The curse of Henry James

The spate of novels about Henry James seems odd even to Michiel Heyns, who wrote one of them. But to reclaim a principle of mastery, novelists seem willing to violate a life
September 25, 2004

My agent forwards me another polite letter of rejection: "I am so sorry but timing is all - and there has just been a spate of fiction based on the life of Henry James published here. I don't know how these coincidences happen… something in the atmosphere? So regretfully I must say no."

The spate of fiction referred to by this editor, I don't need reminding, is Felony by Emma Tennant (Jonathan Cape), The Master by Colm Tóibín (Picador), and now Author, Author by David Lodge (Secker & Warburg). My own novel, The Typewriter's Tale, thus has to make its way, after three years in the making, into an "atmosphere" already saturated with fictions about James.

David Lodge (in an afterword) comments on this plethora, without explaining it: "I leave it to students of the zeitgeist to ponder the significance of these coincidences." As a victim of the zeitgeist, I am left pondering why James is such an irresistible subject for fictionalisation.

John Updike, in his New Yorker review of The Master, finds a clue in what he describes as "postmodernism's rampant eclecticism." The blending of fact with fiction that all these novels contrive certainly sits easily with a scepticism about ultimate truths. But isn't postmodernism yesterday's news? And, anyway, there are more luridly eventful lives than that of Henry James to choose from: a man who had, in the received opinion, no consummated sexual relationships, who lived an exemplary life, and who avoided scandal at all costs does not seem a promising fictional subject.

Part of the answer may be implicit in David Lodge's comment in the Bookseller that James was "a writers' writer." In his own lifetime, James allowed, not to say encouraged, disciples like Hugh Walpole to call him "Master," and his friend Edith Wharton, whose novels far outsold his, habitually addressed him as cher maître.

Less beguiled by his magisterial presence, we after-comers nevertheless venerate James for the uncompromising subtlety and technical refinement of his writing. He was the first English novelist to insist on fiction-writing as an exacting art, the technique of which was available to scrutiny and analysis. The prefaces he wrote for the collected New York edition of his fiction from 1905 onwards have been published separately as The Art of the Novel, and are generally seen as the first serious novel-criticism in English. Towards the end of his book, Lodge imagines being able to travel back in time to James's deathbed to report to him his future fame: "'You only contributed one word to the English language,' I would tell HJ, 'but it's one to be proud of: Jamesian.'" Jamesian: the word suggests a certain superfine sensibility, expressed in a technical mastery as subtle as it is expressive. To admirers of James, like Lodge, it is indeed a word to be proud of; to the many people who find James's novels impossibly over-elaborate, the word tends to be pronounced with an ironic little grimace.

Modern Jamesians thus have a sense of being elected to the service of a benign but discriminating god. But the loyalty that James inspires leads all too many of those admirers to disregard the curse he pronounced upon all biographers and post-mortemers - "a curse," he told his executor, "not less explicit than Shakespeare's own on any such as try to move my bones." James had a lifelong aversion to publicity and to the inquisitiveness of well-meaning admirers and prurient snoops alike. The promise of privacy and decorum was part of what persuaded the young American to settle in London in 1876. Finding, by 1898, that London offered no refuge from the strains of social living, he withdrew to Lamb House in Rye, where he lived till just before his death in 1916.

The seclusion of Lamb House accorded well with James's sense of the essential invisibility of the author: for him, the author as a person with a private life did not, or should not, exist, and had no critically relevant bearing on the fiction. Consistent with this principle, towards the end of his life, James burned all his letters - the accumulation of a lifetime of correspondence with the leading literary figures of his time. This destruction was prefigured in an essay on George Sand, written some ten years earlier, in which he imagines the "inquirer" violating the writer's privacy, even after "every track" has been "covered, every paper burnt." Perhaps not surprisingly, however, the effect of James's insistence on privacy has been to stimulate interest.

In one of his more perverse tales, "The Figure in the Carpet," a young literary gentlemen embarks on a lifelong quest for the eponymous figure, prompted by a revered author who tantalises him with the question: "Isn't there for every writer a particular thing of that sort, the thing that most makes him apply himself, the thing without the effort to achieve which he wouldn't write at all, the very passion of his passion?"

The "particular thing" is never named, though the young man, being one of the Jamesian obsessives, is doomed thereafter to spend his life looking for the figure in the carpet, and some of James's readers, moved to wonder whether the Master was hinting at some such primal plan in his own fiction, have followed suit.

It is then a natural progression from the process of reading a James novel to the tendency to read James's life as if it were a James novel, and, if one is a writer, to the desire to write that novel. The figure in James's carpet has most often been taken to be his homosexuality, generally assumed to have been unconsummated. Some reference to this occurs in all three of the recent novels, but in itself it has not figured as a major theme; rather, the novelists have been drawn to the related matter of James's relationship with the American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, who committed suicide in Venice in 1894. Tennant, Tóibín and Lodge all place this relationship at the centre of their recreation of James's emotional life, and it is not difficult to see why: the friendship with Fenimore, as James called her, was one of his few relationships with women amenable to fictional speculation. It is clear from her few surviving letters to him that she wished for more of his company than he was able or prepared to give her. The friendship is intriguingly like a James novel, with its heroine pining away quietly for the love of a more or less unresponsive male.

There has been a general sense, surfacing again in these novels, that James felt some guilt at his neglect, even some responsibility for Fenimore's suicide. In most respects such an exemplary and loyal friend, James, the "historian of fine consciences," as Conrad called him, offers in this lapse an irresistible subject to his novel-writing disciples. Lodge presses least hard on this spring, Tóibín makes it central to his image of the loneliness and selfishness of art, and Tennant uses it to support her unsympathetic portrait of James as a petty and manipulative opportunist, jealous of Fenimore's commercial success and obsessed with his own reputation.

My own novel, which covers a later period of James's life, finds its subject not in James's derelictions of duties so much as in his own restrained infatuation with the fascinating, ruthless and sexually ambiguous William Morton Fullerton, another deracinated American, beloved of both James and Edith Wharton. The truly Jamesian figure here, by which I mean the character whose only option is to renounce, is James himself: time and again in letters he comments wistfully on the non-appearance of Morton Fullerton on his doorstep. Poignantly, he probably did not know that Fullerton and Edith Wharton were having an affair: he was thus in the same situation as Lambert Strether, the hero of The Ambassadors, who remains for much of the novel convinced of the innocent nature of the relationship between his young friend Chad Newsome and Madame de Vionnet. Strangely, then, eight years after writing The Ambassadors, James turned into the beguiled hero of his own novel; an irony which in turn begat my novel. I opted to tell the story from the point of view of his typist, and in this choice too, I was following James. In his short story "In the Cage," a young woman telegraphist builds up a fantasy life around the telegrams she transmits for society ladies and gentlemen.

There is, then, to admirers of James, an irresistible story in the very absences of James's life. In this, they can claim to be following the example of James himself, who found his subjects in absences and suppressions. James is a writer's writer in that his life presents itself to writers as eminently writable. But he also presents himself as a model: not for imitation or copying, but of an artistic ideal. He found in his art the shape, the design and the decorum that life so often lacked.

It is this aspect that David Lodge develops most fully in his exploration of the friendship between James and George Du Maurier: as fate or the zeitgeist would have it, James's most humiliating failure, being booed on the first night of his play Guy Domville, coincided with the astronomic success of Du Maurier's Trilby. Lodge allows James some all too human envy of his friend's success and some ponderous reflections on the vagaries of public taste. If in relation to Fenimore Woolson some commentators have seen James as insensitive and exploitative, in relation to the theatre he is victim rather than perpetrator. In dealing with this disappointment, James's stoicism and mature resignation, especially well dealt with by Tóibín, represent an inspiration to writers, dependent as they all are on the fickle taste of the public. James's lonely artistic integrity, a source to him of both deprivation and consolation, is to other writers proof of a dedication that so much in the modern publishing industry conspires to discourage.

James presents to our age an image of modest mastery. We shy away from hero worship, from the large gesture and the bold claim and yet we admire the confidence based on technical mastery that James never lost, in spite of the discouragements charted by Tóibín and Lodge. James led a writer's life, paid the price and reaped the rewards - or some of them. He was not indifferent to material success or his relative lack of it, but he refused to compromise his art for its sake.

WH Auden put it best in his 1941 poem "At the Grave of Henry James":

…your heart, fastidious as

A delicate nun, remained true to the rare noblesse

Of your lucid gift and, for its love, ignored the

Resentful muttering Mass….

There is, of course, a certain irony in paying homage to such a man through our courting, if not the muttering Mass, then at any rate the mass market. This, too, Auden foresaw in his closing invocation:

Master of nuance and scruple,

Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead:

Because there are many whose works

Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end

To the vanity of our calling, make intercession

For the treason of all clerks.

For ultimately, these novels are also treason: treason to the high Jamesian ideal of privacy, discretion, proportion.

On a summer afternoon, shortly before the completion of my novel, my agent and I made a pilgrimage to Lamb House, now a National Trust property. There we met Colm Tóibín, whose presence was the first ominous inkling either of us had of his intentions. The custodian of the house kindly allowed us upstairs, normally closed to the public. Both of us made surreptitious notes, Tóibín's, it seems, enabling him to write the passage in his book in which Henry James, in his bedroom, can hear his young guest and the object of his adulation, Hendrik Andersen, undress in the adjoining guest room. My notes enabled me to recreate James dictating to his typist in the green room. David Lodge, in his acknowledgements, thanks three successive custodians of Lamb House.

Lamb House, James's retreat from publicity and scandal and inquiry, had become the site of betrayal: the tower of art had been scaled, the enemy was within the walls. We defied the prohibitions of the man in order to bring tribute to the master. But I am starting to suspect, as yet another letter of rejection arrives, that James's curse is taking effect - at least on one writer.