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.