James: Broken Wings

“Broken Wings,” published December 1900 in Century Magazine, deals with Henry James’s common theme of love squandered through human folly. Pride has been at work here. Happily for the reader, this time, it isn’t too late to salvage things:

 

Stuart Straith acknowledges himself as the déclassé member of a weekend party at Mundham (“the immense house all seated aloft in strength, robed with summer and crowned with success”). Straith represents art, while among the group of five-and-thirty were some great persons. So far he hasn’t spoken to literature’s Mrs. Harvey, whom he once knew well, and wonders whether she has moved up the social ladder. He sees her during the afternoon seated in a bower with the Ambassador. At dinner, she is placed across the table from his Excellency (his own request). When Straith’s eyes finally do meet hers, she seems “strange.”

That evening, Straith was “reduced to a vigil unalloyed”—Jamesspeak for going off to bed alone—but Mrs. Harvey, a novelist, is sought out by young Lady Claude. Nothing sexy, though: she’s an aspiring author. It is Mrs. Harvey’s privilege to disabuse her of the notion that any money is to be made through literature, at least, any that can be kept. In fact, she confesses her own destitution, with but two dresses for the three days at Mundham and a maid who’s actually her cook, disguised. She can’t even say why she’s invited here, except that London is “wild” and such things happen. Lady Claude then happens to mention Stuart Straith. She’s hot for such a “good-looking, distinguished ‘sympathetic’” fellow. Now the secret is revealed: a decade earlier, after Mr. Harvey’s death, Straith could have had Mrs. Harvey “if he had lifted a finger.” But influenced by the steady rise in value of his paintings, he saw a grand future for himself. She was too small for him. That is why she supposes he belongs among these great people.

Sometime afterward, Straith and Mrs. Harvey find themselves seated together at a theatrical performance. He chides her about the ambassador. They feint with each other about the reasons for having been at Mundham on that weekend. He asks if he can come to see her. She prefers going to his studio instead. Then they reveal their reasons for being at this play. She is stunned to learn that he has designed some of the costumes. “For the fee,” he explains. He is equally stunned to learn that, whereas her books used to bring in several thousand per year, she currently writes the “London Letter” three times a month for the Blackport Banner. “The new books, the new plays, the new twaddle of any sort—a little music, a little gossip, a little ‘art.’”

She shows up at his tidy studio with a notebook in order to get a column out of her visit. She isn’t good at this sort of work and anticipates being fired. She receives three pounds and ninepence from the Banner, whereas his commission on the costume design brought him four pounds and sixpence. “But I’ve only done, as yet, that one. Nothing else has offered.” Neither can deny being unhappy; Mrs. Harvey says she will accept his pity. The boy brings them tea, and when all is settled he tells her how hurt he had been by her rejection. She had been so successful, he so small—a revelation that causes her tears.

Because of pride “their estrangement had grown like an evil plant in the shade.” They had striven to enforce deceptions about themselves. Visiting Mrs. Harvey in her new apartment—she has just downsized—he “raised the heavy mask and laid it beside her own,” and after so many years “they began really to feel themselves recover something of that possibility of each other they had so wearily wasted.” He confesses that he hasn’t sold a painting in three years. This “final abandonment of pride … was like changing at the end of a dreadful day from tight boots to slippers.” They agree to avoid Mundham from now on. A price is paid as one gives the rich what they seek. They take the imagination. “As they have none themselves—” Mrs. Harvey points out. Keeping up with the rich is impossible, so why try, as they were beaten together? They permitted themselves a long and close embrace before “recover[ing] themselves enough to handle their agreement more responsibly…” They agree that they will resume their work.

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