Pygmalia: Watch and Ward by Henry James
Thursday, March 26, 2015
This year I’m selecting twelve Pygmalion stories—or stories that contain echoes of the Pygmalion myth—and essaying on them. I already have a few in mind, but please feel free to suggest others in the comments or on twitter @molly_the_tanz. I’m woefully under-read in comics specifically, but any and all recommendations are welcome!
This month’s entry is not only our first novel, but our first audience suggestion! Back in January, BenjaminJB mentioned Henry James’ 1871 novel Watch and Ward contained a wife-training element, and boy howdy yes it does. Thanks, BenjaminJB! I think.
Like last month, Watch and Ward doesn’t directly reference the Pygmalion myth… but it is in many ways a flattering, and even romantic treatment of Thomas Day, real-life Pygmalion wannabe, so we’re going with it.
Watch and Ward (1871)
I’ve never read Henry James before, so Watch and Ward served as my introduction to his writing… which is interesting, because apparently James at least partially disowned this novel later in life. It does read like an early novel, and its being written for serialized publication in The Atlantic Monthly makes for a necessarily episodic feel to the action, though not in a particularly good way.
Watch and Ward is the story of Roger Lawrence, a well-to-do dandy who wants nothing more than to marry a nice lady and settle down happily. He settles his affections on a young lady, Miss Morton, even though it’s obvious she doesn’t love him, which she shows by declining his advances on several occasions. Proto-Nice Guy that Roger surely is, he tries one final time, only to depart, humiliated, after she reveals she is engaged to someone way richer (and presumably less soppy) than Roger. Nice guys finish last, am I right, my fellow MRAS? Anyways, after this Roger “would now, he declared, cast his lot with pure reason. He had tried love and faith, but they would none of him.”
It’s important to note that Roger is at this point currently staying in a hotel in town—and before he even goes out to call on Miss Morton, a seedy man in the lobby tries to touch him for one hundred dollars. When Roger declines the man’s desperate pleas, he declares if Roger doesn’t help him, he will “slit his throat.” Roger doesn’t believe the threat, and dismisses the fellow.
Later, in the wee hours of the morning, Roger hears two shots, and is first on the scene to discover that the seedy man has indeed shot himself dead—and presumably the first shot was at his horrified twelve year old daughter, who is cowering in the corner of the room.
You can probably see where this is going. Roger comforts this child, Nora, and, given her uncertain future, he decides to unofficially adopt her. This might seem generous—save for the fact that his motivations are in part due to an idea that he will train this girl to be his ideal bride. This is, presumably, Roger “cast[ing] his lot with pure reason.” Let’s be clear: this is his intention from the get-go, and after living with the child for two years, he remains resolute in his purpose. He even expresses this to Mrs. Keith (AKA Miss Morton that was) in a letter, saying “You know that two years ago I adopted a homeless little girl. One of these days she will be a lovely woman. I mean to do what I can to make her one. Perhaps, six years hence, she will be grateful enough not to refuse me, as you did. Pray for me more than ever. I have begun at the beginning; it will be my own fault if I haven’t the perfect wife.”
This set-up, excepting the melodrama with the gunshots and seedy father, echoes the story of Thomas Day. For those readers who are not familiar with Thomas Day, Day was a celebrated 18th century abolitionist and writer, who penned The History of Sanford and Merton and “The Dying Negro,” among other works. He was a member of the Lunar Society, and a devotee of Rousseau (he even convinced his best friend Richard Edgeworth to educate his son Dick according to the ideals presented in Emile). He also tried to train himself a wife, after his proposals of marriage were rejected by several women. See, Day held rather extreme views on how a wife should behave (no fashion, no dancing, no having opinions that differed from his, no comforts in life, and so on), thus in spite of his vast fortune and good social standing, sensible women tended to run screaming in the opposite direction when Day proposed to them, usually by telling them how he expected them to live and behave once the ceremony was concluded.
Thoroughly annoyed with the trouble of wooing a woman, again inspired by Emile, Day adopted two orphan girls from the Foundling Hospital, renamed them Sabrina and Lucretia, and took them to France to isolate them and attempt to educate them to be ideal wives for him. Lucretia he soon rejected, and by all accounts she married well and had a happy life. Sabrina was not so lucky. Day held on to her as a kind of marital understudy or reserve, never telling her he had any designs on marrying her, and often leaving her alone and in the care of strangers for several years at a stretch while he wooed other women. After several more rejections, however, he finally decided his best bet was to settle for the woman he had tried to make into his ideal: Sabrina. Unfortunately, when he at last revealed to Sabrina the nature of his affections for her, and told her that all along this had been his purpose, she, too, rejected him. (She went on to marry Day’s former best friend, had two children, and, after her husband’s death, became the matron of a celebrated school, so she did very well for herself, in spite of her traumatizing young adulthood.)
This deeply disgusting true historical account has inspired many novelists over the years, but the odd thing is, Day’s avatars are often presented as romantic heroes. For example, the novelist Maria Edgeworth (daughter of Day’s friend Richard Edgeworth) wrote a parody of Thomas Day into her novel Belinda in the character of Clarence Hervey, who is the romantic lead. In spite of Day being an utter shit to Maria when she was but a girl, Hervey, the Day-inspired “hero,” falls in love with and eventually marries the eponymous Belinda, even though while wooing her he was also trying to train a wife, whom he kept isolated in a cottage in the woods. Thankfully the girl falls in love with someone’s silhouette (Belinda is a silly novel, though one worth reading) and frees Hervey from his obligation. Good times.
Similarly, Roger Lawrence is the hero of Watch and Ward… or, at least, all the ladies in the novel (even Miss Morton/Mrs. Keith, after she becomes a wealthy widow) come to appreciate Roger for his goodness of heart, thrift, and good taste, by the end of the narrative. And yes, he gets the girl.
Poor Nora. She spends the entire novel ignorant of Roger’s plans for her, as did her real-life counterpart, Sabrina, with Thomas Day. But instead of Sabrina’s bizarre upbringing, which vacillated wildly between periods of uncertainty and comfort, Nora’s coming-of-age is a delight. Roger dresses her like a young lady, sends her away to school, allows her to develop into a charming girl, and then—though it pains him—sends her to Rome for a year in the care of Mrs. Keith so that she can mature and come out into society as a young woman. He even allows her to have two romances, one with her worthless cousin George, and one with Roger’s hypocritical but smooth as ice cousin Hubert. Why? Well, in perhaps the creepiest passage in the book, Roger “caught himself wondering whether, at the worst, a little precursory love-making could do any harm. The ground might be gently tickled to receive his own sowing; the petals of the young girl’s nature, playfully forced apart, would leave the golden heart of the flower but the more accessible to his vertical rays.”
Nora is not especially bright (her being bright would be almost like her having a personality, which James studiously denies Nora at almost every opportunity), but even she can’t help but notice what an odd relationship she and Roger have. “What are you?” she asks of Roger, at one point. “Neither my brother, nor my father, nor my uncle, nor my cousin—not even, by law, my guardian.” But Roger puts her off, endlessly.
Matters come to a head after Nora’s return from Rome, where she has miraculously blossomed into a beautiful young woman (Nora is a classic ugly duckling, quite plain when Roger takes her in, but as the novel’s prize, there was never any doubt she would turn into a rare beauty). Roger sees her with fresh eyes, and all paternal/avuncular feelings he developed over the previous decade or so are washed away by the fact that she is now ripe and ready for, ugh, god, sorry, I was going somewhere with the earlier motif of “sowing” but it’s just too nasty. Anyways, Roger proposes…
…and Sabrina, I mean Nora, is horrified. Totally, completely icked out. She rejects Roger’s suit, sends him away, and runs crying into the arms of Roger’s former love, Mrs. Keith. Unfortunately for Roger, Mrs. Keith decides the best thing to do is to show Nora that creepy letter I earlier quoted, which really puts the spook on the girl.
Nora flees to New York, where she throws herself into the power of her cousin George, but that’s a bad choice: he’s fallen on hard times, and is in need of money. He tries to blackmail Roger into paying a ransom for Nora, but before the transfer can be completed, Nora (in her only show of strength) stands up to George and runs away to find Hubert. Unfortunately, Nora discovers out that as Hubert was wooing her, he had been engaged to another woman, which disillusions Nora completely, and though Hubert offers his help, she rejects it, and leaves him.
After these terrors and disappointments, Roger starts looking like a pretty good option, of course, and in the end, Nora realizes that being rich and safe is better than being alone and destit—I mean, after a fateful coincidental meeting on the streets of New York, where Roger heroically sweeps her off her feet with his tenderness. Nora realizes how honest, gentle, kind, and patient Roger has been towards her, from her youth until her young adulthood, and marries him. They make a happy life together. You can almost hear Alanis’ Nice Guy Anthem “Head Over Feet” playing when they eventually get together. He held his breath—and the door for her! Ugh.
What’s grossest about this, to me at least, is the tacking of a happy ending onto the story of Worst Human Award-candidate Thomas Day. True, Roger’s techniques in raising Nora to be his bride didn’t involve the horrors of Sabrina’s life with Day (which included, among other things, Day repeatedly burning Sabrina with hot wax on the arms, back and shoulders, sticking her with pins, forcing her to walk into freezing rivers fully clothed to “toughen her,” firing guns at her, &c.), but at the same time, softening Day’s hard edges in order to create a romantic hero seems like a bizarre choice, given the man he was. True, James probably had not read compiled historical accounts of Thomas Day’s efforts, and likely just heard apocryphal accounts of the man’s odd experiment in wife-training, but still… he conducted a years-long experiment in wife-training. I try not to judge, but grooming is just not romantic.
So! Watch and Ward. Yikes.
Next month: I’ll be looking at “Galatea,” an online, interactive piece of short fiction. Play along with me, if you like!