Written 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.