Number of Pages: 333
Print Price: $
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“You are not afraid it may be rather a mistake for an American man of business to marry a French countess?”
The American man of business is certainly not afraid it’s a mistake; it seems only too natural. Christopher Newman, a captain of American industry in his mid-thirties, travels to Europe to become a new man. Part of that entails finding a suitable bride. He is an eligible bachelor, unquestionably: good-looking, well-spoken, amiable, and incredibly rich. He has his pick of the lot and he knows it. So he bides his time, confident in his ability to make a good investment. Money has purchased his every other amenity, why can’t it buy him the best wife Europe has to offer?
Newman has the misfortune of settling on Madame de Cintré as his potential partner in life. She is a young widow, a countess from an ancient French family, the Bellegardes. He considers her perfect in every way, fitting all his required qualities: “Goodness, beauty, intelligence, a fine education, personal elegance—everything, in a word, that makes a splendid woman.”
“And noble birth, evidently,” says Bellegarde, the brother of the bride-to-be.
“Oh, throw that in, by all means, if it’s there. The more the better!”
Newman’s ignorance is almost endearing. He doesn’t realize that his nouveau riches are so much water breaking on implacable ramparts: European pride. The Bellegardes are not best pleased by an American businessman making overtures of marriage to a prized family possession, no matter how padded his wallet.
Newman will not be dissuaded. Once he gets hold of an idea he cannot let go, and Madame de Cintré’s seeming “superiority,” her snobbish connections, and her ancient family name, only increase her material value in Newman’s eyes. He wants to purchase a valuable wife, like a collector in rabid pursuit of an ancient, unattainable Greek vase. In surely one of the least romantic declarations of love on record, Newman confesses to Madame de Cintré: “You have been holding your head for a week past just as I wanted my wife to hold hers. You say just the things I want her to say. You walk about the room just as I want her to walk. You have just the taste in dress that I want her to have. In short, you come up to the mark; and, I can tell you, my mark was high.”
Newman speaks as if he’s picked her off a store shelf, turned her over a few times in his hands and, finding no flaws in the make, takes her to the counter to purchase. But courtship is a complicated business in the Old World of Europe, where maintaining the honor of the family name may take priority over the family’s cash flow.
Madame de Cintré’s brother warns Newman: “Old trees have crooked branches, old houses have queer cracks, old races have odd secrets. Remember that we are eight hundred years old!”
Old trees have crooked branches, and James’s story takes a crooked turn late in the plot. (The American, an early entry in James’s illustrious career, suffers from overwrought melodrama in its third act.) I cannot proceed without addressing what the casual reader may perceive as an unmistakable strain of anti-Catholicism on James’s part. To do so, I cannot proceed without addressing major plot points. SPOILER WARNING!
Newman’s offer of marriage to Madame Cintré is denied. She tells him she is going into a convent, no doubt at the behest of her scheming older brother and wicked old mother.
“The idea struck Newman as too dark and horrible for belief, and made him feel as he would have done if she had told him that she was going to mutilate her beautiful face, or drink some potion that would make her mad.”
The reader is expected to share in Newman’s horror, his utter disbelief, that the young and beautiful Madame de Cintré could be consigned to living death in a convent. “That this superb woman, in whom he had seen all human grace and household force, should turn from him and the brightness that he offered her—him and his future and his fortune and his fidelity—to muffle herself in ascetic rags and entomb herself in a cell, was a confounding combination of the inexorable and the grotesque.”
But wait a moment. Examine that passage again. James is far too subtle a thinker to traffic in anti-Catholicism for its own sake. (Convent = tomb.). Rather, James uses Catholicism to suggest deep waters, ancient and dark, where a hard-headed pragmatist like Newman is clearly out of his depth. Newman is still focused on himself; he cannot conceive that his potential bride could “turn from him and the brightness that he offered her—him and his fortune and his fortune and his fidelity…”
Later, when Newman visits the convent where Madame de Cintré has taken her vows, he listens to the “strange, lugubrious chant, uttered by women’s voices. It began softly, but it presently grew louder, and as it increased it became more of a wail and a dirge. It was the chant of the Carmelite nuns, their only human utterance. It was their dirge over their buried affections and over the vanity of earthly desires…”
Was Madame de Cintré only ever a vanity of Newman’s earthly desires? If so, it would change the complexion of James’s superficial-seeming swipe at the Church. An important scene to consider is among the last of the book: Newman visits the cathedral of Notre Dame and there decides to jettison his plot for revenge against the scheming Bellegardes. “Whether it was Christian charity or unregenerate good nature—what it was, in the background of his soul—I don’t pretend to say; but Newman’s last thought was that of course he would the Bellegardes go…”
Addendum: The villains of the piece – the smug, self-satisfied Bellegardes – are lightweights compared to Gilbert Osmond of James’s Portrait of a Lady, one of literature’s more chilling specimens. The Bellegardes seem like studies for the fully-realized portrait of Old World evil in Osmond. Osmond’s icy evil could freeze vodka, whereas the Bellegardes are a more lukewarm enemy.
Original Language: English
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