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Reconsidering Poynton's Innocent Patriarch
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Reconsidering Poynton's Innocent Patriarch By Carol Faulkner, University of Oregon In one way or another, the power struggles among the women in The Spoils of Poynton have preoccupied critics for almost a century. As Paul Armstrong asserts, for Mona Brigstock and Mrs. Gereth the spoils are at the center of a "struggle for control over others' capacity for self-objectification" (193). Thus, he summarizes the struggle between the mother and future daughter-in-law: "The things seem to take on meaning and value for [Mona] because Mrs. Gereth identifies her own power with them so closely and, by refusing to give them up, challenges Mona's dominion" (198). Another leg of this triangle comprises the power struggle between Fleda and Mrs. Gereth. Critics usually discuss this conflict in terms of Fleda's resistance to Mrs. Gereth's will. Paula Marantz Cohen notes the polarization of critics around Fleda's moral character: "There are those who place Fleda's scruples into a moral scheme bequeathed to them by Jane Austen and who applaud Fleda as a moral idealist stoically opposing a rapacious new morality.... On the other side is the critical tendency to see Fleda as sterile and unrealistic" (113). Thus, the strife among these three women and their relations to the spoils establish the framework for most arguments about the novel. Oddly enough, the conflict that Henry James called the "germ" for the story, "the situation of the mother deposed, by the ugly English custom, turned out of the big house on the son's marriage and relegated," is largely ignored (CN 79). F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth Murdock discount the importance of this "germ" as "hardly., .a promising source for anything but the most superficial society fiction" The Henry James Review 15 (1994): 141-51. © 1994, The Johns Hopkins University Press 142 The Henry James Review (NB xviii). Despite James's own anecdote about the genesis of this story, somehow the battle between mother and son remains only peripheral to the triangle set up among Fleda, Mona, and Mrs. Gereth. Even critics who have noted with sympathy this struggle between mother and son soon turn their attention to the women. Richard S. Lyons writes: The conflict prefigured in James's reference in the notebooks to "the ugly English custom" involves something more than a contest between persons. The "relegated" mother must make her stand against the whole weight of approved social practice. She fights against powers and forces, against the institutional pressures that maintain a shadowy presence behind the action: in the father's will, in the implicit marriage contract between Owen and Mona and, above all, in the threatened solicitors that Mona keeps urging Owen to set upon her. The human embodiment of these forces is Mona. (66) While Lyons recognizes the extensive social implications of the mother/son conflict, his conclusion constitutes a rather astonishing transference of blame. Clearly, Mona will be, at best, a temporary caretaker of Poynton. Her position in a patriarchal society is no more secure than that of the woman she replaces. In a discussion of power, arguments that focus on the struggles between the women for control of the spoils are essentially moot. They distract us from the real center of power. After all, neither Mrs. Gereth nor Mona Brigstock (nor especially Fleda) ever has or ever will own Poynton. Owen does—and before him, his father did. Even so, critics have dismissed Owen (when they have not ignored him completely) as simply "uncultivated" (Armstrong 196), or as "unresolved" (Winters 319), or as the "bumbling, helpless, dense and likeable son" (Bowden 73). Perhaps James sets the precedent for ignoring Owen. Although "the ugly English custom" obviously captured James's sympathies enough to produce an entire book, James deflects our attention from the man who carries on that nasty tradition.1 James never mentions Owen in his preface, but, if the "Things, always the splendid Things" are the real center of the novel as he asserts (AN 126), then why is the owner of the things unimportant? How is it that Owen has escaped consideration? Is his position such a given that we do not question it? Why is the original and...