- Henry James and Edith Wharton: Letters 1900-1915 edited by Lyall Powers
Weidenfeld, 412 pp, £25.00, May 1990, ISBN 0 297 81060 X
Edith Wharton is known, among other things, as the teller of the most devastating of the anecdotes displaying Henry James’s incapacity to communicate efficiently. The story told in her 1933 autobiography, A Backward Glance, has James, late one evening, attempt to ask a doddering Windsor pedestrian how their car can find its way to the address they want. After a page of repetitious parenthetical irrelevancies from James, which leave the old man ‘dazed’, she loses patience and insists James ‘ask him where the King’s Road is’. This, a little less elaborately, he does, and the old man says: ‘Ye’re in it.’
The ineffectual James of this narrative, though, is not necessarily pure matter of fact. A couple of chapters earlier Edith Wharton was bemoaning her ‘unhappy lack of verbal memory’, her inability to recall exactly what people said in her presence. In other words, the long speech James is represented as having made is a reconstruction dating from more than twenty years after the event. The autobiographer’s motives for turning out a tale so to James’s disadvantage, swathed though it is in apology and affection, seems to be connected with the warm rivalry that ran underneath the warm friendship we can trace in their letters.
The prelude to their friendship, as Edith Wharton tells it in the autobiography, had her as a shy young suitor for the great man’s attention at dinners, hoping her ‘newest Doucet dress’ or ‘beautiful new hat’ would win his interest. But it was mainly her literary friendship with Paul Bourget, and her beginnings as an author, with The Greater Inclination (1899) and The Valley of Decision (1902), that achieved this aim. ‘The explanation, of course, was that in that interval I had found myself’: Edith Wharton’s first metamorphosis, from socialite to talented author, gave James his greater inclination to take her seriously. That period in the wings, however, seems to have left its mark on her – apparent, perhaps, in the account of the King’s Road fiasco.
R.W.B. Lewis, Mrs Wharton’s biographer, and editor in 1988 of a selection of her letters, has noticed her ‘displaying in her earliest recorded comments on James clear signs of a restiveness of influence’. Even at the point of becoming one of the Master’s intimates, she was deploring The Sacred Fount (‘I could cry over the ruins of such a talent’) or commanding W.C. Brownell: ‘Don’t ask me what I think of the Wings of the Dove –’ When they became better acquainted her expressions mellowed, as loyalty demanded. By 1907, James was with the Whartons in Paris for a two-month stay, and she wrote to Charles Eliot Norton in praise of her visitor’s character (not his works): ‘The more one knows him the more one wonders – admires the mixture of wisdom – tolerance, of sensitiveness – sympathy, that makes his heart even more interesting to contemplate than his mind.’
A Backward Glance, still admiring, recalls a relaxed, bantering figure at his ease amid the friendly, mostly American group made up by herself, Walter Berry, Howard Sturgis, Morton Fullerton, John Hugh Smith, Percy Lubbock and a few other initiates. She emphasises the man’s ‘quality of fun’, and her James is ‘the laughing, chaffing, jubilant yet malicious James’, not ‘the grave personage known to less intimate eyes’. Like the letters of James’s youth to his family, or of the 1880s to Stevenson, or of the 1890s to the actress Elizabeth Robins and her friend Mrs Hugh Bell, Henry James and Edith Wharton: Letters shows him joking in congenial company; this is the circle where the late James seems most to have unwound.