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The Family Coach

Of course, as soon as I say I can’t write about it while I’m reading, everything changes. The first chapter in Volume 2 of The Golden Bowl is remarkable. Maggie, the Princess, suspects, but does not want to suspect, something is amiss in her life. She fidgets, worries, allays her suspicion but not quite, even until the point when the Prince returns then retreats upstairs to wash before dinner (to wash off the grime from travel being the ostensible reason; to wash off Charlotte the not-quite-implied).

The next chapter begins with Maggie’s making sense of it by remembering recent history, coming to understand it. One attempts is constituted by an extended metaphor that figures quite precisely much of what I said yesterday:

It had been an hour from which the chain of causes and consequences was definitely traceable—so many things, and at the head of the list her father’s marriage, having appeared to her to flow from Charlotte’s visit to Fawns, and that event itself having flowed from the memorable talk. But what perhaps most came out in the light of these concatenations was that it had been for all the world as if Charlotte had been “had in,” as the servants always said of extra help, because they had thus suffered it to be pointed out to them that if their family coach lumbered and stuck the fault was in its lacking its complement of wheels. Having but three, as they might say, it had wanted another, and what had Charlotte done from the first but begin to act, on the spot, and ever so smoothly and beautifully, as a fourth? Nothing had been immediately more manifest than the greater grace of the movement of the vehicle—as to which, for the completeness of her image, Maggie was now supremely to feel how every strain had been lightened for herself. So far as she was one of the wheels she had but to keep in her place; since the work was done for her she felt no weight, and it wasn’t too much to acknowledge that she had scarce to turn round. She had a long pause before the fire during which she might have been fixing with intensity her projected vision, have been conscious even of its taking an absurd, a fantastic shape. She might have been watching the family coach pass and noting that somehow Amerigo and Charlotte were pulling it while she and her father were not so much as pushing. They were seated inside together, dandling the Principino and holding him up to the windows to see and be seen, like an infant positively royal; so that the exertion was all with the others. Maggie found in this image a repeated challenge; again and yet again she paused before the fire: after which, each time, in the manner of one for whom a strong light has suddenly broken, she gave herself to livelier movement. She had seen herself at last, in the picture she was studying, suddenly jump from the coach; whereupon, frankly, with the wonder of the sight, her eyes opened wider and her heart stood still for a moment. She looked at the person so acting as if this person were somebody else, waiting with intensity to see what would follow. The person had taken a decision—which was evidently because an impulse long gathering had at last felt a sharpest pressure. Only how was the decision to be applied?—what in particular would the figure in the picture do? She looked about her, from the middle of the room, under the force of this question, as if there exactly were the field of action involved.

There is so much of this novel in the metaphor: the need to add to the family in order to make it work (i.e., Maggie won’t leave her father, or even diminish him, for her husband’s sake) and the recognition that Charlotte was the perfect woman to make it work; so perfect were the Prince and Charlotte, in fact, that simply being in place had become for her the important thing. Yet then there’s the looking up, the jumping out to see things better: that’s the point at which Maggie is when she develops this vision. It’s just this sort of perfect, and perfectly placed metaphor that I’m loving in reading James.

But the metaphor doesn’t encapsulate everything. There’s another thread running beneath the narrative of equilibrium that is revealed on occasion (though it also defines the characters, especially the Prince and Charlotte). It’s articulated in the last sentence of the previous chapter, right when the Prince has left to wash (emphasis mine): “Subsidence of the fearsome, for Maggie’s spirit, was always at first positive emergence of the sweet, and it was long since anything had been so sweet to her as the particular quality suddenly given by her present emotion to the sense of possession.” What does it mean when what ultimately calms her is ownership of her husband?