I’m back on my classics kick. Part of it is having read one too many contemporary novels that is way too formulaic. Same old tropes whipped out again and again. I don’t mean to knock them too hard. I’m guilty of the same sin. But sometimes you just want something different. And that involves going back a hundred years.
So here I am. With Henry James and The Europeans.
I’ve never read James before. I’ve heard of him (and his famous brother the psychologist William James). In my mind Henry was the stuffy writer of stuffy period slash costume pieces.
Not my thing.
But this book is short! Only a hundredish pages long, depending on what edition. I can handle a hundred pages. No problem.
Well, actually, yes.
The Europeans wasn’t nearly as painful as I thought it would be. In fact, it was kind of interesting.
Damning with faint praise? Not quite. Like I said, costume dramas about manners are not my favorite. What The Europeans served up, though, was a clash of civilizations writ small. Who doesn’t love a little war? (And Europeans, after all, perfected war, right??)
The basics: Eugenia (a baroness) and her brother Felix come to America to grift their American cousins, the Wentworths, a goodly Puritanish people in the Boston area. They don’t say out-and-out grift, but that’s basically what they’re doing. Seems Eugenia and Felix’s mother was Mr. Wentworth’s older half sister. She met some European dude, converted to Catholicism, and ran off to Europe. And here we are, 30 plus years later. Like many immigrants before them (my ancestors included), Eugenia and Felix are seeking their fortune in the new world.
Much is left out of The Europeans. Why did their mother leave? What was their life like in Europe? None of that seems to matter to Henry James, because he never tells us. What he does tell us, though, is details about what the Americans, and the Europeans, are thinking. If there’s one thing that Henry does excellently, it’s hopping from head to head to reveal what each character is thinking at any given time. Sometimes it’s interesting. Other times, eh. (I’m looking at you, Clifford Wentworth).
I expected a bigger clash. I expected fireworks. I expected a little inadvertent comedy. There wasn’t much of that. Instead what I got was an awkward overuse of the phrase “making love to” — used in a way VERY different from modern times. And a lot of first cousin love. Seriously. I guess first cousins marrying each other was a thing in the late 1800s.
I got through this “comedy” of manners fairly quickly, maybe because I was expecting more. That more never arrived. Still, it was fun to slip into the heads of these lightly scheming characters. A hundred pages I could handle. Four hundred I would have felt cheated.
At least Felix got his happy ending.