Wednesday, June 29, 2011

If ever a time machine deposits you at a literary luncheon in Paris in the 1890s . . .

. . . don't sit next to Henry James! Here, from Simon Nowell-Smith's The Legend of the Master (1948), a collection of memories of James by those who knew him that I learned about from the Maxwell-Welty letters, is the reason:
Henry James . . .would regale us with accounts of the various dilemmas into which his shyness had precipitated him. On one occasion, at a table d'hote on the Continent where he found himself in the centre of a long table, he felt very ill at ease until he had fortified himself with a bottle of claret. After a glass his spirits revived and he was just getting into his stride with the lady on his right and waving his hands about, as was his habit while talking, when to his horror he knocked over his bottle of wine which cascaded into the lady's lap. She was, however, most comforting and he ordered a second bottle. Gradually confidence returned and gesticulation sprang into abnormal activity. Suddenly a lady on the opposite side of the table, who had been practising her English on her neighbours, was heard to exclaim in a loud voice, "Luke, Luke, 'e 'ave done it again!" And sure enough the same lady received a second deluge of claret. This was too much for James, who immediately retired to his room and left the hotel early next morning.
I know that Dr. Johnson had decided thoughts on claret, as it related to manliness, port, and brandy, but what would he have settled on as the right spirit for spilling on a lady, I wonder?

1 comment:

  1. This is hilarious; I hear over-gesticulation was a common problem in 1890s Paris. As were plastic aprons, maybe?

    This post is quite timely for me as a couple I know (not quite so obsessed with the classics as some, or me) just called their second son James. The first one is called Henry. They didn't really get why I found this funny.

    I love this blog, btw. Keep up the good work :)