The Points of View Challenge – A Bundle of Letters – Henry James

Henry JamesHenry James (1843 – 1916)

American novelist (The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Bostonians), ghost story writer (The Turn of the Screw), short story writer, critic, playwright and travel writer.

A Bundle of Letters, first published in The Parisien magazine, 1879

Available to read online here

This is the third and final story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Letter Narration. They describe A Bundle of Letters as “a collection of one-way correspondence by characters who because they are together do not write to each other but about each other; since the person each is writing to is a mere listening post, the letters are like entries in a diary.”

They go on to conclude: “although the novel of letters enjoyed its greatest vogue in the eighteenth century, when it was used universally to make fiction more plausible […] the use of the technique continued in the nineteenth century but was used selectively, for certain effects only. Although today’s novel is more likely to combine correspondence with other techniques than to tell a story entirely through letters, epistolary short stories continue to crop up.” Remember this commentary was published in 1966. In the twenty-first century, emails and texts are much more likely to be the norm.

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

A Bundle of Letters

 

On 5th September 1879, an independent and outspoken young American woman, Miranda Hope, writes to her mother in Bangor, Maine, from her hotel in Paris. She travels alone, determined to steep herself in as much culture as possible. She wants to learn some of the language too, and to that end by the time she writes her mother another letter on 16th September, she has moved into the house of Mme de Maisonrouge, for conversation practice with Madame and her family. Madame has other paying guests; English, American, and German.

But living under one roof will always bring out animosities.  The next letter is from the other young American woman, Violet Ray, to her New York friend, in which she calls Miranda “the most extraordinary specimen of artless Yankeeism that I ever encountered; she is really too horrible”. Another letter is written by Louis Leverett, a Bostonian, to his friend Harvard. He cares for neither of the young American women: “they are both specimens of the emancipated young American girl—practical, positive, passionless, subtle, and knowing, as you please, either too much or too little”. But he has fallen for the sweet looks of the Englishwoman Evelyn Vane. An update letter from Miranda to her mother reveals that she is learning a lot from Mme de Maisonrouge’s cousin Mr Verdier, that she doesn’t get on with Violet because she is “haughty”, she is inspired by Leverett’s enthusiastic intellectualism, disappointed in Evelyn’s lack of ambition, disgusted by her brother’s lack of respect and flattered by the attention of the German professor.

Evelyn meanwhile confesses in letter to her friend that, apart from Violet, all the guests are various degrees of frightful, Verdier makes it clear in a letter to his friend that his intentions with Miranda are far from honourable – not that she appears to mind – and the German professor, Dr Staub, reveals himself to be a nationalistic bigot who sees all interaction between foreigners in terms of how weak they are and how glorious Germany will step in and rise to supremacy: “…between precipitate decay and internecine enmities, the English-speaking family is destined to consume itself; and that with its decline the prospect of general pervasiveness, to which I alluded above, will brighten for the deep-lunged children of the Fatherland!”

The last word goes to Miranda, who in a letter dated October 22nd, advises that she’s going to move on to somewhere else – not sure where yet, but noting that everyone has been kind and attentive: “especially Mr. Verdier, the French gentleman, from whom I have gained more than I ever expected (in six weeks), and with whom I have promised to correspond.” Did Verdier get his way with her? I guess we’ll never quite know.

This is a very funny and cleverly constructed story; the grand joke in it all is that no one knows precisely what everyone else thinks about them, and the behaviour of each of them on the surface is likely to be completely different from what’s going on inside their heads! It’s also beautifully written in terms of the individual characterisations of those people lodging chez Mme de Maisonrouge. Miranda can’t understand why she upsets and offends people with her plain talking because surely everyone should share the same ideas that she does? Evelyn retreats into English snobbery as she cannot bear the company of all those ghastly common people. Verdier is a louche ne’er-do-well, bragging to his mate about the progress he’s making. Perhaps most entertaining of all is Leverett’s delightfully pretentious use of language, his mind on a self-consciously higher level as the only things that matter to him in life are self-expressioni and Art.

James was fascinated by the differences between Americans, the English, the French and other European nationalities. In this little story he gets to explore nationalistic stereotypes to his heart’s content. Maybe there is a degree of caricature, particularly with the snobbish Englishwoman and the nationalistic German. Much has been made of how the characterisation of Staub was remarkably forward-looking and predictive, with the German’s disdain for the behaviour of his fellow residents, describing Verdier as homunculus, despising any show of decadence, his pompous mocking of anything that isn’t German, and looking ahead to good times for the Fatherland.

James impresses with his ability to tell a fascinating tale but leave much untold too – he demonstrates that there’s great eloquence in silence. What did happen between Miranda and Verdier? Why does she despise William Pratt so? What is buried Mme de Maisonrouge’s past? And many more questions besides.

Apparently, James wrote this in one sitting, which maybe explains how beautifully it flows. Hugely entertaining, a rather elegant and classy read that gives a good insight into the times and prejudices of the day. This could well make me want to read some more Henry James!

The next story in the anthology is the first of the two diary narration stories, and the reason that I bought Points of View in the first place – Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. I am really looking forward to reading this story again!

The Points of View Challenge – Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General – Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose BierceAmbrose Bierce (1842 – 1913/4*)

*date of death uncertain, disappeared sometime after December 26th 1913

American short story writer, journalist, poet, and Civil War veteran.

Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General, first published in The Wasp, 1885

Available to read online here

This is the second story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Letter Narration. They describe Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General as “a crisscrossing of letters, with excerpts from other documents and a deposition thrown in for good measure.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General

 

WaspOn 3rd November 1861, the Secretary of War writes to the Hon. Jupiter Doke to inform him that the President has appointed him a brigadier general of volunteers. Will he accept the honour? Oh yes he will! He replies on the 9th that it will be the proudest moment of his life. The Secretary of War writes to Major General Blount Wardorg that the new Brigadier General is to be assigned to his department and is to take command of the Illinois Brigade at Distilleryville, Kentucky. Wardorg, however, deliberately instructs Doke to take a route that he knows will be ambushed; he and his men are to be an instant sacrifice. But Doke sends his wife’s cousin in his place (because Doke never likes to get that involved) and it’s poor Mr Briller who gets sacrificed.

As the letters and diary notes continue, we see that Doke has taken to his new status like a fish to water – all apart from the military skill aspect. Wardorg quickly realises that Doke’s is a woefully poor appointment and that he and his men will have to be sacrificed due to their incompetence and stupidity, with the cutting remark to the Secretary of War: “I think him a fool”. After all, Doke is the man who has been collecting 2,300 mules in preparation for each of his men to ride one into Louisville as a form of dignified Retreat. The Confederate Army generals report that a freak of nature in the form of a tornado completely wipes out their men and Doke gets the credit. However, according to the eyewitness Mr Peyton, what really happened was that, at the first sounds of the oncoming enemy, Doke jumped through a window to escape and startled the mules so badly that they stampeded down the road towards the Confederates… I guess any that survived the tornado – if there really was a tornado – were muled to death! Result: Major General Jupiter Doke.

So despite all evidence to the contrary, when the President appointed Doke as Brigadier General, he might just have chosen the right guy! Doke quickly settles in to his new high office, spending all his time enjoying his peripheral benefits, appointing and recommending family members and friends, filling up his expense claims, publishing his speeches and over-egging his heroism, leasing a prominent residence in which to instal his wife and family, and engaging his brother in law to supply arms and regalia (much as you would with PPE today). When it comes to actual military matters, his judgment is pathetic, accidentally sending men to their death, and marching his men into town to be attacked because they were taken for the enemy, and when they returned to camp the real enemy had moved in.

This is a wonderful account of how someone can be promoted way beyond their ability, yet, by a series of extraordinary accidents and misjudgements, the final outcome has them smelling of roses and decorated accordingly. Every decision Doke makes is wrong, primarily because he spends all his time reaping the cash or status benefits of his new-found authority. Bierce portrays him as a magnificent example of small-town pomposity, concealing his own ineffectuality with flattery and self-aggrandization. He never misses a chance to improve his own standing, sneaking in an application for the Gubernatorial Chair of the Territory of Idaho, moving into a “prominent residence” whilst its previous incumbent is fighting in the war, writing a nonsense account of his own heroism for publication in the newspaper. However, the truth is that he is a coward who’ll escape through a window at the first sight of the enemy.

The story improves enormously on a second reading; for 21st century British readers not that familiar with 19th century American idiom and history, it’s easy to miss a few very important details on a first reading. Bierce himself had enlisted in the 9th Indiana Infantry at the start of the Civil War in 1861 and had a great deal of active involvement in several battles and campaigns, so we can trust his experience when it comes to the military procedures and the type of manoeuvres that feature in this story. An excellent satire on how to muck up a war and the elevation of a clown to high office. Now, why does that ring a bell today?

The next story in the anthology, and the last of the three letter narration stories, is A Bundle of Letters by Henry James. As an English graduate, it is to my shame that I have never read any James, so it’s definitely time to put that right.

The Points of View Challenge – A Novel in Nine Letters – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881)

Russian novelist, (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Brothers Karamazov) philosopher, short story writer, essayist, and journalist

A Novel in Nine Letters, first published in 1847

Available to read online here

This is the first story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Letter Narration. Here is the start of their description of this narrative style: “Each of the following stories is, to use the title of the James story, “a bundle of letters.” A letter is a written monologue, still relatively spontaneous, still addressed to a certain person for a certain reason; but of course the speaker is not face to face with his listener.” They describe A Novel in Nine Letters as “a two-way correspondence, a dialogue at a distance.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

A Novel in Nine Letters

 

Novel in nine letters (Russian edition)Pyotr Ivanitch writes to Ivan Petrovitch saying he’s been looking for him everywhere, but would he and Tatyana please come to tea. He’s also not happy about having been introduced to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, but we don’t know why. Also his son is ill and his wife is depressed. Ivan Petrovitch replies to Pyotr Ivanitch that he was at home all the time, so he has no idea why he couldn’t find him. He’s not sure what the problem is with Yevgeny Nikolaitch but wants to meet to talk it out – but now he can’t find Pyotr anywhere. Also, his wife is having a baby. Pyotr responds that he was called away because his aunt was ill – but will meet him at a mutual friend’s. Ivan replies that Pyotr didn’t turn up at the mutual friend’s, making him (Ivan) look an idiot, and accusing Pyotr of backtracking on a financial loan. Pyotr replies that it wasn’t a loan, his aunt’s dead and he’s too wounded to discuss the issues. Ivan says Pyotr’s deliberately avoiding him, deceiving him with pretend friendship, leading him on a merry dance and lying. Pyotr refuses to engage. At the end, both receive evidence that their wives have been cheating with aforementioned Yevgeny Nikolaitch and their friendship is incontrovertibly over!

This is a very entertaining battle of words and will between two “gentlemen” – Dostoevsky gives them shared names in an attempt, I think, to show that they’re interchangeable, and each as bad as the other. It’s great to see how the extreme formality and politeness of the earlier missives gets replaced by downright invective towards the end! Dostoevsky deliberately holds back with the details – what exactly did Yevgeny do to make himself such an unwelcome guest? Why was he at Ivan’s flat? (I think we know the answer to that!) Was it a loan between Pyotr and Ivan or some other kind of agreement? And at the end you ask yourself, is Anna really depressed, and who is the father of Tatyana’s baby?!

Deceptively simple, this short story merits being re-read a few times to get the full nuances of what’s being accused and what’s happening behind the scenes. Apparently, Dostoevsky wrote it over the course of one evening, to pay off a gambling debt – something that Ivan accuses of Pyotr of doing. There are some wonderful turns of phrase in these letters; my favourite is when Ivan accuses Pyotr of “shameful exactitude” for pinpointing the precise time that his aunt suffered a stroke. Over 170 years since it was written, it’s fun to imagine these St Petersburg men engaging in a vicious and bitchy spat, but the nature of their disagreement is timeless – you could just imagine how today they would be keyboard warriors of the worst kind!

The next story in the anthology is Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General, by Ambrose Bierce, another writer whose work I have never encountered, so I am looking forward to reading this one!

The Points of View Challenge – Travel is so Broadening – Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis (1885 – 1951)

American novelist (Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry), playwright, poet and short story writer, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930

Travel is so Broadening, originally published as Part V of the novel The Man Who Knew Coolidge, 1938

Available to read online here (start at page 202 of the document)

The second story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Dramatic Monologue. Here’s more of their description of this narrative style: “This kind of monologue, too, has a counterpart in the theatre, whenever one character takes over the stage and talks for a long time uninterruptedly. Some such speeches provide information about what has taken place offstage or permit the character to explain himself, reveal himself, or betray himself.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

Travel is so Broadening

 

The Man Who Knew CoolidgeLowell Schmaltz collars George Babbitt and his wife after an enjoyable dinner, and takes it upon himself to give advice about the best way to drive to Yellowstone, considering his own extensive, personal experience of long-distance driving. Schmaltz, however, is easily distracted from his main task, and, revelling in the sound of his own voice, forces a range of opinions on his listeners, including the life and times of his brother-in-law Lafayette, the singing talent of his daughter Delmerine, buying a pair of pumps in Chicago, descriptions of typical eateries to be found en route, the rights and wrongs of thumbing a lift, and so on and so on and so on. At the end of his monologue, he realises he hasn’t told the couple half of what he had intended, so it will have to save for another time – although there’s always time for him to squeeze in just one more thing before he goes…

Strictly speaking, this is not a short story in itself, but an extract from the larger book, The Man who knew Coolidge. If one reads the book from the beginning, one will already have encountered the narrator, Mr Lowell Schmaltz, as well as having heard about a couple of the people to whom he refers – his wife Mame, his daughter Delmerine, and some of the places in his life – his hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts, and the fictional city Zenith in the fictional state of Winnemac.

It’s an amusing account of a pompous know-it-all who loves to hold court and never gives anyone else the remotest chance of having their say. We all know people like that, and Schmaltz is a very recognizable character without ever becoming a caricature; although Lewis, the writer, manages to get his own word in when he breaks off from Schmaltz’s narration to explain: “here, by request of the publishers, are omitted thirty-seven other articles recommended by Mr Schmaltz. – EDITOR”.

Its main purpose is to divert the reader with imagining what this dreadful bore would be like in real life, but to today’s audience it also gives a little insight into the early days of driving in America. Even an experienced driver like Schmaltz wasn’t able to drive more than 298 miles in one day – which makes you realise he must have travelled at some speed in the times before freeways! We also get a good understanding of the kind of man Mr Schmaltz is, which doesn’t require much room for anything too deep. Although it’s an enjoyable read, you’re also aware that, deep down, it’s fairly inconsequential, and you don’t need to read too much into it. If there is one lesson to be learned from it, it would be beware of getting cornered by the likes of Mr Schmaltz!

The next story sounds as though it might have a little more gravitas – A Novel in Nine Letters by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In my younger days I read The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, but I’ve never read any of his short stories, so this should be interesting! This is also the first of the three stories in the anthology that have been categorised as Letter Narration.

The Points of View Challenge – The Lady’s Maid – Katherine Mansfield

 

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield (1888 – 1923)

New Zealand born poet and short story writer, associated with the Bloomsbury Group of writers

The Lady’s Maid, originally published in The Garden Party, 1922

Available to read online here

Here’s the first story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification Dramatic Monologue by Moffett and McElheny. This is how they start the description of this narrative style: “Now we overhear somebody speaking aloud to another person. He has a particular reason for telling a particular story to his particular audience, and his speech, as in real conversation, is spontaneous and unrehearsed. We can tell where he is and to whom he is talking from references he makes in his monologue.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

The Lady’s Maid

 

Katherine Mansfield TheGardenPartyMy Lady has a guest staying overnight, and there’s a nice cup of tea left over, so the lady’s maid (Ellen) thought the guest might appreciate it, if she wasn’t asleep yet. The guest gratefully accepts the tea and asks the maid a number of polite questions (that we don’t read) and the maid responds with polite and disarming honesty. During the conversation we discover that the maid dealt with my lady’s mother when she passed away after a stroke; that she chose to leave her own cruel and uncaring family at the age of thirteen to become a junior maid in this same household; and that at one stage she considered marriage to a man named Harry, but my lady couldn’t hide how devastated she would be if Ellen left – and so Harry was dumped.

It’s an elegant tale of complete, self-denying loyalty; part admirable in its honour, part horrific in its self-sacrifice. It’s very convincingly written; when I was reading it, Ellen’s voice came to me as though it were Jean Marsh’s Rose from TV’s Upstairs Downstairs. It’s harder to discern the nature of the unseen character in the conversation; one can only assume she doesn’t know My Lady that well, otherwise she would probably already have known the details that Ellen tells her. You sense that Ellen welcomes the opportunity to open up and tell her story; although she shies away from considering what might happen in the future. She’s content in the here and now and that’s the main thing. Any regrets are pushed right to the back of her mind.

The dramatic monologue style invites you to make sense of a conversation even though you only hear one side of it. It’s a little like a jigsaw puzzle, occasionally you have to piece together the questions from the replies. But it lends itself to exploring the narrator’s thought processes in a gradual and thoughtful way. Very short, but very enjoyable.

The next story in the anthology is Travel is so Broadening, by Sinclair Lewis. I know nothing of him, so have no idea what to expect!