Babylons

A.D. Moody

  • Henry James. Letters. Volume II: 1875-1883 edited by Leon Edel
    Macmillan, 438 pp, £15.00, March 1980, ISBN 0 333 18045 3
  • Henry James: The Later Novels by Nicola Bradbury
    Oxford, 228 pp, £12.00, December 1979, ISBN 0 19 812096 6

James’s world in these letters of 1875-1883 – the years, roughly, from The American to The Portrait of a Lady – is already the world of such great late works as The Awkward Age, The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove. They are the letters of a consciously cosmopolitan observer of European manners, but their decorum, even while he is being gathered to the bosom of English ‘Society’, is always that of the circle of family and friends in Boston to whom most of them are addressed. Yet, so like is this decorum to that of the novels, in what is thought fit for conversation (‘what are letters but talk?’ James wrote in 1882, in a letter printed by Lubbock but not included by Edel) and in the constant play of discrimination which points the talk and makes it ‘good’, that one can see how much James viewed his world through the eyes of his family and their New England acquaintance. It was their Idealism which enabled him to wrest his international scene into art.

Paris, for the year he lived there, writing The American for serialisation in Howells’s Atlantic Monthly, afforded him the spectacle of a brilliant and charming civilisation, but he judged it by the morality of Boston. To his brother William he wrote that he ‘liked much to be with’ a Russian family ‘of a literally more than Bostonian virtue’, ‘an oasis of purity and goodness in the midst of this Parisian Babylon’.

Of all the writers he met there it was Turgenev whom he most took to, for his personal goodness and for the gentle humanity of his writings. He thought Flaubert the best of the French writers, but he liked him better as a man than as a novelist, and took seriously Turgenev’s opinion that the trouble with him was that he had never known a decent woman but had passed his life exclusively ‘avec des courtisanes et des rien-du-tout’. Zola’s naturalisme he execrated: ‘I heard Emile Zola characterise [Daudet’s] manner sometime since as merde à la vanille. I send you by post Zola’s own last – merde au naturel. Simply hideous.’ He preferred, ‘in this beastly Paris’, to read Daniel Deronda. Even though it was a disappointment (‘the analysing and the sapience – to say nothing of the tortuosity of the style’), it made him realise ‘the English richness of George Eliot’ and ‘the superiority of English culture and the English mind to the French’. In this he was expressing New England’s special sense of the English as well as of the French.

He moved to London at the end of 1876, and installed himself at once in Bolton Street, Piccadilly, on the edges of Mayfair and St James’s. Struck by the ‘uglinesses and hypocrisies’ of England, he was inclined to think better of France: ‘I have just called in my landlady to pay my bill, and her deadly woodenfaced “respectability”, with an avidity, beneath, every whit as grasping as the French, and not a grace to glaze it over, makes me feel as if, beside such a type as that, the most impudent Paris cocotte were a divinity.’ But in spite of all the occasions for such ‘foggy “spleen” ’ – or perhaps, one begins to suspect, just because of them – he remained unflinchingly committed to a London life. The London he moved in was, of course, just the exclusive upper reaches: clubs, and the society of the rich and their lions and Iapdogs. This world failed to charm him, and fed his critical sense beyond all else.

After a year’s rather hectic going about in it, he wrote home:

I suppose that to the family circle in the library it will seem an affectation in me to say that I find this same social existence rather stale and poor – composed of not especially interesting or superior elements. But, in fact, it is no blasphemy to confess to satiety after a certain amount of nestling in the lap of the ‘Upper Middle Class’. One must give up looking for fresh and high impressions.

He writes again, after a further year of the social round, of the general dullness of the London banquet: ‘The genius of conversation in the great upper-middle class is not a dazzling muse; it is a plain-faced, portly matron, well covered up in warm woollen garments and fond of an after-dinner nap.’ He gets ‘woefully tired of London people and their talk’; ‘there seems something awfully stale and stupid about the whole business’. He finds ‘people in general very vulgar-minded and superficial’: ‘nothing but surface and sometimes – oh ye gods! – such desperately poor surface!’ He fears he is losing his standard – it might almost be Matthew Arnold’s:

my charming little standard that I used to think so high; my standard of wit, of grace, of good manners, of vivacity, of urbanity, of intelligence, of what makes an easy and natural style of intercourse! And this in consequence, of my having dined out during the past winter 107 times! When I come home you will think me a sad barbarian – I may not even, just at first, appreciate your fine points.

You are not logged in