A Bundle of Letters, by Henry James

Chapter V

From Miranda Hope to Her Mother.

September 26th.

You must not be frightened at not hearing from me oftener; it is not because I am in any trouble, but because I am getting on so well. If I were in any trouble I don’t think I should write to you; I should just keep quiet and see it through myself. But that is not the case at present and, if I don’t write to you, it is because I am so deeply interested over here that I don’t seem to find time. It was a real providence that brought me to this house, where, in spite of all obstacles, I am able to do much good work. I wonder how I find the time for all I do; but when I think that I have only got a year in Europe, I feel as if I wouldn’t sacrifice a single hour.

The obstacles I refer to are the disadvantages I have in learning French, there being so many persons around me speaking English, and that, as you may say, in the very bosom of a French family. It seems as if you heard English everywhere; but I certainly didn’t expect to find it in a place like this. I am not discouraged, however, and I talk French all I can, even with the other English boarders. Then I have a lesson every day from Miss Maisonrouge (the elder daughter of the lady of the house), and French conversation every evening in the salon, from eight to eleven, with Madame herself, and some friends of hers that often come in. Her cousin, Mr. Verdier, a young French gentleman, is fortunately staying with her, and I make a point of talking with him as much as possible. I have extra private lessons from him, and I often go out to walk with him. Some night, soon, he is to accompany me to the opera. We have also a most interesting plan of visiting all the galleries in Paris together. Like most of the French, he converses with great fluency, and I feel as if I should really gain from him. He is remarkably handsome, and extremely polite — paying a great many compliments, which, I am afraid, are not always sincere. When I return to Bangor I will tell you some of the things he has said to me. I think you will consider them extremely curious, and very beautiful in their way.

The conversation in the parlour (from eight to eleven) is often remarkably brilliant, and I often wish that you, or some of the Bangor folks, could be there to enjoy it. Even though you couldn’t understand it I think you would like to hear the way they go on; they seem to express so much. I sometimes think that at Bangor they don’t express enough (but it seems as if over there, there was less to express). It seems as if; at Bangor, there were things that folks never tried to say; but here, I have learned from studying French that you have no idea what you can say, before you try. At Bangor they seem to give it up beforehand; they don’t make any effort. (I don’t say this in the least for William Platt, in particular.)

I am sure I don’t know what they will think of me when I get back. It seems as if; over here, I had learned to come out with everything. I suppose they will think I am not sincere; but isn’t it more sincere to come out with things than to conceal them? I have become very good friends with every one in the house — that is (you see, I am sincere), with almost every one. It is the most interesting circle I ever was in. There’s a girl here, an American, that I don’t like so much as the rest; but that is only because she won’t let me. I should like to like her, ever so much, because she is most lovely and most attractive; but she doesn’t seem to want to know me or to like me. She comes from New York, and she is remarkably pretty, with beautiful eyes and the most delicate features; she is also remarkably elegant — in this respect would bear comparison with any one I have seen over here. But it seems as if she didn’t want to recognise me or associate with me; as if she wanted to make a difference between us. It is like people they call “haughty” in books. I have never seen any one like that before — any one that wanted to make a difference; and at first I was right down interested, she seemed to me so like a proud young lady in a novel. I kept saying to myself all day, “haughty, haughty,” and I wished she would keep on so. But she did keep on; she kept on too long; and then I began to feel hurt. I couldn’t think what I have done, and I can’t think yet. It’s as if she had got some idea about me, or had heard some one say something. If some girls should behave like that I shouldn’t make any account of it; but this one is so refined, and looks as if she might be so interesting if I once got to know her, that I think about it a good deal. I am bound to find out what her reason is — for of course she has got some reason; I am right down curious to know.

I went up to her to ask her the day before yesterday; I thought that was the best way. I told her I wanted to know her better, and would like to come and see her in her room — they tell me she has got a lovely room — and that if she had heard anything against me, perhaps she would tell me when I came. But she was more distant than ever, and she just turned it off; said that she had never heard me mentioned, and that her room was too small to receive visitors. I suppose she spoke the truth, but I am sure she has got some reason, all the same. She has got some idea, and I am bound to find out before I go, if I have to ask everybody in the house. I am right down curious. I wonder if she doesn’t think me refined — or if she had ever heard anything against Bangor? I can’t think it is that. Don’t you remember when Clara Barnard went to visit New York, three years ago, how much attention she received? And you know Clara is Bangor, to the soles of her shoes. Ask William Platt — so long as he isn’t a native — if he doesn’t consider Clara Barnard refined.

Apropos, as they say here, of refinement, there is another American in the house — a gentleman from Boston — who is just crowded with it. His name is Mr. Louis Leverett (such a beautiful name, I think), and he is about thirty years old. He is rather small, and he looks pretty sick; he suffers from some affection of the liver. But his conversation is remarkably interesting, and I delight to listen to him — he has such beautiful ideas. I feel as if it were hardly right, not being in French; but, fortunately, he uses a great many French expressions. It’s in a different style from the conversation of Mr. Verdier — not so complimentary, but more intellectual. He is intensely fond of pictures, and has given me a great many ideas about them which I should never have gained without him; I shouldn’t have known where to look for such ideas. He thinks everything of pictures; he thinks we don’t make near enough of them. They seem to make a good deal of them here; but I couldn’t help telling him the other day that in Bangor I really don’t think we do.

If I had any money to spend I would buy some and take them back, to hang up. Mr. Leverett says it would do them good — not the pictures, but the Bangor folks. He thinks everything of the French, too, and says we don’t make nearly enough of them. I couldn’t help telling him the other day that at any rate they make enough of themselves. But it is very interesting to hear him go on about the French, and it is so much gain to me, so long as that is what I came for. I talk to him as much as I dare about Boston, but I do feel as if this were right down wrong — a stolen pleasure.

I can get all the Boston culture I want when I go back, if I carry out my plan, my happy vision, of going there to reside. I ought to direct all my efforts to European culture now, and keep Boston to finish off. But it seems as if I couldn’t help taking a peep now and then, in advance — with a Bostonian. I don’t know when I may meet one again; but if there are many others like Mr. Leverett there, I shall be certain not to want when I carry out my dream. He is just as full of culture as he can live. But it seems strange how many different sorts there are.

There are two of the English who I suppose are very cultivated too; but it doesn’t seem as if I could enter into theirs so easily, though I try all I can. I do love their way of speaking, and sometimes I feel almost as if it would be right to give up trying to learn French, and just try to learn to speak our own tongue as these English speak it. It isn’t the things they say so much, though these are often rather curious, but it is in the way they pronounce, and the sweetness of their voice. It seems as if they must try a good deal to talk like that; but these English that are here don’t seem to try at all, either to speak or do anything else. They are a young lady and her brother. I believe they belong to some noble family. I have had a good deal of intercourse with them, because I have felt more free to talk to them than to the Americans — on account of the language. It seems as if in talking with them I was almost learning a new one.

I never supposed, when I left Bangor, that I was coming to Europe to learn English! If I do learn it, I don’t think you will understand me when I get back, and I don’t think you’ll like it much. I should be a good deal criticised if I spoke like that at Bangor. However, I verily believe Bangor is the most critical place on earth; I have seen nothing like it over here. Tell them all I have come to the conclusion that they are a great deal too fastidious. But I was speaking about this English young lady and her brother. I wish I could put them before you. She is lovely to look at; she seems so modest and retiring. In spite of this, however, she dresses in a way that attracts great attention, as I couldn’t help noticing when one day I went out to walk with her. She was ever so much looked at; but she didn’t seem to notice it, until at last I couldn’t help calling attention to it. Mr. Leverett thinks everything of it; he calls it the “costume of the future.” I should call it rather the costume of the past — you know the English have such an attachment to the past. I said this the other day to Madame do Maisonrouge — that Miss Vane dressed in the costume of the past. De l’an passe, vous voulez dire? said Madame, with her little French laugh (you can get William Platt to translate this, he used to tell me he knew so much French).

You know I told you, in writing some time ago, that I had tried to get some insight into the position of woman in England, and, being here with Miss Vane, it has seemed to me to be a good opportunity to get a little more. I have asked her a great deal about it; but she doesn’t seem able to give me much information. The first time I asked her she told me the position of a lady depended upon the rank of her father, her eldest brother, her husband, etc. She told me her own position was very good, because her father was some relation — I forget what — to a lord. She thinks everything of this; and that proves to me that the position of woman in her country cannot be satisfactory; because, if it were, it wouldn’t depend upon that of your relations, even your nearest. I don’t know much about lords, and it does try my patience (though she is just as sweet as she can live) to hear her talk as if it were a matter of course that I should.

I feel as if it were right to ask her as often as I can if she doesn’t consider every one equal; but she always says she doesn’t, and she confesses that she doesn’t think she is equal to “Lady Something-or-other,” who is the wife of that relation of her father. I try and persuade her all I can that she is; but it seems as if she didn’t want to be persuaded; and when I ask her if Lady So-and-so is of the same opinion (that Miss Vane isn’t her equal), she looks so soft and pretty with her eyes, and says, “Of course she is!” When I tell her that this is right down bad for Lady So-and-so, it seems as if she wouldn’t believe me, and the only answer she will make is that Lady So-and-so is “extremely nice.” I don’t believe she is nice at all; if she were nice, she wouldn’t have such ideas as that. I tell Miss Vane that at Bangor we think such ideas vulgar; but then she looks as though she had never heard of Bangor. I often want to shake her, though she is so sweet. If she isn’t angry with the people who make her feel that way, I am angry for her. I am angry with her brother too, for she is evidently very much afraid of him, and this gives me some further insight into the subject. She thinks everything of her brother, and thinks it natural that she should be afraid of him, not only physically (for this is natural, as he is enormously tall and strong, and has very big fists), but morally and intellectually. She seems unable, however, to take in any argument, and she makes me realise what I have often heard — that if you are timid nothing will reason you out of it.

Mr. Vane, also (the brother), seems to have the same prejudices, and when I tell him, as I often think it right to do, that his sister is not his subordinate, even if she does think so, but his equal, and, perhaps in some respects his superior, and that if my brother, in Bangor, were to treat me as he treates this poor young girl, who has not spirit enough to see the question in its true light, there would be an indignation, meeting of the citizens to protest against such an outrage to the sanctity of womanhood — when I tell him all this, at breakfast or dinner, he bursts out laughing so loud that all the plates clatter on the table.

But at such a time as this there is always one person who seems interested in what I say — a German gentleman, a professor, who sits next to me at dinner, and whom I must tell you more about another time. He is very learned, and has a great desire for information; he appreciates a great many of my remarks, and after dinner, in the salon, he often comes to me to ask me questions about them. I have to think a little, sometimes, to know what I did say, or what I do think. He takes you right up where you left off; and he is almost as fond of discussing things as William Platt is. He is splendidly educated, in the German style, and he told me the other day that he was an “intellectual broom.” Well, if he is, he sweeps clean; I told him that. After he has been talking to me I feel as if I hadn’t got a speck of dust left in my mind anywhere. It’s a most delightful feeling. He says he’s an observer; and I am sure there is plenty over here to observe. But I have told you enough for to-day. I don’t know how much longer I shall stay here; I am getting on so fast that it sometimes seems as if I shouldn’t need all the time I have laid out. I suppose your cold weather has promptly begun, as usual; it sometimes makes me envy you. The fall weather here is very dull and damp, and I feel very much as if I should like to be braced up.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38