A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
Sorry to say, but this is the first book of Henry James that I have read. I expect to read others. Set mainly in Europe, the novel concerns the American character, under much scrutiny in the nineteenth century. Briefly, Christopher Newman, thirty-six, takes great advantage of his earned wealth as a canny businessman to travel the world, beginning with Paris. He is offered the opportunity to join a financially failing aristocratic family by marrying a young widow whose first marriage was arranged by her parents. After being smitten with this woman, Newman is then forbidden to marry her by her mother and brother. It may or may not have anything to do with a deep dark family secret. But the rest of the narrative is more or less how Newman comes to terms with not getting what he wants, having his heart broken, as we say.
The book’s language seems fresh, even now, almost 150 years after publication. James reverts to no clichés. His narration is a rich mixture of the American, the British, and French idiom. His characters’ names seem symbolic but not obvious: Newman (from a new country); Mrs. Bread (a servant who spends a lifetime nurturing the woman Newman is to marry); Bellegarde (nice guard, the family “guarding” their wealth, their name, their history). James may depend a bit too much on coincidence, in that often a character who has disappeared for a number of chapters seems to appear out of nowhere, particularly, when Newman leaves Paris for London and there runs into a young woman and her father who are present in the early part of the novel. This incident could occur, but it seems unlikely, yet as readers we buy it by way of the author’s convincing method. Although Newman is brash, he’s brash in his own manner, not being subject to stereotype, and his character does become transformed throughout the novel. By observing the best and worst of European and American cultures, he comes to see himself lodged in a larger context. He accepts the fact that with regard to this one event, losing his fiancée to a convent, he cannot control his life. Wealth means little, an ineffective salve for his eternal ache.
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