A Ring of Conspirators: Henry James and His Literary Circle, 1895-1915
Thinking in Henry James
“I’m always sorry when I hear of your reading anything of mine, and always hope you won’t—you seem to me so constitutionally unable to enjoy it.” Thus Henry James to his brother William, permitting himself one of those moments of fraternal frankness which were always succeeded by a fondly penitent resumption of the younger brother’s grateful dependence on the status and authority of the elder. On one occasion William even went so far as to suggest he should write Henry’s books for him, in his own forceful, no-nonsense prose. “Publish it in my name, I will acknowledge it, and give you half the proceeds.” Ingestion of the junior by the dominant sibling could hardly go further than that.
Henry had his own ways of fighting back, not always gentlemanly ones, but what is ever gentlemanly in family relations? When in 1900 William was feeling ill enough, at the onset of the heart condition that was to kill him, to send his brother a pathetic account of his symptoms, Henry’s disconcerting response was a letter proclaiming how wonderful he himself felt—and looked—after shaving off his beard. No wonder Miranda Seymour speculates, in her sensible, spirited, and admirably researched account, that William lodged this mortal dart in his bosom, breaking out five years later in the notorious letter to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, peremptorily refusing membership of a body to which “my younger and shallower and vainer brother” already belonged.
Henry was not heartless—far from it—but no novelist ever knew better what heartlessness was all about. It seems to me possible that his relations with his brother were at least as important, in the composition of those three great last novels in his solitude at Lamb House, as the discovery vouchsafed him by his traumatic failure in the theater of the principle of dramatic confrontation. In fact the two were quite possibly connected. The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl depend upon a series of encounters in which heartless egoism is immanent but paramount, as in the swallowings and sacrifices concealed under family relations. The fate of sister Alice and the threat of brother William were deep in Henry’s consciousness at the time. And that consciousness was the sole battleground of the novel as he had come to write it.
In her thoughtful study, Thinking in Henry James, Sharon Cameron observes that his later work “dissociates consciousness from psychology.” I take this to mean that anything may happen in the minds of his characters and in the magic of his own words; and that the enduring secret of his fascination is the way in which motive and character are retained in the world of words, intead of being artificially projected into explanation and action. Artificially, because James was the first of his kind to perceive that the novel, like consciousness itself, can only deal in its own kind of language, and that its portrayal of consciousness can most easily be falsified by the assertion of solution and clarity. “We know nothing on earth,” says Colonel Assingham in The Golden Bowl; but by the same token we can think everything, and this for James—as for his character—is “the soldier’s watchword at night.”
“If Maggie spoke of the adultery she would acknowledge it existed.” More explicitly than Shakespeare’s Iago Maggie is a symbol of all that is in the mind, her triumph at the end in a sense that of the novelist himself, whose success is that it all remains there. In The Wings of the Dove Milly Theale’s always undefined and yet mortal sickness is that of the artist for whom consciousness has become life, the predestined victim of those for whom life is getting what you want. Millie’s riches are James’s own: her consciousness not hers, but that of the entire book. As Miranda Seymour, who makes the above point, goes on to say, when Millie looks at the Bronzino portrait in Lord Mark’s house she sees herself, like the woman portrayed, as already dead, in the sense that art itself always must be, and consciousness too, insofar as it is a recognition of art. The Bronzino—and here I would disagree with Seymour—is not in the least like Millie—indeed its studied heartlessness is the painter’s greatest demonstration of power—but Millie conjures up that heartless world precisely by not belonging to it.
James’s most intense and most directly moving awareness of these things is in the Notebook entry recording his afternoon in the Cambridge cemetery by the graves of his parents and of his sister Alice:
Why does my pen not drop from my hand on approaching the infinite pity and tragedy of all the past? It does, poor helpless pen, with what it meets of the ineffable, what it meets of the cold Medusa-face of life, of all the life lived, on every side.
The life lived, under its own Medusa state, rather than the life thought, his own province as a writer: the life lived by Kate Croy and her father and lover, as opposed to Millie’s immortal life in death, the idea of a life examined and refound by Proust. For James it was the life of language that was its own explanation, and its own reward.
In The Sacred Fount, the most in the head of all James’s fictions, there is “no way to think about thinking,” and thought is directed at the impenetrable question of who is living at the expense of whom. All of us have to live so, as James perceived; and his late works are extraordinary sublimations of this perception, with the stare on the cold Medusa face of life never in the least evaded, but transformed by art as no novelist since has been able to transform it. James at this time was surrounded by friends who were, in their own way, living at each other’s expense, and Miranda Seymour passes with humor and fluency from his later relations with his brother to those he enjoyed or endured on the Kent coast near his house in Rye with Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, H.G. Wells, Cora and Stephen Crane. It was Wells who sardonically described the gathering as “a ring of foreign conspirators,” for he was the only true-born Englishman among them. Conrad was Polish, James and the Cranes Americans, Ford half German. And they were planning, as Wells playfully made out, to explode the complacent republic of English letters.
They certainly improved it out of all recognition, but at considerable cost to themselves and each other, as Seymour demonstrates with great verve. “What a set!” Matthew Arnold had murmured about the goings-on in the Shelley circle, and he could have repeated it about the literary denizens of Romney Marsh in the first decade of the twentieth century. Ford, who had eloped with a doctor’s daughter in New Romney, was soon going to bed with her sister, and then abandoned both for the mature charms of Violet Hunt, a forty-five-year-old literary adventuress whom James cautiously valued for her gossip and her gaiety. “The immodest Violet,” as her friends called her, was to go through a form of marriage to Madox Ford, duly reported in the Daily Mirror, which was then sued by Ford’s wife Elsie and backed down under the threat of heavy costs. (A little magazine, engagingly called Throne, was less cautious and was bankrupted by the expenses of a lost action.) In the midst of these matters Violet proposed herself for a stay at Lamb House; but James, who had happily accepted the idea, backed out in horror when he heard what was going on, sending her a letter which Miranda Seymour quotes in full, and which is in its own inimitable way a masterpiece of incisive reproach and honest regret.
Dear Violent Hunt,
I should be writing to you tonight to say that it would give me great pleasure to see you on Saturday next had I not received by the same post which brought me your letter one from Ford Madox Hueffer which your mention of the fact that you have known of his writing enables me thus to allude to as depriving, by its contents, our projected occasion of indispensable elements of frankness and pleasantness. I deeply regret and deplore the lamentable position in which I gather you have put yourself in respect to divorce proceedings about to be taken by Mrs Hueffer; it affects me as painfully unedifying, and that compels me to regard all agreeable and unembarrassed communication between us as impossible. I can neither suffer you to come down to hear me utter those homely truths, nor pretend at such a time to free and natural discourse of other things, on a basis of avoidance of what must now be most to the front in your own consciousness and what in a very unwelcome fashion disconcerts mine. Otherwise, ‘Es wäre so schön gewesen!’* But I think you will understand on a moment’s further reflection that I can’t write you otherwise than I do, and that I am very sorry indeed to have so to do it. Believe me then in very imperfect sympathy
At Brede Place, a vast gloomy pile full of damp and bad drains, Cora and Stephen Crane were holding a perpetual party on credit, with Wells and even Conrad delighted to attend, although James, despite his warm admiration for Crane, hung back. It seems unlikely that Crane, had he lived, would ever have become a great writer, but he remains in every sense the most attractive of the conspirators, as well as a kind of symbolic patron saint and martyr. None of them, and certainly not his loving but slatternly spouse, seemed to realize that such a regime was killing him by inches, until severe lung hemorrhage precipitated a final flight to a sanatorium in the Black Forest, where he died within days.
In the meantime Conrad and Ford were embarking on their ill-fated collaboration, which was to produce a couple of unsuccessful potboilers, The Inheritors and Romance, and a vast amount of tedium and bad feelings. So insensitive was Ford, and so unremitting his bêtises, that one must wonder how he ever made a reputation for himself as a novelist of clear vision and new techniques. The answer may be that his novels are in fact not much good—not even The Good Soldier—but have always given the critics a field day, slotting neatly into their accounts of modernism. Modernism for Ford was not so much taking the novel form seriously as using it narcissistically—and at others’ expense. Women forgave him easily: even Violet Hunt was more intrigued than indignant to find herself parodied as the insufferable wife of the noble and long-suffering Ford/Tietjens of Parade’s End. Ford, like Hemingway, used his very unglamorous war service to construct in fiction a personal myth for himself.
Ford’s invariable attitude was one of injured innocence. “My life through I seemed to have been mixed up in terrific rows with people who appeared singularly touchy,” he observed in his garrulous memoir Return to Yesterday. Conrad’s ghost must have uttered a snort of disgust, and Jessie Conrad wreaked a more practical vengeance in her own memoir where she described how her bête noir had left his greasy hat to dry in her oven, on top of the Sunday roast.
Wells, who defended Ford as the only kindred spirit in the ring of foreign literary conspirators, behaved worse than any of them, stabbing poor James in the back in his scurrilous little pamphlet-novel entitled Boon, and furious at “those pretentious academic greasers” whom he claimed had boycotted his mistress Rebecca West’s little book on James in the Times Literary Supplement: “conspiring to down a friendless girl…. It makes the name of James stink in my memory.” On receipt of Boon—Wells took malicious care to send him a copy—James produced in dignified reply what is still the truest defense of a good novel yet written. For James it was art “that makes life, makes interest, makes importance…and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” Ford would no doubt have uttered a heartfelt endorsement, but his novels are apt to “make life” not in the cause of awareness and perception, like those of James and Conrad, but in the interest of the writer himself. Ford and Wells were really two of a kind.
As James was well aware, the novel makes life out of other books, other legends. Adeline Tintner has compiled three admirable volumes on the dense background world of pictures and stories, sculptures and objets de vertu from which James in his creation drew invisible and it may be unconscious sustenance. Her The Museum World of Henry James was succeeded by The Book World of Henry James, and now by a rather less felicitously titled The Pop World of Henry James: From Fairy Tales to Science Fiction. The works of fiction Tintner examines here are not “pop” exactly, in the ordinary sense, but include the kind of novels of his time which James depreciated but nonetheless read—Mrs. Oliphant, Miss Braddon, Louisa May Alcott—together with Greek and Roman legend, fairy tales, Kipling, royal scandals, and even H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.
Such matters, as Tintner shows, were no less important as a source of inspiration to his creative daemon than was James’s devotion to Walter Pater and Gibbon and Shakespeare and above all to Balzac. The many illustrations are fascinating in themselves—Gustave Doré’s Bluebeard and Red Riding Hood loom in the background of “A Passionate Pilgrim” and of “Covering End” as the painter Joseph Benwill’s picturesque caravans do in the pages of The Golden Bowl—and all James enthusiasts will want to possess and ponder over such suggestive riches, perseveringly sought out and expounded here.
Would James agree that he had borrowed from his old friend and enemy’s time machine in elaborating his own last fiction, The Sense of the Past? Where Wells ingeniously and scientifically looked forward, James more metaphysically looked back. Dr. Tintner draws her parallel with great skill, but one cannot avoid the conclusion that where science fiction was concerned James was out of his depth. He was more at home with what Conrad called “fine consciences,” and the ways in which thought creates its fictions, and fiction thought.
It would have been delightful.↩
Henry James Mix-Up January 18, 1990
It would have been delightful.↩