Reading the 20th Century discussion

Madame de Mauves
This topic is about Madame de Mauves
22 views
Buddy Reads > Madame de Mauves by Henry James (August/September 2020)

Comments Showing 1-50 of 71 (71 new)    post a comment »
« previous 1

Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
This thread is for our buddy read of Madame de Mauves (1874), an early novella by Henry James.

The story centers on the troubled marriage of a scrupulous American wife and a far from scrupulous French husband, and is told mostly from the point of view of a male friend of the wife.

Our discussion will open on 22 August 2020.

Madame de Mauves by Henry James


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
Welcome! I'm opening up this thread a day early as it seems a few of us have read this. Probably best that we avoid spoilers for the moment, though.

I enjoyed this novella though would say that it feels like early James: the writing is less complex than his later works and the story is almost like a miniature version of some of the later books, exploring marriage between an American and a European.

I was surprised to find not quite a 'twist' but a kind of sting in the tail, something I definitely don't associate with Henry James!

How did everyone else get on with this one?


Elizabeth (Alaska) Roman Clodia wrote: "I was surprised to find not quite a 'twist' but a kind of sting in the tail, something I definitely don't associate with Henry James!"

I referenced Balzac in my review. A sting is exactly what you can expect with his stories. I have used the word irony in describing it which is as close as my vocabulary allows.

The background of the de Mauves marriage is given early enough. With all of the unrealistic dreaming Euphemia (isn't that her name?) gives to the state of matrimony, it isn't difficult to anticipate her being grossly disappointed.


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
Yes, I found the plot less sophisticated than some of James' later treatments of the 'international marriage' theme. Euphemia's fairy-tale naivety about 'romance' was just asking for trouble! The story felt like a first run of (view spoiler) which makes all the elements and motivations more complex.

When I started reading it, I was thinking that it was about Euphemia but about three-quarters of the way through I wondered if it was more about (or, at least, also) the romantic education of Longmore? It's he who learns about de Mauve and also that little episode with the artist and his mistress. And the ending, of course.

I haven't read much Balzac, only Cousin Bette and Père Goriot.

Even this early, James' acute observation and minute dissection of people's motives is well on display, I thought.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Both Longmore and Euphemia seem to have an idealized vision of what love is/should be. But this is too short for Longmore, in particular, to have a more well developed perspective.


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
I got the impression that he was scarred by his sojourn in Europe... in romantic terms!

Is there a more general sense in nineteenth century American culture of this view of a debauched and corrupt old Europe? Or is it something specific to James and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Edith Wharton?


Elizabeth (Alaska) I freely admit to not having read enough American Lit to know. But this was published in 1874 when France had just thrown over Napoleon III's Second Empire. That is the period Zola writes about. From Zola I have the same impression of a debauched, corrupt France, if not Europe.


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
But then Zola was a typical Frenchman in keeping a mistress which was (is?) almost institutionalized in France ;) There's a Nancy Mitford novel which tackles similar issues of differing cultural and moral standards: I think it's The Blessing


Elizabeth (Alaska) And the James was somewhere around 10 years earlier than Zola found Jeanne. Zola's most well known novels are of the period 1848-1870. The Franco-Prussian war was 1870 which coincided with the collapse of the very corrupt Second Empire.

But let us not pretend that women had status at that period in almost any country. I know from reading some background for my Anthony Trollope journey that in Britain, except for the lower classes, if a man or woman (women especially) did not have money, s/he had to marry it. Was it any different anywhere else? Euphemia had money and she was very willing to buy a poor man with a title. The man was very willing to be bought.


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
Yes, absolutely - I was also thinking about Trollope and the number of women in the Pallisers books who either marry for or can't marry without money. There's the American young woman in The Duke's Children who worries about not having the social cachet to marry into the landed aristocracy. She's a breath of fresh air.

I generally think of American heiresses marrying for British/European titles as being a 1920s/30s thing but it's clearly happening much earlier.


message 11: by Elizabeth (Alaska) (last edited Aug 21, 2020 11:21AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Elizabeth (Alaska) I guess when you have everything else, it's just one more thing you can buy. I think it's a good thing I don't have that problem - I'm too happy in my jeans and knit shirts.


message 12: by Jill (new) - rated it 1 star

Jill (dogbotsmum) | 637 comments I read this but although I liked the writing, I just did not like it. I don't read romances, but gave this a try as I thought maybe I might have changed my opinion. It seems I have not.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Interesting, Jill. I would not have thought myself one who likes romances either. I did not identify this as being what I think of as a romance.


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
I wouldn't think of myself as a romance reader either (well, apart from Georgette Heyer who I adore) and no, wouldn't have categorised this in that way. For me, it's much more about social commentary and a 'culture clash' novel about misunderstandings between American and European characters.

Glad you enjoyed the writing at least, Jill.


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
Elizabeth (Alaska) wrote: "I guess when you have everything else, it's just one more thing you can buy. I think it's a good thing I don't have that problem - I'm too happy in my jeans and knit shirts."

Haha! What's a knit shirt? A tee-shirt? ;))

To be fair though, in an age when it's de rigeur not to have to do something as plebeian as to have to actually go out to work, there's not much option other than to marry money if you don't inherit it, it's all tied up in land and property, or you've spent all your inheritance.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Some of them are henleys and all are long-sleeved. ;-) But yeah, I tried to sound a wee bit more uptown.


message 17: by Roman Clodia (last edited Aug 21, 2020 01:46PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
Money is not the source of the conflict in the story, though is it, as both Euphemia and her husband Richard as you note above, are party to the transaction.

I saw the conflict as stemming from the fact that the two Americans (Euphemia and Longmore) have a purer and more innocent moral compass ('she believed that a gentleman with a long pedigree must be of necessity a very fine fellow') which is simply not shared by the French brother and sister.

Longmore is a bit scared of sophisticated French women: 'Of Frenchwomen themselves, when all was said, our young man, full of nursed discriminations, went in no small fear'.

Longmore again who requires a moral love: 'he wondered if it represented a 'passion'. He had never been fond of that word and had grown up with much distrust of what it stood for. He had hoped that when he should fall 'really' in love he should do it with an excellence conscience'.

We're even told 'Longmore, at thirty, was still an ingenuous youth', and there's that scene between him and Marie, the sister, where she tells him frankly that a French wife would know how to handle a husband's expected infidelities.

I saw this as the crux of the matter when Marie says: 'there are great traditions and charming precedents, I hold, and it doesn't seem to me fair that a little American bourgeoise should come in and pretend to alter them... I don't say we're right. Who is right? But we are as history has made us.'
So she's claiming that the separate histories of America and France have given rise to different sets of values, morals and behaviours that create the misunderstandings and tensions of the marriage.

I won't say anything about the later developments and ending yet. But I did find this one of the more humorous of James' stories.


message 18: by Elizabeth (Alaska) (last edited Aug 21, 2020 01:57PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Elizabeth (Alaska) Roman Clodia wrote: "Money is not the source of the conflict in the story, though is it, as both Euphemia and her husband Richard as you note above, are party to the transaction."

Well, not exactly. I think Euphemia did not fully understand that it was her money only Richard loved. He never had any intention of truly wooing her, especially not after the wedding. She was duped from the beginning, and that she did not understand this I think was the underpinning of the failure of the marriage.

Maybe we're saying the same thing, only differently.


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
Yes, I agree that she's swept away by her illusions of romance. But that seems to be tied in to the national/cultural differences between them too in that there's no family negotiation over the marriage and terms of the settlement between them. Doesn't Richard say something like it's an engagement 'a l'Americaine' i.e. that she assumes a certain independence that a 'proper' French girl wouldn't in arranging her own marriage?


message 20: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4589 comments Mod
I haven't read this one yet but intend to do so - I will join in a bit later!


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
Excellent, Judy - we'll keep away from discussing spoilers and look forward to you joining in later. Is anyone else reading or planning to read this?

Even though it is early James, already we can see his interests in how money calibrates relationships, especially marriage. And the sometimes fraught encounters between Americans and Europeans.


Susan | 10011 comments Mod
I really loved this; probably to my surprise. I enjoyed reading something a little out of usual choice. All that angst. Of course, our main character could afford to sit around in a nice hotel, whilst experiencing these emotions, but I enjoyed that too, somehow. Very clever, well written and I liked the emotional reserve in the writing.


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
Yes, good point about how the angst is well hidden beneath the surface decorum and emotional reserve, Susan. I've read critical reviews of James which complain that nothing happens, but actually It's that 'action' tends to be psychological and interior in his books.


Susan | 10011 comments Mod
That is often the case with authors said to be 'boring,' by modern standards.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Something "happening" is plot. It's true that in James and others, the attraction is characterization and writing style (for me). As RC says, psychological and interior. I don't say I could take a steady diet of this type, but I always look forward to this type of book.


Pamela (bibliohound) | 515 comments I've enjoyed reading these comments. I feel I'm somewhere in the middle of the views here - I admired the way James wrote and built up the emotional tension between Longmore and Madame de Mauves, but I didn't find the characters themselves engaging.

Elizabeth wrote: "Something "happening" is plot" - this made me realise that the parts I enjoyed most were when something (almost) happened. For example (view spoiler). So maybe plot is more important to me than I was aware of.

I thought the Old World v New World was an interesting idea, but the pure/corrupt or ignorant/sophisticated extremes were too simplistic to be really convincing.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Pamela wrote: "I thought the Old World v New World was an interesting idea, but the pure/corrupt or ignorant/sophisticated extremes were too simplistic to be really convincing."

Yes. Short works are more likely to draw sharp contrasts without any shades or blending. I do think both the idealism of Euphemia and the falseness of Richard exist almost everywhere - and I do mean that in the present tense as well as in the past.


message 28: by Roman Clodia (last edited Aug 22, 2020 09:15AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
Elizabeth (Alaska) wrote: "Pamela wrote: "I thought the Old World v New World was an interesting idea, but the pure/corrupt or ignorant/sophisticated extremes were too simplistic to be really convincing."

In a way, this is James big topic that he returns to repeatedly in his works - but yes, I'd agree that this early short story deals with the idea in a more simplistic way than, say, his big novels.

I wonder, though, if 'corrupt' is overstating Richard's flaws (and I'm aware that I have also used this term also up-thread)? I mean, he marries a woman who loves him for her money, but nineteenth century literature is full of characters who do that: Charlotte in Pride & Prejudice who marries Mr Collins springs to mind and we're made to feel sympathy for her. It's a necessity in societies where women have few options to earn money of their own, and where working is looked down upon for elite men.

He doesn't force her, he doesn't mistreat her. He has various mistresses but he doesn't bring them into their home and is relatively discreet about them. Is that really 'corrupt'?

It's standard in French culture to have a mistress: the French even have a term for it: 'cinq à sept', literally 5-7 which is the time to have a tryst with one's mistress between work and home!

For me, the issue is that Euphemia doesn't understand this because she's American. Both she and Longmore have a more romanticised, one might say puritanical, view of love than the French characters.

Marie draws attention to this clash when she says: 'there are great traditions and charming precedents, I hold, and it doesn't seem to me fair that a little American bourgeoise should come in and pretend to alter them... I don't say we're right. Who is right? But we are as history has made us.'


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
ps. I'm not saying that I would be happy for Mr RC to take up French habits ;))


Elizabeth (Alaska) Roman Clodia wrote: "For me, the issue is that Euphemia doesn't understand this because she's American. Both she and Longmore have a more romanticised, one might say puritanical, view of love than the French characters."

Precisely. We've both used the word corrupt. I wanted to apply it to the way things in France got done in this time period. (And not to get political, but in some ways the world over, then and now.) Falseness is how I caricaturized Richard, but that may also be an American viewpoint. I can see that his philandering was an accepted way then.


message 31: by Pamela (last edited Aug 22, 2020 10:10AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Pamela (bibliohound) | 515 comments I personally wouldn't see Richard as corrupt, but I feel that James (and therefore Euphemia and Longmore) judge him this way. Euphemia's intransigence seems much more to me than a mere lack of understanding, it is a positive response which is seen as virtuous by Longmore at least.

At times, I could picture Longmore quivering with distaste like Adam Dalgliesh:)


Susan | 10011 comments Mod
Perhaps always the way that Europeans saw marriage with a more pragmatic, less romantic, eye. We see this even in the books we read set between the wars, where house parties were build to aid those having extra marital affairs, etc.

Pamela, I could see Longmore as Dalgliesh too :)


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
Yes, good point about house-parties - and even Charles' marriage to Princess Diana while not for money was certainly about dynastic and pragmatic reasons as opposed to his love affair with Camilla.

Hahahaha, *quivering with distaste like Adam Dalgleish* 🤭


Susan | 10011 comments Mod
A slight digression here, for which forgive me. Having just finished Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind's Greatest Invention which I took from NetGalley on your recommendation, RC, I had to laugh when I read that the Japanese actually have a word for the disappointment they feel when they visit Paris!

I was thinking of how little Longmore actually visits the city. Considering what a romantic image Paris has, it was odd that he was so unimpressed and, reading that section in Metropolis, reminded me of it.


message 35: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4589 comments Mod
Roman Clodia wrote: "Excellent, Judy - we'll keep away from discussing spoilers and look forward to you joining in later. Is anyone else reading or planning to read this?

Even though it is early James, already we can..."


Don't worry about the spoilers on my account, RC, as the thread is quite long already I will wait to read it until I have read the story. :)


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
Aw, thanks Judy.

In that case, what did you all make of the ending? When Longmore hears that Euphemia has killed her husband I thought for a second that she had literally killed him - like Tess of the D'Urbevilles! It made me gasp out loud with laughter as it's so not like James to do something so melodramatic. But then we find out what really happened...


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
Susan wrote: "A slight digression here, for which forgive me. Having just finished Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind's Greatest Invention which I took from NetGalley"

I'm so glad that you enjoyed that too, Susan - a wonderful book for us urbanites!

True that Paris doesn't get much page space in this story.


message 38: by Elizabeth (Alaska) (last edited Aug 22, 2020 05:22PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Elizabeth (Alaska) I had been anticipating such a twist. I felt James set us up for exactly this. Richard had finally fallen in love with wife, only to be spurned by her.


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
Ha, well done you, Elizabeth! Given what I know of James, if you'd have predicted that to me before I'd read this, I'd have scoffed ;))


Elizabeth (Alaska) You just made me think of this. It was revenge, was it not? Euphemia was, in her mind, treated shabbily. She did not get what her innocence and romanticism had anticipated. She felt she was treated shabbily. I often wondered why she didn't just divorce the sob, but not only was that not "acceptable" socially, it would have gone against everything she believed in. Eventually, and perhaps without her realizing it, she became hardened. So hardened that she turned her back on him. In this case, though, I think revenge did not taste so sweet.


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
I didn't think it was intentionally revenge, but it was in fact. I saw it as her morals being so fixed and inflexible when it came to infidelity that she was incapable of forgiveness. Someone says earlier, maybe Marie, that she's like a tree that can't bend.

It did make me smile that Richard should get his comeuppance by falling in love with his own wife. It was a bit sensational that he should shoot himself - later James wouldn't stoop to this, with more open and ambivalent endings.


Elizabeth (Alaska) You're probably right that revenge is too complex a motive for Euphemia.


Pamela (bibliohound) | 515 comments I agree about the shooting, RC, in fact I thought two people 'blowing their brains out' (M. Claircin did the same) in less than 100 pages was beyond sensational!


message 44: by Elizabeth (Alaska) (last edited Aug 23, 2020 10:45AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Elizabeth (Alaska) I found this French description of the novella (Google translate):

With Madame de Mauves Henry James returns to the character of the young and innocent American in Europe. This time, however, it is not only his soon lost illusions that interest him, but what will this woman proudly forged from her homeland and in inevitable contrast with the aristocratic and unfaithful husband, representative of the amoral social and cultural decline, will do with his life of France in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the lacerating confrontation between the new and the old world, the question remains whether Madame de Mauves is its victim or stands as its executioner: as in the case of Portrait of a Lady (1881), announced in short form in this intense laboratory story - echoes of the great French tradition from Madame de La Fayette to Balzac and Flaubert -, the judgment rests with the reader.


Rosina (rosinarowantree) | 245 comments I have just finished it, not having read any Henry James' books in the past (to my best recollection). My initial thought is that I would love to see what Anthony Trollope would have made of the situation. He might have written even more, but by the end we would have had a clearer idea of the thoughts of the people involved, their doubts and convictions, and their reasons.

And I didn't think much of the 'hero' - at 30 he ought not to have been such a callow youth.


Susan | 10011 comments Mod
I often find that in older books, Rosina - you think characters are younger than they turn out to be. I did think of him as a callow youth, so that is very well put!


Roman Clodia | 5075 comments Mod
That's an interesting thought, Rosina, imagining how another author might have treated the same story.

You're right, Trollope would have probably left us in no doubt how we're 'supposed' to respond, whereas James is more opaque. As the French description quoted by Elizabeth notes, James leaves judgement to the reader. I guess that's one of the ways we can identify Trollope as a Victorian while James is looking forward to Modernism with its more slippery and subjective perspectives.


Elizabeth (Alaska) I found the French description interesting because it mentioned both your take on Portrait of a Lady and Balzac. I had not thought of Flaubert, but, for the French, might as well bring up two of their most revered authors of the 19th Century.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Trollope looks at the situation in the opposite way with He Knew He Was Right.


Rosina (rosinarowantree) | 245 comments Elizabeth (Alaska) wrote: "Trollope looks at the situation in the opposite way with He Knew He Was Right."

That was the book I was thinking of - although neither of the Trevelyans were actually 'unfaithful', and the American heiress in the subplot was not being married for her money (if I remember correctly).

In response to Roman Clodia, I'm not sure (using HKHWR as an example) Trollope actually tells us how we are supposed to respond. You can side with either Emily or Louis, or think both are obstinately unreasonable. But I found James just too nebulous, and for me this robbed his characters of depth. Perhaps it's because James mainly shows us the outcomes through the eyes of Longmore, who is all sensibility, rather than perception.

Of course, with Trollope, you would also have subplots involving the entire Draper family, the young ladies Webster meets on his artistic holiday, and the lures Mme Clairin is using to attract another wealthy husband.

If it were Christie, we would be wondering whether it was just coincidence that both Mme Clairin's husband, and her brother, were driven to blow out their brains.


« previous 1
back to top