Edith Wharton once asked Henry James why it was that his novels so curiously lacked real life. James’s private name for her was the ‘Angel of Devastation’, and the fact that she not only perpetrated this remark but went on to record it expressionlessly in her memoirs shows just what he meant. It might be said that by then James had got used to the situation anyway, since for the previous thirty years much the same question had been asked by that large majority of the late-Victorian reading public who simply refused to read his books: after the last mild success of The Portrait of a Lady in 1881, James experienced half a lifetime of small and dwindling sales, which culminated, in the case of the New York Collected Edition, in total failure. Edith made thousands. But of course both she and the contemporary reading public had a point. There is, after all, only a limited range of actuality in Henry James’s novels: the two great driving forces of human existence, financial pressure and physical need, are hardly more than alluded to in them. If the business of novels was only to reflect ‘real life’, what James could offer would be severely limited. But as it happens, this is not what novels do: like every other form of art, they exist to express reality. It remains a permanent marvel of James’s fiction that the writer seems to know so much about reality, while always leaving us wondering just how much he knows about real life.
Interestingly, James’s own ‘real life’, or the reflection of it that comes through the third and most recent volume of his selected Letters, maintains exactly that same odd poise vis-à-vis experience. When his brother William wrote him half-disapprovingly and half-anxiously about some of Henry’s more difficult, high-life but off-colour French friends who had descended on them, he replied with quiet satisfaction that he had known just how it would be: ‘It strikes me exactly as one of my own stories.’ The Letters give a strong sense of how Jamesian James’s life was: and perhaps, like Ted Hughes’s hawk, this deeply kind and gentle writer intended to keep things that way. He explains on more than one occasion that he finds life quite interesting enough without marrying to make it more so: it is the interest that strikes him in either case – a reaction of the literary but hardly of the marrying man. When his old friend Lizzie Boott disappoints him by marrying late in life, he indicates his rare disapproval by calling the event ‘most interest-quenching’.
Not that these are writer’s letters in any inward sense: James rarely mentions his books, except to thank someone for appreciation or to battle desperately with a publisher for slightly better terms; when his publisher goes bankrupt and he loses a year’s royalties, James even manages to scream in a polite throwaway manner. The tone throughout is essentially social, ‘a London life’. The dozen years of middle life these Letters cover – James is here forty and upwards, still bearded, rather good-looking, relatively thin through fencing to keep his weight down – give fascinating insights into the life of a man who enjoyed a social success now amazing to look back on (for months at a time he dined out every night of the week) and yet who grew ‘more and more companionless in my old age’.
In some ways, the most suggestive part of the process is the manner by which James becomes ‘English’. Always in fact an exile, always rootless, a ‘passionate pilgrim’ (at one point he refers to one of the compatriots whom he always entertained in England so loyally, so devoutly, as ‘Americanissima’ – a good title for a musical), he starts to make England his home. Admittedly, ‘the solution, of course, is to be in Italy when one can – not to live, in short, where one does live!’ Where one does live, or does not, as the case may be. He alludes to a literary colleague as ‘slowly dying’, and then reflectively describes another as ‘slowly living’; crammed as it was with goings-on, the essential inward writer’s rhythm of James’s own life was a slowly-dying and slowly-living, just as he settled into England by going abroad a lot. His essay on London in English Hours was – quite symptomatically – written in Italy. Thus perhaps the most vivid image one gets of his settling-in comes from a sudden memory that hit him so hard twenty-five years later that he jotted it down in his Notebook in 1909: ‘A sense with me, divine and beautiful, of hooking on again to the “sacred years” of the old D.V. Gdns. time, the years of the whole theatric dream and the working out sessions ...’
The ‘old De Vere Gardens time’ begins a year or so after the beginning of this volume of letters, when James, returned from the States where his father’s death had followed hard upon his mother’s, begins gradually to house-hunt, settling at last for a handsome Kensington flat as high up as a Baudelairean attic but very much more gorgeous (he decorated it in crimson, yellow and sky blue, colours that later anecdotes report on his waistcoats – James’s Puritanism always had its limits); and after some years Browning moved in across the road. To celebrate his settling-in, James even bought himself – though the event is not recorded in these Letters – his first dog, Tosca, named from Sardou’s, not Puccini’s heroine, the latter not yet having seen the light of day: even the little dachshund was part of ‘the whole theatric dream’. High up on the fourth floor of De Vere Gardens, James writes all day (‘I must drive the mechanic pen’), usually from nine till four: novels, stories, articles, a translation from Daudet (for £350), and then, for refreshment and duty before he went out for the evening, nine or ten long letters to relations and friends and colleagues and acquaintances. It is a kind of half-art he is building up in his letters, a great patient structure of courteous relationship that both mediates affection and keeps it at a distance, that takes him away from what he really ought to be doing (‘My correspondence is killing me’) and yet that is in a way an element of that very art.
By the year these letters begin, James feels that he has collected his essential materials as a writer: this is why we watch him sliding away from dining-out, sidestepping now even the most gilded weekend house-parties, because he wants the time for writing and for friends – and for writing, and for writing. Nonetheless he still can’t do without the feel of that ‘life’ which he says London has more of in a quarter of an hour than Boston in nine months; he begs everyone, as he did George du Maurier, ‘Do tell me everything that has, or hasn’t happened’ – and ‘everything’ includes even those subjects that in theory James isn’t much interested in, like politics and scandal. One of the most memorable and characteristic brief passages has James calmly throwing off his clear image of the social world he haunts, that of the English upper classes, as being like ‘that of the French aristocracy before the revolution – minus cleverness and conversation. Or perhaps it’s more like the heavy, congested and depraved Roman world upon which the barbarians came down. In England the Huns and Vandals will have to come up ...’ And returning from a stay with the Rothschilds, he drops in to the public gallery during the Dilke trial, a great amatory scandal ‘by no means without a certain low interest if one happens to know (and I have the sorry privilege) most of the people concerned ...’
Scandal does no more to ruffle James’s sensibility than to bring out his more Jeevesian intonations – indeed, to make one wonder if it was James that Wodehouse got the character from. Even death – as a form of ‘life’ – James tries to rise to as a correspondent, giving exquisite elegies for old friends like Mrs Kemble and Robert Louis Stevenson; even the noble, scrupulous and harrowing account of his loved sister’s last days and hours is improved by an altered phrase. Some things probably came near to defeating him, though he records them desperately. Professor Edel chooses to end his volume – to bring down the curtain, so to speak – on the letter in which James describes his awful humiliation at the booing of Guy Domville, himself bowing on stage with a rigid politeness. And one death among the many that darken the second half of this volume clearly horrified him particularly, that – presumably by suicide – in Venice of his much-liked and loving friend, Constance Woolson (‘Fenimore’). The sense of betrayal, of shock and outrage, at what there seemed to be of incrimination in her death leaves him without his usual manner, bewildered and defensive. Even while she was still alive he had written self-exculpatingly: ‘I expressed myself clumsily to Miss Woolson in appearing to intimate that I was coming there to “live”.’ It was necessary for James as a writer to ‘live’ in inverted commas, but terrible accidents occurred.
Reading through this volume of what he would have called ‘good letters’ from this warm, direct, frank and clever man – intensely clever, exceptionally gifted and intelligent – it is impossible not to sense also his elusiveness: the literary quality that parallels his knack of evading not only female but male friends too, like sparkling water. Returning cagily to his good friend Edmund Gosse an enthusiastic pamphlet by J.A. Symonds advocating homosexual passion, James signs his accompanying note demurely ‘Yours – if I may safely say so! – ever H.J.’ James’s novels elude too. Certainly they are not easily held down by some of the sharpest and strongest of the literary criticism that has marked the enormous boom in James studies over the last few decades – a boom that may always, of course, depend on some lack of ‘real life’ in the writing. One of the keenest-edged attempts to get straight this Jamesian elusiveness regarding ‘real life’ has been made by Edith Wharton’s most direct heir (in this matter), Mary McCarthy, Miss McCarthy’s brilliant essay ‘The Fact in Fiction’ – published some twenty years ago, though her argument is to some extent continued and amplified in her recent Ideas and the Novel – revived the earlier writer’s question in a far more sophisticated and judicial form. She argued that ‘the Master’ was a kind of one-man Death of the Novel, killing off his adored art-form by the false kindness of his snobbish and precious and puritanical exclusion from it of all that gross pabulum of Facts and Ideas which it needs to keep it going: for these are (she maintains) the forms where-by real life is reflected in the novel, which takes its name from nouvelle and nouveaux (news) and like the newspaper exists to communicate Facts and Ideas.
Just how difficult it is to get to grips with the Jamesian detachment is suggested by the amount of fallacy in this crisp and brilliant essay. Facts and Ideas are not really essential even to Mary McCarthy’s own novels, whose extraordinary photographic up-to-the-instant realism, ‘real life’ as this thing, that thing, and not the living of it, is less a necessity of the whole art-form than a peripheral special grace of the writer’s own, an idiosyncratic and deliberated talent. As idiosyncratic, in fact, as its exact converse equivalent, the famous refusal by James in The Ambassadors to name the precise object manufactured by Chad’s family and the basis of their wealth. Ideas as well as Facts (like theories of sexuality or of child-rearing in The Group) assume a stylish outré look, a smiling wilfulness, like the pleasure taken by one of her heroines in wearing clashing shades of green; ideas are treated here just as aesthetically as their converse match, that blank absence of ideas in the small talk of James’s fictional ‘Society’ that exists only to make audible the frightful silence the talk covers concerning unspeakable things done (characters in The Awkward Age agree that ‘it isn’t just talk’ – but what else it might be is left as vague as the cigarette smoke that everywhere clouds the action). These perfectly aesthetic games with Facts and Ideas, in which Mary McCarthy’s practice is nearly as skilled as its converse in James, are quite similar reactions to modern circumstances that affect the Novel but in no way created it. At the end of Birds of America the spirit of Kant comes to the troubled young hero in his fever and says, ‘Nature is dead, my son’: and the wit and pathos of the novel are in the struggling attempt of the boy and his mother to retain a sense of the Natural through ‘Facts and Ideas’ – a cooking-pot, a bird – in a Natureless modern society. The peculiar effects of James’s novels, which Mary McCarthy interprets in terms of exclusion and flight, are largely his attempt – at an earlier stage of the crisis – to achieve his own fighting definition of the ‘Natural’.
Visiting Millbank prison in search of copy for The Princess Casamassima, James wrote to a friend with a complex irony and half-defensiveness: ‘You see, I am quite the Naturalist.’ It was Nature that James was searching for, from Millbank to Mentmore: a search that allies him, paradoxically, not only with Mary McCarthy, but with most other modern American novelists. If there is (and clearly there is) a problem of irreality in modern existence, it can hardly be laid at the door of poor over-aesthetic Henry James, even if an acute early recognition of the problem made him react with too negative a hostility (it could be said) towards some of the irrealists: becoming the angry enemy – The Reverberator is the prime case, and these Letters offer another – of that newspaper world for which he himself at need also wrote, or with cold prescience making the mercenary Chad discover the great beauties of the whole new advertising ethos. James was not far behind Gissing in understanding the importance of the new media, and ahead of him in the success with which he explored the problem.
If Nature is not easy to define in modern urban society, neither is that quality by which the novelist pursues his search: his intelligence. Sharp difference of opinion concerning James’s intelligence (its kind rather than its quantity) is as much a feature of criticism of him as is the difficulty of defining what the ‘real life’ of his novels is. Mary McCarthy’s Ideas and the Novel begins, snorting somewhat bitterly, by quoting perhaps the best-known remark ever written about James, Eliot’s praise of him not long after his death as a man with ‘a mind so fine that no idea could violate it’: the right place for a beginning, since Eliot’s remark was a declaration of hostilities which Mary McCarthy intends to re-open by quoting it. That modern specialisation which probably began as early as the Renaissance to separate the artist from the philosopher, and the Man of Genius from the Man of Ideas, has in the process tended to evolve as the type of the literary man, one with a temperamental aversion from the grinding of axes. But it is not always easy for the articulate literary man to live with this aversion. Intelligent but axeless, he will find himself in a front line facing the juggernauts of those Men of Ideas, the philosophers and his friends: as did the ex-philosopher Eliot when with an ironic pugnacity he threw out the remark about James’s fineness of mind towards the ranks of his ex-colleagues. Not everyone has Eliot’s extraordinary gift for turning axe-lessness into an axe: nor, for that matter, the self-protective fineness of mind that Eliot recognised in James. Therefore a critic who finds himself writing on James after Eliot, but with something less than either man’s quite exceptional gifts, may well find himself forced to choose one of two positions on the ‘Ideas’ front. Either he will find himself claiming (whether in praising or deploring) that James had no Ideas, thus reducing him in effect to an artistic fool; or he will defend and define the Jamesian intelligence in terms of Ideas, with results that are manifest in, for instance. Professor Alwyn Berland’s interesting Culture and Conduct in the Novels of Henry James.
Taking The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors as his primary texts, Berland visualises a definitively post-Arnoldian Henry James, whose chief concern in his fiction was the establishment of an idea of true Civilisation. His thesis is that this pursuit of an ideal led James into a kind of trap: the writer found himself in his novels caught between, on the one hand, the debilitating isolation of the life of ‘culture’ or refined conscience in the individual, and, on the other, the inherited and inevitable corruptions of the social context of wealth. This theme has evident good sense to recommend it, and is handled with a poise and sophisticated temperateness not endemic in theses: as a result, the book is continually insightful and right-minded. In some general sense, too, its image of James gets sympathetic support from the man revealed by these Letters: to whom political thinking is hardly problematical (though his own chief political idea was a hatred of politics) and whose professional literary opinions are always authoritative and fascinating. Indeed, the primary evidence of James’s expert handling of ‘Ideas’ in this sense must be the useful new collection of James’s Literary Reviews and Essays: but the Letters add some entertaining off-the-cuff materials, from James’s rapidly-growing warmth of response to a writer as naturally alien to himself as Ibsen was, to his equally warm response to what he presumably thought of as a typically English middlebrow mindlessness as revealed by Trollope’s Autobiography: ‘one of the most curious and amazing books in all literature, for its density, blockishness, and general thickness and soddenness.’
A man who can write like this is probably an intellectual. And yet Professor Berland’s defence of Henry James is surely as fallacy-ridden as Mary McCarthy’s attack. For he is not content merely to offer a definition of one side of the writer, but goes on to identify the man and the work, and then – by a process perhaps inevitable in thesis-writing – to impose on the novels the form of his own enterprise. The novelist becomes pure ‘Man of Ideas’, whose work it is to opine, to judge, to carry out a critique; and the novels are that critique. Since Professor Berland is not engaged with the aesthetic reality of James’s fictions (and possibly could not be, in such a study as this), he ignores that whole aspect of James’s work which led persons as unlike as Eliot and Mary McCarthy to agree, from different sides of the fence, that the writer was heroically or villainously lacking in Ideas. Wishing to defend James’s intelligence, Professor Berland is really in danger of only defending the anti-aestheticism which underlies the Edith Wharton-Mary McCarthy position. And this can result in real distortion, not merely of James’s formal intentions, but of what infuses them – his expressed sense of the real, the ‘real life’ (if we must) in and of his novels.
Since the thesis of Culture and Conduct is that James was caught between contradictory definitions of Civilisation, and there is nothing in this thesis to separate ‘definition’ from ‘creation’, there is also nothing to ward off Berland’s conclusion that the novels are, for instance, ‘tragic’. The term is repeated a number of times, and with emphasis: the response it signifies is commonplace, though perhaps borrowed originally from Leavis’s authoritatively sensitive work on James, has much to recommend it, and is not easy to counter briefly. All the same, it can be gravely misleading. Most of James’s best novels and some of his best stories are certainly pain-filled, being histories of the betrayal (but not the destruction) of the innocent heart and spirit; and as well as being in some obvious senses sad, the best have an implacable moral insight. But to call even the most touching of them, What Maisie Knew, ‘tragic’ would be to ignore something vital to its meaning as well as to its form. ‘Art makes life’: the brilliant achievement of the book’s artistry is by its ironic detachment and conscious balance to show rectitude surviving the threat of destruction, so that even What Maisie Knew is, all in all, a kind of grave comedy. And certainly it is intensely funny even when most incisive. If James is a tragic writer, then he is an uncommonly witty one.
There is more, too, than the pervasive and often shiningly comic wit of James’s novels to make the word ‘tragic’ insensitive here. The kind of discussion Berland is undertaking tends to ignore structure as well as style. But the actual meaning of James’s novels is affected, and any potential tragic import qualified, by their insistent habit of, for instance, ‘open’ endings. What Maisie Knew is about – in terms of plot – the ditching of a little girl, whose smart late-Victorian upper-class divorced parents use her as a weapon against each other, then leave her to the care of their now abandoned second spouses, who briefly use her as cover for their amatory coming-together: a ‘real-life’ procedure here communicated, as to literary effect, with a ridiculous innocent high-styling aplomb of decorum, as from a child’s-eye point of view – there is nothing whatever improper for anyone to ‘know’. As Maisie journeys home to England at the end, towing her Nurse behind her, the novel is over, its almost mathematical steely structure of permutations of treachery all exhausted and complete. And yet every rereading leaves one, as naively as Maisie, wanting ‘to go on with it’, to know what happens next: because the action that has ditched the child has also brought her from the mere pathos of the infantile to something more and more heroically interesting, to being a grown person of strong and serene self-containment, her loving decisive nature both ‘socialised’ and isolated. James says somewhere that girls ‘bear up, oddly enough ... beyond their brothers’. What Maisie Knew, like many of James’s fictions, could be subtitled ‘Bearing Up’. The tough, tactless, virtuous little Maisie has ‘borne up’ so far that it is at the painful and yet almost comic end that we most want to know what happens to her now.
This concept of Maisie’s fate, which establishes one of the deepest patterns in James’s fiction, is foreshadowed in a casual sentence from this volume of Letters. The writer’s unhappy but very intelligent and strong-minded sister Alice after a while followed him to England, where he tended her many and soon fatal psychosomatic and then plain physical ills with the greatest brotherly attention and constant kindness. At one stage he writes to counsel not too much fussing anxiety about Alice, because ‘her “loneliness” gives her much more comfort than distress. It presents itself to her in the form of independence and absolute freedom ...’ Sudden sentences like these make a reader feel how ‘lonely’, how peculiarly unusual, James himself was, the watchful Irish-American artist and outsider disguised as so conventional a diner-out and weekender in late-Victorian high society: a man who retained in all his various limited milieux so obdurately personal a sense of Natural things, of the Nature in the human beings around him. And he did it, surely, with all the more odd authority from the inward awareness of the senses in which he could himself be called un-natural – a man without either country or job, and one deeply confused moreover about his own sexual identity. This is the James whom, it is clear from letters and anecdotes, children and other animals moved towards with automatic liking and trust: he respected the Nature in them. It is unsurprising that the writer better-known for once having casually told Desmond McCarthy, glancing around the usual claustrophobic Edwardian salon, that he ‘could stand a good deal of gilt’, here struggles with transparent sincerity to get Alice ‘out of the close sickroom, with windows for ever shut’. James’s whole diplomatically affectionate but therapeutic treatment of Alice is a pattern on simpler terms of the insistence, years later in the handling of Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove: let the writer ‘deal with the sickest of the sick, it is still by the act of living that they appeal to him, and appeal the more as the conditions plot against them and prescribe the battle ...’ In fact, there is a steady two-way route between these Letters and what appear to be James’s deepest literary ambitions as they emerge from the novels: to invent an aestheticism free from all morbidity, even to define a spirituality defiantly mundane.
The preceding volume of Letters in Professor Edel’s edition has a phrase that puts this in a nutshell. James writes there a long letter of bracing reassurance to a close friend, Grace Norton, who was in one of her bad bouts of melancholia. (It is an example of the sad discrepancy between life and literature in James’s case that when, after a lifetime of writing affectionately to Grace, he met her again on his late visit to the States, he discovered he did not like her.) In this kind letter James concludes: ‘Try not to be ill – that is all; for there is a future in it.’ Scholars have suggested emendations for this enigmatic sentence (Edel ‘failure’ for ‘future’, Bernard Richards ‘no’ for ‘a’), but really it is perfectly characteristic of James’s naturalness. As melancholy himself as Grace, he agrees that one can only aim low and ‘Try – at least not to be ill, if not to be well’: a principle of surviving rewarded by a good as basic as the surviving, the principle of ‘futurity’. This futurity, this healthy mundane response to the ongoing principle of life innate in natural things, is as important to James’s vision of existence as any more formal concept of Civilisation, and as destructive of any simple notion of ‘tragedy’. It is destructive, indeed, of any kind of simple certainties, and contributes perhaps as much to the sense of ambiguity in James’s novels as does any form of more artificial complexity. Thus James’s first important novel, The Portrait of a Lady, ends with a conclusion so elusive as to trouble readers ‘hot for certainties’ – the married virtuous heroine’s friend exhorts the rejected Caspar: ‘Just you wait.’ There is nothing in the plot for Caspar to wait for – except Life itself; losing his dream, he will live and change. It is to this painful and adult knowledge (comic too, perhaps) that the book brings Isabel as well, making her understand at last that the ‘choice of life’ may be, even if not mistaken, at least immaterial – any path of duty is the right one for her, now she has the strength and freedom and responsibility to take it. The novel brings both young people to the open door, Life.
This deep, romantic and yet also classic sense of Tomorrow touches, and alters with its instinctive feeling for life, even the most constrained and inbred of James’s late fictions. His study of London life, The Awkward Age, ends with the word ‘Tomorrow’ uttered by innocent old Mr Longdon to the jilted but heroically surviving Nanda, who has come through the initiation ceremony imposed by the bright little circle of her mother and her friends. Again, Professor Berland lays stress on the tragic pain of the futile end of The Ambassadors, in which Strether resolves under force of conscience to go back home to the States where nothing awaits him now but hostile ignominy: but there is comedy, too, in the thought that the trip to Europe has (if nothing else) effected the cutting of an old man’s apron-strings – made enough of a man of a Strether grown up through love and betrayal and disillusionment, to face the awful Newsomes at last. Similarly, Kate Croy’s ‘We shall never again be as we were’ may well be the cry of pain that Professor Berland finds it: but it has another sound as well – the buried, formidable excitement of a young woman inheriting the world, capable of weathering (as poor Densher is not) the crimes and sufferings of love. Lastly, Berland finds The Golden Bowl a failure, and that decision, too, might depend on what we make of the ending: which sets in their true perspective the ambiguities that trouble him in the book. James wanted to have called it The Marriages, and the open-windowed, balconied scene of the ending makes it plain that, on whatever terms, the two marriages are going to survive, even to flourish. Maggy’s produces Life, her father’s Art; and the knowledge of precisely what sacrifices such productiveness will exert, in life as in art, does nothing but add to the full light of the ending a curious, heavy, natural sense of promise, like thunder in summer.
Meditating on what he regards as the disabling ambiguity of the Ververs, which derives, as he reads it, from a radical confusion of economic principles in the mind of James himself, Berland concludes: ‘It is the mark of obscurity (as distinct from difficulty) that a text cannot be understood definitively, owing to the absence of the elements necessary for certainty. And The Golden Bowl is obscure ...’ It is good to have this lucidity directed at late James, and it is true that there is some weakness inherent in The Golden Bowl: but whether that weakness should be identified with obscurity as Berland defines it is another matter altogether. If it is ‘obscure’ to think about the world’s wealth in a manner lacking ‘definitiveness’ and ‘certainty’, then so are The Merchant of Venice and Othello ‘obscure’, among most of the rest of the monuments of civilisation. So, more precisely, is James’s late unfinished novel The Ivory Tower: and yet ‘obscurity’ is there indissociable from pregnancy, from an enormous exact potency of association that makes this legend of millionaires almost the great work it promised to be, and the magical fragment it remains. The scale of this potency of association (or ‘obscurity’) becomes clear if James’s novel is set beside a story that resembles The Ivory Tower and may indeed have derived something from it, Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby: whose shoddy magic and tarnished romanticism render it by comparison a work clearer but also smaller in its poetry of money.
James’s ‘obscurity’ is, in short, simply not dissociable from his power and range of imagination. And this is surely the central matter which makes the debate about him interesting: it is essentially a debate about the nature of intelligence, especially as operating in modern life. Professor Berland undertakes a defence of the writer’s intelligence against the kind of charge that is brought against him tacitly by Edith Wharton and more explicitly by Mary McCarthy: but he can do so only by sharing a limiting concept of the novel, of intelligence, and perhaps of reality. For to say that a literary work may or even must be ‘understood definitively’ or with ‘certainty’ is as tendentious as talking of a life lived, or a person loved, ‘definitively’, ‘with certainty’: for the full imaginative power of intelligence is as close to these activities as it is to a quasi-philosophical act of ‘knowing’. And it is hardly irrelevant that much of James’s later writing concerns itself with this distinction, from the emphasis in the title of What Maisie Knew onwards. The shamefully uneducated but terribly clever Maisie – whose innocence damages everybody for miles around – learns ‘everything’ largely by the way it hurts.
In a letter written not long after this third volume of Letters finishes, James informed one of the French literary friends who vexed his brother so – and this man’s decided Fascistic impulses alienated him from James himself – that he, James, had an ‘inalienable distrust of the great ones of the earth and a thorough disbelief in any security with people who have no imagination ... They can only live their hard, functional lives.’ It has to be said that Professor Berland’s sage and tactful study of James is limited by a definition of intelligence itself too ‘hard’ and ‘functional’. And necessarily the same charge must be levelled at any attempt to define the Novel in terms of ‘Facts and Ideas’. To describe the Novel in terms of its relationship with the newspaper is like making Plato define Love as the product of Poverty: what he actually called it was ‘the child of Poverty and Plenty’. A ‘functional’ definition of the origins of the Novel leaves out its fructifying or enriching element. It derives, not only from a new world of News, but from an old world of Romance, and James’s peculiarities – if these are what they are – can be as well explained by a positive inheritance from Romance as by a negative exclusion of News.
To take one instance only: Mary McCarthy would like more information, more Facts, about that houseful of furniture over which all the storms rage in The Spoils of Poynton; and Professor Berland finds its heroine an insufficiently fine embodiment of the Idea of Renunciation. It is also true that Mr Rochester does not very well embody the concept of the Good Employer in Jane Eyre, and that we learn all too little about the architectural features of his house, Thorncliffe. But the fact that the house burns down at the end of Jane’s story, just as Poynton does, suggests that some comparison between the two might be worth making: that The Spoils of Poynton also bears some relation to Romance, to a tale of passion like Jane Eyre. Its houseful of furniture stands rightly in an impressionistic shadow, because only figuratively is it material to the ‘entire point’ of the action, which is love. It is significantly as she falls in love for the first time that Fleda senses the beginnings of boredom with the ‘old Things’, the beautiful objects. The fierce irony of James’s tale is that its little group of upper-class English protagonists (mother, son and son’s fiancée, plus the mother’s shabby-genteel sensitive young ‘companion’) are tied in bonds of love to which they can give no expression except through a more and more degrading though sometimes farcical struggle for a houseful of marvellous junk. As the combatants’ love coarsens into simple possessiveness and the virtuous companion heroine retreats into a nervous refusal to make any claims at all, so the logic grows clearer and clearer by which the story must end with the (ironically) now neglected house of treasures burning down. The social ‘work of art’ has diminished to a mere symbol of appetites by now quite free-standing and desolate.
The chief Fact or Idea in The Spoils of Poynton is the strong, almost punitive clarity of this story-line; and from it emanate all the other contained facts and ideas concerning human feeling and human society (for data there always is, of course, in James’s novels: he gives a brilliant outsider’s look into the late-19th-century culture of London drawing-rooms and country-house parties, the colours and the clothes and the rituals). A hostile critic might say that this containment too much sacrifices the sense of life to artistic form or image: but the romance form or image in itself cannot be called alien to the novel. The power of its story, often a story of human feeling, is generic to the Novel (‘Oh dear, yes ...’). It is this ancient power of story that is almost self-derisively located in the melodramatic blaze at the end of The Spoils of Poynton, bringing acrid ash to Fleda’s tear-wet cheeks as she resolves to return to ‘life’: ‘I’ll go back.’ The effect of this conflagration is to set James’s story in a relationship, however reserved and sardonic, to a predecessor like Jane Eyre; and even to give it an unintended allegiance to such a (later) direct descendant of the earlier novel as the inflammatory Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (‘That’s not the Northern Lights, that’s Manderley’). It is on the same terms that The Wings of the Dove, for instance, manages to survive as probably a great novel while possessing features distinctly to be related to the women’s magazine story. The relationship does not necessarily prove some special exclusive weakness in James’s sensibility. There is perhaps only some question of what happens, in a specialising modern civilisation, to a vital Romantic side of the novel, as vital to it as is the concept of Nature to a society: a side of the novel that goes back through James to Flaubert and Stendhal, and through them again to the English Richardson, whose Clarissa Harlowe, heroine of the greatest romance and perhaps also the greatest novel in English, is the true ancestress of all Henry James’s sensitive heroines – even though James is unlikely ever to have read the book itself. Richardson and Stendhal and Flaubert, the psychologists of the heart, are no less true novelists than that ‘secretary’ to Society, the fact-loaded Balzac – whom James so admired and hoped to imitate.
It will be obvious to any reader that, if The Spoils of Poynton or any other novel by James can be called a romance, then it will be a highly unusual, highly astringent romance. In fact, James’s true character as a writer depends on this very contradictory crossing of qualities, the wit with the pain, the astringency with the romance, the sense of the inward individual with the equal sense of the encompassing qualifying social complex. It is worth stressing the existence of this romantic or feeling element because it provides what is perhaps the only answer to the adverse case drawn up by critics from Edith Wharton to Mary McCarthy, an ‘only answer’ perfectly summarised by a third distinguished American woman writer, Marianne Moore:
James is all that has been said of him if feeling is profound.
At much the same time as the guarded note to Gosse, James wrote to his much more distant but in another sense ‘close’ friend, Robert Louis Stevenson, exiled from England by illness and with not long to live, and the writer lets fall: ‘Sometimes I think I have got through the worst of missing you and then I find I haven’t.’ There is a classic directness and lucidity here such as one can look for and fail to find in much of the love poetry of the time. And it is this unerring depth of (all the same) ironic and artful and self-questioning feeling which is the standard of James’s writing. When he can locate it in a work, when he finds the true means to express a self-discovery both personal and largely human, very distinguished writing results – indeed, great novels, ‘if feeling is profound’. The weak areas in James’s work result from the absence of these conditions: and then we read at best a good journalist and social entertainer. In certain of the essays – travel writing, for instance, like Italian Hours – one can actually see the tourist as artist in search of his symbols but never here or yet quite finding them: incapable of the vivid images of place that a worse artist could have given us, and searching for some more valuable impression or feeling within the self that remains undiscovered. A comparable problem, though in larger terms, can be traced through the three novels James was writing through the period of Letters III, The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima and The Tragic Muse. In the first brilliant pair James achieves a dreamlike or nightmarish intensity by fusing violent states of inward feeling with locales and issues taken from the ‘public’ world of the time: but the mix remains discordant, however wonderfully striking the Amazonian Boston and anarchistic London that results. In The Tragic Muse and the plays, James rebounded with bewildered resentment after the failure of these novels into a public art aimed at success by being deprived of inwardness: but The Tragic Muse is shallow and the plays bodiless and incredible. James’s purely literary problems in the late Eighties and early Nineties suggest that they find some conscious reflection in the now understood trouble of the narrator in James’s difficult late novel, The Sacred Fount: who, unable to be certain that he ‘reads’ the world round him truly, fears that he may – like all James’s fictive bad journalists and egoistic critics – be not merely insane but vicious, doing harm to what he ‘sees’.
In the later Nineties James returned, troubled but with now no alternative, to his ‘pale little art of fiction’. For a decade private pain had blended with public failure, even humiliation: the sense of rejection by audiences and readers with the repeated loss of friends and relatives, the slow death of Alice and the sudden horror of ‘Fenimore’s’ suicide. Letters III reflect, through their warmth and wit and kindness, a bad period. But, as the dying artist says in the story ‘The Middle Years’, ‘frustration’s only life.’ And James himself wrote: ‘My infinite little loss is converted into an almost infinite little gain.’ The decade of James’s work that succeeds and feeds on this bad period is his greatest, and in it what he was to call all the ‘high sane forces’ of art and life came to his aid. The balance of the phrase, of ‘high’ and ‘sane’ against ‘force’, reflects also the balance of the art he was to create. All James’s best work of the Nineties could go by the title of the sardonic open-ended earlier story, ‘A London Life’, for, in it, intensities of inward individual feeling are preserved by a social art never more sharp and analytical, more detached and ironic. It is of a piece with the complexity of James’s art at this period that the greatest character he created in it – and perhaps the best in all his work – is not a ‘good soul’ at all, but the sweetly lethal, charming, clever, infinitely complicated socialite Mrs Brookenham: who is seen from within as well as without. At all events, essential James begins in novels like What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age, whose mannered and pathetic female children live out in Belgravia drawing-rooms great legends of the growing spirit. Yet in a way James did not need the ‘sacred years’ of the ‘old D.V. Gdns. time’ to achieve this vision. James’s very first novel, Watch and Ward – published in the States in 1870, a Bostonian Daddy-Long-Legs romance almost pastoral in its naïveté – at one moment has its young heroine ‘weeping in her ball-dress those primitive tears’. At least the ‘real life’ of London in the Eighties and Nineties gave James the means to mature that reality of the tears and the ball-dress, to perfect his whole unique understanding of the jungle within the drawing-room and of the ‘high sane forces’ that might govern the jungle itself.
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