From Henry James: Complete Stories 1898–1910
The very public split between William and Alva Vanderbilt, one of America’s wealthiest couples during the last decade of the nineteenth century, dominated newspaper headlines and spawned countless rumors. In 1895, after twenty years of marriage, Mrs. Vanderbilt sued for divorce, supporting her claim with allegations of adultery by her husband and demanding full custody of their three children. Reports soon emerged that Mr. Vanderbilt had consorted in France with an American woman named Nellie Neustretter, who (according to a typical account printed in The Los Angeles Herald) “fascinated the millionaire, [who] paid her 40,000 francs so openly that several friends saw the unusual occurrence, and remonstrated with him.” The paper also reported that he “fitted up a magnificent establishment for her in Paris, and subsequently gave her a residence at Deauville,” near his famous horse ranch. One anonymous gossip told a reporter, “Nellie Neustretter is one of the most notorious women of the upper class of her kind in Paris [and] she is acknowledged to be one of the handsomest.”
Because William Vanderbilt didn’t challenge the suit and because the “affair” with Neustetter ended immediately after the end of the divorce trial, rumors began to circulate that the entire scandal was a charade. In London at the time, Henry James recorded in his journal that he had heard that Vanderbilt had engaged “the demi-mondaine in Paris to s’afficher [display] with him in order to force his virago of a wife to divorce him.” The chatter gave James an idea for a story:
I seem to see all sorts of things in that—a comedy, a little drama, of a fine colour, either theatrised or narrated: a subject, in short, if one turns it in a certain way. The way is, of course, that the husband doesn’t care a straw for the cocotte and makes a bargain with her that is wholly independent of real intimacy. He makes her understand the facts of his situation—which is that he is in love with another woman. . . . He can’t let himself be divorced on her account—he can on that of the femme galante, who has nothing—no name—to lose.“The Special Type,” which James finished in 1899, retains the kernel of this idea, but the “cocotte” is transformed into Mrs. Dundene, a woman whose social station is far more respectable than that of a courtesan. As the social intrigue becomes more complex, she becomes the sympathetic focus of both the narrator and the reader, who until the end are never quite sure whether Mrs. Dundene is party to the scheme or whether she is being taken advantage of. In The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story, Martin Scofield writes that, although Mrs. Dundene remains elusively portrayed throughout, James nevertheless “suggests a women (significantly from the art world) who though ‘not a lady’ is serious, self-aware, and at least as worthy of respect as the husband and the new wife, perhaps more so. And in James’s world and time this is a distinct readjustment of the social and moral boundaries.”
James originally conceived of the tale as a novel or novella, but it ended up being one of his shorter stories. Although he later seemed to have second thoughts about the result, when he submitted the story for publication James described it “as one of the very best short tales I’ve ever written: the best, in fact, of any equally brief.”
Notes: The quote on page 294, “Thou canst not say I did it!” is what, in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth says to the ghost of Banquo, whom his assassins had murdered. On page 300, the word affichage means “display.”
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