Jill Paton Walsh has written extensively for children, from picture books to young adult titles. She has written five literary novels, including Knowledge of Angels, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She has also written seven crime novels, three of them in association with Dorothy L Sayers. Jill is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a CBE. Here she writes about Henry James's The Golden Bowl.
Jill Paton Walsh on The Golden Bowl by Henry James
I was brought up in a culture of moral absolutism. In my case it was that of Roman Catholicism, though I think being brought up a believing Marxist might be very similar. I finished Oxford with an English degree, having read a mediaeval and history of the language course, in which the latest author studied was John Milton. On coming down I began to read novels. Twentieth century novels, I mean - I had read the Victorians extensively from my grandfather's bookcases in my precocious and lonely childhood.
The first two books of my postgraduate reading were To the Lighthouse and The Golden Bowl. Between them these two books destroyed and reconstructed my view of the world, and I have lived since in constant gratitude to them. There are very personal reasons for the effect on me that To the Lighthouse had. Whereas I think that anybody who manages to read The Golden Bowl with a modicum of attention must be challenged by it.
The Golden Bowl is about an earnest young American girl, Maggie Verver, intensely devoted to her widower father, and to his obsessional hobby - collecting fine things. Her old friend Charlotte introduces her to an impoverished and glamorous Italian Prince - a social treasure, eagerly acquired by the Ververs as a perfect husband for Maggie. She marries him without realizing that he had had an affair with Charlotte in the past, which was frustrated by their mutual poverty.
At this point I ought to say that one of the merits of this dense and complex novel is that it is almost impossible to summarize, and that for a rather particular reason. Its overriding theme is the destructive crudity of moral rules, known in advance, applied to the intricate particular circumstances of human lives. Every word or thought or tiny wrinkle in the story which is left out of the summary has, in the view of the book, an importance in judging what the characters do and feel, and seeing what, given their circumstances, it would be best for them to do and feel.
In a wonderful discussion of this novel in Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge - incidentally the best book of literary criticism I have read this century - she cites particular passages to illustrate her argument, but at one point has to cite 'the entire novel'.
It is characteristic of Maggie Verver that she aspires to goodness, and for her that means not hurting anybody. She is anxious not to downgrade her father in her life, not to make him feel less important to her because of her marriage. She lives therefore, after marrying the Prince, as much as a daughter as she did before. By and by it occurs to her that Charlotte might marry her father, and so console him for her diminished role in his life. Charlotte is glad to - it will bring her into familial contact with the Prince.
The stage is set for the moral reversal of the novel. Who is exploiting whom? I first read The Golden Bowl, as I said, as a young person. My sympathies were with the Prince and Charlotte, 'aestheticized' by the Americans, who regard people in the same light as splendid objects, to be collected and displayed. And then the story pivots - Maggie discovers the deceit practised on her by Charlotte and the Prince. She fights back, suffering anguish herself at the cruelty she must now practise, the harm she must do to others to do the right thing by her husband. He must lose Charlotte, she must lose her father - they must go to live in America, and never be seen again. The thought of Charlotte's fate will strike the reader with awe. And it swings one's judgement. If the Ververs have treated the European pair as exploitable things, what have that pair been doing to the Americans? Hasn't the Prince married Maggie for her money while in love with somebody else? Hasn't Charlotte married Mr Verver to be near her lover rather than to be with her new husband?
And Maggie, triumphant? Not exactly. She has won her husband's admiration; he is forced to see her as a living person in her own right. But she is no longer the good person she wanted to be. She has practised extreme cruelty on her friend. She has learnt the price of her choice. She is no longer an innocent.
I was no longer an innocent myself after reading The Golden Bowl. I had made moral judgements on the characters in the first half of the book which the second half had made me resile from, and entirely reverse... no, that's not it. The reader is left suspended between two views of the matter which are both natural, both justified, and which cannot both be right simultaneously. This novel is a thought laboratory in which is demonstrated how provisional our judgments of each other are, and how swayed by knowledge of detailed circumstances, and by our personal sympathies.
Compared to the subtleties in this book the catechism appeared crude in the extreme. A real Papal Bull in the china shop. I set out to live without rules, which had consequences of its own, beyond the scope of this piece.
It was when I re-read The Golden Bowl in my later middle age that I saw what it is really about. James is not playing games with us like a conjurer with a marble under an egg-cup saying is it here or is it there, is it this or is it that; he is showing us that we ourselves are always implicated in the moral judgements we make - they are always about circumstance and sympathies, a disinterested judgement is a chimera.
And there is always a price to pay for our actions. A woman who marries sidelines her father; a man who marries betrays his mistress... Read it for yourself.
It's true that late James is not easy to read; his endlessly sensitive, delicate discriminations make Proust look like a good brisk narrator. But read it for yourself, because it is very unlikely indeed that your judgments of the characters will be the same as mine - that's part of the point.
This is a book which makes me think hard thoughts. I like that.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]