Tuesday 27 August 2019

Too Grand

'Not as grand as we. They date from the sixteenth century. It is on my father's side that we go back - back, back, back. The family antiquaries themselves lose breath. At last they stop, panting and fanning themselves, somewhere in the ninth century, under Charlemagne. That's where we begin.'
Henry James, The American

Whose side is James on? Fineness in a writer is sometimes to be measured in this way. Does James align himself with an ancient French family, a scion of which vocalises the above patrician words? Or is he with 'the American', the new man of the novel's title, Christopher Newman?

Such ambiguities are to be found in Anita Brookner too, in those many, many novels of hers exploring the clash between the outsiders and insiders of this world. Such clashes are irreducible, and this is perhaps why she wrote so much. Ever potent because ever unresolved.

The passage from The American set me remembering. The Princess Michael of Kent, when she joined the British royals, made known her ancestry, which stretches back, like that of James's personages, to Charlemagne. The Queen (descendant in large part of mere minor north-German Electors), before meeting Marie Christine for the first time, is said to have described her as 'much too grand for us'.

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