Peaches d’antan

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Autobiographies: ‘A Small Boy and Others’; ‘Notes of a Son and Brother’; ‘The Middle Years’ and Other Writings by Henry James, edited by Philip Horne
    Library of America, 848 pp, £26.99, January 2016, ISBN 978 1 59853 471 9

Henry James liked to represent himself as hopelessly lagging behind his older brother, but he was also very good at turning childish inadequacy to imaginative account. A year after William’s death in 1910, he set out to edit a selection of William’s letters only to end up producing a remarkable self-portrait. Though he had intended to preface the letters with a short history of their family, recollection soon faltered. Little more than a year separated the two oldest James children, but as far as Henry could remember, William had been ‘always round the corner and out of sight’ – so in ‘advance’ of his younger and slower sibling ‘that I never for all the time of childhood and youth in the least caught up with him or overtook him’. The same vanishing act that confirmed William’s superiority, however, now happily cleared the way for Henry; and ‘an entire volume of memories was finished,’ as Theodora Bosanquet, Henry’s secretary, reported, before William was brought ‘to an age for writing letters’. This was A Small Boy and Others (1913), the first of three autobiographical volumes, the last unfinished at the time of his death, that James dictated to Bosanquet and that have recently been reissued, together with some shorter pieces and Bosanquet’s own memoir of her time with James.

The small boy who displaced his more accomplished sibling would prove one of James’s most appealing creations. Towards the end of these memoirs he describes how shocked he was to discover when he met him that ‘Tennyson was not Tennysonian.’ There never seems to have been a moment when James wasn’t Jamesian – at once vividly recognisable as a young child and identical, often comically so, with the ageing novelist now telling his story. The most unlikely incidents serve to anticipate his future self, as when he identifies the memory of ‘a very big Newfoundland dog on whose back I was put to ride’ with ‘my first vision of the liberal life’. The comedy is immediately underlined by his wry acknowledgment of how much larger he has grown in the interim (‘I further ask myself what my age could possibly have been when my weight was so fantastically far from hinting at later developments’).

A much quoted passage from the second chapter of A Small Boy makes a direct connection between the child’s habit of lingering on his way home from school in New York and the future novelist’s ability to make something out of the slightest of impressions. The memory in question concerns a somewhat improbable menagerie visible through the iron railings of a ‘country-place’, as the small boy imagined it, at the corner of 18th Street and Broadway: ‘elegant little cows … two or three nibbling fawns and a larger company … of peacocks and guineafowl’, together – or so he now presumes – with ‘some of the commoner ornaments of the barnyard’. It’s hardly the stuff of Jamesian fiction, and James makes no pretence of having saved it up for later use, though the very fact that it had for him ‘the note of greatness’ shows ‘what a very town-bred small person I was, and was to remain’. But ‘a romantic view of browsing and pecking and parading creatures’ is a romantic view, for all that; it’s clear that the small boy was already more given to observation than action. There’s also a rueful reflection on the meaning of his parents’ confidence in allowing him to wander the streets: ‘What I look back to as my infant licence can only have had for its ground some timely conviction on the part of my elders that the only form of riot or revel ever known to me would be that of the visiting mind.’

Retrospectively watching the small boy ‘dawdle and gape again … as the rails of the 18th Street corner rub his contemplative nose’, James sees in this ‘convenient little image or warning’ everything the future was to hold:

For there was the very pattern and measure of all he was to demand: just to be somewhere – almost anywhere would do – and somehow receive an impression or an accession, feel a relation or a vibration. He was to go without many things, ever so many – as all persons do in whom contemplation takes so much the place of action; but everywhere, in the years that came soon after, and that in fact continued long, in the streets of great towns, in New York still for some time, and then for a while in London, in Paris, in Geneva, wherever it might be, he was to enjoy more than anything the so far from showy practice of wondering and dawdling and gaping: he was really, I think, much to profit by it.

The profit James accumulates here is above all imaginative, but there’s also a hint of the more mundane kind as well. From such ‘wondering and dawdling and gaping’ came the novelist’s education.

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