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Henry James, Elizabeth Taylor and me

So normally I wouldn’t pick up a novel by Henry James. However, as regular readers of the blog will know, I am intending to eschew the pursuit of new books in favour of rereading some, and reading books already published. The relevant post can be read hereThe Spoils of Poynton by Henry James falls into the second category. 

I found a copy of The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James a few weeks ago in a second-hand bookshop. I had planned to read it at some point because I came across references to it in a novel by Elizabeth Taylor. Now I had access to a copy. (It never seemed pressing enough to request a copy from the library, but of course I could have done that some time ago.)

What follows are my thoughts about The Spoils of Poynton and its relationship to In a Summer Season  by Elizabeth Taylor.

The Spoils of Poynton  by Henry James

This novel was first serialised and then published as a book in 1897. It’s a tightly plotted exploration of a widow’s obsession with the contents of the grand house called Poynton, and of the dilemmas encountered by her young friend, Fleda Vetch, when Mrs Gereth steals her former belongings. 

Mrs Gereth had spent her adult married life acquiring and loving the contents of Poynton. But when she is widowed all is left to her son. When he becomes engaged to the unappreciative Mona Mrs Gereth must leave the house and its contents and live in a maiden aunt’s cottage, Ricks. Her young friend Fleda also appreciates the finer things in life and is seen as a hanger-on by others. Mrs Gereth tries to get her son to marry Fleda so that her possessions will be in the care of someone who appreciates them. The young people do fall in love but only reveal this after Owen’s engagement to Mona. Fleda refuses to be with Owen until Mona has released him. 

Mrs Gereth steals the spoils and installs them in Ricks. Much of the book concerns the battle to return them, in which Fleda acts as go between for Mrs Gereth and Owen. In the end they are all caught out by what they don’t say, and Mona gets her man and the spoils. But Poynton burns down.

Mrs Gereth is a strong, opinionated and obsessive character, who places her own interests before all others. Fleda tries to do right, and in the end Mona defeats her because of it. Owen is a simple soul, but the most honest of the trio, although he too looses out, married to the wrong woman.

In A Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

The action of In A Summer Season takes place over one summer and concerns a wealthy widow who has remarried. Her husband Dermot is somewhat younger than her. One of the charms of her novels is that Elizabeth Taylor frequently makes references to works of fiction. The Spoils of Poynton appears as a clever, quiet device to show Dermot’s ignorance of literature and the awkwardness of his marriage.  He does not recognise the reference to Mrs Gereth’s name, when it comes up and assumes she is a neighbour. His mistake is glossed over by those present and when he realises this he feels humiliated. The Spoils of Poynton had been the favourite novel of Kate’s first husband. He inscribed her copy so that the book is a link to him and to Kate’s previous life in a way that Dermot resents. My full comments on the novel can be read here.

Henry James and Elizabeth Taylor

As I read his novel, I became aware that the two novelists share a very sharp eye for imperfect characters for their, social difficulties, unarticulated dilemmas and shifts of understanding. You can say the same for Edith Wharton I believe.

Both Henry James and Elizabeth Taylor write exquisite sentences, with balance and flow. James’s are long and languorous, full of Latinate words, and psychological shifts. Hers are usually a little shorter, but we know that she took great trouble with the rhythm and flow of her sentences.

And both are concerned with moral issues. In The Spoils of Poynton  we see the effects of obsession and not being open. In a Summer Season  is concerned with different types of love and a fair bit of lying

And I am pleased to have read some Henry James and to have caught up with the references in the other novel.

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor. First published in 1961. I read the Virago Modern Classics edition from1983. 221pp

The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, first published in 1897. I read the Penguin Modern Classic edition from 1963. 192pp

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