Other than rereadings of “Daisy Miller” and “Beast in the Jungle” for teaching purposes, this is the first Henry James I’ve read since a college class I took my senior year. It takes it out of you to read several of his novels, and many many of his short fiction in a single semester. It’s very rewarding as well, but it’s tasking. This novella didn’t feel as tasking and I don’t know if that’s just because I am older and a better reader, if it was a less difficult text, or some other explanation.
This novella has a familiar kind of plot (and I didn’t know it at the time, but the novel My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunket has an identical storyline in many ways and there’s some similarities with novels like Possession or Edith Wharton’s The Touchstone). Here, our narrator is looking to secure the private papers of a local poet of some historical import. In order to do this, he rents out the villa owned by the old woman in possession of the papers and who likely had some kind of romance with the poet. The narrator ingratiates himself with the family, but only for the granddaughter, a single but not entirely eligible woman who of course falls in love with him. And as he gets closer to the papers, he finds his intensity and desire for them growing.
Like the Wharton novella I mentioned, this is a book about the lengths to which someone is willing to debase themselves for fame, in this case. And because this is about papers of a poet, this is at best a kind of stolen or borrowed glory.