Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton (Dell, 1897)
[originally posted 6Dec2001]
The Spoils of Ponyton is the first novel James wrote in his “later style,” in other words, drawing-room satire that isn’t really about much of anything at all. For some odd reason, later-era James is what’s universally praised in lit classes around the globe, while the early stuff, which is actually worth reading, is largely ignored.
To be fair, James did get better at satire as time went on, but The Spoils of Ponyton has all the hallmarks of being a first attempt at a stylistic change. The novel centers on two characters who are utterly incapable of action, which wouldn’t be so bad if the characters who were doing the acting were more involved. Such is, sadly, not the case. Owen and Fleda just sort of drift and react; as the book is told from Fleda’s point of view, we end up with page after page of something that, in the hands of a better author (even a later James, had he re-written it) would have come off as uber-Tevye; weighing the various merits of various courses of action, not being able to decide on a course, and letting fate take her where it will. In Fiddler on the Roof, it works (largely because Tevye’s monologues are brief and to the point); in Poynton, it blithers on endlessly, with all the fascination for the reader of watching cheese spoil.
If you’re new to James, by all means do yourself a favor and start with something he wrote earlier in his career. Leave Poynton until after you’ve developed enough of a taste for James to pick up later-era works, and then read the major ones before diving into this. *