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The Spoils of Poynton
A Novel

Henry James
Published by New Directions - the New Classics Series/CN in 1924
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2003


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This book came to my attention from an article in the London Review of Books on Henry James. It contained a note detailing how the major character of the book was left undescribed. The major character was not a human being, but the eponymous contents of a house, the spoils of Poynton. Mrs. Gereth was about to be disinherited from Poynton by the death of her husband who left it to her only son, Owen, who was engaged to Mona Brigstock. His mother had filled Poynton over the years with a plethora of fine art objects, furniture, tapestries, and a miscellany of things which she preemptorily had moved tout ensemble to Ricks, a much smaller place previously inhabited by a deceased old maid aunt. These spoils comprise the major actor in the play that unfolds itself in the novel. Poynton, now bereft of its spoils, is haunted by them as if by a ghost. Ricks, on the other hand, is overfilled to a cloying satiety by their presence.

The plot is rather dull at this point, until Mona discovers the absent of the SOP (Spoils of Poynton) from her future residence and insists that Owen get them returned. His mother refuses and enlists her constant companion, Fleda, in explaining to Owen that she will not return them. In the process, Fleda falls for Owen, but won't tell him so. Mona, on her part, delays the marriage until the SOP are returned, which gives Owen time to fall for Fleda, and Mrs. Gereth to be delighted with the prospect that Fleda will be her daughter-in-law rather than the avaricious Mona and her mother.

In the 21st Century, Owen would simply tell Mona, "Sorry, I've decided not to marry you," marry Fleda, and together with his mother live happily ever after at Poynton and its spoils. But in Henry James's time, honor was as tangible as a Humvee is today, and a promise to marry could not be gotten out of on a whim. To Owen, Fleda, and Mrs. Gereth there seemed hope that Mona would get tired of waiting and would break the engagement on her end. Owen was in love with Fleda, Fleda in love in Owen, and they both had confessed the same, but Mona had yet to relent on the engagement, so Fleda sent Owen back to Mona. Mrs. Gereth, thinking the matter settled in Fleda's favor sent the spoils back to Poynton. Mona got word that the ghost had returned to Poynton, grabbed Owen, and tugged him off to the Registar to be married; the church formalities would have to wait for a few weeks and plans to be made while the civil marriage is kept quiet. She snatched with her daring what Fleda quailed from doing when the opportunity presented itself.

There seems to be a rule that in gothic stories that when a large house plays a key role, as in Rebecca, or Jane Eyre, that the house must burn to the ground at the end of the story. In Rebecca, the house was Mandalay, and the ghost was the former wife who died on the premises -- Rebecca ghost doesn't appear per se, but her things, her spoils, fill Mandalay, and her former personal maid is possessed by a tangible presence of Rebecca so much that she goes up in the final conflagration. In Jane Eyre, the ghost is the deranged woman that Mr. Rochester was married to, whose madness was hidden from him, and who now haunts the hallways of the mansion, finally burning it to ground with her inside. In James's story, the ghost was the entire contents of the house, and one is left to wonder what will happen to the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Owen Gareth when the ghost has been finally exorcized by the purifying blaze which extirpated the spoils of Poynton.


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