Monday, June 22, 2009

Henry James' Watch and Ward

Years ago I resolved to read all the works of several novelists I happened to be impressed with at the time. I may have managed a sizable dent, but I never quite finished all the novels. In the case of Henry James, I read his better novels, but few of the lesser ones. I invariably discovered they were classified “lesser” for good reason.

Watch and Ward was James very first novel, and the least of his lesser novels, if he is to be our judge in the matter. It was first published in 1871, serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. James later disowned the novel and began referring to his next one, Roderick Random, as his first.

The main plot is a variation on the Pygmalion theme. Roger Lawrence, an idealistic fellow who is in love with love in a highly exalted sense, is spurned by the woman he wants and then by chance he is left with a 12-year-old orphan. He conceives the idea of transforming her into the perfect woman. He gets her the best education, the finest polishing, and indeed she blossoms into a spectacularly beautiful and accomplished young lady.

But the idealistic Roger wants this young lady, Nora Lambert, to fall in love with him. As it happens she naively falls for Fenton, her cousin and more seriously Hubert, Roger’s cousin. Fenton is a scoundrel and Hubert is a weakling and hypocrite, but Nora can’t see them for what they are. She is after all a teenager of 16 or so. Still, she doesn’t go against Roger’s wishes until he declares his love for her when she reaches the age of 18. She is utterly surprised, rejects him and decides to temporarily seek the aid of first Fenton and then Hubert. Coming upon them when they were not prepared, she is at last able to see them both for what they are. Shortly thereafter, the distraught Roger shows up looking for her and she realizes that she loves him.

I can see why the novel isn’t highly regarded, but it is not far off the mark. It begins weakly and perhaps Roger should be given a more balanced nature, but for James’ purpose at the time, maybe Roger was as he needed to be. I can forgive James for Roger. He sort of grows on one. The novel moves smartly along and the reader (at least this reader) cares about both Roger and Nora.

Nora is nearly all that a Pygmalion should be., but she is after all a young girl, and it shouldn’t surprise us that she is attracted to the flashier Hubert and Fenton. We should rather blame Roger for forcing her to discover their inadequacies on her own. Still, Roger is being consistent in his idealism, even though he has doubts, he doesn’t linger over them and continues seeking to make Nora into the woman he wants.

Perhaps Nora should have suspected that Roger was in love with her, but he won’t let her know that as long as she is too young and in his care. He pushes her beyond his care and then declares himself, which is very confusing to Nora. It probably would be to any woman.

I am very unhappy with the ending of the novel. James is quite willing to tell us what Roger and Nora are thinking throughout the novel, but what were they thinking standing out in front of Hubert’s when Nora takes back the farewell letter she had previously sent Roger and tears it slowly “ . . . ‘into a dozen pieces, never taking her eyes off his own ‘Don’t try and forget that I wrote it,’ she said. ‘My destroying it now means more than that would have meant’”?

Roger doesn’t understand what she means and neither do we. Her last evaluation of Roger was as a beloved guardian, not as a lover or husband. Tearing up the letter which had declared that she was leaving him and intended to make her own way as a music teacher is a long way from a declaration of love. Roger asks as we might, “’What does it mean, Nora?’’”

Here is her chance to say that she realizes that she loves Roger and no one else, but she doesn’t say that. Instead she says “’It means that I’m a wiser girl to-day than then. I know myself better, I know you better. O Roger!’ She cried, ‘it means everything!’”

Roger can’t possibly understand what she means, but whatever it is, it must mean she is willing to go back with him. Whatever it means, it is in his favor, and being Roger he doesn’t ask for an elaboration: “He passed her hand through his arm and held it there against his heart, while he stood looking hard at the pavement, as if to steady himself amid this great convulsion of things. Then raising his head, ‘Come,’ he said; ‘come!’”

But she isn’t quite ready to go with him. She wants to confess, to blame herself for her shallow attraction to Hubert at the very least. But Roger doesn’t want to hear any of this. He shuts her off, albeit with a “smile of consummate tenderness” and tells her “My dear Nora, what have we to do with Hubert’s young girls?”

And that is essentially the end. James adds an unworthy final paragraph implying Roger and Nora live happily ever after. He then tells us a bit more about Hubert and his wife. Surely we have lost interest in Hubert by this time; haven’t we?

Another problem I have with the novel is the strange subplot involving Miss Sandys. She is stunningly beautiful and Roger is attracted to her. and is surprised to discover that she is attracted to him. He fancies she is way above him and is flattered that she can be interested in him. She seems to him what Nora will become in another ten years. She is wise, kind, and gracious. By the time Nora ran off to seek the aid of Fenton and Hubert, I was hoping Nora would marry one of them and Roger would turn to the worthier Miss Sandys, but that wasn’t to be. When Roger shows up in New York looking for Nora, he runs into Miss Sandys and tells her everything as he does each time he meets her. She invites him to come by the next day and he enigmatically says, not now, a year from now – whatever that means.

It may be that James as he serialized the novel, hadn’t made up his mind whether to reward Roger with Miss Sandys or Nora. And by the time he reached the end and decided Roger must have his Nora, it was impossible to go back and fix this subplot.

Logically, Roger needs to remain true to Nora. How could the idealistic Roger abandon the girl he had devoted his life to? He couldn’t. Even if Miss Sandys was a ready-made Pygmalion, it would be out of character for Roger to give up on Nora.

Since Miss Sandys has been left in, what becomes of her? I would far rather learn about her than about Hubert in that dreadful final paragraph.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Roderick Random?? :)