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Not a Very Jolly Corner

Etching by Peter Milton for Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”

In a review (unsigned) of the first production of The Family Reunion (1939), published in Listener, the anonymous reviewer argues that it “compares with the most sensitive of the short novels by Henry James” [*]. Eliot wrote this play at a time of crisis provoked by ambivalent feelings for his family, for his wife Vivienne, and for his intimate friend Emily Hale. The letters addressed to Hale, often compared to Aspern’s papers in James’s novella of that name, confirm that The Family Reunion is Eliot’s most autobiographical play.

In the play’s scene of his reunion with Mary, she represents romantic renewal for the widowed Harry. However, this promise is not fulfilled, and although Mary helps Harry to find his way, her guiding role is less decisive than that of Aunt Agatha’s. The similarity between Mary and Hale is evident, but we may also establish connections with two characters created by James: May Bartram in “The Beast in the Jungle,” and Alice Staverton in “The Jolly Corner”.

In “The Beast in the Jungle,” James’s protagonist, John Marcher, is reunited with May Bartram at an English country house, Weatherend. Bartram is presented as a dependent relative, very much like Mary at Wishwood. Even her great-aunt, the lady of Weatherend, is reminiscent of Amy, Harry’s mother in The Family Reunion. Bartram supports Marcher through the existential crisis expressed as the metaphor after which the story is titled. Marcher refers to Bartram as “a sybil” whose innate wisdom is a “mystical, irresistible light” [**] – in this aspect, she is both Mary and Agatha.

Like Harry, Spencer Brydon returns home in “The Jolly Corner”. After many years in Europe, he goes back to New York, his family home (now empty), and Alice Staverton. If Harry and Mary reminisce on their free and happy childhood, Spencer recalls how he and Alice became friends in an idealised pre-modern New York. In an empty house, the “jolly corner” where he grew up, Spencer will confront his ghostly double, the man that he might have been. Similarly, Agatha explains that her nephew “will find another Harry” at Wishwood; on any given spot of the manor, “he will have to face him – / And it will not be a very jolly corner”.

Through sleepless nights at the “jolly corner,” Spencer is alert to every sound and shadow. At Wishwood, “the noxious smell untraceable in the drains” and “the unspoken voice of sorrow in the ancient bedroom” disturb Harry’s sleep. The distinctive word embrasure occurs in James’s story, and then in Eliot’s play: this is where Spencer hides as he waits for his double to appear, and where the Furies make themselves visible to a horrified Harry.

The Furies reappear in their benevolent aspect as Eumenides, showing Harry the way of purgation as The Family Reunion resolves. At the end of James’s story, Spencer experiences a symbolic rebirth, following an agon with his other self. He passes out, is rescued by Alice (a female intercessor, like May, Mary and Agatha), to be born again: “I can only have died. You brought me literally to life” (p. 366).

[*] Listener, 06-04-1939 (unsigned), T. S. Eliot. The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker, Cambridge UP, 2004, p. 384.
[**] Henry James, Tales, eds. Christof Wegelin and Henry B. Wonham, Norton, 2003 (1984), pp. 330, 321. (Page number given for subsequent quotes from this source.)


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