Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Is Henry James's "Watch and Ward" As Bad As He Thought?

Written in 1871 when Henry James was only twenty eight, Watch and Ward was his first attempt at a novel. It was originally serialized in the Atlantic Monthly and eventually published as a book in 1878, but James later repudiated the novel, disowning it entirely and calling his second novel, Roderick Hudson, his first. The story is an odd one, perhaps better suited to theater or opera where absurd plots are more easily tolerated, particularly in the works of that era. Roger Lawrence, rejected by a lover, adopts on a whim the twelve year old daughter, Nora, of a ruined gambler who has committed suicide in the adjoining room of his hotel. Within a few weeks, Roger decides to raise Nora to be his wife, though without telling her of this plan, sending her to school, providing her with every luxury, and eventually sending her to Rome as a sort of fashionable finishing school with his friend and former lover Mrs. Keith. Even this brief description of the plot can begin to give one an idea of why James may have disliked his first novel so much in later years.

The relationship between Roger and Nora is examined in minute detail as it progresses through each chapter. Roger wishes to feel that Nora's life began with her adoption and yet feels considerable anxiety about the state of her past: "He trod on tiptoe in the region of her early memories, in the dread of reviving some dormant claim, some unclean ghost. Yet he felt that to know so little of her twelve first years was to reckon without an important factor in his problem; as if, in spite of his summons to all the fairies for this second baptism, the godmother-in-chief lurked maliciously apart, with intent to arrive at the end of years and spoil the birthday feast." Roger romanticizes his relationship with Nora from the first, imagining himself as Rochester to her Jane Eyre and wishing that he could shut her up in a convent, a common and convenient plot device in eighteenth and nineteenth century theater, opera, and literature. (The most salient example is in Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses; the painfully innocent C├ęcile de Volanges is explicitly raised in a convent in order to ensure that she is entirely virginal and uncorrupted, physically, emotionally, and psychologically, so that her future husband - happy to pay for the privilege - can corrupt her in his own way.)

By the end of chapter two, and before Nora has reached her sixteenth birthday, Roger has already confided - to the woman who refused his proposal! - that he intends to raise Nora with the express purpose of making her his wife. Roger makes no bones about his goals in regard to his adopted daughter/future wife: "It seemed to him an extremely odd use of one's time and capital, this fashioning of a wife to order."

Far more disturbing, Roger wants a romantic marriage: "He aimed at nothing more or less than to inspire the child with a passion. Until he detected in her glance and tone the note of passionate tenderness, his experiment must have failed. It would have succeeded on the day when she should break out into cries and tears and tell him with a clinging embrace that she loved him." Though James is typically abstruse, the conflation of emotional surrender with sexual surrender should be obvious to any adult, but I was even more deeply bothered by the vein of domination that stains Roger's desire. He wants Nora to prostrate herself before him, despite his frequent verbal protestations that he would never compel her to anything, to beg and plead him to love her, while it is she who is loved by him.

James confidently affirms that, "Assuredly [Roger] was not in love with her: you couldn't fall in love with a child. But if he had not a lover's love, he had at least a lover's jealousy..." It's true that the cult around female children during the nineteenth century took some decidedly creepy turns and many, most prominently Lewis Carroll, expressed sentiments similar to those Roger espouses, worshiping at the altar of female youth and purity in the person of actual little girls. But, frankly this assurance strikes me as a hollow and entirely unsuccessful feint. Had James been more sophisticated himself at the time, he might have drawn a line between Roger's perspective and the narrative voice's, but, alas, the narrator is blissfully in ignorance of any untoward interpretations of Roger's feelings and in full sympathy with his dubious ambitions.

But the creepiest and most Humbertian moment in the text, describing Roger's feelings before Nora is yet sixteen, is this: "The ground might be gently tickled to receive his own sowing; the petals of the young girl's nature, playfully forced apart, would leave the golden heart of the flower but the more accessible to his own vertical rays."

There's no way to redeem that particular line - that's a poetic and flowery description of sexual assault if ever there was one. Prudish, uncomfortable, feigning innocence, but clearly and obviously not acceptable, either in this century or the nineteenth, and all the more so given that the analogy of sowing with sex is an ancient one, hearkening both to classical sources and to Chaucer.

In fact, Nora almost seems to understand her position, though she lacks understanding of sex and therefore fails to grasp the implications of Roger's passion for her. When Roger is ill and possibly dying, in despair, she cries out, "'My love for Roger's no choice, it's part and parcel of my being!" Worse, Nora expresses undying and extreme gratitude from the age of fourteen and fifteen, which Roger interprets as protestations of lifelong devotion in a romantic context, while Nora, utterly inexperienced and alone, desires above all else to love Roger as a father. Any shadow of free consent is banished the moment Roger takes it into his head to marry the girl, believing and inculcating the belief in her that his generosity puts her in debt she can only repay with total obedience and love.

While Roger compares Nora to Sleeping Beauty and thus creates in himself the idea of the awakening prince (and reinforcing in the reader the idea of him as a putative rapist), Nora describes herself, in letters home from Rome, as Cinderella, an excited girl emerging into the glamorous world with the blessing of her fairy godmother, from her point of view, a twin deity made up of Roger and Mrs. Keith. Mrs. Keith is a deeply problematic character; acquainted with Roger's plan from the beginning, she makes every effort to preserve and develop Nora for him, ultimately accusing her of rank ingratitude when she is shocked by the revelation of Roger's plans. Her motives for doing so seem rather required by the plot than organic to her character.

However, as creepy as all this sounds to modern ears, it's not an unfamiliar scenario in eighteenth and nineteenth century works. One thinks of the aforementioned Les liaisons dangereuses, Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia in which Rosina's guardian hopes to marry her for her money, and Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho in which Emily is besieged by assaults by various guardians after she is orphaned, as well as veritable dozens of Victorian melodramas, most of which prominently featured the proverbial damsel in distress. There was also the disturbing historical case of Thomas Day, who raised his intended wife along Rousseauian principles, described in Wendy Moore's How to Create the Perfect Wife. But, James's inexperience and naivete, both as a man and a writer, render his execution of similar material uncomfortably accepting and lacking in the irony, satire, and implicit social critique in the other works.

The quasi-incestuous, semi-pedophiliac relationship between Roger and Nora, never really criticized as unnatural, uncomfortable, or even just inappropriate, makes it nearly impossible to salvage much from the book as a whole. The narrative voice is fully in sympathy with Roger, never once questioning whether his passion might be indecent. As a result, it's difficult not to get queasy reading Watch and Ward and I suspect that James, always rather blushing and reticent when it came to sexual matters, was appalled once he'd achieved enough distance from the work to recognize the seamier aspects of his tale. The text does, however, have significant problems over and above its subject matter. The prose style, though obviously Jamesian, is occasionally clumsy and repetitive and he has not yet mastered his later perfect fluidity in his explorations of the interior lives of his characters. This could be more easily overlooked if the characters were not so poorly constructed. Roger comes to creepy life and his cousin Hubert for the most part seems to act from motives that spring from his described character, but Mrs. Keith remains a total enigma, while Nora is a cardboard cutout from a bad melodrama, her supposed cousin George a weird idiosyncratic mixture of stereotype and specificity, and most bizarre of all, Miss Sandys, apparently and inexplicably in love with Roger, simply makes no sense at all.

I rather question - though I've never seen this in any other source, so it's just my own idea and not supported by scholarship - whether James might have been considering writing this story as a play. His only play, Guy Domville, staged in 1895, was a total flop, but James was interested in theater his whole life and The Spoils of Poynton was originally written as a theatrical scenario. I do think that great actors, when faced with this material, might more easily have salvaged the work, at least in part, but something is certainly wanting. Certainly there are shades of James's later greatness - occasional moments of insight, the offhand witty quip, a dizzying ease with the most arcane and erudite vocabulary. But, this is undoubtedly a first novel.

Interestingly, the most entertaining parts of the book are Nora's letters from Rome. They are not at all convincingly written by a teenage girl, especially such a simpleton as Nora, but they do give a glimpse of the sort of wonderful correspondent James himself must have been, as well as an early foreshadowing of the travel writing of his maturity. He writes very well about Rome, though he leans heavily on his favorite author Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, and he is clearly more at his ease describing art and landscapes and launching barbed witticisms at those he finds ridiculous. Overall, Watch and Ward is, in fact, as bad as James thought, but it does offer insight into his early process and the inception of many ideas - Americans abroad, young women granted unexpected fortunes and uncomfortable proposals, art as a revelation of character, money and its various meanings in the American social milieu - that would color his later masterpieces. For those seriously interested in James, especially from a scholarly point of view, it's a rather tantalizing, if frustrating book, but for those looking for a fine nineteenth century novel, Watch and Ward is not it.

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