The Point of View, by Henry James

The Point of View


From Miss Aurora Church at Sea to Miss Whiteside in Paris

September 1880.

. . . My dear child, the bromide of sodium (if that’s what you call it) proved perfectly useless. I don’t mean that it did me no good, but that I never had occasion to take the bottle out of my bag. It might have done wonders for me if I had needed it; but I didn’t, simply because I’ve been a wonder myself. Will you believe that I’ve spent the whole voyage on deck, in the most animated conversation and exercise? Twelve times round the deck make a mile, I believe; and by this measurement I’ve been walking twenty miles a day. And down to every meal, if you please, where I’ve displayed the appetite of a fishwife. Of course the weather has been lovely; so there’s no great merit. The wicked old Atlantic has been as blue as the sapphire in my only ring — rather a good one — and as smooth as the slippery floor of Madame Galopin’s dining-room. We’ve been for the last three hours in sight of land, and are soon to enter the Bay of New York which is said to be exquisitely beautiful. But of course you recall it, though they say everything changes so fast over here. I find I don’t remember anything, for my recollections of our voyage to Europe so many years ago are exceedingly dim; I’ve only a painful impression that mamma shut me up for an hour every day in the stateroom and made me learn by heart some religious poem. I was only five years old and I believe that as a child I was extremely timid; on the other hand mamma, as you know, had what she called a method with me. She has it to this day; only I’ve become indifferent; I’ve been so pinched and pushed — morally speaking, bien entendu. It’s true, however, that there are children of five on the vessel today who have been extremely conspicuous — ranging all over the ship and always under one’s feet. Of course they’re little compatriots, which means that they’re little barbarians. I don’t mean to pronounce all our compatriots barbarous; they seem to improve somehow after their first communion. I don’t know whether it’s that ceremony that improves them, especially as so few of them go in for it; but the women are certainly nicer than the little girls; I mean of course in proportion, you know. You warned me not to generalise, and you see I’ve already begun, before we’ve arrived. But I suppose there’s no harm in it so long as it’s favourable.

Isn’t it favourable when I say I’ve had the most lovely time? I’ve never had so much liberty in my life, and I’ve been out alone, as you may say, every day of the voyage. If it’s a foretaste of what’s to come I shall take very kindly to that. When I say I’ve been out alone I mean we’ve always been two. But we two were alone, so to speak, and it wasn’t like always having mamma or Madame Galopin, or some lady in the pension or the temporary cook. Mamma has been very poorly; she’s so very well on land that it’s a wonder to see her at all taken down. She says, however, that it isn’t the being at sea; it’s on the contrary approaching the land. She’s not in a hurry to arrive; she keeps well before her that great disillusions await us. I didn’t know she had any illusions — she has too many opinions, I should think, for that: she discriminates, as she’s always saying, from morning till night. Where would the poor illusions find room? She’s meanwhile very serious; she sits for hours in perfect silence, her eyes fixed on the horizon. I heard her say yesterday to an English gentleman — a very odd Mr. Antrobus, the only person with whom she converses — that she was afraid she shouldn’t like her native land, and that she shouldn’t like not liking it. But this is a mistake; she’ll like that immensely — I mean the not liking it. If it should prove at all agreeable she’ll be furious, for that will go against her system. You know all about mamma’s system; I’ve explained it so often. It goes against her system that we should come back at all; that was my system — I’ve had at last to invent one! She consented to come only because she saw that, having no dot, I should never marry in Europe; and I pretended to be immensely preoccupied with this idea in order to make her start. In reality cela m’est parfaitement égal. I’m only afraid I shall like it too much — I don’t mean marriage, of course, but the sense of a native land. Say what you will, it’s a charming thing to go out alone, and I’ve given notice that I mean to be always en course. When I tell mamma this she looks at me in the same silence; her eyes dilate and then she slowly closes them. It’s as if the sea were affecting her a little, though it’s so beautifully calm. I ask her if she’ll try my bromide, which is there in my bag; but she motions me off and I begin to walk again, tapping my little boot-soles on the smooth clean deck. This allusion to my boot-soles, by the way, isn’t prompted by vanity; but it’s a fact that at sea one’s feet and one’s shoes assume the most extraordinary importance, so that one should take the precaution to have nice ones. They’re all you seem to see as the people walk about the deck; you get to know them intimately and to dislike some of them so much. I’m afraid you’ll think that I’ve already broken loose; and for aught I know I’m writing as a demoiselle bien-élévee shouldn’t write. I don’t know whether it’s the American air; if it is, all I can say is that the American air’s very charming. It makes me impatient and restless, and I sit scribbling here because I’m so eager to arrive and the time passes better if I occupy myself.

I’m in the saloon, where we have our meals, and opposite me is a big round porthole, wide open to let in the smell of the land. Every now and then I rise a little and look through it to see if we’re arriving. I mean in the Bay, you know, for we shall not come up to the city till dark. I don’t want to lose the Bay; it appears it’s so wonderful. I don’t exactly understand what it contains except some beautiful islands; but I suppose you’ll know all about that. It’s easy to see that these are the last hours, for all the people about me are writing letters to put into the post as soon as we come up to the dock. I believe they’re dreadful at the custom-house, and you’ll remember how many new things you persuaded mamma that — with my preoccupation of marriage — I should take to this country, where even the prettiest girls are expected not to go unadorned. We ruined ourselves in Paris — that’s partly accountable for mamma’s solemnity —mais au moins je serai belle! Moreover I believe that mamma’s prepared to say or to do anything that may be necessary for escaping from their odious duties; as she very justly remarks she can’t afford to be ruined twice. I don’t know how one approaches these terrible douaniers, but I mean to invent something very charming. I mean to say “Voyons, Messieurs, a young girl like me, brought up in the strictest foreign traditions, kept always in the background by a very superior mother —la voilà; you can see for yourself! — what is it possible that she should attempt to smuggle in? Nothing but a few simple relics of her convent!” I won’t tell them my convent was called the Magasin du Bon Marché. Mamma began to scold me three days ago for insisting on so many trunks, and the truth is that between us we’ve not fewer than seven. For relics, that’s a good many! We’re all writing very long letters — or at least we’re writing a great number. There’s no news of the Bay as yet. Mr. Antrobus, mamma’s friend, opposite to me, is beginning on his ninth. He’s a Right Honourable and a Member of Parliament; he has written during the voyage about a hundred letters and seems greatly alarmed at the number of stamps he’ll have to buy when he arrives. He’s full of information, but he hasn’t enough, for he asks as many questions as mamma when she goes to hire apartments. He’s going to “look into” various things; he speaks as if they had a little hole for the purpose. He walks almost as much as I, and has enormous shoes. He asks questions even of me, and I tell him again and again that I know nothing about America. But it makes no difference; he always begins again, and indeed it’s not strange he should find my ignorance incredible. “Now how would it be in one of your South-western States?”— that’s his favourite way of opening conversation. Fancy me giving an account of one of “my” South-western States! I tell him he had better ask mamma — a little to tease that lady, who knows no more about such places than I. Mr. Antrobus is very big and black; he speaks with a sort of brogue; he has a wife and ten children; he doesn’t say — apart from his talking — anything at all to me. But he has lots of letters to people là-bas— I forget that we’re just arriving — and mamma, who takes an interest in him in spite of his views (which are dreadfully advanced, and not at all like mamma’s own) has promised to give him the entrée to the best society. I don’t know what she knows about the best society over here today, for we’ve not kept up our connexions at all, and no one will know — or, I am afraid, care — anything about us. She has an idea we shall be immensely recognised; but really, except the poor little Rucks, who are bankrupt and, I’m told, in no society at all, I don’t know on whom we can count. C’est égal, mamma has an idea that, whether or no we appreciate America ourselves, we shall at least be universally appreciated. It’s true we have begun to be, a little; you would see that from the way Mr. Cockerel and Mr. Louis Leverett are always inviting me to walk. Both of these gentlemen, who are Americans, have asked leave to call on me in New York, and I’ve said Mon Dieu oui, if it’s the custom of the country. Of course I’ve not dared to tell this to mamma, who flatters herself that we’ve brought with us in our trunks a complete set of customs of our own and that we shall only have to shake them out a little and put them on when we arrive. If only the two gentlemen I just spoke of don’t call at the same time I don’t think I shall be too much frightened. If they do, on the other hand, I won’t answer for it. They’ve a particular aversion to each other and are ready to fight about poor little me. I’m only the pretext, however; for, as Mr. Leverett says, it’s really the opposition of temperaments. I hope they won’t cut each other’s throats, for I’m not crazy about either of them. They’re very well for the deck of a ship, but I shouldn’t care about them in a salon; they’re not at all distinguished. They think they are, but they’re not; at least Mr. Louis Leverett does; Mr. Cockerel doesn’t appear to care so much. They’re extremely different — with their opposed temperaments — and each very amusing for a while; but I should get dreadfully tired of passing my life with either. Neither has proposed that as yet; but it’s evidently what they’re coming to. It will be in a great measure to spite each other, for I think that au fond they don’t quite believe in me. If they don’t, it’s the only point on which they agree. They hate each other awfully; they take such different views. That is Mr. Cockerel hates Mr. Leverett — he calls him a sickly little ass; he pronounces his opinions half affectation and the other half dyspepsia. Mr. Leverett speaks of Mr. Cockerel as a “strident savage,” but he allows he finds him most diverting. He says there’s nothing in which we can’t find a certain entertainment if we only look at it in the right way, and that we have no business with either hating or loving: we ought only to strive to understand. He “claims”— he’s always claiming — that to understand is to forgive. Which is very pretty, but I don’t like the suppression of our affections, though I’ve no desire to fix mine upon Mr. Leverett. He’s very artistic and talks like an article in some review. He has lived a great deal in Paris, and Mr. Cockerel, who doesn’t believe in Paris, says it’s what has made him such an idiot.

That’s not complimentary to you, dear Louisa, and still less to your brilliant brother; for Mr. Cockerel explains that he means it (the bad effect of Paris) chiefly of men. In fact he means the bad effect of Europe altogether. This, however, is compromising to mamma; and I’m afraid there’s no doubt that, from what I’ve told him, he thinks mamma also an idiot. (I’m not responsible, you know — I’ve always wanted to go home.) If mamma knew him, which she doesn’t, for she always closes her eyes when I pass on his arm, she would think him disgusting. Mr. Leverett meanwhile assures me he’s nothing to what we shall see yet. He’s from Philadelphia (Mr. Cockerel); he insists that we shall go and see Philadelphia, but mamma says she saw it in 1855 and it was then affreux. Mr. Cockerel says that mamma’s evidently not familiar with the rush of improvement in this country; he speaks of 1855 as if it were a hundred years ago. Mamma says she knows it goes only too fast, the rush — it goes so fast that it has time to do nothing well; and then Mr. Cockerel, who, to do him justice, is perfectly good-natured, remarks that she had better wait till she has been ashore and seen the improvements. Mamma retorts that she sees them from here, the awful things, and that they give her a sinking of the heart. (This little exchange of ideas is carried on through me; they’ve never spoken to each other.) Mr. Cockerel, as I say, is extremely good-natured, and he bears out what I’ve heard said about the men in America being very considerate of the women. They evidently listen to them a great deal; they don’t contradict them, but it seems to me this is rather negative. There’s very little gallantry in not contradicting one; and it strikes me that there are some things the men don’t express. There are others on the ship whom I’ve noticed. It’s as if they were all one’s brothers or one’s cousins. The extent to which one isn’t in danger from them — my dear, my dear! But I promised you not to generalise, and perhaps there will be more expression when we arrive. Mr. Cockerel returns to America, after a general tour, with a renewed conviction that this is the only country. I left him on deck an hour ago looking at the coast-line with an opera-glass and saying it was the prettiest thing he had seen in all his travels. When I remarked that the coast seemed rather low he said it would be all the easier to get ashore. Mr. Leverett at any rate doesn’t seem in a hurry to get ashore, he’s sitting within sight of me in a corner of the saloon — writing letters, I suppose, but looking, from the way he bites his pen and rolls his eyes about, as if he were composing a sonnet and waiting for a rhyme. Perhaps the sonnet’s addressed to me; but I forget that he suppresses the affections! The only person in whom mamma takes much interest is the great French critic, M. Lejaune, whom we have the honour to carry with us. We’ve read a few of his works, though mamma disapproves of his tendencies and thinks him a dreadful materialist. We’ve read them for the style; you know he’s one of the new Academicians. He’s a Frenchman like any other, except that he’s rather more quiet; he has a grey moustache and the ribbon of the Legion of Honour. He’s the first French writer of distinction who has been to America since De Tocqueville; the French, in such matters, are not very enterprising. Also he has the air of wondering what he’s doing dans cette galère. He has come with his beau-frère, who’s an engineer and is looking after some mines, and he talks with scarcely any one else, as he speaks no English and appears to take for granted that no one speaks French. Mamma would be delighted to convince him of the contrary; she has never conversed with an Academician. She always makes a little vague inclination, with a smile, when he passes her, and he answers with a most respectful bow; but it goes no further, to mamma’s disappointment. He’s always with the beau-frère, a rather untidy fat bearded man — decorated too, always smoking and looking at the feet of the ladies, whom mamma (though she has very good feet) has not the courage to aborder. I believe M. Lejaune is going to write a book about America, and Mr. Leverett says it will be terrible. Mr. Leverett has made his acquaintance and says M. Lejaune will put him into his book; he says the movement of the French intellect is superb. As a general thing he doesn’t care for Academicians, but M. Lejaune’s an exception — he’s so living, so remorseless, so personal.

I’ve asked Mr. Cockerel meanwhile what he thinks of M. Lejaune’s plan of writing a book, and he answers that he doesn’t see what it matters to him that a Frenchman the more should make the motions of a monkey — on that side poor Mr. Cockerel is de cette force. I asked him why he hadn’t written a book about Europe, and he says that in the first place Europe isn’t worth writing about, and that in the second if he said what he thought people would call it a joke. He says they’re very superstitious about Europe over here; he wants people in America to behave as if Europe didn’t exist. I told this to Mr. Leverett, and he answered that if Europe didn’t exist America wouldn’t, for Europe keeps us alive by buying our corn. He said also that the trouble with America in the future will be that she’ll produce things in such enormous quantities that there won’t be enough people in the rest of the world to buy them, and that we shall be left with our productions — most of them very hideous — on our hands. I asked him if he thought corn a hideous production, and he replied that there’s nothing more unbeautiful than too much food. I think that to feed the world too well, however, will be after all a beau rôle. Of course I don’t understand these things, and I don’t believe Mr. Leverett does; but Mr. Cockerel seems to know what he’s talking about, and he describes America as complete in herself. I don’t know exactly what he means, but he speaks as if human affairs had somehow moved over to this side of the world. It may be a very good place for them, and heaven knows I’m extremely tired of Europe, which mamma has always insisted so on my appreciating; but I don’t think I like the idea of our being so completely cut off. Mr. Cockerel says it is not we that are cut off, but Europe, and he seems to think Europe has somehow deserved it. That may be; our life over there was sometimes extremely tiresome, though mamma says it’s now that our real fatigues will begin. I like to abuse those dreadful old countries myself, but I’m not sure I’m pleased when others do the same. We had some rather pretty moments there after all, and at Piacenza we certainly lived for four francs a day. Mamma’s already in a terrible state of mind about the expenses here; she’s frightened by what people on the ship (the few she has spoken to) have told her. There’s one comfort at any rate — we’ve spent so much money in coming that we shall have none left to get away. I’m scribbling along, as you see, to occupy me till we get news of the islands. Here comes Mr. Cockerel to bring it. Yes, they’re in sight; he tells me they’re lovelier than ever and that I must come right up right away. I suppose you’ll think I’m already beginning to use the language of the country. It’s certain that at the end of the month I shall speak nothing else. I’ve picked up every dialect, wherever we’ve travelled; you’ve heard my Platt–Deutsch and my Neapolitan. But, voyons un peu the Bay! I’ve just called to Mr. Leverett to remind him of the islands. “The islands — the islands? Ah my dear young lady, I’ve seen Capri, I’ve seen Ischia!” Well, so have I, but that doesn’t prevent . . . (A little later.) I’ve seen the islands — they’re rather queer.

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