A model example of how to build a gripping story around nothing more than atmosphere, impression and supposition, In the Cage is one of Henry James’ mini triumphs. Very little actually happens in this tale, told through the eyes of a London telegraph girl, but James creates a thoroughly believable character, and produces a novella that never once lost my attention.
It is essentially a psychological portrait of the unnamed girl, who is engaged to the aptly named Mr Mudge, and dreams of a life beyond her “cage” in the telegraph section of a Mayfair post office. To make her working (and thoughts of her future married) life more bearable she indulges in an obsession with one of her main clients, Captain Everard. The book is built around her imaginative flights of fancy, which are fuelled by the bits of information she gleans from telegraphs sent and received by Captain Everard and his “set”.
What struck me most was the similarity between modern email communication and the telegraph messages of Victorian London’s upper class. There is something about the way the girl’s rich clients are inextricably tied to their nearest telegraph office, returning sometimes several times a day to conduct their most intimate personal affairs as well as making bookings for holiday accommodation and other practicalities, that mirrors almost exactly the way we use email today.
Her clients’ presumption that what they communicate is somehow private, even though it goes through the eyes and hands of the telegraph office staff, also echoes our modern presumption that what we say in emails is for the exclusive eyes of the person whose name we have put in the “To” box. In the Cage was written more than a century ago, but it plays on a truth that still holds: the technology of instant communication carries hidden dangers. An element of trust and honour is inherent in both the email and telegraph systems but, today as then, irretrievable messages sent in haste carry with them perilous potential.
Apart from this fascinating insight into late nineteenth century telegraph culture, In the Cage also highlights the barely perceptible beginnings of the narrowing gap between the upper and working classes in late nineteenth century England. James, an American living in England, imagines a telegraph girl who flirts with the possibility of crossing that divide but remains acutely aware of the limitations of her situation. She can dream of making a match with her favoured client, but she knows any really intimate relationship is inconceivable unless she is willing to sacrifice her own dignity.
First published in 1898, the same year as James’ The Turn of the Screw ghost story, this is certainly no thriller (although the girl’s actions do verge on stalking at times) but it managed to hold me in a constant, slow, state of suspense. It’s a great book to read out loud because the magic really is in the language; and although it is elaborate, not a single word is wasted. You get the feeling each has been meticulously chosen and given a specific task bearing in mind its exact relation to the other words, paragraphs and chapters that surround it. Hooked from start to finish, I wallowed in this book, taking as long as I could to read it. A real literary treat
Also by Henry James
The Turn of the Screw