Henry James is not a name that springs to mind when we think of adventure stories, prose epics or historical fiction. His forte was sensibility, not spectacle, in both art and life, and he specialized in capturing the intricacies of consciousness in rich, unmistakable prose. And by all external measures, he lived an uneventful life. Born in New York City in 1843, he moved to Britain as a young adult, and he wrote. He jotted ideas in his notebooks; he penned thousands of witty letters; he contributed essays and tales to magazines; he composed novels, biographies, criticism, plays and a memoir; and at the end of his life set himself the herculean task of revising an entire fictional oeuvre. He never married or entered into any romantic liaison, so far as we know, though he did accept dinner invitations (107 in one year), travel occasionally and entertain guests. In 1897 he purchased a Remington typewriter so he could dictate his novels to a typist instead of writing them longhand. This is not the stuff of high drama.
Still, James has been fortunate in biographers (besides Leon Edel, there’s R.W.B. Lewis, Fred Kaplan and Lyndall Gordon, to name just a few), even though he deliberately intended to elude the “publishing scoundrels,” as he called the scavenging narrator of “The Aspern Papers,” by chucking much of his correspondence into a fire. Yet if “biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied,” as Emily Dickinson (no stranger to the elusive) once observed, it seems that James, oddly, has now landed in the province of novelists. This year alone, two very different writers, first Colm Tóibín and then David Lodge, have tackled the life–and, by extension, the art–of Henry James in two very different historical novels.
Both Tóibín’s The Master and Lodge’s Author, Author adduce the same anecdotal chestnuts and, taking James’s genius for granted, pursue the sources of his art in his various failures either as literary entrepreneur or human being: When a young man, James failed to participate in the American Civil War, unlike two of his brothers, because of an “obscure hurt” received while helping extinguish a fire. In early 1895, as an established author of middle age, he was treated to an interminable fifteen minutes of hisses and boos when he took an ill-advised curtain call after the first performance of his play Guy Domville on the London stage. He enjoyed friendships with a number of men and women, in particular the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson (grand-niece of James Fenimore Cooper), but she hurled herself from an upper-story balcony in Venice and died groaning on the ground below. After sorting through Woolson’s correspondence (and torching some of it), James “buried” her dresses in a Venetian lagoon by pitching them overboard, a weird decision by anyone’s standards. The unweighted garments bubbled to the surface, yards of velvet and silk ballooning grotesquely on the water. Then there was the move from London to Lamb House, in Rye, and in 1909, seven years before his death, a nervous collapse.
Even more important to both novelists is James’s ambition. Lodge’s Henry James aspires “to be the Anglo-American Balzac,” as he tells his good friend George Du Maurier, the half-blind Punch illustrator who eventually writes an enormously popular (and now forgotten) novel, Trilby. Author, Author subsequently presents Du Maurier’s almost inadvertent success in poignant counterpoint to James’s career at midlife. Having renounced the pleasures of a conventional domestic life–“literary greatness was incompatible with the obligations of marriage”–as well as sexual intimacy of any kind, Lodge’s James is a bachelor novelist committed to an aesthetic of making “life as experienced on the pulses and in the consciousnesses of individual human beings.” In other words, he wishes to be considered the successor of Dickens, George Eliot, Hawthorne–and rich besides. Why not? Rider Haggard’s potboiler She sold 40,000 copies, and Mrs. Humphrey Ward, another lesser light, was raking in cash with her lumbering clichés. By contrast, sales of James’s books were plummeting, especially after that long-winded Princess Casamassima, to say nothing of its successor, The Tragic Muse.