The Point of View, by Henry James


Mrs. Church in New York to Madame Galopin at Geneva

October 1880.

If I felt far way from you in the middle of that deplorable Atlantic, chère Madame, how do I feel now, in the heart of this extraordinary city? We’ve arrived — we’ve arrived, dear friend; but I don’t know whether to tell you that I consider that an advantage. If we had been given our choice of coming safely to land or going down to the bottom of the sea I should doubtless have chosen the former course; for I hold, with your noble husband and in opposition to the general tendency of modern thought, that our lives are not our own to dispose of, but a sacred trust from a higher power by whom we shall be held responsible. Nevertheless if I had foreseen more vividly some of the impressions that awaited me here I’m not sure that, for my daughter at least, I shouldn’t have preferred on the spot to hand in our account. Should I not have been less (rather than more) guilty in presuming to dispose of her destiny than of my own? There’s a nice point for dear M. Galopin to settle — one of those points I’ve heard him discuss in the pulpit with such elevation. We’re safe, however, as I say; by which I mean we’re physically safe. We’ve taken up the thread of our familiar pension-life, but under strikingly different conditions. We’ve found a refuge in a boarding-house which has been highly recommended to me and where the arrangements partake of the barbarous magnificence that in this country is the only alternative from primitive rudeness. The terms per week are as magnificent as all the rest. The landlady wears diamond ear-rings and the drawing-rooms are decorated with marble statues. I should indeed be sorry to let you know how I’ve allowed myself to be rançonnée; and I should be still more sorry that it should come to the ears of any of my good friends in Geneva, who know me less well than you and might judge me more harshly. There’s no wine given for dinner, and I’ve vainly requested the person who conducts the establishment to garnish her table more liberally. She says I may have all the wine I want if I will order it at the merchant’s and settle the matter with himself. But I’ve never, as you know, consented to regard our modest allowance of eau rougie as an extra; indeed, I remember that it’s largely to your excellent advice that I’ve owed my habit of being firm on this point.

There are, however, greater difficulties than the question of what we shall drink for dinner, chère Madame. Still, I’ve never lost courage and I shall not lose it now. At the worst we can reembark again and seek repose and refreshment on the shores of your beautiful lake. (There’s absolutely no scenery here!) We shall not perhaps in that case have achieved what we desired, but we shall at least have made an honourable retreat. What we desire — I know it’s just this that puzzles you, dear friend; I don’t think you ever really comprehended my motives in taking this formidable step, though you were good enough, and your magnanimous husband was good enough, to press my hand at parting in a way that seemed to tell me you’d still be with me even were I wrong. To be very brief, I wished to put an end to the ceaseless reclamations of my daughter. Many Americans had assured her that she was wasting her belle jeunesse in those historic lands which it was her privilege to see so intimately, and this unfortunate conviction had taken possession of her. “Let me at least see for myself,” she used to say; “if I should dislike it over there as much as you promise me, so much the better for you. In that case we’ll come back and make a new arrangement at Stuttgart.” The experiment’s a terribly expensive one, but you know how my devotion never has shrunk from an ordeal. There’s another point moreover which, from a mother to a mother, it would be affectation not to touch upon. I remember the just satisfaction with which you announced to me the fiançailles of your charming Cécile. You know with what earnest care my Aurora has been educated — how thoroughly she’s acquainted with the principal results of modern research. We’ve always studied together, we’ve always enjoyed together. It will perhaps surprise you to hear that she makes these very advantages a reproach to me — represents them as an injury to herself. “In this country,” she says, “the gentlemen have not those accomplishments; they care nothing for the results of modern research. Therefore it won’t help a young person to be sought in marriage that she can give an account of the latest German presentation of Pessimism.” That’s possible, and I’ve never concealed from her that it wasn’t for this country I had educated her. If she marries in the United States it’s of course my intention that my son-inlaw shall accompany us to Europe. But when she calls my attention more and more to these facts I feel that we’re moving in a different world. This is more and more the country of the many; the few find less and less place for them; and the individual — well, the individual has quite ceased to be recognised. He’s recognised as a voter, but he’s not recognised as a gentleman — still less as a lady. My daughter and I of course can only pretend to constitute a few!

You know that I’ve never for a moment remitted my pretensions as an individual, though among the agitations of pension-life I’ve sometimes needed all my energy to uphold them. “Oh yes, I may be poor,” I’ve had occasion to say, “I may be unprotected, I may be reserved, I may occupy a small apartment au quatrième and be unable to scatter unscrupulous bribes among the domestics; but at least I’m a person and have personal rights.” In this country the people have rights, but the person has none. You’d have perceived that if you had come with me to make arrangements at this establishment. The very fine lady who condescends to preside over it kept me waiting twenty minutes, and then came sailing in without a word of apology. I had sat very silent, with my eyes on the clock; Aurora amused herself with a false admiration of the room, a wonderful drawing-room with magenta curtains, frescoed walls and photographs of the landlady’s friends — as if one cares for her friends! When this exalted personage came in she simply remarked that she had just been trying on a dress — that it took so long to get a skirt to hang. “It seems to take very long indeed!” I answered; “but I hope the skirt’s right at last. You might have sent for us to come up and look at it!” She evidently didn’t understand, and when I asked her to show us her rooms she handed us over to a negro as dégingandé as herself. While we looked at them I heard her sit down to the piano in the drawing-room; she began to sing an air from a comic opera. I felt certain we had gone quite astray; I didn’t know in what house we could be, and was only reassured by seeing a Bible in every room. When we came down our musical hostess expressed no hope the rooms had pleased us, she seemed grossly indifferent to our taking them. She wouldn’t consent moreover to the least diminution and was inflexible, as I told you, on the article of our common beverage. When I pushed this point she was so good as to observe that she didn’t keep a cabaret. One’s not in the least considered; there’s no respect for one’s privacy, for one’s preferences, for one’s reserves. The familiarity’s without limits, and I’ve already made a dozen acquaintances, of whom I know, and wish to know, nothing. Aurora tells me she’s the “belle of the boarding-house.” It appears that this is a great distinction.

It brings me back to my poor child and her prospects. She takes a very critical view of them herself — she tells me I’ve given her a false education and that no one will marry her today. No American will marry her because she’s too much of a foreigner, and no foreigner will marry her because she’s too much of an American. I remind her how scarcely a day passes that a foreigner, usually of distinction, doesn’t — as perversely as you will indeed — select an American bride, and she answers me that in these cases the young lady isn’t married for her fine eyes. Not always, I reply; and then she declares that she’ll marry no foreigner who shall not be one of the first of the first. You’ll say doubtless that she should content herself with advantages that haven’t been deemed insufficient for Cécile; but I’ll not repeat to you the remark she made when I once employed this argument. You’ll doubtless be surprised to hear that I’ve ceased to argue; but it’s time I should confess that I’ve at last agreed to let her act for herself. She’s to live for three months à l’Américaine and I’m to be a mere passive spectator. You’ll feel with me that this is a cruel position for a cœur de mère. I count the days till our three months are over, and I know you’ll join with me in my prayers. Aurora walks the streets alone; she goes out in the tramway: a voiture de place costs five francs for the least little course. (I beseech you not to let it be known that I’ve sometimes had the weakness.) My daughter’s frequently accompanied by a gentleman — by a dozen gentlemen; she remains out for hours and her conduct excites no surprise in this establishment. I know but too well the emotions it will excite in your quiet home. If you betray us, chère Madame, we’re lost; and why, after all, should any one know of these things in Geneva? Aurora pretends she has been able to persuade herself that she doesn’t care who knows them; but there’s a strange expression in her face which proves that her conscience isn’t at rest. I watch her, I let her go, but I sit with my hands clasped. There’s a peculiar custom in this country — I shouldn’t know how to express it in Genevese: it’s called “being attentive,” and young girls are the object of the futile process. It hasn’t necessarily anything to do with projects of marriage — though it’s the privilege only of the unmarried and though at the same time (fortunately, and this may surprise you) it has no relation to other projects. It’s simply an invention by which young persons of the two sexes pass large parts of their time together with no questions asked. How shall I muster courage to tell you that Aurora now constitutes the main apparent recreation of several gentlemen? Though it has no relation to marriage the practice happily doesn’t exclude it, and marriages have been known to take place in consequence (or in spite) of it. It’s true that even in this country a young lady may marry but one husband at a time, whereas she may receive at once the attentions of several gentlemen, who are equally entitled “admirers.” My daughter then has admirers to an indefinite number. You’ll think I’m joking perhaps when I tell you that I’m unable to be exact — I who was formerly l’exactitude même.

Two of these gentlemen are to a certain extent old friends, having been passengers on the steamer which carried us so far from you. One of them, still young, is typical of the American character, but a respectable person and a lawyer considerably launched. Every one in this country follows a profession, but it must be admitted that the professions are more highly remunerated than chez vous. Mr. Cockerel, even while I write you, is in not undisputed, but temporarily triumphant, possession of my child. He called for her an hour ago in a “boghey”— a strange unsafe rickety vehicle, mounted on enormous wheels, which holds two persons very near together; and I watched her from the window take her place at his side. Then he whirled her away behind two little horses with terribly thin legs; the whole equipage — and most of all her being in it — was in the most questionable taste. But she’ll return — return positively very much as she went. It’s the same when she goes down to Mr. Louis Leverett, who has no vehicle and who merely comes and sits with her in the front salon. He has lived a great deal in Europe and is very fond of the arts, and though I’m not sure I agree with him in his views of the relation of art to life and life to art, and in his interpretation of some of the great works that Aurora and I have studied together, he seems to me a sufficiently serious and intelligent young man. I don’t regard him as intrinsically dangerous, but on the other hand he offers absolutely no guarantees. I’ve no means whatever of ascertaining his pecuniary situation. There’s a vagueness on these points which is extremely embarrassing, and it never occurs to young men to offer you a reference. In Geneva I shouldn’t be at a loss; I should come to you, chère Madame, with my little inquiry, and what you shouldn’t be able to tell me wouldn’t be worth my knowing. But no one in New York can give me the smallest information about the état de fortune of Mr. Louis Leverett. It’s true that he’s a native of Boston, where most of his friends reside; I can’t, however, go to the expense of a journey to Boston simply to learn perhaps that Mr. Leverett (the young Louis) has an income of five thousand francs. As I say indeed, he doesn’t strike me as dangerous. When Aurora comes back to me after having passed an hour with him she says he has described to her his emotions on visiting the home of Shelley or discussed some of the differences between the Boston temperament and that of the Italians of the Renaissance. You’ll not enter into these rapprochements, and I can’t blame you. But you won’t betray me, chère Madame?

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56