Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…
The Outcry by Henry James
We have another work of fiction here, and another instance in which you’ve probably heard of the author. If not, here’s a brief summary. Henry James was a 19th-century author who produced quite a lot of work but is best known today for two novellas, Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw. He was born in the United States but spent most of his adult life in Europe, becoming a British citizen shortly before his death. His experience living on both sides of the pond inspired his body of work, which is mostly about the culture clash between Brits and Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Outcry was one of James’s last novels, published in 1911, and it follows this same theme of cultural differences and anxieties. Specifically, it’s about the controversy caused by wealthy Americans buying up Britain’s great artwork.
So there’s this guy called Lord Theign. Don’t ask me how to pronounce that, I have no idea. His family is going through some financial problems, so his solution is to sell one of his most valuable possessions, a painting called Duchess of Waterbridge, to an American billionaire. That character, I shit you not, is called Breckenridge Bender. He acts exactly as you would expect a person with that name to act:
Such measure of response as he had good-naturedly given her was the mere frayed edge of a mastering detachment, the copious, impatient range elsewhere of his true attention. Somehow, however, he still seemed kind even while, turning his back upon her, he moved off to look at one of the several, the famous Dedborough pictures—stray specimens, by every presumption, lost a little in the whole bright bigness. “‘Conclude’?” he echoed as he approached a significantly small canvas. “You ladies want to get there before the road’s so much as laid or the country’s safe! Do you know what this here is?” he at once went on.
“Oh, you can’t have that!” she cried as with full authority— “and you must really understand that you can’t have everything. You mustn’t expect to ravage Dedborough.”
He had his nose meanwhile close to the picture. “I guess it’s a bogus Cuyp—but I know Lord Theign has things. He won’t do business?”Chapter 2
While Theign is negotiating with Bender, an art critic named Hugh Crimble is arguing that a piece as valuable as Duchess of Waterbridge should
be kept safe from filthy Yanks stay in Britain where it belongs. Eventually the newspapers get wind of the potential sale, which leads to the outcry of the title.
This whole premise probably seems insipid to modern readers. It might even come off as delightfully hypocritical, considering how Britain doesn’t have much room to point fingers at other countries over taking artwork. To James’s credit, he does possess some awareness in this regard and has a supporting character point out this fact.
She was sharply struck, but was also unmistakably a person in whom stirred thought soon found connections and relations. “Well, I suppose our art-wealth came in—save for those awkward Elgin Marbles!—mainly by purchase too, didn’t it? We ourselves largely took it away from somewhere, didn’t we? We didn’t grow it all.”
“We grew some of the loveliest flowers—and on the whole to-day the most exposed.” He had been pulled up but for an instant. “Great Gainsboroughs and Sir Joshuas and Romneys and Sargents, great Turners and Constables and old Cromes and Brabazons, form, you’ll recognise, a vast garden in themselves. What have we ever for instance more successfully grown than your splendid ‘Duchess of Waterbridge’?”Chapter 4
Moral ambiguity and an honest discussion of complex issues? Our heroes don’t have time for that!
If I had to pick one phrase to describe what I’ve read of this book, it would be “churned out.” It’s got the themes and idea that appear in James’s other works, but in a very simplified form with clear good guys and bad guys. It feels like James wrote this in a short period of time because he just needed to get another book out there. Considering that he was in his sixties when he wrote this and that it was meant as a stage play but had to be reworked, this probably is the case. Whatever the origin, it isn’t one of James’s better stories. While I’d absolutely recommend him as a writer, I’m not sure I’d recommend this particular book. Maybe if you’ve already read his more famous stuff, but not as an introduction to him. Choose one of the novellas or short stories instead.
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!