In the annals of classic fiction I have encountered some truly monstrous parents (some of the parents in Austen or Dickens certainly come to mind), bu...moreIn the annals of classic fiction I have encountered some truly monstrous parents (some of the parents in Austen or Dickens certainly come to mind), but the mother and father of little Maisie Farange must surely be the worst. They are truly beyond despicable, and if I could reach into the pages of Henry James's What Maisie Knew, I'd throttle them both! Okay, now that I've gotten that off of my chest, perhaps I can provide an objective review of this novel. What Maisie Knew was written by Henry James in 1897, while he was still living in London.
The structure of this sophisticated novel is extraordinarily clever, as the entire plot is laid out from the perspective of the little girl, Maisie (and keep the title of the novel in mind as you read too). The novel starts off with the parents being granted a divorce and the court awarding that custody of Maisie will be shared. This poor little girl has to spend six months with her father and then be packed off for six months with her mother. What is even worse is that the parents use Maisie in their on-going fight-to-the-death with one another; at the same time they take on new spouses (and then immediately begin adulterous relationships!). And while Maisie is wise beyond her years and quite perceptive to what is going on around her in the world of the grown-ups that she is surrounded by, much of what she observes has to be interpreted through the lens of the experience of her own childhood and the little bit of love and kindness bestowed upon her from a scant few of the adults--but not her own parents--around her.
Through the course of the novel Maisie does gravitate to the two characters that do seem offer her the hope and opportunity of kindness, love, and some semblance of stability, and those two characters are her governess, Mrs Wix, and her mother's second ex-husband Sir Claude. Sir Claude has his own 'bag-of-issues' to deal with, but he is really and truly genuinely concerned about Maisie and her long-term welfare. He ends being more of father-figure to the little girl, by a long-shot, than her own father did on his very best day. Ultimately, these two people, whom Maisie trusts with her heart and soul, do end up making the right decisions that give this little girl a chance for a wholesome life.
Finally, it needs to be said that there's much in this novel that can offend modern sensibilities, particularly when it comes to how children are looked after (or not), guardianship issues, or even the exercise of parental responsibilities (or not!). The reader needs to remember that there weren't governmental agencies like 'Child Protective Services' in Victorian England to provide that safety net for children in Maisie's situation. Henry James, like Charles Dickens before him, seems to have been much affected by child welfare issues, and I have to think he was trying to make a point here that parental responsibility is a duty and an obligation and that love and a nurturing stable environment are what every child needs and deserves. As painful as it was to read, I'm glad that I read What Maisie Knew, and look forward to reading it again in the future. At this point, I would give this 3.5 stars out of five.
But I still want to reach into the pages of this novel and throttle both of her parents! (less)
This review is associated with The Aspern Papers--
The Aspern Papers is a brilliant novella written by Henry James and serialized in the Atlantic in 18...moreThis review is associated with The Aspern Papers--
The Aspern Papers is a brilliant novella written by Henry James and serialized in the Atlantic in 1888. In short, The Aspern Papers is the story of an academic researcher, the novella's narrator, on the trail of bundles of personal letters and writings of a long-dead American poet, 'Jeffrey Aspern'. Apparently, these letters and papers are in the possession of a very old woman, Miss Juliana Bordereau, who lives with her middle-aged niece in an old rambling palazzo in a shabbier part of Venice. Our narrator rents a room from the women under false pretenses and endeavors to elicit the aid of the niece in discovering the whereabouts of the papers. He is not above using deceit and artifice in ingratiating himself with the women. It is clear from the outset that he is obsessed and consumed with obtaining the papers--he calls them his "spoils"--and cares little for the old woman's privacy or the memories of her lost love.
This is a creepy read, and one can't help but sympathize with the poor lonely middle-aged niece, Miss Tina, and even for the ancient Miss Juliana who lives for the memories of her love affair with Aspern. It becomes altogether uncomfortable for the reader as the narrator emotionally and psychologically manipulates the niece into becoming his accomplice in trying to find and acquire the papers. Frankly, the ending of the tale is incredibly satisfying to my mind.
I think the point that James is trying to make in this novella is that there really is quite the moral dilemma when it comes to personal privacy and the pursuit of information for intellectual or commercial purposes. In other words, if an author or poet becomes famous and well-read, the question becomes just how much of their life becomes fair game, if you will, for future biographers, researchers, and so forth? It is a tough question for sure.
As I read The Aspern Papers, I realized that other authors have written about this dilemma as well. For example, Edith Wharton's superb novella, The Touchstone, written in 1900 revolves around a man who sells bundles of very intimate personal letters he received from a former lover who was also a very famous author. A.S. Byatt sort of gets to this same point with correspondence between two fictional Victorian poets in her Booker Prize winning novel, Possession (1990). Towards this end then, if you read The Aspern Papers, I strongly urge you to immediately follow it up with a read of Wharton's The Touchstone. It is a wonderful way to link the two novellas, and is made even more meaningful in that Henry James and Edith Wharton spent much time together and became very good friends.(less)
Henry James is a prismatic kind of fellow with his fiction. I am beginning to understand that he likes to write about his characters and actions from...moreHenry James is a prismatic kind of fellow with his fiction. I am beginning to understand that he likes to write about his characters and actions from differing perspectives, and his novella Daisy Miller is certainly an excellent example. Daisy Miller was written by James in 1878, and first serialized in Cornhill Magazine, edited by Virginia Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen.
In this short tale, the eponymous Daisy Miller is a wholesome and fresh young American woman on her first tour of Europe with her nine-year old brother, and her mother, who seems to be a bit of a hypochondriac. In Vevay, Switzerland, Daisy meets an American expatriate, Mr Winterbourne, who is visiting his aunt. In his late-twenties, Winterbourne becomes quite taken with the vivacious Daisy, and accompanies her on an unchaperoned tour of a nearby castle, drawing words of warning from his aunt. He encounters Daisy again later in the season in Rome and finds that she is spending much of her time with an Italian young man, much to the chagrin of the American expat community who begin to shun her in society.
Daisy Miller is all about perceptions and misunderstandings, and it seems that most of them work to the detriment of Daisy and her reputation among the expats. Winterbourne and the reader eventually do come to terms with Daisy and her 'free-wheeling' way of experiencing life, and come to realize that she is genuinely innocent and is much misunderstood and maligned by the Society wags around her. The reader eventually realizes that perhaps it is not Daisy that has the problem with societal norms and cultural values, but that the expat definition of appropriate behavior is outdated and out-of-touch with the 'modern' Americans that are now coming over to Europe from places like Daisy's Schenectady, New York.
This is an extremely well-written story that quickly engages the reader, with well-constructed characters, and a fascinating plot that provides a terrific snap-shot of what life must have been like in the latter half of the 19th century for Americans traveling abroad in Europe. While the ending is somewhat unexpected and sad, it makes the story even more powerful and thought-provoking. Finally, it is worth mentioning that a wonderful book-end to Daisy Miller is a short story written by Edith Wharton in 1934, entitled Roman Fever. I strongly recommend reading Wharton's short story once you've completed Henry James's Daisy Miller. (less)
The Europeans is an absolutely delightful novel! Fun from the first page through the last. Also, it is really more of a novella and can easily be read...moreThe Europeans is an absolutely delightful novel! Fun from the first page through the last. Also, it is really more of a novella and can easily be read in one or two sittings.
The Europeans is actually a 'flip', if you will, in the normal Jamesian plot-line. In other words, rather than the story of an American expatriate in Europe, this is the tale of two American expats who come back to visit family in New England. This is the story of Eugenia, the Baroness Munster, and her younger brother Felix Young, who leave Germany because of her disintegrating marriage to a German prince. They end up moving in with the Wentworths, relatives on their late-mother's side of the family. I gotta say at this point too, the reader is gonna fall in love with Gertrude Wentworth--pretty much like everyone else in the novel!
Obviously, the staid New England Puritan Wentworths and their neighbors are largely over-awed by their European cousins, but everyone settles in after a bit and 'the good times roll'. Felix is an artist--a genuine good natured fellow and free spirit--and a big hit among all of his American friends and family. Eugenia, the Baroness, is a bit more of an enigma, and everyone minces about around her, but she too is actually a good soul. She ends up being a positive influence on several of the novels more important characters.
Romance abounds among all of the young people, and while it is fun to watch the flowers of love open and blossom, it is also worth following James as he guides the reader through the comparisons and contrasts between the pragmatic European continental sensibilities of Eugenia and Felix, and the fresh, but restrained New England practicalities of the Wentworth son and daughters and the Acton brother and sister.
This a free-spirited, flibbertigibbet novel that asks for nothing more than that the reader sit back and enjoy it. It ain't deep, it ain't all that serious, it is simply a heck of a good little story that upon finishing you realize that you're very glad that you read it. And you know what? I'll read it again sometime. Solid four of five stars for me!(less)
Whilst very glad that I read this novel, I think it a bit flawed even though it is actually a well written novel. My problem with this book is the str...moreWhilst very glad that I read this novel, I think it a bit flawed even though it is actually a well written novel. My problem with this book is the structure of the plot. Let me see if I can articulate my point here.
The premise of this novel is Jamesian all of the way, i.e., the contrast between the young and over-achieving American expatriate in and among European Old World sensibilities and cultural values, and in The American James perhaps takes it to an extreme. His protagonist, Christopher Newman, is really a very good fellow; a Civil War veteran; a self-made millionaire from California; and he's now on the prowl in Paris for a wife to match his fortune. Okay, that all seems pretty forthright and has promise as far as plots go.
Newman is introduced to a beauty of a young woman, from an old French landed-gentry family, Claire de Cintre, and immediately decides that she is the woman of his dreams. Even though she is widowed, and free to marry again, she has an incredibly conservative mother and elder brother who are appalled that she might consent to marry an American commoner. At the same time, Christopher strikes up a remarkably honest and refreshing relationship with Claire's younger brother Valentin, and they become fast friends.
Now, had James pursued--with some vigor--the love relationship between Christopher and Claire and the dysfunctionality of the Bellegard family to its conclusion, I think that this novel would have had significant promise. And he did so for approximately two-thirds of the book, but it took a fairly serious melodramatic turn that I believe knocked it down a good bit. Bluntly put, I felt that the plot went 'over the top' and just never quite recovered. Frankly, the ending was 'okay', and not entirely unexpected, it was just the getting there that was difficult.
Having read a few of Henry James's novels of late, I do understand that he is most interested in the contrasts between Americans and Europeans (particularly in the European environment), and certainly The American gets to that point from the first page. It starts well and then kind of devolves into a bit of a 'pot-boiler', and I'm just not sure that that was really necessary. Having said that though, I very much enjoyed reading The American and will undoubtedly read it again at some point.(less)
While Roderick Hudson was Henry James's second published novel (Watch and Ward being the first and serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in 1871), he alw...moreWhile Roderick Hudson was Henry James's second published novel (Watch and Ward being the first and serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in 1871), he always considered Roderick Hudson his "first novel". James also freely admitted that Roderick Hudson was his take on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun (1860).
I went into this book with my eyes wide open and ended up loving it. This is early James and is completely accessible to any and all readers. It is, in my humble opinion, a bit of a Byronic--and an almost Gothic--tale that hits on several themes. First, there's the comparison and contrast between the Old World cultural values of Europe and the New World values of the American expatriate community. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, this novel felt very autobiographical in that both the eponymous 'Roderick Hudson' and the novel's other primary protagonist, 'Rowland Mallet', seem to represent the author at various times in his literary life. This novel really seemed to be the story of the battle--the constant tension--between the Artist and the Muse; and I have to really wonder if this really isn't Henry James pouring his heart and soul out upon every page.
We've all known artistic people like 'Roderick Hudson', and we care for 'em to the very best of our ability. Sadly though, artistic geniuses like them burn 'hot', and there's just not much that can be done; whether its a Kurt Cobain, a Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Vincent Van Gogh, Egon Schiele, Lizzie Siddal, John Keats, or even a Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The candle burns hot, gutters, and then its out. Roderick Hudson is just such a story. Strange as it may sound, this novel pulsed and throbbed with passion and emotion like that found in the fiction of one of the Bronte sisters or even Mary Shelley.
For a 'first' novel--at least from James's perspective--this is an engaging and durable plot that completely hooks the reader. The novel also serves as a terrific travelogue as the protagonists travel throughout much of Europe highlighting the experiences of the American nouveau riche and brashness among the Old World European sensibilities. Who's right? Who's wrong? Well, you can gain some perspective on this question through reading about the experiences of Rowland Mallet and Roderick Hudson in this wonderful example of Henry James's early fiction. If you're just coming to the fiction of Henry James, Roderick Hudson is truly an excellent novel to start with.
This was an interesting novel to read. In all honesty it was serious step down from the masterpiece that precedes it, i.e., The Portrait of a Lady. Ha...moreThis was an interesting novel to read. In all honesty it was serious step down from the masterpiece that precedes it, i.e., The Portrait of a Lady. Having said that though, I think James perhaps intended this book to be lighter fare than Portrait. In fact, The Bostonians is loaded with satire, irony, and a goodly number of comedic moments. The novel's plot revolves around two cousins, Olive Chancellor and Basil Ransom, and the relationship that each desires to have with a young red-headed woman of magnetic personality, Miss Verena Tarrant. Verena and Olive are both deeply involved in the suffragette movement of the 1870s in the United States. Basil Ransom is a Confederate Civil War veteran from Mississippi now trying to eke out a living as a lawyer in New York City. While the two women spend much time in the novel speechifying on their commitment to women's rights, and Basil spends much of his time jocularly refuting their positions, the novel isn't really about feminism, it is all about relationships and feelings.
While Basil's efforts at establishing a romantic romantic relationship with Verena Tarrant were really rather predictable, it was the relationship between Verena and Olive that perhaps intrigued me the most. There's an ambiguity about Olive and her motives that puzzles me still, and while it might be easy to interpret Olive's feelings for Verena as a quasi-homosexual love, I also think that interpretation might mostly miss the mark. It is my understanding that it was this novel that actually gave rise to the term "Boston Marriage" describing the relationship of two unmarried women living together.
Finally, as I sit here and process my thoughts upon completing the novel, I have come to the conclusion that both Olive and Basil use and manipulate Verena for their own purpose. Verena, in my opinion, when she is first encountered by Olive and Basil, is brimming with the "Joy of Life" and is absolutely true to herself and her own feelings. Through the course of the novel she falls prey to the machinations and manipulations of both cousins, and ultimately ends up becoming in many ways much more like each of them. And I'm not sure that this is best for Verena.
Before I settle on my final verdict for James's The Bostonians, I would like to read it again sometime. I really do think there are a lot of undertones lurking about in this tale that can only be ferreted out upon subsequent reads. This is most definitely a historical novel, and some knowledge about the suffragette movement and spiritualism of the 1870s and life in post-Civil War America would surely help the reader put many of the themes and discussion topics in context.(less)
This is a novel that lulls you into a state of complete and blissful immersion in Trollope's fascinating borough of Barsetshire. This is the story of...moreThis is a novel that lulls you into a state of complete and blissful immersion in Trollope's fascinating borough of Barsetshire. This is the story of a country doctor, the eponymous Doctor Thorne, and his lovely niece, Mary Thorne, and of their interactions with the landed 'Old World' gentry and the nouveau riche. While this is certainly a novel about romance, it is also a hard and critical social commentary directed at class differences and manners. This novel explores the old adage that "money is the root of all..."
Frankly, I've come to realize that Anthony Trollope is simply one hell of story-teller, and with this tale I'd swear that the shade of Jane Austen was perched over his shoulder as he wrote Doctor Thorne. It has a Dickensian cast of characters without the grotesque or patently comedic, and actually ends up leaving the reader with the sense that this was probably a fairly accurate portrayal of life in rural Victorian England.
While Doctor Thorne is included within Trollope's series, The Chronicles of Barsetshire, it stands alone quite nicely, and there are even a few characters from his later series, The Pallisers, that briefly appear in the tale. In sum, this is a terrific novel that engages the reader right from the start and then rollicks along to its very satisfying conclusion. I highly recommend Trollope's Doctor Thorne and look forward to picking this up again for a reread sometime in the future. (less)
Some truly monstrous fathers can be found among the great works of fiction. Shakespeare's King Lear and Titus Andronicus certainly come to mind, or Ha...moreSome truly monstrous fathers can be found among the great works of fiction. Shakespeare's King Lear and Titus Andronicus certainly come to mind, or Hardy's 'Michael Henchard', and 'Laius of Thebes' may be the worst of the lot. Having just finished reading Henry James's Washington Square I am now fully prepared to add Doctor Austin Sloper to my top-ten list of 'Worst Fathers of Fiction'.
Washington Square is a short novel (more a novella) by Henry James written in 1880, and is really an excellent introduction to the fiction of James. The novel is set in the New York City of the mid-19th century, and is the story of the courting of Dr. Sloper's only living child, Catherine, by a handsome young man, Morris Townsend. Catherine is, according to her father, "a dull, plain girl", but she is very, very rich. The plot largely revolves around Townsend's efforts to win Catherine's hand in marriage; the Doctor's efforts to thwart the attachment; and the meddling interference of Catherine's busy-body aunt, Lavinia Penniman. During the course of the courtship the reader is exposed to the monstrosity of Dr. Sloper, and begins to question the motives of Morris Townsend, and most importantly we witness the maturation of Catherine Sloper.
Some authors paint the landscapes of their fictional world and insert their characters and the plot into it, but James takes an entirely different approach. Henry James portrays the psychological landscape of his characters' minds with his words. However, he throws a wrinkle into the mix as his narrator is neither omniscient nor completely reliable. In other words, much of the time the reader knows as little or as much as the characters themselves in the novel. It is almost as though the reader is sitting in the parlor listening to the conversations, but maybe is only able to comprehend half of what is said.
Read this book slowly and carefully, and try and place yourself in the the thoughts and emotions of each of the protagonists and you'll find that your perceptions sharpen and you're able to detect the psychological nuances that influence the tale's outcome. I'm of the mind that this is a story to read and reread and continually discover new and important insights. James seems to prefer to exercise his readers and that is perhaps not altogether a bad thing.(less)
One of the most enthralling and enchanting novels that I've read in a long, long time. The Portrait of a Lady is early Henry James (written in 1881),...moreOne of the most enthralling and enchanting novels that I've read in a long, long time. The Portrait of a Lady is early Henry James (written in 1881), and as cliche as it may sound, it is a veritable masterpiece. There is simply so much going on within the covers of this elegantly crafted and sophisticated novel that it will take me a while to sort out my swirling thoughts and emotions upon finishing it. Simply put though, this is the story of the young American woman, Isabel Archer, and her voyage of self-discovery among the staid and traditional landscape of British and European society. Isabel's ability to 'choose', and the 'choices' she makes are the thread that is carefully woven throughout the novel, and it raises her stature as a fictional heroine, in my opinion, to the level of that of an Anna Karenina or Dorothea Brooke. The novel's Chapter Forty-Two--with Isabel, by herself, sitting in the darkened room thinking for most of the night--is perhaps the greatest psychological tour-de-force I've encountered in fiction. I reread that chapter probably four times in a row, and simply marveled at the creative genius that is Henry James in writing this novel and creating the character of Isabel Archer. Stunning stuff!
This is an immensely powerful and profound novel that I am going to reread again very soon. I want to reread it in conjunction with a reading of Michael Gorra's recent book, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, a runner-up for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for biography and autobiography. Give me a couple of weeks to reread The Portrait of a Lady and Gorra's book, and I'll be back in an effort to provide a more comprehensive review that will do justice to what just may be the 'Great American Novel'.(less)
This is an absolutely indispensable and priceless book. You can skip about and fall in love with each and every chapter in this book! So incredibly en...moreThis is an absolutely indispensable and priceless book. You can skip about and fall in love with each and every chapter in this book! So incredibly enlightening. Gilbert is brilliant!(less)
Sarah Bird Wright has done an awesome job compiling and organizing all of this information about Thomas Hardy--his life, his loves, his novels, his wo...moreSarah Bird Wright has done an awesome job compiling and organizing all of this information about Thomas Hardy--his life, his loves, his novels, his world of 'Wessex,' and especially all of his poetry (of nearly 1,000 Hardy poems, Ms. Wright discusses 216!). This is the 'Hardy Encyclopedia' that every Hardyphile should have on their bookshelf. It is also just great fun to simply sit down, open it up, and randomly begin reading. I highly recommend this book!(less)