on 30 March 2011
"The Europeans", dating from 1878, is one of Henry James's early novels, and also one of his shortest. It involves a common theme in James's writing, the differences between the customs and manners of Europe and those of America. The book is essentially a comedy of love and marriage, and shows the influence of Jane Austen, a writer whom James greatly admired. The "Europeans" of the title, the brother and sister Felix Young and Eugenia Munster, are Americans by ancestry, but have lived in Europe since their early childhood, moving from one country to another. The novel describes what happens when they travel to America to meet their cousins, the Wentworth family who live just outside Boston.
When the two siblings arrive, Mr. Wentworth, the widowed patriarch of the family, warns his household that they are to be exposed to "peculiar influences" which will necessitate "a great deal of wisdom and self-control". Together with the young Unitarian minister Mr. Brand, it is Mr. Wentworth, a well-to-do Harvard-educated lawyer, who is the book's main representative of the Puritan tradition of New England. His outlook on life is very different from that of his nephew and niece. Felix, a young artist, describes his uncle as "a tremendously high-toned old fellow; he looks as though he were undergoing martyrdom, not by fire but by freezing". Whereas Felix is gay (in the original sense of that word), carefree and light-hearted, the old man is austere, devout and deeply serious.
The differences between Eugenia and her relatives are perhaps even greater. She is the morganatic wife of a minor German princeling who now wishes to divorce her for political reasons, a situation which Mr. Wentworth regards with some distaste, although he is too polite to say so. Her main reason for coming to America is to seek out a wealthy American husband to take the place of Prince Adolf, and forms an attachment to Robert Acton, a cousin of the Wentworth family on the other side, who has made a fortune through trading with China. Used to life in the courts of Europe, however, she begins to wonder whether she can ever be satisfied with the provincial life of New England.
The arrival of Felix and Eugenia gives rise to a complicated pattern of romantic entanglements. Felix falls in love with his cousin Gertrude, Mr. Wentworth's younger daughter, who is also being courted by Mr. Brand. Besides her attachment to Robert, Eugenia also exercises a fascination over Mr. Wentworth's wayward son Clifford. Clifford, however, is also interested in Robert's attractive younger sister Lizzie. (The nineteenth century clearly did not share modern concerns about the desirability of marriages between cousins). Gertrude's rival for the affections of Mr. Brand is her own sister Charlotte.
According to the critic F.R. Leavis, a great admirer of James, "The Europeans, the visiting cousins, are there mainly to provide a foil for the American family", the book being a essentially a study of American, specifically New England, attitudes. Felix and Eugenia, coming from the upper-class and Bohemian beau-monde of Continental Europe, cannot be said to be representative of European society as a whole- if, indeed, one can speak of such a thing as "European society as a whole". Nevertheless, they represent values which are very different from those of the Wentworth family; they are more open and more inclined to act on their feelings. The Americans, by contrast, are more reserved, more openly religious and (paradoxically, given that they represent the New World as against the Old) more traditional in outlook.
These distinctions are by no means absolute. Clifford, for example, who has been suspended from Harvard for drunkenness, clearly does not share his father's puritanical bent. Gertrude's decision to marry Felix rather than Mr. Brand, who would have been her father's preference, represents a triumph for the "European" values of feeling and independence over the "American" ones of duty and family loyalty. (When we first see Gertrude she is avoiding attendance at church, suggesting that there may be a rebellious streak in her). Of the three Wentworth children the one closest to their father in outlook is Gertrude's older sister Charlotte, who does indeed later marry Mr. Brand. Nevertheless, as Leavis also points out, James is not condemning or endorsing either New England or Europe; he sees as much to admire as to criticise in the New England ethos.
The writing, with its intricate sentences, Latinate vocabulary and detailed descriptions of people and places, is characteristic of James's work, although that this early stage of his career his style had not become as dense and florid as it was to do in some of his later works. James himself did not have a particularly high opinion of this book, regarding it as "thin" and "empty", although others have taken a more positive view, notably Leavis who called it a "masterpiece of major quality". My own view would be closer to Leavis's than to James's. If it is "minor James", as some have characterised it, it is as good as the major works of many other novelists. Like Austen, James was able to use a comparatively slight story of romance as a vehicle for some penetrating insights into the psychology of his characters and into the society in which they lived.