The Golden Bowl. Henry James.

James, Henry. The Golden Bowl. Scribner, New York (Methuen, London) 1904. F; 12/21.

O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!

– Walter Scott, Marmion (1808)

Henry James was one of the nicest old ladies I ever met.

William Faulkner

I was ambivalent about reviewing this famous book and considered just forgetting about it. It’s not what you’d call easy going. We are told some experts think James is among the top few novelists in history but commentary on his work (and on him) is checkered, including Faulkner’s remark and critics who call James tedious, dated, pretentious, verbose, claustrophobic … the reviews are mixed. Now I understand why.

For sure the story is a tangled web and a lot of the way James tells it can be described that way too. When I was in high school a literary friend switched the last word of the famous Scott quote (the only surviving shred from another long and tedious work, this by Scott) from “deceive” to “conceive”, and yes pretty well all of the entanglement here concerns an extramarital affair. I had to wonder how much of the complicated sentence structure reflected Victorian “old lady” James elaborately tiptoeing around that main forbidden nasty physical fact, having decided to use it to anchor his psychological story. But still, truth be told when I was able to stay focused that long and complicated story was fascinating in its critical and sympathetic analysis of believable characters’ emotional and moral weightlifting. But staying focused was like reading difficult technical material. You may have experienced this (possibly in the last 30 seconds): finding yourself halfway through a page and realizing you have no idea what you’ve spent the last few moments reading. So you have to go back, sometimes several times, and force yourself to pay attention.

Anyway there are only four main characters, all twirling in turn-of-the-century London in the reflected glory of the wealth of financier/collector Adam Verver. His darling ingenue daughter Maggie has met and marries dashing but penniless Italian Prince Amerigo who, we discover, had recently broken up back in Rome with Maggie’s brilliant American friend Charlotte (who was also short on cash). Charlotte shows up in London to attend the wedding and the temporarily reunited lovers Amerigo and Charlotte go shopping for a wedding present for Maggie, and after some discussion decide not to buy a Golden Bowl they find in a quaint little shop. Old (mid-50s we guess?) Adam (Maggie’s dad) is also impressed enough with Charlotte to marry her. A bit awkward that. It’s necessary for the plot but there’s something a bit coarser than the usual plane of emotional interaction here which wouldn’t dirty itself with some attractive poor golddigger girl marrying a very rich older man. Never mind, that marriage establishes the romantic rectangle that is the frame of the story. We are all set for the plot to thicken.

All four characters are off visiting in a nearby town and Charlotte and the prince stay behind for an extra day (and night) checking out the local churches and one thing leads to another. Maggie later nosing around London coincidentally enters that same quaint little store and buys that same Golden Bowl. The old shopkeeper comes by her home to finalize the deal, sees pictures of the prince and the friend, and innocently spills the beans to Maggie about the kind of conversation the former lovers were having while considering buying the Bowl.

The story then falls into an exquisitely non-verbal and occasionally verbal psychological game you might call Who Knows What? It felt at times a like a Shakespeare comedy but the understanding, misunderstanding, secrecy, and risk-taking is anything but light-hearted. An older friend of Maggie and Charlotte called Fanny Assingham (the junior high school joker in me and in a few critics had to wonder about prevailing colloquialisms in 1904) had reintroduced Charlotte into the London scene and tries to convince Maggie that her suspicions are incorrect. I won’t spoil the suspense by revealing how this all ends up.

James’s sentences describing all this are famously labyrinthine. Here’s one of many:

He knew, as well, the other things of which her appearance was at any time — and in Eaton Square especially — made up: her resemblance to her father, at times so vivid, and coming out, in the delicate warmth of occasions, like the quickened fragrance of a flower; her resemblance, as he had hit it off for her once in Rome, in the first flushed days, after their engagement, to a little dancing-girl at rest, ever so light of movement but most often panting gently, even a shade compunctiously, on a bench; her approximation, finally — for it was analogy, somehow, more than identity — to the transmitted images of rather neutral and negative propriety that made up, in his long line, the average of wifehood and motherhood.

Victorian verbal curlicues at times extend to triple negatives: “… his intent was not without inconsequentiality.” And so on.

If you can find your way through that language and the plot to a sense of what it was like for example for Maggie not to know (and to try to find out) whether Amerigo had told Charlotte that Maggie knew, and whether if he did Maggie could manage to keep her cool with Charlotte and her husband – Maggie’s father (and you can still be taking the whole thing seriously) there are several interpersonal scenes that carry some fearsome moral weight and tension. Adam, Amerigo, Mrs. Assingham, and Charlotte are playing cards in a big room in the mansion at night, and Maggie who doesn’t play the card game wanders through, catching the eye of the various players.

Her father and her husband, Mrs. Assingham and Charlotte, had done nothing but meet her eyes; yet the difference in these demonstrations made each a separate passage — which was all the more wonderful since, with the secret behind every face, they had alike tried to look at her THROUGH it and in denial of it.

Maggie goes out on the terrace in some confusion, the players take a break from the game and she turns to confront her friend and her husband’s lover Charlotte who is alone and some distance away. They communicate soundlessly for a few moments and in the loaded silence Charlotte clearly overwhelms troubled Maggie.

James seems at that and other critical times to whip off his obscure plot and diction “old lady” mask and show the face of a really dramatic scene, sometimes with straight and hard-hitting dialogue. These are usually turning points in one of the relationships among the four principal characters. Adam proposing to Charlotte realizing the difference in their age and wealth. Maggie confronting Amerigo with her new knowledge about him and Charlotte. Charlotte and Maggie meeting in the garden as Charlotte has figured out there will be consequences of her affair.

Okay. Would I have started and committed to reading through this monster if I’d known what was in it? Hard to say. I’ve read one other novel by James (I think it was The Bostonians) but I don’t remember having the same kind of heavily mixed experience. I compare that kind of experience to reading Moby Dick or to sitting through a long Mahler symphony. Hard work for a real reward, but on balance don’t I prefer the pleasure of Infinite Jest, Middlemarch, and Dvorac’s New World? Of course I do. Just a comfort-food addict at heart I guess.

Approach with caution. 9.2/7.3

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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