In the spring of 1880 Mrs. Henry Adams confided to her diary: “It is high time Harry James was ordered home by his family. He is too good a fellow to be spoiled by injudicious old ladies in London—and in the long run they would like him all the better for knowing and living in his own country. He had better go to Cheyenne and run a hog ranch. The savage notices of his Hawthorne in American papers, all of which he brings me to read, are silly and overshoot the mark in their bitterness, but for all that he had better not hang around Europe much longer if he wants to make a lasting literary reputation.” That same year the egregious Bret Harte observed, sadly, that Henry James “looks, acts, thinks like an Englishman and writes like an Englishman.”
But the thirty-seven-year-old James was undeterred by public or private charges of un-Americanism; he had every intention of living the rest of a long and productive life in England. Since he was, in the phrase of his older brother William, like all the Jameses a native only of the James family, the Wyoming pig farmer that might have been preferred rooting, as it were (Oh, as it were!—one of his favorite phrases: a challenge to the reader to say, As it were not?), for those truffles that are to be found not beneath ancient oak trees in an old country but in his own marvelous and original consciousness. James did nothing like an Englishman—or an American. He was a great fact in himself, a new world, a terra incognita that he would devote all his days to mapping for the rest of us. In 1880 James’s American critics saw only the fussy bachelor expatriate, growing fat from too much dining out; none detected the sea-change that was being undergone by what had been, until then, an essentially realistic American novelist whose subject had been Americans in Europe, of whom the most notorious was one Daisy Miller, eponymous heroine of his first celebrated novel (1878).
But by 1880, James was no longer able—or willing?—to render American characters with the same sureness of touch. For him, the novel must now be something other than the faithful detailing of familiar types engaged in mating rituals against carefully noted backgrounds. Let the Goncourts and the Zolas do that sort of thing. James would go further, much as Flaubert had tried to do; he would take the usual matter of realism and heighten it; and he would try to create something that no writer in English had ever thought it possible to do with a form as inherently loose and malleable as the novel: he would aim at perfection. While James’s critics were complaining that he was no longer American and could never be English, James was writing The Portrait of a Lady, as nearly perfect a work as a novel can be. From 1881, James was the master of the novel in English in a way that no one had ever been before; or has ever been before; or has ever been since. Even that Puritan divine, F. R. Leavis, thought The Portrait “one of the great novels of the English language.”
Over the next twenty years, as James’s novels got longer and longer, they became, simultaneously and oddly, more concentrated. There are fewer and fewer characters (usually Americans in a European setting but Americans at some psychic distance from the great republic) while the backgrounds are barely sketched in. What indeed are the spoils of the house Poynton? James never tells us what the “old things” are that mother and son fight for to the death. Balzac would have given us a catalog; and most novelists would have indicated something other than an impression of a vague interior perfection. As James more and more mastered his curious art, he relied more and more on the thing not said for his essential dramas; in the process, the books become somewhat closer to theater than to the novel-tradition that had gone before him. Famously, James made a law of the single viewpoint; and then constantly broke it. In theory, the auctorial “I” of the traditional novel was to be banished so that the story might unfold much like a play except that the interpretation of scenes (in other words, who is thinking what) would be confined to a single observer if not for an entire book, at least for the scene at hand. Although James had sworn to uphold forever his own Draconian law, on the first page of The Ambassadors, where we meet Strether, the principal consciousness of the story and the point of view from which events are to be seen and judged, there is a startling interference by the author, Mr. James himself, who states, firmly: “The principle I have just mentioned….” Fortunately, no more principles are mentioned by the atavistic “I.”
There is the familiar joke about the three styles of Henry James: James the First, James the Second, and the Old Pretender. Yet there are indeed three reigns in the master’s imagined kingdom. James I is the traditional nineteenth-century novelist, busy with the usual comings and goings of the ordinary fiction writer; James II is the disciplined precise realist whose apotheosis is The Portrait of a Lady. From 1890 to 1895 there is a break in the royal line: James turns to the theater; and most beautifully fails. Next comes the restoration. James returns in triumph to the novel—still James II (for purposes of simile, Charles II as well); and then, at the end, the third James, the Old Pretender, the magician who, unlike Prospero, breaks not his staff but a golden bowl.
After 1895, there is a new heightening of effect in James’s narratives; he has learned from the theater to eliminate the nonessential but, paradoxically, the style becomes more complex. The Old Pretender’s elaborateness is due, I should think, to the fact that he had now taken to dictating his novels to a series of typewriter operators. Since James’s conversational style was endlessly complex, humorous, unexpected—euphemistic where most people are direct and suddenly precise where avoidance or ellipsis is usual—the last three novels that he produced (The Ambassadors, 1903; The Wings of the Dove, 1902; and The Golden Bowl, 1904) can be said to belong as much to the oral tradition of narrative as to the written.
James was fifty-seven when he started The Ambassadors and sixty-one when he completed The Golden Bowl. In those five years he experienced a late flowering without precedent among novelists. But then he was more than usually content in his private life. He had moved out of London; and he had established himself at the mayoral Lamb House in Rye. If there is an eternal law of literature, a pleasant change of house for a writer will produce an efflorescence. Also, at sixty, James fell in love with a young man named Jocelyn Persse. A charming Anglo-Irish man-about-town, Persse was not at all literary; and somewhat bewildered that James should be in his thrall. But, for James, this attractive young extrovert must have been a great improvement over his predecessor in James’s affection, Hendrik Andersen, the handsome sculptor of megalomaniac forms. Andersen had been trouble. Persse was good company: “I rejoice greatly in your breezy, heathery, grousy—and housey, I suppose—adventures and envy you, as always, your exquisite possession of the Art of Life which beats any Art of mine hollow.” This “love affair” (with the Master, quotes are always necessary because we lack what Edith Wharton would call the significant data) had a most rejuvenating effect on James; and the first rapturous days with Persse coincided with the period in which he was writing The Golden Bowl.
A decade earlier (November 28, 1892) Henry James sketched in his notebook the first design for The Golden Bowl: “…a father and daughter—an only daughter. The daughter—American of course—is engaged to a young Englishman, and the father, a widower and still youngish, has sought in marriage at exactly the same time an American girl of very much the same age as his daughter. Say he has done it to console himself in his abandonment—to make up for the loss of the daughter, to whom he has been devoted. I see a little tale, n’est-ce pas?—in the idea that they all shall have married, as arranged, with this characteristic consequence—that the daughter fails to hold the affections of the young English husband, whose approximate mother-in-law the pretty young second wife of the father will now have become.” James then touches upon the commercial aspect of the two marriages: “young Englishman” and “American girl” have each been bought. They had also known each other before but could not marry because each lacked money. Now “they spend as much of their time together as the others do, and for the very reason that the others spend it. The whole situation works in a kind of inevitable rotary way—in what would be called a vicious circle. The subject is really the pathetic simplicity and good faith of the father and daughter in their abandonment…he peculiarly paternal, she passionately filial.” On Saint Valentine’s Day, 1895, James again adverts to the story, which now demands to be written, though he fears “the adulterine element” might be too much for his friend William Dean Howells’s Harper‘s magazine. “But may it not be simply a question of handling that?”
Seven years later, James was shown a present given the Lamb family by King George I: it is a golden bowl. The pieces have now begun to come together. James has just completed, in succession, The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove. Comfortably settled in the garden room at Lamb House (later to be inhabited by E.F. Benson’s dread Miss Mapp and then the indomitable Lucia; later still, to be blown up in World War II), James wrote, in slightly more than a year, what he himself described to his American publisher as “distinctly the most done of my productions—the most composed and constructed and completed…. I hold the thing the solidest, as yet, of all my fictions.” The “as yet” is splendid from a sixty-one-year-old writer. Actually, The Golden Bowl was to be the last novel that he lived to complete; and it has about it a kind of spaciousness—and even joy—that the other novels do not possess. In fact, pace F.R. Leavis, I do not think James has in any way lost his sense of life or let slip “his moral taste” (what a phrase!), rather….
But that is enough setting up. Read the book now; then, if so inclined, check your own impression of this work with someone who first read it when he was the age of the Prince, who replaced the “young Englishman”; and has now reread it at an age greater than that of “the widower” Adam Verver.
Copyright © 1984 by Gore Vidal.