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Lessons of the Master

In 1909, in a mood of depression, Henry James burned all his correspondence. In Author, Author, a part-fiction, part-biographical reconstruction of James’s later life, David Lodge has him say:

I hate the idea of people reading [letters] after we are dead…. And not only reading them, but publishing them, and making money out of them. It’s the way things are going in this dreadful Americanised age of ours. There is no privacy, no decency any more. Journalists, interviewers, biographers… I feel it is our duty to deny them, to defeat them. When we are dead, when we can no longer defend our privacy, they will move in with their antennae twitching, their mandibles gnashing. Let them find nothing—only scorched earth.

But who has inspired what must be the longest literary biography ever? Who has had his brother’s, father’s, sister’s life scrutinized almost as closely? Who prompted Lodge to acknowledge his debt to more than twenty books of Jamesiana—including A Henry James Encyclopaedia?

Quoting a little-known essay of James’s, “Is There a Life After Death?,” Lodge plays with the idea of a ghostly Henry floating above us, able to watch the Henry James industry: sales figures, university courses, critical arguments, “the babble of our conversation about him and his work, swelling through the ether like a prolonged ovation.” He would be well satisfied, says Lodge. Overjoyed might be a better guess, considering the anxieties, stressed in Author, Author, about money, sales, and reputation that dogged him during his life. Gnashing mandibles and twitching antennae would be soon ignored once he knew the verdict of posterity. It is easy to forget that inside the stout and polished Master there was always a shy girl getting ready for her first ball. Is that why so many have explored Henry’s life—the relation between the outer man and the hidden one, and beyond that to his characters and narrative? Secrets are always a challenge.*

Part of the Henry story is the intense, fluctuating entente with William, only a year older: I admit I was disappointed that Lodge has chosen not to write this into his story. Henry’s outpouring to William when, at fifty-six, he was buying his first home and felt criticized by his brother: “My whole being cries out for something that I can call my own—and when I look round me at the splendor of so many of the ‘literary’ fry…I do feel the bitterness of humiliation, the iron enters my soul, and (I blush to confess it,) I weep!” Much later, William’s dash, when he himself was near death, to his brother’s bedside, to find him weeping and indeed in a state of breakdown.

Author, Author concentrates rather on what Henry himself called “simply the most horrible experience of my life,” the failure of his play, Guy Domville. (“Author, author,” they cried in the gallery—and pelted him with boos and hisses.) “Oh the mutilated brutally simplified, massacred little play,” he wrote to William of his literary child: to William who had a wife and two children and two houses.

David Lodge has been known since the Sixties as the author of wickedly funny novels with an underlying hint of melancholy. He is particularly acute about academic life in both Britain and the States. Formerly teaching at the University of Birmingham, he knows the academic world inside out and, wearing his academic hat, has also brought out several books of literary criticism. This third enterprise of his, the semifictionalized life of a great writer, is a bold new departure. Nearly everything that happens in his story, he says in the introduction, is based on fact, but he has used a novelist’s license in the detail (Henry’s contemplation of a too rotund belly as he lies in his bath? The sound of a rag-and-bone man’s cart grinding past the window?). On the whole it works, though there are some longueurs: too much of the overresearched background, at times, and some stiffness in the dialogue. Any fictionalizer of Henry James’s life has a dialogue problem, of course. Virginia Woolf’s mischievous account of meeting her father’s old friend tells us how he actually sounded:

My dear Virginia, they tell me—they tell me—they tell me—that you—as indeed being your father’s daughter nay your father’s grandchild—the descendant I may say of a century—of a century—of quill pens and ink—ink—ink-pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me—ahm m m—that you, that you, that you write in short.

Who could reproduce this throughout a whole book? No reader could bear it.

The plump and tremulous middle-aged Henry does verge, for us as well as for the cheeky Virginia Stephen, on the ridiculous. But Lodge handles his hero very tenderly—shows us James’s sensitivity, his kindness, his constant fear of appearing a vulgar Yankee, his good sense, his mantle of worldliness, his need for both friendship and solitary withdrawal. Lodge does not pursue the question of James’s sexual preferences: he indicates a “lack of concupiscence,” a lifelong distaste for anything that would distract him from his work, a private embargo on the subject.

Henry is by no means seen as a duffer, an unworldly simpleton, however: the Master knew the world, if only through his stays in Paris and the writings of his friends Maupassant and Daudet. His authorial intention, Lodge believes, was to use his subtlety, his “manner,” to steer between the frankness of French novels and the hypocrisy of English ones. But his deep identification, and the only hint of sexuality Lodge allows, is with a frightened virgin on her bridal night: his friend George Du Maurier’s daughter, blushing in a white nightdress, going like a lamb to the slaughter.

Friendships, however, he had in abundance; all the literary world was his. In particular, the warm comradeship with Du Maurier, the popular author of Trilby, runs through the story. There were even games of blindman’s buff with the Du Maurier children. People loved the elusive James. So does Lodge: his portrait of the man explores an interaction of fragility and strength, delicacy and force—the authorial preoccupation with his themes binding the opposites together. Bringing James’s servants into the picture is a fine stroke. “The Old Toff,” they call him affectionately—Burgess, Minnie, and Joan the cook. (These were real people, nicely recreated.)

Lodge shows that there was no lack of affection for women in James, even if he was unable to lust after them. Three relationships with women are examined. Lodge, I think, has had an authorial hand in a conversation between James and Du Maurier as they sit on Hampstead Heath, on a bench that James had christened “the Bench of Confidences.” Du Maurier, who has just masterminded his daughter’s wedding, asks his friend whether he had ever thought of marrying. “The only woman I might have married died young,” James replies, and describes his cousin Minny Temple’s early death from tuberculosis. “She used to say that the remote possibility of the best thing was always better than a clear certainty of the second-best thing.” This, he declares, has always been a guiding light for him. But he was being a little disingenuous. As Lodge points out, if James’s affection for his cousin had been at all urgent, he would not have set off still young for Europe, with no firm plan for her to join him.

A second important relationship with a woman was, of course, his affectionate bond with his sister Alice—Alice, whose wretchedly hurt and afflicted life we have now come to know more about. Unlike William, whose letters to Alice were unpardonably tactless, Henry was all gentleness and generosity to his sister. She had come to London an invalid, to be near him, and began to die slowly of cancer. Henry visited her nearly every day, though with an understandable longing for the waiting to be over. When at last it was, Henry wrote a masterly letter for William and the family. One phrase—“It was a bright, kind, soundless Sunday”—may send a shiver down the spine of anyone who knows London.

Thirdly, Lodge gives an important place to James’s odd friendship with the American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson. They met in their middle years, she an admirer of James, rather deaf, with letters of introduction to him. He liked her company, and they spent a good deal of time together, quite privately. For an unmarried lady and a bachelor to do this was of course unconventional, at the least. Fenimore, as James liked to call her, very probably began to be in love with him. She had always been subject to depressions; when James got the news that she had died in Venice of a fall from a second-story window, he at once recognized it as suicide and was overwhelmed with horror and guilt. Lodge describes the grotesque tragicomedy of James’s attempt, while sorting Fenimore’s effects, to dispose of her clothes by dropping them into the lagoon. Ladies’ clothes, in the 1890s, were still voluminous. Fenimore’s floated round him, like a mass of reproachful corpses.

It was at least a year before he felt recovered enough to get back to work, and work now meant the agonizing, ever hopeful struggle to get Guy Domville staged, the dependence on fallible actors and scene-shifters and directors. Lodge spares no detail of the slow march to disaster and the intensity of James’s feelings. Though his first histrionic venture, The American, had had some success in the provinces, it’s not hard to see why Domville eventually failed: friends in the stalls called for the author, but plebeians in the gallery were sick of fine sentiments and especially of one actress’s oversized hat. “Be keyned to her,” moaned the leading actor as the curtain was about to fall. The gallery was not kind. “A battle between the toughs and the toffs,” was what Arnold Bennett recorded in his diary.

Yet The Golden Bowl, The Wings of the Dove, The Turn of the Screw, Washington Square have all proved to be good dramatic material. The bones of James’s fictions, stripped down, can in fact be dramatic—but it was not, and could not be, his way to tell a story in stripped and clipped fashion. The Master was a tough as well as a toff: as tenacious as a coal miner, as productive as a good farmer. But the stage, after all, was not the place for the James method. He had written that his characters came to him “like the group of attendants and entertainers who come down by train when people in the country give a party”; in another phrase, that they are “floated into our minds by the current of life.” He needed the printed page as his private stage, where they could grow and move.

Henry’s friendship with George Du Maurier throws up some useful insights. While James grieved over Guy Domville, Du Maurier had a different reason for distress. Trilby, in print and on stage, was a runaway success everywhere—and Du Maurier hated it. He felt he had let a genie out of its bottle, and had no control over it. Henry himself puzzled over his friend’s success; personally, he had found Trilby vulgar and slapdash. Not to his taste at all; meanwhile his own sales were gently declining. Trilby is a rip-roaring story, helped—I imagine—by its illustrations, the massive contemporary interest in hypnotism and the occult, and an underlying hint of sexuality and anti-Semitism. It is entertaining to learn that James had himself rather coveted the Trilby plot when he first heard of it from Du Maurier. What on earth would he have made of it?

He exorcised a certain envy of his friend after his death by writing in a memoir of him:

The whole phenomenon grew and grew…. He found himself sunk in a landslide of obsessions, of inane, incongruous letters, of interviewers, intruders, invaders, some of them innocent enough,…others with axes to grind that might have made him call at once, to have it over, for the headsman and the block.

The age of the blockbuster had arrived. Henry was certain—almost certain—that he wanted no part of it.

Only once does Lodge slip in a hint of James’s own aesthetic. The great man, in plus-fours, Norfolk jacket, and soft cap, is taking a bicycle ride along the sea road. (Bicycling was not comical at the time: everyone with a bit of courage bicycled.) Enjoying his adventure, James is comparing bicycling with novel writing:

The combination of Momentum and Balance was the secret—and one might draw an analogy here with the art of fiction: momentum was the onward drive of narrative, the raising of questions to which the audience desired to know the answers, and balance was the symmetry of structure, the elimination of the irrelevant, the repetition of motifs and symbols, the elegant variation of—

at this point he is checked by running into a doll’s perambulator and acquiring a few bruises.

Lodge opens and closes this middle stretch of his subject’s life with Henry’s last months. Here he is, propped up in his Chelsea apartment among starched sheets and attentive nurses. He has been working for war charities, urged American friends to bring America into the war; and, finally, has taken British nationality. As his valet says: “The old toff could hardly do more.”

Then comes the stroke. “I have had a paralytic stroke in the most approved fashion,” he is able to enunciate, but begins to ramble, and wonder where he is. Alice James—William’s wife—arrives from the States followed by her daughter and son. Sometimes Henry believes he is in a theater and worries about the audience. The King awards him the Order of Merit, and the medal is brought to his bedside by a distinguished former ambassador. Henry sleeps. And sleeps on, until at the end of February 1916 he dies in great peace. The beast in the jungle had sprung, but it conducted him very gently out of life.
















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    See also Colm Tóibín, The Master (Scribner, 2004); reviewed by John Bayley in The New York Review, July 15, 2004.

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