Henry James’s Christmas

P.N. Furbank

  • Henry James Letters. Vol. IV: 1895-1915 edited by Leon Edel
    Harvard, 835 pp, £24.00, April 1984, ISBN 0 674 38783 X

What strikes one about the garden at Lamb House, as redesigned by Henry James, is that it possesses all the ingredients of an old-English garden, yet the impression it makes is American. It seems on principle to want to do without mystery, even the mild mysteries beloved of English gardening-folk. In some indefinable way it is a public garden. There was, and perhaps still is, a difference between British and American attitudes towards the ‘public’, the British nursing an ambivalence towards publicity that Americans, with their Augustan inheritance, find perverse. That James took to dictating his novels, and even (though with infinite apologies) his letters, seems somehow appropriate. He was in a certain sense a naturally public man. He achieved for himself in his own lifetime an incomparable public position, as the acknowledged ‘Master’ – a position more unassailable than Kipling’s or Bernard Shaw’s – yet he frankly also longed for a popular following and declared only half-jokingly in a letter to W.Morton Fullerton in 1902: ‘I would have written, if I could, like Anthony Hope and Marion Crawford.’ Public position, and an intense preoccupation with public opinion, are also the key to the one incident, in the life of this affectionate and (on the whole) generous man, that sticks in the gullet and seems definitely ugly: I mean his pharasaic forbidding his friend Violet Hunt his house when it appeared she might figure in divorce proceedings. His explanation was quite frank: it was a matter of her ‘position’, and by implication of his.

I really don’t see how an old friend of yours could feel or pronounce your being in a position to permit of this [public scandal] anything but ‘lamentable’, lamentable – oh lamentable! What sort of friend is it that would say less? I wasn’t for a moment pretending to characterise the nature of the relations that may conduce to that possibility – relations, on your part I mean, with the man to be divorced, which in themselves are none of my business at all. But your position, as a result of those relations – if I had it to speak of again I am afraid I could only speak of it so.

One may apply this formula, this concern with ‘visibility’, to James’s novels. The very aim of such a novel as The Golden Bowl is to flood its subject with light, which is another way of saying to dispel all mystery. There is to be – this is an aesthetic law for him – no item in the presented human material which has not been accounted for and put into aesthetic order. There should be no Dickensian thickets or dark corners. As a novelist, he is sometimes described as an ‘analyst’, but this is really a mistake: his concern, when confronting the complexity of inward experience, is not analytical but, always, dramatic. Much of his originality lies in his discovery that the most inward thoughts of a character can be shown as a dramatic spectacle: he studies – in the sense in which we speak of the ‘expression’ on a person’s face – the ‘expression’ on his characters’ minds. He enacts this expression; and he sometimes even goes on to enact someone enacting it, as though he had caught sight of himself in a mirror. It is precisely because of this propensity that he likes to set himself artistic challenges. He elaborates a code of ‘beautiful’ manners, which turns almost entirely on silence and not speaking out, thus putting a premium on the novelist’s power to capture inward ‘expression’.

It is an obvious and important fact about James, witnessed to by ‘The Figure in the Carpet’, The Turn of the Screw and The Sacred Fount, that he loved puzzles and secrets. However, this is best seen as the reverse side of a dislike of mystery. When confronted by his puzzles, we are not tempted by the feeling, as we are with certain mysterious creations by other writers, that if we could understand that, we should have the key to life. James’s true profundities are always profundities that have been plumbed, and his puzzles belong elsewhere – with the side of his art concerned with conjuring and trickery. He was, we find from the Letters, rather anxious to discourage friends from taking The Sacred Fount too seriously. ‘That jeu d’esprit was an accident pure and simple,’ he wrote to Morton Fullerton (9 August 1901), ‘and not even an intellectual one; you do it too much honour. It was a mere trade-accident, tout au plus – an incident of technics, pure and simple.’

As a writer – and this is part of the same point – no one could be less ‘Freudian’, which would also be true of him as a man. In 1910-11 he suffered an acute nervous breakdown, so severe that he was frightened to live alone and took refuge with his brother William, and William’s wife Alice, in America. During this grim time he consulted a pioneer Freudian analyst, James Jackson Putnam, in Boston and obtained some benefit. However, in writing to Putnam the following year to announce himself as definitively cured, he explained his cure in terms of the homeliest old-fashioned self-help. The ‘real clue to the labyrinth’ and basis of his recovery, he told Putnam, was eating enough, feeding as little fatteningly as possible, and having plenty of distractions.

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