Taking it up again

Margaret Anne Doody

  • Henry James and Revision by Philip Horne
    Oxford, 373 pp, £40.00, December 1990, ISBN 0 19 812871 1

Why do they do it? Why would they ever want to? Why do novelists revise novels? The very thought of revising one is daunting. Yet of course novelists do revise their printed works, on occasion, for various reasons. No novelist has made such a job of it as Henry James.

In July 1905 he began the task of revising his life’s work, in order to create a final statement, a complete collection of his works, called from its inception the New York Edition. James actually believed that this gigantic labour would be financially rewarding, would provide financial security for his old age. The New York Edition in 24 volumes, completed in 1909, was not a success, and by the autumn of 1908 he had to realise that his task was thankless, his art unappreciated. As Philip Horne convincingly shows us, however, James’s most powerful motives were far from mercenary. He was driven by the desire to perfect his work. The idea of the complete edition, the final perfected statement, was really his own, not his publisher’s. When Scribners agreed to undertake the work, the editors may indeed have had very little notion of what James had in mind. What they expected, one presumes, was the removal of little errors, the replacement of an awkward phrase or two, the excision of a few redundant words. The author’s only writing task would be the completion of a brief preface for each work. James did of course write his famous Prefaces. But he was not intending to dabble at revision.

The Master had each page of the novel under treatment pasted on a larger page, supplying a wide margin in which revision could take place. The tempting blank of these margins was his downfall: invited to fill the space, he more than filled it. Horne gives a vivid picture of the new work-in-progress: ‘The new wordings often appear at some distance from their place on the original page; James puts them in balloons and leads the eye back to their context with long wavy lines attached to the scratched-out words ... or squeezing between words left intact. Sometimes these revisions entirely fill a sheet or spill over to the next; sometimes, to regain a clear presentation of sequence, typed or handwritten transcriptions of revised portions of text replace the pasted-down pages.’ One can imagine the consternation, the exclamations, of the editors and copy-editors at Scribners as this multitudinous work of correction started to arrive. Neither author nor publisher was spared expense. When revision overwhelmed the original pages altogether, James had to get the novel typed out again – as he did with the new version of The American. No publisher can ever have desired such a monstrous labour, nor can any publisher ever have dreamed, in his worst nightmares, of an author who was so indefatigable a perfectionist.

Philip Horne has gone through the material very carefully – the versions of each novel and story and all of James’s correspondence and Notebooks pertaining to novel-writing. Horne is very clear as to what happened in each case, and supplies an invaluable chronology at the end which connects James’s new writing with his rewriting, and with his reactions to publication. Horne is a good recorder of James’s variations. He is, I think, less happy in the more difficult task of defending not only the undertaking but the result. He believes that James achieved a finer, more nuanced and more subtle work with every revision, and with almost every instance of revision. Horne takes some pleasure in seeing James’s late style overtaking and defeating James’s earlier style. Not every reader, even having followed this painstaking book, will agree. I certainly can’t.

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