My English teacher said some writers often go in and out of fashion. A few, like some clothes, hardly ever go out of style. You can like them forever and know they’ll always be available for discussion and the worst opinion you’ll hear is, “Well, of course, you like___, who doesn’t?” For example, if Shakespeare was fashion, he’d be a great pair of leather loafers or a white, short-sleeved shirt. Good for practically everything. Oscar Wilde might be a burgundy velvet vest: (waistcoat for citizens of the U. K.) dramatic, a bit sensual, fairly versatile but not the go-to choice in every situation. Shame, because I really like burgundy velvet vests. But the writer who seems a bit neglected these days is Henry James. Except for Halloween revivals of The Turn of the Screw and the occasional big-budget costume picture, his work is largely ignored and that’s a shame. He appreciated the complexity of human character and culture and he used it to create wonderful, memorable stories. My favourite is The Spoils of Poynton.
Poynton is the story of four individuals who keep pairing off into irreconcilable teams. Team One might be the Gareth, widowed mother and grown son, in trouble due to British probate laws. Mrs Gareth and her late husband spent an incredible amount of time, effort and money to furnish their home, Poynton, with the greatest possible taste. When the son (Owen) decides to marry, the house and everything in it become his property. Legally, Mama doesn’t own anything. That’s hard on Mrs G, especially since she knows Owen didn’t inherit his parents’ taste or intelligence and she wants to make sure that his bride will be a better custodian.
Enter Team Two, the two main candidates, for Owen’s hand in marriage. Fleda Vetch, has wonderful taste but no money and Mona Bridgstock who has terrible taste but Owen’s interest. Actually, Owen’s interest seems to vacillate between the two girls because (are you taking notes, children?) Owen and Fleda are basically nice people who try to think of others and the ethical thing to do while Mona and Mrs G. both focus on how to get their own way(s).
Okay, now we’ve seen the Gareths v. the would-be brides and the nice ones v. the naughties and I’ve hinted at the third set of teams (the aesthetes v. the barbarians or the tasteful v. tasteless, if you prefer) and the plot wheel begins to spin. Owen proposes to Mona who says she’ll wed when she gets the keys to Poynton and every stick of furniture inside it. (Granted, Mona can’t tell Spode from a spade but she’s not about to let Owen’s mum run off with the silver and soft furnishings. As far as Mona is concerned, Poynton and its fixtures are Owen’s dowry.) Mrs G has developed a real friendship with Fleda Vetch and whenever Owen shows up wanting to talk about the wedding and mum’s eviction, Mrs Gareth sends Fleda to the meeting. Now for the cherry on the Sundae: Fleda’s got a secret, world-sized crush on the son, Owen. She can’t tell Owen how she feels (he’s engaged!) and she doesn’t dare tell Mrs Gareth who would try to manipulate her. Fleda feels bad that Owen’s predicament and worse about her own role in this mess but she’s under strict instruction never to accept or turn down his suggestions about “What to do About Poynton.”
Now a couple of interesting side bits. The plot of Poynton is partially based on legal case that Mr. James had seen in the news. The dowager widow of an English estate didn’t want to turn over the house and land to her son when he came of age. The son sued to get his inheritance and mum testified he wasn’t entitled to it because (wait for it!) her husband wasn’t the boy’s father. When you consider how adultery was viewed in that culture, you’ll understand how desperate the mother must have been to come up with that defense! The other thing you’ll notice if/when you read the book is that beyond one item, nothing in Poynton’s collection is described or documented. The house is supposed to be an assembled work of art, a cohesive collection that brings out the best in each piece and every room but we really don’t know what it looks like. Mrs Gareth continually refers to the contents of her home as “the things” (As in, “Has she any sort of feeling for the nice old things?”). The author originally wanted to call the novel “The Old Things” but he deliberately left most of the specifics of the collection off. This allows each reader to conjure up a vision of what Poynton must look like to be worth this much trouble.
If you’ve been reading about these precious, immovable objects and teams of irresistible forces, chances are you’ve thought, “Something’s gotta give” and yes, it does. Well, a lot of things do but not all at once and not the way you’d expect. The Spoils of Poynton has a hum-dinging twist of an ending. So pick up the book, brew yourself a good pot of tea and do not skip ahead to the ending. This tale is wound up tight and you won’t appreciate the ride if you miss hitting most of the curves. It’s the work of a master so appreciate it for what it is. Intricate, archaic, wound up and beautifully designed, this work is the literary equivalent of a Victorian pocket watch. And so is Henry James. I hope he comes back into style.