The Europeans by Henry James

I’m ashamed to say that this is the first book I’ve read by Henry James. Despite my love of 19th century literature, he is just not an author who has ever appealed to me and although I have started to read one or two of his novels in the past, I have never made it to the end of any of them. When I started to compile my new Classics Club list last year, Ottavia of Novels and Non Fiction recommended a few Henry James books that I might like and I decided on The Europeans based mainly, I have to admit, on the fact that it seemed quite short so I thought I would have a better chance of finishing it. I did finish it – and although I didn’t love it, I now feel more confident about reading more of his books in the future.

The ‘Europeans’ of the title are thirty-three-year-old Eugenia, Baroness Münster, and her younger brother, Felix Young, an artist. Eugenia’s morganatic marriage to Prince Adolf of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein looks to be in danger of falling apart. The prince’s family want to dissolve the marriage for political reasons and, although Eugenia has not yet given her consent, she has come to America with Felix to look for a rich American husband. The Youngs have cousins who live in Boston and on their arrival in New England, they spend some time getting to know them.

The American branch of the family consists of Mr Wentworth, his son Clifford, and his two daughters, Charlotte and Gertrude. Another cousin, Robert Acton, also lives nearby with his younger sister, Lizzie. Although she makes an effort at first, Eugenia decides that she has no desire to become part of the Wentworth’s social circle:

She had come to this quiet corner of the world under the weight of a cruel indignity, and she had been so gracefully, modestly thankful for the rest she found there. She had joined that simple circle over the way; she had mingled in its plain, provincial talk; she had shared its meagre and savorless pleasures. She had set herself a task, and she had rigidly performed it. She had conformed to the angular conditions of New England life, and she had had the tact and pluck to carry it off as if she liked them.

Felix, on the other hand, enjoys spending time with his cousins, especially Gertrude, with whom he has fallen in love. However, he is not the only one interested in Gertrude – Mr Brand, the minister, is expected to marry her, even though he is clearly better suited to Charlotte. Meanwhile, Clifford Wentworth, who has been sent home from Harvard for drinking, becomes attracted to both Eugenia and Lizzie Acton – while Robert Acton, recently returned from business in China, also turns his attentions to Eugenia. If you think this sounds confusing, you’re right. I was reminded of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the relationships between these characters gradually became disentangled and each person found themselves with the right partner (apart from one, but I will leave you to discover who that one is).

The main theme of the book appears to be the differences between European and American people – or rather, the differences as Henry James perceived them in 1878, when the novel was written. The European characters, Felix and Eugenia, are portrayed as emotional, free-spirited people living bohemian lifestyles, while their American cousins are presented as serious, reserved and unsophisticated. They are stereotypes, of course, but probably quite different from the sort of stereotypes that would be used today.

This is a novel driven by the characters and the relationships between them, but I would have preferred more plot as I just didn’t find the characters strong enough to keep me interested from beginning to end. Eugenia intrigued me as it is never quite clear what her motives are or what decisions she is going to make, and the cheerful, optimistic Felix brightens every scene in which he appears, but the others were less memorable and I didn’t feel that I really got to know any of them. As I’ve said, though, this is only a short book and I’m sure that when I get round to reading some of James’ longer novels there will be more development of characters and ideas.

Which Henry James book do you think I should try next?

This is book 3/50 from my second Classics Club list.

32 thoughts on “The Europeans by Henry James

    • Helen says:

      No, I’m sure this is not one of his more interesting books, but I liked it enough to finish it and want to read more. I would like to read Washington Square – thanks for recommending it.

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I’ve always been repelled by James so I really need to make a proper attempt as well. I’ve not read any novels, only some novellas (Daisy Miller, Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers). however, I am currently reading a novel — The Maze at Windermere — in which the young Henry James is a character, and it give me the push I need by giving me some insight into the author’s character and motivations. Sometimes that helps, for me anyway.

  2. beckylindroos says:

    The Europeans is different from most of James’ work – it takes place in the US and it’s funny (or I thought it was funny). It’s the same in that it compares Europeans to Americans, as you said.

    I too think you should probably stick with his early novels (Washington Square, Daisy MIller) because starting with Portrait of a Lady he got off on a rather different style which is slower and more introspective – more contemplative.

    The first James I really liked for it’s own sake was The American which was also an early one.

    The books listed at ttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_James_bibliography have the dates published. .

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for the advice – it does sound as though I should try to read the earlier books first. I think Washington Square appeals to me the most at the moment, but maybe I should read The American next as you say you liked it.

    • Helen says:

      Everyone is recommending different Henry James books! I hope that means they are all good. I’ll think about reading Portrait of a Lady too – thanks. 🙂

      • beckylindroos says:

        No – lol – no one is recommending either The Golden Bowl or The Wings of the Dove. I’ve read The Golden Bowl and enjoyed it but it took work struggling through those sentences. I’ve never read The Wings of the Dove and I honestly don’t know if I want to. The Ambassadors is one of his later works and that may have been recommended – it was pretty good although it was on the tougher side. Try the shorter early works – Turn of the Screw or Daisy Miller – Daisy MIller is quite representative of James’ plots and themes. Turn of the Screw not so much.

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    I have only read Daisy Miller and I read it because I was reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, quite some years ago, so I read the four books that featured in that memoir. I thought it was OK but not my favorite style of writing. Have never attempted James again and possibly I never will. I have some blogger friends who adore his books but I don’t think he is for me.

  4. FictionFan says:

    I think I may have read The Ambassadors in my teens, but have so little memory of it I’m not even sure whether I enjoyed it. Obviously not enough to have made a point of reading any more, though! I too like a plot, so would probably struggle with a book that was mainly characterisation, however good. I have The American on my own CC list, but it’s not one of the ones I’m most excited about…

    • Helen says:

      I’ll be interested to know what you think of The American when you get round to reading it for the Classics Club. This was one of the books I was least excited about on my own list, so I thought it would be a good idea to read it and get it over with. I enjoyed it more than I expected to, despite the lack of plot!

  5. cirtnecce says:

    I have tried and tried and tried reading James, but I do not make much progress! I do not know what is the matter with me but with the exception of Turn of Screw, there is nothing that has been able to hold my interest! I wish you more success in reading James and maybe one day, I will revisit his works for real!

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t love this book, but at least I managed to finish it – and I have never finished a Henry James book before! I would like to try The Turn of the Screw, maybe later in the year.

  6. Laurie @ RelevantObscurity says:

    I love your thoughtful response to this book. Although I have only read one James, The Bostonians, which I loved, I want to read more.

    I understand what you mean by character driven and wanting more plot. I think he is masterful, at least he was in The Bostonians, about the inner life and thoughts of his characters, what they think and what moves them. I like that in a novel, so I think I would like this one.

  7. Sandra says:

    My feelings about reading James echo yours, Helen. And since there are so many classic authors I have yet to read I’ve been content not to dwell on my antipathy towards his books. Perhaps one day I’ll give him a try. Good luck with whatever one of his your try next!

  8. Novels And Nonfiction says:

    LOL Sorry that this one didn’t work out for you as well as I hoped it would. I definitely think Portrait Of A Lady is one of James’ more popular and generally liked novels, so going for that one next might be a good idea. I still like The Europeans (as well as The Ambassadors and The Bostonians). Hope you have better luck with the next book you read of his 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t love it, but I did find a lot to appreciate and enjoy – and I made it to the end, which I’ve never managed to do with a Henry James book before! Thank you for recommending it. 🙂

  9. Chloris says:

    Nice to see a review of The Europeans which I have just been reading. I recommend ‘What Maisie Knew’. But my favourite is ‘Turn of the Screw’ which is a ghost story, or is it?

    • Helen says:

      The Turn of the Screw is one that I’m particularly interested in reading, so I’m pleased to hear it’s your favourite. Thanks for recommending What Maisie Knew as well!

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