Remembering Henry James

Remembering Henry James

Henry James died of pneumonia on 28 February 1916, a hundred years ago this month. In 1915, motivated by patriotism, he had become a British subject. Britain had been his home for forty years.

The reason to remember him on this blog is that I belong to the proud little club which - for a remarkable eighteen years - has been devoted solely to the reading, and re-reading of Henry James’s works. I joined it shortly after writing my first non-fiction work, A Ring of Conspirators: Henry James and his English Circle. Having spent five years living in the congenial company of The Master, I knew I hadn’t even begun to penetrate the intricate subtleties of his writing. It wasn’t until I joined that original band of perceptive and fearsomely well-read HJ devotees that it dawned on me, for example, just how devastatingly witty Henry James could be. To apply that latecomer’s perception to the short stories (‘short’ suggests something less than the concision to which HJ was conspicuously averse) was like walking out of a grey room into sunlight: a revelation. It was the first of many.

 Are there any other writers who could inspire this kind of loyalty, over such a period? We pondered Trollope, Flaubert, Balzac, Tolstoy, Conrad; we always came back to James. One reason, perhaps, for his unending fascination to writers is the quiet heroism with which he confronted failure. It was his brother William, writing to HG Wells in 1906, who coined the expression ‘that bitch goddess, Success’. Success eluded Henry James throughout his life. Unsaleability as a writer seldom daunted him. Failure on stage almost broke his heart. (Who needs reminding of the humiliation to which James was exposed, on a public London stage, in 1895 when his Guy Domville – together with its dismayed – were booed on the same night that  Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband was being applauded for its glitter and wit?)

  This month, the Henry James club meets once again, to pay tribute to The Spoils of Poynton, the wonderful novel in which the American James described the dangers inherent within of that most British of institutions; the family inheritance. Mrs Gereth, fighting to protect the museum of wonders which she and her late husband had collected from what she perceives as the hard, philistine grasp of her son’s fiancé, embarks upon a battle which – in the eyes of all but herself – is indefensible. Even Fleda Vetch, her loyal adjutant, revolts against the acts of pillage and forced alliances by which Mrs Gereth is determined to protect her spoils.

  Concision – once again – went by the board. A projected story of 10,000 words rapidly evolved into a novel, for the length of which James, writing to his editor, was stalwartly unapologetic.

  My subject always refuses, I find, to be scraped down beyond a certain point – stiffens and hardens itself like iron. In this particular thing [The Spoils of Poynton] the very simplicity of my action forces me, I feel, to get everything out of it that it can give – as the real ay, and the best way, to be interesting: if I am interesting – which I hope.

 The small chord of wistfulness in that last phrase almost certainly derives from James’s recent humiliations. He began to write the novel in the summer of 1895, while still licking his wounds from the disaster of Guy Domville. Secluded from his usual intensely social world at a seaside hotel in Torquay, he planned out the book into which he poured all the experience he had gained from the stage. No James novel benefited from more detailed conference with the author’s Notebooks than the Spoils. From the very first, James was determined to put his hard-won theatrical skills to new and valuable use.

Osborne Hotel, Torquay, August 11th 1895

When I ask myself what there may have been to show for my long tribulation, my wasted years and patiences and pangs, of theatrical experiment, the answer…comes up as just possibly this: what I have gathered from it will perhaps have been some such mastery of fundamental statement  - of the art and secret of it, of expression, of the sacred mystery of structure. Oh yes, the weary woeful time has done something for me, has had in the depths of all its wasted piety and passion, an intense little lesson and direction. What that resultant is I must now actively show.


Continuing this same long meditative note, James referred repeatedly to his narrative as if he saw it in performance. ‘There must be a scene of some sort between the young man and his mother,’ he noted: ‘all this must be very, very, VERY brief and rapid….What action does his mother then take? There must be the scene…the scene of her, Mrs G[ereth]’s waiting for him…’ A few lines later, he referred again to ‘acts’ and ‘scenes’. All is scenic. All is as seen.

 By 8 September, James was confronting the familiar problem of concision and reproaching himself for the ‘developments’ which always led to expansion. Brevity, he was ready to concede, required simplicity, and simplicity was not to his taste. (‘I’ve been too proud to take the very simple thing…I’m too afraid to be banal.’) Having reproached himself, he vowed to attempt some other,‘simple’ things, and reminded himself that he was capable of it, as in The Real Thing and The Private Life. Nevertheless, The Spoils of Poynton was not to be subjected to such an approach. Ideas expanded; scenes reached chapter-length. And James, despite the hesitations he continued to express in his Notebook entries about the book, was increasingly certain of having found his way again. He had laid his hands upon ‘the acquired mastery of scenic presentation’ (in his own words) which would become so magnificent a feature of his last triumphant works.

It’s clear, as James turned once again to his Notebooks on October 15, 1895, that the 52-year-old author had recovered his lost confidence. Here, he muses upon the problem of getting the passive Fleda to exert a convincing influence over the terrifyingly powerful Mrs Gereth. Seldom do we gain a closer, more thrillingly intimate sense of Henry James, private, happy, and at work:

Well, eureka! I think I have found it – I think I see the little interesting turn  and the little practicable form. How a little click of perception, of this sort, brings back to me all the strange sacred time of my thinkings-out, this way, pen in hand, of the stuff of my little theatrical trials. The old patiences and intensities – the working of the old passion. The old problems and dimnesses – the old solutions and little findings of light. Is the beauty of all that effort – of all those unutterable hours – lost forever? Lost, lost, lost? It will take a greater patience than all the others to see!

In March 1896, James wrote his last notes for The Spoils of Poynton. It is one of the most perfect of all his works. By the autumn of that year, he was halfway through writing the most exquisitely painful: What Maisie Knew.

   Added: Wednesday 10 February 2016

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