Wednesday, November 11, 2009
81. The Reverberator, by Henry James
In our time, socialites, celebrities and people "famous for being famous" hire publicists and are content to have their private lives made fodder for the public press. Indeed, they are often complicit in the revelation of the most intimate details of their lives and seem to agree with the saying that "no publicity is bad publicity".
Henry James would be shocked. Simon Nowell-Smith points out in his introduction to my edition of this novel James' reaction to a public report of a private conversation between Julian Hawthorne and James Russell Lowell; he called it a "beastly and blackguardly betrayal". But he took an incident in which a young American who had been admitted into Venetian society wrote an account of that society for a New York newspaper, and was widely excoriated in Venice for so doing, and turned it into this charming novel.
The Dossons, father and two daughters, serious Delia and flighty Francie, are Americans in Paris. Coming over, they had made the acquaintance of George Flack, a journalist whose job is to find stories for an American 'society-paper'. He has attached himself to the Dossons, showing them Paris, while smoking Mr. Dosson's cigars, spending his money, and having a flirtation with Francie. He introduces her to the expatriate Impressionist portraitist, Charles Waterlow (possibly based on John Singer Sargent?) who begins to paint her portrait. During the sittings, she meets a young man, Gaston Probert, an American who had never been in America, having been born and raised in France, his father a "Gallomaniac", his sisters having married into French society (two into the nobility). Inevitably, Francie and Gaston fall in love, and, after her charm overcomes some familial objections of the Proberts, they become engaged.
All is going swimmingly, Francie is taken into the bosom of the Proberts, learning the ways of French society, until Gaston heads to the United States to take care of some business for his family, as well as for Mr. Dosson. While he is away, George Flack re-appears. One lesson Francie has not learned is that a young engaged woman does not go out alone with a young man who is not her betrothed. But she takes the view that Flack is an old acquaintance and what's the harm? The harm turns out to be that he, by judicious questioning and saying he merely wants to write about Waterlow's painting of her, sets her chattering about her fiancé's family, and the resultant newspaper story causes a storm. Francie still cannot quite understand the harm she has done. "I thought he would just speak about my being engaged and give a little account; so many people in America would be interested." What she doesn't grasp is that the Proberts do not want "people in America" (or France, for that matter) to be interested in their private lives.
The Reverberator was first written as a serial in early 1888, and published in book form shortly thereafter. James extensively revised it twenty years later, but my edition is that of the 1888 book. Nowell-Smith's introduction, which compares this and the later edition, shows that the revisions were not an improvement! The ease of language here, very different from James' later "tortuosity of expression", perfectly expresses the wide-eyed naïveté of Francie.