Sunday, July 31, 2011
all was because of your noblesse
Going from Le Morte d'Arthur to The Spoils of Poynton (Henry James) with my brain still on the subject of knights and knightly codes, and tragic deaths, and so on, and noble Launcelot not killing the man who was gripping his thighs, etcetera, I decided that the exquisite fineness of feeling suffered by James' Fleda Vetch, was in fact chivalry, a compelling chivalry from which her personality, her very Self, could not be separated -- and the problems she faced were not due to the chivalry per se, but to the reluctance of the world to recognise that chivalry for what it was, and reward it.
Which it cannot be commanded to do, except by James himself, and there is the stumbling block, he has a stake in the maintenance of the world's indifference to chivalry. Freda is chivalrous and other characters are not, and a lot of the tension in his story can be located at that crux. On one hand he sympathises with her, on the other hand he sabotages her. Why sabotage? So that he can go on acting like an author. Without the crux there would be no Spoils of Poynton. Fie on you, Henry James, you two-faced gentleman. But without the Spoils of Poynton there would be no Freda Vetch.
When, in chapter sixteen, she refuses to take advantage of her superiority over a rival -- a superiority she has come by honestly, not conniving for it, not plotting for it, but just naturally happening to have it -- she is in the same situation as Sir Launcelot in the Morte when that man grips his thighs. The man has committed a murder, Launcelot has been cast in the role of a judge, and justice could be very easy. All he has to do is administer a coup de grâce with his sword and everything will be over in two minutes. Instead he tells the man to get up and fight him. It is not enough for the man to act like a criminal, he, Launcelot, must act like a worthy knight, and therefore no coup de grâce. He can't kill a man who refuses to act like his equal. No, replies the man. I will not fight you. I'm going to stay down by your legs, where it's safe. "Now will I proffer thee fair," says Launcelot, "I will unarm me unto my shirt, and I will have nothing upon me but my shirt, and my sword and my hand." And Fleda Vetch unarms herself too, she will not take advantage of her advantage, but she tries to be fair.
Her rival is not so scrupulous, and Freda loses the thing she thought she had. Other characters are defeated with her; it would have been better for almost everybody if she had been less chivalrous. Be ruthless, the others might have said to her. For our sakes, be ruthless! But what she needs in her life is not ruthlessness, but a sword and a horse and the incredibly delicate organisation of a Round Table, which can only be maintained in a book with a rigid repetitive structure, and over whose dissolution King Arthur wept, and the knights said to Sir Launcelot as he was leaving Arthur's court forever: "we all understand in this realm will be no quiet but ever strife and debate, now the fellowship of the Round Table is broken; for by the noble fellowship of the Round Table was King Arthur upborne, and by their noblesse the king and all his realm was in quiet and rest, and a great part, they said, all was because of your noblesse." And Freda Vetch might sigh and say, I wish mine was this welcome.