Henry James Asks for Directions

I just adore this story, told in Edith Wharton's memoir, A Backward Glance, about driving around in England one rainy night with her maddening friend Henry James. It's as good as satire, but better because it's true. 

“While I was hesitating, and peering out into the darkness, James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. ‘Wait a moment, my dear — I’ll ask him where we are’; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator. ‘My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer — so,’ and as the old man came up: ‘My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.’

I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: ‘In short’ (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), ‘in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to…’

‘Oh, please,’ I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, ‘do ask him where the King’s Road is.’

‘Ah -?’ The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?’

‘Ye’re in it,’ said the aged face at the window."

The Bunner Sisters

I’ve been reading this Edith Wharton novella in my idle hours. It has some really lovely evocations of loneliness, solitude, the pitiable smallness of the lives of these unmarried sisters, but the story seems to unspool and wind away as it grows more elaborate and emotive. While the events become more dramatic, more like the indulgent melodramas of their neighbour Miss Mellins, the subtle pathos of the early scenes is never recovered. The elder, Ann Eliza, is accustomed to give way to her younger, prettier, more petulant sister, Evelina, but when an intriguing German clockmaker intrudes on her emotional constitution, she feels for the first time some claims of her own. “Ann Eliza, in those days, had never dreamed of allowing herself the luxury of self-pity: it seemed as much a personal right of Evelina’s as her elaborately crinkled hair. But now she began to transfer to herself a portion of the sympathy she had so long bestowed on Evelina. She had at last recognised her right to set up some lost opportunities of her own; and once that dangerous precedent established, they began to crowd upon her memory.” However, she yields to her sister in this as in everything, and Evelina wins the hand of the clockmaker.

But the marriage is disastrous, and Evelina returns to her sister in an advanced state of consumption. As the passions of both sisters magnify, the pathos of their littleness is lost.  In tending her sister’s ruinous end, Ann Eliza experiences a realisation akin to the one just quoted. “For the first time in her life she dimly faced the awful problem of the inutility of self-sacrifice […] Self-effacement for the good of others had always seemed to her both natural and necessary […] Now she perceived that to refuse the gifts of life does not ensure their transmission to those for whom they have been surrendered; and her familiar heaven was unpeopled.”  This loss of self is more profound than her first, but it didn’t move me as much. Her sister’s loss in the marriage didn’t move me as much as Ann Eliza’s loss of the prospect of it. In this instance, as in many, less is more.