Hank Jim -- All the Golden Hits
October 29, 2003
Over yonder at About Last Night, the well-read and mysterious Our Girl in Chicago has been holding forth on the subject of Henry James.* I've been reading my way through the James canon over the past few years, with an emphasis on the stories over the novels, and because I have this forum there's nothing to stop me from offering my own recommendations and caveats.
In conjunction with what sounds like a fine, albeit obscure, French film, OGIC mentions The Other House, which I endorse as "James for People Who Think They Don't Like James." It is a relatively short novel, written in the aftermath of James' disastrous foray as a dramatist, and he puts the lessons learned in terms of constructing an efficient but surprising plot to good use. No one other than James himself much liked it when it was first published, but its reputation seems to be growing. It features James' only on-screen murder (of a child, no less) and the to-be-expected well-drawn characters and revealing dialogue. Perhaps the great guilty pleasure for Jamesians.
Over 30 years ago during the first season of Masterpiece Theater, PBS broadcast a 4-part BBC adaptation of another James novella from the same period, The Spoils of Poynton, starring Gemma Jones as its heroine, who sports what then-host Alistair Cooke called "the unlikely name of Fleda Vetch." I was impressed with it at the time of the PBS broadcast, but only actually read it in the past month. (It features in the Library of America's latest James volume, alongside The Other House, the OGIC-commended What Maisie Knew (which I've yet to read) and The Awkward Age.) Ostensibly a battle of wills over the possession of a country estate and the beautiful objects it contains, Spoils comes well equipped with scheming, heartbreak and a "twist" ending. Oddly, it reminds me a bit of the harder-edged, "sorrow is only a step away" Jane Austen of Persuasion.
I have to take issue with the OGIC recommendation of The Princess Casamassima. James seems out of his element in that one, unsure whether he wants to be Charles Dickens or Dostoevsky. The joints and gears running the plot seem to stick out all over the place, and it is ultimately an unsatisfying book. More enjoyable from the same period (ca. 1890) is The Tragic Muse, which sports a young man giving up a career in Parliament to become a painter (happens all the time!) and the rise of an ambitious young woman to the heights of theatrical stardom, breaking hearts (of course) all along the way. It's soap, but it's really really good soap.
Now, if you take my suggestions and those of OGIC and Terry Teachout to heart, and if enough other web journal-ists respond, you will find yourself obliged to read everything James ever wrote. At the least, it will keep you off the streets and out of the pool halls for a good long time.
[* "Hank Jim, " get it? It's a puckish satire on contemporary informality. Someday perhaps I'll write about the eminent Italian composer, Joe Green.]