Reply: Edith Wharton on Henry James’s asking for directions

From A Backward Glance

Another year we had been motoring in the west country, and on the way
back were to spend a night at Malvern. As we approached (at the close of
a dark rainy afternoon) I saw James growing restless, and was not
surprised to hear him say: “My dear, I once spent a summer at Malvern,
and know it very well; and as it is rather difficult to find the way to
the hotel, it might be well if Edward were to change places with me, and
let me sit beside Cook.” My husband of course acceded (though with doubt
in his heart), and James having taken his place, we awaited the result.
Malvern, if I am not mistaken, is encircled by a sort of upper
boulevard, of the kind called in Italy a strada di circonvallazione, and
for an hour we circulated about above the outspread city, while James
vainly tried to remember which particular street led down most directly
to our hotel. At each corner (literally) he stopped the motor, and we
heard a muttering, first confident and then anguished. “This–this, my
dear Cook, yes…this certainly is the right corner. But no; stay! A
moment longer, please–in this light it’s so difficult…appearances are
so misleading…It may be…yes! I think it IS the next turn…’a little
farther lend thy guiding hand’…that is, drive on; but slowly, please,
my dear Cook; VERY slowly!” And at the next corner the same agitated
monologue would be repeated; till at length Cook, the mildest of men,
interrupted gently: “I guess any turn’ll get us down into the town, Mr.
James, and after that I can ask–” and late, hungry and exhausted we
arrived at length at our destination, James still convinced that the
next turn would have been the right one, if only we had been more

The most absurd of these episodes occurred on another rainy evening,
when James and I chanced to arrive at Windsor long after dark. We must
have been driven by a strange chauffeur–perhaps Cook was on a holiday;
at any rate, having fallen into the lazy habit of trusting to him to
know the way, I found myself at a loss to direct his substitute to the
King’s Road. While I was hesitating, and peering out into the darkness,
James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze
at us. “wait a moment, my dear–I’ll ask him where we are”; and leaning
out he signalled to the spectator.

“My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little
nearer–so,” and as the old man came up: “My friend, to put it to you in
two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from SLOUGH; that is
to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently PASSED THROUGH
Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye,
which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us,
we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in
relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads
to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the
railway station.”

I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence,
and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to
have James go on: “In short” (his invariable prelude to a fresh series
of explanatory ramifications), “in short, my good man, what I want to
put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have
reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway
station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been
on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to…”

“Oh, please,” I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit
through another parenthesis, “do ask him where the King’s Road is.”

“Ah–? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of
fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position,
the King’s Road exactly IS?”

“Ye’re in it,” said the aged face at the window.

1 thought on “Reply: Edith Wharton on Henry James’s asking for directions

  1. Pingback: How Edith Wharton led me on a long and winding road back to Henry James | TV Flix

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