Henry James: A Life in Letters 
edited by Philip Horne.
Penguin, 668 pp., £25, June 1999, 0 7139 9126 7
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A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art 
by Lyndall Gordon.
Chatto, 500 pp., £20, October 1998, 0 7011 6166 3
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Henry James was a generous correspondent in more senses than one, but his fellow writers may have found some of the Master’s letters rather exasperating. ‘I read your current novel with pleasure,’ he wrote to William Dean Howells in 1880, ‘but I don’t think the subject fruitful, & I suspect that much of the public will agree with me.’ As a response to another novelist’s work, this is uncharacteristic only in its brevity – and in James’s youthful assurance that the public will be on his side. Even when he was most lavish with his praise (perhaps especially then), he could not resist tempering it with qualifications and advice. With a few rare exceptions – an ecstatic response to Conrad’s Mirror of the Sea among them – nearly all the correspondence with writers that Philip Horne includes in his admirable new edition conforms to the pattern. Experienced recipients of such letters must have learned to watch for that ‘but’ and to steel themselves accordingly.

Especially later in his career, James found it difficult to separate the experience of reading other people’s work from the impulse to rewrite it. Not content with merely identifying weaknesses, he was forever taking up his pen to spell out alternatives. A series of letters to Mrs Humphry Ward, several previously unpublished, make the process explicit. ‘I have been full to the brim of interest & admiration,’ he declared after finishing her Helbeck of Bannisdale in 1898: ‘The whole thing is done in a way to make the book run an immense chance of being pronounced the finest of the lot.’ But the whole thing was not done, evidently, as he himself would have done it; and he was soon contemplating ‘the greater intensity’ Ward would have achieved had she confined her tale to a single consciousness. Responding to her Eleanor the following year, he vehemently denied that he was setting out any ‘hard & fast rule’ for their art, even as he confessed himself ‘a wretched person to read a novel – I begin so quickly and concomitantly, for myself, to write it, rather – even before I know clearly what it’s about! The novel I can only read,’ he half-jokingly continued, ‘I can’t read at all!’ Though he thereby implied that he managed to read very few of his contemporaries, even tales of cowboys could apparently pass the test, since in 1902 he was happily reading – that is, rewriting – Owen Wister’s Virginian. The hero’s final marriage to a schoolteacher was emphatically not the sort of ‘poetic justice’ James’s imagination required. ‘I am willing to throw out, even though you don’t ask me, that nothing would have induced me to unite him to that little Vermont person,’ he told the author, as he made clear that he would have preferred another way of ending this cowboy’s career: ‘I thirst for his blood.’

Though James could stubbornly defend the choices he made in his own work against the alternatives others proposed, as when he mockingly protested the ‘cheerful ending’ that Howells would have preferred for The American, he was also ready to take their critical engagement as a form of appreciation. ‘After your approval ... nothing could give me greater delight than your censure,’ he wrote to his friend Lizzie Boott, who had apparently shared Howells’s disappointment with The American: ‘Such readers are worth having – readers who really care what one does & who pay one the divine compliment of taking things hard.’ He was not merely being polite when, writing to another friend, Theodora Sedgwick, in 1888, he professed himself ‘delighted with any remonstrance that is a sign of interest’: it seems clear that he would have preferred the indignation with which some Americans greeted his portrait of Daisy Miller or his study of Hawthorne, for example, to the ‘deathly silence’ with which works like The Bostonians (1886) and The Princess Casamassima (1886) were received by the public. H.G. Wells’s satirical attack on James in Boon (1915) was another matter, however, and not merely because it came from someone he had hitherto regarded as a friend. This was not engaged criticism, as James saw it, but something more like a gesture of contempt, and it registered as ‘the collapse of a bridge which made communication possible’. The deeply wounded letters in which he responded to Wells are well known, but they retain their capacity to move – all the more so because their author’s ‘life in letters’, as Horne has chosen to call it, is manifestly coming to an end.

James was also, of course, a perpetual reviser of his own work as well as that of his contemporaries: not only when he came to collect it for the New York Edition of 1907-09, but in his frequent reimagining of plots and characters and in the very qualifications and elaborations of his style. ‘Nothing is my last word about anything,’ he famously wrote to a reviewer who had complained of his representation of English manners in ‘An International Episode’ (1879); and the present edition of his letters more than bears him out. Horne calls attention to a characteristic passage from one of the letters to Ward quoted earlier, in which James finds himself irresistibly drawn forward by all he wants to convey:

But there is too much to say about these things – & I am writing too much – & yet haven’t said ½ I want to – and, above all, there being so much, it is doubtless better not to attempt to say pen in hand what one can say but so partially. And yet I must still add one or two things more.

There is something comic in his compulsiveness, as there is in the predictability with which he confesses himself defeated by the similarly expansive tendencies of his fiction. From a letter of 1886, begging the Atlantic Monthly for another month in which to finish a ‘too damnably voluminous’ Princess Casamassima to one twenty years later recounting to Harper’s Magazine how he has been ‘worsted’ in the struggle to ‘keep ... down’ the tale that would become ‘The Jolly Corner’, proposals for a tale of a certain length or a novel in so many numbers almost invariably turn out to exceed those limits. The Spoils of Poynton (1898) is a comparatively brief novel, but only because it began life as a short story: successive letters document its growth from ‘nothing in excess of 15,000 words’, to a novel of ‘18 or 19 chapters if I don’t throw in a 20th to make the round number’, while Horne’s notes refer us to yet another letter in which he reports that symmetry has demanded 22.

Though several letters imply that as a young man he had no trouble adhering to space restrictions, by the 1890s, at least, the pattern seems fixed. Yet the impression of haplessness James liked to convey as words ran away with him can be terribly deceptive, if only because he never lost the determination to succeed on his own terms. Because he had ‘too much manner and style’, as he told the editor of the Atlantic Monthly in 1895, ‘too great & invincible an instinct of completeness & of seeing things in all their relations’, development was ‘inevitable’. Even as he complained to Howells in 1901 of his failure to ‘place’ any short pieces, he could boast of having ‘finished a tolerably long novel’ (The Ambassadors) and ‘written a third of another – with still another begun & two or three more subjects awaiting me thereafter like carriages drawn up at the door & horses champing their bits’. The metaphor characteristically implies that these subjects have a will of their own, but it also leaves no doubt on whose orders they are waiting.

James’s very lavishness as a correspondent poses a formidable challenge for an editor. Far from constituting a complete edition, as is sometimes imagined, Leon Edel’s four volumes of Henry James Letters (1974-84) in fact contain fewer than a tenth of the letters thought to survive. (Horne puts the likely range at 12,000 to 15,000, with some estimates of the total actually written as high as 40,000.) The situation is further complicated, as Horne points out, by the fact that Edel omitted some letters he had himself chosen for a single volume in 1955, as well as many from Percy Lubbock’s original collection of 1920; while the ‘selected’ letters with which he followed up his four volumes in 1987 included some then published for the first time. Presumably, all this confusion will be swept aside when the projected 30 volumes of the compete edition recently announced by the University of Nebraska Press see print over the next several decades, but even specialists are likely to find the results of that collective effort rather daunting. Most readers will still want someone to choose the letters for them, and Horne has clearly designed his edition with their needs in mind. Between the quietly unobtrusive textual matter, the lucid and detailed notes, and the pointed commentary with which he introduces each letter – not to mention such thoughtful additions as a glossary of foreign words and phrases – Henry James: A Life in Letters is undoubtedly the most useful collection we have had.

Horne has not hesitated to reprint deservedly famous pieces, like the eloquent response of 1914 to a ‘melancholy outpouring’ from Henry Adams, in which James pronounced himself ‘that queer monster the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility’, and urged his friend to ‘cultivate’ his consciousness in full knowledge that ‘the past that was our lives is at the bottom of an abyss – if the abyss has any bottom.’ But this collection has also been shaped by contemporary interest in more mundane matters, such as James’s relations with the literary market; and here the artist’s patience was evidently not inexhaustible. A 1909 letter to his agent, James Brand Pinker, reads in full: ‘I am greatly obliged to you for what you have done, with Putnam, for the “Bench of Desolation”, & am quite content, as a pis aller, with the £75. But clearly I have written the last short story of my life – which you will be glad to know!’ (He had.) Though Edel sometimes implied that he had culled all but ‘the mere twaddle of graciousness’, in James’s own dismissive phrase, half of these nearly three hundred letters have never been published before; and if some resemble the message to Pinker rather than the one to Adams, the collection as a whole confirms James’s extraordinary powers as a correspondent.

Whether by themselves they make for satisfying biography – as Horne would evidently like them to – is not so clear. Though he intends his work as a refashioning of the Victorian ‘Life and Letters’, with his linking commentary serving as the narrative frame for James’s own words, Horne’s very interpretative modesty means that the book remains, as its subtitle has it, a life in letters: not a full account, but a record inevitably dominated by the social and professional voice of the mature artist. (Half these pages cover the last 20 of the novelist’s 73 years.) A life in Letters begins by quoting what James himself said of his brother William, ‘He was so admirable a letter-writer that they will constitute his real and best biography,’ but Horne does not let on that when he wrote this to a relative in 1913 James was partly seeking to deflect the charge that what had begun as a memoir about ‘WJ and the rest of us’, had pretty much turned into the story of himself. ‘I overflowed so much more than I intended about my babyhood and the few years after in the Small Boy,’ he confessed, ‘that all the latter and more important part got crowded out.’ Though he promised to remedy the ‘too egoistical narrative’ of A Small Boy and Others (1913) with the volume that became Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), the two books have since been classed, together with the unfinished Middle Years (1917), as autobiography. But since the three volumes taken together are distinctly weighted toward ‘babyhood’, the emphasis of Horne’s book on the later years does help to balance the record. And surely the James who attributed his disappointment with Forster’s The Life of Charles Dickens to its having ‘too many opinions & “remarks” & not enough facts & documents’ would have welcomed the editorial scrupulousness and interpretative restraint of Horne’s Life in Letters.

Lyndall Gordon also offers her book as a biographical experiment, but her assumptions about what counts as James’s ‘life’ are radically different. ‘James’s own letters,’ she announces at the outset, ‘are, for the most part, too public, too busy, too fulsome, to give much away’; and it is with what he refuses to give away, as she imagines it, that her Private Life of the novelist is concerned. While Horne trusts the documents to speak for themselves, Gordon reads between the lines with a vengeance. And while he sees James as ‘a social novelist’, whose fiction is continuous with his letters, she repeatedly dismisses both James’s own sociability and the society represented in his fiction as mere façade. Just as the persona of his letters is a ‘calculated’ and ‘deliberately unrevealing’ substitute for the real man, so ‘the settings and manners he absorbed over his years in England were the rind, only, of introspective works in the American tradition.’ In the James story from which she takes her title, the writer has a double who amiably mingles in company while he continues to work at his desk. Though for Horne the theme of this story is ‘a joke more than the full truth’, for Gordon it provides the key to the man and his art.

But even if one reads James’s fable as a serious meditation on the artist’s dilemma, it does not follow that ‘the private life’ conceals the secrets Gordon imagines. James characteristically insisted that the real life of the artist is the life of his art. Gordon repeatedly confounds this claim with more conventional – and melodramatic – ideas of the private. As she tells it, the story of James’s private life is primarily the story of his relations with two women: his spirited cousin, Minny Temple, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 24 but was famously resurrected in the heroines of The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Wings of the Dove (1902), and the American writer, Constance Fenimore Woolson, James’s intermittent companion and occasional fellow lodger for over a decade, who apparently committed suicide by hurling herself from the window of her Venetian apartments in the winter of 1894. Though the two women are in many ways an odd couple, they are united by biographical circumstance – Minny’s sister Henrietta provided Woolson with her introduction to James – and, more deeply, Gordon argues, by the way they both haunted his imagination after their deaths. Minny reappears, by this account, not only as Isabel Archer and Milly Theale – and, of course, in her own person, when the novelist movingly recalled her many years later in A Small Boy and Others – but in all James’s lively American girls, from Daisy Miller to Maggie Verver. Woolson is first mourned in ‘The Altar of the Dead’ (1894), then guiltily invoked in a succession of ‘mature women who love mutely and to the death’ – a category that apparently includes Maria Gostrey in The Ambassadors (1903), as well as the heroines of ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ (1903) and ‘The Jolly Comer’ (1908). Not all these sightings of the dead are equally persuasive: Daisy Miller, whom James characterised in a letter to Eliza Lynn Linton as ‘a flirt – a perfectly superficial and unmalicious one’ seems a rather implausible (not to say unflattering) tribute to Minny Temple, for example. But the real problem with Gordon’s argument is her determination to indict James for having foiled both women and her assumption that by scrupulously guarding his privacy he was necessarily covering up that guilt. If she stops short of calling him a ‘killer’ – as she does Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove – she repeatedly hints that by neglecting Minny’s implicit request to take her to Europe and by withdrawing from sustained intimacy with Woolson, he was obscurely responsible for their deaths. He then compounded this crime, Gordon suggests, by ‘appropriating’ them for his art.

As a feminist recovery of lives that have been overshadowed by James’s own, Gordon’s biographical experiment has genuine merits. Though neither woman’s connection with the novelist has gone unnoted, Gordon refuses to subordinate their story to his; and the result is a fuller and more sympathetic account of Minny Temple’s youthful rebelliousness, for example, or of the mixture of loneliness and prickly independence that characterised Woolson’s life as a writer. The quotations from Minny’s unpublished letters vividly convey what James called her ‘intellectual grace’ and ‘moral spontaneity’, even as they help to demonstrate why she would have attracted such ‘exceptional young men’ – James again – as Oliver Wendell Holmes, the future legal scholar John Chipman Gray, and James himself. If Gordon tends to assume rather than show that Woolson’s work has been underrated, her respectful account is a welcome alternative to Edel’s faint condescension; and she makes a persuasive case for the way a sequence of works by both writers stages a tacit debate about sexual politics and the role of the artist. She may well be right to suggest that unconscious rivalry with the comparatively popular Woolson led James to exclude her artist tales like ‘Miss Grief’ (1880) and ‘At the Château of Corinne’ (1887) from his critical essay on her work, but in complaining that he ‘proceeded to colonise this territory’ she turns literature’s inevitable dependence on other literature into an act of imperial aggression.

Gordon also makes a good case for a Woolson far more in charge of her life than Edel’s needy spinster, though her impulse to do so sorts uneasily with her insistence on Woolson as a victim. Having noted a resemblance between Woolson and James’s fiercely independent sister Alice, Gordon sternly checks herself: ‘Even if these two women were self-sufficient, that does not entirely absolve’ him. ‘Why, when ten and a half thousand letters of Henry James were allowed to survive,’ her opening pages ask portentously, ‘did he make a pact with Fenimore to destroy their correspondence?’ That Woolson apparently made a similar pact with her sister may not explain either arrangement, but it does leave James’s side of the bargain less sinister in its mystery.

This is a book strangely divided against itself, and not only in its uncertain wavering between female self-sufficiency and female victimhood. The feminism that strives to do justice to Gordon’s heroines does not prevent her harshly reductive portraits of other women: Mary James, the mother, is ‘small-minded’ and ‘boring’; Alice, ‘seething with correct repression’; Edith Wharton, a ‘voyeur’. (Alice is treated more sympathetically once she is dying, perhaps because she then appears to feel more sympathetic to Woolson.) That Gordon is also willing to trash the men in James’s life – according to one of the tendentious picture captions, Henry Senior is ‘a variety of failed prophet, and not the harmless kind’ – does not compensate for the unevenness of the book’s psychology.

The critic intent on stripping away the surfaces of James’s prose to reveal its hidden secrets also tacitly recognises that surface and depth in James’s fiction cannot be as easily distinguished as she pretends: his ‘was an art in which the secret may not in itself amount to much’, she remarks in passing, but nonetheless shrewdly. And even as she virtually accuses James of having stolen intellectual property by taking inspiration from the dead without crediting them as ‘partners’, she also acknowledges that his art lay in ‘his power to transform his subject’. Of his account of his cousin in A Small Boy and Others, Gordon writes, extravagantly: ‘no man has done a truer portrait of a living woman, and it does, as he claimed, bring her back from the dead.’

As Gordon admits in the end, she is half in love with Henry James: not with the man who lived from 1843 to 1916, but with the writer whose imaginative identification with women seems to her to promise a form of intimacy too often lacking in daily life. ‘Women were drawn to him,’ she writes: ‘Minny and Fenimore were not alone. I feel this attraction a century on. For what he offers is what we at present want.’ Though James himself would have contended that it was precisely the inadequacy of ‘poor narrow life’ that compelled the novelist to revise it, Gordon cannot forgive him for not somehow living up to what he could only imagine. Her book is a perverse tribute to James’s art of rewriting.

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