640px-HenryJamesPhotographWritten during Henry James’s residence in Florence in 1887, “Louisa Pallant” was first published in Harper’s magazine in 1888. Like most of his short stories, it has a first-person narrator who plays a significant, and far from omniscient part, in the action.

James summarized the outline of the story in his Florence notebooks:

The idea of a worldly mother and a worldly daughter, the latter of whom has been trained up so perfectly by the former that she excels and surpasses her, and the mother, who has some principle of goodness still left in her composition, is appalled at her own work. She sees the daughter, so hard, so cruelly ambitious, so bent on making a great marriage and a great success at any price, that she is almost afraid of her. She repents of what she has done — she is ashamed.

This tentative outline goes on to suggest that the narrator should be “an elderly American,” the uncle of the naïve young man whose wealth the daughter fixes her sights on; in the finished story, however, much of this changed. “I don’t see why,” James ended this notebook entry, “this shouldn’t be a little masterpiece of concision.” It is.

James was beginning to tire of his customary “international theme”: stories about the cultural clash between Americans and Europeans, often involving the quest for a “great marriage” to suit the ambitions of a scheming young person. His attitude to marriage as represented in his fiction was at best ambivalent and often depicted the institution as something to be avoided, a danger to the freedom or integrity of those involved — the pursuit of freedom and personal fulfillment was a central theme of most of his stories.

James was also beginning to lose his belief that Americans had a finer moral nature and a more innocent, unblemished character than decadent Europeans. By 1888 he was beginning to think that there was, in his biographer Leon Edel’s words, “a claustrophobic ignorance” within that innocence.

The opening line of “Louisa Pallant” is one of James’s finest:

Never say you know the last word about any human heart.

William Boyd used the last three words of that striking sentence as the title of his 2002 novel, in which he, like James, portrays his characters as possessing multiple possibilities and selves.

James’s unnamed American narrator first sees Louisa Pallant on the terrace of the fashionable Kursaal in Homburg, where he is languidly awaiting the arrival of his twenty-year-old nephew, Archer Pringle (Archer being a recurring and significant name in James’s fiction), who is also enjoying a leisurely tour through Europe. His mother has entrusted his welfare to her brother, the young man’s uncle. We learn that the uncle had been in love with Louisa ten years earlier, but she had thrown him over in order to marry money. Ironically, her husband had lost his fortune and died, leaving her a destitute wanderer, living (like some of the characters in ‘The Pension Beaurepas,” about which I wrote recently here) in cheap pensions while seeking a rich, preferably titled husband for her “remarkably pretty” 22-year-old daughter, Linda.

Although the handsome mother and daughter “were very quiet and decorous” our narrator perceives something in their demeanor that shows they were accustomed to attracting admiring attention, but he also sees something about them that is “not altogether honorable”: he hints that the mother is, as it were, displaying Linda to “the public stare,” while apparently “ashamed to exhibit her own face” (she’s wearing a veil). His first thought is that he needs to protect his young ward from such people “and the relations he should form.” He suspects Archer knows little about life and this makes him feel “uneasy” about his responsibilities.

As the story progresses it is hardly a surprise that Archer should indeed succumb to the beautiful Linda’s charms. At first the uncle is unable to see any contrivance in her behavior: she seems so “fresh and fair and charming and gentle and sufficiently shy [. . . .] She was simpler than her mother [. . . .]A girl who had such a lovely way of showing her teeth could never pass for heartless” is his rather naïve initial perception. It is Louisa who assures him otherwise.

The strongest aspect of this rather slight short story is the portrait of the narrator and his flawed interpretation of the intrigues he finds himself caught up in: “She had not treated me well and we had never really made it up,” he reflects on this first encounter. Louisa’s “heartless behavior” in dumping him causes him to conclude that he had “forgiven her” but that it had been a lucky escape not to have married “a girl who had it in her to take back her given word and break a fellow’s heart, for mere flesh-pots.” That Louisa had given out the message at the time that he had driven her off with his “insane jealousy” before she met Pallant is the narrator’s not entirely reliable account of her cynical tactics; we are never able to tell for sure how accurate his point of view is. And of course, as my previous pieces about these stories by James have indicated, he is the master of the narrative exploration of the point of view.

This narrative ambiguity is seen constantly. At the end of this first conversation with his former sweetheart the narrator reveals that Louisa shows a worldly awareness of the wealthy match his sister had made by marrying into the New York Pringle family; she remembered that they were a “disgustingly rich lot,” but this is relayed to us while the narrator tells her about the imminent arrival of his nephew. Instead of suspecting her motives — that she sees Archer as a likely target for Linda — he is instead deflected into a wounded self-pity when Louisa suggests he should have had children, and would have made a good father:

She could make an allusion like that — to all that might have been and had not been — without a gleam of guilt in her eye; and I foresaw that before I left the place I should have confided to her that though I detested her and was very glad we had fallen out, yet our old relations had left me no heart for marrying another woman. If I was a maundering old bachelor to-day it was no one’s fault but hers.

His pain and confusion here are narrated through this internal indirect discourse with a rich blend of pathos and revelatory ironic humor. The more he insists he hates Louisa the less we believe him.

This opening section ends with Louisa apparently questioning the uncle about his nephew’s financial prospects; she concludes that his responsibility for Archer must weigh heavily on his conscience:

“Well, we won’t kill him, shall we, Linda?” Mrs. Pallant went on, with a laugh.

“I don’t know — perhaps we shall!” said the girl, smiling.

The stage is set for an intriguing and artfully realized dénouement. I commend the rest of this story to you: can Louisa be believed or trusted when she warns the uncle to remove his nephew from Linda’s dangerously alluring influence — he later sees the girl as “the result of a process of calculation,” an “educated angel” — or is this mother, with her history of duplicitous selfishness, simply playing her part in a devious plan? Because we rely on the narrator’s imperfect point of view we can never really “know the last word” about these human hearts. It is characteristic of Henry James’s artistic genius that he refrains from spelling these things out.

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By |2015-05-14T14:38:09-04:00May 14th, 2015|Categories: Henry James|Tags: |14 Comments


  1. Chris Burn May 14, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    HJ seems to get more detail into a short story than anyone. Thanks
    Chris Burn

  2. Tredynas Days May 14, 2015 at 5:11 pm

    Even a comparatively ‘slight’ HJ story like this still merits close attention. The plot is based on a real life encounter he experienced – as so often happened with him.

  3. Amateur Reader (Tom) May 14, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    Huh, I thought this story was almost detail-free. I would be more likely to say that the peculiarity of the art of James is that he gets less detail into a story than anyone.

  4. Tredynas Days May 15, 2015 at 3:02 am

    Tom: I just read some of your posts on HJ at Wuthering Expectations – I like the way you both admire his artistry but grapple with some of his peculiarities – a powerful sense of emotional engagement with his work. Must try to do that more myself. I see what you mean about the *lack* of detail in LP: we get little sense of the physical appearance of characters, for example, just reiterations of Linda’s prettiness (‘pretty’ is a default adj for his young women – he doesn’t really do such women with much enthusiasm perhaps – their looks are often a burden or warning.) There’s an anecdotal feel to some of these lesser stories – possibly because of their origins in real life? This happened, he saw that, noted it, shaped & retold it,,,I’m in awe of the frequency with which you & Chris post on your blogs – almost daily. How do you find the time?!

  5. Betsy May 15, 2015 at 7:36 am

    Simon – thank you for your notes from “The Notebooks”. I never thought about searching these out before I feel like the over-confident junior arriving at Honors Tutorial only to find there is a whole other realm never considered. Reading James’s preliminary idea from the notebook tames my over-active interpretive juices. But still! I read into it!

    I wonder about the N.’s “insane jealousy”. It seems as if it is possible that his jealousy was both real and a handy peg for Louisa to hang her jilting of him on – when we all know she also jilted him for money. But we get a picture of her using him – dating him, for instance, with the purpose of actually being able to display herself to other men and meet them, and thus actually provoking his jealousy. I wonder if, once James got into the story, he got interested in the way Louisa still (despite her horror at her daughter) enjoys watching the power and the kill. I wonder what it is that provokes N. to expose his nephew to these possibly less than honorable women – could it be his “insane jealousy” of the boy’s wealth? The lack of which had made him so publicly humiliated by the calculating Louisa?

    Thanks, too, for the Edel quote: that in James’s later work, Americans seem possessed not of a beautiful innocence but a “claustrophobic ignorance.” This junior in your tutorial appreciates that fine point – that large point. Isabel Archer strikes me that way, and Maggie Verver. Lambert Strether, of course, not so much, given that he is able to expose himself to other people’s seductions of him without becoming entangled. But I have always been troubled by the idea that James thought his Americans “innocent”. Entitled and ignorant of this disastrous self-entitlement seems closer to the truth. Maggie Verver, for instance.

    An aside right here – I loved the wicked humor of this. what a great read-aloud it would be.

    I was interested in your point about “Archer” and how you read the suggestiveness of the name (and if it appears elsewhere from here and “Portrait”?).

    Another question! I marked my printout with a question mark where N. says that Louisa broke his heart “-for mere fleshpots”. I found “fleshpots” arresting and confusing. What do you make of how that word is being used?

    Just finished reading – at a clip – “The Golden Bowl” and look forward to a later time – when you tackle that one – but not too soon, as I am loving this assay of the short stories. Thinking of TGB, though, and much elsewhere, also, I loved the place in this story where N. observes that people in the grip of genteel poverty “have felt every day and every hour the hard monotonous pinch and found the question of dollars and cents … mixed up with every experience, every impulse…” That foretells “The Golden Bowl”, as does Louisa’s flip remark that princes are usually broke, that having a “heart of marble” or being compared to a statue is not a good thing (as is Maggie), that a very beautiful charismatic woman could have it in her “to poison a man’s life” (as does Charlotte), and that people can have such a limited understanding (as does Archie) of lovers, as when “Louisa Pallant”‘s narrator remarks that Linda as a reality is more like “furniture” inhabiting the imagination than a flesh and blood person capable of motives. (In “The Golden Bowl”, at the very end, awaiting their separation, the narrator remarks that Charlotte and the Prince looked, in the great mansion, like “human furniture”.) Of course, there is the human acquisitiveness – the desire to possess people and use them – that is an idea that populates James’s fiction.

    That Louisa and Linda are “drifters” interests me. They are off – and trail a dangerous whiff of something gone off – in the way they (improperly) display themselves so openly. Grifters, really. I love the way James makes grifters and con-men his beautifully appointed villains. That way, villainy is not limited to murder, but opened up to the way all the forms of with-holding and lying are part of the evil of everyday life.

    At the same time, though, James admires the capacity for with-holding. It is a means of keeping oneself inviolate – and so Archie’s saying “nothing” presages Maggie Verver’s saying nothing. The two faces of silence (the murderous face and the self-preserving face) seem to me essential to James.

    Anyway – thanks so much for this piece, Simon. It is so thought provoking!

  6. Betsy May 15, 2015 at 4:21 pm

    So! amid all that verbiage – my questions are:

    1. What do you make of the name Archer, here and elsewhere?

    2. What do you make of the word “flesh-pots” in “Louisa Pallant”?

    3. What do you make of Louisa using the words “stigma….reparation…[and expiation]”? I notice that in the Golden Bowl numerous Christian ideas appear, but in a somewhat secular manner. Why would James use these words?

  7. Amateur Reader (Tom) May 15, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    Is there something to “flesh-pots” besides the jokey reference to Exodus? The narrator promises forty years of wandering and a monotonous diet; Mr. Pallant promises the comforts of Egypt.

  8. Betsy May 15, 2015 at 6:47 pm

    Thank you, Tom! It fully fits this narrator’s superior, wry tone. My favorite sentence in this vein was the narrator saying of his nephew, “[Archie] was refreshingly natural, in a supercivilized age, and I soon made up my mind that the formula of his character was a certain simplifying serenity. After that I had time to meditate on the line which divides the serene from the inane and simplification from death.”

  9. Simon Lavery May 16, 2015 at 1:53 am

    Betsy, Tom: fascinating thoughts – will respond more fully next week when back in UK. Writing this on my phone not conducive to elaboration or clarity. Love the note on “furniture’. The quotations you cite all indicate the richness & humour HJ offers even in a minor piece – but I would like to turn to the novels at some point.

  10. Shelley May 19, 2015 at 10:55 am

    Wow. Hard to think of a better first line.

  11. […] my piece on Henry James’s 1888 story ‘Louisa Pallant’ first appeared on the Mookse and Gripes site on May 14 (and again here on this site), it inspired several interesting comments and queries. I’ll answer […]

  12. Tredynas Days May 23, 2015 at 7:43 am

    Returned from Berlin two days ago, and been thinking about the inspiring comments & queries above; rather than answer them at length here I’ve posted a piece on my site here: http://bit.ly/1Q2Tgst. I focus mainly on the religious language Louisa uses, as Betsy perceptively pointed out in her comments.

  13. Betsy May 24, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    Just want to recommend, to any other James-o-Philiac, that you follow the link above to Simon’s follow-on post at his own site.

    The essay there is, as always, rich and also crystal clear.

    Looking forward to your next James review here at Mookse, Simon.

  14. Tredynas Days May 24, 2015 at 5:16 pm

    Thanks, Betsy

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