Places: The Spoils of Poynton

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1897

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Places DiscussedPoynton

Poynton. Spoils of Poynton, TheEnglish home of Mrs. Gereth and her son that is the focus of the novel. Mrs. Gereth lived in the house with her husband until his death and intends to remain there until her son marries. The novel describes the house only in bits and pieces, sometimes in contrast with other places, but these descriptions are all aimed at showing how important the house is to the novel’s meanings.

The house and its furnishings appear to be in the very best of taste. For example, the house is wainscoted–an expensive feature, but one that is subdued and not showy. The house has no wallpaper at all, as wallpaper is modern and vaguely commercial. The house gleams with old gold and brass ornamentation and also has “deep, old damasks,” a sofa of velvet brocade, a great Italian cabinet, and Louis Seize (sixteenth) French furniture and Oriental china. Especially important is the house’s Maltese cross. Although it is relatively small, it becomes almost a symbol of the house. In short, the house is fitted out with the best of the best ages. Equally important, it has neither a billiard room nor a conservatory, as at Waterbath, which are both fads of the moment.

The actual architecture of the house is not given, but it would seem to be an attractive place, whose design sets off its furnishings well. Still, in a hint at the thematic matter of how destructive good taste can be, Fleda Vetch thinks that Poynton, with all its treasures, inhibits artistic creativity.

Waterbath

Waterbath. Family home of Mona Brigstock, the fiancé of Mrs. Gereth’s son, Owen. At the beginning of the novel, readers meet Mrs. Gereth and Fleda Vetch, guests at Waterbath who discover that they have tastes in common and that Waterbath reveals no taste at all. Waterbath’s central attraction is a billiard room and conservatory, rooms regarded by the Brigstocks as the latest thing, and its walls are at best decorated only by “the family splotches,” meaning the bad paintings produced by the Brigstocks themselves. Moreover, it has wallpaper.

Ricks

Ricks. Small dower house in which Mrs. Gereth is to live after her son’s marriage. It has been furnished in bad taste by a distant maiden aunt of the Gereths–and Mrs. Gereth cannot stand it. It has, for example, a “stiff flap of green baize” that Mrs. Gereth, moving there from Poynton, has not yet found time to remove. It has such things as a plastered portico, which Poynton would never have. However, when Mrs. Gereth fills her new home with almost all of the furnishings from Poynton, both she and Fleda admit that the house is transformed. Nevertheless, it is now overcrowded and in the end hardly the place for the “spoils,” for they do not really fit. They need their own setting.

Mr. Vetch’s house

Mr. Vetch’s house. Home in which Fleda lives with her father. The place jars her. Her father is a collector of odd, tasteless things, and his house becomes a storage place for these “treasures,” including old calendars, handbooks, penwipers, and ashtrays. It is unlike Waterbath in being unfashionable, but it is nevertheless ugly.

Maggie’s house

Maggie’s house. Home of the impoverished Maggie and her husband. Their house is obviously small and cluttered and hardly in a fashionable place, with “local puddles,” among smelly cottages and “smellier shops,” and Fleda notes its soiled tablecloth. There is no taste here because good taste is financially out of reach. At best, Fleda’s future, if it were not for Mrs. Gereth, would be at best a similar place and so her sacrifice of Poynton is all the more shocking and yet admirable.

BibliographyCargill, Oscar. The Novels of Henry James. New York: Macmillan, 1961. Explores the evolution of The Spoils of Poynton with careful consideration of James’s comments and provides an excellent summary of major contradictory criticisms of the novel.Clair, J. A. The Ironic Dimension in the Fiction of Henry James. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1965. An excellent study of the irony in the novel. Sees Fleda Vetch as the center of action and examines her motives and her relationship with other characters in the novel.Graham, Kenneth. “The Passion of Fleda Vetch.” In Henry James: The Drama of Fulfillment, An Approach to the Novels. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975. Views the novel as a story of the conflicting passions of Fleda Vetch, examines James’s narrative mode, provides a detailed study of character relationships, and justifies the conclusion of the novel.Hoffmann, Charles G. The Short Novels of Henry James. New York: Bookman Associates, 1957. A good introduction to the novel which argues that the work achieves its dramatic depth from James’s decision to emphasize character portrayal and, through that, to focus on possessions. Views Fleda’s actions as heroic and based on a code of high conduct but finds the conclusion of the novel unsatisfactory.Sharp, Corona. The Confidante in Henry James: Evolution and Moral Value of a Fictive Character. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963. Explores the unusual role of Fleda Vetch as simultaneously the center of consciousness for the novel and the confidante.
Categories: Places