‘Miss Gunton From Poughkeepsie’ by Henry James

Miss Gunton From Poughkeepsie by Henry James, 1900

The magic trick:

Placing the Lady Champer character in the middle of the drama as a way to lay out the story’s key themes and ideas

These Henry James stories can be pretty ridiculous, taken in 2017. I’m sure some of the appeal is the reader’s escape from their modern world into a place where Roman princes are from Mars and American heiresses are from Venus.

Seriously, the conflict in this story hinges on whether or not the prince’s mother will write his bride-to-be. Will she make the first move or prefer that the American girl write to her first? It’s absurd.

But of course these are the go-to themes of Henry James. Old World vs. New; the clash of cultures; etc. All very worthy, I’m sure. They just date themselves.

Anyway, as with all of his work, the detailed and spot-on psychology behind the characters’s words and actions is perfect. Well worth your time.

Lady Champer is the key mechanism in this story. As a mutual friend of the prince and Miss Gunton, she is afforded a unique perspective, and much of the story consists of conversations between her and the respective lovers. She may not successfully influence either character, but it’s her words and advice that lay out the story’s key themes and ideas. And that’s quite a trick on James’s part. 

The selection:

“I like the way, darling,” Lady Champer smiled, “you talk about ‘accepting’!”

Lily thought of this-she thought of everything. “Well, say it would have been a better one still for them if I had refused him.”

Her friend caught her up. “But you haven’t.”

“Then they must make the most of the occasion as it is.”

Lily was very sweet, but very lucid. “The Duchesses may write or not, as they like; but I’m afraid the Princess simply must.”

She hesitated, but after a moment went on: “He oughtn’t to be willing moreover that I shouldn’t expect to be welcomed.”

“He isn’t!” Lady Champer blurted out.

Lily jumped at it. “Then he has told you? It’s her attitude?”

She had spoken without passion, but her friend was scarce the less frightened. “My poor child, what can he do?”

Lily saw perfectly. “He can make her.”

Lady Champer turned it over, but her fears were what was clearest. “And if he doesn’t?”

“If he ‘doesn’t’?” The girl ambiguously echoed it.

“I mean if he can’t.”


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