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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

V. Performance

17. The Absent Writer in The Tragic Muse

Nelly Valtat-Comet

Texte intégral

1The reading I would like to propose here will focus on one particular element of The Tragic Muse that is not foregrounded but implied, and yet informs much of the novel’s development—an aspect that belongs more to the fantastic than the realistic vein in James’s inspiration, by which I mean the overriding absence of a genius of letters and of an ideal text.

2A large proportion of Book I in The Tragic Muse is devoted to long and rather sophisticated Oxbridge conversations between, mostly, Nick Dormer, Peter Sherringham, and Gabriel Nash, in various combinations. These conversations offer readers a panorama of views on the arts and on artistic creation, on the current pressure imposed on art by massive and ’vulgar’ London audiences, on some of the controversies between classicism, aestheticism, and romanticism in vogue among the English elite of the time. They also fictionalise several theoretical questions perennially dear to James, such as the comparative ’values’ of the arts of representation and their inter-relations, the status of ”representation” both in its theatrical meaning of ”performance” and in the sense of artistic rendering of life, and the personal impact of producing art in the construction of one’s identity.

  • 1 French for ”signature to a blank document.”

3Readers first encounter Miriam as a stroller in the Salon, in company of her mother and Gabriel Nash, through the ”agitated perceptions” (29) and the naivety of Biddy Dormer, who becomes scared at her own failure to gauge the strangers, to pin them down to a type and assign them a place in her own world. To her repeated question ”who are they?,” Nick answers obliquely with a moral ’blanc-seing1 for Gabriel Nash: ”he’s a gentleman” (31). Nick remembers Nash from Oxford, where he was known for having written ”A very clever book […] A sort of novel […] with a lot of good writing,” a novel which obviously involves topics unmentionable to a proper English young lady. Even such evasiveness somewhat reassures Biddy who can adorn Nash with the label ”literary character” (32). Nash’s double quality as gentleman and novelist is thus offered by Nick as sole answer to Biddy’s wonderings on the identities and social placement of Miriam and her mother, so that these two ”persons theatrical” (48) find themselves primarily introduced in the text as ”female appendages” to a mysterious male novelist figure.

4About Gabriel’s ”book” readers will learn nothing else, but will hear him expatiate on his decision to forget about it and write no more: ”Literature, you see, is for the convenience of others. It requires the most abject concessions. It plays such mischief with one’s style that really I’ve had to give it up” (35). It is as if the only novel present in the text as a creation by one of the protagonists were only put forward to be discarded immediately, relegated into an uncertain past previous to the beginning of the story, and an ephemeral succès d’estime, nipped in the bud by its own refusal of a readership, condemned by its complicated form, by philistine criticism of its subject, and above all by its author’s claim that he wants no more état civil or métier than just living and feeling the shades of life. The aspiring Miriam will later echo his profession of faith and his haughtiness by declaring ”I’m not so fond of reading. I go in for the book of life” (109). There is of course in Gabriel Nash, as in most of James’s novelist personae, a lot of Henry James, and a lot of what he criticises or even ridicules. Nash receives a treatment not unlike that given to Mark Ambient, in ”The Author of Beltraffio” (1884), who is seen by his easily deluded young American disciple as a genius member of ”the guild of artists and men of letters” (867), but equally readable as a very conventional figure of British snobbery. And if Nash’s novel can be suspected of much the same ’aestheticism’ as ”Beltraffio,” it is no more than ”Beltraffio” offered to the appreciation of James’s readers. Nash is thus early dismissed as an author, but continues to exist in The Tragic Muse as a critic and an inspired talker, taking upon himself much of the discourse on art, including on literature, inserted in the narrative. A characteristic example occurs when Nash is strolling with Nick Dormer through Paris by night (117). In this page Nash develops the running metaphor (a constant of Jamesian thought) of life as art, and more precisely life as text. But this metaphor also becomes both a pretext and a medium for voicing James’s own grievances about the tedious reception and modest commercial profit of his own style and manner.

5Nash is also the one who convinces Nick Dormer to renounce politics and espouse portrait painting instead of Julia Dallow. Nash’s responsibility in the ’making’ of Nick as an artist parallels the way he propels Miriam Rooth onto the European stage and into James’s fiction. It makes him a demiurge figure, and I use the term on purpose in its Gnostic sense to underline Nash’s status as ”a substitute, subordinate or delegate,” the one who acts in place of but from a standpoint inferior to the superior instance, that is to say, in a novel, the Author. Here of course we need to recognise a pattern fully explored by Julie Rivkin in her 1996 essay ”False Positions, the Representational Logics of Henry James’s Fiction,” though Rivkin chose to leave out The Tragic Muse from the corpus she studied.

6Miriam makes her second appearance (her first as aspiring actress) in the drawing room of Honorine Carré, the retired glory of the Théâtre Français whose advice and teachings Peter Sherringham eventually secures for the girl. The description of Madame Carré’s intérieur is carried out through the perceptions of no less than three focalisers: Gabriel Nash, Nick Dormer, and Peter Sherringham, who in a large part of the novel function as sensitive and intelligent observers (another sort of delegation on the part of James). They are technical ’ficelles’ as well as fully crafted characters, cast much in the same manner as Isabel Archer’s ’satellites’ in The Portrait of a Lady and designed to favour the progressive withdrawal of authorial presence that reached its climax in the novels of James’s so-called ’late phase.’ While they wait for Madame Carré, Nash’s gaze and attention are caught by ”the presents, the portraits, the wreaths, the diadems, the letters, framed and glazed, the trophies and tributes and relics collected by Madame Carré during half a century of renown” (83). Henry James is here, as always, faithful to a 19th-century trope that loads with meaning the description of an artist’s room. He also entirely exonerates his character-observers from any inclination to voyeurism and to tracking the private life of the woman in the observation of the objects she surrounds herself with. The three of them combined are capable of understanding the meaning of objects, what they point to and, more interestingly, what they fail to represent, or rather represent in absentia. Mostly, Nash ponders for the first of several times in the novel, on the essentially ephemeral, unretainable nature of the theatrical performance, which, in Philip Horne’s terms, ”transforms behaviour into a work of art” (The Tragic Muse xxv):

The profusion of this testimony was hardly more striking than the confession of something missed, something hushed, which seemed to rise from it all and make it melancholy, like a reference to clappings which, in the nature of things, could now only be present as a silence: so that if the place was full of history it was the form without the fact, or at the most a redundancy of the one to a pinch of the other—the history of a mask, of a squeak, of a series of vain gestures.
Some of the objects exhibited by the distinguished artist, her early portraits, in lithograph or miniature, represented the costume and embodied the manner of a period so remote that Nick Dormer, as he glanced at them, felt a quickened curiosity to look at the woman who reconciled being alive to-day with having been alive so long ago. Peter Sherringham already knew how she managed this miracle, but every visit he paid her added to his amused, charmed sense that it was a miracle and that his extraordinary old friend had seen things he should never, never see. Those were just the things he wanted to see most, and her duration, her survival, cheated him agreeably and helped him a little to guess them. His appreciation of the actor’s art was so systematic that it had an antiquarian side, and at the risk of representing him as attached to an absurd futility it must be said that he had as yet hardly known a keener regret for anything than for the loss of that antecedent world, and in particular for his having belatedly missed the great comédienne, the light of the French stage in the early years of the century, of whose example and instruction Madame Carré had had the inestimable benefit. She had often described to him her rare predecessor, straight from whose hands she had received her most celebrated parts and of whom her own manner was often a religious imitation; but her descriptions troubled him more than they consoled, only confirming his theory, to which so much of his observation had already ministered, that the actor’s art in general was going down and down, descending a slope with abysses of vulgarity at its foot, after having reached its perfection, more than fifty years ago, in the talent of the lady in question. He would have liked to dwell for an hour beneath the meridian (83, emphasis mine).

7The passage is strewn with paradoxes: ”profusion” / ”something missed,” ”clappings […] present as silence,” ”redundancy” of form / ”a pinch” of ”the fact,” and Nash’s observations end on a double notion of void and illusion: ”the history of a mask, of a squeak, of a series of vain gestures.” Nick Dormer and Peter Sherringham are more inclined to seek behind the things the artist as a person, as an actual participant in a period now gone. They express their fascination in much the same terms as the narrator-lodger writes of Juliana Bordereau in The Aspern Papers (1888): ”The strange thing had been for me to discover […] that she was still alive: it was as if I had been told Mrs. Siddons was, or Queen Caroline, or the famous Lady Hamilton, for it seemed to me that she belonged to a generation as extinct” (Complete Stories III 230). The name of Mrs. Siddons is quoted of course in reference to the fact that she was Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Tragic Muse. Then ”as she sat there before me my heart beat as fast as if the miracle of resurrection had taken place for my benefit” (241). And Juliana Bordereau always hides her face behind a mask. The topos of the mask runs through the two stories. In The Tragic Muse, the great absentee, the artist with whom the old actress is a living connection, is not a defunct poet like Jeffrey Aspern, but a ”great comédienne” whose influence is described in phantasmal terms, whose name is never given, and who later on is given a face and some materiality of existence through pictorial representation in the portrait of Rachel by Gérôme that Miriam admires in the foyer of the Comédie Française. Peter Sherringham’s regrets can thus be ascribed to nostalgia, an allegiance to the French classical tradition and a deprecative look on the dramatic art of his time, on both sides of the Channel, an art now given over to melodrama and bourgeois comedy. Hubert Teyssandier asks himself who (is it actors or authors?) can be held responsible for the ”descending slope” and the ”abysses of vulgarity” in question, and concludes that Peter Sherringham probably means both (171).

8At this early point the fictive world of The Tragic Muse has already been deprived of its only semblance of a writer-character, and the referent contemporaneous world of European drama is sadly devoid of an author. That vacancy, in the same chapter, when Miriam who has not yet begun her first session of reciting, is described, through Peter as focaliser, with an insistent series of words and grammatical markers indicating a void: ”no sentiment in her face—only a vacancy of awe and anguish […] no spring of reaction” (85), ”her persistent vacancy” (90); readers can be tempted to interpret this vacancy as multiple. It is not just the explicit metaphor of the beginner, or a fictionalisation of the controversy, topical since Diderot, on whether acting should mean feeling the emotions of the character one is supposed to perform, but also the indication of a blankness more in keeping with an obsessive theme in Jamesian fiction, that of the missing text by the missing author. After Miriam’s disappointing performance in the same episode, this intuition finds itself confirmed, when Peter mentally balances her failure (”no element of interest”) with a more favourable impression:

While Sherringham judged privately that the manner in which Miss Rooth had acquitted herself offered no element of interest, he yet remained aware that something surmounted and survived her failure, something that would perhaps be worth his curiosity. It was the element of outline and attitude, the way she stood, the way she turned her eyes, her head, and moved her limbs. These things held the attention; they had a natural authority and, in spite of their suggesting too much the school-girl in the tableau-vivant, a ”plastic” grandeur. Her face, moreover, grew as he watched it; something delicate dawned in it, a dim promise of variety and a touching plea for patience, as if it were conscious of being able to show in time more shades than the simple and striking gloom which had as yet mainly graced it (93, emphasis mine).

  • 2 Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Act III Scene III.

9Peter cannot find the right words. In very Jamesian fashion he resorts to vagueness when describing what is essential. And in the midst of such lexical impotence the choice of the word ”authority” cannot be considered trivial. In addition to its connotation of deserved recognition and respect, it also suggests, at this very liminal phase of Miriam’s career, a Miriam who is ”author of herself,”2 who can make good use of both the blankness and the ”plasticity” Peter recognises in her. At the same time, Peter confesses to himself his own desire to take part in the making of Miriam as actress, to become a sort of Pygmalion (another author figure): ”the direction of a young person’s studies for the stage may be an interest of as high an order as any other artistic appeal” (96), as if he were ready to compensate for his own lack of artistic inspiration by confusing patronage with actual creation.

10De facto, the complex relationship between actor (actress here) and text is explored but obliquely in The Tragic Muse. The question of the ”authority” of an actor crops up again later (136), and this is what Miriam declares to Peter that she is ”going in for.” In the same conversation, when Peter says to her ”you’re an embroidery without a canvas,” he has advanced one step: Miriam is no longer total vacuity, but the ”canvas” she lacks in Peter’s opinion can be read as metaphor for ”text.” James maintains here the confusion between life as text (obviously Miriam has adopted the trope) and literary text, in the form of a good play, as the necessary medium for drama to exist.

11It is only when Miriam already enjoys a certain amount of popularity on the London stage, has gained some confidence in her future and begins rehearsing ”an old play, a romantic drama of thirty years before, very frequently revived and threadbare with honorable service” (309), that she herself comes to voice the lack she has been suffering from. She wants to do ”the comedy of London life” and deplores the absence, in the English drama, of playwrights capable of putting it into text.

She saw all round her things she wanted to ”do”—London bristled with them if you had eyes to see. She was fierce to know why people didn’t take them up, put them into plays and parts, give one a chance with them; she expressed her sharp impatience of the general literary bêtise. She had never been chary of this particular displeasure, and there were moments—it was an old story and a subject of frank raillery to Sherringham—when to hear her you might have thought there was no cleverness anywhere but in her own splendid impatience. She wanted tremendous things done that she might use them, but she didn’t pretend to say exactly what they were to be, nor even approximately how they were to be handled: her ground was rather that if she only had a pen—it was exasperating to have to explain! She mainly contented herself with the view that nothing had really been touched: she felt that more and more as she saw more of people’s goings-on (314-15, emphasis mine).

12Of course this can be read as one more element of realistic contextualisation, since the London drama of the period was indeed in desperate need for renewal. Here James has Miriam fancy herself author of her own plays and at the same time recognise as not within her range of talent the specificity of the art of play-writing. The resulting feelings are impatience and frustration. She comes to see her own life as subject matter for possible plays. She imagines that the very nagging of her mother might inspire ”some play-writing rascal” (385), and later, when she pauses for Nick’s second portrait of her, she turns into a convincing storyteller: ”Miriam’s account of her mother’s views was a scene of comedy, and there was instinctive art in the way she added touch to touch and made point upon point” (421). Yet she fails to grasp how much her own life has become romance for all those who take an interest in her. Book 5 ends on Peter Sherrigham’s mental engagement in an effort of interpreting the whole situation, his own, that of Miriam, and the interrelations between the various persons of his entourage. And he does so in terms that clearly point to him as a reader figure, enjoying the ”fine suspense” of Nick Dormer’s ”predicament,” toying with ”the possible” and the ”wish to follow out the chain of events” (322). Well into Book 6 an amusing passage stages Gabriel Nash in Nick’s studio, caught in the act of trying to pull some strings and grafting fiction of his own on his friends’ lives. When Gabriel explains that Peter Sherringham should court somebody else in order to make Miriam jealous, and that it is Nick that Miriam is after, Nick replies in reprobation: ” [Y]ou talk like an American novel” (350). For her friends Miriam might be metaphorised as romance or as an interesting show, on and off stage: Peter and Gabriel feel like ”a pair of hot spectators in the pit” (351), yet she is a mystery at the same time. For Peter ”She was constructed to revolve like the terraqueous globe; some part or other of her was always out of sight or in shadow” (351), and Gabriel develops this planetary vision in a memorable tirade.

13Book 8 logically functions as the dénouement of precisely that story which seems to have grown so out of hand, both for James (he even inserted a word to this effect in the text), and for Miriam’s satellites. It pictures Miriam, not really at the top of the glory imagined for her by her friends and by James, but as a very popular rising star. A star she is indeed, already ”lionized” (the word is used as early as 309), and an arch manipulator of her own image. In several short stories (”The Lesson of the Master,” ”The Death of the Lion” among others), James has developed the theme of the lionisation of artists and their subsequent loss of inspiration. Miriam, on the contrary, seems to capitalise on her own fame, and if she produces an ugly distortion of her artistic variety and ungraspable nature by exploiting the most inartistic aspects of modernity, it is at the expense of no visible encroachment on her talent as actress. The novel of Miriam’s life, at that point, has become at once what Henry James abhorred and denounced, a story of fame based on lies and prying into private lives, aimed at ignorant masses, and at the same time the story of a yet-to-be-confirmed great actress.

She made almost an income out of the photographers—their appreciation of her as a subject knew no bounds—and she supplied the newspapers with columns of characteristic copy. To the gentlemen who sought speech of her on behalf of these organs she poured forth, vindictively, floods of unscrupulous romance; she told them all different tales, and, as her mother told them others more marvellous yet, publicity was cleverly caught by rival versions, which surpassed each other in authenticity. The whole case was remarkable, was unique; for if the girl was advertised by the bewilderment of her readers she seemed to every sceptic, on his going to see her, as fine as if he had discovered her for himself (460, emphasis mine).

14For at the end of The Tragic Muse, Miriam is still lacking something, and it is implied that her destiny is yet to be delineated. The great modern script she is longing for shows no sign of taking shape, since no reliable author-figure has emerged from the scattering of authorship into fragments of creative impulses in various characters, including Miriam herself. It is through her acting Shakespeare that Miriam’s greatness is first established, at Madame Carré’s when she recites the part of Constance in King John (213). Her great literary reference, as Hubert Teyssandier underlines (177), is Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, who embodies the infinite variety of creation and renewal. It is in the role of Juliet that Miriam carries away London audiences as the novel closes, but Miriam still yearns to contribute to the making of a modernity as worthy of esteem, in artistic value, as the great Shakespearian tradition. James will soon take up this theme of the ideal dramatist and the ideal play in the tale entitled ”The Private Life” (1891), where Blanche Adney, an avatar of Miriam already celebrated when the story opens, begs lionised novelist Clare Vawdrey to write a play likely to match her best talent as performer, but the ending reveals that Vawdrey is but a social puppet, and his true creative power is exerted by a sort of fantastic double of himself, a ghostly figure who never leaves his study and produces a script that is probably wonderful but that is never brought forth into the world. James certainly had a way of portraying himself in fiction as a sort of Shakespeare figure (the theme is most active in the 1903 story entitled ”The Birthplace”). That he was, at the time he wrote The Tragic Muse, on the brink of launching himself into a career as a playwright might certainly not be entirely coincidental, but the autobiographical element is not what concerns us here. Desperate attempts to reach, uncover, conjure up the impossible ideal Author constitute one of the main underlying themes running through the whole of James’s literary and critical production, and The Tragic Muse, despite its relative plethora of artist-characters, is no exception. It is perhaps no coincidence if, though he wrote many tales of the life of letters, James never produced a full-fledged novel with a writer as main protagonist.


1 French for ”signature to a blank document.”

2 Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Act III Scene III.


Nelly Valtat-Comet is a tenured Associate Professor of English at the University of Tours, France. She studied at the École Normale Supérieure and defended a doctoral dissertation on Vision and Voice in the Tales of Henry James. She has published several articles on Henry James and is the author of a monograph on Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (2000).