The Spoils of Poynton
is a novel
by Henry James
, first published under the title The Old Things
as a serial in The Atlantic Monthly
and then as a book in 1897
. This half-length novel describes the struggle between Mrs. Gereth, a widow of impeccable taste and iron will, and her son Owen over a houseful of precious antique furniture
. The story is largely told from the viewpoint of Fleda Vetch, a young woman in love with Owen but sympathetic to Mrs. Gereth's anguish over losing the antiques she patiently collected.
Widow Adela Gereth tells the sensitive and tasteful Fleda Vetch that she's afraid her son Owen will marry the coarse Mona Brigstock. Owen soon becomes engaged to Mona and wants to take over Poynton, the family home filled with Mrs. Gereth's carefully collected furniture and other art objects. He would like Fleda to help get his mother to leave the house with a minimum of fuss.
Mrs. Gereth moves to Ricks, the smaller family house. Fleda visits the house and is unhappy that Mrs. Gereth has furnished it with the best pieces from Poynton. Owen says that Mona is angry with the "theft" of the valuable heirlooms. Meanwhile, Owen is becoming more attracted to Fleda instead of the crude Mona and eventually declares his love for her. Fleda insists that he honor his engagement to Mona unless she breaks it off.
Mrs. Gereth finally returns the fine furniture to Poynton. After a few days Owen and Mona are reported to be married, and they go abroad. Fleda gets a letter from Owen asking her to select any one piece from Poynton as hers to keep. Fleda goes to Poynton but finds it completely consumed by fire.
This tightly constructed novel treats several themes common throughout James' work. Fleda Vetch is one of James' typically sensitive central characters
, very scrupulous and thus sometimes victimized by the more decisive if less fastidious people around her. Mrs. Gereth is a memorable example of James' unprincipled dominators, who try to bulldoze their way over other people. Disregarding Fleda's scruples, she attempts to force a marriage between Owen and Fleda because she believes it will give her a better chance to retain the "spoils" she so lovingly collected.
Mrs. Gereth also shows the acquisitive collector's mania that James often, though not always, saw as an insidious form of corruption. Owen is a brainless youth of no great harm, though he's easily and obviously confused. James plays Mona mostly for laughs as a bumptious barbarian, though she can turn nasty about getting what's coming to her.
Allusions to other works
- Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is mentioned in Chapter III.
Literary significance and criticism
Although The Spoils of Poynton
is rarely considered one of James' greatest works, most critics
have enjoyed the entertaining and well-paced conflict in the novel. The poetic justice
of the book's conclusion has also been widely accepted as the best way to finish the struggle. James' portrayal of Mrs. Gereth has received particular acclaim. She sometimes seems almost unbalanced in her passionate devotion to her fine furniture and art objects: "There isn’t one of them I don’t know and love—yes, as one remembers and cherishes the happiest moments of one’s life. Blindfold, in the dark, with the brush of a finger, I could tell one from another. They’re living things to me; they know me, they return the touch of my hand."
Fleda Vetch has earned most critics' sympathy for steering the right course through an almost impossible situation. And there are the usual touches of understated but much-appreciated humor, as when Mrs. Gereth throws one of the Brigstocks' tacky magazines out the door at Mona, and the coarse but athletic girl deftly snares it on the fly. "Good catch!" is Owen's reaction. However, some critics, among them William Veeder, argue that Owen ultimately makes a stronger choice in Mona, because Fleda is too manipulative and mentally unsound a character.
In 1970, the BBC
produced a highly-regarded 4-part television program based on the book, starring Gemma Jones
and Ian Ogilvy
. This was broadcast in the U.S. by PBS
in 1971 as part of the first season of Masterpiece Theatre
. Another adaptation, written by Andrew Davies
, is currently in production.
- The Novels of Henry James by Edward Wagenknecht (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983) ISBN 0-8044-2959-6
- The Novels of Henry James by Oscar Cargill (New York: Macmillan Co., 1961)