Henry James, Paste
It’s been a while since I’ve read any Henry James though, like many readers, I did a few years ago read Colm Toibin‘s The master and David Lodge‘s Author Author. I was pleased, therefore, to see James pop up as Library of America‘s author last week. The story is “Paste” and it is a bit of a riff on Guy de Maupassant‘s story “The necklace”, which I first read way back in my teens.
According to LOA’s introductory notes James met Maupassant several times, “and read his work avidly, but with mixed feelings”. James apparently described Maupassant’s Bel-Ami “as brilliant … [it] shows that the gifted and lascivious Guy can write a novel … [it] strikes me as a history of a Cad, by a Cad – of genius!” This brings us to “Paste” which James acknowledged was inspired by “The necklace” and which contains a character Mrs Guy who is lively but of somewhat worldly ethics. A back-handed tribute, perhaps, LOA suggests.
The plot revolves around a young woman, the governess Charlotte, whose aunt, the wife of a vicar, has recently died. Charlotte’s cousin Arthur, the stepson, offers her the aunt’s jewellery, which he readily admits is rather gaudy and cheap, belonging as they apparently did to the aunt’s previous life as an actress. Offhandedly, he says to her that if they’re worth anything, “why, you’re only the more welcome to them”. His sensibilities are clearly perturbed by the idea that his stepmother kept these “trappings of a ruder age” and become moreso when Charlotte questions whether the pearls may, in fact, be real. For Arthur that would be a double whammy – first that his stepmum might have been the sort of woman who had been given something of such value, and secondly that she’d then kept them, hidden away, after her marriage. No, they are definitely not real, says Arthur, with his apparently “nice” sensibility (though in the first paragraph we are told that his face contains “the intention …. rather than the expression, of feeling something or other”).
And so Charlotte takes home the “gewgaws”, and feels better after she has put them away “much enshrouded” beneath clothes, where they would have entered “a new phase of interment” if it hadn’t been for the suggestion of some tableaux vivants at a party in the house where she works. Such tableaux of course need decoration and Mrs Guy (with “the face of a baby and the authority of a commodore”), whose idea the tableaux is, lights upon Charlotte’s “things” … and the pearls appear again. Now, our Mrs Guy is a woman of the world, and knows a bit about pearls. She puts them on and Charlotte is surprised by how “the ambiguous objects might have passed for frank originals”. Well, Mrs Guy clearly thinks they are original, telling Charlotte that
” … That’s what pearls want; they want to be worn – it wakes them up. They’re alive don’t you see? How have these been treated? They must have been buried, ignored, despised. They were half-dead. Don’t you know about pearls?”
And thus commences Charlotte’s moral conundrum. Mrs Guy thinks that since they were a gift, Charlotte should remain silent and keep them, arguing also that Arthur was a fool not to recognise their value and that Charlotte should have no compunction about keeping them. Her reaction to Charlotte’s explanation of Arthur’s misgivings confirms her worldliness. At the supposition of their coming from an admirer, Mrs Guy responds, “Let’s hope she was just a little kind!”
I won’t tell you what Charlotte decides, and how the story pans out, because you can read it via the link below. But, I do like the way James has taken, and made more morally and psychologically complex, Maupassant’s original story. Like Maupassant’s story, there are issues of class – Charlotte is a governess, and therefore not rich, just like Maupassant’s heroine – and there is the question of “doing the right thing” versus keeping quiet. James though has added a few twists so that, by the end, while we know what Charlotte’s decision was, some questions are left hanging regarding what the ambiguous Arthur and worldly Mrs Guy did, and how this might impact Charlotte’s own future moral development. The result is something more layered than Maupassant’s somewhat melodramatic story … though both are still, I would say, the real thing!
First published: Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, December 1899
Available: Online at the Library of America