Wednesday 5 July 2017

A Capital Place for the Study of Human Nature: 'The Pension Beaurepas' by Henry James

I had ... been told that a boarding-house is a capital place for the study of human nature. I had a fancy for a literary career, and a friend of mine had said to me, 'If you mean to write you ought to go and live in a boarding-house; there is no other such place to pick up material.' I had read something of this kind in a letter addressed by Stendhal to his sister: ‘I have a passionate desire to know human nature, and have a great mind to live in a boarding-house, where people cannot conceal their real characters.’ I was an admirer of La Chartreuse de Parme, and it appeared to me that one could not do better than follow in the footsteps of its author. I remembered, too, the magnificent boarding-house in Balzac’s Père Goriot – the ‘pension bourgeoise des deux sexes et autres’, kept by Madame Vauquer, née De Conflans. Magnificent, I mean, as a piece of portraiture; the establishment, as an establishment, was certainly sordid enough, and I hoped for better things from the Pension Beaurepas.
Henry James, 'The Pension Beaurepas' (1879; 1881 text), ch. 1

'The Pension Beaurepas' is a sort of B-side or companion piece to James's more famous tale of this period on the so-called International Theme, Daisy Miller.

The narrator, a young unnamed American student, is living in a pension in Geneva. His fellow inmates include a randy old gent named Monsieur Pigeonneau; an American family, the Rucks; and another, more sophisticated American pair, the impoverished, heavily Europeanised Mrs Church and her marriageable daughter Aurora.

The pension is run by the shrewd Mme Beaurepas who 'flattered herself that she knew at a glance where to pigeon-hole a new-comer' (ch. 1).

Aurora and her mother are objects of fascination for the narrator and for the narrative. His relationship with them, and with Aurora in particular, is hard to define. '[S]he looked at me askance, with a certain coquetry,' he says in chapter 4. 'But I was an innocent youth and I only looked back at her, wondering.' He's one of James's ambiguities. Why doesn't he want her?

Speaking for ourselves, as readers, we want much more of the intriguing Churches. 'We like the old, trodden paths; we like the old, old world,' says Mrs Church, and James would have us value those things too (ch. 5). He doesn't want us to side with the vulgar Rucks (marvellous name), who are treated comically. But we seem to end up spending rather too much time with the Rucks.

Were the tale longer and fuller, it might gesture towards the tragic. Aurora's situation is the unenviable predicament of many a nineteenth-century heroine. She constantly risks the improper, whereas '[T]here is nothing that a man can do that is wrong, is there? En morale, you know, I mean.' (Ch. 7)

But the narrator never takes her seriously: 'my young lady was excited, and had a charming little passion in her eye' (ch. 7). A 'little' passion, note. How is Aurora to proceed? The narrator assures her in chapter 9:
'It is not the first time that I have been alone with a young lady. I am not at all terrified.'
To which she replies:
'Ah, but I? [...] I have never been alone' - then, quickly, she interrupted herself. 'Good, there's another false note.'
A false note? The bleeding truth, more like it - and the line alone offers a good enough reason for studying this otherwise only mildly interesting tale.

Aurora, near the end, slips from the narrative with nothing resolved. But not before she's intimated to the narrator that her circumstances are so intolerable that she even considers throwing herself on the mercy of the American consul: 'I would beg him to give me money - to help me.'

But the narrator merely smiles, though he feels 'singularly excited'. Again - why? Why?

Aurora, of course, is seen solely through the male gaze. Reading this so close on the heels of Bowen's The Hotel, I am reminded of Sydney Warren in that novel, standing 'as inanimate and objective as a young girl in a story told by a man, incapable of a thought or a feeling that was not attributed to her'. I also turn to the critic Lyndall Gordon. For Lyndall Gordon Aurora is one of James's 'alternative, evolving, thwarted women':
There is something unexplained [in Daisy Miller and 'The Pension Beaurepas'] which has nothing to do with contradictions in the girls... What is unexplained is the conduct of Winterbourne [in Daisy Miller] and the student [in 'The Pension']: their blend of sensitive involvement and withholding. This is seemingly explained by their reasonableness in the face of unreasonable and headstrong girls. We see these girls through the controlling eyes of men who appear to themselves, and to us, pained to hear innocents reviled. So concerned do they seem that we almost forget that they are not only observers or narrators of girls' destruction, but might be seen to have been implicated in that destruction, had we access to the victims' point of view.
Lyndall Gordon, A Private Life of Henry James, ch. 6

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