Henry James: To Love is to Double
For serious readers of English literature, the early and mid-career novels of Henry James (Roderick Hudson, The American, The Portrait of a Lady) are not enough. The ultimate challenge is the later ones (The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl), which are longer, more ornately written and less action-driven. Indeed, for hundreds and hundreds of pages, nothing seems to happen in them and by the end we seem to be back where we started. Of course, we are already used to this from mid-period James. In The American (1877), the Boston millionaire Charles Newman decides not to reveal the de Bellegarde’s incriminating family secret, despite them thwarting his marriage to their daughter Claire. In The Portrait of a Lady (1881), Isabel Archer gives up the eligible Caspar Goodwood and inexplicably decides to return to her loveless marriage to the effete and pretentious Gilbert Osmonde and his daughter Pansy. In The Aspern Papers (1880), our nameless narrator decides not to marry the niece of the poet Jeffrey Aspern’s recently deceased former lover, even though this would allow him access to his long sought-after papers. And in the three great late novels, to adopt a kind of Jamesian locution, nothing also seems to happen, only more so. In The Wings of the Dove (1902), the impoverished writer Merton Densher not only fails to accept heiress Milly Theale’s generous bequest given to him so that he might marry the beautiful Kate Croy, but Kate arguably refuses him for not doing so. In The Ambassadors (1903), the middle-aged Lambert Strether sent over to France by the wealthy widow Mrs Newman to fetch her wayward son Chad not only fails to bring him home but also to marry the eligible Madame de Vionnet. Finally, in The Golden Bowl (1904), the two appropriate couples either fail to get married or fail in getting married, then fail to split up and carry on unhappily, with one couple (Maggie Verver and Prince Amerigo) remaining in Europe and the other (Charlotte Stant and Maggie’s father, Adam) returning to America.
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