Speed, Desire, and the Museum: The Golden Bowl as Art Romance
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The Henry James Review 23.3 (2002) 233-245



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Speed, Desire, and the Museum:
The Golden Bowl as Art Romance

Jonah Siegel
Rutgers University


"You Americans are almost incredibly romantic," notes the Prince in an early conversation with Maggie Verver, his fiancée. She entirely agrees, proposing her father as a particularly egregious example:

"His relation to the things he cares for [. . .] is absolutely romantic. So is his whole life over here—it's the most romantic thing I know."

"You mean his idea for his native place?"

"Yes—the collection, the Museum with which he wishes to endow it, of which he thinks more, as you know, than of anything in the world. It's the work of his life and the motive of everything he does." [. . .]

"Has it been his motive in letting me have you?"

"Yes, my dear, positively—or in a manner. [. . .] You're at any rate a part of his collection [. . .] one of the things that can only be got over here. You're a rarity, an object of beauty, an object of price. [. . .] you belong to a class about which everything is known. You are what they call a morceau de musée." (GB 9-10)

Adam Verver aspires to build what is described as "a museum of museums," not simply an American institution that will belong among the very greatest museums of the world, but a museum composed of museums, of what is already accredited as museum-worthy. In this sense, the Prince is a museum piece in a number of ways, not least among them the fact that he is, quite openly, part of the collection the Ververs are assembling in their time in Europe. When Maggie has doubts about her husband, she goes to the archives of the British Museum, which houses a room dedicated to his family. When she calls him a morceau de musée, Maggie is identifying not only where the Prince is going, but where he comes from. [End Page 233] But this does not clarify why and in what sense Adam Verver's museum is so grandly romantic, nor how it is characteristic of a kind of national romanticism.

The Golden Bowl (1904) provides a double lesson in romance, instructing both characters and readers. The question for us is why this lesson needs to be taught from inside the museum. Narratives of art in the nineteenth century discovered a ready interchangeability between terms describing the individual's relation to art and terms used in fiction to describe human relations. James availed himself readily of this fruitful interchange, nowhere more so than in this novel, a text of the early twentieth century which rewards reading within the context of the nineteenth-century culture of art.

Romance

Nothing is more striking in the preface of The American than the sophisticated reformulation of what we may mean by romance. In this text, contemporary with The Golden Bowl, James insists that it is wrong to think we recognize the romantic by means of a range of standard narrative motifs expressive of great personal risk, "the idea of the facing of danger, the acceptance of great risks for the fascination, the very love, or their uncertainty, the joy of success if possible and of battle in any case" (AC 279). He cites a number of time-worn tropes which are associated with such risk taking—boats, or caravans, or tigers, or "historical characters," or ghosts, or forgers, or detectives, or beautiful wicked women, or pistols and knives—but only to dismiss them as insufficient. 1 In James's account danger is precisely the description of the real; what identifies romance is a fantasy of safety, "the dream of an intenser experience easily becomes rather some vision of a sublime security like that enjoyed on the flowery plains of heaven." The Golden Bowl demands that we consider the novel as a complex lesson in what James means by romance in that preface and in his late work generally.

Maggie evokes the association of romance with fantasies of adventure early...