The Spoils of Poynton

The Spoils of Poynton

by Henry James

Preparing to marry, Owen Gereth asks his widowed mother to move out of the family manse, leaving its glorious objects to him and his bride. Mrs Gereth disapproves of her would-be daughter-in-law and enlists a young friend named Fleda Vetch to save the collectibles and her son.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Fiction
  • Rating: 3.69
  • Pages: 252
  • Publish Date: March 1st 2004 by Wildside Press
  • Isbn10: 0809594048
  • Isbn13: 9780809594047

What People Think about "The Spoils of Poynton"

That is to say, I appear to be the main character but the truth is, Mrs Gereth of Poynton Hall takes firm possession of that status early in the story. On the third page, as I was sitting in an obscure corner of a friend's garden, minding my modest business as usual, Henry James allowed Mrs Gereth of Poynton Hall to descend upon me in all her pent-up fury. A few pages later, I'd been whisked off to stay with her at Poynton Hall, and that's how I came to be the unhappy go-between in the conflict that arose when Mrs Gereth's son announced he was getting married to the girl from the house with the wallpaper Mrs Gereth couldn't abide. However, the late Mr Gereth had left his property to the son, and in accordance with English law, Mrs Gereth was obliged to leave Poynton Hall, together with all its treasures, as soon as her son decided to marry.

Leon Edel sees in The Spoils of Poynton "James's first attempt to use his scenic method and his playwriting techniques." Unluckily for us James was an indifferent playwright and such techniques--along with a laughably puritanical conception of character--are responsible for this suffocatingly miniature novel. The action, such as it is, takes place on the tensed communicatory wires that make a triangle of Mrs. Gereth, her adversarial son Owen, and their ambivalent go-between, Fleda Vetch (the ugliest Jamesian name I've encountered, though I hear there's a character named Fanny Assingham in The Ambassadors). That heard-of woman became the Mrs. Gereth of this novel. Fleda's humble and humane taste is a perfect foil for Mrs. Gereth's Olympian aestheticism. That novel portrayed the practice of art "as a human complication and social stumbling block," and I thought The Spoils of Poynton might continue its dramatic analysis of the difficulties that arise in the lives of people who live and judge only by aesthetic values. Scrutinizing the preface for reasons why the novel so bugged me, I found James saying that, from the moment of conception, he intended Mrs. Gereth and her son to be mindless drivers of action, fools, "fools who minister, at a particular crisis, to the intensity of the free spirit engaged with them." The free spirit, the moral pivot, being Fleda. He wasn't ever going to take a Mrs. Gereth seriously; as he says in the preface, she was to be a "figure" rather than a character, "clever" rather than "intelligent." In the preface James admits the slightly absurd presumption, the unrealism, of furnishing every situation with a morally admirable character, with a "free spirit," with a Fleda to act as the "ground of appeal" and perching-place of readerly sympathy. Writing the full story of Mrs. Gereth would have presented no moral difficulty to any of his continental contemporaries. As a story concentrated on Mrs. Gereth, even one with the claustrophobic playwriting effect, this would have worked.

Less physically present in the novel, but a looming presence offstage is the young woman Owen plans to marry, Mona Brigstock, whom the super-refined aesthete Mrs Gereth regards as a vulgarian barbarian at the gate. The remaining major characters are houses: the beautiful, Jacobean Poynton Hall, where Mrs Gereth lived out her married life and assembled her exquisite collection of furniture and tapestries, and the modest dower-house cottage Ricks, to which she is expected to uproot herself when Owen and Mona move into Poynton. James uses this structure to explore the passions associated with ownership and material possession (the blunter title of the novels original, serial publication, in The Atlantic Monthly, was The Old Things.) Mrs Gereths attachment to her cherished collection is as fierce as we like to think of the maternal instinct being, leaving her actual maternal feelings for Owen well in the rear.

This book probably represents James at his most annoying. For James, that becomes more and more difficult with his characters. They stubbornly, and endlessly, talk about the matter that concerns them most. I won't say it leads to tragedy, because here I didn't think any of the characters merited a tragic end. The plot, like most of later James, is very simple. But when someone asked him about this, he replied, "Perhaps its because I have nothing to say." I sometimes feel that way about the characters in these James books.

In this fatiguing short novel (1897), the compulsive and highly neurotic protagonist by name of Fleda Vetch (James in a campy mood ?) navigates between a mother who wants to preserve her "spoils" or treasures, collected over the years, for herself and a son who wants them for his soon-to-be-bride. We only know this because James repeats and repeats the words; the fiancée is repeatedly described as vulgar, pretentious and a philistine. Also, is Fleda in love with the pussy-whipped (by Mum and fiancée) son and will he marry or not.

The widowed Mrs. Gereth has spent her life furnishing her home, Poynton, with all manner of elegant furniture and art objects which are the focus of her attention and value. And perhaps the greatest joy of reading this novel, as is the case with most of James novels, is his use of dialogue that suggests more often than it denotes, that leaves much between the lines for the characters and the reader to infer and interpret, and that is always as ambiguous on the page as it is in real life.

Mrs. Gareth's only hope is in Fleda, intelligent and trained in the arts, to attract Owen and influence him to drop the engagement to Mona, who isn't particularly nice anways.

Die Kostbarkeiten von Poynton, eines der Spätwerke von Henry James, wurde im Manesse Verlag in neuer Übersetzung von Nikolaus Stingl herausgegeben und hat darüber hinaus eine wunderschöne Gestaltung mit farbigem Buchschnitt und Leineneinband erhalten, die allein schon zum Sammeln seiner Werke wunderbar ist. Doch auch der Name Nikolaus Stingl trägt eine Art Gütesiegel unter den deutschen Übersetzern, weshalb ich mich auf eine gute Übersetzung und eine tolle Geschichte von Henry James freute. Ich bleibe nach wie vor ein Fan der früheren Werke doch was in seinen älteren Büchern ebenso heraussticht, das ist die große Gabe, Gesellschaften und einzelne Personen genauestens zu analysieren und ihre Schwächen auf teilweise sehr satirische aber auch versteckte Art dazustellen.

His method of writing from the point of view of a character within a tale allowed him to explore the phenomena of consciousness and perception, and his style in later works has been compared to impressionist painting.