the [old] outcry: review of henry james’s last

The OutcryThe Outcry by Henry James
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Outcry is James’s last, and slight, novel. Adapted from a play, never performed, it bristles with uppercrust dialogues from England at the turn of the prior century. As usual, it touches on James’s preferred subject of transatlantic clash of cultures and here focuses on art as national heritage. While the plot is accessible, the prose is not. Like famous art on show, one feels manipulated.

The book’s several clashes begins with the arrival of a filthy rich American art collector, named Bender, helping out financially pinched British nobility by relieving them of their blockbuster art, and ends with a generational one, between the pinched Lord Theign, his daughter Lady Grace, and the brash art evaluator to whom she feels drawn.

Lord Theign is particularly pinched due to his eldest daughter’s magnificent gambling debt, owed to a dour dowager, whose son, Lord John, is drawn to the same younger daughter, Grace. Lord John is not only courting Grace, with the father’s cruel support, but proffering a quid pro quo, the gambling debt for her hand.

Which will Lord Theign, then, sell first, his youngest daughter or his most valuable painting? We discover that Lord John – who introduces Bender to Lord Theign – is working on his own commission, and that a number of the principle characters consider selling art treasures to rich Americans as gauche, a sell-out.

Bender, while heavily patronized, is unruffled throughout. One of the few characters to mostly speak sense, he points out:

“…if you drag their value to light why shouldn’t we want to grab them and carry them off – the same as all of you originally did?” [p.105]

A tad more direct than English high society likes, he zings:

“Then if they don’t sell their ancestors where in the world are all the ancestors bought?” [p.56]

Nearly as direct, and more sympathetic, is Lady Grace, who eventually puts the kabosh on her father’s daughter sale. Before then, she observes:

“But people have trafficked, people do; people are trafficking all around.” [p.34]

But she and the young art evaluator, among others, find selling one’s “ancestor” to foreign lands to be dishonorable and work a scheme to undermine Theign, Bender & John’s plans.

I, for one, was mystified by such a century-old controversy. Even if Lord Theign’s wealth is inherited, what part of his private property (art, not people) is less than private?

I also was underwhelmed by the budding love between Lady Grace and the ambitious commoner with whom she’s in cahoots. They frustrate Lord Theign’s designs, in what appears to be James’s preferred outcome, but I had to wonder, for all of the father’s faults, is it worth the rupturing of family ties?

The most behind-the-scenes player, it turns out, is a family friend and recently widowed Lady Sandgate, who bookends the book. Her more sacrificial love of Lord Theign, I found more attractive. Surprisingly James describes her unflatteringly in the opening pages:

“She might have consented, or even attained, to being but gracefully stupid, but she would have presumably confessed, if put on her trial for restlessless or for intelligence, that she was, after all almost clever enough to be vulgar.” [p.6]

Yet her shared sacrifice with Theign – she, too, forsakes a fat sale – consummates their new relation and, by working her old friend, one suspects she’ll get him to climb down from his break with his better daughter.

So here we have, over a century ago, the younger generation upstaging the old, the female the male, and, for a time, old worlds over the new. Well, some things don’t change.

[Henry James, The Outcry, 1911, The New York Review of Books, NY, 2002]

Adrienne, from our Wolf Book Club, brought this wittily appropriate C. Cass New Yorker cartoon to the discussion.


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About ben

Ben Batchelder has traveled some of the world's most remote roads. Nothing in his background, from a degree in Visual & Environmental Studies at Harvard to an MBA from Wharton, adequately prepared him for the experiences. Yet he persists, for through such journeys life unfolds. Having published four books that map the inner and exterior geographies of meaningful travel, he is a mountain man in Minas Gerais, Brazil who comes down to the sea at Miami Beach, Florida. His second travel yarn, To Belém & Back, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. For more, visit

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