Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Ambassadors by Henry James (71 down, 29 to go)

The great church had no altar for his worship, no direct voice for his soul; but it was none the less soothing even to sanctity; for he could feel while there what he couldn’t elsewhere, that he was a plain tired man taking the holiday he had earned. ~ Lambert Strether regarding Notre Dame Cathedral

This is the first time I’ve read The Ambassadors or Henry James.  The novel is the third-person narrative, told in realist style, and at times is nearly stream of consciousness.  The story is told exclusively from the point of view of Lambert Strether who is sent to Paris, by his wealthy fiancée, to persuade her son to return to Massachusetts and take up his responsibility in the family business, probably taking place in the very early 1900s.

Henry James is one of the most prolific authors on my list with 4 novels in the top 100, and 3 more in the next 250. I thought it was surprising that in spite of so many works making the list, this was his highest at #71. Nevertheless, I was impressed with his numerous “Great Novels” and I was looking forward to my first experience with James. To be perfectly honest, I was quite disappointed.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If I were to sum it up in one word, it would be “pretentious”.

I am going to reserve judgment on James as a whole though, as I have read he had 3 distinct styles: James I, James II, and The Old Pretender. The Ambassadors, one of James’ later works, falls under that last label. I will experience James’ earlier styles later, perhaps I will find them more enjoyable.

I thought the premise of this story was promising. The main character, Lambert Strether, is sent to Paris on a mission by his widowed fiancée, Mrs. Newsome. He is to retrieve her wayward son, Chad Newsome, and bring him home to run the family business. The precise nature of the business is never explained, only that it involved the manufacture of some “little nameless object”.

Strether travels to Europe with his friend Waymarsh. I was never clear why Waymarsh came along, and he never seemed to be of much help. During a layover in England, Strether meets American expatriate Maria Gostrey. The two are immediately drawn together and into one another’s confidence. I was never clear why these two became such fast friends. Strether and Waymarsh set off for France, and before long Maria follows.

Once in Paris, Strether finds Chad, and the two have a tête-à-tête to discover one another’s motives. Chad knows why Strether has come and is cheerfully defiant that he shall ever acquiesce. Strether learns that Chad is keeping company with Marie de Vionnet and her daughter Jeanne. Strether is uncertain which of the two is keeping Chad in Europe.

I won’t synopsize the entire plot. Chad is not eager to leave, and Strether begins to understand why. He finds Chad much improved for his European sojourn and eventually feels it would be a shame for Chad to leave. Strether’s failure to achieve his mission results in the arrival of more of Mrs. Newsome’s “ambassadors”.

I’m getting sick of this novel all over again trying to review it. I have two main complaints. Everyone, describes everyone with every ridiculous superlative, every time. Chad calls Strether magnificent; Strether calls Marie de Vionnet exquisite; Maria Gostrey describes someone – everyone as superb; everyone call Mrs. Newsome incomparable, impeccable, extraordinary;  friends of Chad’s friends call his friends charming, someone else calls somebody flawless, others are lovely, splendid, peerless, elegant, sublime. Marie de Vionnet once even calls Chad infinite.

It’s as if James is trying to convince the reader, through his characters – that he’s created fascinating characters.

I found them ridiculous and barely interesting.

And then the dialogue: It was pretentious and smug, and it didn’t matter the speaker. They all seemed to delight in paradox, saying things that made no sense, or contradicted, satisfied of their brilliance by the incomprehensibility of their words.

An example between Strether and Maria Gostrey, about Marie de Vionnet

“There were moments,” she explained, “when you struck me as grandly cynical; there were others when you struck me as grandly vague.”Her friend considered. “I had phases. I had flights.”“Yes, but things must have a basis.”“A basis seemed to me just what her beauty supplied.”“Her beauty of person?”“Well, her beauty of everything. The impression she makes. She has such variety and yet such harmony.”

And it isn’t just me. Edith Wharton, who admired Henry James, used the very word “incomprehensible” to describe passages of James’ writing.

Make it three complaints. I might have hoped, in spite of the pretentious dialogue and insipid characters, this novel would be about the allure of Paris. But no. It could have taken place in Hoboken.

That’s it. I’ve spent enough time reading and reviewing this novel.



  1. I have tried and tried to read this book and failed. Now I know why. :) Thanks.

  2. Every few years I try to read something by Henry James and I'm invariably disappointed. So many people whose reading tastes align with me are fans but I find him unbearable. He is a bore and I find his company irksome. I finally decided to stop inviting him and Virginia Woolf to my dinner parties and we're all a lot happier! Wharton, on the other hand, is always welcome to pop over for a visit.

    1. It's always nice to know I'm not alone. I haven't gotten to Wharton yet...but I will one of these days.

  3. I believe Henry James is an acquired taste because of the style of his prose and the slowness of the plotting. You're not alone. I have tried, but I have not yet acquired a taste for HJ. I hope you have more pleasure in whatever you read next.

  4. i wonder: why is HJ so famous if he isn't a very good writer? i admit to having resisted several times throwing one of his productions through the window... i did manage to pathfind my way through "the golden bowl" once, but i think the lightbulb was burned out... anyway many thanks for the interesting post...

    1.'s a bit baffling. I can see how some might like him though. Thanks for the feedback.


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