Authors: MICHAEL GORRA
“The Art of Fiction” is endlessly quotable, and I’ll return to it in later chapters, in particular to James’s account of Victorian self-censorship. At this point, however, its most relevant passages are those that touch upon the
that some critics of the period made between “the novel of character and the novel of incident.” Yet character itself determines incident, James argues, and every incident serves in turn to illustrate character. His choice of such an illustration is a woman standing with her hand upon a table and looking “at you in a certain way.” That example does admittedly betray his own predilections; he finds his character-revealing incident in a glance, not a courtroom or a sword fight. Still, it allows him to deny that there is any way to separate story from character, and either from what he calls their “treatment,” a term we may equate with “form.” And he then begins to toy with a reviewer who has used a work of derring-do as a stick with which to beat the kinds of stories in which girls from Boston turn down English dukes for
—tales that are of course his own.
James’s argument here anticipates his exploration, in the preface to
The Portrait of a Lady
, of the particular adventures open to women. He suggests that psychological reasons may stand as subjects in themselves, that the life within has a drama of its own—but then few of us today need to be convinced of that. We have read our Freud, and we have also read our James, and we’ve learned to take pleasure in following the logic of a character’s ever-shifting mood and motivations. Indeed, our whole experience of nineteenth-century fiction, from Austen through George Eliot and beyond, has taught us that there are
“few things more exciting than a psychological reason.”
James knows that Isabel looks both finicky and precipitate, and he asks us not to smile at this American girl, who on receiving an offer from an English peer was inclined to think
“she could do better.”
Not that she has a vision of what that “better” might be. She seems precipitate even to herself, and knows that most women would have accepted Warburton immediately. It even makes her afraid, makes her wonder
“Who was she, what was she, that she should hold herself superior?”
And perhaps for the first time in her young life, Isabel lacks an answer, lacks a clear conception of her fate or future happiness. She only knows that this isn’t it. Nor is a marriage to Goodwood, though she does believe there’s something unfinished between them, an account that must someday be settled. Many readers feel exasperated with Isabel at this point, an exasperation couched in a form that echoes her own question: just who does she think she is? They find her unaccountably arrogant, and yet refusing Lord Warburton does serve to pique our curiosity. We want to know—
wants to know—what effect her choice will have. We want to know what such a girl will do for an encore, and agree with her when she tells herself that if she doesn’t marry Warburton, then she must do something even greater. Her independence will have to find some more enlightened end. But what?
When Warburton proposes, Isabel recognizes that she has stepped into a scene she has read too many times before. She may not yet understand just what she wants, but she does recognize that this scene’s very familiarity stands in itself as a reason to say no. She rejects the plot that other people might write for her, and insists instead that she must be free to choose, free to make her own mistakes. Her choice here may even be the right one, though that doesn’t mean it will lead to happiness. For Isabel cannot escape the fate she seems to crave, the fate that waits to test her in the book’s 500 remaining pages. Nor can we. However much we may want to live on in that world of green lawns, we have to recognize that James has made a different and less comfortable plot around this particular woman. When after receiving his proposal Isabel asks Lord Warburton for a moment in which to collect her mind, he gives a little sigh and says, “
Do you know
I am very much afraid of it—of that mind of yours.” His words make her blush, and then, with a note in her voice that seems to ask for compassion, she answers. “So am I, my lord!”
AN UNMARRIED MAN
SABEL ARCHER WAS
not the only figure in James��s world who needed to explain a reluctance to marry. Her creator found himself in that situation as well, and in the very months he devoted to her story. By the time he finished
The Portrait of a Lady
, James had faced three consequential choices. The first of them was the young man’s choice of inaction, his standing aside from the Civil War. The second was his election of a London life, a life abroad. And the third was his decision to remain unmarried, a decision codified in a series of letters he wrote in the fall of 1880, as he worked through the complications of Isabel’s own alternatives. Scholars have usually seen those last two decisions in isolation from one another, and in the past they usually concentrated on James’s choice of Europe, an interest we can summarize by a glance along the library shelves.
The Pilgrimage of Henry James, The Complex Fate, The Conquest of London
some representative titles
from earlier generations of scholarship. Such critics did not see his expatriation in any single way. Some presented it as a sacrifice and perhaps a mistake, a loss of his American subject and identity. Others saw his cosmopolitan experience as being at one with the modernism of his late work. These positions each have their adherents today, but they are now complicated by an awareness of the novelist’s other choice, the one previous eras preferred to elide. Middle-aged bachelors were not rare in James’s time. The term wasn’t yet a bit of code, and the fact that this one seemed to trail no liaisons behind him allowed our predecessors to present him as wed to the page. They were helped in this by James’s own tale of his “obscure hurt,” and also by the many spectators in his work, Ralph Touchett included, characters who hold back from an active life.
That emphasis suited
the still-decorous nature of mid-twentieth-century biography, and it suited too the preferences of the James family, of William’s widow and their children, who controlled access to the writer’s papers. Oscar Wilde’s sex life might be unavoidable, and Flaubert’s too. With more reticent subjects much could remain unsaid.
In my prologue I wrote that while we cannot know if James ever acted upon a physical desire, nobody today doubts the shape of his erotic longings. A Venetian travel essay of 1873 speaks of a boy’s beauty in terms that James never uses of girls—one urchin has
“a smile to make Correggio sigh in his grave. . . . [a] little unlettered Eros of the Adriatic strand.”
The most powerful moments in his early novel,
, describe the fascination that Roderick’s patron Rowland Mallet feels for his protégé, with his attempts to guide and indeed live through the young artist. James’s biographer Fred Kaplan argues that the novelist came to a
of his own homoerotic desire during his 1875–76 residence in Paris. Yet how dim? He wrote then to his sister that he had developed
“a most tender affection”
for a new friend, the monied Russian émigré Paul Zhukovsky. “He is much to my taste,” James added, “and we have sworn an eternal friendship”—a friendship that nevertheless cooled in ways I’ll describe below. Twenty years later he began to fall in love with a series of younger men. The letters he sent them are extravagant not only in their professions of devotion but also in the physicality of their language, their pages of hugs and holding close; and Howells, in an essay left unfinished at his death, referred to them as a
They confirmed his sense of James’s “oddity,” an oddity he lacked terms to describe. Still, such
in Kaplan’s terms, did not in itself require any physical expression, and the most interesting details remain those of consciousness, the slow dawn of what one had already half-known.
Given that sexual preference, it’s crucial to stress that James’s decision to remain unmarried was nevertheless a decision, and one that was by no means inevitable. It was a choice, and we can view that choice as inseparable from his decision to live abroad, as different aspects of the same thing. Certainly they were seen that way in his lifetime, albeit in negative form. In 1894, Theodore Roosevelt wrote an essay in which he attacked the “Europeanized” American, whom he defined, with unmistakable reference, as an “
. . . man of letters, who flees his country because he . . . cannot play a man’s part among men.” His private comments were even more brutal, though the two men got on well enough when they shared a table at a White House dinner in 1905. But let me put it in other terms. Don’t think of marriage, or of James’s apparent lifelong celibacy, or even perhaps of desire. Think rather of the young man’s sense that something held fast within him had made him a stranger to much of the world around him. In his 1955 poem “The Importance of Elsewhere,” Philip Larkin describes how when living abroad, and lonely, his own oddity had made sense. The different accents around him served to mark out his difference, and paradoxically made him feel welcome. Larkin’s peculiarities were those of misanthropy, not sexual identity, but still his lines are relevant. Living elsewhere makes him look merely
“separate, not unworkable.”
The danger lies in going home, where he has no such excuse.
London became James’s elsewhere, a place that underwrote his existence. In his fifties he came to believe that loneliness itself was
“the deepest thing about one. . . . Deeper about
at any rate,”
deeper even than his art. But those words were written in the relative isolation of Rye, and written as well to one of the young men in whom he was interested; in this case the journalist Morton Fullerton, a bisexual rake who later became Edith Wharton’s lover. During his early years in London, James enjoyed a life full of other people, dining out almost every night and with his weekends spent at house parties that sent him traveling from Scotland to Cornwall and back again. Such a life couldn’t supply his every need, but the city was indeed a good place to be a bachelor. Spare men were in demand, and then there was the sociable male world of the clubs—he very quickly became a member of the Reform, and then the Athenaeum. Some people find a kind of license in living abroad; for Christopher Isherwood a few decades later, the Berlin of the Weimar Republic meant boys. But for James it regularized the experience of not having. Living in England separated him from the expectations of his family. It marked him out and objectified his sense of isolation. It normalized his sense of being apart, and he was determined to keep that sustaining sense of difference, noting that though he had become
he was not at all Anglicized.
Yet suppose he were to marry? Would he take an English bride, and go even further in giving up his country? Or if he found an American wife, would he not then come home? Such branching questions seem to place him inside one of his own stories, and in his first years abroad James faced a steady run of them. Nor did those questions all come from Quincy Street. In England he was widely viewed as eligible—a man old enough to be steady and yet still willing to dance. In 1878 he wrote to William that another guest at a house party had asked, upon seeing him alone, if
was fond of London. “Is she? Ask mother.” Later that year he added that he believed in marriage almost as much for other people as he didn’t believe in it for himself, and announced that he rejoiced in William’s marriage
“as if it were my own; or rather much more.”
At other times he joked about his chances. In one letter to his mother he suggested that he might marry a widowed Marchioness—a dowager in her twenties, and pretty—while in another he claimed he had proposed to a woman of eighty, who appeared to think she could do better.
These letters to Quincy Street show us a man at ease with himself. He sees the comedy in other people’s assumptions that he must be in want of a wife, and it astonishes us now that they didn’t see it too. More than a hundred years later we share the sense of another American abroad, the diplomat E. S. Nadal, who wrote in a 1920 memoir that
“of all the men I ever knew [James] was the man whom I could least imagine”
as married. Nevertheless, he found himself called upon, in the last months of 1880, to quash the rumor of his own impending wedding. He had thought of going home that fall but canceled his passage under the pressure of work; he now planned to return to America the next year instead, after
The Portrait of a Lady
was finished. But some of his friends “supposed that I put off my journey because I had intentions of marriage here,” and there was also talk of a young woman from Bangor.
“This last report,”
as he told his mother, “is a slight mistake.”
James’s most detailed account of his situation comes in a letter he sent that November to Grace Norton, one written in reply to a letter of her own, now lost; presumably it was part of the great pile of correspondence that he burned at Rye in 1909. She too had heard the rumors, though apparently without crediting them, and James writes to her of his amusement at his world’s “
(or expressed) desire” that he should get himself to the altar. But he found it impossible to imagine a conjugal future, though he added that if he were to describe the grounds of his conviction she would think him “dismally theoretic.” Isabel too is theoretic, but James’s reasons are not his character’s. Nor are they so fully developed. One’s attitude to marriage, he argues, is a part of one’s attitude toward life itself, and if he were to wed, he “should be guilty in my own eyes of an inconsistency—I should pretend to think just a little better of life than I really do.” On a first glance that statement looks wise, almost stoic in its elevation, and yet it explains less than it seems to. James doesn’t go on to specify the nature of his disenchantment, and instead throws up a distancing barrier of charm. His view of life is sanguine enough, and after all, an “amiable bachelor” has his social uses. Yet I can’t quite dismiss his words as a piece of pleasant blinding chatter, and one phrase stops me short. For he adds that his opinion of life, with all its consequences, “doesn’t involve any particular injustice to anyone, least of all to myself.”
t’s always dangerous to draw inferences about a writer’s life from his fiction, his fiction from his life. Still, a look at one of James’s tales can help us understand the choice he had made, and the possible nature of that injustice. Soon after finishing the
he began a series of stories about the lives of writers and artists. Some dealt with the costs of fame, others examined the nature of artistic illusion, and still more probed the relation between life and art, asking how one’s actions in one sphere affect one’s fortunes in the other. Despite their individual variations, they comprise a unified body of work, and in the history of James’s short fiction they fill the years between the international stories of his early career and such late tales of the uncanny as “The Jolly Corner.” James may have been suspicious of George Eliot’s moralized fables, but he was far from immune to such fables himself, and these middle-period works all have a didactic streak. They draw pictures as a way to explore a set of propositions about art and life and the relation between them, and they have always been taken as parables about James’s own work and career. The 1888 “Lesson of the Master” has in particular been read as a tale about his own sense of dedication, for it turns on the advice an older writer gives to a younger one: don’t marry, not if you care for your art. And James himself colluded in giving the piece its explanatory force; he did not discourage the younger writers who at the start of the twentieth century began to call him “Master.”
For our purposes, however, the most suggestive of these stories is a tale that speaks to its author’s sense of a hidden sexual life. Though not necessarily his own; or not only. We will need the details of James’s own biography to turn the key of “The Author of ‘Beltraffio,’” but its anecdote can be put quickly. The story is told by the American disciple of a writer named Mark Ambient, a novelist whose works preach
“the gospel of art . . . a kind of aesthetic war-cry.”
Yet Ambient’s sermon isn’t devoted to the quest for formal perfection alone, for he also wants his books to have all the impudence of life itself, and a part of that is the willingness to shock. His models are classical, not Christian, and if his settings are modern, they are also Italian; his pages burn always with the hard gem of Mediterranean sensations. James’s narrator soon learns that Mrs. Ambient will not even read her husband’s work. She thinks it
and she fears in particular the effect that Ambient might have on their little boy, whom they have nicknamed Dolcino. She tries to keep the child from his father, and calls him away whenever the novelist wants to hold or play with him. Then two things happen. Dolcino grows feverish, and the narrator persuades Mrs. Ambient to read the proofs of her husband’s new book. She takes the pages into the sickroom, and then locks the door behind her. For she is so shocked by what she reads that she decides it’s better to let the boy die than to be exposed to his father’s corrupting force.
James developed his plan for the story in a notebook entry for March 26, 1884, an entry that not only sketches the tale in its entirety, but also provides the bit of fact from which it grew. He got the idea from the critic Edmund Gosse, a new friend but already a confidant. Gosse was a tastemaker who would help bring Ibsen’s work to an English audience, and is today best known as the author of
Father and Son
(1907), a book about his break from his father’s evangelical beliefs that stands as one of the period’s best autobiographies. The anecdote he told James concerned a third writer, a historian of the Italian Renaissance named John Addington Symonds. They had touched on Symonds’s aestheticism, and also on his tubercular lungs, which had exiled him to the cold dry air of the Alps. Yet the worst of it, Gosse told him, was that
“poor S.’s wife was in no sort of sympathy with what he wrote, disapproving of its tone, thinking his books immoral.”
Mrs. Symonds did not let a child die, but their friends took the story as a family portrait, and scandalous; and all the more scandalous to those who knew the secret of her disapproval. James himself professed ignorance, and begged Gosse to enlighten him—just what
he divined about
“the innermost cause of J.A.S.’s discomfort?”
Even a postcard would help, he wrote—so long as its wording was “covert.” But both that word and the tone of the letter as a whole are so coy that it’s hard to believe he did not already know of Symonds’s homosexuality.