The Henry James Show

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Henry James: A Life by Leon Edel
    Collins, 740 pp, £25.00, July 1987, ISBN 0 00 217870 2
  • The Complete Notebooks of Henry James edited by Leon Edel and Lyall Powers
    Oxford, 662 pp, £25.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 19 503782 0

In ‘The Birthplace’ (1903), a tale inspired by the case of a couple who had served as custodians of the Shakespeare house in Stratford, Henry James constructed a marvellously ironic narrative about the ‘stupid’ avidity of a public who care nothing for the artist’s work and everything for his legend, flocking to the shrine to see ‘where He hung up His hat and where He kept His boots and where His mother boiled her pot’. Though James’s notebooks clearly record the Shakespearean donnée, in the story itself ‘the supreme poet’ is never named: the celebrated mystery of the man from Stratford provides James with an ideal instance of the gap between the private person and the artist, even as the fictional poet’s namelessness intensifies his disappearance into his work. In the words of Morris Gedge, the sensitive caretaker who is the story’s protagonist: ‘Practically ... there is no author; that is for us to deal with. There are all the immortal people – in the work; but there’s nobody else.’ Yet the poet’s success in covering ‘His tracks as no other human being has ever done’ does not prevent the public from demanding the ‘facts’: it only means, finally, that those facts will have to be invented. When Gedge begins to cast doubt on the legend, he almost loses his job; when he brazenly embroiders the ‘romance’ and piles up the false details (‘It is in this old chimney-corner ... just there in the far angle, where His little stool was placed, and where, I dare say, if we could look close enough, we should find the hearthstone scraped with His little feet ...’), the visitors’ receipts pour in, and the governing committee doubles his wages. His wife has feared that Gedge may now be ‘giving away the Show ... by excess’, as before he almost dished them by restraint – but the point, of course, is that no excess can be too much for the vulgar multitude. The only real difference between Gedge’s original position as librarian at ‘Blackport-on-Dwindle’ – ‘all granite, fog and female fiction’ – and his new one as caretaker at the Birthplace is that he has increased his income by himself becoming a popular romancer.

Behind ‘The Birthplace’ lie James’s failed theatrical ventures of the previous decade as well as his own lifelong rivalry with best-selling women: like the ‘female fiction’ that seemed to crowd out the Master’s narratives, ‘the Show’, as the tale repeatedly calls the guided tours of the Birthplace, threatens to supplant the works of the master dramatist. Though Gedge ends by cultivating romantic lies about the poet’s life, the immediate targets of James’s satire are his unappreciative public and his more popular rivals, not his future biographers. But in the context of Leon Edel’s longstanding defence of the biographer’s art, his reading of the story as one in which ‘the creative imagination triumphs over the mundane’ and ‘the keeper of the shrine pays his tribute to art by being imaginative himself’ is nonetheless disconcerting. For while Gedge does discover in himself a certain ‘genius’ for invention, James makes clear that the caretaker’s art is a vulgar one – and that poor Gedge can only bring himself to spin his tales after he has ‘strangled’ his ‘critical sense’.

The author of ‘The Birthplace’ – or, still more obviously perhaps, of The Aspern Papers – is not an easy subject for a biographer. ‘Wherever he turns,’ Edel himself good-naturedly complained some thirty years ago, the would-be historian of James’s life ‘stumbles upon an ironic mockery, a kind of subterranean laughter – at the biographer!’ Though the novelist did not succeed in covering his tracks as thoroughly as Shakespeare, he did manage to burn a vast collection of papers and to convey to his nephew and literary executor his wish ‘to frustrate as utterly as possible the post-mortem exploiter’ by leaving in his will ‘a curse not less explicit than Shakespeare’s own on any such as try to move my bones’. But for all James’s deliberate reticence and evasions, the difficulty as Edel has characterised it is more a function of documentary plenitude than of scarcity. In the introduction to Henry James: The Untried Years (1953), the first of what was to become a five-volume history, Edel announced that he had been compelled to disregard Boswell’s advice that the biographer should let his subject speak for himself rather than ‘melt down’ the materials. Figuratively, at least, Edel saw ‘the contemporary biographer’ as engaged in a life-and-death struggle – ‘forced, by the mere dead weight of paper, by the mountains of letters and journals and newspapers, to melt his materials or be smothered by them’. By the time the second volume was published in 1962, the reader, too, was potentially imperilled: ‘My task,’ Edel wrote, ‘has been one of arriving at significant detail and essence, lest I bury the reader under the epistolary documents.’ The last of the original instalments, The Master, was published in 1972. Five years later, there appeared in Britain a two-volume ‘definitive’ edition of the entire work. The current version, a one-volume abridgment and slight revision of the latter, represents a still further ‘melting down’ of the materials.

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[*] Confusion is further compounded by Edel’s latest book-making enterprise – Henry James: Selected Letters (Harvard, 446 pp., £23.95, 30 November 1987, 0 674 38793 7). A one-volume melting-down of his already highly selected four-volume edition of the letters, it alone calls itself ‘selected’, while printing some two dozen letters for the first time, thus ensuring that anyone who wants as complete a collection as possible will have to purchase this volume as well as its predecessors. Edel’s introduction predictably attributes the inclusion of the new documents to the ‘freer climate of our time’ – a moment of liberation that would appear to have arrived sometime after the decade from 1974 to 1984 in which the original four volumes were published.