Saturday, February 16, 2008

Henry James, Roderick Hudson

I've long been meaning to write about Henry James whose works I admire intensely, both for the craft and James' insight into human psychology (although James was before Freud and the advent of psychoanalysis).

Over the holidays, I read several of James' novels in a spate: The Bostonians, Roderick Hudson, and Princess Casamassima. Roderick Hudson is James' first novel, with The Bostonians and Princess Casmassima being written a little over a decade later in 1886. It's stunning to think that in the decade he would write The American, Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady (one of my all-time favorite novels), and Washington Square. Even while being highly prolific, James continued to experiment different ways of writing the novel.

Briefly, Roderick Hudson is about a young sculptor who is patroned by another young man, the wealth Rowland Mallet, who invites Roderick to live with him in Italy with the notion that Roderick would become a great artists by living amongst great works of art. Instead, Roderick falls in love with a cynical young American, Christina Light, who has been raised in Europe by her mother with the express idea that her daughter must marry into aristocracy, and not just any aristocracy but the best of the European aristocracy.

There are several overall arching themes within the novel. The first is the notion of helping someone. It is Rowland Mallet whose consciousness defines the mores of this novel, and he is a sensitive, cultured, refined man, perhaps an alter-ego of James' himself at this age. But unlike James, Mallet has wealth without purpose (James came from a family on the downturn of wealth). Even while appreciating art, Mallet is acutely conscious that he does not have a goal in life; as such, in helping Roderick Hudson achieve the purpose of becoming a great artist, Mallet will achieve something in his own life.

Another key theme in the novel is the function of art and the making of art. Even though it is helpful in deconstructionist theory to consider the author dead (for the purposes of intent), in the creation of a work of art, the artist-author is palpably alive, and there is a dynamic interaction between the artist and his work. It is for such elucidation that the life of an artist can throw on his work that we continue to read biographies. In Roderick Hudson, Hudson's sculptures are examined carefully for the moral pathways Hudson has taken. Moreover, Mallet and Hudson have numerous discussions about art. And finally, Hudson's artist foil is an unassuming young painter, Sam Singleton, who has saved money for his brief European education in the arts and plans to return to his small American town to become a steady bread-earner for his family.

And, as always, James is interested in what it means to be an American in contrast to the Old World of Western European culture. It's noteworthy to consider that James specifically was thinking of Balzac while writing Roderick Hudson. My guess is that James would be thinking primarily of Balzac's Lost Illusions which also centers on a young man who leaves a provincial small town, full of promise and the center of his poor family, to go to the brilliant, cosmopolitan and corrupt Paris.

The heart of the novel centers on the three characters: Roderick Hudson, Rowland Mallet and Christina Light. There is almost a feel of a love triangle, of a struggle for ascendency over Roderick Hudson between Rowland Mallet and Christina Light. Rowland and Christina are radically different characters. In his preface to the New York Edition of Roderick Hudson when James revised the book, he talks of creating Roderick's fiance, Mary Garland (whom he leaves behind in America), as the antithesis to Christina; and James does bring Mary Garland as a substantial character in the latter portion of the novel for Roderick's downfall and also to be the unrequited love interest for Rowland. However, I would argue that Rowland is the true antithesis to both Christina Light and Roderick Hudson.

How can it be that Rowland is the antithesis to Christina Light and Roderick Hudson given that Rowland is one character while Christina Light and Roderick Hudson are two characters? In many ways, Christina Light and Roderick Hudson share so many of the same flaws and charisma that they seem mere gender counterpoints to the same idea. While Christina Light is not an artist in the sense of Roderick Hudson, she is a consummate production of the self, an artist in the creation of a self-drama. And in essence, this is what attracts Roderick Hudson (why is it so hard to think of him as just one is as though his full name is more natural) so fatally to her. James attributes the beauty of both of them to their eyes (Roderick: "It was a generous dark grey eye, in which there came and went a sort of kindling glow which would have made a ruder vissage striking, and which gave at times to Hudson's harmonious face an altogether extraordinary beauty" (p . 64); Christina: "A pair of extraordinary dark blue eyes" (p. 209), "She turned upon him a moment the quickened light of her beautiful eyes" (p. 233), "judging by the light of her beautiful eyes" (p. 290)). Beyond such physical attributes, they are both individuals each driven by their own capricious moods, an irregard for others around them, a selfish and self-absorbed streak and a distinct knack for telling the uncomfortable truth. Yet, for all that, they are both highly intelligent beings who are charming and much admired by others.

As Christina and Roderick are naturals at creating a drama, Rowland is the consummate spectator. While Christina and Roderick are cut vividly from the first introductions of them, Rowland, even while being the first character introduced in the novel and being the conscious from whose viewpoint the reader understands the emotional stakes of the plot, and his qualities are first addressed by his cousin Cecilia in a socially conventional manner: know what I think of you. You have a turn for doing nice things and behaving yourself properly. You have it in the first place in your character. You are an amiable creature. Ask Bessie [Cecilia's young daughter] if you don't hold her more gently and comfortably than any of her other admirers.'
`He holds me more comfortably than Mr. Hudson.' Bessie declared roundly. (p. 51)

So, while our attention is immediately drawn to Christina and Roderick's physical beauty and energy when on their entrance into the story, we are given a rather bland, boring assessment of Rowland upon our first meeting with him. Yet, what matters in this introduction is his niceness, his conscientiousness, and the gradual drawing into his unassuming but extraordinarily close observation of life. As I noted previously, he could well be the young James' alter-ego. It is because Rowland behaves properly that the question of intruding in another life is one morally rife. It's worth considering that such a moral dilemma is not delineated in the sentimental novels that were popular in James' period, whether in America or Britain. Instead, in these novels, it is assumed in a matter of fact breeziness that it is right for the wealthy to help the worthy poor. However, what is not considered in sentimental novels is that such patronage involves leaving one's domestic circle, a sudden socioeconomic rift within the family (the one being patronised suddenly has access to a different level of privileges and opportunities than the rest of the family), as well as a complicated relationship between the patron and the patronised. From the very moment Rowland decides to take Roderick with him to Italy, his action is questioned, both by Roderick's mother and cousin as well as Rowland's cousin. James captures the situation vividly in the words of Mary Gardener: "` is like something in a fairy tale...Your coming here all unknown, so rich and so polite, and carrying off my cousin in a golden cloud'"(p. 91).

Rowland's defense of his sudden patronship to his cousin Cecilia contains mixed motivations having to do with a genuine love of art but also his own desire for more meaning in his life:

`I only wish to remind you,' she [Cecilia] went on, `that you are likely to have your hands full.'
`I have thought of that and I rather like the idea; liking as I do the man. I told you the other day, you know, that I longed to have something on my hands. When it first occurred to me that I might start our young friend on the path of glory, I felt as if I had an unimpeachable inspiration. Then I remembered there were dangers and difficulties, and asked myself whether I had a right to drag him out of his obscurity. My notion of his really having a great talent answered the question. He is made to do the things that we are the better for having. I can't do such things myself, but when I see a young man of genius standing helpless and hopeless for want of capital, I feel -- and it's no affection of humility, I assure you -- as if it would give at least a reflected usefulness to my own life to offer him his opportunity.' (p. 80)

On hearing Rowland's reasons for taking Roderick Hudson with him to Italy, his cousin demands that Rowland vouch for Roderick's moral security: "`His moral, his sentimental security. Here you see, it's perfect. We are all under a tacit compact to keep him quiet. Perhaps you believe in the necesssary turbulence of genius, and you intend to enjoin up on your protege the importance of cultivating his passions.'" (p. 81)

This dialogue between Rowland and Cecilia resonates in several different ways. First, the history of the novel at this moment bears recalling: there's James' own avowed interest in Balzac (In Lost Illusion, the young protagonist Lucien is immediately dropped by his patroness as soon as they land in Paris, and like Roderick, Lucien is immensely gifted but mercurial and undisciplined. The situation of Lost Illusions arises from taking a tempermental gifted young man and plopping him in the corrupt and fascinating environment of Paris. With Roderick Hudson, it is Europe that tempts him with gambling, drinking, and the American who has already conquered Europe -- Christina) but there's also the backdrop of the sentimental novel so popular during James' lifetime. James certainly read Charles Dickens carefully, but The Bostonians also bear witness to James' knowledge of popular political movements that based their appeal to the populace on sentiment and dramatic histrionics. Therefore, Cecilia's words about a sentimental security is in part about American morals. Europe is unsafe; it is the wide wide world and unknown to most Americans with its corrupt old aristocracy, its Catholicism, cultural sophistication as well as a different value system.

On the contrary, the very fact that James is lightly structuring Roderick Hudson on Balzac's novels (Balzac also wrote numerous religious stories and novels that are not as popular today) reveals that the Europeans have a moral value system, one that prizes a similar set of values related to home ties as well as to the necessity of discipline and hard work where art is concerned. The ending of Lost Illusions has Lucien returning to his hometown only to lose his soul to the devil, in a sense, with further moral and sexual corruption implied in his meeting with Carlos Herrara.

What is one to make of a decidely odd situation where a man is responsible for the moral well-being of another man? Moreover, Roderick Hudson has been spoiled by his mother and is unused to bearing with the outcome of his actions. As Roderick deteroriates emotionally, all but ignoring his mother and Mary who have come to Italy for the purpose of invigorating Roderick with a renewed sense of his former self pre-Christina (a tactic straight out of an American sentimental novel; consider the scene in Little Women where Amy chastises Laurie for not doing more with his life), the situation becomes even stranger with Mrs. Hudson, Roderick's mother, staring accusingly at Rowland for her son's demise. Of course, the problem is not with Rowland but with Roderick who refuses to live in any other fashion but one that follows the whims of his moods. As much as Roderick lacks discipline as an artist, so too does he lack discipline in his life. As a consequence, those who care for him inevitably do everything they can for him but are unable to understand him.

James was known to dislike Jane Austen's novels; however, he makes a similar sort of distinction in his characters. There are decidely characters who make moral scrulpes and there are characters who lack the ability to make such distinctions. The difference between James and Austen is James' larger view of the world where his interest is for when moral characters make the wrong decision. Additionally, James' most flawed and corrupt characters, such as Christina Light, are attractive. In this regard, such characters reflect James' own observations of society. James' most explicit statement of a moral character in Roderick Hudson is a description of a more minor character, Madame Grandoni, a companion to a woman artist:

Madame Grandoni...was an excessively ugly old lady, highly esteemed in Roman society for her homely benevolence and her shrewd and humorous good sense. She had been the widow of a German archaeologist who came to Rome in the early ages, as an attache of the Prussian legation on the Capitoline. Her good sense had been wanting on but a single occasion, that of her second marriage. This occasion was certainly a momentous one, but these are by common consent not test cases. A couple of years after her first husband's death she had accepted the hand and the name of a Neapolitan music-master, ten years younger than herself and with no fortune but his fiddle-bow. The marriage was most unhappy, and the Maestro Grandoni was suspected of using the fiddle-bow as an instrument of conjugal correction. He had finally run off with a prima donna assoluta, who it was to be hoped had given him a taste of the quality implied in her title. He was believed to be living still, but he had shrunk to a small black spot in Madame Grandoni's life, and for ten years she had not mentioned his name. She wore a light flaxen wig, which was never very artfully adjusted; but this mattered little, as she made no secret of it. She used to say, `I was not always so ugly as this; as a young girl I had beautiful golden hair, very much the colour of my wig.' She had worn from time immemorial an old blue satin dress and a white crape shawl embroidered in colours; her appearance was ridiculous, but she had an interminable Teutonic pedigree, and her manners in every presence was easy and jovial, as became a lady whose ancestor had been cup bearer to Frederick Barbarossa. Thirty years' observation of Roman society had sharpened her wits and given her an inexhaustible store of anecdotes; but she had beneath her crumpled bodice a deep-welling fund of Teutonic sentiment, which she communicated only to the objects of her particular favour. Rowland had a great regard for her, and she repaid it by wishing him to get married. (121-122)

I have been in liberal in quoting the lengthy description of Madame Gradoni as it displays much of what is attractive about Rowland as a character as well. Like Madame Gradoni, Rowland is an astute observer of people and personalities. Both are able to be spectators partly because they are not glamorous (there's one very funny scene where Christina declares she doesn't like Rowland because his face reminds her of an Austrian count whose face "measured from ear to ear at least a yard and a half" (p. 164)); not being the center of attention by virtue of physical beauty and not being observed, they are able to learn the art of observation (and indeed observation as practised by James and his characters is an art). Most crucially, in drawing the attention away from their physical characteristics to the point of ridiculing their physical being, James is able to delve into their inner lives and to make their inner lives shine forth. Much the same holds for the painter Singleton, the hardworking artist who spends his summers traveling and painting while Roderick fritters time gambling; Singleton is continually ridiculed by Roderick as the small man. However, in the end, Singleton is able to sustain himself. And it could well be that what invests us as readers in James' characters is their ability to sustain themselves emotionally.

As the plot deepens, Madame Grandoni and Rowland share observations on Christina, Roderick, and the situation between Christina and Roderick. And as much as Madame Grandoni and Rowland agree that Christina is a femme fatale purposefully and falsely entangling Roderick, they both voice a pity for her fate as an object to be blackmailed into a society marriage by her mother. Their conversations function on several levels:

1) as a moral viewpoint, although not a narrow moral viewpoint but one that examines the situation with a sophisticated understanding of the world
2) as foreshadowing of the most likely outcome
3) as conversation between more ordinary beings discussing extraordinary beings with extraordinary fates

It is because Rowland is not beautiful but observant that we are able to enter the novel through his viewpoint. Indeed, it would be impossible to enter the novel through Roderick's viewpoint as his is such a singularly focused expression of immediate desires.


Liz said...

Have you considered some of the correspondences between The Europeans and Roderick Hudson? Roderick is a doppelganger of Felix; Christina of Eugenia (although Eugenia is less morally repugnant); Rowland of Robert Acton; Mary Garland of Gertrude Wentworth.

Postillion said...

Hello, Liz,

Thanks very much for your comment on The Europeans and Roderick Hudson. I haven't read The Europeans, but your comment makes me want to read it and see how James handles similar characters again. I am particularly intrigued that James created another Mary Garland-like character as I felt that she didn't get her full due in Roderick Hudson. There is also a sense in which Rowland gets a much fuller and more multi-dimensional treatment than Roderick Hudson, so I am curious to see if James does something different with the Hudson kind of character in The Europeans.