought up in Europe, super-beautiful and supplants in her beauty and more alert, unconventional character, Mary Garland. Roderick has no interest in Mary for real; Rowland thinks about how he went for her because she was there. Roderick suggests at Rowland’s nagging what do you mean to do about Mary, they send for her and Roderick’s mother (with whom Mary Lives), but Rowland is not sure this will be a comfortable (or successful) time for any of them. We have two letters, one by mary and one by Mrs Hudson to remind us of their supposed innocence. This is such a curious idea James has — how does he define innocence: it’s seems to be more than sexual, something about loyalty and spending your time making money as a man or staying home with family as a woman. It’s very superficial if you think about what goes on in businesses and families. Wharton’s “Afterwards” shows the cutthroat amoral nature of business and no one needs to be told that repression of the surface does not make for innocence.

The treatment of innocence is for me a flaw in the book — not thought out, not real. Roderick had begun to make a louche sexy statue which projects something that embarrasses Rowland. It’s debauched? Again I see here a self-hatred and intense discomfort with sexuality that is not “wholesome.” But then Roderick makes a bust of Christina and is retrieving himself. The statue is so realistic, beautiful and yet not disturbing we are told.

But wait. Let’s look and pay attention to Christina. What interested me though is Christina Light — the history of her grandmother and mother, and herself. Why? She will become the Princess Cassamassima. We will see her with Hyacinth Robinson, and we did read that book on this list several years ago, at least two of us, myself and Angela and two others at the time. Perhaps people will remember it: a political book. On p. 186 James describes Christina as “a complex wilful passionate creature who might easily draw down a too confiding spirit into some strange underworld of unworthy sacrifice.” She is described as possbily “preying” on “the faith of victim” (types). This is just what happens books later: the Princess takes over Hyacinth, in type very like Roderick only older and susceptible to political idealism and she causes his destruction.

Her background is not airy-empty quite. Her grandmother was a Miss Savage, daughter of a miserably failed American painter, depressed with horrible wife (we are told) an English actress who beat Savage with his stick. She pushed him to paint, got him customers, bullied him, and then ran away with an English Lord. He died in an asylum. Her daughter, our Mrs Light, handsome, married an American consul, mild, a gentleman and he was drowned 3 years later. Since then she has led a ratty kind of amoral life, her surprizing variety of bonnets and men in her train tells the tale of paying lovers. Giacosa began to hang in there then.

And under this woman’s aegis has Christina grown up, been educated. A lawsuit which was triumphant brought in money at the last, and now she makes a show in Florence (pp161-65). She’s after a Prince for her daughter.

She gets him and it’s not exactly happiness for Christina who we also meet in The American in a Jamesian reclusive phase.

What we see here is not just that a character recurs but in their beginning is their end. One can trace the same kind of inherent development from the beginning in a few of Trollope’s characters in Barsetshire (Josiah Crawley) and Pallisers (Lady Glencora) but many are changed.

I can see how Christina could be the child in The Awkward Age.

Rewind: how is it this child of this woman can produce in Roderick this ethically beautiful statue?

There are problems in this early text, things James has not at all come to terms with in himself.


Veduta della Grotta, St. Kesian (1801, picturesque-sublime print)

Chapters 11-14: art & betrayals; family & suicide; departure

I really enjoyed these chapters early in the dawn hours this morning. Finally the book is totally coming alive for me. It has taken time for James to build up his situation to the boiling or intensely troubled point so that our two central characters (as it’s emerging), Roderick Hudson and Christina Light, lovers who’d like to have a liaison and more, though hard to say what given the pressure she’s under and responds to to marry the stupid dull but thoroughly rich and socially conventional prince, and the pressure he feels to remain respectable, and if not return to Mary Garland, at least do sufficient justice to her to tell her why and let her down easy. It appears he cannot bear even to think of her. There’s a passage uttered by Christina where she articulates his betrayal and described how he is stifling remembrance of what he promised that I applied to Ross Poldark in Warleggan as he sat and thought about (but could not article) a more striking and active betrayal (he rapes an ex-lover who is now about to betray him and marry his enemy and then returns to his wife who unlike Hudson he has no intention of betraying for this erotic attachment). The passage with its compassion and humanity and insight (Ch 13, p 262) is the best thing uttered in the book thus far in the sense of high ethical understanding, and it shows that however “vampiric” (the word is used) Christina’s effect on Roderick is, she could be otherwise were the world to let her. Of course too as her mother and father (Giocosa is clearly her father) tell him if she marries the Prince it’s because she wants those riches, that security, those luxuries.

Chapter 11 is a debate, dialogue on genius. Roderick defends the idea that a genius in order to fulfill his gifts must be allowed to break conventions – which means hurt other people, and we can see as he’s talking to Rowland, live off them. This is an old debate whose terms are most brilliantly set forth in Diderot’s Rameau’s nephew. I’m afraid Roderick is in the position of the louche lousy nephew, but we are not to reject him as Rowland doesn’t, we see he does want to create seriously and there are lines that show James is thinking of himself, his life choices as he enacts Roderick. Of course why not compromise like Sam with his landscapes. Roderick does and he finds himself writhing with frustration as he has to sit with Mr Leavenworth for whom he is making something inferior because it flatters and pleases him and the old man is so dense the darts Roderick cannot resist never reach him.

Chapters 12-14 gives us Christina’s parents giving Rowland their views of Christina. Mrs Light finds ‘the radical talk’ we hear all the time ‘deadful (p. 253

Then another debate between Rowland and Roderick this time over Roderick’s future and how Mary Garland is waiting. We are asked to believe Rowland loves Mary and that’s part of his drive, but it is not felt in the text at all. I suppose nowadays we’d have Rowland pursuing Roderick himself :). We do see how Roderick is beginning to despise himself (“weak as a cat”) both for compromising and not compromising, for betraying and not betraying and these “squalid dark streets” that Rome really is for most people.

She tells the prince she does not laugh at him, oh no, she takes him seriously 9237), and there’s a little piece of gothicism, an imagination of being buried alive that is chilling.

A high point. The imagination of disaster James called it. Roderick comes near to committing suicide to make a gesture to Christina. He and she have been meeting it seems (not so secretly because they can’t) and now are in the ruins of the Travestere. Their conversation is poignant and bitter as they present the different points of view of whether to have an affair, if she should marry this prince, who she is (her parents and her background she moans over). They don’t come to a resolution and to prove his devotion to her and over a dark flower she sees on a ruined wall and wants (p. 263). She needles him: “Fancy feeling oneself ground in the mind of a third-rate talent.” He can’t take it any more. He should like to hear of a person offering him a career (p. 263) but this is unlikely, Roderick almost climbs high on it and would have fallen to his death. Rowland is overhearing this dialogue and leaps to save him. He is shaken. So too Christina who Rowland meets separately and urges to leave Roderick alone. She does, she flees, leaving a short letter of adieu.

I was reminded of Winston Graham’s Poldark again when Roderick says Christina will “wipe up her feet with him:’ it was what Ross was afraid an upper class woman (modelled on the 18th century gay lady of plays), Caroline Penvenen would do to the earnest idealistic doctor, Enys; it turns out she doesn’t and wouldn’t. The two women characters are archetypal parallels.

Linda responded with a set of quotations and detailed analysis of the debate on the rights of the artist:

I thought Chapter 11, which is comprised mainly of dialogue between the two main characters (oh, why did James give them both names beginning with “RO”?) to be quite interesting. Here James also reflects on the trials of life as an artist–perhaps his own trials.

The conversation in chapter 11 is as intimate here as any we find in the book. It delineates their relationship more clearly than at any other point that I’ve read so far. Rowland has told Miss Light of Roderick’s engagement. It leads to a conversation where Roderick implies Rowland is meddlesome.

“There had been from the first no protestations of friendship on either side, but Rowland had implicitly offered everything that belongs to friendship, and Roderick had to every appearance as deliberately accepted it.” We gather from this that the friendship is more one-sided than Rowland had imagined. Or at least that Roderick has let him down.

At one point he says, “You’re the best man in the world. Only…you don’t understand me.”

Rownland reflects: “Genius was priceless, beneficent, divine, but it was also at its hours capricious, sister, cruel; and natures ridden by it, accordingly, were alternately very enviable and very helpless.”

It goes on. They are talking at one point of inspiration or the lack of it.
Roderick says, “It’s worse out here than in Rome…for here I’m face to face with the dead blank of my mind.There I couldn’t think of anything either, but there I found things that helped me to live without thought.”

Rowland reflects: “This was as free a renewed tribute to forbidden fruit as could have hoped to pass; it seemed indeed to Rowland surprisingly free–”

It is not clear to what “forbidden fruit” refers. The implication is that it is sexual. One might say that for James this was unusually frank, also.

They go on to discuss other aspects of an artist’s lot. Rowland seem to discourage the connection with Miss Light He suggests that in his
“speculation”, Roderick may come to grief artistically.

Roderick rejoins:

“Well, then, I must take life as it comes–I can’t always be arranging grand bargains. If I’m to fizzle out, the sooner I know it the better.”

Curious word–“fizzle”–to use regarding an artistic gift. It comes up again a few pages later.

Roderick expounds on the nature of genius.

“The whole matter of genius is a mystery. It bloweth where it listeth, and we know nothing of its mechanism. If it gets out of order, we can’t mend it; if it breaks down, we can’t set it going again. We must let it choose ts own pace and hold our breath lest it should lose its balance. It’s dealt out in different doses, in big cups and little, and when you’ve consumed your portion it’s as naif to ask for more…”

“What am I, what are the best of us, but a desperate experiment? Do I more or less idiotically succeed–do I more or less sublimely fail? I seem to myself to be that last circumstance it depends on. I’m prepared, at any rate, for a fizzle. It won’t be a tragedy, simply because I shan’t assist at it. The end of my work shall be the end of my life.”

It is a grand speech. Rowland reflects on his friend’s outpouring with less eloquence. We may imagine that in Roderick’s summary, we have the opinions of James on the nature of artistic genius.

I haven’t half done the chapter justice, but I wanted to bring up some of its outstanding points of interest.


Bob Lapides had suggested that Rowland and Roderick were two aspects of the same self, so I responded to his and Linda’s:

I enjoyed Linda’s posting on this chapter very much, for the me question seemed to fall down also on the artist’s assertion that conventions get in his way so he does not have to be responsible to other people in the way non-artists do. Thus Roderick could pick up and then drop Mary Garland because she fed and now gets in the way of his spirit. Diderot’s famous novella Rameau’s Nephew both accepts and argues against this as self-serving and cruel.

When I got to the chapters where Roderick is interacting with Christina, and she needles him, manipulates him and it seems he would have literally jumped off a cliff for her, I felt we were to make a parallel. She is not excused for this behavior nor ought Roderick to be for his.

Roderick Hudson, Chs 11-14: Roderick acts out for Rowland, Christina a Newland Archer

If we see Rowland and Roderick as two aspects of James, that does somewhat flatten out the anguish of the book, which I suggest we are to sympathize with. Our heroine is not Mary Garland; she disappears; it’s Christina Light. Our heroes are neither the businessmen at home nor the social elite in Italy, France and England. These are the enemies of promise.

I offered the article by Mendelssohn because not only does she not skirt the issue of homosexuality/sociality, but she reads the novel in a way that makes sense of the two figures and the plot-design. I agree with her that Rowland is a kind of failed flaneur who has hired, bought, Roderick to act out what he cannot; Rowland can evade his morality and work ethic through what Roderick does. We are told Roderick does lots of stuff offstage that we are not told about — that’s one problem with other of James’s novels too. The insidious morality of the imagined audience James has to write too makes for this, and under it Rowland becomes a voyeur; Roderick may seem to be beating his wings against a wall (like many a poet in 19th century poetry from Shelley on and there’s a famous metaphor about this in the later 19th century French aesthetes and Baudelaire), but he tries, and if she’d have him, he might marry Christina. (In a more recent novel, they’d have already tried a liaison and the scene in the Coliseum about their despair of having any really fulfilled future, could take place in ed.) It is interesting we are asked to see the statue of Christina as peculiarly ethical. She has an honesty neither Rowland nor Roderick attempt

The dialogue where Roderick comes out for the right of an artist to live amorally, disregard other people’s needs around him, is in the context of a world where his high art is not understood or wanted. Nafisi talks about the nobility of the “perfectly equipped failure” in James: in the worlds they are in, success is a mark of lowness or stupidity in your nature. The refusal to follow conventions and seek success as it’s understood (like marrying the stupid prince for his name, wealthy, respectability — which turns out to be the shallow admiration of passing people, a point James makes) is described thus by Maria Gosprey to the ultimate type of this male character (Strether): “Thank goodness, you’re a failure — it’s why I so distinguish you! Anything else to-day is too hideous. Look about you — look at the successes. Would you be one, on your honour? …”
The gay male whose sexuality is normal, natural (as is bisexuality) is a perfect type for alienation from a society which has constructed him as not existing in the first place or. In the same passage from Ambassadors (quoted by Nafisi on p 201), Maria says further: “our realities is what has brought us together. We’re beaten brothers in arms.”

So the realities of Christina brings her to these two alienated men.

The thing about this novel I like is that many of the failures in it are awful too: it shows failure can be the result of wrong cruel inhumane mercenary ideals: we see this in Christina’s parents who are pressuring her too to follow conventions. She’s a kind of Newland Archer who will obey the world, only she will not justify it by delusions he puts forth about the “innocence” of those who want others to give up their lives to their ease and convenience.

This directly connects to us in just the way Wharton’s novel does only it goes to the quick in ways hers evades utterly.


L. Luisa Vidal, untitled (1890)

Chapters 15-18:

I’m back from Queens, NYC (see my “Return to Queens College” at Reveries under the Sign of Austen). On the way there I read the opening sections of James’s The Turn of the Screw, apparently a 1898 text, and when I rose this morning 3 and into fourth more chapters of Roderick Hudson. Then I read Linda’s typed out note (thank you, Linda), and realized I’m reading either the 1879 or 1907 latest revision of Roderick Hudson. I also have James’s preface (as well as Edel’s for this edtion). It may be this 1879 (or perhaps 1907) Roderick Hudson is a much revised book, but it is still eons away from The Turn of the Screw. There is a kind of mocking poetry to every sentence of the Turn of the Screw, a way the sentences have of backtracking and also talking about what they mean to say rather than quite saying it or as well as saying it. In comparison RH even in this later version is direct with the sentences meaning what they say directly, not playing at their meaning sentence by sentence.

The nameless governess (Jodhi May) in Nick Dear’s 1999 Turn of the Screw on her way to the interview with her prospective employer

On first blush one might say that the later book, meaning The Turn of the Screw, is strong poetry while the earlier, Roderick Hudson, is without the lexical ironies James left us to pick up through the ironies of the story and our own adult intelligences and sensibilities. And I do think that myself. But reading The Turn of the Screw (as I was) with an eye to remembering I’m going to assign this to students, I know I’m glad I’m showing one of the films, for many of them will find this later poetry very irritating, a waste of their time — rather like Mr Leavenworth in the novel would. They will not understand what meaning is added — quite like Roderick’s mother fails to understand what she is seeing. I read (as a comparison) also the opening of The Hound of the Baskervilles: in comparison, it’s silly stuff but it is direct and would seem very little self-indulgent (except for the occasional joke to the reader).

These chapters continue our story with Roderick supposedly going down down down. I do wish we were told what he’s doing offstage with these disreputable people. We never even hear their names. The princess has allowed herself to be pressured into an engagement. Alas Rowland still thinks of her as contamination and has brought Mary Garland and the mother to bear down on Roderick. After dropping Roderick for a while (though I suppose the money kept coming), Rowland had thought (we are told this was the devil in him) of enabling, pushing Roderick into the suicide, destruction he was headed for.

How I wonder? How would he have done this? We are not told.

But no, instead he will bring him back by sending the good mother and wise virgin, Mary.

I begin to think to myself that reading this book morally in the way of Rowland’s mind is to miss the point. I suggest the book may be read with Rowland as one of James’s dense narrators. He is missing the point altogether — and that is seen in the way he treat Christina Light as ugly, a contamination we are told, polluted.

The book shows us the spectacle of life as about doing nothing at all meaningful because you can’t. The great solemnity of the American characters (except for Christina Light) in the way they treat their emotions and how they spend their time so earnestly is the central obstacle. Madame Gandoni is closer to what is the truth of experience, with Rowland the self-complacent ass. This then is as ironically bleak a book as any of James’s, with here what makes life endurable the beauty of texts and works themselves contaminated (great word, Rowland) because they are set up with money and as symbols to impress people earnestly.

Roderick did not know how to accept what he saw and live with it, Christina by contrast is learning to.

Linda’s response:

Well, I don’t have it all worked out yet–I just think the relationships James creates deserve to be more fully explored. He is all about relationships. And yes, I agree the language of Person and others is preposterous–one has to work too hard to figure out what they are really saying–although they do suggest some interesting ideas from time to time.

Yes, I also agree James focuses on exploitation of one person by another, especially in Portrait of a Lady. I am not familiar with the Americans. But by whom is Roderick being exploited–his employer in Mass. or Christina? Christina is, of course, exploited by her mother.

Rowland is dangerously meddlesome. How can he justify it to himself? What motivates him? It is implied that he suppresses his homoerotic impulses toward Roderick. Yet we find later that Roderick has been living a flagrantly immoral life in Rome. What a slap in the face to Rowland, who must be so confused about his own sexuality by now. Not sure of what he wants or feels–but clearly he is most unhappy about Roderick’s choices.

I’d say Rowland was being idealistic in trying to maintain this relationship on a platonic level. Whether he succeeds at this or not is lost in the greater tragedy of Roderick. He continues to insist to himself and others that he is only trying to nurture Roderick’s genius, but we all suspect his interest is motivated by other considerations. So repression of one’s sexual nature would also be a theme here, although James very carefully skirts around this issue. And comes to no conclusions.

My rejoinder:

I’ve not time to explore the ideas you throw out here, so interestingly (to use a Jamesian grammar), but can’t resist the idea that Rowland is too meddlesome. I suggested here is an early version of the dense narrator we see in say Winterbourne. Now I’ll add as meddlesome he becomes a kind of Fanny Assingham you see — more subtle as Fanny is clear an ass 🙂


The Prince (Daniel Massey and Charlotte Stant (Gayle Hunnicutt) as the driven-apart pair in the 1972 BBC Golden Bowl

Chapters 18-20:

It’s devolving into a story about two young people whose families don’t want them to marry and what’s happening is the fuss occurring because the girl has broken her engagement and the boy is refusing to see his mother and bethrothed!

Christina and Mary met socially and it did not go well. Underneath all the deflecting James’ rhetoric, it seems to me that Mary was spiteful and Christina jealous and angry at the way she was despised. So Christina broke off with the dull Prince; hearing this, Roderick wrote to his mother he couldn’t bear to be around her nor Mary for a few days. It’s apparent he’s hoping for some sign from Christina so they might elope. Meanwhile both are beseiged only we don’t see the beseiging of Christina, only Roderick: by Christina’s probable biological father (the Cavaliere), by Rowland, by Mrs Light (we even have a bad mother here).

Naturally the American characters are kept away from us as innocents.

I’m reminded of how Trollope said he tried to write Miss Mackenzie without a love story, basing it on a 35 year old spinster, but after a while he caved into the paradigm.

What’s different is the angle. Most of these novels focus on the heroine and bullying scenes of her parents imposing themselves on her, her distress is put before us. Not here, and Roderick is guarded, ironic. All we get are these authority figures who have been presented to us as anything but authoritative.

What to make of it? In part, James is not much trying to throw anyone off the track, attempting to “serve up what’s wanted.” That’s why I instanced Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie. Sales were bad: here he had a plain 35 year old woman who has gotten the barest inheritance and she has (so to speak) a minimal world ahead of her. But it wasn’t selling. Plus Trollope could not think of another plot but courtship and marriage since he was determined never to show women at careers.

The heterosexual courtship plot is there because it’s popular — but note that the heroine is a bastard (cavaliere her father) so James will only pander so far. Then as now most people were heterosexual, and alas, then as now, most of these do not want to acknowledge homosexuality openly as natural. It’s worse than that, some people are filled with hatred for those whose sexual orientation is different from their own.

The unbelievable parts include the mother as so very naive. James nods in this book more than once too.

I do love James’s evocative prose. Beyond the photo I’ve put at the head of this blog, another from the beautiful photos from Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Gardens seems to capture the settings of several crisis scenes:

Villa Borghese Aesculapius Temple, again from Wharton’s Italian Villas and Gardens

Someone on the list had persisted in ignoring all the postings on homosexuality and wrote about how the characters didn’t make sense. He argued he was reading the novel as what he asserted was the way later 19th century readers read it. So I finally responded this way:

I suggest we don’t know how many people read the book. Reader response studies and theories show there is no such thing as a uniform reading at all. From what evidence we have then and now it’s startling how idiosyncratically people take books, how personally many read them, without regard to the author’s purpose or design of the book at all.

People might have a sceptical response to this but Sedgwick and others (Rictor Norton for 18th century studies and someone named Pat for plays) argue that people did recognize these homosocial (the favorite word) patterns and some of the coded words and motifs. It’s hard to deny Michelangelo for example in his poetry didn’t know what he was writing; the coded young man love in Shakespeare’s sonnets is similar. I think the patterns were recognized in the Renaissance among the poets, and in the Restoration again in poets and playwrights; in a biography of John Gay Nokes argues this for circles in the 18th century.

I also think James understood what he was doing and did hope for readers to understand him. You wouldn’t try to imitate the naive or conventional reader today of books or viewer of films; why try to imitate them then. The naive reader won’t see the sexual trouble between Emily and Louis Trevelyan in Trollope’s HKWHR because it’s done sotta voce, but it’s there for the reader capable of seeing it and understanding and makes that book much deeper. What’s gained by imitating naive and conventional readers & viewers? Muddle. The book probably puzzled naive and conventional readers at the time. People doing TV and film programs today address different audiences at once and so did James.

Anyone in the later end of the 18th century who had a hero or heroine who committed suicide was intensely attacked. If this is no longer so in the later 19th century, still there is not sympathy for such a central figure, and James wants sympathy for his hero. When James chooses such a hero, he knows he’s defying norms and means to. It’s not as obvious as Werther; he’s more subtle.

To me it’s like not acknowledging gravity. At one time people didn’t have a theory of gravity to explain why we stick to the earth. Now we do.

I don’t see it. Surely one reads a book to gain enriched insight for our own lives from our author as well as good intelligent emotionally decent feeling companionship and beauty and truths that are real and matter.

I don’t think the book does fail because I don’t think it’s meant to be about heterosexual love and marriage. I was more than half-ironic when I pointed out in fact we can discern Roderick and Christina as our conventional lovers who are being forced apart by her parents and his family. James does not think marriage to the prince a good solution for Christina, nor marriage between Roderick and Mary Garland a good idea. It’s a bad idea. He’s not particularly keen on marriage in this and many of his books. We are supposed to pick up the cavaliere is Christina’s father though it’s not explicit — so as not to offend. James is clearly more interested in this sordid desperate but kindly man for himself than any imposed marriage for Christina. He’s interested in the non-conventional and (I feel) finds Roderick’s mother pathetic. He reveals that Mary Garland is not so impeccable when we see her spite to Christina, her contempt for her.

It’s a novel about art and probably that central chapter which Linda talked of and I chimed in on is its center — with a debate going on about what an artist should or should not be permitted to do to make his art. I agree we don’t get a lot of description of the statues, but they are (again) very sexy (probably kinky too) and James is careful. There are several perspectives: not only the debate on what an artist has to do or be allowed to do to work his art (time is necessary, freedom) but the problem that most people are not going to appreciate what he does anyway. The patrons want conventional mediocre dull stuff. They want courtship-marriage novels one might say. So that’s why Leavenworth is there.

So there is a great irony in Roderick arguing he ought to be allowed to fulfill his gifts when we see how few will appreciate it anyway. He writhes in private after his darts fail to reach the unimpressionable Leavenworth. This is a desperate book about art in life.

I finished reading Turn of the Screw tonight. It cannot be explained or understood fully similarly. James here moves directly into unspeakable areas: the governess thinks Miles has been ejected from school for good for sexually molesting the other boys and that he learned this from Quint. Some have liked to dismiss this tale by saying the governess was mad and made it all up, except James provides a preface where he says the ghosts are there, and inside the story has the housekeeper validate some of what the governess surmises — including an affair between Miss Jessel and Quint. James wants us to empathize with the lonely repressed governess, but at the same time he actually invites us to laugh at her and the housekeeper as silly women for making such a fuss: they are ludicrous snobs and go on about how all this was “dreadfully low.” There’s an acceptance or at least acknowlegement of what conventional people regard as anathema in all this as part of nature.

To sum up, Rowland is in love with Roderick; we have a repressed homosexual love put before us. And it’s not that repressed in the sense that surely Rowland knows what Roderick is off doing when he’s debauched elsewhere: having homosexual sex. If you just see this as an indirect presentation, everything falls into place. You can also see an implicit critique of the imposition of illegimate norms on Rowland, how it leads him to meddle with others; further that this is an early instance (not quite pulled off enough) of an unreliable narrator, someone whose outlook is sadly/tragically/ inadequate. You write as if none of us had mentioned homosexuality at all.

If James allows himself only to present heterosexual enthrallment, that helps explain Christina’s vividness; but he is also very hostile to her; she represents real risk and danger and is herself wilful and would enjoy seeing others go down we are told. She’s deeply angry of course at what her life has been and now what she’s being forced into. It’s curious how James though almost perversely refuses to give us the usual scene of the girl forced by the mother or girl bullied and browbeaten by ther father (the Giacosa is her biological father).

He’s struggling to find a conventional plot he can stand to tell. Heterosexual courtship leading to marriage seems to him sheer stupidity as a central paradigm I suppose; who gives a shit? it doesn’t rule the world at all; those marrying are made to behave this way because the real stakes are money, property, leisure to enjoy these beautiful gardens and make statues.


Villa Isola Bella, from Wharton’s Italian Villas and Gardens

Chapters 21-26: Shedding a queer light on things

I finished the book this morning. If I say I laughed, that’s not quite true; rather the feeling when James managed to present his real feelings about his story and character was of dry sardonic ironies running through it all

For examples: Mrs Light we are told turns brutal and tells Christina the cavaliere is her father, and if Christina does not marry the prince, she, Mrs Light, will advertise this to the world. Christina apparently can’t take this shame, and quickly folds, and the marriage occurs one morning. In a later chapter we are told the Prince paid the cavaliere off at long last so he was able to return to his home city and be at peace.

Would that others have paid people off to leave them be. But no one is as sensible as this Prince (I hope if anyone reads this ever they understand I write ironically in this phrase), who however (we are told) when Rowland encounters him and Christina on a hill in Switzerland that while “what is called a well-meaning husband,” someone who “could not in the nature of things be a positively bad husband” (he won’t beat her or remove funds?), did by his conduct deprive Christina of the “sanction of relative justice” and in his countenance showed he was aware of what had happened (“profound consciousness” unlike the rhinoceros-brained Leavenworth) and showed “a record of … pride, of temper, of bigotry, of an immense heritage of more or less aggressive traditions…” — Christina is not in for a good time with this guy.

Would that Roderick, had been as lucky as this to have a mere consciousness of what someone could do and will when he gets round to it. His mother and Mary turn into leeches. One of the narrator’s remarks (and James often in this section drops all sense of Rowland) is of Mrs Hudson as “a little malevolent fairy.” Now that Roderick goes into a tizzy of extravagantly-gestured depressions, she becomes superl-oyal. Suddenly he can do no wrong. This is Austen’s Mrs Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) taken to the nth degree and not believable as a private behavior. Yes in public such a woman might blame everyone but her darling boy, but in private? no. Still this is what we are shown, and we are shown how she expects Mary to be utterly abject. And Mary is. Again there are lines by the narrator showing Mary’s steel and resentment, but she doesn’t go off.

This is where the Prince provides such as shining example to us all. I wondered if Mary lacked the money. Isn’t she after all the Victorian niece who has nowhere to turn? no job. No occupation. Trollope’s niece was carefully never given an outright allowance all the life of his wife lest the niece leave the wife.

Another ironic parallel is Sam Singleton. Before the final denouement of Switzerland, Rowland meets him and he’s as ever drawing away, but says he is being forced back to his family. Not because he lacks the money to stay, but out of some moral blackmail. Yet he does not go. Just as Mrs Hudson at one point says ever so pathetically how Roderick has told her to sell her house and give him this money to live on as long as he can, she doesn’t do that either. Fittingly then he is the one to find Roderick’s body, which however is not smashed to bits but leaves his beautiful face upwards. (Not very probable, Mr James.)

Sam doesn’t get depressed. Sam doesn’t insult his patrons the way Roderick did Mr Leavenworth. Sam doesn’t throw back the several thousands Leavenworth had at the ready to give Roderick.
Such an example to Roderick and Sam doesn’t go off half cocked to fall off mountains.

Not that others don’t try. There is an exact parallel scene of Rowland risking his life to get a flower for Mary the way Roderick wanted to for Christina. Only he being the cautious careful soul he is, doesn’t fall. She is puzzled. What did you do that for? Her best moment in the book.

Another fine moment and memorable to me occurs in the penultimate scene between Roderick and Rowland — the second to last chapter of the book. Rowland suddenly turnst to Roderick and reproaches him. Do you not see the sacrifices I have made? do you no see the self-control I practice? What do you know of anyone’s feelings but your own? Again a parallel with Austen, this time Sense and Sensibility: when Marianne discovers that Edward is engaged to Lucy and Elinor has known this for months and not complained, not gone round like she Marianne ratcheting up the depression, they have an exactly parallel scenes. Elinor reproaches Marianne for not seeing her sacrifices and her self-control and says she has felt very deeply, been hurt enough even to satisfy Marianne. All this does to Marianne is make her cry at first, but then the self-indulgent person shows she has learned her lesson at last, apologizes and says you know I was so self-destructive. Right, my dear. Not Roderick. Confronted with Rowland as an Elinor Dashwood, and the vision of himself playing the role of the self-indulgent egoist (Rowland’s apt word) Marianne-type, he is not at first aghast. He asks why Rowland didn’t tell him before and upon being given Rowland’s image of himself as this utterly good man, says “It’s like being in a bad novel.”

The best line in the book because it shed light on S&S as absurd, which because of its extravagance of presentation and insistent moralizing patterning it can be seen to be.

But Roderick falls away from this high point and in the next chapter (unlike Marianne who abjures her Willoughby in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility) is chasing after Christina. Going to walk to Inverlaken or wherever she is, and being Roderick, stumbles off a mountain. We don’t know if he willed his death or not.

So now Mary and mommy go home, and Mary lives out her life by this equally egoistic woman’s side; Sam probably does, and Christina, well, as James says in his evasive obscure preface to this novel, being the one character who has reality to her, will turn up again in a later walk of life in a novel — in fact the next one, The American.

It’s curious the light Roderick sheds on other characters — for me at least. I began to see how Hamlet can be read as a homosexual hero. That’s his core problem after all. Why does he not connect to Ophelia? get thee to a nunnery. She is a Mary Garland to him. Fortinbras the macho male, as in Turn of the Screw where Quint plays a sort of Stanley Kowalsky to everyone else (the governess calls him “rough trade), so Fortinbras. With Claudius our cavaliere. Gertrude, ah, well, as Thomas McFarland says in his book no one does her sophistication and complicity justice; and there is no one near her in Roderick Hudson. We must wait for Madame Merle (only Gertrude lacks her concern for her child, or at least her ability for effective activity.

As to the preface, reading this after years have gone by, all I have read about James since and lived since too, it made me think of Orwell: “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish squirting out ink.” He says this book is “sincere” and “modest” and as such should be treated with “dignity” but patently in the following paragraphs shows the limits of this: he had “to give the image and the sense of certain things while still keeping them subordinate to his plan … to give all the sense, in a word, without all the substance …” to make “the values rich and sharp” but not give us the concrete reasons for his moral lesson. To put this in less preposterous English, he had to give the image and sense of what it was to be a bisexual artist (for Roderick in the book is bisexual as he chases after Christina on stage) as a metaphor for a homosexual one, without showing us the substance, that debauched life lived offstage and his frustration at having to hide his intense desire to live life in some other sets of relationships than that of this heterosexual biological family group.

And he didn’t manage it. He admits in the preface there’s no “verisimilitude” to the love Roderick is said to have for Mary in the first place, none in the feelings Rowland really displays and behaviors towards Mary. He evades, never speaks of Rowland’s feelings for Roderick in the private sense, only as a man giving freedom to the young artist to flourish in a controlled way. That’s where Roderick fell down on the job; he was supposed to be so much free (to do art) but no further (not to fulfill his own innermost urges and desires).

Cyril Cusack, magnificent as a Henry James displaced into the sexually bullied Bob Assingham, storyteller of the 1972 Golden Bowl


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Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman)

Dear friends and readers,

I carried on with my study and comparison of films based on 18th and films based on 19th century matter, and earlier this week watched Jane Campion’s brilliant effective film adaptation of Henry James’s novel, The Portrait of a Lady, screenplay Laura Jones, produced by Steve Golin and Ann Wingate.

As with the other Jamesian films I’ve seen, two The Turn of the Screws (1999, 2009) and two Golden Bowls (1972, 2001), while the accent is still a larger portrait of social and/or economic and familial arrangements, the story and characters also present sexual derangements that don’t show up in the daylight world, seem not there at all, but below the surface and in one-on-one moments operate in a frighteningly sinister manner. One should not forget that Daisy Miller dies.

John Malkovich as Gilbert Osmond,

with his typology including Valmont (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) and Mr Hyde (Mary Reilly) while at first superficially alluring, is scintillatingly horrible, and Barbara Hersey as Madame Merle, with her typology of amoral ruthless intelligence (she played Daniel Deronda’s mother in the recent film),

also at first seemingly a friend, turns out a grim, determined outraged mother/mistress (of Pansy by Gilbert and of Gilbert). Their presences, how they act, what they say and do are central to the film’s emotional effect.

They are contrasted to the sensitive, well-meaning and intendedly generous kind Ralph Touchett:

played by Martin Donovan,

and the utterly upright Viggo Mortenson as Caspar Goodwood:

Campion’s original cinematography, direction, shots, production-design, and full dramatization of the scenes are equally chief elements making this film the memorable Jamesian experience it is.

On one level, her film is a transposition and more or less faithful to the hinge-points, characters, and themes of James’s novel; but on another, it re-reads the novel from a woman’s point of view. Campion also uses imagery quite different from most of the James’ movies I’ve seen; while I’ve not seen them all, I have seen a couple of the earlier, pre-1960s pop type, where they even change the name of the story and/or characters and are of course free with other elements (like The Heiress), and the 1997 Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square, screenplay (Carol Doyle). James just lends himself to women’s visions (the 2009 Turn of the Screw mentioned above has Sandy Welch as director).

As a transposition, it really brings out the sinister level of James’s fiction. That’s not easy because to get the full meaning of James’s feeling that our human experience of life is sinister (dreadful, frightening, full of ugly things done to us and by us), you have also to capture the banality, the reality that day-to-day experience feels benign. We do not always have knives at the ready and sharpened. And Campion does that. It’s the acting by Malkovich as Osmond and Barbara Hersey as Madame Merle, that nothing overt or too melodramatic is allowed to happen. When Osmond beats Isabel (now I’m not sure that literal detail is in the novel) it’s through a sharp light whip to her face; he trips her to humiliate her.

Campion also transfers the truly fraught utterances by James: Madame Merle to Isabel over Lord Warburton: “let us [me and Osmond] have him [for Pansy and ourselves). That “us” is terrifying in context. Nicole Kidman has calibrated just the right fear and anxiety and deep embarrassment and helplessness because she won’t admit to others what is the truth of her life this man has more control over her than ever.

The mood and tones “les choses” (as in “les choses sont contre nous”) contribute: the imagery is different, not only the breaks in realism, but the dark outfits, the tight hairstyles, the framing of Isabel in doors, prison-like rooms. The music — quiet but dreadful at the right moments. Chopin I thought was there.

One of Isabel’s semi-Renaissance hieratic outfits, which have the effect of imprisoning her

The woman’s point of view: superb. I have all my life read these novels where the heroine has these several men chasing her for marriage and I’m supposed to think this is just great is the myth. Well, Campion brings out how they all, Ralph too, want to control her. They are after her body and space, crowding her out. No one gives her any space:

In this film to be under an umbrella with a suitor is not joyous, but constraining

Not one man goes away but another comes. Warburton wants to marry Pansy to get at Isabel. How horrible that is, and it’s made creepy. The scene of Isabel’s dream interpreted by some as masochism, is to me a nightmare of their crawling all over her, smothering her. This is not James’s point of view directly, but the underlying mood is.

We are to feel for Madame Merle — who had her child Pansy out of wedlock and is herself controlled and made miserable by Osmond who controls the child. She feels for her and cannot show her who she is. Merle is made a lonely woman.

Shelley Winters as Mrs Touchett (Ralph’s mother too)

The silly aunt’s advice which in other films (pop ones and commercially widespread) is made the warning lesson. Here we see its total inadequacy to the case and the needs of the girl and the environment.

Two further stills:

Osmonds wins out precisely because she obeys the codes of a lady. James shows us the codes taught women (and men too — Ralph Touchett) as a way of protecting oneself, being safe, are precisely those that enable ruthless people to take over us, especially when they are adept at pretending to be adhering to (or are actually) adhering to those norms. This insight is first developed in French 18th century novels by Riccoboni and then picked up by Fanny Burney.

Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett – the poignant, intensely kindly way the
character is played makes me feel he is a surrogate for James in Campion’s mind.

I liked the breaks in realism which pointed out the parallels in modern life to this story, and also in other films — like the inserts of 1920s films of the Shiek kind of thing (Rudoph Valentino) and the introduction and conclusion of the actresses dressed in modern costume obsessively trying to define what is love, what a worth-while kiss. It pointed out parallels to our world today and Isabel’s then.

I’d say all the luxurious objects were ambivalent. While we want to live in these places and walk amid this art, we see the price Isabel pays for it.

She really does hide behind that fan

They don’t make up for the vile mercenary life, the control the guardedness of manners.

And the urge against ambition I see in all these film adaptations is here too – Ralph is used ironically. What did he think life had on offer so much? What she would do? What nonsense. I should say I’ve always like Ralph as a character and think in James he does carry this theme unironically. In this world nobility is see in perfectly equipped failures. Osmond is the success after all.

My only caveat is the portrait of Kate Field as Henrietta Stackpole goes beyond a totally unfair slander; it exploits the stereotype that an intelligent career woman must be ugly, flat-chested, wear glasses:

Mary Louise Parker as Henrietta made up to look home-ly and grating.

In fact, Kate Field was magnificent and dressed herself glamorously, sexily:

Kate Field by Frank Miller (1881)

I can’t set this adequately in other Campion films because I’ve seen only The Piano. I have taught The Piano, and own the screenplay because of that, and also some critical essays on Campion’s work The connection between The Piano (which I’ve taught but never made a blog on), its sources a later wonderfully good 19th century colonialist novel by a woman (Jane Mander, The Story of a New Zealand River, and modern Bronte costume dramas) and recently Bright Star, and this costume drama ought to be fully explored. For myself, I’ve not seen Campion’s Janet Frame films –though I’ve read Fame’s eloquent and moving depiction of her early adult life.

As to more James films, I do have a copy of 1997 Washington Square and remember liking it, and will try to re-see it and I’d like to see The Bostonians with Vanessa Redgrave next.

I have only a VHS Cassette so have no stills to share as the only reproduction in Laurence Raw’s book is of Christian Bale as the elegant young man chasing Pansy (Valentina Cervi). I also read Laurence Raw’s’s article or chapter on Campion’s Portrait of a Lady in his Adapting Henry James; and, as with his chapters on the 1972 BBC and 2001 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Golden Bowl[s], more or less concur and recommend to others.


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