I finally finished something written by Henry James. I have quite a number of James' works in the bookstore, both fiction and non-fiction, and yet in spite of numerous attempts over the years, I have never been able to wade through any of them to the end. Recently, I finally made it through both "The Turn of the Screw" and "Daisy Miller." "Miller" was written in 1878 and "Screw" was written in 1898 and what I found most interesting about both was how alien both the actions and the attitudes of the protagonists are from those of today. Both stories end with a sudden and unexpected death. In the twenty first century both deaths seem arbitrary and contrived instead of organically arising from the tread of the story. What might have worked for James' contemporaries is wildly discordant with our own mental landscape.
This is a Victorian tale and thus from the age before the age before now. And this story is especially a product of its time. Nothing like it could be written today or even fifty years ago. To modern eyes "The Turn of the Screw" seems to revolve around intimations of illicit sex and especially pedophilia. The mental distance between now and then, particularly regarding sex, is so great that I have absolutely no idea how this would have appeared to a Victorian reader. On the one hand, the era was characterized by an almost pathological reluctance to acknowledge anything relating to sex, especially deviant sex. On the other hand the story was written in the 1890s when, in America at least, many towns had overt and thriving red light districts. If any story cried out for Freudian analysis, this is the one. Freud is in eclipse today but I think that is mostly because the people he studied no longer exist. We are shocked by the foot binding of the Chinese but accept far greater mental distortions and contortions of our great grandparents' culture.
It is hard to appreciate how completely our mental life has changed between then and now. I was a child of the 1950s and so I have the advantage of experiencing the last traces of the 19th century and even then things were very different. When I was young, humor was almost entirely ethnic, Pat and Mike, Abe and Hymie, Amos and Andy and any jokes with a sexual or scatological component could only be told in very circumscribed conditions and even then they relied heavily on innuendo and euphemism. Today it is completely the reverse. I can write penis or vagina without consequence and fart jokes almost required in a comedy, but if I were to fully expand n****r I would catch hell from all quarters. None of this means that our ancestors walked in darkness while we walk in light. The point is that things that were hilarious to the normal citizen in the 1950s are unspeakable today and things that appear in children's shows today would never get as far as the censors in 1950. It is possible that our times are entirely free of hysterias and passions that will look foolish or worse to later generations but my reading of history leads me to suspect that this is not the case. I also know that I am enough a product of my own times that it would be very very difficult for me to see all our own follies for what they are.
"Daisy Miller" was written 20 years before "The Turn of the Screw" and demonstrates another divergence in mental landscape between then and now and also between here and there: Europe and America. This is a tale about the collision between a free-spirited American young lady and the social strictures of old Europe. It has been told with many variations through the years. The curious thing about James' version is that he kills off his protagonist for what seems no good reason. Daisy's sudden death is caused by viewing the Colosseum by moonlight which strikes readers of James' and our times quite differently. In 1878 the germ theory of disease was in it infancy and common opinion readily accepted that the miasma of unhealthy locations would very reasonably cause diseases that could kill in less than twenty four hours. This allows James to have it that being carefree and adventurous in a woman was not only an offense to decent society but necessarily carried the seeds of its own destruction. In today's world cholera is most likely caused by a glass of water or a passer-by's cough which makes the connection between freedom and death dubious at best and ridiculous at worst.
There is no way that James could have been aware of it, but at the time he wrote this story a civilization built on hereditary aristocracy was simultaneously at its apex and headed for the cataclysm of 1914-18 which would destroy it beyond repair. From our twenty-first century vantage point the emphasis on "propriety" and "respectability" seems silly but in 1878, as it had for the previous thousand years, the crucial business of statecraft was based on marrying correctly and having the right babies at the right time. In such a system, it would be unthinkable to leave the fate of nations and dynasties to the urgings of youthful hormones. In America, without this tradition of hereditary aristocracy, affairs could cause scandals and even lawsuits but they could never bring down a government or start a revolution. James was always a partisan of Europe and the European ways so he presents his old Europe triumphant over the bumptious American. If you go to Newport Rhode Island today you will find that the reality in James' day was the free-spirited American heiress sails back to Schenectady with a scion of impoverished nobility who must adjust himself to the strange social manners of the Americans.