Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Inauspicious Flames: A Feng-Shui Reading of the Spoils of Poynton

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Inauspicious Flames: A Feng-Shui Reading of the Spoils of Poynton

Article excerpt

This essay argues that Henry James may have been aware of the tenets of feng shui-the ancient Chinese belief that location and environment affect inner peace-while both conceiving and composing The Spoils of Poynton.

In his preface to the New York edition of The Spoils of Poynton, Henry James presents readers with what is perhaps the most detailed account of his creative process for any single work, from the germ of inspiration "one Christmas Eve [...] dining with friends" (xxxix) to his opinions of the novel twelve years after its publication: "I have found myself so pleased with Mrs. Gereth, I confess, on resuming acquaintance with her, that [...] I shrink from breathing upon her any breath of qualification" (xlix). Add to this "the record James left in his notebooks of the genesis and development of The Spoils of Poynton," and we have more firsthand information about the writing of Spoils than "any of his other works" (Sarris 53). Still, many critics have warned against placing too much stock in James's notes and reflections. Bernard Richards, for one, asks readers not to "assume that James actually achieved in the novel what he thought he had achieved as he was composing" (xxvi), while Patrick F. Quinn, in his "Morals and Motives in The Spoils of Poynton," suggests that "the novel we now read is not the novel James thought he wrote" (564). Fotios Sarris goes so far as to argue that both "the notebook entries and preface seem inconsistent with the novel itself and therefore raise more questions than they answer" (53). David Lodge's comments in his introduction to the Penguin edition, however, are more reasonable: for Lodge, the preface represents not a dead end, but rather "a double-edged tool for interpreting the story" (4). It is a text for critics to wield carefully, not abandon, especially as it provides our best insight into James's intentions, however wide-ranging they might have been.

Toward the beginning of the preface, for instance, James recalls being--at one point in his creative process--particularly concerned with the painstaking task of describing the spoils themselves: "They would have to be presented, they would have to be painted--arduous and desperate thought; something would have to be done for them [...] that amount of workable interest at least would evidently be 'in it'" (xliii, emph. James's). And yet, many critics have noted that James takes no such care in the novel itself. In his Talking Shop, Peter Betjemann argues that the objects at "the center of the drama [...] seem [...] poorly realized. They are presented in sweeping generalities," he claims, "as 'rare perfection' rather than as any very specifically perfect artifacts." Betjemann goes on to label the novel's fundamental weakness as "ekphrastic," suggesting that, for this reason, "almost every early and recent critic" has treated the spoils with disdain "despite the fact that the novel is quite clear about their much more dramatic scale and setting" (206-07). We must remember, however, that James only momentarily worried about the meticulous presentation of the spoils, and that this worry stemmed from a much more essential desire: to portray "their possible influence on other passions and other relations" (xliii). James twice more emphasizes that his chief concern was not how the spoils affected his readers, but rather how the spoils affected his characters. He writes, for example, of "the felt beauty" of "the Things," of wanting to establish "the power in them" (xlvi-ii). Of course, many critics have used such phrases as springboards for Marxist or Aesthetics analyses of The Spoils of Poynton. (1) But what if the power James sought to depict is not of human origin? What if the power is instead primeval, supernatural?

In The Spoils of Poynton, James again and again provides evidence of the profound effect objects and locations have on his characters, an effect not unlike one James himself felt while observing the English manor houses that would later inform his depiction of Poynton: "I think I have never been more penetrated--I have never more loved the land [and] the old houses" (Notebooks 34-35, emph. …

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