Henry James’s Christmas

P.N. Furbank

  • Henry James Letters. Vol. IV: 1895-1915 edited by Leon Edel
    Harvard, 835 pp, £24.00, April 1984, ISBN 0 674 38783 X

What strikes one about the garden at Lamb House, as redesigned by Henry James, is that it possesses all the ingredients of an old-English garden, yet the impression it makes is American. It seems on principle to want to do without mystery, even the mild mysteries beloved of English gardening-folk. In some indefinable way it is a public garden. There was, and perhaps still is, a difference between British and American attitudes towards the ‘public’, the British nursing an ambivalence towards publicity that Americans, with their Augustan inheritance, find perverse. That James took to dictating his novels, and even (though with infinite apologies) his letters, seems somehow appropriate. He was in a certain sense a naturally public man. He achieved for himself in his own lifetime an incomparable public position, as the acknowledged ‘Master’ – a position more unassailable than Kipling’s or Bernard Shaw’s – yet he frankly also longed for a popular following and declared only half-jokingly in a letter to W.Morton Fullerton in 1902: ‘I would have written, if I could, like Anthony Hope and Marion Crawford.’ Public position, and an intense preoccupation with public opinion, are also the key to the one incident, in the life of this affectionate and (on the whole) generous man, that sticks in the gullet and seems definitely ugly: I mean his pharasaic forbidding his friend Violet Hunt his house when it appeared she might figure in divorce proceedings. His explanation was quite frank: it was a matter of her ‘position’, and by implication of his.

I really don’t see how an old friend of yours could feel or pronounce your being in a position to permit of this [public scandal] anything but ‘lamentable’, lamentable – oh lamentable! What sort of friend is it that would say less? I wasn’t for a moment pretending to characterise the nature of the relations that may conduce to that possibility – relations, on your part I mean, with the man to be divorced, which in themselves are none of my business at all. But your position, as a result of those relations – if I had it to speak of again I am afraid I could only speak of it so.

One may apply this formula, this concern with ‘visibility’, to James’s novels. The very aim of such a novel as The Golden Bowl is to flood its subject with light, which is another way of saying to dispel all mystery. There is to be – this is an aesthetic law for him – no item in the presented human material which has not been accounted for and put into aesthetic order. There should be no Dickensian thickets or dark corners. As a novelist, he is sometimes described as an ‘analyst’, but this is really a mistake: his concern, when confronting the complexity of inward experience, is not analytical but, always, dramatic. Much of his originality lies in his discovery that the most inward thoughts of a character can be shown as a dramatic spectacle: he studies – in the sense in which we speak of the ‘expression’ on a person’s face – the ‘expression’ on his characters’ minds. He enacts this expression; and he sometimes even goes on to enact someone enacting it, as though he had caught sight of himself in a mirror. It is precisely because of this propensity that he likes to set himself artistic challenges. He elaborates a code of ‘beautiful’ manners, which turns almost entirely on silence and not speaking out, thus putting a premium on the novelist’s power to capture inward ‘expression’.

It is an obvious and important fact about James, witnessed to by ‘The Figure in the Carpet’, The Turn of the Screw and The Sacred Fount, that he loved puzzles and secrets. However, this is best seen as the reverse side of a dislike of mystery. When confronted by his puzzles, we are not tempted by the feeling, as we are with certain mysterious creations by other writers, that if we could understand that, we should have the key to life. James’s true profundities are always profundities that have been plumbed, and his puzzles belong elsewhere – with the side of his art concerned with conjuring and trickery. He was, we find from the Letters, rather anxious to discourage friends from taking The Sacred Fount too seriously. ‘That jeu d’esprit was an accident pure and simple,’ he wrote to Morton Fullerton (9 August 1901), ‘and not even an intellectual one; you do it too much honour. It was a mere trade-accident, tout au plus – an incident of technics, pure and simple.’

As a writer – and this is part of the same point – no one could be less ‘Freudian’, which would also be true of him as a man. In 1910-11 he suffered an acute nervous breakdown, so severe that he was frightened to live alone and took refuge with his brother William, and William’s wife Alice, in America. During this grim time he consulted a pioneer Freudian analyst, James Jackson Putnam, in Boston and obtained some benefit. However, in writing to Putnam the following year to announce himself as definitively cured, he explained his cure in terms of the homeliest old-fashioned self-help. The ‘real clue to the labyrinth’ and basis of his recovery, he told Putnam, was eating enough, feeding as little fatteningly as possible, and having plenty of distractions.

This brings us to a major issue in regard to Leon Edel’s great edition, now concluded, of the Letters. It could be argued that to be as un-‘Freudian’ as James makes you an ideal subject for Freudian study. This does not seem quite to be Edel’s view, however, and his comment on the letter to Putnam is that ‘James’s own testimony in this letter, while focusing on externals, suggests that he was able to respond to the deeper psychological problems that undermined his well-being.’ This sounds a shade defensive, and I don’t actually see the evidence for it in the letter. Of course, ‘respond’ is an ambiguous word. James could hardly have been a great, or even a good, novelist had he been unable to ‘respond’ to his own problems; and indeed intelligent responsiveness is what he especially abounded in. What separates him so utterly from a Freud or a Marx is that, so far as one can see, he was not much interested in the causes of things. Once, when Bernard Shaw wrote chiding a little play of his as not ‘scientific’ enough, he replied (20 January 1909) that Shaw ‘simplified too much’ in his use of the term – which we can interpret as meaning that Shaw thought too exclusively in terms of the causal sciences. His play, he asserted stoutly, was scientific, supremely so, in the only sense in which a work of art can be scientific: ‘that is by being done with all the knowledge and intelligence relevant to its motive’. ‘And, if you waylay me here, as I infer you would be disposed to, on the ground that we “don’t want works of art”, ah then, my dear Bernard Shaw, I think I take such issue with you that – if we didn’t both like to talk – there would be scarce use in our talking at all. They are capable of saying more things to man about himself than any other “works” whatever are capable of doing – and it’s only by thus saying as much to him as possible, by saying, as nearly as we can, all there is, and in as many ways and on as many sides, and with a vividness of presentation that “art”, and art alone, is an adequate mistress of, that we enable him to pick and choose and compare and know, enable him to arrive at any sort of synthesis that isn’t, through all its superficialities and vacancies, a base and illusive humbug.’ It is a powerful statement; and ‘scientific’ is no bad epithet for the function he claims for art. It is the one always aspired to in his cherished principle of ‘constatation’.

At all events, as is well known, Leon Edel in his biography claimed the right to ‘Freudianise’. His justification was that a writer or artist peculiarly invites this approach. Art, Edel’s theory goes, is the product of the ‘symbol-making imagination’, and, vice versa, ‘an artist fashions the myth by which he lives.’ An artist thus, if obscurely, reveals more of himself or herself than others do, and it would be an ungrateful or lazy biographer who did not ponder these symbols and try to identify these myths. It sounds not unreasonable as a theory. The trouble is that, in practice, it puts artist and biographer into competition, as to who can see further. And however gentlemanly the contest, the biographer’s punches, at some point, will land where they shouldn’t. He is grappling with the man, but it is the works that get bruised.

This happens rather strikingly in Edel’s case. For vividness and constructive power as a biographer, qualities that also stamp his edition of the Letters, he deserves his very high reputation. However, he has a favourite Freudian speculation (he has many, but this is an especially important one) which we meet again, in abbreviated form, in his Introduction to Volume Four of the Letters. It is that James, suffering from the shock of his failure as a dramatist and from the longer-term effects of sexual inhibition, underwent a nervous collapse in his fifties and recovered by dint of a curious artistic self-therapy. He retreated to the experience of earliest infancy, and then proceeded to remake himself, progressing once more from the cradle (The Other House), to early childhood (What Maisie Knew and The Turn of the Screw) to early adolescence (In the Cage) and to the dawn of maturity (The Awkward Age). It is a wonderfully ingenious construction, but, so far as I can see, perfectly gratuitous. For why do we need it? What is there to explain? That James decided to write a series of stories about young or very young girls? But why shouldn’t he? It seems a very promising subject. That these stories are, according to Edel’s account, works of intellect rather than of feeling, differing in this respect from the final masterpieces? It seems a strange thing to say about What Maisie Knew, which is surely a most touching novel? No, what is required, as so often with such biographical theories, is that something should be wrong with the artist’s works: that these particular stories should be markedly inferior – inferior not to what he would write later but to what he had been writing before, and to such a striking degree as to call for explanation. But then few of us would hold What Maisie Knew to be in any way inferior to The Tragic Muse, or even to The Princess Casamassima.

To tell the truth, quite apart from these aspiring constructions, I find myself jibbing at Edel’s handling of James’s love-life. ‘Did James act out the physical promptings of sex?’ he asks in the Introduction to Volume Four of the Letters, with reference to his relationships with the sculptor Hendrik Andersen, with another young man named Jocelyn Persse and with Hugh Walpole. The same question was asked in the biography, receiving the answer ‘We simply do not know,’ and there James is depicted as becoming aware ‘in a strangely troubled way’ of his deep feeling for Andersen; and the doubt is raised ‘whether he fully realised that the youth’s presence had filled him with that precious essence that men have called from time immemorial – love.’ Doubt, ambivalence, James being ‘strangely troubled’: I do not know where these details come from. The issues seem clearer than that. Could anyone doubt that James fell very much in love with Andersen? And, on the other hand, could anyone really suppose that he had a sexual relationship with him? If nothing else, his exorbitant concern with public opinion and ‘position’ would seem to have forbidden it. Anyway it is so much against the ‘feel’ of the letters, which convey no such ‘troubling’, ‘Yellow Bookish’, ‘Love in Earnest’ atmosphere. Their tone, on the contrary, seems remarkably open. They have, typically of James, a sort of extravagance of openness – combining, in a most attractive and entertaining way, vast tenderness with a headshaking, implacable honesty about poor Hendrik’s sculptures. The letter to Hendrik at the time of his brother’s death, moreover, is something more than extravagant and really most powerful and inspiring. ‘Let yourself go and live, even as a lacerated, mutilated lover, with your grief, your loss, your sore, unforgettable consciousness. Possess them and let them possess you, and life, so, will still hold you in her arms, and press you to her breast, and keep you like the great merciless but still most enfolding and never disowning and mighty Mother, on and on for things to come.’ His invocation of ‘life’ as the great mother is close in its sentiments to James’s impassioned invocations of art and the life of art, of which there are a number of fine examples in these late letters. Thus he writes to Morton Fullerton in 1907, when he too is in trouble: ‘throw yourself on the blest alternative life ... which is what I mean by the life of art, and which religiously invoked and handsomely understood, jevous le garanti, never fails the sincere invoker – sees him through everything, on the contrary and reveals to him the secrets of and for her doing so.’

By a curious turn, in the same letter, James himself becomes the great mother and invites Fullerton to ‘feel all the while round him’ the ‘mighty mantle’ of his ‘steadfast adhesion and infinite tenderness’. James’s extravagance is odd, and one could call it eccentric if one liked, but it does not suggest deviousness or confusion. He found, and wanted to find, infinite complexities in the spectacle of manners, but when it comes to feelings, his own strike one as being rather straightforward and clear-cut. So, indeed, do those of his fictional characters – in which he resembles his master Balzac. By the end of The Golden Bowl we know all too exactly what the protagonists feel and want; all the complication and poignancy lies in the fetters placed on their expressing it.

There is a famous passage in James’s The Middle Years describing ‘a particular small hour’ of a ‘momentous’ March day in 1869, in which he landed at Liverpool and took breakfast at the old Adelphi hotel, responding to the Englishness of the scene (the plate of buttered muffin keeping warm on the slop-bowl; the ‘rustle of the thick, stiff, loudly unfolded and refolded Times’) with ‘intensities and appreciation’ which stamped him for life, confirming him as doomed henceforth ‘to inordinate exposure to appearances, aspect, images, every protrusive item almost, in the great beheld sum of things’. The passage cannot but bring to mind another equally famous one in Huysmans’s A Rebours, in which the hero Des Esseintes, inspired by Dickens, decides to visit London – a London ‘drenched, colossal, reeking of molten iron and soot’ – but gets no further than a railway tavern in the Rue d’Amsterdam. There, dining in a pew amid robust masculine-faced Englishwomen, ardently sinking their palette-sized teeth into a ‘rump-steak-pie’, he asks himself why go further? ‘Why budge, when one can travel so magnificently in one’s own chair?’ Was he not already in London, already saturated with English life? It would be mad to imperil, by a clumsy effort to move, such imperishable sensations. One sees from this what it means to be an aesthete, and that Henry James was not one. An aesthete (if any such character ever existed – and A Rebours is a satire rather than a manifesto) wants either to consume or to hoard his sensations; he has no wish for them to be profitable to others. By contrast, the Jamesian impression-hunter or ‘Passionate Pilgrim’ (so extraordinarily represented in the first volume of the Letters) regards himself as suffering his ‘exposure’ to impressions for the greater good of humanity. The intensely philanthropic and Swedenborgian Henry James Senior, who found something ‘narrowing’ and selfish in the profession of art, and indeed couldn’t positively approve of any profession, plainly left his mark on the novelist. James wanted to be accountable for his impressions. The novelist’s sensibility might be gossamer, ‘a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chambers of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue’, but it was to garner solid stuff. He thought his brother William rather too damping, when he proposed a visit to America in 1903, too slow to recognise the solid gains represented by new impressions. The projected trip was James’s ‘one little ewe-lamb of possible exotic experience, such experience as may convert itself, through the senses, through observation, imagination and reflection now at their maturity, into vivid and solid material, into a general renovation of one’s too monotonised grab-bag’.

If not ‘aesthete’, we need some term for a writer like James (if there ever was another such writer) who invests so entirely in ‘values’ (in the painterly sense), so much in the ‘note’ of things rather than the things themselves, and requires for himself no roots, no involvement, no soil under his feet. He makes the point himself in The Middle Years, remarking that the inhabitant or ‘human particle’ of England was condemned ‘to live, on whatever terms, in thickness – instead of being free, comparatively, or as I at once ruefully and exquisitely found myself, only to feel and think in it’. Moving to Rye in 1897, he vividly catches the ‘note’ of this ‘little old, cobble-stoned, grass-grown, red-roofed town’ in a dozen letters, with all the consummate ease of his English Hours style. It was, however, by no means a marriage, for better and for worse, between him and Rye. Lamb House alternately glowed for him and bored him dreadfully, and he would often ‘quite yearn’ for grimy London streets and sensible conversation – he also stoically reported himself as ‘living in this little corner practically without society’ only a day or two after Lamb House had been occupied by five American cousins, three in the house itself and two more in an inn. As with his relationship to place and to tradition, so with his style, which was equally, in a sense, rootless. Consider this sentence from a letter to Edith Wharton (2 January 1908): ‘I have passed here a very solitary and casanier Christmas-tide (of wondrous still and frosty days, and nights of huge silver stars), and yesterday finished a job of the last urgency for which this intense concentration had been all vitally indispensable.’ Someone who cared for tradition, as his fellow American T.S. Eliot so passionately cared for it, would not have introduced that old-English phrase ‘Christmas-tide’ into such promiscuous cosmopolitan company: the effect is brilliant but socially ‘smart’, which indeed is the general note of his letters (some of his very best) to Edith Wharton.

I mentioned Augustanism earlier, and one toys with the idea that the new prose-style, and the new ‘beautiful’ evasive style of dialogue, evolved by James in his later period were intended as a kind of neo-Augustan model. What is it but ‘genteel periphrasis’ à la Johnson and Gray when, for a year or two after taking to dictating to a typist, James racks his brains for ever-new euphemisms or euphuisms for the word ‘typewriter’: ‘embroidered veil of sound’, ‘inestimable aid to expression’, ‘un-sympathetic ink’, etc? The thought is worth raising, if only to remind ourselves of why, in fact, Augustanism was not a possibility for James. The reason is that, on good ‘modernist’ principles, he was incapable of generalising, indeed considered it a crime to do so. He was, by contrast, fertile in all kinds of abstraction, and abstraction was the necessary complement to a devotion to the particular and to ‘solidity of specification’. W.K. Wimsatt has pointed out the importance of James’s plurals and the way that the ‘spoils’ in The Spoils of Poynton emerge through veil after veil of abstraction, signified by plurals: ‘clear chambers’, ‘great syllables of colour’, ‘brasses’, ‘Venetian velvets’. It’s not till we are far advanced in the novel, indeed not till after the Poynton treasures have been moved to another house, that the eye focuses on a singular object: ‘a Venetian lamp’ in ‘a plain square hall’.

Generalisation, however, is quite a different matter. It figures for him as the arch-vice, and it is the one that he most castigates in his younger disciples’ manuscripts. Thus it represents the wildest comic turn for him when he allows himself to give a capital ‘C’ to Edith Wharton’s car: ‘But your silver-sounding toot that invites me to the Car – the wondrous cushioned general Car of your so wondrously india-rubber-tyred and deep-cushioned fortune – echoes for me but too mockingly in the dim, if snug, cave of my permanent retraite.’ The trend of his thought is strikingly exemplified in his decision that the New York edition of his novels should be illustrated with photographs – photographs of a particular London front door or a particular flight of Venetian water-steps – i.e. images altogether particularised, more so than any drawing could be. Only on such a basis would he allow illustrations to symbolise and represent; and actually they give one an odd feeling, as do his instructions to his photographer, the great Alvin Langdon Coburn, as if he had come up against a dilemma that he could not quite solve.

Cavil as I have done at Leon Edel’s approach to James, I think one can fairly call the Letters a triumph of editing. His notes are admirably knowledgeable and succinct. They almost always tell what one absolutely needs to know, and as a general rule as much as one would even want to know. One asks oneself why he does not give a note on ‘Plasmon Oats’ and ‘Instant Postum’, which are hardly household names nowadays, and one guesses that his answer, a very sensible one, is that (comparatively) they just do not matter. One’s debt otherwise to him is immense, not least for taking a copy of the remarkable ‘Napoleonic’ dictations (reproduced here) which James gave on his deathbed. (James’s nephew later destroyed the originals, causing one to wonder, as so often with family executors, whether there is not much to be said for suttee.) It does emerge, really, that these Letters are one of the great books of the world.