Henry James: The Awkward Age

One of my rituals when visiting Santa Fe was stopping off at Nicholas Potter Books; unfortunately, he had to close his bookstore a couple of years ago.  There are a few used bookstores scattered around Santa Fe, but I have not found one quite like the old Nicholas Potter Books.  I mention this bookstore because while I have the complete Henry James on Kindle, tablet, and iPhone, I still like to read him in book form.  About 5 years ago, I found a Pantheon’s The Novel Library edition (1949) of The Awkward Age.  It has teeny-tiny print on very thin paper, and is just a tad too big to fit in my pocket.  When I started to read the book, I did not need glasses . . . .  I finally finished the book last week, and am currently on my second prescription for reading glasses.

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Henry James, 1910. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, George Grantham Bain Collection, Digital ID ggbain.04703

My favorite Henry James novel is The Ambassadors: it is his most approachable late work, the least elliptical, and with the most sympathetic lead character.  The Awkward Age is not in that league, but I can see the progression from that book to his final works.  The short version of the story is that of two girls, Nanda and Aggie, the former too much exposed to a corrupting society, the latter cossetted to the point of imbecility, and how each breaks out of her awkward age.  Surrounding them are mothers and guardians and friends, each with his/her own set of beliefs on the role of society and the moral code, and each acting ultimately not for the girls’ good, but for his/her own benefit.  The tale is told almost entirely in dialogue, and that made it a difficult slog.  Without a lot of clues about the people populating the play, I was left to my own devices about how to feel about the whole arc of the story.  All the characters talk … and talk … and talk … and it is never clear exactly what they are talking about and how they actually feel about anything, or anybody, in their lives.

I think I tried too hard the first few years to read every word, mull over every sentence, with the result that I would put the book down for a while, then have to reread from the beginning.  The trick to reading this particular book is to pretend you really are in the drawing room with the characters, and just “listen” semi-attentively as you would at a cocktail party populated by people you don’t particularly like.  You know you are going to miss some things along the way, but really, does it matter if at the end of the night, you do in fact get the gist of it all?

A random conversation between Mrs. Brook and Vanderbank:

“I called Nanda in because I wanted to.”

“Precisely; but what I don’t make out, you see, is what you’ve since gained by it.”  

“You mean she only hates me the more?”

Van’s impatience, in the movement with which he turned from her, had a flare still sharper.  “You know I’m incapable of meaning anything of the sort.”  

She waited a minute while his back was presented.  “I sometimes think, in effect, that you’re incapable of anything straightforward.”  

Indeed.

A Travel Diary

This little treasure came in a donation box containing many obsolete veterinary medicine texts:

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The leather-bound diary measures just 6″ x 3.5″ x 0.75″ and is in pretty decent shape given its age.  Mary C. Andrews wrote mainly in pencil, and though her handwriting is that typical spidery one of the era, it is mostly legible.  I am not sure why she wrote “State Insane Asylum” as the address under her name . . . .  I hope it was a joke of some sort.

historic image buffalo state hospital

The above is a historic photograph of the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane  (courtesy of http://www.Richardson-Olmsted.com).  The hospital is now called the Richardson-Olmsted Complex in honor of the architect Henry Hobson Richardson (of Richardsonian Romanesque fame) and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.  The hospital opened in 1880 as a state-of-the-art inpatient treatment center for psychiatric patients, with the last patients leaving in the mid-1970s.

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HABS photograph of H. H. Richardson Complex from 1965, courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, NY,15-BUF,9-1

Miss Mary started her trip in May 1889 with her Mama and Papa, and she wrote about a “little of England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Amsterdam.”  And the adventure begins:

May 25 1889 Saturday

Sailed on the “Etruria” this afternoon.  Had a lovely sail down the bay and “The Farny (?)” (Mr. Fisk’s boat) saluted us.  It is very smooth and pleasant.

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RMS Etruria

I wonder if the Mr. Fisk she referred to was James Fisk, the speculator who along with Jay Gould tried to corner the gold market in 1869.  After a decidedly colorful — if short — life, he was murdered by his ex-mistress’ lover in 1872.  He was only 36 years old. James Fisk owned many things, including steamboats, so I suppose some boats of his still were still in commission in 1889.

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James Fisk, 1835 – 1872

I have no idea whether Miss Mary travelled first or second class, but I hope she had the trip of her life!

Red Chair Reads: Illustrated Homes

As part of my small effort to pay more attention to other people’s dreams, I started volunteering at a tiny non-profit bookstore located inside an independent coffee shop.  The store’s inventory is even more hit-or-miss than usual because all the books are donated, but once in awhile something interesting shows up:

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Be still, my architectural historian heart!

Eugene Clarence Gardner (1836 – 1915) was a 19th-century Massachusettes architect, and seemed to have had a successful career despite his questionable actions as the “only superintendent or engineer” present at the building of the Mill River Dam, which failed in 1874, killing 139 people.

This particular book is called Illustrated Homes:  A Series of Papers Describing Real Houses and Real People, and was published in 1875.  According to various contemporary reviews, the book would have cost somewhere around $1.50 to $2.00 at the time, which of course was not the price I paid for it couple of days ago.  It is a fun read, and is illustrated with floor plans and architectural renderings of presumably real houses.

My favorite plan is the tiny house Gardner designed for a gentlewoman of reduced circumstances: it is about 400 square feet, with no bathroom (other plans in the book typically included one bathroom) and no actual kitchen.  It is in fact a one-room cottage with a sleeping alcove, four closets (the lady had insisted on the four closets for storing her clothes and china), and a lean-to tacked on to house a sink.  The cost of the house?  $500.  What I find interesting is that no matter how big or small the houses, Gardner’s houses all look the same; he seemed to have really liked the Eastlake style.

And the quote of the day:

Architecture is often suggested as a suitable profession for women.  I doubt if they would succeed alone as well as men.  But a most efficient architectural partnership might be established by a man and his wife.  Her artistic taste and perceptions of the finer points would bring forth plans and designs which his matter-of-fact judgment would reduce to the requirements of actual practice and the comprehension of the builders.  

A sign of the times, indeed.

My Mom, the Pope, and Me

I have been reading the Pope’s encyclical letter Laudato si´: On Care for Our Common Home.  I am not Catholic (nor do I subscribe to any particular faith or religion), but this particular document is one for this age.  I have not read all of it.  It is slow going because in true historian fashion, I write margin notes as I read.  And as I read, I realize how very privileged I am:

45. In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, “ecological” neighbourhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquillity. Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called “safer” areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.

We moved to a house next to a multi-use trail that runs along a natural creek.  The city owns much of the open space, and property owners observe an easement  along the creek itself.  It is a natural area, or as natural as is possible in middle of a small city.  A couple of months ago, I watched a hawk eat his meal on the roof of a not-quite-finished house in our very small subdivision.  Earlier in the winter, we followed a tail-less fox on our bikes: he ambled along looking like a rather large corgi from behind, and we were happy to note that he looked healthy.  I am delighted by the many dragonflies zooming through our neighborhood; I am hopeful that they (or even better, their larval stage) are doing their best to control the mosquitoes.

The real estate agents tout the wonderful location of our neighborhood, and it is indeed wonderful.  From a historic point of view, it is also a surprisingly diverse area.  Within a 1/2 square mile of our house are wood-framed 1890s to 1920s farm houses, minimal traditional 1930s and 1940s cottages, tiny brick post-war houses, expansive mid-century architect-designed ranches, less interesting 1970s and 1980s condominium complexes, and late 20th-century and early 21st-century post-modern homes.  Many of the houses verge on the decrepit, but gentrification marches on.  Even run-down shacks start at $300 thousand, and people are apparently quite happy to snap them up and turn them into their “open concept hardwood floors granite countertops stainless steel appliances minimum 3 bedrooms 2 bathroom large yard” dream home.

This is my neighborhood.  If I congratulate myself on being “green” because I can (and do) walk/bike everywhere, the Pope reminds me it is because I can choose to be green.  I have the economic wherewithal to choose to walk, to bike, to have expensive LED bulbs, to have high-efficiency plumbing and mechanics, to have solar panels, to have environmentally sustainable wood floors, to have a finished basement to escape the worst of the summer heat because I also choose not to have air conditioning.  And outside my door, I can enjoy a protected green space.  I use the trail everyday, and while I see the low-income apartment complex a couple hundred yards down the trail from my house, I also know its days are numbered.  The diversity that interests me on my walks is disappearing, and I am of course a contributor.  It is all very safe, very sanitized, very middle-class, and I am guilty of complaining that I still do not have the promised landscaping around my new house.  Luckily, I have the Holy Father and Mom (who would be appalled to know she had anything in common with a celibate white man who lives in a marble palace) to chastise me.  Who knew she would be the Pope’s enforcer in reminding me to be humble?

I sweep the (sustainable bamboo) floors everyday, and because I am compulsive, I do it on my hands and knees.  It is how Mom used to clean her floors, so it is how I do it.  It is actually quite efficient, and I can wipe down pretty much the entire house in about 20 minutes.  I hear Mom telling me not to be afraid of manual labor: “Do it right,” she says, “and no shirking.”  And she reminds me that our fortunes were built, quite literally, on the back of her grandfather, the day laborer who started the upward mobility of his family by hauling salt for a living.  I may have three degrees, but the floors still need to be cleaned.

I clean the floors, and most days I cry.  “Don’t cry,” Mom says.  “If you keep crying, Ah-ma is going to lecture me on how I didn’t raise you correctly to appreciate and understand the cycle of life.”  Remember your roots, remember your privileges, remember to be humble.

Red Chair Reads: One Fine Day

One Fine Day, by Mollie Panter-Downes (1946)

It is summer of 1946, and Laura and Stephen Marshall are trying to adjust to life in post-war England.  Their little village of Wealding seems the timeless, quintessential English village: the Manor House, the rectory, the High Street with the requisite independent shops, the winding country lanes, the picturesqueTudor cottages. The Marshalls — and the village — have survived the war, and now it is time to live the peace.

What is that peace?  Look closer and there are signs of upheaval everywhere: Laura’s house is falling down around her, the weeds are winning, and a sense of disquiet pervades her life.  She is prematurely grey, she stands in endless lines for her family’s rations, she sees rusting coils of barbed wire, she runs across the remaining German POW still working English farmland.  The owner of the Manor House has sold the crumbling pile for institutional use, and the future is personified by the ambitious and ethically challenged Mr. Rudge, and the good-natured by sly Mrs. Prout, a charwoman who knows her worth, who never says “madam,” and who understands her “place” is not where the “gentry” thinks it is.  So Laura continues her everyday day: she finds her wayward dog, climbs the chalk down and catches a glimpse of her future, and finally sees that her world has undergone a fundamental change that she may not have wanted, but that she can in fact embrace.

Nothing much happens in One Fine Day —  nothing, except one woman finding reasons for hope and optimism.

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Red Chair Reads: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, by Julia Strachey (1932)

Virginia Woolf apparently thought highly of this work, originally published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press in 1932.  Other people must also have loved it, as both Penguin Books and Persephone Books have republished it, and somebody turned it into a movie in 2012.  Anyway.  I wish I loved the book too.

On a blustery day in March, the pampered elder daughter of a wealthy family marries a dull man destined for an acceptable career somewhere in South America.  Dolly knows it is a mistake, and spends the pre-wedding hours in her room with a bottle of rum, even as her friends and family (including a young man she may or may not have loved and who may or may not still love her) gather downstairs for the celebration.

The book is sharp, funny, and short, which turned out to be a good thing.  Julia Strachey populated her work with a cast of characters one expects in certain novels set in English country houses, but the trenchant observations left no room for sympathy.  The book is unflinchingly unsentimental, but nevertheless I wished for a glimmer of likability in the main characters: just when I thought something interesting was going to happen between Mrs. Thatcham and Joseph, it didn’t.  As I said, disappointing, but ultimately a fitting end to the book.

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Let’s read something else, OK?

Red Chair Reads: The Murder of Halland

The Murder of Halland, by Pia Juul, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitkin

Whodunit, who cares?

Halland and Bess live in a small town where everyone knows your name.  One day, Halland is shot dead in the town square, and not surprisingly, this is the catalyst for Bess to reassess her life.  Who killed Halland? Bess is not all that interested, even as her life lurches on and unexpected people keep showing up on her doorstep.  Who, after all,  was the Bess who lived with Halland and yet did not share his life, and who is the Bess who seems unable to grieve for her not-quite-husband?

The book might be called The Murder of Halland, but that is not the actual subject of the book.  Bess is the focus, and we are meant to see the world from her viewpoint.  She is smart, she is skewed, and she may be slowly unhinging.  She does not mourn Halland so much as mourn for the person she may have been: he was never in her life, and neither was she ever in his.  Bess finds out about the pregnant foster-niece in Copenhagen, about the apartment she lives in for which he paid the rent, about his share of the apartment, a small locked room with a gigantic poster of Martin Guerre.  What does it all mean?  She speculates, she gets drunk, she finds out things that she doesn’t share with the police, she loses interest . . . .  and so did I.  In the end, Bess was just too irritating to be intriguing.

The Murder of Halland was my first dip into the Peirene Press, “two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film.”  Clever, well-written, claustrophobic, perhaps too interested in “intellectual dismantling” of an entire genre, and ultimately a most unsatisfying two hours of my life.

Chia, the assitant Red Chair Reader
Chia, the Assistant Red Chair Reader

Chia, who is quite perturbed that Martin Aitkin, PH.D in Linguistics, does not know the difference between further and farther.