The Spoils of Poynton – Henry James
Published in 1896, by James’ standards this is a short Book, running to about 250 pages. The unkind critic might argue that it could all be boiled down to a short story of around twenty to thirty pages but Henry James wouldn’t be Henry James if he didn’t use 5,000 words where a hundred would do and sentences that positively creak under the weight of subordinate clauses.
The Spoils of Poynton, according to Jamesians, is the transition point between his early and later styles and there is certainly something of the theatrical in its construction. There are relatively few characters, five of whom only four really play prominent parts in the drama. The action, such as it is, is episodic, staged in set pieces. James was unsuccessful as a playwright and used some of the techniques of crafting a stage drama in constructing the novel.
As often is the way with novels of the later Victorian era, the Spoils of Poynton is much ado about relatively little. In essence, the Mrs Gereth has filled her house, Poynton, with furnishings, tapestries, paintings, objects d’art, of which she is inordinately proud. The death of her husband means that the ownership of these artefacts falls to her son, Owen, to do with as he pleases. Owen is engaged to be married to Mona Brigstock who doesn’t share her appreciation of the finer things in life. What tension there is in the book revolves around the battle of wills between Mesdames Gereth and Brigstock, the artefacts being the spoils of the battle.
The character with one of the most ludicrous names in English literature, Fleda Vetch, is initially Mrs Gereth’s willing conspirator and develops what are termed as feelings for Owen. But she will not steal the poor sap, a pawn in the game of three powerful females, from his betrothed. Much of the book is concerned with Fleda wrestling with her moral dilemma – does she do Mrs Gereth’s bidding and wrestle Owen away from Mona, thus rescuing the spoils from a woman of questionable taste, or does she go with her moral sensibilities and leave well alone? Frankly, the scenes between Owen and Fleda are the most strained and unconvincing parts of the story. Ultimately, Fleda loses everything, including the spoils which are consumed in flames as Poynton burns down.
In many senses, Fleda is a foil to Mrs Gereth. Gereth’s aesthetics are positively Olympian and purely black and white. Something either accords with her refined definition of what is art and what is beautiful or else it doesn’t. When she visits Ricks, the already furnished alternative accommodation that Owen has found for her to live in following her eviction from Poynton, all she sees is ugliness. Fleda has more mortal set of aesthetic sensibilities. She appreciates that a person’s view of an object’s worth can be tinged by such feelings as sentiment and association. Tellingly, she says “by certain natures, hideous objects can be loved.”
As the book progresses one starts to wonder whether Mrs Gereth’s aesthetics are all they are cracked up to be and whether she is as guilty of bad taste as her mortal enemy, Mona Brigstock. A point perhaps reinforced by Mona’s and Fleda’s attachment to Owen whom Mrs Gereth sees as a boorish dolt.
There are some striking similarities, at least in terms of plot, with Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Both books are about women whose moral standards put them under considerable emotional stress. Both Fleda and Fanny Price are in love with the sons of the women they are staying with and both the chaps are blithely unaware of this romantic interest. The denouement is different – in Austen’s work Fanny gets her man.
There is enough in the book to recommend it but it is not one of James’ best.
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