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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

III. Appropriating European Thematics

12. A Discordance Between the Self and the World: The Collector in Balzac’s Cousin Pons and James’s ‘Adina’

Simone Francescato

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  • 1 See, for instance, James’s discussion of the tenants of the Maison Vauquer in Balzac’s Père Goriot (...)
  • 2 Balzac’s skillful representation of material desire was so great that it almost compensated for th (...)
  • 3 Unforgettable figures like Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady, Adela Gereth in The Spoils of (...)
  • 4 Quotes from the texts are taken from Honoré de Balzac, Cousin Pons in La Comédie Humaine, 1999, an (...)

1In a lengthy essay published in The Galaxy in 1875, Henry James praised Honoré de Balzac as an unsurpassed master of characterisation, underlining how much of the French master’s extraordinary achievement sprang from his ”mighty passion for things” (Criticism 52). For James, Balzac’s characters were so vivid because he knew how to ’paint’ with amazing precision the concrete details of their environment,1 achieving so strong an effect that ”it [was] hard to imagine how the power of physical evocation [could] go farther […]” (53). Being himself ”a profound connoisseur” (50) in matters of house decoration and bric-à-brac, Balzac also managed to infuse his characters with an insatiable craving for exclusive possessions, making the latter the ’prime motor’ behind all their actions.2 The impressive portrait of the unfortunate and refined collector in his late novel Cousin Pons (1847) must have been a crucial source of inspiration for a writer as obsessed with collecting and collectors as James.3 Although Balzac’s influence resurfaces more or less everywhere in the work of the American writer, my paper hypothesises and focuses on the influence of Cousin Pons on James’s early story ’Adina,’ written just one year before James’s first important critical essay on Balzac.4

2Balzac’s introduces the protagonist of his novel as an old man in his sixties, strolling in the Boulevard des Italiens in the Paris of 1844. Pons gives the impression of being remarkably isolated from the world he lives in, almost as if time for him has stopped in the 1810’s: his clothes and manners, in fact, are presented as a ”caricature” of the fashions of the old French Empire. Pons’s eccentric attitude—a strange combination of ugliness and melancholy—derives from a stigma which has followed him since birth and Balzac defines as the cruellest of all afflictions—the inability to please [”le plus cruel de tous les malheurs: ne pouvoir plaire!”] (401). Although kind-hearted, dreamy, and sensitive, Pons is so unattractive that he has never had any success with women and is condemned to lead the solitary life of a bachelor. The sad discordance between Pons’s inner self and the outer world—between his aching for love, beauty, and recognition, and the impossibility of getting them—is the existential drama which Balzac places at the very root of his hero’s extraordinary achievement as collector.

  • 5 The English translation of portions of the original French text, here and throughout this study, i (...)

3The event which starts Pons’s collecting is indeed his failure to be recognised as a creator of beauty. Having been a gifted and talented composer of romances in his youth (402), Pons spent many years in Rome, sent by his government, to become a great musician. But shortly after his return to Paris, he sees his career rapidly stopped by the castrating bureaucracy which rules competitions in his country [”Il montrait gratis une des nombreuses victimes du fatal et funeste système nommé Concours qui règne encore en France après cent ans de pratique sans résultat” (402): ”He exhibited gratis one of the many victims of that baneful and disastrous system called Concours,—a system of competition in educational institutions which has ruled in France for over a hundred years without beneficial results.”]5 and by an unexpected change in musical taste, increasingly dominated by German and Italian production [”bientôt noyé dans les flots d’harmonie allemande, et dans la production rossinienne” (403): ”fated to be drowned erelong in floods of German harmony and Rossinian opera”]. His long sojourn in Italy, however, saves him from despair. In Rome, in fact, Pons develops a taste for antiques and works of art which rapidly turns into an incontrollable [”féroce” (403)] collecting mania.

4Art-collecting soon becomes for Pons an activity that rewards him for his crumbled dreams of fame in the music world, giving him the chance to withdraw from a disappointing reality and to build himself a secret refuge of secluded and protected beauty. Since reality never comes up to the high standard of his ideals [”les choses de la vie toujours au-dessous du type idéal qu’il s’en était créé” (403): ”the things of life lower than the ideal standard he had created for them in his own mind”] producing a kind of ” ”discordance” with the mellow music of his soul [”discordance entre le son de son âme et les réalités” (403)], Pons experiences his collection as a safe space where no discordance is allowed between the Ego and the material world—that is, where any frustration is systematically excluded. Although this helps Pons preserve his inner balance, it reinforces in him a tendency towards isolation, already manifested by his limited skills as composer. As evident in the following passage, the musical analogy is recurrent in the novel and provides interesting information about the collector’s psychology:

  • 6 ”…but in truth he honestly admitted his weakness on the score of harmony; he had neglected the stu (...)

[Pons] avouait naïvement sa faiblesse relativement à l’harmonie: il avait négligé l’étude du Contrepoint; et l’orchestration moderne, grandie outre mesure, lui parut inabordable au moment où, par de nouvelles études, il aurait pu se maintenir parmi les compositeurs modernes, devenir, non pas Rossini, mais Hérold. Enfin, il trouva dans les plaisirs du collectionneur de si vives compensations à la faillite de la gloire, que s’il lui eut fallu choisir entre la possession de ses curiosités et le nom de Rossini, le croirait-on? Pons aurait opté pour son cher cabinet (404).6

  • 7 This materialisation is the individual counterpart of the institutionalisation of fictitious histo (...)

5Pons’s predilection, as composer, for the lyrical genre of the romance—a solo performance at odds with the complexity of modern orchestration— emerges in the text as a metaphor for the collector’s inability to harmonise [”sa faiblesse relativement à l’harmonie”] with the complexity of a world [”l’orchestration moderne, grandie outre mesure, lui parut inabordable” (403): ”modern orchestration, grown utterly beyond his knowledge, became inscrutable to him] which constantly threatens his self-esteem. The ever-renewed compensation [”vive compensation”] offered by art-collecting is a way for Pons to get his portion of pleasure without ever compromising with a reality that he perceives as distant and hostile. Behind every purchase for his refined collection, in fact, it is easy to recognise something like a repeated act of revenge against life that has unjustly deprived him of physical beauty and of the advantages that derive from it. Like someone fallen victim to some secret habit [”bien élevé en proie à quelque vice secret” (401): ”of good breeding now the prey of some secret vice”], Pons gets his portion of happiness not so much from the objects that he possesses, but from the feeling that he has managed to pay nothing for them. As Balzac explains, in fact, the pleasure of purchasing bric-à-bracs comes always second to the pleasure of a successful negotiation [”le plaisir d’acheter des curiosités n’est que le second, le premier c’est de les brocanter” (405): ”The pleasure of buying curios is second only to the superior joy of bartering them”]. But it is important to stress that Pons’s collecting is far from being compromised by ’vulgar’ interest, as he does not care at all about the commercial value of his possessions. Like his fellow collector Sauvageot, Pons loves his objects as if they were a beautiful mistress [”une belle maîtresse” (405)] who never grows old and is always willing to please him. His private museum, in fact, is so precious because it materialises a longed-for personal history which, unlike his real one, conforms to his inner desires.7

6Pons’s eccentric attachment to his material belongings exemplifies Balzac’s view of the consumerist turn that French metropolitan society (Cousin Pons is a Parisian novel par excellence) was taking in the middle of the 19th century. At that time, collecting rapidly became one of the distinctive practices of a rising middle class struggling to fill the idiosyncratic gap between being and having, between reality and desire, through the appropriation of enviable objects. Balzac was quite cynical on the success ultimately allowed by this tendency, seeing it largely as a form of self-deceit:

  • 8 ”At the first outline of this biographical sketch, every one will cry out: ’Why, in spite of his u (...)

Aux premiers contours de cette esquisse biographique, tout le monde va s’écrier: ”Voilà, malgré sa laideur, l’homme le plus heureux de la terre!” En effet, aucun ennui, aucun spleen ne résiste au moxa qu’on se pose à l’âme en se donnant une manie. Vous tous qui ne pouvez plus boire à ce que, dans tous les temps, on a nommé la coupe du plaisir, prenez à tache de collectionner quoi que ce soit (on a collectionné des affiches!), et vous retrouverez le lingot du bonheur en petite monnaie. Une manie, c’est le plaisir passé à l’état d’idée! Néanmoins, n’enviez pas le bonhomme Pons, ce sentiment reposerait, comme tous les mouvements de ce genre, sur une erreur.
Cet homme, plein de délicatesse, dont l’âme vivait par une admiration infatigable pour la magnificence du Travail humain, cette belle lutte avec les travaux de la nature, était l’esclave de celui des sept péchés capitaux que Dieu doit punir le moins sévèrement: Pons était gourmand (405-06)8.

  • 9 See also Pety, 45-8.

7In this passage collecting emerges as the pathological symptom [”une manie”]9 of the alienation which dominates bourgeois society. Being an activity kept separate from ordinary occupations and practised in the intimacy of one’s spare time (we must remember that Pons is, first of all, a very modest music teacher and composer), collecting guarantees a perverse enjoyment which can never be attacked by the frustrations of external reality. But even when pleasure appears to be successfully transferred from the plane of concreteness to the ”plane of ideas” [”à l’état d’idée” (405)]—Balzac seems to warn the reader—reality always finds strange ways to creep back. In fact, Pons’s denial of his contingent existence—that is, of his contemptible body artificially replaced by an extra-refined and enviable collection—is ironically punished by an irrepressible and grotesque gluttony [”Pons était gourmand” (406)].

8Balzac’s disenchanted, and even cynical, portrait of this unfortunate collector captures a crucial moment of 19th-century cultural history: it shows a creator and appreciator of artistic beauty on the brink of degenerating into what we may describe as a refined consumer. Although despising the world he lives in, the refined consumer is unable really to detach himself from it through a real act of subversion (he only pretends to be an artist [” [Pons] se comportant d’ailleurs en artiste” (406)] and turns instead into a parasite who only sometimes manages to entertain the wealthy and the rich on whom he depends [”la laideur de Pons s’appela donc originalité. [...] Lorsque, d’invité perpétuel, par sa décadence comme artiste, à l’état de pique-assiette” (406-07): ”Pons’s remarkable ugliness was considered ’originality.’ […] When Pons, falling from reputation as an artist, fell also from the condition of honored guest to that of a poor relation sponging for a dinner on his prosperous friends…”]. By doing so, Balzac tackles in Cousin Pons the problematic reversal of producing and consuming which resurfaces some thirty years later, in works like Edmond de Goncourt’s La maison d’un artiste (1880)—where refined collecting stands out as a prerequisite of—and even as a substitute for—real artistic creation.

9This element must have appeared as extraordinarily modern to a writer like James, so concerned with the destiny of art in a world increasingly dominated by the rules of commodification. In his works he saw with preoccupation the late 19th-century ascent of the collector—the most refined type of consumer—as custodian, or even creator, of artistic beauty, and questioned the idea that art objects could be properly appreciated when turned into private collectibles. This is particularly evident in his 1874 short story ’Adina,’ where James seems to draw on Balzac’s ideas on collecting in Cousin Pons to give shape to his protagonist. Set in the beautiful Alban hills in the surroundings of Rome, the story deals with the aesthetic and sentimental apprenticeship of a young American scholar and collector, Sam Scrope, seen through the eyes of a friend, an amateur painter. James’s Scrope is significantly younger than Balzac’s Pons and decidedly more irreverent and sarcastic, but is on his way to developing the same melancholy cynicism.

10Very much as Balzac does in his novel, James’s narrator introduces Scrope as an eccentric character, describing his passion for rare bric-àbrac as a strange habit (”It was an oddity among his many oddities, but it agreed well enough with the rest of them,” 351). He also underlines that ”what [Scrope] looked for and relished in old prints and old china was not, generally, beauty of form nor romantic association; it was elaborate and patient workmanship, fine engraving, skillful method” (351). Although this puts Scrope somehow at odds with Pons—much more sensitive to the emotional effect of beauty—, what at first sight appears as a difference, is instead the sign of a common feature. Scrope’s predilection for the technical, ’intrinsic’ properties of art objects over the effect conveyed by their ”romantic association” with their context is, in fact, the evidence of the sharp line he traces—like Pons—between a safe and private universe and a dangerous outer world:

It was [Scrope’s] fancy to pretend that he enjoyed nothing, and that what sentimental travelers call picturesqueness was a weariness to his spirit; but the world was new to him and the charm of fine things often took him by surprise and stole a march on his premature cynicism […]. The truth was that the picturesque of Italy, both in man and in nature, fretted him, depressed him strangely. He was consciously a harsh note in the midst of so many mellow harmonies; everything seemed to say to him—”Don’t you wish you were as easy, as loveable, as carelessly beautiful as we?” In the bottom of his heart he did wish it. To appreciate the bitterness of this dumb disrelish of the Italian atmosphere, you must remember how very ugly the poor fellow was (348-49).

11In this passage there recurs the musical analogy featured in Balzac’s novel. Like Pons, consciously unable to ’harmonise’ with the surrounding world symbolized by contemporary music production, Scrope is unable and unwilling to ’harmonise’ with the picturesque beauty of the Italian campagna (”he was consciously a harsh note in the midst of so many mellow harmonies” 348) because that would imply for him a confrontation with a reality that constantly reminds him of his physical and psychological shortcomings (”very ugly the poor fellow was” 349).

12This resistance is even more significant for a story like this that deals with transatlantic relations, as it manifests a certain kind of paranoid and imperialist American attitude towards the Old Continent. Scrope seems to be the predecessor of other Jamesian characters, like Christopher Newman or Adam Verver, who are unable to enjoy beauty unless they manage to turn it into something to control and possess from a position of safe detachment from its original context—especially when the latter takes on ’human’ features. This is evident in the key event of the story, when the collector tricks Angelo Beati—a very ’picturesque’ poor young Italian man—out of a priceless gem of the Roman period, denying him a proper payment for it. My argument is that Scrope’s unfairness towards Angelo derives entirely from his reluctance to recognise any sort of association between the object he would like to own and its possessor. Insensitive to his kindness and friendliness, Scrope perceives Angelo only as an ignorant, dishonest man who has no right to own the jewel—almost as if Angelo and the object actually came from two different dimensions.

13Although disguised as an act carried out ”in the interest of art, of science, of taste,” Scrope’s appropriation and methodical restoration of the gem (”he quietly informed himself as if from general curiosity, as to the best methods of cleansing, polishing, and restoring antique gems, laid in a provision of delicate tools and acids, turned the key in his door, and took the measure of his prize,” 356) appear instead as the two steps of a decontamination, through which to recover an intrinsic value in the object separated as far as possible from Angelo and the ”irritating Italian felicity” (356) in which the young man lives. By doing so, the collector indulges in a secret identification with the imagined past materialised by the object (the object contains an image of Emperor Tiberius), dreaming that its possession makes him—and not Angelo—a true descendant of the old and noble Roman race (”Haven’t I worked all these days and nights, with my little rags and files to some purpose? I’ve annulled the centuries—I’ve resuscitated a totius orbis imperator […] It’s the finest intaglio in the world. It has told me its secret,” 357).

14Scrope’s decontamination of the ancient gem represents a significant departure from the aesthetic sensibility of ”the sentimental traveller” (348) referred to by James—of whom the collector somehow represents the degenerate version. Whereas the sentimental traveler in this story (probably embodied by the narrator) stands out as the participant observer, who respectfully enjoys the picturesqueness of art works, places and people as something leading to an interpersonal growth, Scrope stands out as the forerunner of the modern consumerist tourist who enjoys an ambiguous position of involvement and detachment from every manifestation of alterity. As the sociologist Birgitta Nedelman points out, the distinguishing trait of this figure is that of enjoying an extreme physical proximity to art works, places, and people, but also that of keeping himself well segregated from a more intimate contact with them (Nedelman 193). One of the consequences is that his aesthetic and relational experience is inevitably restricted to the limits of his travel program, his pre-set expectations and— of course—his material appropriations.

  • 10 By doing so, the woman also resists her own objectification and identification— by physical contig (...)

15James’s story features a young American heroine entrusted with the task of revealing and challenging the shortcomings of this attitude. Along with the many female characters who confront unscrupulous male collectors in James’s fiction (an obvious example is Isabel Archer vs. Gilbert Osmond), Adina Waddington is a character who has no equal in Balzac—a novelist generally uninterested in placing women in ’redeeming’ roles. In the story she does not simply dismiss the collector as a suitable life partner, eloping with his rival Angelo, but she also stands out as the dismantler of Scrope’s appreciation of decontaminated objects of art. Even before making the acquaintance of Angelo (who perhaps tells her how he was wronged by the collector), Adina is very sceptical about Scrope’s manic passion for his gem. By refusing to accept Scrope’s gift of the ’stolen’ object as love token,10 the young woman stands out indeed as the spokesperson of a restored dialogue between the self and the world that is deliberately thwarted by the collector.

16Starting from the passage describing her visit to Villa Borghese—where she almost disappears behind the walls of the picturesque Park with Angelo—the story registers the woman’s progressive harmonisation with a human and aesthetic dimension totally inaccessible to her paranoid suitor—to the extent that, in the eyes of the narrator, she even starts taking on the same ’picturesque’ tone or attitude that characterises Angelo and the surrounding landscape (”Was she more silent than usual, was she preoccupied, was she melancholy, was she restless? Picturesquely, she ought to have been all these things,” 369, emphasis mine). In this perspective, Adina embodies a figure that openly resists and challenges the collector’s problematic equivalence between possessing and appreciating, reminding us not only of the aesthetic but also the ethical implications of such equivalence.

17To conclude, the two works I have analysed can be taken as evidence of the disenchanted view that Balzac and James shared about collecting. Balzac’s novel unmasks the collector as someone who only apparently manages to create and preserve artistic beauty, while he is only deeply alienated from reality. James’s story goes even further, showing how the collector not only fails to replace human affection and recognition through the possession of art objects, but also contributes to the aesthetic obsolescence—and even to the destruction—of the latter. This is evident in the final part of the story. Once Scrope understands, in fact, that his collectible cannot replace the love of the woman he has lost, he completely loses interest in it, and throws it back forever into the silent waters of the Tiber.


1 See, for instance, James’s discussion of the tenants of the Maison Vauquer in Balzac’s Père Goriot (Criticism 52).

2 Balzac’s skillful representation of material desire was so great that it almost compensated for the neglect of moral concern that James so much deplored in his writings.

3 Unforgettable figures like Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady, Adela Gereth in The Spoils of Poynton and Adam Verver in The Golden Bowl are all examples of this obsession.

4 Quotes from the texts are taken from Honoré de Balzac, Cousin Pons in La Comédie Humaine, 1999, and Henry James, The Tales of Henry James, 1978. Page numbers are indicated within brackets.

5 The English translation of portions of the original French text, here and throughout this study, is taken from Katharine Prescott Wormeley 1896 translation of Balzac’s work (Boston, Robert Bros., 1898).

6 ”…but in truth he honestly admitted his weakness on the score of harmony; he had neglected the study of counterpoint, and modern orchestration, grown utterly beyond his knowledge, became inscrutable to him at the very moment when by fresh study he should have kept himself to the level of modern composers and become, not indeed a Rossini, but a Hérold. However, he found such lively compensation in the joys of a collector for his failure as to musical fame, that if he had been forced to choose between his treasures and the glory of Rossini, he would—can it be believed?—have decided in favor of his beloved bric-á-brac.”

7 This materialisation is the individual counterpart of the institutionalisation of fictitious history performed by public museums in the 19th century. See Sherman and Rogoff, xii.

8 ”At the first outline of this biographical sketch, every one will cry out: ’Why, in spite of his ugliness, he must be the happiest man on earth!’ True enough: no ennui, no spleen, resists the soothing influence a hobby sheds upon the soul. You, who can drink no longer from that chalice called through all time the ’cup of pleasure,’ take up the task of collecting something, no matter what (people have ere now collected handbills), and you will recover your ingots of joy in small change. A hobby, a mania, is pleasure transformed into the shape of an idea. Nevertheless, do not envy the worthy Pons; for if you do, your sentiment, like others of its kind, will rest on error.” / ”This man of innate delicacy, whose soul lived by its unwearying admiration for the glories of human toil,—that noble struggle with the forces of Nature,—was the slave of a capital sin, albeit the one which God will punish least severely. Pons was a gourmand.”

9 See also Pety, 45-8.

10 By doing so, the woman also resists her own objectification and identification— by physical contiguity—with Scrope’s treasure. For Adina as collectible, see Izzo Portraying the Lady 78-79.


Simone Francescato earned his PhD from the Università Ca’ Foscari of Venice (Italy). He is currently Lecturer in American Literature and Studies at the same university. He has recently published a book entitled Collecting and Appreciating: Henry James and the Transformation of Aesthetics in the Age of Consumption (2010). His main area of research is late nineteenth-century American fiction (realism, naturalism and decadence).


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