( Originally Published 1919 )
1. The Novelist of Grains and Scruples
HENRY JAMES is an example of a writer who, enjoyed immense fame but little popularity. Some of his best books, I believe, never passed into second editions. He was, above all novelists, an esoteric author. His disciples had the pleasure of feeling like persons initiated into mysteries. He was subject, like a religious teacher, to all kinds of conflicting interpretations. He puzzled and exasperated even intelligent people. They often wondered what he meant and whether it was worth writing about. Mr. Wells, or whoever wrote Boon, compared him to a hippopotamus picking up a pea.
Certainly he laboured over trifles as though he were trying to pile Pelion on Ossa. He was capable, had he been a poet, of writing an epic made up of incidents chosen from the gossip of an old maid in the upper middle classes. He was the novelist of grains and scruples. I have heard it urged that he was the supreme incarnation of the Nonconformist conscience, perpetually concerned with infinitesimal details of conduct. As a matter of fact, there was much more of the aesthete in him than of the Nonconformist. He lived for his tastes. It is because he is a novelist of tastes rather than of passions that he is unlikely ever to be popular even to the degree to, which Meredith is popular.
One imagines him, from his childhood, as a perfect connoisseur, a dilettante. He has told' us how, as a child, in New York, Paris, London, and Geneva, he enjoyed more than anything else the " far from showy practice of wondering and dawdling and gaping." And, while giving us this picture of the small boy that was himself, he comments : ---
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.
That is the essential Henry James-the collector of impressions and vibrations. " Almost anywhere would do ": that is what makes some of his stories just miss being as insipid as the verse in a magazine. On the other hand, of few of his stories is this true. His personality was too definitely marked to leave any of his work flavourless. His work reflects him as the arrangement of a room may reflect a charming lady. He brings into every little world that he enters the light of a new and refined inquisitiveness. He is as watchful as a cat. Half his pleasure seems to come from waiting for the extraordinary to peep and peer out of the ordinary. That is his adventure. He prefers it to seas of bloodshed. One may quarrel with it, if one demands that art shall be as violent as war and shall not subdue itself to the level of a game. But those who enjoy the spectacle of a game played with perfect skill will always find reading Henry James an exciting experience.
It would be unfair, however, to suggest that the literature of Henry James can be finally summed up as a game. He is unquestionably a virtuoso : he uses his genius as an instrument upon which he loves to reveal his dexterity, even when he is shy of revealing his immortal soul. But he is not so inhuman in his art as some of his admirers have held him to be. Mr. Hueffer, I think, has described' him as pitiless, and even cruel. But can one call Daisy Miller pitiless? Or What Maisie Knew? Certainly, those autobiographical volumes, A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother, which may be counted among the most wonderful of the author's novels, are pervaded by exquisite affections which to, a pitiless nature would have been impossible.
Henry James is even sufficiently human to take sides with his characters. He never does this to the point of lying about them. But he is in his own still way passionately on the side of the finer types. In The Turn of the Screw, which seems to me to be the greatest ghost-story in the English language, he has dramatized the duel between good and evil ; and the effect of it, at the end of all its horrors, is that of a hymn in praise of courage. One feels—though a more perverse theory of the story has been put forward—that the governess, who fights against the evil in the big house, has the author also fighting as her ally and the children's. Similarly, Maisie has a friend in the author.
He is never more human, perhaps, than when he is writing, not about human beings, but about books. It is not inconceivable that he will live as a critic long after he is forgotten as a novelist. No book of criticism to compare with his Notes on Novelists has been published in the present century. He brought his imagination to bear upon books as he brought his critical and analytical faculty to bear upon human beings. Here there was room for real heroes. He idolized his authors as he idolized none of his characters. There is something of moral passion in the reverence with which he writes of the labours of Flaubert and Balzac and Stevenson and even of Zola.
He lied none of them into perfection, it is true. He accepted, and even advertised their limitations. But in each of them he found an example of the hero as artist. His characterization of Flaubert as the " operative conscience or vicarious sacrifice " of a styleless literary age is the pure gold of criticism. " The piety most real to her," Fleda says in The Spoils of Poynton, " was to be on one's knees before one's high standard." Henry James himself had that kind of piety. Above all recent men of letters, he was on his knees to his high standard.
People may wonder whether his standard' was not, to an excessive degree, a standard of subtlety rather than of creative imagination—at least, in his later period. And undoubtedly his subtlety was to some extent a matter of make-believe. He loved to take a simple conversation, and, by introducing a few subtle changes, to convert it into a soit of hieroglyphics that need an interpreter. He grew more and more to believe that it was not possible to tell the simple truth except in an involved way. He would define a gesture with as much labour as Shakespeare would devote to the entire portrait of a woman. He was a realist of civilized society in which both speech and action have to be sifted with scientific care before they will yield their grain of motive. The humorous patience with which Henry James seeks for that grain is one of the distinctive features of his genius.
But, it may be asked, are his people real? They certainly are real in the relationships in which he exhibits them, but they are real like people to, whom one has been introduced in a foreign city rather than like people who are one's friends. One does not remember them like the characters in Meredith or Mr. Hardy. Henry James, indeed, is himself the outstanding character in his books. That fine and humorous collector of European ladies and gentlemen, that savourer of the little lives of the Old World and the little adventures of those who have escaped from the New, that artist who brooded over his fellows in the spirit less of a poet than a man of science, that sober and fastidious trifler —this is the image which presides over his books, and which gives them their special character, and will attract tiny but enthusiastic companies of readers to them for many years to come.
2. The Artist at Work.
Henry James's amanuensis, Miss Theodora Bosanquet, wrote an article a year or two ago in the Fortnightly Review, describing how the great man wrote his novels. Since 1895 or 1896 he dictated them, and they were taken down, not in shorthand, but directly on the type-writer. He was particular even about the sort of type-writer. It must be a Remington. "Other kinds sounded different notes, and it was almost impossibly disconcerting for him to dictate to something that made no responsive sound at all." He did not, however, pour himself out to his amanuensis without having made a preliminary survey of the ground. " He liked to ` break ground by talking to himself day by day about the characters and the construction until the whole thing was clearly before his mind's eye. This preliminary talking out the scheme was, of course, duly recorded by the typewriter." It is not that he made rough drafts of his novels—sketches to be afterwards amplified. " His method might better be compared with Zola's habit of writing long letters to himself about characters in his next book until they became alive enough for him to begin a novel about them." Henry James has himself, as Miss Bosanquet points out, described his method of work in The Death of a Lion, in which it is attributed to his hero, Neil Paraday. " Loose, liberal, confident," he declares of Paraday's " scenario," as one might call it, " it might be passed for a great, gossiping, eloquent letter—the overflow into talk of an artist's amorous plan."
Almost the chief interest of Henry James's two posthumous novels is the fact that we are given not only the novels themselves—or, rather, the fragments of them that the author had written—but the " great, gossiping, eloquent letters " in which he soliloquized about them. As a rule, these preliminary soliloquies ran to about thirty thousand words, and were destroyed as soon as the novel in hand was finished. So delightful are they —such thrilling revelations of the workings of an artist's mind—that one does not quite know whether or not to congratulate oneself on the fact that the last books have been left mere torsos. Which would one rather have—a complete novel or the torso of a novel with the artist's dream of how to make it perfect? It is not easy to, decide. What makes it all the more difficult to decide in the present instance is one's feeling that The Sense of the Past, had it been completed, would have been very nearly a masterpiece. In it Henry James hoped to, get what he called' a kind of quasi-turnof-screw effect." Here, as in The Turn of the Screw, he was dealing with a sort of ghosts—whether subjective or objective in their reality does not matter. His hero is a young American who had never been to Europe till he was about thirty, and yet was possessed by that almost sensual sense of the past which made Henry James, as a small boy, put his nose into English books and try to sniff in and smell from their pages the older world from which they came. The inheritance of an old house in a London square—a house in which the clocks had stopped, as it were, in 1820—brings the young man over to England, though the lady with whom he is in lave seeks to keep him in America and watch him developing as a new species—a rich, sensitive, and civilized American, untouched and unsubdued by Europe. This young man's emotions in London, amid old things in an atmosphere that also somehow seemed mellow and old, may, I fancy, be taken as a record of the author's own spiritual experiences as he drew in long breaths of appreciation during his almost lifelong wanderings in this hemisphere. For it is important to remember that Henry James never ceased to be a foreigner. He was enchanted by England as by a strange land. He saw it always, like the hero of The Sense of the Past, " under the charm . . of the queer, incomparable London light—unless one frankly loved it rather as London shade—which he had repeatedly noted as so, strange as to be at its finest sinister."
However else this air might have been described it was signally not the light of freshness, and suggested as little as possible the element in which the first children of nature might have begun to take notice. Ages, generations, inventions, corruptions, had produced it, and it seemed, wherever it rested, to be filtered through the bed of history. It made the objects about show for the time as in something " turned on "—something highly successful that he might have seen at the theatre.
Henry James saw old-world objects in exactly that sort of light. He knew in his own nerves how Ralph Pendrel felt on going over his London house. " There wasn't," he says, ". . . an old hinge or an old brass lock that he couldn't work with love of the act." He could observe the inanimate things of the Old World almost as if they were living things. No naturalist spying for patient hours upon birds in the hope of discovering their secrets could have had a more curious, more hopeful, and more loitering eye. He found even fairly common things in Europe, as Pendrel found the things in the house he inherited, " all smoothed with service and charged with accumulate' messages."
He was like the worshipper in a Spanish church, who watches for the tear on the cheek or the blood-drop from the wound of some wonder-working effigy of Mother and Son.
In The Sense of the Past, Henry James conceived a fantastic romance, in which his hero steps not only into the inheritance of an old house, but into 182o, exchanging personalities with a young man in one of the family portraits, and even wooing the young man's betrothed. It is a story of " queer happenings, like the story of a dream or a delusion in which the ruling passion has reached the point of mania. It is the kind of story that has often been written in a gross, mechanical way. Here it is all delicate—a study of nuances and subtle relationships. For Ralph, though perfect in the 1820 manner, has something of the changeling about him—something that gradually makes people think him " queer," and in the end arouses in him the dim beginnings of nostalgia for his own time. It is a fascinating theme as Henry James works it out—doubly fascinating as he talks about it to himself in the " scenario " that is published along with the story. In the latter we see the author groping for his story, almost like a medium in a trance. Like a medium, he one moment hesitates and is vague, and the next, as, he himself would say, fairly pounces on a certainty. No artist ever cried with louder joy at the sight of things coming absolutely right under his hand. Thus, at one moment, the author announces: ---
The more I get into my drama the more magnificent upon my word I seem to see it and feel it ; with such a tremendous lot of possibilities in it that I positively quake in dread of the muchness with which they threaten me.
At a moment of less illumination he writes: ---
There glimmers and then floats shyly back to me from afar, the sense of something like this, a bit difficult to put, though entirely expressible with patience, and as I catch hold of the tip of the tail of it yet again strikes me as adding to my action but another admirable twist.
He continually sees himself catching by the tip of the tail the things that solve his difficulties. And what tiny little animals he sometimes manages to catch by the tip of the tail in some of his trances of inspiration ! Thus, at one point, he breaks off excitedly about his hero with: ---
As to which, however, on consideration don't I see myself catch a bright betterment by not at all making him use a latch-key ? . . No, no—no latch-key—but a rat-tat-tat, on his own part, at the big brass knocker.
As the writer searches for the critical action or gesture which is to betray the " abnormalism " of his hero to the 1820 world in 'which he moves, he cries to himself: --
Find it, find get it right, and it will be the making of the story.
At another stage in the story, he comments : —
All that is feasible and convincing rather beautiful to do being what I mean.
At yet another stage : —
I pull up, too, here, in the midst of my elation—though after a little I shall straighten everything out.
He discusses with himself the question whether Ralph Pendrel, in the 182o world, is to repeat exactly the experience of the young man in the portrait, and confides to himself:
Just now, a page or two back, I lost my presence of mind, I let myself be scared, by a momentarily-confused appearance, an assumption, that he doesn't repeat it. I see, on recovery of my wits, not to say of my wit, that he very exactly does.
Nowhere in the " scenario " is the artist's pleasure in his work expressed more finely than in the passage in which Henry James describes his hero at the crisis of his experience, when the latter begins to feel that he is under the observation of his alter ego, and is being vaguely threatened. " There must," the author tells himself:---
There must be sequences here of the strongest, I make out—the successive driving in of the successive silver-headed nails at the very points and under the very tops that I reserve for them. That's it, the silver nail, the recurrence of it in the right place, the perfection of the salience of each, and the trick is played.
" Trick," he says, but Henry James resorted little to tricks, in the ordinary meaning of the word. He scorns the easy and the obvious, as in preparing for the return of the young hero to the modern world—a return made possible by a noble act of self-sacrifice on the part of a second 1820 girl who sends him from her, yet " without an excess of the kind of romanticism I don't want." There is another woman—the modern woman whom Ralph had loved in America—who might help the machinery of the story (as the author 'thinks) if he brought her on the scene at a certain stage. But he thinks of the device only to exclaim against it : —
Can't possibly do anything so artistically base.
The notes for The Ivory Tower are equally alluring, though The Ivory Tower is not itself so good as The Sense of the Past. It is a story of contemporary American life, and we are told that the author laid it aside at the beginning of the war, feeling that " he could no longer work upon a fiction supposed to represent contemporary or recent life." Especially interesting is the " scenario," because of the way in which we find Henry James trying—poor man, he was always an amateur at names !—to get the right names for his characters. He ponders, for instance, on the name of his heroine : —
I want her name . . . her Christian one, to be Moyra, and must have some bright combination with that ; the essence of which is a surname of two syllables and ending in a consonant—also beginning with one. I am thinking of Moyra Grabham, the latter excellent thing was in The Times of two or three days ago ; the only fault is a little too much meaning.
Consciousness in artistry can seldom have descended to minuter details with a larger gesture. One would not have missed these games of genius with syllables and consonants for worlds. Is it all an exquisite farce or is it splendidly heroic? Are we here spectators of the incongruous heroism of an artist who puts a hero's earnestness into getting the last perfection of shine on to a boot or the last fine shade of meaning into the manner in which he says, " No, thank you, no sugar "? No, it is something more than that. It is the heroism of a man who lived at every turn and trifle for his craft—who seems to have had almost no life outside it. In the temple of his art, he found the very dust of the sanctuary holy. He had the perfect piety of the artist in the least as well as in the greatest things.
3. How He was Born Again
As one reads the last fragment of the autobiography of Henry James, one cannot help thinking of him as a convert -giving his testimony. Henry James was converted into an Englishman with the same sense of being born again as is felt by many a convert - to Christianity. He can speak of the joy of it all only, in superlatives. He had the convert's sense of—in his own phrase—" agitations, explorations, initiations (I scarce know how endearingly enough to name them I)." He speaks of " this really prodigious flush " of his first full experience of England. He passes on the effect of his religious rapture when he tells us that " really wherever I looked, and still more wherever I pressed, I sank in and in up to my nose." How breathlessly he- conjures up the scene of his dedication, as he calls it, in the coffee-room of a Liverpool hotel on that gusty, "overwhelmingly English " March morning in 1869, on which at the age of almost twenty-six he fortunately and fatally landed on these shores, with immediate intensities of appreciation, as I may call the muffled accompaniment, for fear of almost indecently overnaming it.
He looks back, with how exquisite a humour and seriousness, on that morning as having finally settled his destiny as an artist. " This doom," he writes : ---
This doom of inordinate exposure to appearances, aspects, images, every protrusive item almost, in the great beheld sum of things, I regard ... as having settled upon me once for all while I observed, for instance, that in England the plate of buttered muffins and its cover were sacredly set upon the slop-bowl after hot water had been ingenuously poured into the same, and had seen that circumstance in a perfect cloud of accompaniments.
It is characteristic of Henry, James that he should associate the hour in which he turned to grace with a plate of buttered muffins. His fiction remained to the end to some extent the tale of a buttered muffin. He made mountains out of muffins all his days. His ecstasy and his curiosity, were nine times out of ten larger than their objects. Thus, though he was intensely interested in English life, he was interested in it, not in its largeness as life, so much as, in its littleness as a museum, almost a museum of bric-à-brac. He was enthusiastic about the waiter in the coffee-room in the Liverpool hotel chiefly as an illustration of the works of the English novelists.
Again and again in his reminiscences one comes upon evidence that Henry James arrived in England in the spirit of a collector, a connoisseur, as well as that of a convert. His ecstasy, was that of a convert : his curiosity was that of a connoisseur. As he recalls his first experience of a London eating-house of the old sort, with its small compartments, narrow as horse-stalls," he glories, in the sordidness of it all, because " every face was a documentary scrap."
I said to myself under every shock and at the hint of every savour that this it was for an exhibition to reek with local colour, and one could dispense with a napkin, with a crusty roll, with room for one's elbows or one's feet, with an immunity from intermittance of the " plain boiled " much better than one could dispense with that.
Here, again, one, has an instance of the way in which the show of English life revealed itself to Henry James as an exhibition of eating. " As one sat there," he says of his reeking restaurant, one understood." It is in the same mood of the connoisseur on the track of a precious discovery that he recalls " the very first occasion of my sallying forth from Morley's Hotel in Trafalgar Square to dine at a house of sustaining, of inspiring hospitality in the Kensington quarter." What an epicure the man was !, " The thrill of sundry invitations to breakfast " still survived on his palate more than forty, years afterwards. Not that these meals were recalled as gorges of the stomach : they were merely gorges of sensation, gorges of the sense of the past. The breakfasts associated him at a jump with the ghosts of Byron and Sheridan and Rogers. They had also a documentary value as " the exciting note of a social order in which every, one wasn't hurled straight, with the momentum of rising, upon an office or a store. . . It was one morning, beside Mrs. Charles Norton's tea-room, in Queen's Gate Terrace," that his thrilling opportunity," came to sit opposite to Mr. Frederic Harrison, eminent in the eyes of the young American, not for his own sake so much as because recently, he had been the subject of Matthew Arnold's banter. Everybody in England, like Mr. Harrison, seemed to Henry James to be somebody, or at least to have been talked about by somebody. They were figures, not cyphers. They, were characters in a play with cross-references.
The beauty was . . . that people had references, and that a reference was then, to my mind, whether in a person or an object, the most glittering, the most becoming ornament possible, a style of decoration one seemed likely to perceive figures here and there, whether animate or no, quite groan under the accumulation and the weight of.
It is surprising that, loving this new life so ecstatically, James should so seldom attempt to leave any detailed description of it in his reminiscences. He is constantly describing his raptures : he only occasionally describes the thing he was rapturous about. Almost all he tells us about " the extravagant youth of the aesthetic period " is that to live through it " was to seem privileged to such immensities as history would find left her to record but with bated breath." He recalls again " the particular sweetness of wonder " with which he haunted certain pictures in the National Gallery, but it is himself, not the National Gallery, that he writes about. Of Titian and Rembrandt and Rubens he communicates nothing but the fact that " the cup of sensation was thereby filled to overflowing." He does, indeed, give a slender description of his first sight of Swinburne in the National Gallery, but the chief fact even of this incident is that " I thrilled . . with the prodigy of this circumstance that I should be admiring; Titian in the same, breath with Mr. Swinburne."
Thus the reminiscences are, in a sense, extraordinarily egotistic. This is, however, not to condemn them. Henry James is, as I have, already said, his own greatest character, and his portrait of his excitements is one of the most enrapturing things in the literature of autobiography. He makes us share these excitements simply by telling us how excited he was. They are exactly, the sort of excitements all of us have felt on being introduced to people and places and pictures we have dreamed about from our youth. Who has not felt the same kind of joy, as Henry James felt when George Eliot allowed him to run for the doctor? I shook off my fellow-visitor," he relates, for swifter cleaving of the air, and I recall still feeling that. I cleft it even in the dull four-wheeler." After he had delivered his message, he " cherished for the rest of the day, the particular quality of my; vibration." The occasion of the message, to the doctor seems strangely comic in the telling. On arriving at George Eliot's, Henry James found one of G. H. Lewes's sons lying in horrible pain in the middle of the floor, the heritage of an old accident in the West Indies, or, as Henry, James characteristically describes it : a suffered onset from an angry bull, I seem to recall, who had tossed or otherwise mauled him, and, though beaten off, left him considerably compromised.
There is something still more, comic than this, however, to be got out of his visits to George Eliot. The visit he paid her at Witley under the " much-waved wing " of the irrepressible Mrs. Greville, who " knew 'no law but that of innocent and exquisite aberration," had a superb conclusion, which left our adventure an approved ruin." As James was about to leave, and indeed was at the step of the brougham with Mrs. Greville, G. H. Lewes called on him to wait a moment.
He returned to the doorstep, and waited till Lewes hurried back across the hall, " shaking high the pair of blue-bound volumes his allusion to the uninvited, the verily importunate loan of which by Mrs. Greville had lingered on the, air after his dash in quest of them."
" Ah, those books—take them away, please, away, away ! " I hear him unreservedly plead while he thrusts them again at me, and I scurry back into our conveyance.
The blue-bound volumes happened to be a copy of Henry James's own new book—a presentation copy he had given to Mrs. Greville, and she, in turn, with the best intentions, had tried to leave with George Eliot, to be read and admired. George Eliot and Lewes had failed to connect their young visitor with the volumes. Hence a situation so comic that even its victim could not but enjoy it :---
Our hosts hadn't so much as connected book with author, or author with visitor, or visitor with anything but the convenience of his ridding them of an unconsidered trifle ; grudging, as they so justifiedly did, the impingement of such matters on their consciousness. The vivid demonstration of one's failure to penetrate there had been in the sweep of Lewes's gesture, which could scarcely have been bettered by his actually wielding a broom.
Henry James was more fortunate in Tennyson as a host. Tennyson had read at least one of his stories and liked it. All the same, James was disappointed in Tennyson. He expected to find him a poet signed and stamped, and found' him only a booming bard. Not only was Tennyson not Tennysonian : he was not quite real. His conversation came as a shock to his guest : ---
He struck me as neither knowing nor communicating knowledge.
As Tennyson read Locksley Hall to his guests, Henry James had to pinch himself, " not at all to keep from swooning, but much rather to set up some rush of sensibility." What a lovely touch of malice there is in his description of Tennyson on an occasion on which the ineffable Mrs. Greville quoted some of his own verse to him He took these things with a gruff philosophy, and could always repay them, on the spot, in heavily-shovelled coin of the same mint, since it was a question of his genius.
Henry James ever retained a beautiful detachment of intellect, even after his conversion. He was a wit as well as an enthusiast. The Middle Years, indeed, is precious in every page for its wit as well as for its confessional raptures. It may be objected that Henry James's wit is only, a new form of the old-fashioned periphrasis. He might be described as the last of the periphrastic humorists. At the same time, if ever in any book there was to be found the free play of an original genius—a genius however limited and even little—it is surely in the autobiography of Henry James. Those who can read it at all will read it with shining eyes.
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