Henry James: The Coxon Fund

These little novellas, brought to us by Melville House, feel so nice in the hand, and it’s so fulfilling to read a good book in a sitting, that I’m hoping to keep expanding my collection and reviewing the classic and new works here.  In their latest batch of classic novellas, Melville House offered a Henry James book I’d never heard of: The Coxon Fund(1894).  You may remember from my previous post on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw that I am not well versed in James, but I thought I’d heard of most of his work here or there.  Turns out I’m not the only one to find The Coxon Funda new discovery; a few of my friends, who also thought they were moderately familiar with James’s work, looked at me quizzically when I showed them the book.

Review copy courtesy of Melville House.

Review copy courtesy of Melville House.

On a first read, I can understand why The Coxon Fund is not as famous as Daisy Miller, The Turn of the Screw, or The Aspern Papers.  This story, still psychologically acute and full of beautiful sentences, lacks some of the drama found in the more famous works.  At least, that’s true on the surface.  While I was in law school, I always wanted to dig a bit deeper into the cases, particularly the areas of family, trusts, and estates.  It’s amazing to see what money and inheritance can do to people, but we were often given only a dry version of the facts post-decline.  I am always on the lookout for a book that explores this area better, and I never knew Henry James offered one.  The Coxon Fund, as its title suggests, has at its center an endowment that will become the subject of a few disputes, wrecking the potentiality of one family while showing fault lines in others. 

Here we have a nameless narrator who is only tangentially involved in any of the main events in the novella.  However, he knows all of the primary actors, and his interactions reminded me somewhat of Nick Carraway’s.  At the beginning of the story, he tells us he’s just left the Mulvilles.  They have recently began boarding Mr. Saltram, a remarkably talented artist who nevertheless is broke and estranged from his wife, “a deeply wronged, justly resentful, quite irreproachable and insufferable person.”  On the one hand, our narrator is awed by Mr. Saltram, amazed by his intelligence and articulate manner.  But Mr. Saltram is not really sophisticated.  He fails to show up to his scheduled lectures, or perhaps worse shows up to lecture drunk.  Our narrator, while attracted to Saltram, is also aware that Saltram takes advantage: “remarkable men find remarkable conveniences.”

One of our narrator’s friends is Mr. Gravener.  Gravener doesn’t accept Saltram — “there was no cad like your cultivated cad.”  In fact, Gravener finds Saltram so unimportant that Gravener fails to understand the man’s pull on other people.  One of the individuals is Miss Ruth Anvoy, an American who’s come to visit her aunt in Britain.  We first meet Miss Anvoy when she attends one of Saltram’s lectures — one Saltram failed to attend.  Our narrator tells her she must come again; Saltram is worth it.  But our narrator also tells her that Saltram is far from perfect.

A few years pass, and Gravener and Miss Anvoy are engaged to be married.  There are some deaths and failed aspirations.  Through Gravener we become aware that Miss Anvoy’s aunt has a sum of money she wishes to put to good use:

“She wishes to endow — ?”

“Some earnest and ‘loyal’ seeker,” Gravener said.  “It was a sketchy design of her late husband’s, and he handed it on to her; setting apart in his will a sum of money of which she was to enjoy the interest for life, but of which, should she eventually see her opportunity — the matter was left largely to her discretion — she would best honour his memory by determining the exemplary public use.  This sum of money, no less than thirteen thousand pounds, was to be called the Coxon Fund; and poor Sir Gregory evidently proposed to himself that the Coxon Fund should cover his name with glory — be universally desired and admired.  He left his wife a full declaration of his views, so far at least as that term may be applied to views vitiated by a vagueness really infantine.  A little learning’s a dangerous thing, and a good citizen who happens to have been an ass is worse for a community than bad sewerage.  He’s worst of all when he’s dead, because then he can’t be stopped.  However, such as they were, the poor man’s aspirations are now in his wife’s bosom, or fermenting rather in her foolish brain: it lies to her to carry them out.  But of course she must first catch her hare.”

Lady Coxon gives the money to Miss Anvoy to dispose of how she sees fit.  Miss Anvoy feels the moral obligation to use the money to support someone who can help the world: “He was like a jelly minus its mould, he had to be embanked; and that was precisely the source of her interest in him and the ground of her project.”  Not an idealist, Mr. Gravener disagrees.

Typical of Henry James, what I’ve told you above merely gives structure to a deeper inquiry into the human psyche.  All of the characters are greatly realized and offer much to think about.  I was only partially disappointed that James left so much for me to figure out on my own (just like those old legal decisions!).  An interesting strain of inquiry — the one Melville House focuses on in its book blurb — is that of the artist’s role in the world.  Can the artistic abilities of the crass Saltram really make things better?  And what do the rest of us do to support such a person?  There is plenty of food for thought.  Though there were parts, even in this novella, where I became easily distracted by what was going on around me, in the end it had my complete attention — and I have continued thinking about it ever since.

9 thoughts on “Henry James: The Coxon Fund

  1. Tony S. says:

    I must say that Henry James is the author I’ve had the most trouble with over the years. I’ve appreciated a few of his shorter novels like “Washington Square” and “The Aspern Papers”. But whenever I try to read one of his four last large novels (including “Portrait of a Lady” and “The Golden Bowl”) which are supposed to be his towering achievements, I find the going very difficult, thick, and not worth the effort. I much prefer Edith Wharton as a writer.

  2. Trevor says:

    Ah Tony, I hope KFC comes on here and offers his opinion — I know he loves them both. I have never read one of James’s novels, though I have a few of them tempting me from the shelves. I am a bit nervous I’ll find them a bit too dense. I guess I’m waiting for the day when the stars are alined and I just know it’s time. And I only encountered Edith Wharton this year with The Age of Innocence. It’s frankly difficult to imagine anyone writing so well, but I’ve liked all of James’s short fiction I’ve read. We’ll see!

  3. I do love them both — so much that I don’t want to name a favorite (besides, it would change depending on how I feel that day). I had not heard of The Coxon Fund either and it is on its way. After this review, I certainly look forward to it.

    One trait that James and Wharton share is that they both excel at short stories, novellas and longer works — something that few modern authors can claim. Unlike Tony, I very much like James’ (and Wharton’s) longer novels, although I’ll admit they may be too abstract for some. For me, they are about as good as fiction can get.

    The New York Review of Books has put out editions of both James and Wharton New York stories that you should look out for, Trevor. Not to read all at once, but to dip into periodically.

  4. Nadia says:

    The only Henry James novel I have enjoyed is The Ambassadors – it was actually quite a fun novel to read. Not sure if I am really tempted to read any of his other work – have attempted to read Portrait of a Lady once and that is about it. Perhaps one of his shorter works is the trick to getting into his work.

  5. Isabel says:

    Interesting plot line. In most of James’ world, you feel the wealth (or sometimes lack of it-poor relative who is pitied), but this seems to come close to the actual drama behind the money.

  6. Henry’s short stories – or “tales” – are, for the most part, excellent. The Library of America editions – 5 volumes, each around 900 pages – contain all the stories, and are full of unknown wonders.

  7. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the tip, Kirk. I haven’t bought a Library of America book yet because I don’t like the covers. However, thanks to your pointer, I see that they are a treasure trove.

    Besides that, though, I had no idea James produced so much. It would be great, someday, to have gone through it all. Thanks again!

  8. Trevor says:

    Ahhh, I see on your blog that you agree with my last statement. Good luck!

  9. Stephen Brown says:

    The Coxen Fund, for many reasons, is one of the most difficult stories of Henry James. It seems a substantial building block for two of the three great classic novels, The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the Dove in structural character development. The difference of course is in the narrative position in The Coxen Fund, which is more in line with the third great novel, The Ambassadors. Jorge Luis Borges claims The Coxen Fund’s Saltram was based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the albatross around his friends’ necks, and the potential to be greater than all of them.

    No matter how many times the reader approaches these works (and others), he will always view the characters differently at each reading. The difficulty of The Coxen Fund seems to me to lie in the contradictory perspective of the unreliable narrator who, as in The Ambassadors, is a figure participating in the story, combined with the fact that it is not until the last few pages we ever meet Saltram, and when we do we never learn anything about him. This reminds us of Mr. Verver in The Golden Bowl. Despite over 150 pages of Mr. Verver in the billiard room, we emerge from the room more perplexed as to his character than we entered.

    What is most discomfiting to the reader of the James’ narrator is the feeling that he is always the reader of minds, facial expressions, manner of deportment, and assignment of the secondary importance of what is supposedly said as he plays at Sherlock Holmes of the psyche. Unlike Holmes, however, the narrator never seems to get it the same way twice. Minds, expressions, deportment and verbal meaning vary, especially when the narrator is tired, away from home, in a coach, etc. In particular, the James’ narrator never wants to be involved in the “case.”

    Beyond these complexities we are faced with alternating and shifting points of reference in terms of narration and a huge number of characters of equal importance for any short story. Not only does what is presented to us vary as to the missing Saltram, we see the other characters with constantly interchanging points of view and no fixed locus around which as a “case” they are defined.

    This is the dilemma of all the characters in the aforesaid books, that we never get a reliable portrait of a major character, and are always left with uncertainty, what I call the James Uncertainty Principle. After reading many novels and stories of James, The Coxen Fund, by design, remains one of the most structurally complex stories of James, and is far more difficult than for example, The Heart of Darkness by Conrad, and certainly approaches the complexity of Conrad’s more sophisticated works, most particularly Nostromo. Of The Coxen Fund we can truly say, “The Horror, The Horror.”

    Once we leave James, we must enter the Proust, Joyce, Eliot, Beckett and Woolf generation. With the Conrad-James duo, along I think with Lawrence in part, we have nowhere to go but over the abyss, as Lawrence noted of Whitman. These are the last and most sophisticated of Victorian-Edwardian literature, begun I believe with Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, and a new age in art is entered.

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