Saturday, 14 December 2013

Voices prophesying war

I never tire of quoting Neils Bohr’s acute observation that ‘prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.’

There is, however, one case where prediction is easy – and accurate. That’s when reading novels with a historical setting. The future for the characters is the past for us. We know where they’re heading, because mankind has already been there.

I felt that most starkly recently when I followed the sinuous, even tormented existence of Merton Densher, in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. It’s not my intention to review the whole novel here – I’ll keep that for Goodreads some time later – just to talk about a particular dread that it evoked in me.

A novel good enough to evoke a dread
its author knew nothing about
The book is set in the opening years of the twentieth century. Merton is in his early or possibly mid-twenties. I feel a sense of grim foreboding in reading about a young man at this period. In a dozen years or so the most calamitous fate would fall on that entire generation, and there’s every chance it would cost him his life in a death of unusual ugliness.

The worst of it is that it’s hard not to feel there is an aptness that this should be so. Densher is a man of great charm, he
’s witty, intelligent, sensitive, the kind of man one can imagine many a woman loving. 

Two of them do. 

One is Kate Croy, of his age and his background, and he wishes for nothing better than to marry her. But in the fag end of the Victorian period, and with its values still infusing everything they do, she cannot reconcile herself to living on the much reduced means either of them could command.

The other is Milly Theale, the dove of the title. Nineteen and an American, an innocent in James’s universe, she
’s afflicted with a mysterious but life-threatening disease. She falls for Merton in the course of a brief acquaintance in New York. 

Kate sees in the young American the key to solving her and Merton’s problems. He has only to marry Milly and, when she dies, they will have the fortune on which they can wed. Dominated by Kate, Merton agrees to go through with the plot but, moved by Milly though never in love with her – touched, perhaps, by the wings of the dove – he finds it increasingly difficult to see it to its end.

It strikes me that Merton is the consummate expression of his time. Attractive, civilised, a man of taste, but somehow void of moral content, unable either to be wholly bad or to stand up entirely for good, still clinging to the values of a Victorian era that had already been overtaken by events, his generation would stumble into the most obscene period of human history, starting with the carnage of the First World War, closed by Second and the associated vileness of the Holocaust.

James knew nothing of what was ahead. For him, prediction was about the future and therefore, as Bohr points out, difficult. But for us it isn’t. We can see where the many thousands of Merton Denshers, in Britain, France, Italy, Austria, Russia, and – as it lost its Jamesian innocence – America were going to take humanity.

The fate awaiting Merton Densher?
Well, if he had actually existed, at least
That imbues The Wings of the Dove with a special poignancy, even though James had no inkling of it.

At least I can console myself with the idea that Merton, like Kate and Milly, were all fictional characters. They ceased to exist as I turned the last page. They were untouched by the reality of the tragedy ahead.

To clear my mood, to put their future comprehensively behind me I just have to switch to something less challenging. Who knows – perhaps an episode of The Good Wife or Grey’s Anatomy. A little escapism soon settles the troubled soul.

Which I rather suspect was just how Merton Densher’s generation felt too.

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