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Генри Джеймс
A Bundle of Letters

A Bundle of Letters
Генри Джеймс

Henry James

A Bundle of Letters



September 5th, 1879.

My dear mother—I have kept you posted as far as Tuesday week last, and, although my letter will not have reached you yet, I will begin another before my news accumulates too much.  I am glad you show my letters round in the family, for I like them all to know what I am doing, and I can’t write to every one, though I try to answer all reasonable expectations.  But there are a great many unreasonable ones, as I suppose you know—not yours, dear mother, for I am bound to say that you never required of me more than was natural.  You see you are reaping your reward: I write to you before I write to any one else.

There is one thing, I hope—that you don’t show any of my letters to William Platt.  If he wants to see any of my letters, he knows the right way to go to work.  I wouldn’t have him see one of these letters, written for circulation in the family, for anything in the world.  If he wants one for himself, he has got to write to me first.  Let him write to me first, and then I will see about answering him.  You can show him this if you like; but if you show him anything more, I will never write to you again.

I told you in my last about my farewell to England, my crossing the Channel, and my first impressions of Paris.  I have thought a great deal about that lovely England since I left it, and all the famous historic scenes I visited; but I have come to the conclusion that it is not a country in which I should care to reside.  The position of woman does not seem to me at all satisfactory, and that is a point, you know, on which I feel very strongly.  It seems to me that in England they play a very faded-out part, and those with whom I conversed had a kind of depressed and humiliated tone; a little dull, tame look, as if they were used to being snubbed and bullied, which made me want to give them a good shaking.  There are a great many people—and a great many things, too—over here that I should like to perform that operation upon.  I should like to shake the starch out of some of them, and the dust out of the others.  I know fifty girls in Bangor that come much more up to my notion of the stand a truly noble woman should take, than those young ladies in England.  But they had a most lovely way of speaking (in England), and the men are remarkably handsome.  (You can show this to William Platt, if you like.)

I gave you my first impressions of Paris, which quite came up to my expectations, much as I had heard and read about it.  The objects of interest are extremely numerous, and the climate is remarkably cheerful and sunny.  I should say the position of woman here was considerably higher, though by no means coming up to the American standard.  The manners of the people are in some respects extremely peculiar, and I feel at last that I am indeed in foreign parts.  It is, however, a truly elegant city (very superior to New York), and I have spent a great deal of time in visiting the various monuments and palaces.  I won’t give you an account of all my wanderings, though I have been most indefatigable; for I am keeping, as I told you before, a most exhaustive journal, which I will allow you the privilege of reading on my return to Bangor.  I am getting on remarkably well, and I must say I am sometimes surprised at my universal good fortune.  It only shows what a little energy and common-sense will accomplish.  I have discovered none of these objections to a young lady travelling in Europe by herself of which we heard so much before I left, and I don’t expect I ever shall, for I certainly don’t mean to look for them.  I know what I want, and I always manage to get it.

I have received a great deal of politeness—some of it really most pressing, and I have experienced no drawbacks whatever.  I have made a great many pleasant acquaintances in travelling round (both ladies and gentlemen), and had a great many most interesting talks.  I have collected a great deal of information, for which I refer you to my journal.  I assure you my journal is going to be a splendid thing.  I do just exactly as I do in Bangor, and I find I do perfectly right; and at any rate, I don’t care if I don’t.  I didn’t come to Europe to lead a merely conventional life; I could do that at Bangor.  You know I never would do it at Bangor, so it isn’t likely I am going to make myself miserable over here.  So long as I accomplish what I desire, and make my money hold out, I shall regard the thing as a success.  Sometimes I feel rather lonely, especially in the evening; but I generally manage to interest myself in something or in some one.  In the evening I usually read up about the objects of interest I have visited during the day, or I post up my journal.  Sometimes I go to the theatre; or else I play the piano in the public parlour.  The public parlour at the hotel isn’t much; but the piano is better than that fearful old thing at the Sebago House.  Sometimes I go downstairs and talk to the lady who keeps the books—a French lady, who is remarkably polite.  She is very pretty, and always wears a black dress, with the most beautiful fit; she speaks a little English; she tells me she had to learn it in order to converse with the Americans who come in such numbers to this hotel.  She has given me a great deal of information about the position of woman in France, and much of it is very encouraging.  But she has told me at the same time some things that I should not like to write to you (I am hesitating even about putting them into my journal), especially if my letters are to be handed round in the family.  I assure you they appear to talk about things here that we never think of mentioning at Bangor, or even of thinking about.  She seems to think she can tell me everything, because I told her I was travelling for general culture.  Well, I do want to know so much that it seems sometimes as if I wanted to know everything; and yet there are some things that I think I don’t want to know.  But, as a general thing, everything is intensely interesting; I don’t mean only everything that this French lady tells me, but everything I see and hear for myself.  I feel really as if I should gain all I desire.

I meet a great many Americans, who, as a general thing, I must say, are not as polite to me as the people over here.  The people over here—especially the gentlemen—are much more what I should call attentive.  I don’t know whether Americans are more sincere; I haven’t yet made up my mind about that.  The only drawback I experience is when Americans sometimes express surprise that I should be travelling round alone; so you see it doesn’t come from Europeans.  I always have my answer ready; “For general culture, to acquire the languages, and to see Europe for myself;” and that generally seems to satisfy them.  Dear mother, my money holds out very well, and it is real interesting.



September 16th.

Since I last wrote to you I have left that hotel, and come to live in a French family.  It’s a kind of boarding-house combined with a kind of school; only it’s not like an American hoarding-house, nor like an American school either.  There are four or five people here that have come to learn the language—not to take lessons, but to have an opportunity for conversation.  I was very glad to come to such a place, for I had begun to realise that I was not making much progress with the French.  It seemed to me that I should feel ashamed to have spent two months in Paris, and not to have acquired more insight into the language.  I had always heard so much of French conversation, and I found I was having no more opportunity to practise it than if I had remained at Bangor.  In fact, I used to hear a great deal more at Bangor, from those French Canadians that came down to cut the ice, than I saw I should ever hear at that hotel.  The lady that kept the books seemed to want so much to talk to me in English (for the sake of practice, too, I suppose), that I couldn’t bear to let her know I didn’t like it.  The chambermaid was Irish, and all the waiters were German, so that I never heard a word of French spoken.  I suppose you might hear a great deal in the shops; only, as I don’t buy anything—I prefer to spend my money for purposes of culture—I don’t have that advantage.

I have been thinking some of taking a teacher, but I am well acquainted with the grammar already, and teachers always keep you bothering over the verbs.  I was a good deal troubled, for I felt as if I didn’t want to go away without having, at least, got a general idea of French conversation.  The theatre gives you a good deal of insight, and as I told you in my last, I go a good deal to places of amusement.  I find no difficulty whatever in going to such places alone, and am always treated with the politeness which, as I told you before, I encounter everywhere.  I see plenty of other ladies alone (mostly French), and they generally seem to be enjoying themselves as much as I.  But at the theatre every one talks so fast that I can scarcely make out what they say; and, besides, there are a great many vulgar expressions which it is unnecessary to learn.  But it was the theatre, nevertheless, that put me on the track.  The very next day after I wrote to you last I went to the Palais Royal, which is one of the principal theatres in Paris.  It is very small, but it is very celebrated, and in my guide-book it is marked with two stars, which is a sign of importance attached only to first-class objects of interest.  But after I had been there half an hour I found I couldn’t understand a single word of the play, they gabbled it off so fast, and they made use of such peculiar expressions.  I felt a good deal disappointed and troubled—I was afraid I shouldn’t gain all I had come for.  But while I was thinking it over—thinking what I should do—I heard two gentlemen talking behind me.  It was between the acts, and I couldn’t help listening to what they said.  They were talking English, but I guess they were Americans.

“Well,” said one of them, “it all depends on what you are after.  I’m French; that’s what I’m after.”

“Well,” said the other, “I’m after Art.”

“Well,” said the first, “I’m after Art too; but I’m after French most.”

Then, dear mother, I am sorry to say the second one swore a little.  He said, “Oh, damn French!”

“No, I won’t damn French,” said his friend.  “I’ll acquire it—that’s what I’ll do with it.  I’ll go right into a family.”

“What family’ll you go into?”

“Into some French family.  That’s the only way to do—to go to some place where you can talk.  If you’re after Art, you want to stick to the galleries; you want to go right through the Louvre, room by room; you want to take a room a day, or something of that sort.  But, if you want to acquire French, the thing is to look out for a family.  There are lots of French families here that take you to board and teach you.  My second cousin—that young lady I told you about—she got in with a crowd like that, and they booked her right up in three months.  They just took her right in and they talked to her.  That’s what they do to you; they set you right down and they talk at you.  You’ve got to understand them; you can’t help yourself.  That family my cousin was with has moved away somewhere, or I should try and get in with them.  They were very smart people, that family; after she left, my cousin corresponded with them in French.  But I mean to find some other crowd, if it takes a lot of trouble!”

I listened to all this with great interest, and when he spoke about his cousin I was on the point of turning around to ask him the address of the family that she was with; but the next moment he said they had moved away; so I sat still.  The other gentleman, however, didn’t seem to be affected in the same way as I was.

“Well,” he said, “you may follow up that if you like; I mean to follow up the pictures.  I don’t believe there is ever going to be any considerable demand in the United States for French; but I can promise you that in about ten years there’ll be a big demand for Art!  And it won’t be temporary either.”

That remark may be very true, but I don’t care anything about the demand; I want to know French for its own sake.  I don’t want to think I have been all this while without having gained an insight . . . The very next day, I asked the lady who kept the books at the hotel whether she knew of any family that could take me to board and give me the benefit of their conversation.  She instantly threw up her hands, with several little shrill cries (in their French way, you know), and told me that her dearest friend kept a regular place of that kind.  If she had known I was looking out for such a place she would have told me before; she had not spoken of it herself, because she didn’t wish to injure the hotel by being the cause of my going away.  She told me this was a charming family, who had often received American ladies (and others as well) who wished to follow up the language, and she was sure I should be delighted with them.  So she gave me their address, and offered to go with me to introduce me.  But I was in such a hurry that I went off by myself; and I had no trouble in finding these good people.  They were delighted to receive me, and I was very much pleased with what I saw of them.  They seemed to have plenty of conversation, and there will be no trouble about that.

I came here to stay about three days ago, and by this time I have seen a great deal of them.  The price of board struck me as rather high; but I must remember that a quantity of conversation is thrown in.  I have a very pretty little room—without any carpet, but with seven mirrors, two clocks, and five curtains.  I was rather disappointed after I arrived to find that there are several other Americans here for the same purpose as myself.  At least there are three Americans and two English people; and also a German gentleman.  I am afraid, therefore, our conversation will be rather mixed, but I have not yet time to judge.  I try to talk with Madame de Maisonrouge all I can (she is the lady of the house, and the real family consists only of herself and her two daughters).  They are all most elegant, interesting women, and I am sure we shall become intimate friends.  I will write you more about them in my next.  Tell William Platt I don’t care what he does.



September 21st.

We had hardly got here when father received a telegram saying he would have to come right back to New York.  It was for something about his business—I don’t know exactly what; you know I never understand those things, never want to.  We had just got settled at the hotel, in some charming rooms, and mother and I, as you may imagine, were greatly annoyed.  Father is extremely fussy, as you know, and his first idea, as soon as he found he should have to go back, was that we should go back with him.  He declared he would never leave us in Paris alone, and that we must return and come out again.  I don’t know what he thought would happen to us; I suppose he thought we should be too extravagant.  It’s father’s theory that we are always running up bills, whereas a little observation would show him that we wear the same old rags FOR MONTHS.  But father has no observation; he has nothing but theories.  Mother and I, however, have, fortunately, a great deal of practice, and we succeeded in making him understand that we wouldn’t budge from Paris, and that we would rather be chopped into small pieces than cross that dreadful ocean again.  So, at last, he decided to go back alone, and to leave us here for three months.  But, to show you how fussy he is, he refused to let us stay at the hotel, and insisted that we should go into a family.  I don’t know what put such an idea into his head, unless it was some advertisement that he saw in one of the American papers that are published here.

There are families here who receive American and English people to live with them, under the pretence of teaching them French.  You may imagine what people they are—I mean the families themselves.  But the Americans who choose this peculiar manner of seeing Paris must be actually just as bad.  Mother and I were horrified, and declared that main force should not remove us from the hotel.  But father has a way of arriving at his ends which is more efficient than violence.  He worries and fusses; he “nags,” as we used to say at school; and, when mother and I are quite worn out, his triumph is assured.  Mother is usually worn out more easily than I, and she ends by siding with father; so that, at last, when they combine their forces against poor little me, I have to succumb.  You should have heard the way father went on about this “family” plan; he talked to every one he saw about it; he used to go round to the banker’s and talk to the people there—the people in the post-office; he used to try and exchange ideas about it with the waiters at the hotel.  He said it would be more safe, more respectable, more economical; that I should perfect my French; that mother would learn how a French household is conducted; that he should feel more easy, and five hundred reasons more.  They were none of them good, but that made no difference.  It’s all humbug, his talking about economy, when every one knows that business in America has completely recovered, that the prostration is all over, and that immense fortunes are being made.  We have been economising for the last five years, and I supposed we came abroad to reap the benefits of it.

As for my French, it is quite as perfect as I want it to be.  (I assure you I am often surprised at my own fluency, and, when I get a little more practice in the genders and the idioms, I shall do very well in this respect.)  To make a long story short, however, father carried his point, as usual; mother basely deserted me at the last moment, and, after holding out alone for three days, I told them to do with me what they pleased!  Father lost three steamers in succession by remaining in Paris to argue with me.  You know he is like the schoolmaster in Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village”—“e’en though vanquished, he would argue still.” He and mother went to look at some seventeen families (they had got the addresses somewhere), while I retired to my sofa, and would have nothing to do with it.  At last they made arrangements, and I was transported to the establishment from which I now write you.  I write you from the bosom of a Parisian ménage—from the depths of a second-rate boarding-house.

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