The Golden Bowl By Henry James – #longsentences

The Golden Bowl is Henry James’s 1904 novel, about wealthy American art collector, Adam Verver and his daughter, Maggie. They both have marriages arranged by their friend Fanny Assingham. For the daughter, Fanny supplies Amerigo, a financially challenged Italian prince of impeccable social credentials. For widower Adam, there is Charlotte Stant, a beautiful, accomplished, widely travelled young woman, former girlfriend of the prince, who only avoided marrying him because she did not have the fortune that his position required.

Charlotte’s job is to handle boring, administrative stuff while her husband gets on with being artistic. The prince becomes part of the Verver art collection, hanging around in fine clothes, looking decorative, and conducting urbane conversations at parties. Both Amerigo and Charlottle get bored in their stifling roles, and end up rekindling their love affair. These events are accompanied by a detailed account of the interior lives of the main characters, alongside a nuanced study of value in people, art and morals.

This is a brief description of a book which has nothing brief about it. Many hundreds of pages are covered in very long sentences. These sentences will probably dictate how you feel about The Golden Bowl. In deciding whether James’s ornate prose is good or not, it might be worth remembering that The Golden Bowl is about how we value things. Adam Verver is very confident in his judgment as an art collector. Items are good or bad. He would not be the sort to acknowledge that fashions change, and what is good today may be bad tomorrow. In 1904, long, complicated sentences were a sign of quality literature. By the middle of the century, George Orwell was busy advising that if a word could be cut it should be cut, and Ernest Hemingway was writing to his editor about the eternal value of the succinct:

‘It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.’ 

Ernest Hemingway wrote many true things but I don’t think this is one of them. The Gettysburg Address may be short, but that does not mean that people have always valued Hemingway-like brevity. As Edward Karak points out in Refract Magazine, George Washington’s inaugural address from 1789 has 315 words over five sentences. Barack Obama’s inaugural address from 2009 also runs for five sentences, but they only contain 89 words. People prefer brevity in their writing now. Fashions have changed. 

So as fashions change do we gain or lose? Short sentences can express a point better than long ones, except maybe where the writer seeks to convey a situation which isn’t merely about getting to the point. The Golden Bowl is suspicious of snappy, clear cut positions. Adam Verver sees things in black and white, whether that’s people, or works of art. They are all judged and filed away. Ironically you could say that in many ways, modern trends in writing lend themselves to an Adam Verver outlook. People go on Twitter and write a briefly stated opinion. There is only time to be right or wrong. There is much judging.

Long sentences might have a different potential. It’s not that long sentences are necessarily more deep and meaningful. Often they can sound significant without actually saying very much, and I wasn’t even close to admiring every sentence in The Golden Bowl. This is not a book to read when you’re tired. However, over time the effect of this unfashionable prose was beguiling. There’s a wonderful section where Amerigo stands on the terrace at Matcham House on a lovely morning, enjoying the view towards Gloucester, and waiting for a furtive meeting with Charlotte. Lugubrious sentences describe house and vista. The scene has no meaning beyond itself. It is a beautiful morning and that is enough. The lengthy sentences are part of that luxury of just enjoying something for its own sake. There is no point to get to. I thought these sentences really were beautiful, not because they necessarily had a depth that we have lost, but because they had an ease that we have ceased to value. They described something that could be judged as good, like a timeless sculpture of ancient pedigree, while also remaining a fleeting thing, disappearing even at the moment of appreciation. That contrast, well suited to the ornate prose, is really where the book’s quality lay for me.

I would suggest that reading The Golden Bowl is like staying at a lovely country house, which would never get planning permission today. Sometimes you sit at dinner staring at a bewildering selection of fruit knives, asparagus forks and bouillon spoons, wishing for something you could eat with your hands. At other times, you wander on the terrace and enjoy the beautiful expression of a lost society, which, in its contrasts with our own, has much to teach us.

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