I have finished The Golden Bowl! It has taken a while. In fact, on the bus to my Flemish class this morning, a (Belgian) woman leaned over and asked me if I’d ‘finished the Henry James’ (I am recuperating with Jane Eyre), who knows but perhaps the entire bus had been willing me to get through it. Feel free to congratulate me in the Comments. It’s been a long time since I last read such a, for me, challenging novel. Rewarding? Absolutely, though I would get more from rereading it, but can’t face that quite yet.
Amerigo, an impoverished (impoverished in an aristocratic way rather than a not-having-enough-to-eat way) Italian prince, is betrothed to the American heiress Maggie Verver; a little unexpectedly Maggie’s old friend Charlotte arrives in London to attend the wedding. Charlotte had a love affair with Amerigo just before he met Maggie, but Charlotte is not rich and Amerigo believes his love could not survive poverty, so they parted. Charlotte persuades Amerigo to accompany her shopping to find a gift for Maggie and in a poky little Bloomsbury antique shop they discover the golden bowl. It appears massy and is finely wrought, but the gold is gilding and underneath it is made of crystal. After much discussion they leave without buying it, either for Maggie or for each other – Amerigo maintains it has a flaw and Charlotte cannot afford it. Crucially Maggie does not know of this expedition, nor of their previous involvement.
The married pair spends a couple of years in America where Maggie gives birth to a son, and all seems idyllic. Back in England, Maggie feels guilty that she is so happy when she has ‘abandoned’ her father, now prey to husband-seeking women, and she persuades him to have Charlotte to stay. Charlotte protects him and makes him so comfortable that he proposes to her and, after some discussion and referring to Maggie and Amerigo for their consent, she accepts. There is no suggestion of love here, but Adam and Charlotte are fond of each other’s company and each benefits greatly from the alliance. But Charlotte does not tell him of her affair with Amerigo – how could she?
Now that the two couples are living within streets of each other, it is easy for Maggie and Adam to fall back into their old, close relationship – and for Charlotte and Amerigo into theirs. The golden bowl itself reappears later in the novel and is crucial to the plot; it is also symbolic of the relations between the two couples. Commenting upon the action like a Chorus are Colonel and Mrs Assingham. Fanny Assingham knows of Charlotte and Amerigo’s previous affair and quickly discerns that is has been resumed, but she is a friend of all parties and thus caught between them. She likes to gloss her friends’ actions generously, believing their motivations to be noble; her husband is relentlessly cynical and interprets every action in the worst possible light.
Published in 1904, this was James’s final novel. Volume One is told first from Amerigo’s viewpoint, then in turn from Adam’s and Charlotte’s, with chapters devoted to the workings of the mind of their friend, Mrs Assingham; Volume Two almost entirely from Maggie’s. Whether James’s style changed because he started dictating his novels, I do not know, but certainly his syntax in this novel is complex, lengthy, turning in on itself and always seeking to qualify or nuance; it is ideal for interior monologues. If Miriam in Pointed Roofs sometimes found that language failed her, James believes that heaping up his rich vocabulary phrase upon phrase will communicate anything he requires. This creates an effect both intense and layered with ambiguity. However, it is also tightly controlled and consciously artificial – it is not an attempt to mimic the processes of thought themselves.
The syntax and the ambiguity are what make this novel challenging to read. Despite his prolixity, James leaves much unsaid. In this world, where descriptions such as ‘fine’ and ‘beautiful’ and ‘extraordinary’ are bandied about by everyone to the point of meaninglessness, fear of vulgarity prevents characters from naming things, so they skirt around them or discuss them only obliquely. (Maggie is even afraid of experiencing jealousy because it is a vulgar emotion.) Yet there is also a sense that naming things makes them more real, and so it is often better not to. This is most clearly demonstrated in the second volume when Maggie and her father have a series of conversations about their errant spouses without ever mentioning the affair, each hoping the other does not know and can be protected.
Everyone displays an astonishing capacity for disguising selfishness as unselfishness to themselves as well as others. Charlotte and Amerigo are convinced that because they are so clever and secretive about their love affair, they cannot be hurting their spouses:
‘And really, my dear’, Charlotte added, ‘Fanny Assingham doesn’t matter.’
He [Amerigo] wondered again. ‘Unless as taking care of them [Adam and Maggie].’
‘Ah,’ Charlotte instantly said, ‘isn’t it for us, only, to do that?’ She spoke as with a flare of pride for their privilege and their duty. ‘I think we want no one’s aid.’
She spoke indeed with a nobleness not the less effective for coming in so oddly; with a sincerity visible even through the complicated twist by which any effort to protect the father and the daughter seemed necessarily conditioned for them. It moved him, in any case, as if some spring of his own, a weaker one, had suddenly been broken by it. These things, all the while, the privilege, the duty, the opportunity, had been the substance of his own vision; they formed the note he had been keeping back to show her that he wasn’t, in their so special situation, without a responsible view. A conception he could name and could act on was something that now at last, not to be too eminent a fool, he was required by all the graces to produce, and the luminous idea she had herself uttered would have been his expression of it. She had anticipated him, but since her expression left, for positive beauty, nothing to be desired, he felt rather righted than wronged. A large response, as he looked at her, came into his face, a light of excited perception, all his own, in the glory of which – as it almost might be called – what he gave her back had the value of what she had given him. ‘They’re extraordinarily happy.’
Oh Charlotte’s measure of it was only too full. ‘Beatifically.’ [...]
‘I’m not afraid.’
He wondered for a moment. ‘Not afraid of what?’
‘Well, generally, of some beastly mistake. Especially of any mistake founded on one’s idea of their difference. For that idea,’ Charlotte developed, ‘positively makes one so tender.’
‘Ah but rather!’
‘Well then there it is. I can’t put myself into Maggie’s skin – I can’t, as I say. It’s not my fit – I shouldn’t be able, as I see it, to breathe in it. But I can feel that I’d do anything to shield it from a bruise. Tender as I am for her too,’ she went on, ‘I think I’m still more so for my husband. He’s in truth of a sweet simplicity – !’
The Prince turned over a while the sweet simplicity of Mr Verver. ‘Well, I don’t know that I can choose. At night all cats are grey. I only see how, for so many reasons, we ought to stand toward them – and how, to do ourselves justice, we do. It represents for us a conscious care –’
‘Of every hour, literally,’ said Charlotte. She could rise to the highest measure of the facts. ‘And for which we must trust each other – !’
‘Oh as we trust the saints in glory. Fortunately,’ the Prince hastened to add, ‘we can.’ With which, as for the full assurance and the pledge it involved, each hand instinctively found the other. ‘It’s all too wonderful.’
Firmly and gravely she kept his hand. ‘It’s too beautiful.’ [...]
‘It’s sacred,’ he said at last.
Unfortunately, they deceive themselves: they may wish to protect their spouses but their affair can only hurt them, even though they believe it gives them a special duty of protectiveness; and Maggie and Adam are not to be patronised as sweetly simple. Most poignantly, Charlotte cannot ultimately trust the Prince despite their pledge in the quote. Confronted by Maggie, he must end the affair, but cruelly he refuses to tell Charlotte why. This is a sacrifice he makes to Maggie to show his goodwill to her, but it means that Charlotte never knows whether he has broken with her because he no longer loves her or because his wife has forced him to. The repeated images of her at the end of the book as being caged or led around by her husband on a silken rope are heartbreaking, although Amerigo claims that she will make a new life for herself in America, whence she is bound with her husband at the end of the book, neither of them ever to return to England.
Adam is a wealthy collector of antiques and he is assembling the choicest pieces he can find in Europe to form a museum back in America. He cannot enter a room without exploring it for treasures and in fact he decides that he will propose to Charlotte after taking her to witness his purchase of ancient Damascene tiles; the ostentatious expenditure of a large sum in front of her in fact forms a part of the proposal itself (to him, anyway – we do not know how Charlotte feels about it). The text is saturated with the language of commerce and the way it is deployed suggests that both Charlotte and Amerigo have been ‘bought’ as fine examples of their kinds. Even Adam’s grandson, the Principino, is more like a beautiful little doll than a real child. Yet Adam and Maggie agree that they have not paid the price of their marriages – because indeed they have not: they have not changed in their relations to each other and expect to carry on as before with their spouses fitting around them. In fact, James highlights the unhealthy closeness of their relation by comparing father and daughter to a married couple throughout the novel.
Maggie’s trajectory through the novel is from innocence to experience. Early on, she rejects the compliment that she is ‘good’ by pointing out that, rich and happy, she has never been tried. Her trial comes when she first suspects there is something between her husband and stepmother and is tormented by fear that she is right and fear that she has a loathsome imagination. Appealed to, Fanny Assingham cheerfully lies and denies that any such relation exists, and Maggie actually experiences relief when the antiques dealer inadvertently betrays the lovers to her. At all costs she must keep the knowledge from her father because he must not be hurt (presumably on her account rather than Charlotte’s), but she must end the affair. So she too starts lying. Strangely, she is now having ‘the time of her life – she knew it by the perpetual throb of this sense of possession, which was almost too violent either to recognise or to hide’ – meek Maggie, who is always ‘little’ Maggie, with her ‘little’ sense of justice and her ‘little’ ways, to everyone else, whose very name is a diminutive, is enjoying the exercise of power and knowledge. But she is merciful to Amerigo, whom she still loves, helping him retain his self-respect, and she pities Charlotte and, even as she participates in withholding from her the truth – that she knows of the affair – tries to soften her suffering. Perhaps sharing Charlotte’s agony is the closest she can permit herself to acknowledging her own pain. In all this protecting her father is paramount, but yet she is prepared to let him sacrifice himself for her and her marriage, by taking Charlotte far away and never seeing his beloved daughter and grandson again. (Of course, in this Maggie too is making a great sacrifice.)
This is from the final leave-taking of the four main characters:
‘It’s all right, eh?’
‘Oh my dear – rather!’
He [Adam] had applied the question to the great fact of the picture, as she [Maggie] had spoken for the picture in reply, but it was as if their words for an instant afterwards symbolised another truth, so that they looked about at everything else to give them this extension. She had passed her arm into his, and the other objects in the room, the other pictures, the sofas, the chairs, the tables, the cabinets, the ‘important’ pieces, supreme in their way, stood out, round them, consciously, for recognition and applause. Their eyes moved together from piece to piece, taking in the whole nobleness – quite as if for him to measure the wisdom of old ideas. The two noble persons seated in conversation and at tea fell thus into the splendid effect and the general harmony: Mrs Verver and the Prince fairly ‘placed’ themselves, however unwittingly, as high expressions of the kind of human furniture required aesthetically by such a scene. The fusion of their presence with the decorative elements, their contribution to the triumph of selection, was complete and admirable; though to a lingering view, a view more penetrating than the occasion really demanded, they also might have figured as concrete attestations of a rare power of purchase.
(Henry James painted by Jacques-Emile Blanche in 1908, not long after the publication of The Golden Bowl, from the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC; photograph of Henry James from here; it was actually taken c. 1863 so years before the writing of The Golden Bowl but it is such a great and theatrical picture I wanted to include it as a counterweight to the painting which misses the full force of that penetrating gaze.)