Henry James

An International Episode

James plays with a major issue of his personal life (born and raised in the US but spent much of his life in England, eventually becoming a citizen in the year of his death), and of his time and place generally: the interaction between individuals from England and America around the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. I’ve come across something similar in Wodehouse (although a bit later). It is great material – the class conscious, historical behemoth of the declining empire of England and the vital and growing financial contender of the democratic US – played out in courtship interactions as wealthy individuals cross and recross the Atlantic.

James deals with his characters with a relatively light touch, much as, say, Lou Reed doesn’t spell out exactly what we’re to think of the colourful people in his songs. This isn’t to say he’s not aware of amusing foibles, and fans of Austen would feel very much at home with not only the manners, but also the fun being had at a lack of self-awareness (such as Mrs Westgate’s repeated lamentation/assertion that ‘we have no leisure class’, as she lives the luxurious life of a wealthy aristocrat). However I appreciated that, unlike many in Austen, I don’t know that anyone was merely a comic character to be judged and smugly pilloried (and even if they were – say, Lord Lambeth’s mother – James doesn’t display Austen’s relish in dwelling on them). The characters he does stay with may be flawed, but they are not merely flawed (as with the best of Austen’s): Mrs Westgate may not be aware of her privileged position, but she is no fool either, and her concerns about the casual contempt of classism in England have some basis; as one of Bessie’s idealistic tirades highlights, Lambeth is too self-absorbed to care about the welfare of real people hereditarily placed under his power, but for all that he is still likable, and he demonstrates sincerity and courage (if some condescension) in his affection for her.

Although only appearing several pages in, Bessie Alden turns out to be the real heroine of the piece. And since I’ve started down this route, why don’t I continue with the Austen comparison? Bessie has much in common with Lizzie Bennett as a heroine. She is not faintly intimidated by aristocratic wealth, although this is more to do with growing up in America than Lizzie’s ‘daughter of a gentleman’ confidence. She, too, is utterly forthright in her views (sometimes, likewise, perhaps overzealously given her lack of experience), although not so much for the pleasure of puncturing arrogance as much as clarifying and articulating her opinions. She also likes castles, but is similarly appalled at the idea of marrying for money or status, or that anyone would think that she would do so. The climactic choice she makes (sorry, I don’t think I can avoid a major spoiler for the rest of this review – continue at your own risk), and Lambeth’s assumption of acceptance in making a grand sacrifice very much parallels Lizzie’s initial rejection of Darcy’s proposal.

However Bessie is a heroine who you would think far more attractive to a modern female audience than Lizzie Bennett. She has as much innocence, confidence and intelligence (if not the same level of wit), but to this adds superlative autonomy: ultimately she won’t be dazzled by castles, titles, and fairy-tales. This is partly because she is from a different continent and century – and maybe that’s James’ point (of course he would have been well aware of Pride and Prejudice, and perhaps even doffs his cap with early conversations about balls) – and partly because she already has a benefactor-sister who has made a financially advantageous marriage. But the point remains that Bessie rejects a wealthy, affectionate, titled and likeable suitor who has made none of the social gaffs that Darcy did; indeed, he acts entirely contrary to the duplicitous snob of Mrs Westgate’s cautionary tale. Much as with Bessie, James quietly subverts expectations – where is our happy ending?

At another level, and a surprisingly feminist (although that term has become increasingly unclear) one, this is a happier ending. Bessie is not subsumed and defined by a man. For all the carry on and concern about the seemingly central issue – who Bessie marries – Bessie has left this behind. Lord Lambeth and his mother, Mrs Westlake, Percy et. al. may wring their hands and make grand plans, but their rules and perceptions are no longer that relevant to her. She’s moved on, and marriage isn’t her only agenda. Welcome to the future. Surely this would be more attractive to a modern audience: not a Cinderella, but a strong, independent woman.

So why is this female champion condemned to relative literary obscurity, while Lizzy Bennett’s staggering popularity only goes from strength to strength?

Probably for the same reason I’d recommend reading Pride & Prejudice over An International Episode: it’s more entertaining. It was less gauche of James to not report the final conversation between Bessie and Lord Lambeth, or to detail a war of words between her and her potential mother-in-law, but the equivalent scenes in P & P are classics. Austen really brings home some wonderfully passionate come-uppances, whereas part of James’ theme, perhaps, was that Lambeth and his family didn’t have as much effect on Bessie’s emotions. Poignant social observation, but less immediately entertaining.

Or, perhaps, less entertaining to a modern audience. ‘An International Episode’ is, after all, a short story more than a novel, and the surprise ending would have been more potent at the time. Moreover I get the impression that James was more interested in commenting on his time than on creating drama, so what would have pointedly stung or amused then falls flatter today than Austen’s more staple tears, angry words and romantic reconciliation. Still, then and now James’ heroine and story are perhaps more intellectually interesting, but Austen trounces him for emotion. I’ve probably enjoyed ‘An International Episode’ more in discussing it in this review than in actually reading it, whereas ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is a pleasure to both read and to discuss.

May 2010