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!