Gorra (English/Smith Coll.; The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany, 2004, etc.) blends a focused biography of Henry James (1843–1916) with the story of his composition of The Portrait of a Lady (1881).
Throughout this work of astonishing scholarship, Gorra directs our attention to the quotidian life of James (and his remarkable family), his composition of the novel (which first appeared in serial installments in the Atlantic here and Macmillan’sMagazine in England), the significance of the events and characters in the story, and the influence of the novel on the subsequent fiction of James and others. Gorra also blends accounts of his own visits to important James sites in America, England and elsewhere. After a brief introduction to James’ life and to the novel, the author establishes his narrative pattern: chapters about the novel followed by others about James’ activities, family, friends, typists, contemporaries and so on. We read about his relationships with Atlantic editor William Dean Howells and with James’ gifted brother William. We follow his travels to England, France and Italy; we visit his final home in Rye; we view his intimate relationships with Constance Fenimore Woolson and others—including Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (Gorra does not accept the suggestion that Holmes and James had sexual encounters). We also see him, near the end of his life, visiting and comforting hospitalized World War I soldiers. But most of Gorra’s book examines Portrait—its creation, significance and revision (for the New York Edition in 1908). The author argues that chapter 42 of the novel, Isabel Archer’s reverie, is “one of James’ greatest achievements and a turning point in the history of the novel.”
Not for all readers, but Gorra’s approach will appeal to scholars, fans of the James family, and lovers of important novels and those who create them.
This fourth volume of the Library’s ongoing edition of The Master’s complete novels includes four that immediately preceded his later masterpieces. The Other House (1896), a murky melodrama whose subjects include romantic agony and child murder, is notable as an illustration of James’s interest in dramatic technique and for its intriguingly conflicted villainess Rose Armiger. The Spoils of Poynton (1897) analyzes in fastidious, though not tedious, detail the relations among a son bent on marrying against his mother’s wishes, the latter’s resentful appropriation of disputed property, and the resourceful (if cruelly named) Fleda Vetch, whose intervention materially alters their three lives. What Maisie Knew (1898) is a technical tour-de-force depicting a sentient adolescent girl against a context of self-righteous parental failure and sexual irregularity. And The Awkward Age (1899), a display of high society banter presented almost entirely as dialogue, is a marvel of intricate wit and wry characterization, but an intermittently punishing reading experience likely to be finished (or, perhaps, even begun) only by committed Jamesians.
An uneven volume, then. But Maisie is not to be missed.
Twenty-four stories, newly attributed to the young Henry James although unsigned by him, range from the slight and sentimental to the pleasingly melodramatic.
For over two decades, editor Horowitz, a retired professor of English and computer science, has ferreted out anonymous or pseudonymous stories from the magazines of James’s time and put them through a series of computer tests, focusing on repeated uses of particular words and phrases. The resulting selections, beginning in the year James turned 10 and ending when he was 26, are sometimes rough and sometimes charming, but they never display the psychological acuity, moral perceptiveness, or rigorous “point of view” of James’s signed work. The storylines tend to revolve around obstacles to young love, and they tend to the insipid. In “The Pair of Slippers” and “The Rainy Day,” an omniscient narrator tells of a privileged but thoughtless young woman who performs an act of charity, is transformed, and wins the man she has been pining for. In “Breach of Promise of Marriage,” an heiress named Belle, the houseguest of an old school friend and the friend’s husband (the story’s narrator), becomes caught in her own seductive snare when she falls in love with a poor boy she has been flirting with. In one of the more entertaining tales, “A Hasty Marriage,” a beautiful and well-bred but penniless narrator reenacts the fate of Beauty in “Beauty and the Beast”; in a fit of pride during a game of charades at an elegant house party, she actually marries the rich but ugly stranger who turns out to be kinder and nobler than her handsome long-time suitor. In prefaces to these pieces and others, the editor suggests correspondences to later work and evidence of James-family Swedenborgian precepts that he believes seal the identification of the author.
Still, the tenacious reader alone will have to determine whether and which of these frothy stories is really the work of the great Henry James.
Subtle, complex, elusive Henry James—a writer who saw life as a history of changing perceptions and changing masks—demands all the formidable scholarly skills and narrative art that Kaplan demonstrated in his biographies of two other monumental 19th- century figures, Charles Dickens (1988) and Thomas Carlyle (1983). More intimate than Leon Edel's magisterial Henry James (1985), this version of the novelist's life is implicitly Freudian: Flawed (a sexually nonfunctioning, hypochondriacal stammerer) but talented, James compensated through his art for his personal failings, seeking (and luckily finding) love, fame, wealth, and power through publication—though at great personal cost. After a rootless childhood, a random education, and a bewildering set of religious beliefs derived from his father, James spent his life travelling for his health and his fiction. He moved repeatedly from New York to London, Paris, Switzerland, Rome, and Venice, avoiding intimate connections, the lure of young men especially, and inventing himself as a writer among the writers he met: William Morris, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, Edith Wharton—to whom, in a memorable scene here, James reads Walt Whitman's poetry. Known to his family as the ``angel in the house,'' sentimental and emotional toward his male friends (at least in letters), James was rigid and artificial in public, his accent and manners an odd combination of the European culture he admired and the American values he claimed to believe in. Intensely private and self-controlled, his life was a quest for refinement and nuance, undermined by his own excess, the afflictions of his ``bowels and his back,'' and his immense hungers. Kaplan has a fine sense of scene: James trying to drown the dresses of a deceased friend, or looking at himself in the mirror. And it's as a mirror—a very Jamesian one, with its center of consciousness and unobtrusive narrator—that this fine and readable biography functions. (Twenty-four pages of b&w photographs—not seen.)
A sharply observed but ultimately frustrated view of the Master, as reflected through the lives of one woman who inspired his art and another who shared in his dedication to fiction. To the frustration of his biographers—even, to an extent, the dedicated Leon Edel—James’s scrupulous maintenance of his privacy was equal to his construction of the public persona. Gordon (Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, 1985, etc.) takes an indirect approach to illuminating his inner existence through two atypical outside lives. The first is his cousin Minny Temple, whom he used as the model for Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer, and Milly Theale. The second, who arrived as James published Daisy Miller, is a fellow expatriate American novelist, Constance Fenimore Woolson, whose suicide in Venice would be a magnet for later biographers. James’s overshadowing idealization of his cousin, who died tragically young enough to be an excellent resource for his fiction and his memoir, bears only partial resemblance to the real person. Gordon’s factual, perceptive portrait of the socially unconventional, intellectually questing Minny unfortunately lacks only the vitality that fascinated James and that fails to emerge her letters, excerpted here, mostly to people other than James (who burned his). Constance Woolson, nicknamed Fenimore for her great-uncle James, comes across as less original, even with Gordon’s extra sympathy. Nonetheless, Fenimore was able to live abroad independently and write her novels, which became far more popular than James’s later work—to the Master’s dismay. While some biographers have imagined a romance between James and the woman Alice James called a “she-novelist,” Gordon portrays the relationship on Fenimore’s side as intellectually motivated and on James’s as typical masculine condescension and inability to commit. Despite the focus on these two relationships, this Jamesian portrait is otherwise little different from other biographers’. Although Gordon works hard to detach Minny and Fenimore from James’s shadow, she can’t quite unravel his strategies to keep his private life private. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)
This sequel to Henry James: The Young Master (1996, etc.) chronicles, in numbingly Jamesian detail, the expatriate writer’s attempt, in his social life and his work, to create a venue for “large & confident action—splendid & supreme creation.”
Novick (Law and History/Vermont Law School) follows the novelist from 1881, after The Portrait of a Lady was published, to his death in 1916, when he was hailed as a modernist master who introduced into fiction the notion of the observer’s consciousness. While covering relations with family members such as older brother William, the philosopher, Novick justifiably spends more time on James’s cosmopolitan circle of artists and their aristocratic mentors, who crossed national and sexual boundaries. This group heightened his tendency toward painting tableaux rather than telling tales, while leaving him out of step with both middle-aged women, who formed the major readership of literary fiction, and London theatergoers, who rejected him in his mid-career attempt to write successful dramas. James could not have asked for a more sympathetic biographer. Novick is tolerant of his homosexuality, sensitive to his battles with contemporary tastes and absolutely admiring of his achievements. If anything, the author is too sympathetic to his subject. His explanation of James’s prejudices, for instance, nearly becomes exculpatory: “There is not a great deal of difference, in the end, between his view of roles as realities that must be accepted, and the very modern view that while real, they are socially constructed.” Nor is he above the occasional gaffe—if James met Evelyn Waugh, as claimed, the latter could not have been a “young writer” yet, as he had only been born a few years before this encounter. Novick is on surer ground in explaining the stylistically dense, psychologically rich fiction James created in his last, major phase: The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl.
James’s relentless work habits produced a frequently stunning oeuvre. His biographer’s focus on the novelist’s daily rounds in an otherwise quiet life is just as relentless and demanding, but far less artful.
Novick, who previously dissected the life of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (Honorable Justice, 1989), now examines, in lumbering detail, the childhood and early manhood of Holmes's friend and contemporary, novelist Henry James. Two snares await the unwary James biographer. First, how does one compel interest in a subject whose daily routine comprised morning strolls, afternoon teas, and nights at the theater—but little if anything in the way of love affairs or social conflict? Second, how does one portray a writer too reticent even to hint at his innermost heart in his copious correspondence and memoirs? If you're Novick, you fall head-first into the traps, even as you take issue with Leon Edel, R.W.B. Lewis, Alfred Habegger, and other cautious but far more artful James family chroniclers. Novick resorts to a dry, at points day-by-day account of the novelist's social rounds. He argues with Edel et al. for perpetuating the notion that James ``retreated from the terrors of heterosexual rivalry into a world of delicate imagination.'' However, even though Novick's assumption that James was homosexual seems plausible given the latter's aversion to marriage and intense attachment to young men, the biographer also claims to know the date of James's first sexual encounter (the spring of 1865) and even the paramour (Holmes)—suppositions resting on only a maddeningly elusive James journal reference to ``l'initiation premiäre.'' All this is a shame because Novick can display commendable insight on occasion. For instance, he traces how Henry James Sr. damaged several of his children through capricious choices for their education and careers—and how Henry Jr. escaped this parental suffocation by traveling abroad and by building a secret, inviolate self. This sense of privacy ensured a short-lived career as Paris correspondent for the New York Tribune, but it served him well in his landmark fiction of psychological insight. This volume ends in 1880, with James in full command of his craft. Too bad his biographer can't claim the same. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)