Henry James and Romance

Barbara Everett

  • Henry James Letters. Vol. III: 1883-1895 edited by Leon Edel
    Macmillan, 579 pp, £17.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 333 18046 1
  • Culture and Conduct in the Novels of Henry James by Alwyn Berland
    Cambridge, 231 pp, £17.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 521 23343 7
  • Literary Reviews and Essays, A London Life, The Reverberator, Italian Hours, The Sacred Fount, Watch and Ward by Henry James
    Columbus, 409 pp, £2.60, February 1981, ISBN 0 394 17098 9

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.

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