The Baroness and her brother Felix have travelled from Europe where they were born to Boston to look up their American cousins. As the novel begins they are clearly short of money and presumably fortune hunting, Felix is an agreeable young man and the Baroness who has morganatic marriage with a minor European princeling is in the process of being divorced.
There is an immediate contrast between the sober, perhaps unhappy, introspective, virtually silent, reserved, buttoned-down Americans who are from the Boston merchant class and who are quietly, modestly, unspectacularly very wealthy and the happy-go-lucky carefree Felix, used to living on his wits and few talents, and the Baroness, cultured in the rather heavy handed styles of the courts of Europe. The young unmarried men of the Bostonian families are drawn to the Baroness as moths to a flame and the question becomes which one of them will propose and be entrapped in what will probably be an unsuitable marriage. And which of the girls will fall for Felix?
The characters are drawn subtly and well. Right from the outset, James uses dialogue and action to raise intriguing questions about each character.
It starts beautifully. The Baroness is looking out of her Boston hotel window at a graveyard, the stones covered in snow. She watches people, mainly women, scrambling onto a bus, she likens it to a life boat. The brother assumes that there is a very handsome man inside.
She is out of sorts whilst her brother Felix is, as always excessively optimistic, full of gaiety. She says he is too good-natured and he replies; "Good natured - yes. Too good natured - no." She thinks they have made a mistake but he says: "There are no such things as mistakes."
This is a storming start. The characters are beautifully contrasted: the carefree but happy brother, the depressed but elegant sister. Very little is told to us but we can work it out from the conversation. It becomes clear that they have travelled from Europe to America to discover the cousins that they have never seen before and that they hope the cousins are rich because they are on their uppers (though not enough to descend into working for a living).
In the next chapter, we meet Gertrude. Gertrude is 'odd' though wee are never quite told what is wrong with her; probably she has too much rebellious joy in her to fit in with the rest of the family, all of whom have gone to church. Mr Brand, the utterly wholesome minister,talks with her in the garden, trying to persuade her to go to church, but she declines and he goes off. One feels that he is probably in love with Gertrude. And when he has gone, Felix arrives to meet the long lost family.
And we are off. The decadent Europeans meet the upright, puritanical Bostonians. As well as Gertrude there is her sister Charlotte, much more of a decent young woman, her solid and stolid father, the picture of righteousness, and her brother Clifford who has shocked the family by being suspended from Harvard for sixth months for getting drunk. He is characterised as a delightfully innocent young man who desperately wishes to have amorous complications but is far too shy to achieve them, so he becomes gauche instead. Clifford is a brilliant character and, again, it is all there is the dialogue. Show, don't tell!
The Actons are around as well. Robert traded in China and his sister Lizzie (a pert little miss in the single scene she is allowed to play) is supposed to be on the verge of becoming engaged to Clifford.
So the scene is set for a classic romantic comedy:
- Will Felix try to seduce Charlotte or Gertrude?
- Will Gertrude end up with Felix or Mr Brand (does he have a first name?)
- Will Clifford or Robert Acton end up with the Baroness?
Throughout, the dialogue is beautifully constructed and the conversation scintillating and brilliant. But unlike Oscar Wilde, there are no epigrams for the sake of epigrams. These people say the things they say because of who they are. There are no epigrams but there are some absolutely delightful quotes:
- "She seems to me like a singer singing an air. You can't tell till the song is done." (Chapter 3)
- "Forming an opinion - say on a person's conduct - was with Mr Wentworth a good deal like fumbling in a lock with a key chosen at hazard." (Chapter 7)
- "We may sometimes point out a road we are unable to follow." (Chapter 7)
- "If we have ever had any virtue among us, we had better keep hold of it now." (Chapter 9)
The only thing that I didn't like in this book (and I have said this repeatedly in this blog) is when the author uses a foreign language without any translation. I hate this! It is Henry James saying: I have lived in Paris; I can speak French. If you're going to write for an English (or American) audience WRITE IN ENGLISH!!
Apart from that I adored this little book.
Other James books I have read and reviewed:
Washington Square which has a similar theme: will the Doctor prevent his daughter from contracting a marriage with the unsuitable man with whom she has fallen in love?
What Maisie Knew: Maisie grows up unwanted by either of her parents who are too involved with having affairs and getting married again. The only people who seem to want her are her step-parents. Can there be a happy ending?
March 2016; 173 pages