The Golden Bowl Henry James One could be forgiven for thinking, after reading Henry James''s preface to the New York edition of ''The Golden Bowl'', that James was enjoying some private joke at the reader''s expense. He begins by referring to his ''....
The Golden Bowl
One could be forgiven for thinking, after reading Henry James''s preface to the New York edition of ''The Golden Bowl'', that James was enjoying some private joke at the reader''s expense.
He begins by referring to his ''. . . still marked inveteracy of a certain indirect and oblique view of my presented action . . . ''
From here on, the view becomes still more indirect and oblique, so that the preface becomes so thickly prolix that the reader is forced to consider abandoning it in favour of starting on the actual story. But after wading through the treacle of this preface, things do not get any better: in fact, they get decidedly ''worse'' - in that the hapless reader then finds himself trying to make progress through a much more ''viscous'' narrative proper, but finding it too late to turn back. It seems as if, in acknowledging his ''indirectness'', James goes out of his way to amplify and build upon this, in a gleeful attempt - a malicious prank - to deliberately frustrate the reader.
Seems: because this is not actually the case. Although one could be forgiven one''s impulses to abandon the thing entirely, at any one of a number of points, to actually do this would be a mistake: an error of judgement of James''s intentions. There is no doubt that this novel - written late in his career, and published in 1904 - requires of the reader a demanding level of concentration. Indeed, many lines need re-reading several times just to get their sense, and one gets the distinct impression at times, that only James knew what he wanted to say: what was in his mind at the time. As if words almost failed him, so that he used even more words to try to say it, and in an obsessively meticulous - a frustratingly pedantic - manner. It is from this, then, that one gets a distinct sense of there being an inadequacy in the author''s ability to properly communicate with his readers, in this novel that extends to 595 pages, if one does not discount the preface.
But this difficult style of James is what paradoxically ''makes'' the book. Behind a rather simple story, James crafts an intricate and masterfully analysed plot. A plot that unfolds almost entirely in the minds of the characters - in particular, the minds of the two central characters: the Prince Amerigo, ''occupying'' the first half of the book, and his wife, the Princess Maggie (nee) Verver, who ''occupies'' the second.
The story, set in contemporary London, begins with an Italian prince who is financially poor, but rich in breeding, elegance and gentlemanly manners - the Prince Amerigo - experiencing doubts after finding himself at the threshold of possession: possession of his soon-to-be wife Maggie. This, despite the fact that she is the daughter of the fabulously wealthy Adam Verver - an expatriate American collector of objets d''art and connoisseur of all things fine, antique, and desirable. A Gilbert Osmond in outward appearance, but (fortunately) not inner. And a man who could be considered to have ''collected'' the poor Prince, as is seen much later in the novel, towards the end, when Amerigo and Charlotte (Adam''s wife, who could easily have been named ''Eve'') are symbolically ''put in their place''. That is, placed by the author (in a delightfully ironic act) as part of the beautiful furnishing of the room in which they sit, before a final departure. Perhaps, Adam Verver has collected ''nobility'', to complete his collection of all things fine and wonderful, the payment being some of Adam''s fortune, and of course, his daughter Maggie. But the Prince will be a flawed collectable, and the real price will be Maggie''s to pay.
The Penguin Classics edition of this novel has for its cover image, an Impressionist painting, which illustrates perhaps, the insight of the cover designer. Vagueness and subtlety of feeling are what this novel is about, and James''s ability - through this ''Impressionist'' style of his - to fully explore the complete range of nuances of the conscious thought of his characters, is nothing short of remarkable: a range with which we are all probably familiar in our own experience, but would find it almost impossible to put into words, given that many of these inner experiences are of such fleeting nature. Hence James''s style: it is to suggest, but not directly state, (in the manner of ''The Jolly Corner'') the subtleties of feeling and thought that his characters experience, and by doing so in this ''difficult'' style of his, thereby evoke the same feelings and thoughts in the reader. No novelist has, before or since, done this in such a ''dense'' - but superbly effective - ''voice'': not even those other authors who have employed similar means (that is, telling the same story from the differing points of view of the various characters - and here, Lawrence Durrell comes to mind). Perhaps James''s intent can be most aptly described by his own words taken from the novel, in his description of the inner mind of the Prince:
''The illumination indeed was all for the mind, the prospect revealed by it a mere immensity of the world of thought; the material outlook was meantime a different matter.''
As a result of this intent, the reader can marvel that there is a description of ''what is happening'' for page after page, where physical events have slowed almost to nonexistence. There emerges, the peculiar effect of a sense of the slowing of time to the point where the ''action'' takes place without anything else ''happening'' in the physical world - a phenomenon most properly observed in the reading of a particularly long passage of circumlocutory dialogue between Fanny and her husband Bob, while the two have barely moved from the landing to the entrance to a room, over the course of many pages.
Despite the Prince''s communication of his unease to Fanny Assingham, (a friend of Maggie''s, and someone who has ''facilitated'' the marriage of Maggie and the Prince), Amerigo ignores his doubts. Fanny, slightly lower on the ''social scale'', (perhaps the reason for James''s rather comical naming of her as ''Fanny'', and of her husband as ''Bob'') does her best to reassure him. Having her own and her husband''s social positions to protect, she can ill afford failure in arranging the happy marriages of others.
The Prince, while he is visiting Fanny, also meets there, Charlotte Stant - a longtime American friend of Maggie''s. Unbeknown to Maggie and her father, Charlotte and the Prince had previously met, fallen in love, and spent a winter in Rome, while the Ververs, who had been due to join her in Italy, had been delayed in Paris. But with both the Prince and Charlotte being too poor to marry, the lovers had ended their affair, with the Prince remaining in Rome while Charlotte ''fled'' back to America. And when the Ververs did arrive in Italy, Maggie, introduced by Fanny, and charmed by the Prince''s nobility, became engaged to be married to him.
Charlotte, unable to continue living in America because of financial constraints, has now come back from America to London - ostensibly to see her friend Maggie. But she now proposes that the two of them - herself and the Prince - go shopping for a wedding present for Maggie: a present that Charlotte has not yet bought.
The pair chance upon a small antiques shop where the dealer displays a gold-plated crystal bowl - the ''golden bowl''. But the Prince senses that there is a flaw in it, despite its perfect appearance. (One would have thought here, that the more appropriate symbolism would have been a flaw that was undetectable for the Prince, given the symbolism of the bowl and the Prince''s poor judgement in his decision to conduct an extramarital affair.) Charlotte has suggested the Prince buy the bowl for herself rather than for Maggie, as a token of remembrance of their previous liaison, but the Prince declines, despite some discussion with her: a discussion that will be overheard and remembered by the dealer, and innocently communicated to Maggie, four years later, after Maggie chances upon the same shop and buys the same bowl.
Metaphors abound in this novel. The golden bowl itself is a metaphor: a metaphor taken from a biblical reference in Ecclesiastes, and symbolising a conjugal love which should be perfect, between the Prince and the Princess. The unseen flaw - a crack in the crystal of the bowl - signifies the infidelity which will occur when an unhappy Charlotte - who ''risks the cracks'' - re-commences her affair with the Prince. But now she is married, for Maggie has facilitated the marriage of her friend Charlotte to (Maggie''s) widowed father, to save him from the ravening ''clutches'' of other women (who presumably are entertaining designs to ''catch'' Adam solely for his fortune). And Adam has agreed to the idea of a second marriage, to spare his daughter Maggie from the responsibility of caring for him later on.
Thus becomes apparent, the strained scenario of a father married to his daughter''s young friend, and a daughter, who introduced that young friend to her father, becoming increasingly suspicious that her husband is having an affair with her father''s wife. These suspicions on the part of Maggie (but also noticed by the Assinghams, who elect to keep quiet in order to avoid scandal and thus protect their own social position) are not unfounded, as the Prince''s increasingly frequent absences from his wife''s company are noted - absences in which the Prince and Charlotte are spending time alone, together. These, it must be remembered, were Victorian times, and when Amerigo and Charlotte spend a further day at Matcham (the residence of a family friend) after the others have left, Maggie''s suspicions are intensified. But nothing happens suddenly in this novel, and James deftly draws upon his sense of timing to lead the reader over several hundred pages, from the first vaguest hints that something is amiss, to a dramatic conclusion near the end, where the symbolic golden bowl, bought by Maggie and now displayed to confront her husband, is dashed on the floor by her ally Fanny, symbolically bringing matters to a head. This is something - this ''drawing matters to a head'' - which is also evinced by the much more direct and frank dialogue between the characters in the last forty or so pages, in marked contrast to its ''indirect'' and ''oblique'' handling for so much of the book. And predictably, the break in the bowl occurs along the flaw-line.
Much of the communication in ''The Golden Bowl'' between characters occurs as much by ''mutual understanding'' as by specific and direct enunciation in words. Thus sentences in dialogue are often left from completion, the reader being left to fill in the missing words, much as in a crossword, and thereby gauge the meaning intuitively. Whilst irritating at times because of the frequency at which this occurs, it nevertheless acts to positively engage the reader: thus Maggie''s ''accusation'' of Amerigo is as much sensed indirectly, as ''heard'', in the prose of these passages. And it helps also, in something else: in creating that general theme of uncertainty that runs like a thread through the novel. That is, the uncertainty on the part of each character, about how much each one of the others ''knows''. How apt, in a novel about infidelity in Victorian society!
The strongest connection, the one that permeates the novel, is, however, the close relationship between the father Adam and his daughter Maggie. The ''goodness'' of this relationship is starkly juxtaposed with the badness of the other. And it is when her intimacy and sense of silent mutual understanding between herself and her father are threatened by her growing sense of the infidelity engaged in by their respective spouses, that the most poignant passages occur in Maggie''s thinking, and the theme of sacrifice begins to suggest a final resolution. Whether her father knows or suspects, is left unclear until much of the novel has passed, for almost all the inner psychic drama occurs in the minds of Amerigo and especially, of Maggie. But in these two minds one can clearly see a vast difference - a gulf - between the unselfishness of the heroine Maggie (reminiscent of Isabel Archer in ''The Portrait of a Lady'') and the egocentrism of her errant husband the Prince:
''What were they doing at this very moment, wonderful creatures, but trying to outdo each other in his interest?'' (The Prince''s thinking, in reference to the women in his life).
The dynamics of the relationship between Maggie and Charlotte are likewise realistically fashioned by Henry James. It slowly becomes clearer that the cause of the ''evil'' is, paradoxically, something quite noble: the close bond between father and daughter - that intimate bond, of which Charlotte is jealous. Unable however, to contain in herself this jealousy, she employs a psychological defence mechanism that was just being characterised at the time by Sigmund Freud: that of projection. In a dramatic and intimate scene in the garden, Charlotte directly accuses Maggie of ''loathing (Charlotte''s) marriage'', and of having worked against her: ''How I see that you''ve worked against me''. But these direct and confrontational statements come towards the end, and for most of the ''Princess half'' of the novel, her rival (Charlotte) is portrayed in Maggie''s consciousness as being somewhat at a distance, and operating ''behind the scenes'', as it were. In this respect, these simple and direct later passages between the two women are given extra force, by the deliberate vagueness of what has, for so long, preceded them.
As has been mentioned, metaphors are plentiful in this novel of literary realism based more upon the inner lives of its characters than the outer, and thus are entirely appropriate even when they (not infrequently) extend for some hundreds of words. Extend, in fact, so much at times, that one almost forgets what particular ''reality'' they were supposed to be describing. Indeed, James makes them part of the conscious ''reality'' of the reader ''seeing'' the story, to thereby colour that vision. And it is this technique, perhaps, that sustains the novel: an ingenious use of metaphor to achieve the effect of the modern writer''s fiat: ''show, not tell''.
Some metaphors are exquisite. Some are short, where the use of a particular word is surprising but apt: ''What indeed had she come home for but to inter, as decently as possible, her mistake?'' Or: ''(Charlotte) assuming the character and office of one of those revolving subordinate presences that float in the wake of greatness''.
Some are longer, as in the description of Maggie''s ''garden of life'', in the centre of which her situation had reared itself ''like some strange tall tower of ivory . . .'' But in any case, it remains that the novel would not be what it is without these metaphors, for (ironically) the things they are describing - those things of the inner world - cannot be illustrated as adequately in any way other than that way that our five senses perceive the physical - that is, the outer - world. There are lapses, of course, for no novel is perfect. For example, this phrase, almost comical in its clumsiness: ''Amerigo that morning for instance had been as absent as he at this juncture appeared to desire he should mainly be noted as being . . .'' But such lapses - perhaps on the editor''s part as well, if there was one - are few and far between, and so can be forgiven.
''The Golden Bowl'' is a sombre work. But like the best of dramas, there are passages of dry wit - lighter areas - to contrast with the dominant grey tones, and enhance the emotive ''texture'' of the novel. Some of the metaphors strike the reader almost as being tongue-in-cheek, and certainly James''s portrayal of the domestic verbal interchange between Fanny and her husband Bob, holds many moments of brilliant understated humour, to lighten the burden on the reader, as do metaphors like this: ''She looked as if her most active effort might be to take up, as she lay back, her mandolin, or to share a sugared fruit with a pet gazelle'', (in reference to Fanny Assingham).
Despite the lighter moments, Maggie''s burden becomes our burden, and its resolution, if not entirely unpredictable, nevertheless ''fits'', given the time in which this novel is set. It is possible that James himself ''saw ahead''. For example, the reference to the Prince making excuses (having to leave Maggie to ''arrange books'') and taking increasing interest in ''pretty women''. Then, of course, the revelation that Maggie doesn''t want to know in the end, that she feels ''ashamed to listen to the uttered word'' (a confession which she never clearly receives from her husband). And again, her fear of ''pity and dread'' and so, her inability to look him in the eye. It does not augur well for the future: a future left in question for the two central players (after the fashion in which all great authors leave them) but nevertheless hinted at. Hence, the nobility of Maggie''s decision, given these unsettling doubts.
Many would dispute the wisdom of the concealment practised by Maggie, considering she is the one against whom her husband and former friend have offended. But there are other people involved, and Maggie''s determination not to allow any hint of her distress to show - to hide it all from her father - so as to preserve their relationship as it had been in earlier more innocent years, gives her character an added dimension of legitimacy. And in not demanding a confession from her husband, but instead simply implying that she knows of his unfaithfulness, she attempts to engineer what she hopes will be a change in his character ''from within''. Likewise, but more difficult to understand at first, is her determination to disallow Charlotte''s seeing any sign of her unhappiness, or of her awareness of the affair. In this she is not entirely successful, as is seen late in the novel when Charlotte accuses Maggie of a certain coldness in their relations, a coldness that had certainly not been apparent to the reader whilst being given Maggie''s point of view. Nevertheless, Maggie is certainly praiseworthy when one reads that she has refused to ''. . . succumb to the straight vindictive view, the rights of resentment, the rages of jealousy, the protests of passion . . .'': Sense and Sensibility defined at length.
This is more than a novel of the ''idle rich''. Maggie and her father do indeed acknowledge that their life of ''comfort'' and ''privilege'' is ''selfish'' and even ''immoral''. But there are finer things in this story of infidelity - of ''forced civilities'', of uncertainty about ''who knows'' and of mutual deceit extending to those not directly involved (Maggie''s ''concealment'' from her father, her husband and her rival; even Fanny''s ''reassurance'' of Maggie that nothing is amiss, which is acknowledged by the reassurer as being a lie).
The question James poses is: ''Is it ever good to deceive?''. While the Prince and Charlotte might tell each other that their deceit is justified, in order to ''save'' Maggie and her father from hurt, there are other less dishonourable rationalisations posed by the story, and it is left to the reader to judge them, and indeed, to judge whether the heroine Maggie, is or isn''t really deceiving herself, even as she ''. . . groped noiselessly among such questions''. But whatever the modern reader might think of her final choice, it is clear that her sincerity is not in doubt, and the sensitivity with which James treats his heroine is outshone only by his understanding of the female psyche of his time - a psyche to which the male attitudes of that period conduced. While much of her motive to win back her husband might have had its origin in self interest (she would have stood to have lost much, in the event of a separation) she had little choice then. As Maggie herself says: ''I see it''s always terrible for women''.
There is much more in ''The Golden Bowl'' worthy of comment, but this reviewer, being a writer himself, has approached it from that point of view: that is, from a writer''s aspect. There is little doubt that Henry James was a great novelist. Like all great writers, especially Dickens, his great blessing lay in his ability not only to understand his fellow humans, but to effectively convey this understanding in such detail to his readers. And like those other ''greats'', his legacy of works has, by way of instruction, a great deal to offer the modern writer. And, of course, the receptive reader.