THERE ARE THOSE OF US who spent a not insignificant amount of time in grad school reading the works of Henry James. We trolled through The Ambassadors; we wondered when the golden bowl would finally break, and whether, through the thick of the prose, we had missed the breaking itself; we searched for classmates on the basement level of the library, at hours previously designated for sleep and/or pub-going, all in an attempt to find out exactly what Maisie knew, who married whom, and why these facts were important.
As it turns out, we can thank our lucky stars that we never went on a motoring tour with him, got hopelessly lost, and subsequently had to stop and ask for directions. This did, however, happen to Edith Wharton during one of her trips through England. Nothing can add to her account of this Monty Pythonesque exchange, which she later recounted in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, as it’s transcribed below:
Text Source: Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance Image Source: EdithWharton.org
The most absurd of these episodes occurred on another rainy evening when James and I chanced to arrive at Windsor long after dark. […] 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.