Over the summer, while watching apocalyptic scenes of Australia burning, I did what I was beginning to think I might never actually do—submit my PhD thesis. A week later I started a sessional teaching job, which three weeks after that migrated online due to an apocalyptic global pandemic. One of the subjects I’m teaching is on Decadent literature, which considers not only Decadence, but also a host of related ‘isms’ (aestheticism, symbolism, naturalism, etc.) of the nineteenth-century fin de siècle. As a result, for the past nine weeks I have inhabited, in my reading and non-reading lives, two distinct and incongruous temporalities.
On the syllabus for Decadent literature last week was a book by one of my favourite authors: Henry James (the lecturer also happens to be a brilliant James scholar; she and I have been anticipating ‘James week’ all semester). Decadence, a term that resists definition as a generic and aesthetic category, involves the indulgence of perverse pleasures. A perverse pleasure of reading James is his prose, which on a good day you might call mildly frustrating. His trio of late works in particular are both notorious and celebrated for their dense and difficult style. I’m a fast reader, but these novels each took months to finish, on account of having to read many passages many times over to understand what was happening (sometimes, after the fifth or fiftieth re-reading, I would just give up and move on).
Melodrama might not be a genre generally associated with James, but some of these dense passages depict moments that could be lifted straight from episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful. Few authors, living or dead, can pull off the literary equivalent of two people staring intensely at each other on screen for a really, really long time. The unintended (in some cases intended) comedy arises from what is unsaid, but apparently unambiguously communicated through two, often attractive, pairs of eyeballs. In late James novels (which do and do not fit the category of melodrama), such scenes are supplemented with dialogue, though rarely to enlightening effect. A common exchange involves pages of obscure conversation between characters using (or abusing) the word ‘know’ with wild abandon (in the background you are yelling, Know what? What is it you know that she knows that he doesn’t know and absolutely must not know unless … he already knows?). Every now and then one of them stands and the other sits. One leans prettily on a mantelpiece and the other stares out the window. Then they switch.
These theatrical gestures, in the contexts in which they are deployed, are not as wooden as all that. You’re so busy trying to figure out what people know or don’t know that you don’t even notice. When you do, it’s to admire precisely this theatricality, which, far from presenting a panoramic flatness, draws you into its vertiginous depths. James has an ability to create powerful dioramas that are either curiously static or only minimally mobile. This scenic method, developed out of his failed forays into playwriting, relies on that maligned concept of psychological interiority, which engages a different logic of activity: one of diving down rather than skimming across. There is a passage in The Wings of the Dove, involving two of the central characters, Milly Theale and Kate Croy, one slowly circling the other (a highly stylised rendition of what is occurring beneath the bright, hectic surface), that, years after I first read it, remains vivid and affecting. This attention to interiority is also what lends James novels their temporal mobility: the mis-en-scene and furnishings, over a hundred years old, may be showing their age; but the characters, their motivations, the subtleties of their relations, are not.
First published in 1857, The Spoils of Poynton is considered a precursor to the late novels. Which is to say that it’s not as dense and difficult (the text is broken into actual paragraphs and sometimes the characters come right out and say what they mean), but merrily on the way. Occupying one centre of the novel is the titular estate of Poynton and its collection of antique treasures. Mrs. Gereth is the mistress of the house, and the co-author (along with her late husband) of the collection. The death of Mr. Gereth handballs the estate to their son, Owen: the kind of handsome, affable guest of uninspiring intelligence and mediocre wit you might meet and immediately forget at a dinner party (he is described as ‘pointlessly active and pleasantly dull’, ‘absolutely beautiful and delightfully dense’). Owen engages himself to Mona Brigstock—‘straight and fair, long-limbed and strangely festooned’—a philistine product of a philistine family. The book opens at this family’s estate, Waterbath, the ‘esthetic misery’ of which offends Mrs. Gereth’s superior aesthetic sensibilities at every turn. Mrs. Gereth meets a young woman, Fleda Vetch, who shares her appreciation for tasteful decor despite being poor (always a relative term for James), and tries to convince her son that he should ditch Mona and marry Fleda. What ensues is what makes James James, and if you are at all inclined to read the book, stop here.
There are many subjects to consider—among them the relationship between women and commodity culture at the turn of the twentieth century—but for my purposes here, I’ll pick Fleda, the young woman of marriageable age who occupies another novelistic centre. To raise the institution of marriage is to evoke the twin poles around which many of James’s fictions revolve: love and money. Such a schematic, while speaking acutely to a certain kind of truth at a certain time and place (late-19th-century and early-20th-century European and Anglo-American high society), also transcends these contexts. Both entities, for James, are thoroughly material: love is tied to the body (to desire, seduction, attractive eye balls); money is never money itself but what it buys—fancy houses, lavish dinner parties, and a comfortable distance from the coarse textures of working-class life. Materiality is not an ugly word in and of itself. Its just that the pursuit of one material good often gets in the way of the pursuit of another: many of James’s protagonists are either in love but in want of money, or rich but in want of love. Trying to have it all is what activates the drama.
This is where Poynton departs a little from the fold. From the outset, the cards are heavily stacked in Fleda’s favour. Not only does Mrs. Gereth want Owen to choose Fleda, and for Fleda to thereby inherit the estate and its worldly goods; Owen himself, it turns out, also desperately wants to choose Fleda. These apparently promising circumstances are also what make Fleda a striking anomaly in James’s pantheon of characters: while almost everybody else is fighting tooth and nail for the spoils of love and money, Fleda is seemingly running headlong in the opposite direction. Fleda does have her reasons, but there were many times I silently willed her to just do what would make everybody, including herself, happy. Except this overlooks the inconvenient truth that it wouldn’t, in fact, make everybody happy—the exception being the menacingly blank Mona.
Fleda wants Owen (with whom she is in love) and she wants Poynton (which, like any good aesthete, she appreciates as a ‘complete work of art’), but greater than her desire for either (or because of the greatness of her desire for both) is her desire to not act in order to profit from a situation that she could so easily profit from, when that profit would harm the interests of another. And this is the mark of either her supreme heroism or delusion (critics who see it as the latter speak of her ‘perversity’; a view expressed by Mrs. Gereth within the text itself). It leads to a great deal of prevarication and delay on her part, which is as good as action—by failing to decide she lets others (and fate, and the weather) decide for her.
The result is that while she asserts her agency, she also denies it any actual effect, at least in the direction of her ostensible happiness: holding to ‘a moral course’ means giving up both love and money, and giving them up completely. Though she ends up in no way destitute (for a certain class there is always a safety net—you’re just in a smaller house, with fewer servants, than if everything had come up roses), she loses the treasured prospect of Poynton and the marriage-plot finale of a traditional romantic heroine. And if her intention is to absolve herself of moral responsibility by doing no harm, Fleda fails miserably. In privileging the interests of Mona, towards whom she has the least amount of sympathy and feeling, she sacrifices not only her own happiness, but also that of Mrs. Gereth, towards whom she has a great deal (whether Owen’s happiness is sacrificed is a point to be guessed at, but unknown).
This is only the start, not the sum, of an analysis of Fleda, and there are plenty of questions I won’t attempt to answer here. Whether Fleda’s story is one of triumph or tragedy, to what extent it partakes of both, depends on what you make of Fleda’s ethics and Fleda’s notion of happiness. It also depends, as others have pointed out, both on the Fleda who is written as well as the Fleda who is read (the two not always coterminous). If you’re looking for simple answers, in other words, you won’t get them. And this is key, too, to the longevity of James’s fiction. Within the confines of each case (despite their similarities, his novels each circle around their own unique centres), James performs a delicate and perilous balancing act: that of illuminating without defining. This aesthetic of illuminated indistinctness is not only a principle of composition, but also the grounds for an authorial ethics: the ethics of difficulty, of refusing to take (or let the reader, or his characters, take) the easy way out. It is one of the qualities that makes James’s work endlessly compelling.
For all his difficulty, James is a master of sublime prose: he writes passages over which it is entirely possible to swoon. Yes, he makes you work for your pleasures, but they are well worthwhile. This extract from his preface to Poynton, in which he reflects on its evolution, is not as complex in style as the late works, but otherwise emblematic:
I recapture a cottage on a cliff-side, to which … I had betaken myself to finish a book in quiet and to begin another in fear. The cottage was, in its kind, perfection; mainly by reason of a small paved terrace which, curving forward from the cliff-edge like the prow of a ship, overhung a view as level, as purple, as full of rich change, as the expanse of the sea … while above one’s head rustled a dense summer shade, that of a trained and arching ash, rising from the middle of the terrace, brushing the parapet with a heavy fringe and covering the place like a vast umbrella. Beneath this umbrella and really under its exquisite protection The Spoils of Poynton managed more or less symmetrically to grow.
The final vision in the novel is one of fire. And, because life trades in beautifully willful and unwilled correspondences, I will end here with Jorie Graham, whose work (also accused of being difficult) I discovered on recommendation of a friend last year. These are the final lines of ‘ASHES’, the opening poem of Graham’s most recent collection fast (2017):
… Now listen for the pines, the bloom, its glittering, the wild hacking of
sea, bend in each stream, eddy of bend—listen—hear all skins raveling,
unending—hear one skin clamp down upon what now is no longer
Here you are says a voice in the light, the trapped light. Be happy.
Bella Li is the author of Argosy (Vagabond Press, 2017), which won both the NSW and Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for Poetry, and Lost Lake (Vagabond Press, 2018), shortlisted for the QLD Literary Award for Poetry. Her poetry, microfiction, essays and artwork have been published in journals and anthologies such as Best Australian Poems, ABR, The Lifted Brow, Going Down Swinging, Overland, Peril, Rabbit, Liminal, Cordite, Western Humanities Review, Archives of American Art Journal and The Kenyon Review.