Thursday, 5 October 2000

Henry James: The Golden Bowl (1904)

Edition: Bodley Head
Review number: 646

Henry James' last novel was obviously fulfilling to write: he did not write another in the final twelve years of his life. In the context of his earlier novels it is possible to see why this is. The themes of his work (the relationship between American and Europe, the artificiality and deception of human relationships) are treated here in a more relaxed manner; the heated prose he wrote is considerably less tense. It is a novel which sums up and completes what he had to say, so that there was no need for him to write any more.

The Verwers, father and daughter, are Americans who have been settled in England for some time - much more integrated into European culture than their equivalents in earlier novels. Maggie married an Italian prince (named Amerigo, after the explorer whose name was also given to the continent of the Verwer's origin - a symbol of the closer relationship in this novel), and a couple of years later her father married a younger woman, Charlotte. After a while, Maggie discovers that Charlotte has been Amerigo's mistress, both before and after the marriages. Her behaviour from that point, about halfway through the novel, is driven by the desire to protect her father, to whom she is extremely close (and James even hints that they are perhaps too close, describing their relationship at one point as "like husband and wife").

The golden bowl of the novel's title is a symbol of the marriage between the Prince and Maggie. At one point, it is a possible wedding gift from Charlotte to them - to be paid for by Amerigo. It appears to be gold, but close examination reveals that it is in fact gilded glass crystal, which is moreover flawed. After she discovers her husband's infidelity, Maggie buys it as a sign of her knowledge, and then breaks it.

To the reader, The Golden Bowl is anything but fulfilling. Its style, principally conversational like James' other late novels, is convoluted and extremely unconvincing, and positively invites skimming. The characters are not particularly believable, and some of them are really annoying (family friend Fanny Assingham is the principal offender). It is a novel with an interesting idea, and that is perhaps the best to be said for it.

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