‘I thirst for his blood’

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Henry James: A Life in Letters edited by Philip Horne
    Penguin, 668 pp, £25.00, June 1999, ISBN 0 7139 9126 7
  • A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art by Lyndall Gordon
    Chatto, 500 pp, £20.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 7011 6166 3

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 A series of letters to Mrs Humphry Ward, several previously unpublished, make the process explicit.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.

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