As the ninth book opens, Strether visits Madame de Vionnet’s home. He complains about the difficulty of dealing with the new batch of ambassadors. They stick too closely to Mrs. Newsome’s orders, he tells her. They refuse to acknowledge Chad’s changes for the better. Madame de Vionnet urges Strether to be patient, as she is being. Even though she has not seen Chad since his sister arrived, she professes that she trusts Chad endlessly. Strether explains that Chad has been spending each day with Jim, and will soon turn to entertaining Mamie. Strether feels confident that Jim’s perception of Madame de Vionnet as a delightfully decadent European will make him subtly in favor of Chad staying in Europe. Their conversation reaches a natural conclusion, and Strether gets up to leave. Madame de Vionnet accompanies him into the antechamber and then abruptly tells him that her daughter Jeanne is going to marry. She explains that Chad has arranged the match and that her husband will be forced to accept the marriage because the match is of such high quality. Chad’s involvement confuses Strether, but he draws no conclusions from it.
Even though she has been in town for a week, Sarah Pocock has not arranged to meet Strether one-on-one, and this fact disconcerts him. He seeks refuge as he often does: in conference with Miss Gostrey. He feels bad that Miss Gostrey has been so out of the loop since the Pocock’s arrival. He remarks that he feels indebted to her for her early influence on him. During their meeting, they discuss much of the same gossip that Strether discussed with Madame de Vionnet, but from a different perspective. Strether mentions all the pairings that have occurred amongst the visitors and hosts: Waymarsh with Sarah, Chad with Mamie, Jim with Paris. Miss Gostrey then mentions, as if Strether would not have heard, that Jeanne is to get married. Strether explains that he heard from Madame de Vionnet and that Chad was a key player in the arrangement. She wonders what the import of Chad’s role could be. Strether imagines that at this stage he is perfectly poised to be the greatest help to Chad and Madame de Vionnet’s struggle.
Two days later, Strether enters Sarah Pocock’s apartment. He finds himself alone and wonders if he has entered inappropriately, at the wrong time. He notices a letter written in Mrs. Newsome’s handwriting on the table and feels her presence intensely. Suddenly, Strether realizes that there is someone on the balcony. He notices the pretty Mamie Pocock outside, gazing down at the world below. When she notices his presence, she is surprised and remarks that she thought he was little Bilham. Strether is at first upset that she would be waiting for Bilham but soon changes his mind about the intimacy between the two young people. Strether begins to converse with Mamie and finds her to be fully aware of the situation at hand. She explains that she has been to visit Madame de Vionnet, that she knows of Jeanne’s wedding plans, that she finds them charming, and that she is no longer interested in “saving” Chad. Strether is very pleased with this conversation, with what it reveals, and especially with Mamie.
The ninth book revolves around Strether’s conversations with three women. Although a majority of the work involves Strether in conversation with one party or another, this book involves three distinct conversations: with Marie, Maria, and Mamie. The three similar names point to the similar role the three women play. They act as sounding boards for Strether, listening patiently while he pours out his observations. With Miss Gostrey, Strether takes part in a familiar conversation: he chats with his “guide.” In their talk, they rehash everything Strether has been experiencing since their last talk. However, Strether has already rehashed these experiences with Madame de Vionnet just pages before, unbeknownst to Miss Gostry. Clearly, Strether’s relationship with Madame de Vionnet has negatively affected his relationship with Miss Gostrey.
Despite his changing relationship with Miss Gostrey, Strether still requires someone to help him navigate the muddy social relationships of the novel. As in Book Seventh, Strether misunderstands and misinterprets conversations. Strether’s belief that he is helping Madame de Vionnet disturbs his ability to objectively view the situation between Chad and Madame de Vionnet. Strether either ignorantly or willfully ignores the many hints dropped by Madame de Vionnet that she and Chad are not involved in a purely virtuous mentorship. One hint occurs when Madame de Vionnet mentions that Jeanne has gotten engaged, then emphasizes that Chad—not the girl’s father—arranged the engagement. Many critics argue that this detail signifies Chad’s attempt to show his sister that he has become romantically involved with Madame de Vionnet, and not Jeanne. Chad’s influence in the engagement points to Chad’s role as a stepfather to Jeanne. However, Strether does not interpret the situation in this way. Instead, he merely feels alienated from the marriage practices of Europe. He attributes any weirdness to European exoticism. At this stage, so much of his honor and future depends on his assumptions about Chad being correct that he is unwilling to doubt his beliefs.
The interaction between Strether and Mamie emphasizes the generational and gender rifts inherent in Woollett society. When Strether comes upon Mamie on the balcony of Sarah Pocock’s apartment, he realizes for the first time that he does not know Mamie very well. He assumes, though, that she is shallow and somewhat dull. Even though they travel in the same social circles, know all the same people, and have been in Paris at the same time for weeks, they have not really talked. In contrast, the older Chad shares a warm intimacy and involvement with the younger Jeanne, an intimacy devoid of sexual interest and quite common in Paris. But this kind of connection is incredibly rare in New England. Thus, Strether begins to interact with Mamie on the balcony with tentative curiosity. However, her awareness of the situation surrounding her quickly impresses Strether. Most impressive to Strether is the fact that, regardless of everything Mamie perceives, she knows her place. She quickly redirects any interest she may have had in Chad once she realizes that he loves someone else. Strether respects the fact that she harbors no interest in either disrupting Chad’s relationships or in directly furthering Mrs. Newsome’s wishes. Though they have virtually no interaction after this conversation, Strether retains a great respect for Mamie. His time in Paris has allowed Strether to break through the social restraints imposed on them by Woollett and to uncover a sensitive, smart young woman beneath the “it girl” veneer.
Take a Study Break!