In the Cage - Henry James

In the Cage – Henry James

Book Review of In the Cage by Henry James

It is rarely worth noting the edition or publisher of a book but, as we’ve said before, some publishers really do make an effort and books published by Hesperus are always excellent.

In The Cage, as with all their books, is a beautiful, small paperback; part of their series of hundred page (and no more!) books that were (most of them) unfathomably out-of-print (or simply marginalia) by important authors that turn out, actually, to be essential reads. Each is presented with an opening small essay by a living writer of some note; and the whole package is wonderful.

Henry James‘ 1898 novella In The Cage (written in the same year as the more well-known The Turn of the Screw) is a sly, slight, vaguely sentimental work but one that acts as a fine introduction to this most convoluted of writers.

Exact (exacting yet with a pointillist’s precision) is the word most often used to describe James’s prose, but very often the modern reader will find his hesitant, pedantic, clause-heavy, Proustian sentences difficult to follow, overlong and torturously complex.

But, as with Shaksepeare, the key to reading and enjoying James is in succumbing to those very sentences, to allowing his perfect ear and fine metre to establish its own rhythm, letting it guide one’s response to his beautiful, matchless use of language.

In The Cage tells the story of a young women, the ‘betrothed of Mr. Mudge’, who works at a post-office counter sending telegrams mostly from the ‘idle rich’ to their fellows to arrange their meetings, parties and other affairs.

Concerned, as ever, with the plight of the not so well-to-do – and particularly the role and circumstance of women – James finely delineates our heroine’s increasing preoccupation with Captain Everard for whom she sends a considerable amount of messages and about whom she has increasingly warm thoughts: ‘people of her sort … didn’t count as infidelity, counted only as something else: she might have been curious, since it came to that, to see exactly as what’.

Caught between the modern (this is a tale of communications as well as of communication) and the Victorian (this is a tale of manners and repression; class and its debilitating strictures) In The Cage may well be James-lite but it is not any the less charming, compelling, wry and intelligent for that.