“The Europeans” by Henry James Jr. — A Response

This is part of the series of chronological and personal responses to Henry James Jr.’s work. In this review, and future ones, I avoid going into the detailed events of what happens in the books — I try and stick with the grand scheme of the sentiments James left me with when I finish the novels, and avoid going into the formal academic approach in the reviews.

A wonderful book into the insight of James as he practices a scrimmage match in fiction writing. I see the book as neither a standalone, but fully developed. It’s almost like a full practice match where the players get to exercise all the tricks and drills to perfection — but not the actual match.

I fell in love with Felix. His gaiety overflowed the words on the book and came to full life right in front of the reader. Some have even said that Felix may have been expressing James’s covert side, and if that’s the case I would have very much liked to have James in my circle of friends.

Either way, Felix came across as the perfect, conniving sociopath, but a good one who’s open about his conniving. He knew his target and wonderfully deployed his witchcraft on Gertrude Wentworth and she was already powerless in any attempt to submit before she even knew she had submitted to his electric brain.

Eugenia is funny, but as a leading scholar of strategy Lawrence Freedman noted: elongated plans are rarely carried through to perfect completion because chance events and many incalculable developments will change the circumstances. Eugenia’s ultimate goal of finding a rich American husband came near completion but she refused to carry through — maybe she might have foreseen that she would come, as the reader secretly observes, to not like America much? Or maybe Mr. Acton, despite his foreign experience to China, was not “posh” enough for our sophisticated friend? Anyways, we don’t get a full answer as to why Eugenia rejected Mr. Acton — it was up to the reader to fully connect the dots which James did provide.

The cousins are okay, Charlotte is the quintessential good/homely American girl, but Gertrude (German for spear and strength) is different and has forces within her that her family members may see as a bit evil (she skips church). I may have the bias of a foreigner with a European world view, hence my lack of interest in the American characters — they seem stock and uninteresting to me.

The Wentworths have ‘done well’ (but their son, Clifford, is temporarily kicked out from Harvard for drunkenness), and they typify the comfortable complacency of middle Americans — without any exotic influences on them. Mr. Acton is somewhat “posh” I guess. James describes him as a man who can understand Eugenia’s social model of viewing the world — and this ultimately wins him some marks — on top of a very posh house with oriental rugs, eastern vases, and a phalange of foreign objects peppered around the house.

Overall — I reach the same conclusion James came to himself — the novel is not quite there. I don’t see how some critics have said that this is one of James’s best books. Either they were or are high, or this is the only sample they’ve reached their conclusion of James from.