Relations will stop at nothing

Philip Horne

Henry James was a perfectionist, though not a humourless one, about his public appearance and appearances: hence the pleasure taken by certain anecdotalists in showing him out of control – of situations, conversations, himself, others. That he danced a cake-walk in 1899 and was photographed with a mouthful of doughnut intrigues us, as a treasurable departure from the magisterial dignity we mainly like to impute to him. Cakewalk and doughnut were taken at a party at the Cranes’, a private affair. The Whole Family, which became a book at the end of 1908 after 12 months in Harper’s Bazar, is a public party game for Harper’s authors, an improvised collaboration (or sequence, rather, of solo turns). What, one asks, is the author of The Golden Bowl doing dans cette galère?

James was apt to put the same question to himself when things went wrong, as when the booing of Guy Domville from the gallery in 1895 brought down his highest hopes for theatrical success: ‘Even in the full consciousness of the purity and lucidity of one’s motives (mine are worthy of Benjamin Franklin) one asks one’s self what one is doing in that galère.’ Michael Anesko’s strikingly authoritative ‘Friction with the Market’: Henry James and the Profession of Authorship gives a good many detailed and salutary answers in its essential account of exactly what James was doing in his conduct of his career as a professional author, and of how far his motives were pure and lucid. For James to launch his prose into the galleys of The Whole Family comes as less of a surprise when Anesko, who must have done years of painstaking and overdue archival research, has focused our attention on the constant element of compromise and calculation in James’s dealings with editors and publishers – and on the neglected fact that for the first half of his writing life he had to earn his living entirely by the pen. Anesko mentions indeed that thanks to James’s time-consuming labours on the New York Edition of his works ‘his literary income in 1908 was smaller than it had been in 25 years’: which made him all the readier, no doubt, to come down from the ivory tower for money.

The tough and sometimes unscrupulous James who appears in much of Anesko’s book is an adept player of the market, and one can understand as characteristic motives for his joining the family the need for money, the desire to keep his place in the American market, and the wish to maintain his useful friendships with W.D. Howells, the originator, and Elizabeth Jordan, the editor, of the strange Harper’s project. If these are plausible causes for James’s involvement, however, they don’t seem wholly to account for the way in which, when his turn came, the creative James showed an intense engagement with the story in itself – a commitment not just mercenary or polite or patriotic, but fiercely imaginative. Anesko argues convincingly that James was in general more stimulated than inhibited by the pressures of the commercial world of publishing: his title comes from an unpublished letter of 1912 advocating ‘that benefit of friction with the market which is so true a one for solitary artists too much steeped in their mere personal dreams’. The stimulation is much in evidence in James’s portion of The Whole Family: but we can see the considerable friction in this case as not working to James’s benefit, and it is his incongruous expense of vision, the story of his inevitable frustration when he gamely attempts to fit in with a run of more ordinary authors, that makes the book of absorbing interest and Ungar’s reissue of it a welcome surprise.

The Whole Family is now revived primarily on James’s account, but we have to revive the whole thing to get the bearings of his contribution, in which he engages with the six chapters written before his and points a way for those following. Elizabeth Jordan concluded her account of the affair in Three Rousing Cheers, her autobiography, with the glum avowal that ‘The Whole Family was a mess!’: but its doomed yearlong struggle to achieve the ‘wholeness’ advertised in its title caught other imaginations than James’s, and attains the illustrative exemplariness of the truest disasters. To follow it through, chapter by chapter, has something of the fascination of watching a multiple pile-up in slow motion.

From the first, the set-up was improbably free and democratic. Howells, the father-figure of American letters, was to begin with a neighbour’s descriptions of ‘The Father’ and of the ten members of the family who got chapters to narrate, leaving his successors absolutely free to cook up a plot – something to do with the daughter’s engagement – between them. A ‘Friend of the Family’ would provide the concluding chapter. The only formal framework was the timetable of authors and characters (determined in considerable part by the schedules of the contributors). Each could take the plot where he or she wished. The chapters, then, were written in the sequence in which they appear, each author having about a month to do the job; proofs of each new chapter were sent to all contributors throughout. Harper’s Bazar played understandably safe with a work so cliff-hangingly improvised and did not begin to serialise it until it was completed. The decision to give the book a preliminary private publication in proof form, which landed on the unwitting Elizabeth Jordan a hornet’s nest of anxious, wheedling, confidential or indignant authorial correspondence, and apparently fostered much gossip in New York, gives the compositional history of The Whole Family a further intensity and interest. Elizabeth Jordan called the authors thus put into relation with each other the ‘members of the family’: which is accurate, so long as we understand families to contain – and occasionally fail to contain – tension, conflict and contradiction.

The writers involved were all professionals, most forgotten now, but judged to have got over a certain threshold of competence and to command some facility; and the project was to be an amiable display of their powers in succession, a show of harmonious teamwork among members of a profession where individuality is often made a criterion of excellence and egocentricity has up to a point been sanctioned. The freedom to improvise which Howells and Elizabeth Jordan remarkably granted their contributors no doubt speaks for their hope of an unforced unanimity, with variety assured by the assortment of styles and of points of view rendered: those of the Old-Maid Aunt, Grandmother, Daughter-in-Law, School-Girl, Son-in-Law, Married Son, Married Daughter, Mother and School-Boy, and finally of the daughter Peggy, whose marriage to someone or other is the plot’s only real given, and of the Friend of the Family. Variety was as things turned out only too easy to secure, becoming in a number of connections more or less unyielding variance. The friendly display of powers became also a matter of shows of strength; authorship seemed to have given a taste for undemocratic exercises of authority, and to watch the vertiginous transition for each author from the powerlessness and marginality of readership to the brief potency of control and centrality, and then back again, uncomfortably dramatises for us the contingency and arbitrariness of the government of much fiction.

The oddly modern multiplication of first-person voices which became the method of the book, so that 12 idiosyncratic points of view are given (pushing it technically in the direction of As I lay dying), seems especially to have conflicted with the more traditional and less experimentally flexible notion of the novel wielded by most of the participants, habituated, on the whole, to the absolute freedom of omniscient third-person narration. As in the dramatic monologue, the constraint of the first-person mode silences and deflects the author’s commentary; all the judgments uttered become only what James brilliantly called elsewhere ‘characteristic characterisations’ – that is, judgments which have no special authority and can be turned back on their utterers as evidence more about them than about the truth of the world. The tense puzzlement of The Turn of the Screw, constructed by James a few years before to thrill with this uncertainty principle, has its mostly inadvertent match in the visible incapacity of these popular authors to develop a consensual view of the action over and above the relative views of the individual characters.

When Howells wrote his first chapter, ‘The Father’ – an easy-going over-the-fence exchange narrated by a new neighbour of the Talbert family, an amiable and intelligent newspaper editor – he could have had no idea what was to follow. His preparatory sketches of the Talbert family members were mildly suggestive rather than definitive; the only plot move was the engagement of the daughter Peggy to a fellow graduate of her co-educational college – a far from enthralling start. There is an analogy between this tame beginning and that of his 1902 novel The Kentons – which James was to call ‘that perfectly classic illustration of your spirit and your form’. The chapter here is muted to the point of feebleness: Mr Talbert’s stolid bourgeois good humour and thin jokes about doctors are the reverse of promising. But The Kentons, dull on the surface, comes to life once the reader realises the effort of tolerance and restraint towards its subjects that has produced it. In this respect, Howells lies open to extreme misunderstanding. The narrow middle-class ‘selfishness’ of merely familial affection is liable to be shrunk and chilled by the sweeping Tolstoyan perspective of full human possibility, one he needs to be felt as consciously holding back from. Likewise the Kentons’s provinciality may arouse cosmopolitan scorn. They are loved with, but not for, their limitations: and one imagines Howells wanting some comparable mild treatment for his Talberts. He had told Elizabeth Jordan, though, to convey to each author that ‘it is not expected that he or she shall conform rigidly or at all to my conceptions of the several characters.’

The author designated for the second chapter, that of the ‘Old-Maid Aunt’, was Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, widely respected for her New England stories. Howells had in 1888 praised the simplicity of her work, but presciently noted that she ‘cannot always be trusted’. Submitting her chapter, she wrote to Elizabeth Jordan that ‘I began to realise that I must start some action or plot, or rather indicate a plot, and at the same time not diverge from Mr Howells’s character description’: yet she diverges extremely from Howells’s account, where ‘Miss Talbert’ sounds middle-aged, demure, kindly and unpretentious about her knowledge of Florentine art. ‘Miss Wilkins’, as she was best-known, who had recently married a younger man just before turning fifty, was provoked by what she saw as Howells’s outmoded view of spinsters. ‘Their single state is deliberate choice on their own part, and men are at their feet,’ she claimed, extravagantly. Her extraordinary chapter caused consternation among many of the proof-readers: as Elizabeth Jordan said later, it ‘proved to be the explosion of a bomb-shell on our literary hearthstone’. With the privilege of a leading position, she could elaborate ‘facts’ altogether freely, and had the old-maid aunt, rejuvenating to 34, acquire (in her own account) a strong sexual allure. The especially explosive stroke is that the daughter’s fiancé is said to be (by an outrageous coincidence) already secretly in love with this revamped aunt: when he discovers his false position he flees from Eastridge in passionate confusion. The aunt has, it seems, a double life: at Eastridge as ‘Aunt Elizabeth’, perceived stereotypically as an old maid, and elsewhere as ‘Lily Talbert’, mature, sophisticated, attractive. Ned Temple, Howells’s benign narrator of the previous chapter, once threatened suicide, she ‘reveals’, if she wouldn’t marry him: she can hardly take a step, in fact, for the men inconveniently at her feet.

Because of the book’s special arrangements, the later authors were faced, only more urgently, with the same problem of interpreting this lurid development that we confront as readers. They had to read the text so far critically – and get it right – in order to proceed with it creatively. Alice Brown, one of the sharpest of the other contributors, expressed puzzlement to Elizabeth Jordan and identified the aunt as

the knot in the puzzle. If she is mad she can be grappled with. We can pack her off to a symbolic asylum and let the erotic fever which follows her tracks die with the fancy that created it. Or is she sane? And has she lied about her age or has she not? Is she still ‘eligible’? In that case we’ve got to regard Harry Goward’s neoteric passion as an actual occurrence and see what poppy will do for him.

Though Alice Brown’s madness reading is attractive, if Miss Wilkins herself speaks with unequivocal authority on this question, then we have to believe in her words that ‘that young man was as much in love with Miss Talbert as Thackeray makes Pendennis in love with the actress, and poor Peggy was confronted with a hard fact.’ The chapter, in the first person and thus in James’s words subject to ‘the terrible fluidity of self-revelation’, is, however, bafflingly ambiguous in a degree which appears to exceed authorial intentions. As in The Turn of the Screw, but without the same consistency, we get an egocentric account of events (as ‘actual occurrences’ and ‘hard facts’) and some hints at a derangement in our informant’s wits that would make us read the facts as fantasised. The fiancé, Goward, pours out his guilty passion for her ‘by moonlight’, for instance; she may hallucinate a male compliment (‘I am certain I heard him say ... “she does look stunning” ’); and Ned Temple makes a nobly romantic utterance to her about his past rivalry with the love of her life ‘very much as if he had been speaking of the weather’. The suggestion seems in these places to be very strongly though not so obviously made that Ned Temple is speaking of the weather and that the aunt is a lunatic, in line with Alice Brown’s hypothesis that she ‘looked at them all through a distorting lens’.

What can most certainly be said is that Miss Wilkins endangered and enlivened The Whole Family by equivocating so irresolvably between the fantasy construction and the line of ‘actual occurrences’. Her immediate successors shied away in embarrassment from the ‘symbolic asylum’. Mary Heaton Vorse in ‘The Grandmother’ declares that ‘Elizabeth Talbert is one of those women who live on a false basis. She is a case of arrested development’ – but doesn’t confront the question of whether the fiancé really flees from Eastridge on account of the aunt or whether he really has received the telegram calling him to an uncle’s sickbed. James was dissatisfied with the treatment of her: ‘She is the person, in the whole thing, to have been, objectively, done; Miss Wilkins making her, to my sense, too subjectively sentimental.’ Readers need to be somehow alerted to the unreliability of unreliable narrators; if events are being subjectively distorted in the telling it is well to maintain some degree of access to the objective world, keeping within range a sense of proportion. The divergence between Miss Wilkins’s apparent intention as set out in her letters to Elizabeth Jordan (the aunt as a sane if flighty and selfish rebel against oppressive and premature family stereotyping) and the powerful subtext that can be discerned in the chapter itself (the aunt as a pathetically or comically fantasising old maid pretending to herself she leads a double life) seems to mark her as going in for what we can recognise as a modern form, the madman’s tale, without being in control of what she means by it. Perhaps the lack of control is itself characteristically modern: at any rate, The Whole Family is shell-shocked after the second chapter and never entirely recovers its balance.

The multiple authorship and limited individual opportunities of this ‘so “rum” serial’, as James called it, compounded by the minimising of consultation, make certain kinds of fictional integrity and intensity difficult to achieve. The Jamesian idea of fiction as moving methodically between preparation and effect, picture and drama, the construction of ‘values’ and the use of them in action, seems beyond the scope of a lot of the participants. It must be said that the technical challenge, here, is considerable. Each author in turn has to rise from the reader’s armchair, a place of comparative passivity and irresponsible ease, to preside at the demanding authorial desk, where a straight-backed seat stands for the necessity of caring for the whole thing, the commitment to answer for the congruity of every detail. As the chapters pile up, embodying different visions of the book and variously incriminating the fiancé for his involvement with the aunt and exculpating him as an honourable young man embarrassed by an irrational vamp – as The Whole Family becomes increasingly a register of these discrepancies, the task of each new contributor becomes more daunting. Many of the chapters start with a veiled authorial reference to the difficulty of seeing a clear way. By the ninth chapter, after some startling developments, ‘The Mother’ and her author Edith Wyatt seem to combine in a prosaic invocation of clarity: ‘I am most grateful to the fortune sending me this lucid interval, not only for thinking over what has occurred in the last three days, but also for trying to focus clearly for myself what has happened in the last week.’ The problem is pointed for Edith Wyatt because in the previous chapter her managing eldest daughter Maria (‘The Married Daughter’, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps) has chased the fiancé to New York in order to bring him back to Peggy, whom she has forced to admit to still being interested in the fugitive. This admission was itself on Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s part a reversal of the emphasis in the preceding chapter, James’s expansive and commanding ‘Married Son’, in which Peggy seemed to have sanctioned her brother’s scorn of the young man as ‘a mere little frisking prize ass’. As in the first case, of the aunt, the no man’s land between a character’s merely relative interpretation of things and the solid establishment of non-contingent ‘actual occurrences’ becomes hotly disputed territory. Peggy, the heroine, who has to marry someone in the end, comes to stand, via her ambiguous and undecided feelings, for the direction of the book, over which the authors struggle: Edith Wyatt takes the advantage of the latecomer and trumps Elizabeth Stuart Phelps by having the Mother soon afterwards find Peggy hysterical and resentful of Maria’s bullying. In a move which by implication accuses ‘The Married Daughter’ of hijacking the plot she has Peggy come to herself and definitively disown the compromised fiancé: ‘I couldn’t marry any man but one that I admired.’ This strong contradiction of another writer’s signpost toward a happy ending – by rewriting the context of narrated events – is accompanied by remarks, made to Peggy, that serve both as the Mother’s characteristic comments on the cloyingly sentimental tone taken by her eldest daughter and as Edith Wyatt’s critical strictures on her colleague: ‘How can she possibly like for you the prospect of a marriage with a man in whom neither you nor any other person feels the presence of one single absolute and manly quality?’ This puts the fiancé, Harry Goward, out of the running.

These developments still leave Peggy without a satisfactory person to marry at the end. In the next chapter Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews as ‘The School-Boy’ puts forward a candidate perhaps being canvassed in the medical humour of Howells’s introductory chapter – the family doctor, Denbigh. ‘Puts forward’ is too weak for her autocratic attempt to declare him elected as Peggy’s true love by harking back some years and having young Billy overhear Peggy and Denbigh courting on the riverbank. Peggy wants him to marry her; Denbigh decently insists they wait till she’s older; they catch Billy and swear him to secrecy. In this version she’s got engaged to Goward at college only through despairing of Denbigh. The sharp Alice Brown, whose ‘Peggy’ immediately followed this seeming ‘actual occurrence’ and would seem bound to conform to it by taking on the Denbigh option, was apparently so disgusted with this trivial cliché that she undertook a daring evasive manoeuvre. Young Billy’s chapter – in a weak joke about writers and their motives – purported to have been written in an exercise-book at the instigation of the Married Son’s wife: ‘Lorraine gave me this blank-book, and told me that if I’d write down everything that I knew about Peggy and Harry Goward and all that stuff, she’d have Sally make me three pounds of crumbly cookies with currants on top, in a box, to keep in my room just to eat myself.’

Alice Brown saw this as an opening. At the start of Peggy’s chapter, her romancing schoolgirl sister, already established by Elizabeth Jordan as an avid believer in Lady Hermione’s Terrible Secret, rushes up to her and pleads unexpectedly for forgiveness: ‘Lorraine wanted [Billy] to write out exactly what he knew, and he didn’t know anything except about the telegram and how the letter got wuzzled, and I told him I’d help him to write it as it ought to be “if life were a banquet and beauty were wine” ... So I wrote it and Billy copied it.’ The teenage sister herself turns out to have a crush on Denbigh, crudely displaced in the tale of the riverbank she’s dreamed up. The flick of the pen with which Alice Brown thus defeats all the elaborate plotting of Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews has much of the triumphant cheek of Bobby Ewing’s shrugging-off of his own death and 30 episodes of Dallas as only Pam’s dream-work: ‘None of that happened.’ It bears also the implication that the Denbigh option would – or should – only be imaginable to an excitable adolescent (Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews was 47).

Having sunk the doctor, Alice Brown is depressingly compelled to float at the 11th chapter another (less square-jawed and more sympathetic) lover, a young professor of psychology from Peggy’s college, who becomes the eventual winner of the girl’s much-contested hand. The rather illiberal ‘Friend of the Family’ (Henry Van Dyke) who wraps things up as cosily as possible in the final chapter, has to go over what has happened, and does so with noticeable impatience, grumbling that ‘it was all extremely complicated and unnecessary (from my point of view).’ When the liner has eventually steamed away toward Europe bearing the honeymooners, the Friend goes for lunch at Delmonico’s with only the parents, ordering home their unruly children with the book’s sourish last words: ‘we don’t want the whole family.’

When the book had limped to completion, James wrote scorchingly to Elizabeth Jordan about the other chapters (calling Edith Wyatt’s ‘a positive small convulsion of debility’). He described his sense of being compromised. ‘It was, and still is, I confess, for me, the feeling of a competent cook who sees good vittles messed – and all the more that he has been named as having had a hand in the dinner. I wince at the vision of the dinner’s being served.’ The appeal of ‘good vittles’ to James’s taste – his taste as a chef – had always been strong. Justifying in 1899 his annexation and revision, in a letter of Mrs Humphry Ward’s Eleanor, he confided that his reading was inevitably appropriate: ‘I can read nothing, if I read it at all, save in the light of how one would one’s self proceed in tackling the same data!’ The Whole Family no doubt attracted him by offering a legitimate opportunity for such an imaginative takeover: only to frustrate him by then passing on again to feebler authors who could not see the possibilities he had evoked. When he had written ‘The Married Son’, he wrote to Elizabeth Jordan that ‘one of course can’t do such a piece at all without one’s imagination projecting a coherent sequel and consequence (to one’s own Part – as if one were to do it all one’s self),’ and even after the matter was closed he wrote to her to say ‘that I wish I might have been suffered to take upon myself to save the stuff – which would have interested and amused me, and which I would have done ingeniously and – well, cheap! I saw a way ...’ (It had occurred to Howells even at the planning stage that ‘possibly one hand could do it better than sundry.’) For James the vittles, data or stuff had been ‘fatuously muddled away’ by his successors when he could have ‘made them mean something, given them sense, direction and form’. Most of the leads he had given were simply not taken up (especially by ‘The Mother’), but in the case of ‘The Married Daughter’ (Maria), the chapter which immediately followed his ‘The Married Son’ (Charles Edward), they were not simply ignored but rudely cut short by the strong-arm trenchancy of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, who seems to have identified herself with her bossy character and resented the hostility of the other members of the family. ‘I shall defend Maria from the aspersions of being “a manager”,’ she wrote. ‘Such people are often the very back-bone of family life.’

The point of view of Maria’s more refined brother Charles Edward, unhappy in the family ‘Plated-Ware Works’, allows James to move away from The Kentons toward The Ambassadors and push Eastridge toward Woollett – except that the item of manufacture is named and that Charles Edward is a younger, more openly rebellious and possibly less admirable reflector of the action than Lambert Strether. Maria, as a representative of New England small-mindedness, certainly makes Sarah Pocock look by comparison like a person of tact and tolerance. Charles Edward’s language is an extravagant display even for James; the chapter is given as a private journal into which he pours the frustrations and resentments of one described by Aunt Elizabeth as ‘really an artist, only out of his proper sphere’. It is perhaps tempting to read his explosive comments straight off as those of James himself, who expressed his main difficulty in writing the chapter as restraining his tendency ‘to burst my bonds or my frame; to blow, that is, the roof off the house’. Charles Edward is conceived as an up-to-date Roderick Hudson, desperate to escape philistine East-ridge as Roderick is Northampton, Massachusetts, and likewise ruthlessly satirical. He describes an old photograph of his feebly tyrannical Granny in a crinoline: it shows ‘my ancestress as a young woman of the time of the War; looking as if she had been violently inflated from below, but had succeeded in resisting at any cost, and with a strange intensity of expression, from her waist up’. Granny exemplifies the narrow domestic containment of the Talberts, and in a way which parallels the narrow horizons of many of the book’s authors: ‘She knows as much about the world as a tin jelly-mould knows about the dinner, and is the oddest mixture of brooding anxieties over things that don’t in the least matter and of bland failure to suspect things that intensely do.’ The son is crushing also on the father’s vacant complacency about his business success, mainly expressed in big family meals: ‘the more we pig together round about him the more blandly patriarchal we make him feel.’ It would be possible to see this as James’s own assault on the figure apparently approved of by Howells’s narrator: ‘He was a despot, perhaps, but he was Black-stone’s ideal of the head of a state, a good despot.’

But, as I’ve suggested, Howells doesn’t exactly approve of Mr Talbert; he generously concedes a value to him as George Eliot does to the inhabitants of her Scenes of Clerical Life; and on the other side James can’t be identified with Charles Edward, though he sympathetically imagines his impatience with the unsophisticated Eastridge establishment. The stylistic extravagance, though recognisable as Jamesian, is ironically inflected to register, for example, Charles Edward’s self-congratulatory sense of his own powers of discrimination. He and his wife, ‘we artists’, are priggishly certain the adolescent sister won’t develop into a beauty: ‘If any one should know, Lorraine and I, with our trained sense for form and for “values”, certainly would.’ The reviewer was wonderfully ingenious who fancied ‘Mr James hypnotically persuaded to take his place in the circle between facetious Mr Bangs and soulful Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and caused to produce an excellent parody of himself, as if in spite of himself’. But the self-parody seems deliberate and exaggerated (as in much other James) – an act of distancing which sets James apart from his fastidious Charles Edward; James is playing the game of The Whole Family, we could say, in every sense. And if the book as a whole is as James privately judged a ‘damnable thing’, James’s own part is a tour de force worth saving – partly because of the intensity with which it projects its light over the entire book, the result of his imagining himself doing not just the married son but the whole of the rest of the family too. ‘Really, universally, relations stop nowhere,’ as he said. Minor though it is, The Whole Family bears witness to the magnanimous, wasteful vigour of James’s unifying imagination: and the more vividly for the unlikely story of its composition, for the way it was doomed from the start to fragmentation and collapse, for the stupidities and treacheries and incapacities and trivialities which made it like all too many other families, and other fictions.