Babylons

A.D. Moody

  • Henry James. Letters. Volume II: 1875-1883 edited by Leon Edel
    Macmillan, 438 pp, £15.00, March 1980, ISBN 0 333 18045 3
  • Henry James: The Later Novels by Nicola Bradbury
    Oxford, 228 pp, £12.00, December 1979, ISBN 0 19 812096 6

James’s world in these letters of 1875-1883 – the years, roughly, from The American to The Portrait of a Lady – is already the world of such great late works as The Awkward Age, The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove. They are the letters of a consciously cosmopolitan observer of European manners, but their decorum, even while he is being gathered to the bosom of English ‘Society’, is always that of the circle of family and friends in Boston to whom most of them are addressed. Yet, so like is this decorum to that of the novels, in what is thought fit for conversation (‘what are letters but talk?’ James wrote in 1882, in a letter printed by Lubbock but not included by Edel) and in the constant play of discrimination which points the talk and makes it ‘good’, that one can see how much James viewed his world through the eyes of his family and their New England acquaintance. It was their Idealism which enabled him to wrest his international scene into art.

Paris, for the year he lived there, writing The American for serialisation in Howells’s Atlantic Monthly, afforded him the spectacle of a brilliant and charming civilisation, but he judged it by the morality of Boston. To his brother William he wrote that he ‘liked much to be with’ a Russian family ‘of a literally more than Bostonian virtue’, ‘an oasis of purity and goodness in the midst of this Parisian Babylon’.

Of all the writers he met there it was Turgenev whom he most took to, for his personal goodness and for the gentle humanity of his writings. He thought Flaubert the best of the French writers, but he liked him better as a man than as a novelist, and took seriously Turgenev’s opinion that the trouble with him was that he had never known a decent woman but had passed his life exclusively ‘avec des courtisanes et des rien-du-tout’. Zola’s naturalisme he execrated: ‘I heard Emile Zola characterise [Daudet’s] manner sometime since as merde à la vanille. I send you by post Zola’s own last – merde au naturel. Simply hideous.’ He preferred, ‘in this beastly Paris’, to read Daniel Deronda. Even though it was a disappointment (‘the analysing and the sapience – to say nothing of the tortuosity of the style’), it made him realise ‘the English richness of George Eliot’ and ‘the superiority of English culture and the English mind to the French’. In this he was expressing New England’s special sense of the English as well as of the French.

He moved to London at the end of 1876, and installed himself at once in Bolton Street, Piccadilly, on the edges of Mayfair and St James’s. Struck by the ‘uglinesses and hypocrisies’ of England, he was inclined to think better of France: ‘I have just called in my landlady to pay my bill, and her deadly woodenfaced “respectability”, with an avidity, beneath, every whit as grasping as the French, and not a grace to glaze it over, makes me feel as if, beside such a type as that, the most impudent Paris cocotte were a divinity.’ But in spite of all the occasions for such ‘foggy “spleen” ’ – or perhaps, one begins to suspect, just because of them – he remained unflinchingly committed to a London life. The London he moved in was, of course, just the exclusive upper reaches: clubs, and the society of the rich and their lions and Iapdogs. This world failed to charm him, and fed his critical sense beyond all else.

After a year’s rather hectic going about in it, he wrote home:

I suppose that to the family circle in the library it will seem an affectation in me to say that I find this same social existence rather stale and poor – composed of not especially interesting or superior elements. But, in fact, it is no blasphemy to confess to satiety after a certain amount of nestling in the lap of the ‘Upper Middle Class’. One must give up looking for fresh and high impressions.

He writes again, after a further year of the social round, of the general dullness of the London banquet: ‘The genius of conversation in the great upper-middle class is not a dazzling muse; it is a plain-faced, portly matron, well covered up in warm woollen garments and fond of an after-dinner nap.’ He gets ‘woefully tired of London people and their talk’; ‘there seems something awfully stale and stupid about the whole business’. He finds ‘people in general very vulgar-minded and superficial’: ‘nothing but surface and sometimes – oh ye gods! – such desperately poor surface!’ He fears he is losing his standard – it might almost be Matthew Arnold’s:

my charming little standard that I used to think so high; my standard of wit, of grace, of good manners, of vivacity, of urbanity, of intelligence, of what makes an easy and natural style of intercourse! And this in consequence, of my having dined out during the past winter 107 times! When I come home you will think me a sad barbarian – I may not even, just at first, appreciate your fine points.

The style of that is enough to suggest the kind of talk he did like when he could find it – not everyone’s idea of the natural. The ‘best talker, in a certain way’, that he had met in England was ‘the ever-delightful Mrs Procter’, who was in her 82nd year, and whose experience of society was immense: ‘Her wit and cleverness are extreme and she has always lived up to her neck in the “world” and known clever and eminent people. The consequence is that she is an extraordinary compendium of wisdom and experience – I have met few people who have seemed to me to have observed people and manners to better purpose.’ But what exactly did she say? About Tennyson’s conversation being very prosaic: ‘You expect him never to go beyond the best way of roasting a buttock of beef.’ One wonders, being given just this one sample of her wit, whether the wisdom she had derived from her immense experience of the ‘world’ was all of this order. It matches with George Meredith’s table talk, which James found affected but enjoyable: ‘He hates the English, whom he speaks of as “they” – “Their conversation is dreary, their food is heavy, their women are dull.” ’ What James thought good talk does seem to partake overmuch of what it condemns, and to consist in making a bright splash in the dull shallows of ‘society’.

The interest of the case is that, so far as one can judge from his letters – from the way they are written and from what they report – James didn’t make more of some of his conversational opportunities. He met a good number of the intellectual aristocracy of the day, but of their work, their thought, their discoveries, he says scarcely a word. Is it because one didn’t discuss intellectual matters when the ladies were present, and that, for James, the ladies always are present? His ‘idle gossip’, he says in one letter, is ‘for local color’s sake, and to gratify the intellectual femininity of mother and Alice’. But one can’t help feeling that, in general, he preferred gossip to anything that could be classed as ‘shop’.

His rarely going beneath the surface of things is most striking in the way he sticks to the jammy side of English society. He knew about the nether world, of course, but he brings it in effectively only once, when an interruption has broken his social thread: ‘I don’t quite know what I was going to say, except that Yorkshire smoke country is very ugly and depressing, both as regards the smirched and blackened landscape and the dense and dusky population who form a not very attractive element in that great total of labour and poverty on whose enormous base all the luxury and leisure of English country-houses are built up.’ It is a very odd sentence, dangling between Marx, or Carlyle, and Sir Walter Elliot’s objection to a life in the Navy, that ‘it cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly.’ What is even odder is that it is dropped as an inconsequential remark. The next sentence reads: ‘Last evening I dined with my friend Hamilton Aïdé, of whom I spoke just now – an amiable – very amiable literary bachelor, who has charming rooms, innumerable friends and hospitable habits.’

James knew how superficial that world was, and he felt the ‘potentially deadly provincialism’ of ‘the grimy Babylon by the Thames’. Why did he so ‘keep on the social harness’? He said he kept himself going only by the pious fiction of postulating its people as other or better than they were. But there’s not much evidence of that in his letters, while there is evidence of an immense appetite for the dull banquet of London. Simple snobbery can’t account for it. Nor can the occasional interesting conversation, which could be good only for ‘a pleasant momentary lift out of British Philistinism’. One is forced to conclude that what made him keep up his London life was precisely what he saw in it – its dullness of spirit, its shallow splendours and gross vulgarities, its respectability that went hand in hand with its hypocrisy, its soul-destroying worldliness.

‘It takes an old civilisation to set a novelist in motion,’ he insisted to Howells, ‘it is on manners, customs, usages, habits, forms, upon all these things matured and established, that a novelist lives – they are the very stuff his work is made of.’ And these social trappings, which Howells had called ‘dreary and wornout paraphernalia’, represented for James, if not the whole of human life, at any rate ‘an enormous quantity of it’. The ‘book of London’, of which he was so avid a reader, was, quite simply, his ‘book of Life’.

How strange a sense of life his must have been, to be so nourished by London banquets and country-house parties. It is the life of the detached observer, dining out for the sake of his art, and dreaming, as he told Charles Eliot Norton, of being the ‘moral portrait-painter’ of English life. His detachment from the ‘world’ is apparent in his making ‘no intimate friends here at all’ and in his conviction that he would never marry. ‘One’s attitude toward marriage,’ he wrote to Grace Norton in November 1880, is part of ‘one’s general attitude toward life’; if he were to marry he would be pretending to think just a little better of life than he really did. It was as ‘an amiable bachelor’, therefore, that he might do something to ‘forward the cause of civilisation’. Beneath the playfulness, there is a certainty that a real, and superior, knowledge of life can be won just by observing it, and by being supremely intelligent and discriminating in one’s consciousness of the spectator. It is the attitude of the knowing spectator, though the spectator can know only the appearance, not the reality. James was perfectly well aware of that, but he thought that in general life was merely what it appeared to be.

Reality was to be sought in art, not in life. He opposes ‘Art, form’ (which he fears is on the wane, though he will try to make it live a little longer) to the age, which is ‘the age of Panama Canals, of Sarah Bernhardt, of Western wheat-raising, of merely material expansion’. In another mood, he explains that Isabel Archer is not simply a portrait of Minnie Temple: ‘Poor Minny was essentially incomplete and I have attempted to make my young woman more rounded, more finished. In truth everyone, in life, is incomplete, and it is the work of art that in reproducing them one feels the desire to fill them out, to justify them, as it were.’ Edel, who is on the whole the discreetly invisible servant of his text, ‘corrects’ James’s ‘it is the work of art’ to read ‘it is [in] the work of art’. But the slip, if it was that, is more interesting than what Edel would have expected him to write, because it shows James thinking of the ‘work’ as a process, not an object. His completing of Minnie Temple’s life in The Portrait of a Lady had been an ambitious process of imagining what her experience would have been in the ‘old civilisation’, and of bringing his young woman to the point where, having fallen victim to it, she knew it absolutely for what it was, and by so knowing it achieved her freedom from it. The ultimate reality of her life is the disappointment and deception of her noble imagination by the world and its ways. It is the reality, according to Eliot, that human kind cannot bear very much of, but which can be transcended by our becoming completely conscious of it. To be conscious of the world is to be above it – that might be James’s equivalent of Eliot’s ‘To be conscious is not to be in time.’

He might have added, to go with Eliot’s ‘Only through time time is conquered’: only in the world is the world transcended. His is a this-worldly idealism – he has no other world in view. And what other life is open to those who attain the saving consciousness of the world they must live in, except that of being conscious of its superficialities and treacheries? Isabel Archer’s recognition of reality is a liberation which only confirms her being bound to Osmond. Millie Theale does die; but Merton Densher, whom she has brought to consciousness, and who will never be the same again, must go on living.

James told Howells that it was the tragedies in life that arrested his attention, and said most to his imagination. He was justifying his not giving The American a happy ending: that Would have been ‘throwing a rather vulgar sop to readers who don’t really know the world and who don’t measure the merit of a novel by its correspondence to the same’. For him, the interest of the subject was ‘its exemplification of one of those insuperable difficulties which present themselves in people’s lives and from which the only issue is by forfeiture – by losing something’. Loss, and renunciation – these seem to be the necessary correlatives, for James, of really knowing the world. While it might appear an amusing enough affair taken on its own terms, the relation to it of anyone fully awake to its deceptions and to its stultifying power could be only negative, tragic in one way or another. The developed moral sense of his elect makes them aliens in their own world. Its life is the only one they know, and they cannot live it.

In the fiction, this can seem an artificial tragedy – a product, not of the nature of things, but only of the way the idealist sees things. In James’s own life, however, as recorded in his letters, the striking fact is how practical an idealist he was, and how creatively he lived out that tragic predicament. Edel notes in his Introduction how determined James was to win for himself, in the period of these letters, financial independence, an entrée into society and fame; he justly comments that the synthesis of these ambitions was winning the freedom to pursue his art. It should be observed also that it was not just for his art, but by it, that he won those things. Moreover, it was in his art, in the process of being the moral portrait-painter of his world, that he really won the freedom of it. Yet perhaps the most prodigious thing about him – beyond the prodigious appetite for observing the world, and the prodigious power of digesting his observations into his own vision of its life – was that he was somehow able to make of his artistic life an active, successful and even joyful existence in the alien world.

But the joyful activity was mostly in and for his art. His attitude to living outside of art was essentially stoical. One sees him cultivating it at the close of The Portrait of a Lady, as the last fruit of Isabel Archer’s, and his own, idealism. He expressed it more directly in the most deeply felt and moving letter in this collection, the one written on 28 July 1883, in response to Grace Norton’s suffering and sense of ‘all the misery of mankind’. Speaking to her ‘with the voice of stoicism’, he gives as the reason for going on living, that ‘life is the most valuable thing that we know anything about and it is therefore presumptively a great mistake to surrender it while there is any yet left in the cup.’ ‘In other words consciousness is an illimitable power, and though at times it may seem to be all consciousness of misery, yet in the way it propagates itself from wave to wave, so that we never cease to feel, though at moments we appear to, try to, pray to, there is something that holds one in one’s place, makes it a standpoint in the universe which it is probably good not to forsake.’ Sorrow passes, he tells her, and we remain. ‘Everything will pass, and serenity and accepted mysteries and disillusionments ... and new opportunities and ever so much of life, in a word, will remain.’ This strong stoicism, elicited by personal suffering, sorts oddly with his ennui at the spectacle of society life. That kind of life drove him to art, while the sense of tragedy brought out what would appear to have been his deepest, and ultimately sustaining conviction: that life was, after all, worth living. One has to note the shift in his letter from ‘life’ to ‘consciousness’, as if consciousness were life, and with that goes the transmutation of the miseries of mankind into ‘mysteries’. Yet there is also, in the faith in a life beyond sorrow, evidence of James’s healthy commitment to the ‘felt life’ upon which the moral consciousness depends.

The letters show where James stands in relation to his art, but where does the reader stand? ‘The teller is but a more developed reader,’ James wrote to his brother. Nicola Bradbury, who shows both why and how we should be as developed readers as he was a teller, would, I think, accept his implication that reader and artist stand in the same relation to the work, because both are involved in the same process of understanding. In her book, reading is virtually everything – even the protagonists of The Wings of the Dove are seen as ‘readers of their own story, analysing the plot, the motives, the possibilities, and recognising the roles they have played’. This is properly Jamesian, and her study as a whole is sympathetic and faithful in a fruitful way to his spirit.

As a sophisticated, subtle and sensitive critic, she is especially responsive to the idealist or metaphysical side of James. Her three main chapters give readings of the ‘trilogy’ of major novels. The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, paying close attention to the play of narrative techniques and to the complications of consciousness which they render. As readers we are drawn in by these complications. Yet they arise, in the characters, from the sophistries of decadence and corruption; and James’s answering technique is a strategy for mastering their disorders. His conclusions generally discover that truth and goodness are fundamentally simple, and reveal, in a manner that can catch out the clever reader, that his complications have been all along in the service of a transcendent simplicity.

Nicola Bradbury finds a metaphor for this ultimate simplicity in James’s use of silence. She observes, in a key chapter, that silence may represent something that can’t decently be put into words – as in certain scenes involving Madame Merle and Osmond; or it may represent an inviolate integrity, as in the silence by which Nanda, in her last interview with Van, transcends the manners of Mrs Brook’s circle. In both cases, there is an implicit equation of verbal and personal morality; it is also made clear that the basis of proper speech is inner integrity, while lack of integrity leads to the corruption of language.

The recourse to Cordelia-like silence is evidence, for Nicola Bradbury, of ‘an understanding beyond expression’, and she sees that as supporting her general proposition that ‘the novel must finally rely on what cannot be put into words.’ Since a novel is made of words, that seems an unlikely proposition. Of course, such a silence as Nanda’s could well come from a metaphysical intuition of what her world ultimately amounts to; certainly, whatever it ‘expresses’ is not put directly into words, and perhaps couldn’t be. Yet her silence to Van is followed by her choosing to go for good to Mr Longdon: an action which says everything, and says it very plainly. This is a case, surely, and the end of The Portrait of a Lady is another, where James refutes the false or immoral way of speaking, not with some ‘unsayable’ mystery, but with the practical demonstration of a moral act. It is by doing so, and only by doing so, that he finally gets back to the source of the sayable.

Nicola Bradbury makes the saving process of consciousness the supreme value in James’s art. It is nearly that, and yet it is not the final value. There is also the solidly material side of his art, and the fact that in the end his conscious souls must come to terms with an unideal world. His dense rendering of their material existence is not simply for entertainment, though it certainly serves for that. That order of existence is indispensable to their life of consciousness. He has Isabel Archer attain the recognition, ‘Deep in her soul – deeper than any appetite for renunciation ... that life would be her business for a long time to come,’ even though ‘it involved perhaps an admission that one had a certain grossness.’ The conscious soul needs that ‘certain grossness’ as the condition of its functioning at all, and because it needs not simply to know but to be.

There may be a moral for the reader in that. Following James’s consciousness of his characters’ consciousness of themselves and of each other is, as Nicola Bradbury says, exhilarating and rewarding. But it can also make the reader feel trapped at a remove too many from any immediate experience or practical concern. His situation is not, after all, the same as the author’s. James was working from the life: but the reader needs to work back to life, back to his own life and vital concerns, if he is not to lose himself in a hall of mirrors. This doesn’t mean imposing oneself upon the work, or reading it any less scrupulously. It means closing the ring of art and life.