Ideas and the Novel: Henry James and some others

Mary McCarthy

‘He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it’: T.S. Eliot writing of Henry James in the Little Review of August 1918. I want to take exception, not to the truth of Eliot’s pronouncement (he was right about James), but to the set of lofty assumptions calmly towering behind it.

The young Eliot’s epigram summed up with cutting brevity a creed that for Modernists appeared beyond dispute. Implicit in it is the snubbing notion, radical at the time but by now canon doctrine, of the novel as a fine art and of the novelist as an intelligence superior to mere intellect. In this patronising view, the intellect’s crude apparatus was capable only of formulating concepts, which then underwent the process of diffusion, so that by dint of repetition they fell within anybody’s reach. The final, cruel fate of an idea was to turn into an idée reçue. The power of the novelist, insofar as he was a supreme intelligence, was to free himself from the workload of commentary and simply, awesomely, to show: his creation was beyond paraphrase or reduction. As pure work of art, it stood beautifully apart, impervious to the dry rot affecting the brain’s constructions and to the welter of factuality.

Thus the separation was perceived as twofold. The reform programme for the novel – soon to be promulgated in a position-paper like Jacob’s Room (1922) – aimed at correcting, not only the errors of the old practitioners, who were prone to philosophise in their works, but also the Victorian ‘slice of life’ theory still admitted by Matthew Arnold, and later, permissive notions of the novel as a ‘spongy tract’ (Forster) or large loose bag into which anything would fit. Obviously novels of the old, discredited schools – the historical novel, the novel of adventure, the soap-box or pulpit novel – continued and continue to be written despite the lesson of the Master. Indeed, they make up a majority, now as before, but, having no recognised aesthetic willing to claim them, they tend to be treated by our critical authorities as marginal – examples of backwardness if they come from the East (Solzhenitsyn) or of deliberate archaising if they come from the West (say, Iris Murdoch). The pure novel, the quintessential novel, does not acknowledge any family relation with these distant branches. It is a formal, priestly exercise whose first great celebrant was James. The fact that there are no Jamesian novels being produced any more – if there ever were, apart from the Master’s own – does not alter the perspective. The Jamesian model remains a standard, an archetype, against which contemporary impurities and laxities are measured.

The importance of James lies not so much in his achievements as in the queerness of them. He did not broaden a way for his successors but closed nearly every exit as with hermetic sealing tape. It is undeniable that this American author, almost single-handed, invented a peculiar new kind of fiction, more refined, more stately, than anything known before, purged, to the limit of possibility, of the gross traditional elements of suspense, physical action, inventory, description of places and persons, apostrophe, moral teaching. When you think of James in the light of his predecessors, you are suddenly conscious of what is not there: battles, riots, tempests, sunrises, the sewers of Paris, crime, hunger, the plague, the scaffold, the clergy, but also minute particulars such as you find in Jane Austen – poor Miss Bates’s twice-baked apples, Mr Collins’s ‘Collins’, the comedy of the infinitely small. It cannot have been simply a class limitation, or a limitation of experience, that intimidated his pen. It was a resolve, very American, to scrape his sacred texts clean of the material factor. And it was no small task he laid on himself, since his novels, even more than most maybe, dealt with material concerns – property and money – and unrolled almost exclusively in the realm of the social, mundane by definition. Nevertheless, he succeeded, this American prodigy. He etherealised the novel beyond its wildest dreams and perhaps etherised it as well.

To take a pleasant example, he managed in The Spoils of Poynton to relate a story of a contest for possession of some furniture in immense detail without ever indicating except in the vaguest way what the desirable stuff was. We gather that quite a lot is French – Louis Quinze and Louis Seize are mentioned once each (‘the sweetest Louis Seize’) – but we also hear of Venetian velvet and of ‘a great Italian cabinet’ in the red room, though with no specifics of place, period, inlays, embossment, and of a little Spanish ivory crucifix. When you think of what Balzac would have done with the opportunity! Actually The Spoils of Poynton is a Balzacian drama done with the merest hints of props and stage setting. James’s strategy was to abstract the general noun, furniture, from the particulars of the individual pieces, also referred to as ‘things’. He gives us a universal which we can upholster according to our own taste and antiquarian knowledge. In short, he gives us an Idea. The Spoils of Poynton is not a novel about material tables and chairs: it is a novel about the possession and enjoyment of an immaterial Idea, which could be any old furniture, all old furniture, beautiful, ugly, or neither – it makes no difference, except that if it is ugly the struggle over it will be more ironic. James, however, is not an ironist; no Puritan can be. And the fact that with this novel we can supply ‘real’ tables and chairs from our own imagination makes The Spoils of Poynton, to my mind, more true to our common experience, hence more classic, than most of his fictions.

But that, for the moment, is beside the point. What I should like to bring out now is another peculiarity: that though James’s people endlessly discuss and analyse, they never discuss the subjects that people in society usually do. Above all, politics. It is not true that well-bred people avoid talk of politics. They cannot stay away from it. Outrage over public events that menace, or threaten to menace, their property and privilege has devolved on them by birthright (though it can also be acquired), and they cannot help sharing it when more than two meet, even in the presence of outsiders, which in fact seems to act as a stimulant. This has surely been so from earliest times, and James’s time was no exception, as we know from other sources. But from his fictions (forgetting The Princess Casamassima, where he mildly ventured into the arena), you could never guess that whispers – or shouts – ever burst out over the tea table regarding the need for a firm hand, for making an example of the ringleaders, what are things coming to, and so on. Dickens’s Mr Bounderby, although no gentleman, put the position in a nutshell with ‘the turtle soup and the gold spoon’ – his own blunt résumé of the trade-unionist’s unmistakable goals. As James’s people are constantly telling each other how intelligent they are, more subtlety than this might be expected of them, but we can only hope it. What were Adam Verver’s views on the great Free Trade debate, on woman suffrage, on child labour? We do not know. It is almost as if James wanted to protect his cherished creations from our knowledge of the banalities they would utter if he once let us overhear them speak freely.

Or let us try art. These people are travelled and worldly and often in a state of rapture over the museums and galleries they visit, the noble façades of mansions and dear quaint crockets of cathedrals. Yet they rarely come away from a morning of sightseeing with as much as a half-formed thought. They never dispute about what they have looked at, prefer one artist to another, hazard generalisations. In real life, they would certainly have had their ideas about the revolutions that were occurring in painting and sculpture. In Paris, if only out of curiosity, they would have rushed to seè the Salon des Indépendants. Wild horses could not have kept them away. A bold pair, armed with a letter from Lady Sackville or Isabella Stewart Gardner, might have penetrated Rodin’s studio. His bronze statue of Balzac in a dressing-gown, shown at the Salon des Beaux Arts, would already have led the travellers to take sides, some finding it disgusting and incomprehensible while others were calling it a ‘breakthrough’. What would they have made of the nude Victor Hugo in plaster in the Luxembourg Garden? Or ‘The Kiss’ (‘Rather too suggestive’?) in marble. Unfailingly, one would have heard judgments as to what was permissible and impermissible in art.

James himself, however unversed in politics he might have been, had no deficiency of art-appreciation. He wrote well and copiously about painting, sculpture and architecture. But not in his novels. There all is allusion and murmurous, indistinct evocation of objects and vistas, in comparison with which Whistler’s ‘Nocturne’ is a sharp-edge photograph.

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