We offered them their chance

Michael Wood

  • The Ivory Tower by Henry James
    NYRB, 266 pp, £8.99, July 2004, ISBN 1 59017 078 4

The story opens on a picture of a very large young lady, ‘a truly massive young person’, crossing from one house to another in Newport, Rhode Island, site of ‘florid’ villas and other structures ‘smothered in senseless architectural ornament’. On the verandah of the second house she finds her father, an inordinately rich man, sourly awaiting the death of his former partner, a slightly less rich man. Her father is described as ‘a person without an alternative’, the very worst fate that can befall anyone in a Henry James novel, and all he thinks about is his neighbour’s legacy, or more precisely ‘what old Frank would have done with the fruits of his swindle, on the occasion of the rupture that had kept them apart in hate and vituperation for so many years’.

It’s a great beginning, but what we have of the completed novel is only more of the beginning. The massive young person knows what old Frank is going to do with his money, because she is the person who persuaded him to do it: give it all to his estranged nephew, who has lived all his life in Europe. The nephew, a likeable, surprised, entirely unacquisitive fellow, returns and inherits, and the various local vultures begin to gather around him and his money. The vultures include the nephew’s old friend, who once saved his life and therefore is deeply to be trusted. Or would be if he hadn’t meanwhile turned into the smoothest and most unscrupulous kind of adventurer. The adventurer, for his part, has a charming girlfriend, who loves him as much as she can love anyone who hasn’t any money, and whom he plans to use as a screen for discreetly robbing the nephew blind. In a beautiful Jamesian tangle of inferences, the nephew will see that he is being swindled when he realises that the charming girl thinks the adventurer has enough money for her to marry him. He has: he has the nephew’s money. The nephew will let his friend know that he knows what is happening but will do nothing else about it, because he has discovered meanwhile how his uncle’s money was made, and wants none of it. Having it stolen is a sort of convenience, and is faithful to its calculating lineage.

The completed text ends when the stage is set. The nephew appears, talks to and then loses sight of the massive girl, tries to puzzle out what his new destiny means, meets up again with his smooth friend, and is awaiting the vultures, who he thinks are merely the inquisitive Americans he needs to get to know. We know about the rest of the projected action from the detailed notes for the novel, published with the long opening fragment. ‘It was Henry James’s constant practice,’ Percy Lubbock wrote when the work was first published (his preface is republished here),

before beginning a novel, to test and explore, in a written or dictated sketch … the possibilities of the idea which he had in mind. Such a sketch was in no way a first draft of the novel. He used it simply as a means of close approach to his subject … The notes, having served their purpose, would not be referred to again, and were invariably destroyed when the book was finished.

‘In no way a first draft’, and in no way a ‘treatise on novel-writing’ or ‘a landmark in the history of the novel as written in English’, as Ezra Pound says it is in his characteristically truculent note on the notes, also published in this new edition, James’s sketch nevertheless is a treasure.

What we see is James talking to himself about his novel (where else shall we hear him say ‘sort of’ and ‘or whatever’?), testing plot lines and working out what certain moves rather than others will do for him. It is something like The Genesis of a Novel, a diary Thomas Mann wrote about the composition of Dr Faustus, except that it isn’t a diary, and James talks to himself about nothing but the book. He wonders where he will send his characters after Newport. New York, definitely. And then? Maybe California? ‘I even ask myself whether Boston wouldn’t serve for this garniture.’ For the villain’s girlfriend he doesn’t want anything obvious, only ‘the sense of the shade of perfidy, treachery, the shade of the particular element’. ‘Intensities of foreshortening,’ he writes in a sudden analysis of his method, ‘with alternate vividness of extension: that is the rough label of the process.’

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