Henry James wrote two stories in epistolary form: the first was “A Bundle of Letters,” first published in the expat magazine The Parisian in 1879; the second was “The Point of View,” which appeared in 1882. James takes full of advantage in both tales of the scope for ironic presentation of the letter-writers’ antithetical impressions of travelling American and European characters, of the nations through which they pass, and of the people they encounter. He mischievously counterpoints their disparaging or effusive viewpoints with those of the characters they profile.
Several of the characters in these stories appear in both tales, as well as in “The Pension Beaurepas,” about which I wrote here last time. The three stories tended to be published together, along with “An International Episode” (about which I wrote here), representing as they did the “international theme” that dominated James’s fiction for so long.
I shall focus on Aurora Church, who was chafing under the controlling grip of her mother in “The Pension Beaurepas.” Mrs. Church anticipated this sequel by saying in the earlier story, when explaining to the young narrator why she preferred Europe to America for herself and her daughter:
“And I wish,” she continued . . . “that I could give you our point of view. Don’t you wish, Aurora, that we could give him our point of view?”
“Yes, mamma,” said Aurora.
“We consider ourselves very fortunate in our point of view . . . .”
At the Pension Beaurepas in Geneva, Aurora befriended her compatriot, the spendthrift Sophie Ruck. She found the hierarchical society and customs of Europe — that her mother so admired — cloying, and despaired of the maternal plan to find her an aristocratic European husband.
“The Point of View” consists of eight letters dated 1880. The first and last are by Aurora. In the opening letter she writes to another young American woman expat (in Paris) about her arrival at New York City on a transatlantic liner. Here we see the approach James took in both these epistolary tales: she presents her correspondent with her intimate, vivid impressions of the places she visits and the people she meets. She explains that she has finally persuaded her skeptical mother to allow her to come to America and has just three months in which to find a suitable (i.e., rich) husband.
Aurora is acrid about her mamma’s oppressive regime: she was “dreadfully severe” on the voyage out to Europe when she was only five, and “is severe to this day; only I have become indifferent; I have been so pinched and pushed — morally speaking.”
Aurora in Europe craved and envied the freedom of “American girl.” Now she has her chance. As her name suggests, she is at the dawn of a new life, or so she hopes.
Not surprisingly she is delighted to find herself delivered from the stifling confinements of Europe: “I have never had so much liberty in my life,” she says. Mamma, equally unsurprisingly, is less sanguine, as Aurora explains with her customary blend of levity and asperity:
She is not in a hurry to arrive; she says that great disillusions await us. I didn’t know that she had any illusions — she’s so stern, so philosophic. She is very serious.
Mamma had realized that the dowerless Aurora “should never marry in Europe.” We can see in such extracts the dry ironic humor of which these stories are full. The characters unwittingly reveal their weaknesses and partialities, their selfishness and prejudices.
In passing Aurora lets slip that “the poor little Rucks” — including her erstwhile friend Sophie — “are bankrupt.” We never hear their fate, but must assume the worst. Aurora, who had only nurtured the friendship for her own ends, seems callously unperturbed.
She goes on to describe some of the other passengers, whose own “points of view” we shall be privy to in subsequent letters. The Europeans largely find America brash, vulgar and over-indulgent towards its young people; the Americans’ views we shall see. As in the earlier “A Bundle of Letters” there is much sardonic humor to enjoy as we see the writers’ contrasting or conflicting views of each other exposed in the acerbic confessional manner that a letter to an intimate friend or relative allows. James’s evident pleasure in matching the correspondents’ style to their character is infectious.
The main romantic interest in this story is embodied in Aurora’s suitors on the ship: the aesthete Louis Leverett (who also features in “A Bundle of Letters,” where once again he is attracted to an interestingly picturesque young woman, a flirtation which he languidly tires of) and the “roaring Yankee,” Marcellus Cockerell. Each of these young men expresses in his letters the extreme opposite views of all things American and European, and as Aurora approvingly suggests to her friend, “They have a particular aversion to each other, and they are ready to fight about poor little me.” But despite this coquettish pride, she’s also realistic:
I am not crazy about either of them. They are very well for the deck of a ship, but I shouldn’t care about them in a salon; they are not at all distinguished. They think they are, but they are not . . . . I should get dreadfully tired of passing my life with either . . . au fond they don’t quite believe in me.
This viewpoint is presented without comment, of course, given the epistolary nature of the story, and this is its distinctive feature. Aurora displays here the kind of incisive analytical detachment of the author himself, but he causes her to express herself so clinically (and accurately) that I find her attractively intelligent and percipient, but also (understandably) a little vain.
Still there is the usual Jamesian interest in the travails of a young woman engaged in the necessary pursuit of a husband capable of satisfying her own intelligence as well as the demands of a pressing social system in which she lacks autonomy. James has an extraordinary understanding of the contradictory innocence and dogmatism, exacting standards (her mother says Aurora is insistent she would marry no foreigner who was not “one of the first of the first”) and indulgent lassitude of such a vivacious young woman as Aurora, with her native American sensibilities influenced by the atrophied Europe in which she has been raised. She knows mamma expects her to marry no American whose “pecuniary situation” fails to meet her expectations.
Leverett is a Jamesian Europhile. He detests being back in crudely democratic America, where all is monotonously plain, tepid and mediocre; Europe for him has exciting extremes of beauty and ugliness. James has him write in a louche, affected style to highlight his self-consciously aesthetic pose:
I feel so undraped, so uncurtained, so uncushioned . . . . A terrible crude glare is over everything; the earth looks peeled and excoriated; the raw heavens seem to bleed with the quick, hard light.
He would agree with Mrs. Church’s dismissal of America as “the country of the many”; she adds in her letter:
In this country the people have rights, but the person has none.
The American citizen, she complains to Mme Galopin, “is recognized as a voter, but he is not recognized as a gentleman — still less as a lady.
But it’s James’s sly revelations about the intentions of Aurora’s two admirers that are so engaging in this story. Leverett is shown in his letter to be self-absorbed, and interested in Aurora mostly because she has the good taste (as he sees it) to listen to him attentively. He ungallantly concludes, as he decides to drop her, that she “almost understood” him!
Cockerel, on the other hand, derides the very places and people of Europe that the Europhile correspondents admire. It’s this witty symmetry that is one of the main strengths of this admittedly rather slight story. Although he finds Aurora a “rather interesting girl,” his attentions are insincere — he knows he could never marry such an impoverished young woman; besides, as he confides to his sister in his letter, “[s]he has been spoiled by Europe,” a taint he would never be able to ignore.
Mrs. Church confides in her letter that Aurora accuses her of giving her a “false education” in Europe so that she is not considered marriage material: “No American will marry her, because she is too much a foreigner, and no foreigner will marry her, because she is too much of an American.”
James is careful to balance his characters’ barbed accounts, however. Cockerel, rudely dismissed by Leverett as a “strident savage,” sums up his homeland’s superiority to Europe:
We are more analytic, more discriminating, more familiar with realities. As for manners, there are bad manners everywhere, but an aristocracy is bad manners organized.
Read this story for these opinionated, stylized, often Wildean outpourings of epigrammatic bigotry and insight. In this group of related stories he strove to show nuanced gradations of viewpoint in his representatives of each nation. This didn’t prevent the first reviewers from finding this story distastefully unpatriotic towards America.
Read it too for Aurora’s final letter, which rounds off beautifully all that’s gone before. Here we see a glimpse of the profound sympathy James demonstrates for his young female characters. He had recently completed The Portrait of a Lady, which began to be serialized in 1880. That full-length novel is the masterpiece of his early period, a fully developed account of the “engaging young [American] woman” whose choices are misguided, yet she persists in “affronting her destiny.” James’s concern is with the ways in which Isabel Archer continues the attempt, in a naughty world, to make her own choices and learn to live with the consequences, always striving for a kind of liberty.
There is much to admire also, however, in these thematically similar miniatures: Aurora is in some ways Isabel Archer without the windfall fortune. See what you make of Aurora’s apparent destiny at the end of “The Point of View.”