Book Review: The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James

It isn’t often (ever?) that I post bad book reviews. Well, that isn’t true, many of my book reviews are bad…but it isn’t often I post a review of a bad book. (ha) And I might be overstating the case to say that The Spoils of Poynton is a bad book. No doubt it is chock full of redeeming value that I am too dense, or was too bored and confused to understand.

The gist of the story is that mother doesn’t like son’s choice of fiancee. Mom is afraid the vulgar young thing won’t properly venerate the art and collectibles that she (the mom) has spent her adult life collecting. Mom steals everything and puts it in her dowager house. Mom enlists young woman of limited means to help split them up. Young woman is too principled to do so despite falling in love with son who also seems to fall in love with her. Son ends up marrying fiancee who he now seems to hate, once mom returns all items. House full of returned treasure burns to the ground.

I assume that somewhere in this tale about a worshipful, singular, fixation on material goods there is a moral, but Henry James’ use of language is so convoluted at times that I was never more than 80% sure I knew what was going on. There were times while reading this when I felt like reading Shakespeare would have been less taxing and far more rewarding.

Still, I give it a 5 (out of 10) on my rating scale which equals “ambivalent” because there was some pleasure in the formal Victorian details. I plan to read more Henry James. He wrote too much to ignore. And I didn’t hate Washington Square or Portrait of a Lady.

I bought this book for the Penguin cover. And it was only 50 cents.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James

  1. JoAnn January 21, 2011 / 9:11 am

    Then I guess you got your money's worth ;-)

    I've read a couple of James' books and have a few more waiting on the shelf, but haven't heard of this title. Don't think I'll start looking for it either…


  2. Karenlibrarian January 21, 2011 / 10:18 am

    I'd never heard of this book, but I am not a James fan. I'm glad I'm not the only one who has a hard time with Henry James — I thought The Turn of the Screw was the longest 150 page book I'd ever read, could not wait for it to end. However, I am relieved to hear that Washington Square and Portrait of a Lady are not so bad, since I still want to read those.


  3. bookssnob January 21, 2011 / 10:19 am

    Well the cover is jolly nice.

    Frankly I think Henry James is overrated. I have tried and failed to read most of his novels, and never seem to get past the first chapter. When you have to read a sentence over about 6 times to try and understand what it's actually saying, it's not a good book. I don't care how clever Henry James was – he wasn't very good at expressing himself clearly! He is a classic graduate of the school of 'Why use ten words when 100 will do?'. I like to think of myself as an intelligent, engaged reader and I certainly do like a challenge, but Henry James takes it a step too far!


  4. Thomas at My Porch January 22, 2011 / 9:57 am

    JoAnn: Since I didn't really enjoy it, maybe Henry James owes me fifty cents for my time. Actually, I wonder how much a first edition would have cost when it was first published. Probably less than 50 cents.

    Karen: I haven't read Turn of the Screw. I've only seen the opera based on it by Benjamin Britten.

    Rachel: I agree with all you say. And with Edith Wharton's wonderful books, why do I keep trying HJ?


  5. pagesofjulia January 22, 2011 / 9:42 pm

    I'm not alone! I've only read Daisy Miller but it was absolutely painful. I'm not inspired to try him any more, although you never know. I tried The Sound and the Fury, failed, and have been assured there are other Faulkner titles worthy of my effort, so maybe there's hope for James too. But despite his reputation as a classic, I have not yet personally met anyone who loves him. Just had a conversation today with my mother about the fictionalized story of his (James') life that she tried to read, The Master by Colm Toibin. She found it unfinishable, which she admitted was in part from a difficulty with James! We are not alone!


  6. Nan January 23, 2011 / 12:51 am

    I keep thinking that I would, should, could like Henry James, but when I read something I just don't like him, so I think that I am giving up. I will say that the old version of The Golden Bowl on tv was sublime.


  7. Thomas at My Porch January 24, 2011 / 9:37 pm

    Julia: I think you strayed from Henry James into another author I like even less William Faulkner. In fact, I love Henry James compared to Faulkner.

    Nan: It is hard to find a fan of James around here. I know they are out there somewhere.


  8. A Bookish Space February 1, 2011 / 5:50 pm

    'I bought this book for the Penguin cover. And it was only 50 cents.' This made me smile :o) I have lost count of the number of times I have read a book because I loved the cover. E.M. Forster is a beloved discovery because of this method.


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