Monday, August 1, 2022

The Reverberator by Henry James

Source of book: I own this.


I am unashamed to say that I am indeed a Henry James fanboy. I know, that makes me a bit odd, but I like what I like. You can read my other posts about James from the list at the end of the post. 

The Reverberator is different in that it has actually been on my “library reading list” for about eight years. Yes, I keep a running list of books I want to borrow from the library. Yes, it is absurdly long. And no, I probably will never finish it. In this case, it sat on the list long enough that I found it as a used hardback and added it to my collection. Like many of the books on my list, I found it through an online review (yes, a review of a book more than 100 years old!) 


Henry James was quite a socialite, and always listening for a good story idea. In this case, he took inspiration from May Marcy McClellan, a young American who ran in the social circles of the Astors and company. Apparently, she took one of those extended trips to Italy, then came home and wrote a scandalous gossip article for the New York World, spilling the supposed secrets of the European luminaries. This not only caused a stir at home - where it was eaten up by the press and public - but it caused quite the pearl clutching in Europe. James himself wrote letters to his friends absolutely eviscerating her behavior - his acid tongue was apparently even more sharp in private than in his books. 


He also decided to write a book about the incident, because that’s how he did it. 


The Reverberator is, of course, more than a fictionalized version of an event. James changes and rearranges things quite a bit to suit his artistic purposes, and makes the story into something more nuanced, and a good bit more “Jamesian” than the original. It also becomes, in James’ hands, far more of a commentary on America and Americans than on Europe. 


In the book, the naive and beautiful young woman, Francie Dosson, is living in Paris with her limp fish of a father (who has made a fortune in business), and her social climbing but far less attractive sister. 


At loose ends, they end up in the company of George Flack, European reporter for The Reverberator, a tabloid newspaper back in the US. Flack shows them around, charms Mr. Dosson, and falls for Francie. 


Flack convinces Francie to sit for a portrait with one of those new-fangled impressionist painters. While there, Francie meets Gaston Probert, who also falls in love with her. 


Gaston has an interesting history. His parents are from “Carolina” and have significant wealth back there. (We aren’t told, but one presumes they have a plantation that formerly enslaved hundreds or thousands, and converted it to lucrative sharecropping in the present time.) The moved permanently to France back in the day, had their kids, who then married surprisingly well to French aristocrats. Except for Gaston, who remains troublingly single, and his elder brother, killed in a war. The Proberts have become Frenchier than French, and snobby in the way that Americans who take on European airs do in Henry James books. To the Proberts, Francie is nouveau riche - her father is newly rich, while their French side goes back a thousand years. 


Francie decides she likes Gaston, and they become engaged. However, he has to win his family over. Just when he appears to be succeeding, Flack returns from London, and manages to get Francie alone for a while. She naively spills the Probert family secrets to him, which he then has his secretary “embellish” a good bit, and then publishes in America to huge popularity and scandal. 


The Proberts take this very badly, although one sister tries to protect Francie by advising her to claim innocence and let the blame fall on someone else. She refuses, and things unsurprisingly blow up badly. 


In James' hands, everyone in turn comes in for scorn. Clearly Francie has made a huge social misstep - telling stories that are not hers to tell. Although, to be fair, her father has raised her to believe that anyone worth writing about gets gutted in the press sooner or later - goodness knows he has - and should just ignore it. 


James cannot resist skewering everyone else though. The Proberts are portrayed as taking themselves and their social status far too seriously. I mean, I wanted Francie to stay away just because of the hell they would make her life. The thing is, they really aren’t high enough socially for this to even matter in France, although they will never admit it. A few weeks of tittering, and it will essentially go away. And in America, it will be replaced by the next bit of celebrity gossip before long. But they take themselves so damn seriously


There are the usual digs at men like Mr. Dosson (who enjoyed his cigars with Mr. Flack, and thus thinks he can just keep him around after the shit goes down), and Gaston, who is essentially the wet fish of an indecisive and spineless young man that appears in so many James books. 


The harshest disapproval is for Mr. Flack. James may have traded in scandal himself a bit, but his was fictionalized to the point that (with the exception of this book) it was difficult to recognize the original person behind the story unless you knew personal details already. James greatly disliked this “scandal to sell papers” business, and saw this infant industry as eventually becoming mainstream “journalism.”


In other words, James pretty much predicted TMZ back in 1888. That’s pretty dang impressive. 


Most chilling are the words that James puts in Flack’s mouth:


“The society-news of every quarter of the globe, furnished by the prominent members themselves—oh they can be fixed, you’ll see!—from day to day and from hour to hour and served up hot at every breakfast-table in the United States: that’s what the American people want and that’s what the American people are going to have … That’s about played out, anyway, the idea of sticking up a sign of ‘private’ and ‘hands off’ and ‘no thoroughfare’ and thinking you can keep the place to yourself.”


I rather hate tabloid culture myself. I wish the Kardashians would just go away already. (I’d say “go fuck themselves,” but if they could, they would have done so and gotten months of coverage in the news for it.) So at my dream dinner party, James and I can nurse our drinks and bemoan the terrible taste that makes this stuff sell. 


The Reverberator is a fairly short novel - a mere 15 chapters - but it is a compact gem. Written in James’ middle period, it isn’t as dense or as twisted in its language as his late work, so this is probably a decent book to start with if you haven’t read James before. 


There are some great lines, of course - a wordsmith like James couldn’t write a book without them. 


How about this bit about money? 


He [Flack] liked to make them all feel helpless and dependent, and this was not difficult with people who were so modest and artless, so unconscious of the boundless power of wealth. Sentiment, in our young man, was not a scruple nor a source of weakness; but he thought it really touching, the little these good people knew of what they could do with their money. They had in their hands a weapon of infinite range and yet they were incapable of firing a shot for themselves. They had a kind of social humility; it appeared never to have occurred to them that, added to their amiability, their money gave them a value. 


Or this description of Francie’s sister Delia, who is forever trying to climb socially through Francie’s beauty, but seems rather uninterested in men herself. (Possibly a closeted lesbian, like other characters in James?) 


She felt herself a born old maid and never dreamed of a lover of her own - he would have been dreadfully in her way; but she dreamed of love as something in its nature very delicate. 


I also liked the conversation between Gaston and the painter, Waterlow. Gaston is such a wimp, and Waterlow ties to push him to just go after what he wants. (Late in the book, Waterlow inspires Gaston to take the first firm step to assert himself he has possibly ever taken.) 


When, in December, he told Waterlow of his plan of campaign the latter said, “I will do anything in the world you like - anything you think will help you - but it passes me, my dear fellow why in the world you don’t go to them and say, ‘I’ve seen a girl who is as good as cake and pretty as fire, she exactly suits me, I’ve taken time to think of it and I know what I want: therefore I propose to make her my wife. If you happen to like her so much the better; if you don’t be so good as to keep it to yourselves.’ That is much the most excellent way. Why, gracious heaven, all these mysteries and machinations?” 


There is much that is familiar here personally. I was naive enough to think that my family would accept my wife once they got to know her. In reality, that didn’t happen, because the expectations were (like with the Proberts) that anyone joining the family would fully conform to the family culture and highly gendered expectations. The circumstances are a bit different, but I have often wondered how things would have gone if I had followed the advice of Waterlow, and just laid it out at the beginning - including the request to keep their disapproval to themselves. 


The later conversation is also fascinating. Gaston is still fearful of his family, and Waterlow finally points out that he needs to stop caring about them, and actually follow his own dreams for a change. Gaston worries that if he marries Francie, she will make another mistake and he will be blamed. Waterlow notes that his family is “doing their best to kill you morally - to render you incapable of individual life.” Should Gaston finally assert himself, even in the worst case scenario, he “will at least have got rid of your family.” Yeah, that kind of happened to me, in the long term. And for the same reasons. 


Another strong passage is that of Francie’s reflection after everything blows up. She has seen so many breezy gossip articles in the paper herself, she is surprised that the Proberts cared that much. Is she just blind to the scandal?


Perhaps they had got coarse and callous, Francie said to herself; perhaps they had read so many articles like that that they had lost their delicacy, the sense of certain differences and decencies. Then, very weak and vague and passive as she was now, in the bedimmed room, in the soft Parisian bed, and with Delia treating her as much as possible like a sick person, she thought of the lively and chatty letters that they had always seen in the papers and wondered whether they all meant a violation of sanctities, a convulsion of homes, a burning of smitten faces, a rupture of girls’ engagements. 


This is that blurring of the public and private that Flack intends to accomplish. And it is something that I have thought about a lot regarding my blog. I am in a tough position because to talk about the toxic ideologies that have destroyed my family, I have to share things that might be considered family secrets. My story - all of our stories of course - involve other people, and telling the truth as we experienced it will often paint others in a negative light. And more often, be perceived that way by those involved. There is much I have omitted, of course. And, while I still had a hope of preserving certain relationships, I said even less. It is a tough line to walk, particularly when there are decades of damage that are primarily the fault of the false teachers who fooled my parents. But swallowing lies that hurt one’s children isn’t innocence, no matter how good the intentions were. I have tried not to reveal secrets merely for scandal, but to illuminate the evil ideas and actions that have harmed so many. Whether I have succeeded in where I have drawn the line is difficult to know. 


It isn’t just me, of course. A shocking number of ex-Gothard children - and also exvangelical children - have had significant problems with their parents, and many are estranged. So much for Gothard and Dobson’s claim that they were “healing America’s families.” Quite the opposite, actually. As all this comes out, those who were deceived over the years are pretty sore about what has come to light - and the light it shows them in. I wish there were an easier way, but pretending it all didn’t happen isn’t going to fix anything. Particularly if the behaviors haven’t actually changed. 


That’s all a bit of a tangent, but the snobbery and control of the Proberts is equally important to the book as the tabloid adventures. James, as usual, takes a story and adds a lot of nuance to it. Another favorite author, Anthony Trollope, also wrote wonderfully nuanced interpersonal dramas. While Trollope tended to be very gentle and understanding of his characters, even the villains, James always shows a sharper edge. He is not as apt to forgive foibles, although he grants understanding and a certain degree of sympathy for the harsh results. This book is pretty unsparing - actions have consequences, and ultimately you have to play the game even when you are losing. I definitely enjoyed the experience. 




Other books by Henry James:


The Bostonians

Eight Novellas and Short Stories (includes The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller)

The Portrait of a Lady

The Sacred Fount     

The Turn of the Screw (Jeffrey Hatcher Play)

Washington Square

The Wings of the Dove


And, for good measure, one by his equally brilliant brother, William:


A Pluralistic Universe


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