Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also an editorial assistant for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.
It’s August, mid-summer, and thoughts naturally turn to beach reading. May I suggest a Henry James novel? Three of them appear on the Modern Library’s list: The Wings of the Dove (#26), The Ambassadors (#27), and The Golden Bowl (#32).
Each of these novels is satisfyingly plump, both in page count and in plot density. They are full of good people behaving badly, suspect people rising unexpectedly to the occasion, people keeping or losing their dignity, people falling in and out of love, people struggling against the mores of their times. In other words, they are stuffed full of humanity. James’s great strength as a writer is his insight into the psychological and emotional nuances attendant on all human interaction. This insight plus the complex plots and often exotic locales are what make these novels great candidates for vacation reading, when time is abundant.
Henry James wrote most of his novels in the 19th century. These three were published in the very early years of the 20th century and therefore make the list, but although James is considered a modern writer, in many ways he is not a 20th century writer. The First World War dramatically shifted the culture, ethos, and worldview of the Anglo-European-American world, and this is starkly demonstrated in all aspects of art in the years immediately following. The era preceding and the era following WWI do not belong to the same time.
The Modern Library’s decision to follow strict dates for their list provides a great opportunity to enjoy James alongside the more iconic writers of the 20th century, such as Hemingway. “Enjoy” is the salient word. These stories are luxurious. You’ll find none of the slim incisiveness, the barely stated emotionality, the absence of authorial judgment that define the style of writing just a few years later. You’ll find instead richly painted locales of privilege and people passing minutely through their thoughts and feelings. (James’s characters are all of the privileged classes, even if many of them are destitute and hiding their poverty-stricken state.) Layered on this, however, is the propriety of the times that lends the writing an opacity that is odd to readers a century later. When you’re used to reading about body parts coming together, it is sometimes difficult to understand what is happening on the page of a James novel, until a baby shows up or a divorce is granted.
These stories are by no means prudish or moralistic. They are simply swathed at times in euphemism. Look at the plots of the three novels that make the list:
In The Wings of the Dove, a young woman is dedicated to her father, who is some sort of reprobate but a loving father nevertheless, despite the fact that an aunt has promised her family riches if she renounces him. In addition, she is in love with a young man who is considered unsuitable and whom she has to meet on the sly. She meets up with another young woman who is traveling with an older companion (female) and who may or may not be deathly ill. Various older females are contriving to make matches among these two young women and an assortment of young men, the aim being “suitable” and financially beneficial matches, to the exclusion of considerations of love.
In The Ambassadors, an American man is dispatched by a family friend to England with the job of tracking down and bringing home the family’s son, who is expected to take over the family business but instead is rumored to have taken up with an unsuitable woman. On arrival, our American protagonist finds that the young man in question is keeping company with an older woman and her daughter and for much of the story it is unclear which of the women he is romantically involved with. Meanwhile, the first man gets involved with a woman himself and also with the romance of life abroad, freed from the responsibilities of life back home.
In The Golden Bowl, an Italian nobleman with no money is slated to marry the daughter of an extremely wealthy American in London. The trouble is, he chances to meet another young American woman with whom he’d had a romantic connection some years earlier. The first young woman convinces her father (a widower) that he, the father, should marry the second young woman. This sets up a double or perhaps triple triangle as the Italian and the second young woman remain connected, and each sees their respective spouses (the daughter and the father) as more connected to each other than to their mates. Meanwhile the daughter becomes jealous of the friendship between her husband and her father’s wife and works to keep the two of them apart while also protecting her father from knowledge of the whole thing.
Themes and motifs that run through these stories are cross-generational relationships and relationships between friends and relatives that are stronger than those of romance or marriage; the unfortunate state of women of a certain class, who must be suitably married to have any standing in society; and the perceived differences in morality between American society and European society (the latter seen as looser in this era). The characters are always struggling with what they should do versus what they want to do, and they are inevitably surrounded by meddling people who represent the “should” and enticing people who represent the “want.” The female characters stand out. They seem to be the pivot around which these conflicts swing, as would be expected given the tidal shift in the status of women that was underway across the late 19th and early 20th century.
Many people, even avid readers, find Henry James difficult to read. The wordiness and the obscurity of his work lend to this impression. These novels are not quick reads. They are decidedly slow reads. But given a long summer day, a cooler full of snacks and drinks, a nice breeze off the ocean, and plenty of sunscreen, the travails and intrigues of our heroes and heroines, scoundrels and charmers, hapless innocents and blooming beauties can be the perfect entertainment.