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.

It certainly didn’t come, as he comically emphasises, from his formal schooling. At the time Henry was pausing to watch the barnyard fowl on 18th Street, he and William were apparently enrolled in an institution run by a Mrs Lavinia D. Wright on East 21st, but while William was upstairs engaged in mysterious ‘Experiments’, Henry, by his own account, ‘scarce even knew what Experiments were’. One of the running jokes of these memoirs is the repeated mismatch between Henry Senior’s ever changing plans for his children’s education and Henry Junior’s inability to profit by his opportunities. The father’s restlessness, both geographic and intellectual, meant that the Jameses rarely stayed more than a few years in the same place, and arrangements for the children’s schooling shifted yet more rapidly. ‘We were day-boys, William and I, at dispensaries of learning the number and succession of which to-day excite my wonder,’ Henry writes of their early years in New York; and Mrs Lavinia was only the latest in a string of ‘educative ladies’ to whom the brothers had been subjected. Henry thought that it was a humiliating comment on the boys’ ‘attainments’ and ‘spirit’ to be taught by women. But even when he graduated to men, his sense of his own haplessness persisted. He had been only six months old when the Jameses set off for their first extended sojourn in Europe; he was 12 when they returned for a still longer stay: a three-year period that included a Swiss boarding school, tutors in London and Paris, and a state school in Boulogne, to which the family had retreated after the financial panic of 1857. But while William, in Henry’s telling, flourished whatever the setting, it was ‘beyond measure odd … that my main association with my “studies”, whether of the infant or the adolescent order, should be with almost anything but the fact of learning’. As he remarks a bit later, ‘I had but one success, always – that of endlessly supposing, wondering, admiring.’

The educational comedy climaxes in Notes of a Son and Brother (1914) with Henry’s brief enrolment in Harvard Law School, where a disastrous appearance at a mock trial becomes yet another ‘haunting remembrance of exhibited inaptitude’. This last attempt at formal schooling at least can’t be blamed on Henry Senior, who fiercely resisted vocational ‘narrowing’ of any kind: perhaps Henry Junior was never more true to his father’s philosophy than when he attended law lectures not for their content but for their revelation of New England ‘life’. He devoted most of his time in Cambridge to ‘the muse of prose fiction’, and the only trouble from his father’s point of view was that ‘this too was narrowing’ – an objection that Henry Senior had also registered when William contemplated a career as a painter. James notes with amusement how little his father’s attitude resembled the usual grounds for objecting to the artistic professions; but Henry Senior was nothing if not consistent in his determination to keep all alternatives open, and the only thing that would have troubled him more than his sons’ choosing one profession rather than another would have been their settling for conventional careers in business or industry. His own father, an Irish emigrant known in the family as William of Albany, had amassed a substantial fortune in real estate and banking, among other enterprises, but after breaking a will that came close to disinheriting him, Henry Senior turned his back on the world of money-getting; and for ‘two generations’, as Henry remarked, ‘we were never in a single case… guilty of a stroke of business.’

The novelist was 68 when he began to dictate these memoirs, but the vividness with which he could conjure up his past makes for an extraordinary record. His prose is at its most lavish – and most characteristic – in A Small Boy, where the spontaneity of the child’s impressions is matched by the spontaneity of the associative process by which the adult manages to recall them. We don’t often think of James as a foodie, but his recollections of the tastes and smells with which he indulged his appetite easily rival Proust’s madeleine in the immediacy of their appeal. Memories of arriving by boat at a ‘queer empty dusty smelly’ New York at midsummer quickly give way to his ‘first and foremost’ impression of the city as ‘some vast succulent cornucopia’, its greengrocers with ‘boundless fruitage’ at every corner. ‘Where is that fruitage now, where in particular are the peaches d’antan?’ he asks, as he takes himself back to the ‘sticky sweetness of which our childhood seems to have been steeped’:

peaches big and peaches small, peaches white and peaches yellow, played a part in life from which they have somehow been deposed … the public heaps of them, the high-piled receptacles at every turn, touched the street as with a sort of southern plenty … We ate everything in those days by the bushel and the barrel, as from stores that were infinite; we handled water-melons as freely as cocoanuts, and the amount of stomach-ache involved was negligible in the general Eden-like consciousness.

Then there were the ‘bedizened saucers heaped up for our fond consumption’ at the two competing ice-cream parlours where the young Jameses were regularly rewarded after visits to the dentist: ‘ice cream, deemed sovereign for sore mouths, deemed sovereign in fact, all through our infancy, for everything’; the ‘sticky waffles’ doled out by an accommodating black woman in a schoolhouse courtyard, each ‘oblong farinaceous compound, faintly yet richly brown, stamped and smoking, not crisp nor brittle, but softly absorbent of the syrup dabbed upon it for a finish’; the even stickier ‘mounds of chopped cocoanut’ with which the small boys stuffed their pockets from a nearby confectioner’s called Pynsent’s. Did the sweet shop inspire the naming of Miss Pynsent, the dressmaker who brings up Hyacinth Robinson in The Princess Casamassima (1886)? Surely Hyacinth himself, who remains diminutive even when fully grown, is what the small boy might have been without James’s privileges: an aspiring writer who has to work as a mere bookbinder, he shares with his creator both a habit of wandering the city and an attraction to the local confectioner, though one that in his seedy neighbourhood boasts only ‘tough toffy and hard lollipops’.

Presumably it’s just a coincidence that James’s first recollection of missing out on a pleasure should concern something called ‘Hot Corn’: not the thing itself, but a popular novel of 1854 ‘more or less having for its subject the career of a little girl who hawked that familiar American luxury in the streets’. Henry Senior seems to have judged the work inappropriate for ‘an innocent child’, and the boy was left to ponder the humiliating implications of that verdict: a pang that lasted far longer, he now observes, than the vogue for the novel itself. Being shut out from knowledge is always a stimulus to the Jamesian imagination, and the ‘mystery of the tabooed book’ in particular would continue to resonate for him, from the frequent opposition of English prudery and Continental freedom in his literary criticism to the plot of The Awkward Age (1899), which turns on the heroine’s violation of a similar taboo with an unnamed French novel.

A book that didn’t get read is a rarity in these memoirs, however. And not just books, but pictures, periodicals, stage performances of every kind: all feed an appetite for representation that appears to have been every bit as eager – and to have arrived just as early – as the child’s craving for sweets. Indeed, the boy is never so much the artist as when he revels in such mediated pleasures, or refuses to distinguish between the imaginative transformation of experience and the real thing.

The child took his reward for the dentist’s ‘torture chamber’ in the form of ice cream but also of Godey’s Lady’s Book, piles of which lay waiting in the office to beguile him with their tales of fashionable life. He thrilled at an expedition to view the huge painting by Emanuel Leutze of Washington crossing the Delaware, his excitement in the ‘wondrous flare of projected gaslight’ all the greater for his awareness that it would otherwise be the hour for bed. At home there was the large painting of Florence by Thomas Cole that covered half a wall in the front parlour, as well as ‘the tall entrancing folios of Nash’s lithographed Mansions of England in the Olden Time’ that he liked to spread out on the drawing-room carpet. Poring over a set of volumes devoted to ‘the heroines of Romance’ at a relative’s house in Union Square, he found images from Shakespeare ‘so artfully coloured and varnished’ that it long remained a shock to him not to see the very same figures, with the same complexions and costumes, materialise on the stage. At another relative’s house he discovered George Cruickshank’s ‘vividly terrible’ illustrations of Oliver Twist, whose pictures of the ‘nice’ people and scenes seemed to him almost more frightening than the sinister ones. Sent to bed while one of his older cousins read aloud from the first instalment of David Copperfield, he managed to hide himself and listen breathlessly – only to give the game away when he burst into loud sobs of sympathy ‘under the strain of the Murdstones’.

The small James surrendered with equal readiness to the magic of the theatre, despite the provincial versions on offer in antebellum New York, with their melodramatic adaptations of Dickens and vulgar horseplay. But even at an early age his love of illusion was beginning to be matched by his fascination with the way illusions were made. Attending a second production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave him that ‘great thing … a canon to judge by’ and helped to turn the young playgoer into a budding critic. ‘I could be sure my second Eliza was less dramatic than my first … just as on the other hand the rocking of the ice-floes of the Ohio, with the desperate Eliza, infant in arms, balancing for a leap from one to the other, had here less of the audible creak of carpentry.’ Those noisy boards might seem to provide the very opposite of theatrical pleasure, but the whole ‘point’, he now argues, ‘was that we attended this spectacle just in order not to be beguiled’ – a spirit in which the James children seem to have wandered happily through New York’s religious establishments as well. Encouraged by their theologically eccentric father to visit whatever houses of worship they pleased, they may have been stumped when their contemporaries demanded to know what church they attended, but the young Henry’s sense that there was something vaguely discrediting about not being able to say where they ‘went’ was more than offset by his delight in the sheer variety of the show: that ‘love of the exhibition in general, thanks to which figures, faces, furniture, sounds, smells and colours, became for me, wherever enjoyed, and enjoyed most where most collected, a positive little orgy of the senses and riot of the mind.’

*

Though James had been a mere ‘baby in long clothes’ on his first visit to Paris, he persuaded his parents that he retained a memory of the experience: a view of the place Vendôme glimpsed through a carriage window that he described with sufficient accuracy to persuade them of its resembling no other grand square of his acquaintance. Presumably James loved this story enough for it to warrant an exception to his usual rule, whereby things European first reveal themselves through conversation and art. A ‘sense of Europe’, by this account, arises simultaneously with his first awakening to vocation, as his childhood friend Louis De Coppet, half-French on his father’s side, invites him to collaborate in writing and publishing a romance. (Nothing came of this venture, and James doesn’t know how his friend divined a gift of which he had never exhibited at the time ‘the least “phenomenal” symptom’.) His aunt talks nostalgically of England at the breakfast table, and the boy begins to imagine how ‘English life’ will matter to his future: a process aided by his father’s providing him with a subscription to a periodical for children, aptly titled The Charm, that arrives from London, more often late than not. By the time the Jameses return to Europe for their second sojourn in 1855-58, James’s sense of recognition will be triggered not by improbable recollections of his earlier visit but by the ‘stores of preconception’ he carries with him. A sojourn in the French provinces will echo with the ‘romance of travel’ – ‘the suggested romance … flushed with … memories of one’s “reading”’; his time in London will be filtered through scenes from Dickens and Thackeray, a Thackeray whose ironic comedy will also play over the family’s retreat in distressed circumstances, like the Newcomes before them, to Boulogne.

A Small Boy ends, rather abruptly, with the Boulogne episode, as James takes advantage of the fever from which he was suffering at the time to map a temporary ‘lapse in consciousness’ onto the gap between volumes. Notes of a Son and Brother picks up the story a year later, with the family’s return to Europe after an interval in Newport, Rhode Island, and closes with the death of their cousin Mary (Minnie) Temple in 1870 – an event that he and William ‘felt … together’, Henry says in his final sentence, ‘as the end of our youth’. (He was 27.) The unfinished Middle Years opens with the author’s 1869 landing at Liverpool and his still youthful anticipation of what Europe may do for him – while backtracking to acknowledge, somewhat sheepishly, that ‘everything depends in such a view on what one means by one’s youth.’ Though these pages read like a prelude to James’s eventual residence in England, he would not settle permanently there until late in 1876, having first tried out the American Cambridge, Rome, New York and Paris, and having crossed the Atlantic in both directions twice more in the interval.

But to sort out time and space in this way is hardly to capture the effect of reading these volumes, which are anything but tidily sequential in their narrative. Memory – James’s memory – doesn’t work like that; and as he confesses at the outset, no sooner did he undertake this project than ‘aspects began to multiply and images to swarm’. Bosanquet described how he dictated it almost in a trance, oblivious to the howling cats and honking cars that usually distracted him, and only pausing in his rhythmic paces when a desired word temporarily eluded him. One of the things that makes A Small Boy and Others at once so difficult and so exhilarating is that the narrator’s immersion in his remembered past is continually qualified by anticipation of the adult he would become, even as his memories of individual people and incidents are shadowed by his knowledge of their future. The greater his distance from the time he’s recalling, the more space for wandering as association takes him: from his precocious memory of the place Vendôme, for instance, to the question of its subsequent influence on his response to the events of 1848, when reports of the French king’s flight marked the five-year-old’s ‘positive initiation into History’; and thence to a meditation on the intensely ‘inward life’ led by the James family that in turn leaps forward to his first realisation that Americans, too, lived in a political order, when news reached him while abroad of John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. (Before that moment, he claims, characteristically, that he owed his entire idea of politics to the illustrations in Punch.) All this in two early pages of A Small Boy, though by a more conventional measure of chronology James’s memoir will not approach the Civil War years until midway through its second volume.

With Notes of a Son and Brother other voices, more tied to time and place, enter the narrative. The original plan of annotating William’s letters seems to have given way to a family chronicle, and there are also substantial extracts from the correspondence of Henry’s father, his younger brother Garth Wilkinson (known as ‘Wilky’) and Minnie Temple. James seems to have thought the Notes a better book than its predecessor, but while he was surely right to judge it ‘less egotistical’ than A Small Boy, it also lacks some of that volume’s imaginative freedom and intensity. Not that reverence for the dead prevented him from ‘retouching’ what they had written when his own sense of the past required it; as he explained to William’s oldest son, Harry, who had strongly protested the alterations to his father’s letters, the success of the book depended on ‘living back imaginatively’ –a goal that in James’s mind necessarily trumped any ‘ideal of documentary exactitude.’ In retrospect, he conceded, he probably should have avoided quoting the letters at all rather than tinker with them in this way, though he also implicitly acknowledged that his art had always depended on just such rewriting of the material life had offered him.

It makes one wonder, of course, how much more play he gave to his feeling for how things must have been when he had no documents to restrain him. But it’s no surprise, really, that the vividness of A Small Boy is as much the creation of the ageing novelist as it is a tribute to the retentive capacities of the boy. ‘Wherever I dip, again, I pull out a plum from under the tooth of time,’ he writes in Notes from a Son and Brother, but in this case the remembered sweet is not literal: it’s the end of the Civil War he’s recalling, ‘the very taste’ of which comes back to him, along with ‘the very smell’ that emanated from the returning soldiers – this last a more ambiguous memory that hovers uncertainly between the actual scent of worn uniforms and a figure for the collective air of ‘having so served’. The recollection of pleasure in these memoirs is never very far from the pleasure of recollection.