For years now I loaded Jan up on film classics, the casts Japanese, Mexican, German; now I weigh the selections on her side: period pieces, Jane Austin: costume drama, heavily British, English-American: Dickens, Thackeray … as well as Austin. We just watched the BBC production of Henry James’ The Spoils of Poynton. A couple of posts ago I reported on our experience with Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman: in that story the author experimented, brilliantly, with alternate endings, including a happy ending (so did Dickens! I wish Hardy had!) And the concept of happy endings, especially thanks to George Bernard Shaw, has been on my mind for a half a century or more: I want to say why I think James’ ending as shown by the BBC was a happy ending:
I refer merely to four characters: Fleda, Mother Gareth, the Gareth son, and Sonny’s fiancée: or five: Poynton itself.
Poynton is a house, filled with clutter, of who knows what expense to the collector (price) or the culture collected from (kleptocracy, cultural imperialism, historical obsolescence …) Fleda is a perpetual guest of Mrs. Gareth. Mr. Gareth is deceased. His role was to saddle his son and heir with a soulless museum. Son Gareth touches the golden harp, but only the golden wood, never the musical strings, never the keys of the spinet or the piano-forte. The musical instruments are all only looked at, owned, never played. The Maltese cross, a little Jesus being tortured on it, is for display, for conspicuous possession; not for reverence, for magic, for salvation, devotion, piety …
Trouble is, in English custom, law being little different, primogeniture is the practice. Woman may occupy a space and seem to rule it, but it’s an illusion. Title is in the name and hands of the select males. Mrs. Gareth once ruled the house in terms of filling it up with the spoils of the title, but now spineless Sonny owns it, and he can have his mother evicted and jailed if she touches anything without his permission: or could if he weren’t such a milksop.
Mother has his permission until he invites his finacée to come meet her future possessions and gloat over them. To the mother, she is a barbarian, all vulgar noises, tennis racquets and golf bags. Now Mother’s purpose in commandeering Fleda as her perpetual house guest becomes clear: Mother sees her control of the swag as continuing undiminished if only her ninny of a mother’s-boy-son would engage to marry Fleda. Mother has no control over the carnivorous racquet brandisher.
Gradually Sonny does notice Fleda: proposes to her; without the nicety of first breaking off with Miss PT Barnum. Fleda by this time is infatuated with the son, but she wants the ts crossed and the is dotted. Miss PT Barnum quick gives Sonny an up close and personal preview of a honeymoon, and there goes Mama Gareth’s continued control over the spoils of the British Empire, with its militant, colonizing commerce.
Henry James seems to hold his materialist culture clones in contempt, but there’s no Marx in sight: and no Ivan Illich, no human foreign policy: let alone any suffering Christ. The jack-booted Philistines rule on, and on.
Anyway, at the end Sonny has married Miss PT Barnum, and Fleda, whose own family has throughout been secure in their own homes, clubs, engagements, marriages … parsonages … stays stuck with the failed schemer. So there’s nothing for Mama to do but to live the rest of her life traveling to the best climes of Italy with Fleda. Sonny has begged Fleda to go to Poynton and to help herself to her choice of the loot. We’re sure she’ll take that poor sterile meaningless Maltese cross! (As meaningless as if Marx owned it!) She arrives by train. (! Modern commerce hasn’t yet paved everything and driven all over it.) But the station master tells her that fire has leveled the Poynton mansion! No, none of the spoils remain. Fleda switches from the uptown platform to the downtown platform. She’ll return to London, and thereafter be Mrs. Gareth’s Mrs.: the position of a new Mrs. Gareth being taken by the better grabber.
So. It’s a sober ending. Let me argue that it’s a happy ending.
Why Fleda should be infatuated with Sonny I can’t imagine, he’s such a wimp, no character at all. We see Sonny on his honeymoon in Egypt, we see him see how thoroughly under Wifey’s thumb he is. Stuck in the same room, no longer a virgin, imagining things, Fleda would come to see, if not everything, then at least Sonny for what he is, wouldn’t she? No, no. The happiest possible ending for her is to remain a virgin and to remain under Mama Gareth’s thumb, being told what to do, what to enjoy, how to enjoy it.
Shaw? Oh, sure. Read Shaw’s Preface to Pygmalion. Higgens doesn’t marry Lisa: that is the happy ending. He has his work, he can get his own slippers. Hollywood changed it, but Shaw didn’t.
I wish I could quote something I heard a Brit wit say a few decades ago about trans-Atlantic TV: I’ll paraphrase the best I can:
You send us your masterpieces, calling it crap: Taxi, Seinfeld … We send you our crap, and you call it Masterpiece Theater!