The Complete Notebooks of Henry James
In 1905, past sixty, James had written much and was eminent—at least with those who really knew what literature was—and Scribner’s was bringing out his “works” as though he were already an acknowledged classic, in twenty-four volumes bound in plum-colored cloth. For The New York Edition he had set himself the task of reviewing—and revising—what he had done since he published Roderick Hudson (1875), his first important novel, and he was also writing a set of prefaces. He was curious about his own artistic history. Where had all those stories and novels come from? What had been the “germ”—as he called it—that had started each one and how had it been planted? How had it grown to be the thing he was rereading?
Luckily, he had saved his old notebooks, with their crowded record of his literary projects. Here, for example, was the page that related how, at the fireside of the Archbishop of Canterbury one winter evening, the subject of ghost stories had come up, and the old prelate remembered a tale a woman had told him about some young children haunted by the ghosts of wicked servants who had corrupted them. The result had been “The Turn of the Screw.” In Florence, Eugene Lee-Hamilton had told James a curious true story about a certain Captain Silsbee, a Boston Shelley worshiper, who had laid siege to an aged “çi-devant mistress” of Byron and her niece in the hope of securing letters in their possession. After the older woman’s death the younger—an old maid of fifty—offered him the letters if he would marry her. Out of this he had made “The Aspern Papers.” Edmund Gosse had mentioned that John Addington Symonds’s wife, a rigid, “Calvinistic” moralist, had hated his “aesthetic” views—it was the basis for “The Author of Beltraffio.” And Mrs. Duncan Stewart had had a maid who delighted in the conversation at her mistress’s table, and was sadly cut off, banished to her own class, at her death—from which he had got his idea for “Brooksmith.” There were fifty such nearly forgotten entries.
But how different each suggestion was from the literary work provoked by it! Musing over such creative displacements, often arrived at by a process he could hardly have predicted, James reflected,
The habitual teller of tales finds these things in old note-books—which however but shifts the burden a step; since how, and under what inspiration, did they first wake up in these rude cradles? One’s notes, as all writers remember, sometimes explicitly mention, sometimes indirectly reveal, and sometimes wholly dissimulate, such clues and such obligations. The search for these last indeed, through faded or pencilled pages, is perhaps one of the sweetest of our more pensive pleasures. Then we chance on some idea we have afterwards treated; then, greeting it with tenderness, we wonder at the first form of a motive that was to lead us so far and to …