Recently, we have heard a good deal about the family during our national discontents. Those sworn to the progressive ideology blame the family for perpetuating what the Soviets used to call “dissidence”; they even go so far as to insist that children denounce parents if they fail to salaam before the ideology’s implacable gods. Those critical of the ideology, on the other hand, deplore the part it continues to play in the breakdown of the family and all the turmoil to which such breakdown inveterately gives rise. However we look at it, the family is a defining factor in our social order, and for that very reason it might be amusing to see what our greatest American novelist had to say of it.
In 1887, Henry James heard from his sister Alice of a daughter who was distraught by her father’s remarrying because, as she said, it was “forty years of her mother’s life wiped out.” This was the genesis of his short story “The Marriages” (1891), which, in its debt to the theatrical melodrama that James had imbibed as a boy in New York and in its psychological acuity, exemplifies his finest fiction.
It also shows how much his art drew upon and was sustained by his own sense of family—in this case, a sense reinforced by his sister Alice, with whom he would always be close. This is the same Alice who said of their father, the insouciant Swedenborgian Henry James Senior, “Father, the delicious infant, couldn’t even submit to the thralldom of his own whim.” Both siblings realized that the love of families is only made possible by the forbearance of families—an important leitmotif in “The Marriages.”
The plot of the tale is simple. Adela Chart tries to prevent her father, Colonel Chart, from remarrying by telling his rich fiancée, Mrs. Churchley, that he had broken her mother’s heart, a fabrication which affronts her brother Godfrey, who is fond of the fiancée for offering to resolve his “idiotic secret marriage.” Godfrey, an imprudent youth, has married an unpresentably cockney woman. In the end, the Colonel’s remarriage is prevented, though not for the reasons Adela supposes.
James saw the story’s drama inhering in the “pangs of filial piety” and pivoting on what he called “the consciousness, the fond imagination, the possibly poisoned and inflamed judgement” of the daughter, who takes it upon herself to hallow her mother’s memory. The author’s “possibly” leaves it to the reader to decide whether Adela’s judgment is “poisoned.”
Clearly, no one could consider her judgment slack. There is a pronounced lack of sentimentality about her. “Adela had reason to believe she should never marry, and that someday she should have about a thousand a year,” the narrator tells us. “This made her see in the far future a little garden of her own, under a hill, full of rare and exquisite things, where she would spend most of her old age on her knees with an apron and stout gloves . . . steeped in the comfort of being thought mad.” What James would call “the terrible fluidity of self-revelation” is here drolly exhibited.
In thus capturing the peculiar drama of consciousness, James transforms what might have been a potboiler into a short masterpiece. What gives the story an added frisson is its scenic briskness, proof that James had learned the lesson of the dramatic master in Maupassant.
In describing Adela’s distaste for Mrs. Churchley, James takes full advantage of the exaggerations of melodrama: “Everything about her, to Adela Chart, was enormous. She had big eyes, big teeth, big shoulders, big hands, big rings . . . big jewels She was high and expansive herself, though not exactly fat; her bones were big, her limbs were long, and she had a loud, hurrying voice, like the bell of a steamboat.” At the same time, Adela respects Mrs. Churchley for never breaking her confidence: The rival to her father’s affections may be vulgar, even a little absurd, but she is not dishonorable.
Leon Edel, James’s biographer, read the story as a precursor to Freud, showing how “a young girl, under the guise of filial piety and filial self-righteousness can turn passionate jealousy into an exercise of power.” Yet trusting Freud to explain Adela’s opposition to Mrs. Churchley can hardly account for the story’s genuine pathos. When Adela discovers that her brother does not share her view of their father’s remarriage, she recognizes why she must be all the more opposed to it. “Their worship of their mother’s memory, their recognition of her sacred place in their past, her exquisite influence in their father’s life, his fortune, his career, in the whole history of the family was like a religion to fall away from which was a form of treachery.”
Of course, Adela also recognizes that “This wasn’t the way people usually felt in London. Remembrance there was hammered thin—and to be faithful was to be a bore. When they had hustled all sensibility out of their lives, they invented the fiction that they felt too much to utter.” If this is merely the guise of filial piety, it is an oddly convincing guise. It also recalls Thackeray’s great question: “Who is ever missed in Vanity Fair?”
Seeing the story in Freudian terms also overlooks its comedy. When Adela recoils from Mrs. Churchley “as undomestic as a shop-front and as out of tune as a parrot,” it is because her father’s intended “would either make them live in the streets or bring the streets into their life—it was the same thing. She had evidently never read a book, and she used intonations that Adela had never heard, as if she had been an Australian or an American.” This is the comedy of class, which would have baffled the morose Austrian in Freud. James mines the same comedy when Godfrey’s inconvenient wife insists that she be allowed to meet with one of the family: “fice to fice.”
When the meeting finally occurs, Adela reels. Her interlocutress has “vivid yellow hair,” a “blue cloth suit with brass buttons, a stick-up collar like a gentleman’s, a necktie arranged in a sailor’s knot, a golden pin in the shape of a little lawn-tennis racket, and pearl-grey gloves with big black stitchings.” At first, Adela mistakes her for an actress, but then she is sure that she is unlike anyone she has ever met. When the “apparition” speaks, it is to insist that Adela’s father Colonel Chart must intercede on her behalf and force his son Godfrey to let her accompany him abroad, whither he is going to escape Mrs. Godfrey. The sequel to this demand is blurry.
What really happened Adela never quite understood; what seemed to be happening was that the room went round and round. Through the blur of perception accompanying this effect the sharp stabs of her visitor’s revelation came to her like the words heard by a patient “going off” under ether. She afterwards denied passionately even to herself that she had done anything so abject as to faint; but there was a lapse in her consciousness . . .
Towards the story’s end, Adela, seeing her father’s “wasted and jilted air,” repents of her meddling, confesses her lies to Mrs. Churchley, and begs that she take the Colonel back, whereupon the lady reveals that she never believed Adela’s lies. She broke off the marriage because she thought her fiancé’s daughter “horrid,” not her fiancé. Later, when Adela crows: “Mrs. Churchley can never come back—she’s going to marry Lord Dovedale,” we are reminded that few Edwardian peers, certainly none strapped for cash, would have objected to the vulgarity that Adela finds so insufferable in her monied bête noire.
Whether this confirms Mrs. Churchley’s low view of Adela is, of course, arguable. Robert Louis Stevenson, for one, adored James’s heroine, as the verses he sent his friend attest: “Adela, Adela, Adela Chart/What have you done to my elderly heart/Of the ladies in paper and ink/I count you the paragon, call you the pink,” though it is necessary to add that the reason for this adoration was somewhat barbed: “. . . in all the asylums that cumber the ground/So delightful a maniac was ne’er to be found.”
“The Marriages” reaffirms the extent to which Alice James inspired her brother’s muse. When the 3rd Duke of Sutherland (1828-92) married Mary Caroline Blair (née Michell) in March 1889, after the death of his first wife, his daughter, Lady Alexandra Leveson-Gower, was so upset by the re-marriage and what she regarded as the implicit disrespect shown her mother by it that she actually died three years afterwards. Alice’s response to this woeful demise, which she shared with Henry, needs quoting: “Will there be no stirrings of remorse in her father’s bosom for the brutalities which rent that delicate fibre?”
Here is the donnée that set James’s muse afire. Of course, true to the alchemy of art, Adela may not be “delicate,” but she nonetheless attests to the profound feeling that courses through what Lancelot Andrewes called “the bands of birth.” At the end of “The Marriages,” when Colonel Chart walks away from his inamorato, Adela tells her brother: “Papa gave her up, as it were, for me. Fancy the angel, and fancy what I must try to be to him for the rest of his life!” There is nothing “poisoned” in this dénouement to James’s witty, moving tribute to the potency of familial love.
While our more agitated neighbors seek to deliver up our unravelling social order to the direction of family-hating scolds, the rest of us can find solace and sanctuary in the family-friendly Henry James.
Edward Short is the author of several books on Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman. His latest book, What the Bells Sang: Essays and Reviews, will be published soon by Gracewing, as will The Saint Mary’s Anthology of Christian Verse, which he has edited and introduced. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.