From what I’ve read of Henry James‘ novels, The Europeans is by far the happiest, which I’d presume means he was in a good place when writing it. Many of Henry James’ later novels were likely influenced by his long periods of depression and seclusion, but this one, written when he was younger, was very likely the product of his party-going years. It’s said that, in a single year, Henry James attended 200 dinner parties, and the jovial, conversational manner of The Europeans attests to that.
The Europeans is also Henry James at his lightest. For some readers, that will come as a great relief. There’s no death in the penultimate chapter; there’s no invalided young women; there’s no talk of disinheritance. At the same time, the lightness will strike some readers as slight, and one of the main criticisms of The Europeans–even in James’ lifetime–is that it’s a slight, thin book. If you want great depth and pathos, read The Wings of the Dove, Washington Square, or The Turn of the Screw. If you want something amusing in a similar vein to the novels of Jane Austen, check out The Europeans.
The Europeans begins with Felix and Eugenia arriving in America from Europe, planning to spend time abroad and to visit their wealthy relatives whom they haven’t previously known. Felix and Eugenia are two of James’ most likeable characters. Felix (whose name translates to ‘happy’ in German) is a young Bohemian painter who sort of wafts through life in true flaneur style. Eugenia is older and caught up in a bad marriage she’s trying to extricate herself from. Eugenia seems like the prototype for Edith Wharton’s knowledgeable-but-miserable female characters.
When they meet with their relatives, they are invited to lodge at the family estate, which is where the novel turns into a comparison of attitudes, contrasting American mores with European ones. Then, similar to the comedies of Shakespeare, a number of romances spring up, most of them love triangles.
There is a noteworthy shift in tone near the end, where suddenly the setting is described as “dreary,” and there is a tragical aspect to the comedy of the last few chapters, but overall The Europeans is an exuberant and witty novel.
The Europeans as an ebook can be purchased for free on Amazon.
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If you read The Europeans by Henry James, what did you think?