Saturday, January 07, 2017

Watch and Ward

Watch and Ward. Henry James. 1871. 128 pages. [Source: Bought]

 First sentence: ROGER LAWRENCE had come to town for the express purpose of doing a certain act, but as the hour for action approached he felt his ardor rapidly ebbing away.

Premise/plot: Roger Lawrence, 29, adopts a young girl, Nora, aged 12, with the intention to marry her when she's old enough. That is what Watch and Ward is about essentially, a man raising a young girl to be the kind of woman he wants his future wife to be. In Roger's own words:
Pray for me more than ever. I have begun at the beginning; it will be my own fault if I haven’t a perfect wife.
Tragedy brings Nora into Roger's life. Roger happens upon a very depressed man in a hotel lobby. The man approaches Roger and begs for money. Roger offers him ten dollars, I believe, but the man rejects that as being not enough to make life worth living. Later that night, Roger hears a gunshot...or maybe two. The man--the stranger who approached him--tried to kill his daughter, Nora, before taking his own life. Roger meets Nora, and, decides to unofficially adopt her and raise her. He's an unmarried bachelor with no experience raising kids, but, he does have all sorts of ideas about how he wants her to turn out. And many of those ideas involve her education and the society she'll keep. 

Is there a love triangle? Yes, no, maybe. George Fenton is a cousin or half-cousin who meets her and finds her charming when she's nearly grown up. Also there is Hubert Lawrence, a cousin of Roger's, who enjoys flirting with her. 

My thoughts: I first heard of Watch and Ward by Henry James while reading How To Create The Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore. That book chronicles the misadventures of Thomas Day's love life. Here was a man who truly tried this experiment in his own life.

Watch and Ward was DISOWNED by Henry James later in life. He refused to recognize it as his first novel, and, must have thought it was awful. 

I did not think it was awful. I mean, sure the premise is strange to modern readers. But having been raised with My Fair Lady, it wasn't a horribly strange premise. The novel rushes through her twelve to sixteen years very, very quickly. So that by the time he starts talking about his hopes that she'll say yes to his proposal isn't as revolting as it could have been. 

Is the ending happy or sad? For me, it was a bit of both. I didn't love Roger exactly. But in comparison with George and Hubert, he appeared a saint. I do think--no matter his method--that he actually cared about Nora as a person. I do think that he would have respected her "no" and let her marry someone else if the someone else had been sincere and decent. Nora's options reveal the times. Her choices were very narrow indeed. Roger represented literally the only safe and comfortable and potentially happy option she had open to her. Her very brief time away from him--time that revealed the 'true' natures of George and Hubert--showed her how little she knew about men, how little she knew about the world, and how her idea of making her own place in the world and supporting herself was practically impossible posing risks she'd not fathomed days before. Roger was not a rascal--like Wickham or Willoughby. He was certainly no Louis Trevelyan. But. I can't like him either. He occasionally said really, really stupid things like, "If I were only a good old Catholic, that I might shut her up in a convent and keep her childish and stupid and contented!" 

Watch and Ward was my first experience reading Henry James. And I really enjoyed myself. I found the plot moved quickly, and the writing was good. My favorite line: "When once the gate is opened to self-torture, the whole army of fiends files in." OR possibly this one, "When I read a novel my imagination starts off at a gallop and leaves the narrator hidden in a cloud of dust; I have to come jogging twenty miles back to the denouement."

He had been born a marrying man, with a conscious desire for progeny.
He had made a woman a goddess, and she had made him a fool.

Lawrence felt the tears rising to his eyes; he felt in his heart the tumult of a new emotion. Was it the inexpugnable instinct of paternity? Was it the restless ghost of his buried hope? He thought of his angry vow the night before to live only for himself and turn the key on his heart. Before twenty-four hours had elapsed a child’s fingers were fumbling with the key. He felt deliciously contradicted; he was after all but a lame egotist. Was he to believe, then, that he couldn’t live without love, and that he must take it where he found it?
His philosophy in this as in all things was extremely simple, — to make her happy, that she might be good. Meanwhile, as he cunningly devised her happiness, his own seemed securely established. 
He determined to drive in the first nail with his own hands, to lay the first smooth foundation-stones of her culture, to teach her to read and write and cipher, to associate himself largely with the growth of her primal sense of things. Behold him thus converted into a gentle pedagogue, wooing with mild inflections the timid ventures of her thought. 
Roger had no wish to cultivate in his young companion any expression of formal gratitude; for it was the very key-stone of his plan that their relation should ripen into a perfect matter of course; but he watched patiently, like a wandering botanist for the first woodland violets for the year, for the shy field-flower of spontaneous affection.
He aimed at nothing more or less than to inspire the child with a passion.
When they parted, he gave his hopes to her keeping in a long, long kiss. She kissed him too, but this time with smiles, not with tears. She neither suspected nor could she have understood the thought which, during this interview, had blossomed in her friend’s mind. 
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 own vertical rays. 
“You decline?” he cried, almost defiantly. “ `Decline’ isn’t the word. A man doesn’t decline an insult.”
“Well,” he said, coolly, “why don’t you marry her?” “It’s not so simple as that!” “She’ll not have you?” Roger frowned impatiently. “Reflect a moment. You pretend to be a man of delicacy.” “You mean she’s too young? Nonsense. If you are sure of her, the younger the better.” “Hubert,” cried Roger, “for my unutterable misery, I have a conscience. I wish to leave her free, and take the risk. I wish to be just, and let the matter work itself out. You may think me absurd, but I wish to be loved for myself, as other men are loved.”
I have heard many a young unmarried lady exclaim with a bold sweep of conception, “Ah me! I wish I were a widow!” Mrs. Keith was precisely the widow that young unmarried ladies wish to be. With her diamonds in her dressing-case and her carriage in her stable, and without a feather’s weight of encumbrance, she offered a finished example of satisfied ambition.
“I’ll piously gather up the crumbs of your feasts and make a meal of them,” said Nora. “I’ll let you know how they taste.”
You’re like a picture; you ought to be enclosed in a gilt frame and stand against the wall.
People are free to find out the best and the worst of me!
He couldn’t turn her away. Let her come, at her risk! For angels there is a special providence. “Don’t think me worse than I am,” he said, “but don’t think me better! I shall love Roger well until I begin to fancy that you love him too well. Then — it’s absurd perhaps, but I feel it will be so — I shall be jealous.”

Later they came to speak of a novel which lay on the table, and which Nora had been reading. “It’s very silly,” she said, “but I go on with it in spite of myself. I’m afraid I’m too easily pleased; no novel is so silly I can’t read it. I recommend you this, by the way. The hero is a young clergyman endowed with every grace, who falls in love with a fair Papist. She is wedded to her faith, and though she loves the young man after a fashion, she loves her religion better. To win his suit he comes near going over to Rome; but he pulls up short and determines the mountain shall come to Mahomet. He sets bravely to work, converts the young lady, baptizes her with his own hands one week, and marries her the next.”

I very seldom read a novel, but when I glance into one, I’m sure to find some such stuff as that! Nothing irritates me so as the flatness of people’s imagination.
When I read a novel my imagination starts off at a gallop and leaves the narrator hidden in a cloud of dust; I have to come jogging twenty miles back to the denouement. 
“True admiration,” said Mrs. Keith, “is one half respect and the other half self-denial.” 
“I didn’t believe you! I ought to have believed you. But it isn’t only that. It is that, years ago, he adopted me with that view. He brought me up for that purpose. He has done everything for me on that condition. I was to pay my debt and be his wife! I never dreamed of it. And now at last that I’m a woman grown and he makes his demand, I can’t, I can’t!” “You can’t, eh? So you’ve left him!” “Of course I’ve left him. It was the only thing to do. It was give and take. I can’t give what he wants, nor can I give back all I have received. But I can refuse to take more.” 
When once the gate is opened to self-torture, the whole army of fiends files in. 

© 2017 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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