While the brilliance of Roderick Hudson is still fading from my mind, I've just finished Henry James' third novel, The American, another tour de force, in which a product of the new Western frontier in San Francisco, Christopher Newman, having made his millions, encounters the rigidity and pride of Parisian high society, in the era of Napoleon III, while seeking to broaden his mind after an adulthood of toil.
Newman is most definitely an American archetype: the self-made man who, while not of good family nor possessing high intellect, is at home anywhere not because he fits anywhere, but because it never occurs to him to think otherwise. It's the less offensive version of the sort of person I myself noticed on my own first visit to Paris, as a shy twenty-five year old feeling at home scarcely anywhere. I was on a crowded Metro train, and a young American business man in a putty colored London-Fog raincoat (which I thought the height of fashion and subsequently purchased for myself in the Galleries Lafayette) got in, and, finding no room for his personage asked everyone, loudly, in English, to move further into the carriage in order to accommodate him.
Newman is impressively self-sufficient, and generally in a happy state of bonhomie both with himself and the world, without being complaisant. He is introduced into society by fellow Americans, and encounters the beautiful, noble, Claire, Comtesse de Cintre, widowed daughter of the late Marquis de Bellegarde, a pillar of the lately guillotined French aristocracy. Claire lives with her mother, the Madame de Bellegarde, her stuffed, inscrutable brother, Urbaine de Bellegarde (the new Marquis), Urbaine's wife, also - confusingly - called Madame de Bellegarde, and her younger, highly intelligent black sheep of a brother, the Comte Valentin, in a huge hotel (the French word for mansion) of fading magnificence in the best part of Paris.
The de Bellegardes have the highest place in society, but are somewhat short of cash, which can be the only reason why the old family accept, with relatively little struggle, and alarmingly insufficiently swallowed pride, Newman as a suitor for the hand of the Comtesse. After six months, he proposes, and is accepted - by the de Bellegards, of course, since the Comtesse cannot accept without her mother's authority. While Claire's mother and brother Urbaine clearly state that they don't like Newman, but will not oppose him, her younger brother Valentin becomes firm friends with Newman, since the former apparently lacks the stuffy manners of the old regime.
Newman, in his happy belief and lack of surprise that he now has gained exactly what he set out for, is consequently dashed against the unbreakable wall of French pride when he's informed, without any forewarning, that the Comtesse has broken off the wedding. Newman, in disbelief, confronts the de Bellegardes, whose haughtiness and sense of entitlement are every bit as acute as Newman's own feeling that he is out of place nowhere, and is told that Madame de Bellegarde had ordered the Comtesse to drop him. Madame de B tells him that the family had tried - harder than Newman could ever appreciate - to accustom themselves to the marriage, but, in the end could not see Claire marrying a "man of commerce".
The family immediately withdraws to the countryside, leaving Newman, for the first time in his life, with an angry sense of having been defeated. And this is the point I think James is trying to make: that Newman is as proud, in his own way, as the de Bellegardes: his feelings of loss are overwhelmed by the bitter sense of failure, and the recognition that his will is not sufficient to overcome the mores of high Parisian society.
In my own little way, I'm feeling a minor bit of pride of my own by being able to laugh affectionately at a convention that James, the great "Master" of the novel, has been overusing in his first three novels, that of creating characters' names to indicate their role and qualities. "Newman" as the man from the new frontier, Urbaine as the quintessential man of refinement and polish, and, even more obviously, Mallet, in Roderick Hudson, as the first name of the protagonist, a young man of culture who takes an even younger, unformed sculptor under his wing as his protege. It's a device used in much broader works of classic fiction, most obviously in the works of Charles Dickins, which seems out of place in the much more finely toned novels of James, and observing it here feels like hearing your favorite, nice old Grandmother unexpectedly swear uncouthly.
There, as a good critic, I've found my negative thing to say. Everything else about these books is flawless.