Henry James: Mme de Mauves (1874)

It was exactly one year ago that I reviewed Edith Wharton’s Mme de Treymes. Mme de Treymes – Mme de Mauves? Both novellas, both set in Paris, or in the case of Mme de Mauves in St-Germain-en-Laye. It’s hardly a coincidence. And who was influenced by whom is also not hard to find out as James wrote his novella in 1874, while Edith Wharton published Mme de Treymes in 1907.

Henry James and Edith Wharton are both novelists whose each and every book I would like to read sooner or later. Discovering Madame de Mauves of which I hadn’t known anything before was a real pleasure and the first sentences managed to capture me right away.

The view from the terrace at St.Germain-en-Laye is immense and famous. Paris lies spread before you in dusky vastness, domed and fortified, glittering here and there through her light vapours and girdled with her silver Seine. Behind you is a park of stately symmetry, and behind that a forest where you may lounge through turfy avenues and light-chequered glades and quite forget that you are in half an hour of the boulevards. One afternoon, however, in mid-spring, some five years ago, a young man seated at the terrace had preferred to keep this in mind. His eyes were fixed in idle wistfulness on the mighty human hive before him.

Like in Mme de Treymes we have the theme of intercontinental marriage and its difficulties. The young American Longmore, the narrator of Henry James’ novella, meets the beautiful and sad Mme de Mauves on one of his walks in St. Germain. A mutual friend introduces them and before leaving for London asks him to keep her company and distract her, as she is trapped in an unhappy marriage. Mme de Mauves is a young, very rich American woman, married to an aristocratic Frenchman. While she married because she romantically idealized the title, she also married for love, while he married her for the money only. It is known that he not only spends her money but has one affair after the other.

The more time Longmore  spends in her company, the more he admires her, pities her and finally falls in love with her. He would want her to confide in him but she refuses. As much as he is in love with her, he would never attempt anything and is taken aback when her sister-in-law suggests they should have an affair. It’s only natural, according to the sister-in-law, for a Frenchman to have affairs but it isn’t natural for a woman to make him one scene after the other and to torment him with reproaches. In an earlier conversation with Longmore, M de Mauves complains about his wife. He thinks that she is too morbid, to fond of reading and solitude.

A lot of what we find in James’ later novels can already be found here. The contrast of morals between France and America, the almost impossibility of a marriage between a rich American and an aristocratic Frenchman. Adultery. Divorce seems no option although Longmore hopes so at a certain point. I think it would be really great to read Wharton’s and James’ novella together. Both have drastic and surprising endings but in the case of Mme de Mauves, I’m not sure whether it isn’t surprising because it is implausible. If anyone has read the novella I’d love to discuss the ending.

It seems that of all of his novels The Golden Bowl is the most similar to this novella, although, without the tragic end. The negotiation that fails in Mme de Mauve is successful in The Golden Bowl, or so it seems. I have not read the Golden Bowl yet but would like to very much.

The writing in Mme de Mauves is complex, typical for James, it’s by far less readable than Mme de Treymes.

While this may not be his best work, it has reminded me of all I like in his writing and has certainly put me in the mood for another of his longer novels.

Has anyone read Mme de Mauves? Which are your favourite Henry James novels? Portrait of a Lady is one of my favourite novels but I also like many of his other books with the exception of The Turn of the Screw. I didn’t get along with that at all.

36 thoughts on “Henry James: Mme de Mauves (1874)

  1. Thank you for sharing that opening quote. It was really good and his description is so beautiful.

    you know, I should read more novella like you, it takes a long time to finish a full novel

    • Even when I read novels I have a preference for shorter works. 300+ pages is fine but anything longer must be unusually special to hold my attention. I really prefer short stories and novellas over most novels.
      I’m glad you liked the quote. I think he writes incredibly well. I think you could find quite a few novellas of classics online.

  2. I still haven’t read any James yet. I have always avoided him for some reason. But you say that Portrait of a Lady is one of your favorites so I’ll have to give him a chance.

    • Yes, it is, I love it, I love everything I read so far with the exception of the Turn of the Screw. People say he is difficult to read. I didn’t notice that so much, at least not in the books I have read. Portrait of a Lady is one of my all time favourites, like La princesse de Clèves or Bassani’s The Graden of the Finzi Contini.
      If you like Henry James, chances are high you will like Edith Wharton or the other way around. I’d start with a shorter one, maybe Washington Square or The Europeans.

  3. I’d like to read this one.

    You should read The Custom of the Country, also about intercontinental marriages except that the vision of divorce has changed. It’s fantastic.

    About James.
    Well, you know what I think of What Maisie Knew. Stunning.
    Washington Square is excellent, I’m going to re-read it soon.
    Daisy Miller is wonderful too.
    Turns out I loved the three ones I’ve read.

    • The Turn of the Screw was my only disappointment so far.
      I will read The Custom of the Country but I guess after those I already have in book format.
      If you read this, it would be great to read it together with Mme de Treymes. I must say I liked it better, because of the characters. Mme de Mauves isn’t a likable character, I thought.

  4. I happened to read The Wings of the Dove and thought to try others but not with good results – absolutely, I couldn’t pitch the natural/supernatural of the Turn of the Screw (my fault, I’m sure).

    I think I came away with the idea that a young James made the big decision and then said, Now what shall I write about…?

    • You liked The Wings of the Dove then? I’ve read that The Wings of the Dove was one that many at the time didn’t like much. Edith Wharton seems to have been critical.
      Did you try Washington Square and Portrait of a Lady? I really liked them but prefer Portrait of a Lady.
      The Turn of the Screw annoyed me. I didn’t find anything in it that I like in Henry James normally.

  5. I confess I much prefer Henry James in short form. I adored Washington Square and The Aspern Papers, but found his longer fiction, like The Golden Bowl, hard work. I can’t quite shake myself of the impression that James writes long sentences out of a chronic inability to nail a thought, rather than out of the desire to wind around a complex or sophisticated idea or feeling. But I should try him again – you never know when you will click with an author. And in the meantime, I’m looking forward to reading What Maisie Knew.

    • I didn’t come across these long sentences, not even in The Portrait of a Lady which was the longest book I have read so far. But I hear it mention so often, I’m sure he has this tendency. I think Emma noticed it in What Masie Knew as well. Thanks for the warning about The Golden Bowl. There are still quite a few shorter books I haven’t tried yet, I will stick to those at present and tackle a long one at a later date.

  6. Nice review, Caroline! James was a real prose master! I have read just one James novel – ‘The Aspern Papers’ – but I want to read more of his works. I read the first page of ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ and was enthralled by the first paragraph – it was so good! It was interesting to read your thoughts on this novella and the novella by Edith Wharton. Have you read ‘The Line of Beauty’ by Alan Hollinghurst? The main character in the novel adores Henry James 🙂

    • Thanks, Vishy. Yes, I think he was. I always forget about The Aspern Papers but have heard it is very good. Portrait of a Lady is an incredible book.
      I have Hollinghurt’s novel but not read yet. Another one I would like to read. A charactr who likes Henry James sounds promising. I might alternate this year between Wharton and James. I hope you will like The Portrait of a Lady should you read it.

  7. I haven’t heard of this or the Wharton you mention Caroline, so I’ll look out for them. Last year I read James’s The Coxon Fund, which was very good, worth a look and available in a nice edition from Melville House.

  8. How odd – we were just last night at dinner talking about that exact view from St. Germain-en-Laye, which even today is pretty much just as James describes it. On a clear day, it’s worth leaving Paris just to have it in front of you like that.

    The Ambassadors is probably my James of choice, but there are so many great ones. I’m curious: why don’t you and “The Turn of the Screw” get along? It seems like a dreadfully nice ghost story, well-mannered, from a good family, probably some skeletons in the closet like everyone else, but nothing too ghastly.

    • What a coincidence. The view is wonderful, I saw it right before me, while readig him.
      The Ambassadors was on my radar, thanks for metioning it.
      I love ghost stories, that’s why I was surprised I didn’t like it. Maybe it is similar to the characters in Mme de Mauves, they are very cold. From style perspective, structure of the story, I think he writes wel in the short form but his characters come alive more in the novel. That’s why it’s interesting to compare this noevlla to Edith Wharton’s. Her characters come to life. I liked this for the descriptions.

  9. I haven’t read this, but I do want to read more by both Edith Wharton and James. My next James will likely be The Portrait of a Lady, so I’m happy to hear it’s your favourite.

  10. I really struggle with James – he’s the one classic writer I’ve never really been able to enjoy. I’ve never read ‘Portrait of a Lady’ or ‘The Ambassadors’, but I’m loath to try after my earlier experiences. Which is a shame as the premise for this looks good (if it wasn’t by HJ!).

    • After reading the comments I think there are some of his books that are hard to access but The Potrait of a lady isn’t one of them. Should you ever want to try again, I would recommend Washington Square.
      This one is accessible for free online but I wouldn’t recommed it to someone who has had a bad experience with him. Much safer to go for something that many enjoy than some marginal novella. 🙂

  11. Portrait of a Lady is the only one I’ve read and I liked it very much. Have not read The Golden Bowl, but there’s a wonderful version (1972) by Masterpiece Theatre on Netflix. I highly recommend it.

  12. I always think of James and Wharton as authors who sort of ‘played off each other’–at least I think of them as a pair in a way since they were dealing with the same upper class sensibilities. I have read far more Wharton, though, as James does intimidate me a little. I’ve only read Turn of the Screw, which I thought was really interesting even if I’m not sure I really understood all that was going on, and Washington Square. I’ve read a number of novels by Wharton and hope to read at least one more this year. It would be interesting to read this and Mme. de Treymes together.

    • I think she was strongly influneced by him. I wasn’t aware that they were so much apart in years but this noevall came out over 30 years earlir than Mme de Treymes. She seems decidedly more accessible or readable or whatever you want to call it but I thought Washington Square, as well as Portrait of a Lady, were very accessible. I think reading these two novellas together would be absolutely great. I want to read The House of Mirth.

  13. Pingback: Balzac: The Deserted Woman – La Femme abandonnée (1832) « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  14. Pingback: Daisy Miller by Henry James | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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