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Authors: Henry James

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The Ambassadors

BOOK: The Ambassadors
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Title: The Ambassadors
Author: Henry James
Posting Date: September 13, 2008 [EBook #432]
Release Date: February, 1996
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1
Produced by Richard D. Hathaway and Julia P DeRanek
The Ambassadors,
Henry James.
New York Edition (1909).
Volume I
Book First
Book Second
Book Third
Book Fourth
Book Fifth
Book Sixth
Volume II
Book Seventh
Book Eighth
Book Ninth
Book Tenth
Book Eleventh
Book Twelfth
Volume I

Nothing is more easy than to state the subject of "The
Ambassadors," which first appeared in twelve numbers of
North American Review
(1903) and was published as a whole the
same year. The situation involved is gathered up betimes, that is
in the second chapter of Book Fifth, for the reader's benefit, into
as few words as possible—planted or "sunk," stiffly and saliently,
in the centre of the current, almost perhaps to the obstruction of
traffic. Never can a composition of this sort have sprung
straighter from a dropped grain of suggestion, and never can that
grain, developed, overgrown and smothered, have yet lurked more in
the mass as an independent particle. The whole case, in fine, is in
Lambert Strether's irrepressible outbreak to little Bilham on the
Sunday afternoon in Gloriani's garden, the candour with which he
yields, for his young friend's enlightenment, to the charming
admonition of that crisis. The idea of the tale resides indeed in
the very fact that an hour of such unprecedented ease should have
been felt by him AS a crisis, and he is at pains to express it for
us as neatly as we could desire. The remarks to which he thus gives
utterance contain the essence of "The Ambassadors," his fingers
close, before he has done, round the stem of the full-blown flower;
which, after that fashion, he continues officiously to present to
us. "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much
matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If
you haven't had that what HAVE you had? I'm too old—too old at any
rate for what I see. What one loses one loses; make no mistake
about that. Still, we have the illusion of freedom; therefore
don't, like me to-day, be without the memory of that illusion. I
was either, at the right time, too stupid or too intelligent to
have it, and now I'm a case of reaction against the mistake. Do
what you like so long as you don't make it. For it WAS a mistake.
Live, live!" Such is the gist of Strether's appeal to the impressed
youth, whom he likes and whom he desires to befriend; the word
"mistake" occurs several times, it will be seen, in the course of
his remarks—which gives the measure of the signal warning he feels
attached to his case. He has accordingly missed too much, though
perhaps after all constitutionally qualified for a better part, and
he wakes up to it in conditions that press the spring of a terrible
question. WOULD there yet perhaps be time for
reparation?—reparation, that is, for the injury done his character;
for the affront, he is quite ready to say, so stupidly put upon it
and in which he has even himself had so clumsy a hand? The answer
to which is that he now at all events SEES; so that the business of
my tale and the march of my action, not to say the precious moral
of everything, is just my demonstration of this process of

Nothing can exceed the closeness with which the whole fits again
into its germ. That had been given me bodily, as usual, by the
spoken word, for I was to take the image over exactly as I happened
to have met it. A friend had repeated to me, with great
appreciation, a thing or two said to him by a man of distinction,
much his senior, and to which a sense akin to that of Strether's
melancholy eloquence might be imputed—said as chance would have,
and so easily might, in Paris, and in a charming old garden
attached to a house of art, and on a Sunday afternoon of summer,
many persons of great interest being present. The observation there
listened to and gathered up had contained part of the "note" that I
was to recognise on the spot as to my purpose—had contained in fact
the greater part; the rest was in the place and the time and the
scene they sketched: these constituents clustered and combined to
give me further support, to give me what I may call the note
absolute. There it stands, accordingly, full in the tideway; driven
in, with hard taps, like some strong stake for the noose of a
cable, the swirl of the current roundabout it. What amplified the
hint to more than the bulk of hints in general was the gift with it
of the old Paris garden, for in that token were sealed up values
infinitely precious. There was of course the seal to break and each
item of the packet to count over and handle and estimate; but
somehow, in the light of the hint, all the elements of a situation
of the sort most to my taste were there. I could even remember no
occasion on which, so confronted, I had found it of a livelier
interest to take stock, in this fashion, of suggested wealth. For I
think, verily, that there are degrees of merit in subjects—in spite
of the fact that to treat even one of the most ambiguous with due
decency we must for the time, for the feverish and prejudiced hour,
at least figure its merit and its dignity as POSSIBLY absolute.
What it comes to, doubtless, is that even among the supremely
good—since with such alone is it one's theory of one's honour to be
concerned—there is an ideal BEAUTY of goodness the invoked action
of which is to raise the artistic faith to its maximum. Then truly,
I hold, one's theme may be said to shine, and that of "The
Ambassadors," I confess, wore this glow for me from beginning to
end. Fortunately thus I am able to estimate this as, frankly, quite
the best, "all round," of all my productions; any failure of that
justification would have made such an extreme of complacency
publicly fatuous.

I recall then in this connexion no moment of subjective
intermittence, never one of those alarms as for a suspected hollow
beneath one's feet, a felt ingratitude in the scheme adopted, under
which confidence fails and opportunity seems but to mock. If the
motive of "The Wings of the Dove," as I have noted, was to worry me
at moments by a sealing-up of its face—though without prejudice to
its again, of a sudden, fairly grimacing with expression—so in this
other business I had absolute conviction and constant clearness to
deal with; it had been a frank proposition, the whole bunch of
data, installed on my premises like a monotony of fine weather.
(The order of composition, in these things, I may mention, was
reversed by the order of publication; the earlier written of the
two books having appeared as the later.) Even under the weight of
my hero's years I could feel my postulate firm; even under the
strain of the difference between those of Madame de Vionnet and
those of Chad Newsome, a difference liable to be denounced as
shocking, I could still feel it serene. Nothing resisted, nothing
betrayed, I seem to make out, in this full and sound sense of the
matter; it shed from any side I could turn it to the same golden
glow. I rejoiced in the promise of a hero so mature, who would give
me thereby the more to bite into—since it's only into thickened
motive and accumulated character, I think, that the painter of life
bites more than a little. My poor friend should have accumulated
character, certainly; or rather would be quite naturally and
handsomely possessed of it, in the sense that he would have, and
would always have felt he had, imagination galore, and that this
yet wouldn't have wrecked him. It was immeasurable, the opportunity
to "do" a man of imagination, for if THERE mightn't be a chance to
"bite," where in the world might it be? This personage of course,
so enriched, wouldn't give me, for his type, imagination in
PREDOMINANCE or as his prime faculty, nor should I, in view of
other matters, have found that convenient. So particular a
luxury—some occasion, that is, for study of the high gift in
SUPREME command of a case or of a career—would still doubtless come
on the day I should be ready to pay for it; and till then might, as
from far back, remain hung up well in view and just out of reach.
The comparative case meanwhile would serve—it was only on the minor
scale that I had treated myself even to comparative cases.

I was to hasten to add however that, happy stopgaps as the minor
scale had thus yielded, the instance in hand should enjoy the
advantage of the full range of the major; since most immediately to
the point was the question of that SUPPLEMENT of situation
logically involved in our gentleman's impulse to deliver himself in
the Paris garden on the Sunday afternoon—or if not involved by
strict logic then all ideally and enchantingly implied in it. (I
say "ideally," because I need scarce mention that for development,
for expression of its maximum, my glimmering story was, at the
earliest stage, to have nipped the thread of connexion with the
possibilities of the actual reported speaker. HE remains but the
happiest of accidents; his actualities, all too definite, precluded
any range of possibilities; it had only been his charming office to
project upon that wide field of the artist's vision—which hangs
there ever in place like the white sheet suspended for the figures
of a child's magic-lantern—a more fantastic and more moveable
shadow.) No privilege of the teller of tales and the handler of
puppets is more delightful, or has more of the suspense and the
thrill of a game of difficulty breathlessly played, than just this
business of looking for the unseen and the occult, in a scheme
half-grasped, by the light or, so to speak, by the clinging scent,
of the gage already in hand. No dreadful old pursuit of the hidden
slave with bloodhounds and the rag of association can ever, for
"excitement," I judge, have bettered it at its best. For the
dramatist always, by the very law of his genius, believes not only
in a possible right issue from the rightly-conceived tight place;
he does much more than this—he believes, irresistibly, in the
necessary, the precious "tightness" of the place (whatever the
issue) on the strength of any respectable hint. It being thus the
respectable hint that I had with such avidity picked up, what would
be the story to which it would most inevitably form the centre? It
is part of the charm attendant on such questions that the "story,"
with the omens true, as I say, puts on from this stage the
authenticity of concrete existence. It then is, essentially—it
begins to be, though it may more or less obscurely lurk, so that
the point is not in the least what to make of it, but only, very
delightfully and very damnably, where to put one's hand on it.

In which truth resides surely much of the interest of that
admirable mixture for salutary application which we know as art.
Art deals with what we see, it must first contribute full-handed
that ingredient; it plucks its material, otherwise expressed, in
the garden of life—which material elsewhere grown is stale and
uneatable. But it has no sooner done this than it has to take
account of a PROCESS—from which only when it's the basest of the
servants of man, incurring ignominious dismissal with no
"character," does it, and whether under some muddled pretext of
morality or on any other, pusillanimously edge away. The process,
that of the expression, the literal squeezing-out, of value is
another affair—with which the happy luck of mere finding has little
to do. The joys of finding, at this stage, are pretty well over;
that quest of the subject as a whole by "matching," as the ladies
say at the shops, the big piece with the snippet, having ended, we
assume, with a capture. The subject is found, and if the problem is
then transferred to the ground of what to do with it the field
opens out for any amount of doing. This is precisely the infusion
that, as I submit, completes the strong mixture. It is on the other
hand the part of the business that can least be likened to the
chase with horn and hound. It's all a sedentary part—involves as
much ciphering, of sorts, as would merit the highest salary paid to
a chief accountant. Not, however, that the chief accountant hasn't
HIS gleams of bliss; for the felicity, or at least the equilibrium
of the artist's state dwells less, surely, in the further
delightful complications he can smuggle in than in those he
succeeds in keeping out. He sows his seed at the risk of too thick
a crop; wherefore yet again, like the gentlemen who audit ledgers,
he must keep his head at any price. In consequence of all which,
for the interest of the matter, I might seem here to have my choice
of narrating my "hunt" for Lambert Strether, of describing the
capture of the shadow projected by my friend's anecdote, or of
reporting on the occurrences subsequent to that triumph. But I had
probably best attempt a little to glance in each direction; since
it comes to me again and again, over this licentious record, that
one's bag of adventures, conceived or conceivable, has been only
half-emptied by the mere telling of one's story. It depends so on
what one means by that equivocal quantity. There is the story of
one's hero, and then, thanks to the intimate connexion of things,
the story of one's story itself. I blush to confess it, but if
one's a dramatist one's a dramatist, and the latter imbroglio is
liable on occasion to strike me as really the more objective of the

BOOK: The Ambassadors
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