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.
Lodge’s James decides to try his luck in theater, crude as it was, with theatergoers applauding the likes of Oscar Wilde, whom the celibate James, squeamish about homosexuality and “bohemian sordidness,” considers an exhibitionist dandy. (“Something fastidious in him [James] recoiled from any thought of intimate sexual contact involving nakedness,” Lodge explains, “the groping and interlocking of private parts, and the spending of seed.” If Lodge’s repressed hero were to picture himself so compromised, he’d prefer it be with a beautiful young man; but this fantasy merely fuels his nascent and none-too-pleasant homophobia.)
Skilled in all forms of denial–for a connoisseur of the inner life, this James seems oddly impervious to his own–James rationalizes that a theatrical success will buy him time to write “real” literature. But after the humiliating premiere of Guy Domville, when his friends call “Author, author” (hence the title of the book) and James unwisely appears onstage, he reconsecrates himself to his art, adapting the conceptual lessons of the theater to narrative prose. To Lodge’s James, then, writing is a conscious act of intellectual discernment, formal craft, deliberate decision-making. And so with Guy Domville inaugurating James’s late phase, James will now write such nuanced masterpieces as The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl. Of course, James can’t know his future and dies believing that an “unsympathetic literary world” had perversely neglected his work.
And so Lodge, himself a brilliant critic and author of such gems as The Novelist at the Crossroads, will step into the breach at his novel’s end, addressing himself directly to The Master. “You only contributed one word to the English language,” Lodge consoles his dying Henry, “but it’s one to be proud of: ‘Jamesian.'”
Having confined himself more or less to a limited point of view with James its center, Lodge nonetheless packs James’s world with characters like Edmund Gosse, Morton Fullerton and a 5-year-old Agatha Christie, much as if Trollope were rewriting James, or, more precisely, as if Lodge were placing James in one of his hectic novels of academic foible–without, however, the foible. He does, however, grant himself omniscience to recount Guy Domville‘s opening night, when theatergoers like George Bernard Shaw discuss it with the neophyte drama critic H.G. Wells, who’d just sold a serial called The Time Machine.
Lodge’s novel is spirited historical fiction–the kind that Colm Tóibín’s Henry James dismisses. “I view the historical novel as tainted by a fatal cheapness,” Tóibín’s James roundly declares. Covering roughly the same period (January 1895 to May 1899), Tóibín’s evocative novel The Master, published this past spring, represents James as a man of regret, reminiscence and not a little self-reflection. “Once I wrote about youth and America,” he muses, “and now I am left with exile and middle age and stories of disappointment.” This is a James of gesture, not bustle; of susceptibilities rather than speeches. And where Lodge’s James briskly advances, stoutly dislodging the slings and arrows of midlife, Tóibín’s James fends off his recurrent dreams of the dead with the urge–the compulsion–to write, “anything to numb himself, distract himself.”
Yet with the exception of Du Maurier, who does not appear in Tóibín’s book, Tóibín invokes most of the same characters and circumstances as Lodge, with a difference: the relationship with Constance Woolson, with whom James shared a house in Bellosguardo, a suburb north of Florence, for a short and clandestine time; the premature death of his beloved cousin Minny Temple, who enters his fiction as Isabel Archer and Milly Theale; the truncated life of his gifted, if waspish, sister Alice; his relationship, never easy, with brother William–all this is rendered as rumination in translucent prose. Keeping vigil one rainy night in Paris, looking upward at the window of a male friend in one of the “truest” hours he ever lived, he ponders over and over “the mystery of having a single consciousness,” the knowing that everyone stores away “an entirely private world to which they could return at the sound of a name, or for no reason at all.” Such, as Tóibín tenderly traces them, are the deep springs of James’s art.
Tóibín’s book is organized around images of watching and waiting, of orphans and exiles and crucial moments, largely unspoken: the glance exchanged between James and an Irish manservant, each of them discreetly aware of what passes between them, or so we think, or so James does; his awareness of the bland rapaciousness of the beautiful young sculptor Hendrik Andersen, to whom he is nevertheless attracted. (Tóibín’s James is a celibate homosexual but not a squeamish one, and one of his best scenes takes place during an idyllic summer when Minny Temple was vibrantly alive and Oliver Wendell Holmes, ex-soldier, brushed against James as the two young men shared a bed in a New England farmhouse.) His sighting of a young girl on a lawn, unlatching memories of his sister Alice, and the story of his father’s nervous breakdown, elegantly recalled, slowly expand into What Maisie Knew and The Turn of the Screw. Or James remembers with poignant clarity his brother Wilky’s bloody homecoming from the war James himself did not experience firsthand. Such luminous incidents, “flashes and moments,” bloom into the lustrous tales and novels we recognize, indeed, as Jamesian.
Unlike Lodge’s proud and conscience-ridden Anglophile who in 1915 takes up British citizenship as an act of solidarity with his adopted country (and a protest against his native one), Tóibín’s James is a perpetual expatriate haunted by the past, unfulfilled desire and even the guilt that seems to presage art (themes in Tóibín’s previous fiction); he’s the beast in the jungle, ready to spring into action–that is to say, to lose himself in his work. It’s this work, fed by solitude, that James protects, not just his fastidious self. What’s more, it’s worth protecting. “Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance,” James famously tells H.G. Wells.
Setting the tone for Lodge’s categorical James and Tóibín’s more shaded one is James’s story “The Beast in the Jungle,” in which John Marcher realizes too late he has neither fully loved nor lived. Is this the lot, then, that these novelists assign James, depicted either as Lodge’s prig (who rejects Woolson) or Tóibín’s depressive loner committed to his vigils? Are these the only choices available to a post-Freudian world? Isn’t it possible that something like friendship–an underrated phenomenon–might have offered James pleasures unavailable to the egotistical Marcher? Still, both Lodge and Tóibín staunchly suggest that art is a pursuit worthy of the energy–the very life–that James lavished on it. Author, Author comes out and says so, and The Master makes us feel that, despite the cost, this must be true.
In the acknowledgments at the end of Author, Author, David Lodge claims he didn’t learn of Tóibín’s novel until after he delivered his book to his publisher. “I leave it to students of the Zeitgeist,” he concludes, “to ponder the significance.” So we might. Both Colm Tóibín, the gifted Irish novelist, and Lodge, the British one, take the position that there’s something noble about the calling of art (especially if you’re Henry James), and that art involves sacrifice and passion as well as subtlety and diplomacy, qualities not readily associated with America today. Their James is a thoroughgoing American of the best international sort, and one of America’s finest exports, for he represents the very subject that James himself eloquently molded, the American innocent whose purity of intent does not protect him from the cruelties, and responsibilities, of experience. Nor does it exonerate him. Lodge’s book begins and ends with James’s last days and a brutal evocation of war; Tóibín’s ends more discreetly, with James tossing aside his brother William’s suggestion that he give up a subject matter that dramatizes the insipid and write about something rock-hard, like the Puritans.
But William is now ill, and Henry will prevail to sound, once again, the intricate depths of the human heart. “The moral?” concludes Tóibín’s James, half amused. “The moral is the most pragmatic we can imagine, that life is a mystery and that only sentences are beautiful, and that we must be ready for change.”