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An International Episode


James plays with a major issue of his personal life (born and raised in the US but spent much of his life in England, eventually becoming a citizen in the year of his death), and of his time and place generally: the interaction between individuals from England and America around the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. I've come across something similar in Wodehouse (although a bit later). It is great material - the class conscious, historical behemoth of the declining empire of England and the vital and growing financial contender of the democratic US - played out in courtship interactions as wealthy individuals cross and recross the Atlantic.

James deals with his characters with a relatively light touch, much as, say, Lou Reed doesn't spell out exactly what we're to think of the colourful people in his songs. This isn't to say he's not aware of amusing foibles, and fans of Austen would feel very much at home with not only the manners, but also the fun being had at a lack of self-awareness (such as Mrs Westgate's repeated lamentation/assertion that `we have no leisure class', as she lives the luxurious life of a wealthy aristocrat). However I appreciated that, unlike many in Austen, I don't know that anyone was merely a comic character to be judged and smugly pilloried (and even if they were - say, Lord Lambeth's mother - James doesn't display Austen's relish in dwelling on them). The characters he does stay with may be flawed, but they are not merely flawed (as with the best of Austen's): Mrs Westgate may not be aware of her privileged position, but she is no fool either, and her concerns about the casual contempt of classism in England have some basis; as one of Bessie's idealistic tirades highlights, Lambeth is too self-absorbed to care about the welfare of real people hereditarily placed under his power, but for all that he is still likable, and he demonstrates sincerity and courage (if some condescension) in his affection for her.

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Tags: novels, novellas, known, primarily, before, Episode, International, death