Tuesday, October 11, 2016

 

Humdrum family business in aristocratic garb

HENRY JAMES – OWEN WINGRAVE – 1892

This novella is very difficult to analyze. It is supposed to be a ghost story but once again (with Henry James) the ghosts are in the head of some characters, in fact essentially Spencer Coyle. The famous portrait in Paramore that shows the violent ancestor who killed his son shows him alone in the painting. The absence of his son (hand in hand with his father in Benjamin Britten’s version) is essential since he is only remembered because he killed his son and died in the room where the boy died and that has been haunted ever since. Benjamin Britten is far more subtle by having this picture changed from Henry James’s version and having the son in the painting too. Since this son is also called Owen like the main character of the novella, there is an obvious connection Henry James does not use, at least not in this portrait, even if it is difficult to have two people in those very formal portraits.

Note too that Henry James situates the murder in the 18th century under George II, only one century or hardly more before the events at the end of the 19th century. Benjamin Britten in the BBC production of 1970 seems to have favored a portrait dated 1652, which is strangely considered as being under Charles II by Hubert Teyssandier who must have forgotten that only Charles II considered he climbed on the throne on the very day when his gather was executed in London in 1649 whereas most historians would consider that in 1652 England was a Commonwealth headed by Oliver Cromwell. But this element is not really meaningful. Henry James though describes Poramore as an “impoverished Jacobean house, shabby and remarkably creepy.” And this remark may explain the shift to the 18th century in the BBC production, if I believe Hubert Teyssandier.


This novella is centered on the feudal function of noble families. They are warriors and this family does not want to move. It is with them a tradition that in every generation at least one son becomes a soldier. That’s the problem of Owen Wingrave who does not want to win graves to himself or anyone else, friend or foe alike. He rejects his family tradition, function, justification in life. We only know about his direct family that his own father died in Afghanistan, and his mother in childbirth delivering soon after the third child who was stillborn. Owen Wingrave never explains his reason except that for him war is not the proper solution to current problems. But no real argument is given so we do not know if it is an opposition to war by principle, or to colonial war in particular that killed his father and caused the death of his mother in India. Is it moral, ethical, economic, political, historical, philosophical, religious or conscientious? No real answer to that, which disqualifies the novella as an antimilitary novella. It is a novella in which the antimilitary theme is strongly represented, but that’s not the main topic the way I look at it.

The main topic is the freedom of a child in front of his family. A child is supposed to do what his family says he has to do. That concerns boys only. Girls just have to marry the man the family will accept or choose. This family is feudal in perspective and war is the only possible choice, hence it is not a choice. Owen refuses and Henry James is showing how absurd such a situation is. He shows that with the name of the family. That military glory can only bring graves to the family and several examples are given in the novella. Furthermore the family seat is Paramore, a parody of some French phrase coming from the Middle Ages, “par amour” that entered Middle English between 1250 and 1300. There is of course no love in this house, in this family. There is only a feudal dictatorship for everyone and their relation to the world can only be seen as military. It reminds me tremendously of “Dr Folamour,” the French title of “Dr Strangelove” by Stanley Kubrick that came out in 1964. I find thus the novella perfectly humorous or even caustic against a certain type of English aristocracy, but in the darkest shade of dark grey, well hidden and wrapped up in so much serious even slightly humdrum vain military discourse that we even forget the novella is making fun of these people.


The family is absolutely absurd in their reaction: since they cannot move Owen they purely cut all resources and reject him out of the family, make him both a pauper and a stranger, though he has his mother’s £300 a year that should enable him to survive in the vast world (which cannot be taken away from him since the Magna Carta). They cannot kill him straight away, so they will starve him to death – if they could of course. 1892 is no longer 1215.

And that’s where the silly attitude of the family (vastly emphasized by Britten who makes it a vociferous scene between Owen and his grandfather with a final disinheritance) is unreasonable, in ,contradiction with the world they live in. But the result in the novella is the same, simply calmer in tone.


And that’s where the novella turns fishy. The haunted room is brought back into a discussion between Lechmere (who is not flirting with Kate), Kate the girl Owen was supposed to marry but who rejects him since he is not going to be a soldier and Owen. In the novella Owen pretends he has spent the previous night in that room. Kate dares him to spend a second night in there and she locks the door behind him. The meaning for her is that Owen must be afraid of being a soldier, so he cannot spend a night in this room since he has to be afraid of dying there. The girl is supposed to love Owen. It sounds more like the love of Venus for Adonis whom she sends away to die under the tusks of a wild boar since he refused to yield to her desire. This girl, Kate, could be considered as slightly psychotic, but of course her father died in some war, and she is living with her mother under the protection of Miss Wingrave, Owen’s aunt, who was supposed to marry Kate’s father and she cancelled it at the last minute and sent him to his military career.

And sure enough Owen dies in the room. Strange that he did not die the previous night. And the concluding words of the novella are fateful: “He looked like a young soldier on a battlefield.” The family is thus spited by this end just as much as Owen is mocked in his anti-militaristic stance. To be a soldier is a curse in this family but it is a family fact. But we have to envisage that meaning in the novella that these last words seem to mean no one can escape that curse, that feudal function in this family and that fate will have the last word and the conscientious objector dies like a soldier. Well at least he looks like one, though as dead as a door nail, or rather a coffin nail in this situation.


It is the various contradictions in this novella that explain its success in its being adapted to various media and various arts. And yet the novella is in no way fascinating. In fact it could have been cut in half. Too much tricky beating about the bush especially when Spencer Coyle speaks or thinks or describes what is happening. He is as slick as a snake coiling around its argumentative preys and trying to make them larger than they actually are. But that is Henry James’ style. Why say in ten words what can be said in one hundred.


Dr Jacques COULARDEAU



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