1903 – the ambassadors ~ henry james

Wile E. Coyote is my hero. Even though he’s, you know, evil and stuff.

One of my favourite moments from the old Road Runner cartoons was when Wile E. Coyote rigged up a whole heap of rocks between two cliffs with a little trapdoor underneath. Far below, of course, was a road, along which the Road Runner was certain to run at any moment. Attached to the trapdoor; a long rope, allowing Wile E., safely ensconced behind a distant rock, to open the trapdoor, release the rocks and flatten the Road Runner for good.

In theory, brilliant.

Moments after the trap is set, we see the Road Runner speeding along the road, headed straight for the trapdoor. With perfect timing, Wile E. Coyote pulls the string, the trapdoor opens…but the rocks don’t budge.

Frustrated, Wile E. Coyote runs underneath the rocks, and angrily starts poking at them with a long pole.

As small pebbles begin to rain down upon his head, Wile E. stops for a moment, turns towards the audience, and holds up a sign reading something like “What in Heaven’s name am I doing??”

Pause. Then, the entire load of rocks falls on Wile E. Coyote’s head.

This week, I had that “What am I doing?” thought for the first time…

  • I’m reading a book a week for every week for the next two-and-a-bit years.
  • Reading one book a week is a lot of work.
  • I have a very demanding full time job.
  • I don’t have a self-cleaning house. Or a self-feeding husband, for that matter.

I may have a time machine, but this is a seriously demanding schedule.

Why has this feeling of dread struck me this week more than any other? It’s because I read a book I really, really couldn’t get into.

Here’s my review for this week…

The Ambassadors

by Henry James

Published in 1904

“Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have lived your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had? (…) Do what you like so long as you don’t make my mistake. For it was a mistake. Live!”

– Henry James, The Ambassadors, pages 176 and 177

Henry James’s The Ambassadors seems built around this outburst – it’s a book about age and youth; about making up for lost time, while there’s still time left.

Our “hero” is Lambert Strether, a middle-aged man who is yet to live his life. The years have slipped by without him even noticing, and now, he’s staring his own mortality in the face.

Strether finds himself in Paris, on a mission to “rescue” his son-in-law to be, Chad Newsome, from the evil clutches of a French woman. Strether is engaged to marry Chad’s mum – a marriage more of convenience than anything else. The Newsome family run a profitable business, so Strether will be comfortably rich for the rest of his life. The catch? The marriage will take part only after Strether successfully retrieves Chad from France.

The story opens with Strether and his ultra-dull travelling companion, Waymarsh – the Burt to Strether’s Ernie – meeting in England. The ambassadors of the book’s title, their mission is to convince Chad to return with them to their boring American small town, promising him a prominent role in the family business – and lots of money.

But in Paris, Strether finds that Chad has changed. He’s young, he’s charming and he’s everything Strether wants to be. Like a child, Strether begins to fall in love with Paris itself.

When Strether meets Chad’s supposed mistress, the much older, (not to mention married) Madame de Vionnet, he begins to fall in love with her too. Which is hardly Strether’s fault, because Madame de Vionnet flirts with him shamelessly, convincing him that her relationship with Chad merely an innocent friendship.

Strether seems to have forgotten about Chad’s mum – his fiancée – totally. Until he gets a telegram telling him it’s over, and that the terrifying Mrs. Newsome (who we never meet) is sending another team of ambassadors to France to do the job properly.

Chad’s ready to go home, but, their positions changed totally, Strether begs Chad to remain in Paris – because he’s having the time of his life. The new set of ambassadors includes Chad’s fearsome sister, Sarah, who refuses to see the change in Chad, or appreciate the beauty of Paris. After a confrontation with Strether, they storm off back to America, leaving Chad and Strether behind.

Strether decides to take a relaxing countryside break to escape from all the stress…and just when he’s beginning to relax, who should he run into but Chad and Madame de Vionnet – who are staying at a local inn. TOGETHER. OMG SCANDAL!!

Dejected, Strether decides to head back to America, to an uncertain future, rejecting the only chance of happiness he has left – a friend he met at the very start of the book who is clearly in love with him.

There are three things I loved about The Ambassadors: Paris, Paris and Paris. Henry James manages to evoke Paris so beautifully that I’m now walking past travel agents’ windows, sighing wistfully. Everything about James’s Paris is just so lovely – even when it’s raining, it’s still perfect. It’s no wonder Strether is so taken with the city. It’s almost impossible for the reader not to be charmed too.

Towards the end of the book, the change of the seasons is a fitting backdrop for the change in all the characters, and Strether’s decision to leave the city he so adores. The description of the encroaching French summer reaches out of the book and grabs you by the heart.

But I mentioned at the very start of this review that The Ambassadors wasn’t a book I enjoyed…and here’s why.

It took me three quarters of the book to get used to James’s style. He often slips into writing in these huge mega-sentences of doom that simply keep on going and going until you finally reach a full-stop half a page later – and you’re scratching your head wondering what just happened. The Ambassadors takes intense concentration to read – it’s not the kind of book that takes to being read on a beach, or a train, or a bus. According to the Introduction, Henry James recommended a friend to read The Ambassadors five pages at a time. I’m afraid I simply didn’t have that luxury.

Clarity is not one of James’s gifts. My mind just slips over some of his sentences as if they’re crafted from ice.

At least the writing is a little clearer when the characters are talking…but, even then, the characters’ conversations are often very oblique. That’s the very nature of gossiping, I guess. It’s just not very useful for the reader when you’re not entirely sure which “she” or “him” the characters are whispering about. Thankfully, it’s not just the poor reader who is a little confused. During a conversation with Madame de Vionnet, Strether notes that she speaks “as if her art were all an innocence, and then again as if all her innocence were all an art”. Is she really flirting with him? Who can tell?

For a man so determined to live his life, Strether spends an unfortunate amount of time gossiping like an old woman. I know it’s not a very highbrow observation – but not a lot really happens in The Ambassadors. Don’t get me wrong: there are some touchingly perfect moments. But The Ambassadors suffers from the lack of a real hero. I was barracking for Strether all the way, but, in the end, he let me down. I wanted him to be happy…

By the time I finished reading The Ambassadors, I’d gained a sort of quiet respect for it. It’s not a book I loved, but someday, I might revisit it, when I have a little more time to truly appreciate it; to sit and daydream over the lovely descriptions of Paris.

I guess, for now, it’s not adieu forever, it’s au revoir. Someday, Strether, we may meet again. Maybe I’ll understand you a little better next time?


Official Book to the Future Rating:

Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!

Should I read it?

Sure – if you really dig those kind of novels where characters sit around talking. A lot…

In a word:


Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century's classic novels in chronological order.

3 thoughts on “1903 – the ambassadors ~ henry james”

  1. That doesn’t sound all that good, no wonder you had trouble getting through it. I’ve been dragging through a pretty ordinary book for a couple of months now, and want to finish it out of pure stubbornness… it doesn’t help that I’ve been reading other books though in between!

    Hopefully 1904 will be a bit more interesting for you. Peter Pan?

    1. Unfortunately, Peter Pan wasn’t published in novel format until 1911 (or something). It debuted as a play in 1904 – but I’ve decided to only read novels. Silly me…

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