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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

I. Ethics and Aesthetics

1. Henry James on Opening the Door to the Devil

Jean Gooder

Texte intégral

1We begin on 26 January 1900, the start of the new century. Past midnight James dashed off one of his countless notes to a writer who had sent him their work for comment. That night—in exuberant vein—it was to a Mrs. Everard Cotes. She’d implied some resemblance between her novel, His Honour and a Lady, and the Master. Politely puzzled by her claim, James responds with his freest gallantry. ”We are both very intelligent and observant,” he writes, ”and conscious that a work of art must make some small effort to be one; must sacrifice somehow and somewhere to the exquisite...”

So we open the door to the Devil himself—who is nothing but the sense of beauty, of mystery, of relations, of appearances, of abysses of the whole— and of EXPRESSION! That’s all he is [...]
(Letters IV 131).

2This Devil is a long way from the figure James had watched and reduced to bathos, in Henry Irving’s Faust (1887)—a production about whose ”little mechanical artifices” and ”spurting flames” he was scathing. ”That blue vapours should attend on the steps of Mephistopheles is a very poor substitute for his giving us a moral shudder” (”The Acting in Mr. Irving’s ‘Faust’” 222). The kind of ”moral shudder,” perhaps, that is palpable at the end of ”The Turn of the Screw,” as the governess sees, pressed against the window, ”the hideous author of our woe.” Looking (as she believes) on ”the white face of damnation” she challenges Miles to ”confess,” insists that he name what he thinks is ”there”—only to draw from him the climactic ambiguity of his cry: ”Peter Quint—you devil!” (”The Turn of the Screw” [1908] 308-9). But this is my disclaimer: I’m not here engaging with the supernatural, or even the satanic, though on occasion James may have done both. The Devil of that midnight letter to Mrs. Cotes offers a more engaging Henry James’s Europe prospect. He is an Arnoldian spirit delighting in the ”free play of mind”—a true ‘familiar’ to the writer: a Devil with the potency of metaphor.

3The metaphor here has a hidden history. In 1900 James was reading the new ”Life” of George Sand by Wladimir Karénine. Two volumes had appeared in Paris in 1899: James knew René Doumic’s notice in the Revue des Deux Mondes and himself wrote a long piece on George Sand for the North American Review (April 1902). Neither Doumic nor James mentions Karénine’s striking introduction to her ”Life,” but it sets the stage for her whole account of George Sand. Karénine describes a curious anthology published in 1845 by the editor and writer Jules Hetzel, called Le Diable à Paris (I 1-8). Why the bizarre title? In a light-hearted preface Hetzel jokes that Satan, bored in Hell, has taken a quick trip round his other domains, but pressed for time he had left out Earth. He returns to find some newly arrived sinners making a fracas at the gates of hell. Asked where they’re from, the sinners shout: ”Nous arrivons tous de Paris.” [We’re all coming from Paris.] Pressed further, they give such contradictory accounts of the city that Satan can draw only one conclusion: Paris must be an extraordinarily interesting place. A minor devil is sent to gather the fullest information on the city and its people. Disguised as a flâneur, he hardly sets foot on the boulevards before falling in love. This, alas, incapacitates him for the serious analysis his task requires. He has a bright idea: why not ”faire travailler les hommes à sa place!” [Get men to do his work.] Material floods in from writers, artists, thinkers and poets—from Balzac, Musset, Gautier, Gavarni, Nerval, George Sand and many others. Happily the diablotin tosses this composite ‘report from Paris’ into space, with the cry: ”Va au diable!” [Go to Hell!]

4Most of the pieces in this urbane anthology share the wit and the cynicism of Hetzel’s infernal framework. Karénine’s point is that George Sand’s does not. A reluctant collaborator in the project, George Sand had stuck to her own terms—those of a spiritual daughter of Rousseau and admirer of the Socialist, Pierre Leroux. This essay of 1844 defines for Karénine the true measure of her subject: the passionate idealism and outspoken personal commitment for which George Sand was most admired or disliked. Her survey of Paris is a stunning indictment of inequalities of wealth, of exploitation, of the intellectual superficiality of urban life. The Devil is indeed abroad—not as a bright literary fiction, but as a political and cultural reality.


5James’s midnight letter welcomes the Devil in the name of art. Consider his attributes: ”beauty,” ”mystery,” ”relations,” ”appearances,” and above all, in capital letters, ”EXPRESSION.” This is the vocabulary of an aesthete, of a contributor to The Yellow Book, perhaps, but with no suggestion of a political dimension, or of the ”moral shudder” of a direct encounter with evil. Yet the airy insistence that this is ”all” the Devil is carries its own dare-devilry. Isn’t the implication that the reality of evil is to be detected precisely in appearances, in the ”relations” of men and women, in the expressive resources of language? ”Mysteries” and ”abysses” are the very materials of art. ”No themes are so human [says the Preface to What Maisie Knew] as those that reflect for us out of the confusion of human life, the close connexion of bliss and bale, so dangling before us for ever that bright hard medal [....] one face of which is somebody’s right and ease and the other somebody’s pain and wrong” (1158). Phrases that echo Dr. Johnson’s lines on Shakespeare’s ”mixed” plays, ”exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature,” where ”the chaos of mingled purposes and casualties” serves to show the ”crimes” and ”absurdities” of life. That is, the world around the novelist is sufficient material, its signs—the manners of particular social groups—enough to yield the measure of ease or pain, of ”crimes” and ”absurdities.” James wasn’t obsessed with origins, but absorbed by the present. His art is fuelled by the need to pose difficult questions about the world he inhabited. So his Devil is a contemporary, who collaborates with an imagination fed by relations, appearances, uncertainties—by what might become a defining moment, or even a defining turn of phrase.

6I offer one such moment in the spirit of comedy. In 1876 (some 30 years after Hetzel) James was mailing his own reports from Paris to the New York Tribune. By August the city was deserted and he had joined the vacation exodus to the coast. Sitting idly on the beach at Étretat, he recognised an actress from the Palais-Royal (no less!) sporting a bathing dress in which, as he saw, ”even the minimum has been appreciably scanted.” He watches the actress survey her ”breezy nether limbs” and with a casual ”C’est convenable, j’espère, eh?” [‘I trust I’m decent!’] trot up onto a springboard to make a great aerial dive, executing in mid-air the most graceful of somersaults. James muses on

the curious and delicate question why a lady may go so far as to put herself into a single scant, clinging garment and take a straight leap, head downwards, before 300 spectators, without violation of propriety—leaving the impropriety with her turning over in the air in such a way that for five seconds her head is upward. The logic of the matter is mysterious; white and black are divided by a hair. But the fact remains that virtue is on one side of the hair and vice on the other
(”A French Watering Place” 204-05).

7That critical hair’s breadth dividing virtue from vice—or at least, the perception of this fine line—was to figure in his fiction on many occasions. Not always with such unqualified delight. Paris proved as interesting (and contradictory) a city to James as it had to Hetzel’s Satan. It had the attraction of an intellectual magnet, where opposites meet, where life and art are pushed to (and beyond) the limits of the convenable. The ”restless analyst” was to note the beauty and mysteries of the place and its people over a life-time. For all his wide reading, James’s material isn’t only literary. His ‘map’ of France came to have a rare density of reference—one that rightly prompts the European dimension of this conference.

8France was both familiar and ‘other,’ as instanced by the ”curious and delicate” question James put to himself at Étretat. Propriety and impropriety are codes by which a social group exerts control over its members. George Sand, James knew, had eluded such control. Even before the sensation of Indiana (1832), ”this woman” (as he put it) was ”too imperious a force, too powerful a machine, to make the limits of her activity coincide with those of wifely submissiveness.” She had, abundantly, the determination and the capacity for ”making acquaintance with life at first hand” (”George Sand” 1877, 716). Claiming the highest of moral vantage points, George Sand had crossed every line of ”conventions and proprieties, and even decencies.” ‘Anglo-Saxon’ notions of ‘discretion’ didn’t figure either in her volatile domestic life or in her prolific literary output. When the political pressures of the Second Empire forced her from Paris, she reinvented her image as ”la bonne Dame de Nohant.” But to those around her and within her family she remained as uninhibited, as frank, as ever—on her own terms.

9The riddle was how to square George Sand’s ”distinction” with her ”vulgarity”—her beautiful manner with her dubious matter. When it came to handling ”relations between the sexes,” James jibbed: she was ”too explicit, too business-like” and altogether ”too technical” (”George Sand” 727). Later Karénine was to shed a different light on the case: she cites a long letter from Balzac to his future wife, Mme Hanska, written in the spring of 1838 while staying with George Sand at Nohant. By chance they had had three days alone, when (James speculates) ”the wonderful friends [...] could endlessly talk and smoke by the fire. For once we feel sure fundamental questions were not shirked” (”George Sand” 772). Balzac’s account of his hostess and their talk touched truths that James hadn’t been able to formulate: fundamental questions of his own about the mysterious logic of gender and propriety. He was revising those hair’s breadth distinctions between white and black. The questions become less formulaic: forget about supposedly feminine ”sensibility” and ”graces” and ”the scene quite changes.” You see that:

As a man Madame Sand was admirable—especially as a man of the dressing-gown and slippers order, easy of approach and tutoiement, rubbing shoulders with queer company and not superstitiously haunted by the conception of the gentleman
(”George Sand: The New Life” 773).

10Relax gendered roles and she becomes ”comprehensible.” In 1899, more than thirty years after her death, it was clear that ”this woman” had shown quite how far a first-hand acquaintance with life might take you. At the turn of the century ”change” was more than ever ”in the air.” ”Women [James saw] are turned more and more to looking at life as men look at it and to getting from it what men get” (774). Reading Balzac’s letter was to overhear actual voices, to catch the quick of human realities, then—and now.


11George Sand had simply assumed an intellectual freedom that compromised neither her public reputation nor her private life. Hers was a world of principles without proprieties. The ”marvel” was that she had ”positively got off from paying” for it (”George Sand: The New Life” 751). Quite how much she had ”got away with” was only just coming into the public domain. James read as avidly as Edith Wharton the newly appearing volumes of letters by George Sand, Marie Dorval and Hortense Allart— women who had executed moral somersaults of the most daring kind, flouting the convenable in dress and conduct alike. Yet by the 1890’s social codes had tightened significantly. Boundaries were under pressure, the costs of infringing them higher. For good reason the jeune fille became a key fictional topos. The young yet-unmarried girl is a social point where that line between white and black is most in question, where the Devil could well lie in appearances—in what is seen and what is said. James’s Maisie Farange owes something to the young Olga Caracciolo, goddaughter to the Prince of Wales, whose mother (a dubious Duchess) he had provided with a villa at Dieppe. Painted by Jacques-Emile Blanche (infanta-style, in a pink dress), Olga was already in the longer skirts worn by girls who were to ”come out.” Yet, silent and melancholy, ”a prisoner, without friends of her age and rank,” she was the object of audible adult speculation about her marriage prospects. James (like Proust) knew Olga and the social world of Dieppe well. He found it ”a reduced Florence” where ”every type of character for a novelist seems to gather.” ”That enchanting Olga [he added] learnt more at Dieppe than my Maisie knew” (Blanche 52). An instance of life and art re-crossing.

  • 1 ’Brada’ was the pen-name of Henrietta Consuelo (Sansom), Contessa di Pulago. James’s entry is date (...)

12In 1895 James was noting another version of this theme—to become, three years later, the masterpiece that is The Awkward Age. This very English novel is premised on a theoretical issue dividing London from Paris. The tactic of cultural contrast ”doubles” the effect, catching ”reflected light from across the Channel.” It has some odd French sources and a larger French dimension. The Notebooks suggest where James got his start: ”a little volume of Notes sur Londres by one ’Brada’” that he’d come across in the library of the Athenaeum. He was sufficiently struck by this French observer of London to copy several passages. They confirmed the deterioration in English society taking place before his very eyes. He was focussing ”the rich theme of a large satirical novel” that would treat of ”the great modern collapse of all the forms and ’superstitions’ and respects, good and bad, and restraints and mysteries [...]. The lost sense, the brutalized manner [...].”1

  • 2 ”I eat and drink, I sleep and dream Dreyfus. The papers are too shockingly interesting.” To Elizab (...)

13James wasn’t alone in sensing a ”great modern collapse.” Henry Adams ironically called the late 1890’s an ”Indian Summer.” He recalls staying with his friends the Camerons at the beautiful place in Kent that they’d taken in 1898. International events were dominating public attention, the talk all of atrocities in the Boer War and other impending disasters. For James, England was tarnished by the trial of Oscar Wilde and the tawdry Diamond Jubilee celebrations. And he was estranged from old friends in France (like the Bourgets) by the bitterly divisive course of the Dreyfus Affair—a case of the Devil abroad if ever there was one.2 James translates the political laterally into art. London is registered through the Buckingham Crescent circle. No public event is mentioned, yet we’re always aware of economic pressures, of failures of social and aesthetic forms, of moral confusion. Appearances and relations in themselves ”vulgar and empty enough” become, as James deals with them, ”the stuff of poetry and tragedy and art” (Preface to What Maisie Knew 1162). The alchemy of transformation lies in that key attribute of the Devil of the midnight letter: ”EXPRESSION.”


”Language most shows a man: Speak that I may see thee...”
(Ben Jonson)

14A failure when it first appeared, The Awkward Age may still be the least read of James’s late novels. ”I’m sorry to say,” wrote his publisher, ”the book has done nothing to speak of; I’ve never in all my experience seen one treated with more general and complete disrespect” (Preface to The Awkward Age 1129). Yet re-reading the novel as he prepared the New York Edition, James felt how well it stood up to his own keenest scrutiny, quite how good it was. Copy sent to Scribners in September 1907 had the lightest of revisions. The Preface that followed in October recognises what the novel was really taking on. The Awkward Age is a crucial work: absolutely contemporary, radically new in style and substance. London and its ”complications” enact ”the real state of sublunary nature.” From a ”chaos of mingled purposes and casualties” (Dr. Johnson’s words again), this strange, compelling fiction deals in the ”crimes” and ”absurdities” of ordinary life. It pushes the idiom of the ‘modern’ to the point of anticipating Modernism itself.

15But it’s a taxing read, even by late Jamesian standards. The novel’s ”architecture” (James’s word) was designed to ”open the door wide to ingenuity,” to the technically innovative. There’s no authorial voice, no attempt (as James says) to ”go behind.” The text is largely dialogue, speech which follows the contours of the speaker’s mind: deceptively naturalistic, its rhythms colloquial, fluid, opaque. In effect we ’overhear’ a succession of conversations with some stage directions. There’s no formal narrative: the story has to tell itself. Like the speakers, we supply the sense of unfinished phrases, of allusions, and gestures; deduce intentions, motives and meanings in what is said or left unsaid. We learn to see through appearances—”by indirection find direction out.” Of course these are problems for James’s characters, as well as his readers. He had, he knew, gone way beyond his French model, the ingenious and inexhaustible ‘Gyp.’(‘Gyp’s entertainingly quirky characters, speaking in their own distinct idioms, had become an embarrassment, tainted by her open anti-Semitism.) What James took from this ”muse of general looseness” was her gift for making ”talk” a sufficiently flexible medium. He liked her lightness of touch. A classic case of finding what you want in unlikely places: James was a shameless snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.

16What kind of ”large satirical” theme did he have in mind? Hardly that of The Rape of the Lock, but still one where a small social circle registers larger issues, and in a text almost as steeped as Pope’s in Miltonic allusions. Maisie was a child. Here the jeunes filles are unambiguously in full-length skirts. Nanda Brookenham and ‘Little Aggie’ must ”come out” (or ”come down”) for their rite of passage into the adult world, where it will be their parents’ duty to marry them with due diligence. There are powerful imperatives: first, the strain on the family purse. Then, a less quantifiable calculation about the shelf-life of the item on offer, of the young female so ”deliberately prepared for consumption” (238). The ”preposterous fiction” of innocence cannot be kept up for long or she risks passing her ‘sell by’ date. The theme is familiar. Let in the Devil and it metamorphoses into a fable for our times—poised between the comic and the tragic.

17‘Mrs. Brook’s’ circle prizes its ‘modern’ character. The friends enjoy what they call ”intellectual elbow room”: that is, the freedom of intelligent adults to discuss whatever they want without the ”editing” required for the jeune fille. The drawing room at Buckingham Crescent is a place for ”good talk”— part ”circus” part ”temple of analysis.” The talk has high-wire performance value, but the analysis is more often prurient speculation about each other’s indiscretions—Lord Petherton and the Duchess, Carrie Donner and Mr. Cashmore... Will Lady Fanny or will she not ”bolt,” like Anna Karenina, to ”one of the smaller Italian towns”? (280). These Londoners, however, are no ’Bloomsburies’: their intellectual life is philistine. There’s no reference to music, to art, or the theatre: their advanced ideas are of the sketchiest; their reading consists of risqué French novels. ”Vanity” and ”inexpertness” are precisely part of their tale. The more, with choric voice, they claim to be ”simple,” ”natural,” and ”sincere,” the more the reverse is implied. The guiding principle, literally as well as metaphorically, is to cover up the obvious in talk—talk over tea, after dinner, and, finally, in the room Nanda calls her own.

18Everything turns on notions of propriety, present or, precisely, absent. France has protocols to provide against social ”awkwardness.” French upbringing (theoretically at least) does not permit ”good talk” before the ”hovering female young.” The better the talk ”the more organised, the more complete” must be the exclusion of the jeune fille. For an adult to sacrifice the free exercise of ”social intelligence”—something ”perfectly preventable by wise arrangement”—would be ”barbarous.” But across the Channel you find ”the inveterately English trick of the so morally well-meant and so intellectually helpless compromise” (1124). In ”the mixed English world” ‘Mrs. Brook’ (as the Duchess puts it) is ”in a prodigious fix—she must sacrifice either her daughter or [...] her intellectual habits” (255). Each scheme is of course an artifice, an exercise in social manipulation, with its price-tag. Aggie’s innocence is a ”pious fraud,” an absurdly contrived ignorance. The central ambivalence is in what Nanda so unavoidably ”knows.” It is compromise that brings Nanda into question—that awkward compromise between code and practice. For James, a theme bristling with possibilities: ”What will happen, who suffer, who not suffer, what turn be determined, what crisis created, what issue found?” (1123). Questions for the artist, rather than the social historian. Understanding Nanda is what ‘happens’ in the novel: through her the topos of the jeune fille is turned on its head.


19Later D.H. Lawrence saw that ”The ‘Jeune Fille’ Wants to Know”: her father now trembles in his study, while ”the innocent maiden knocks you flat with her outspokenness in the conservatory.” Nanda does not exactly knock anyone flat, but she asks awkward questions. She is ”positively and helplessly modern”: she ”knows too much,” knows ”everything.” She has ”unlearned surprise through the habit, in company, of studiously not compromising her innocence by blinking at things said” (The Awkward Age 232). Life at first hand is already familiar. But why, for whom, is this a moral taint? Nanda’s case is (again) ”odd.” ”Girls understand now,” she explains. ”It has to be faced.” Van is ”just trying to dodge it.” ”The real old thing” might have a special value, but anything short of that and she’d ”rather brazen it out as [her]self” (341). Her mother complains that Nanda’s exposure has been only to talk, to ”mere words.” The girl puts it differently: ”Doesn’t one become a sort of little drain-pipe with everything flowing through?” (358). Mitchy asks why she shouldn’t (more gracefully) see herself as ”a little aeolian harp set in a drawing-room window and vibrating in the breeze of conversation.” Both images are passive. Neither reflects Nanda’s wish to be herself. ” ‘The trouble is,’” Van concludes, ”—but quite as if uttering only a general truth—” ‘that it’s just a thing that may operate as a bar to pity’” (378). The impersonal has a disturbing chill. A modern Eve does not need to eat of the tree of carnal knowledge: she is already fallen, fatally tainted by association. Within a few paragraphs, language shifts in register through the idioms of current slang to the sinister. The tone is indefinable— unless it’s what James meant by ”brand[ing] it all, but ever so tenderly, as monstrous” (Preface to The Awkward Age 1120).

20In such exchanges we hear a change of direction. Take the scene where Vanderbank makes his ”great blind leap,” blurting out to Mrs. Brook Mr. Longdon’s ”proposition”: to settle an undisclosed fortune on Nanda if he, Van, marries her. Van has so far ”funked” saying anything about it and is not sure now that he is ”within his rights” to do so. Mrs. Brook, taken by surprise, manoeuvres carefully: she’s been ”backing” the wealthy Mitchy for her daughter, keeping Van for herself.

She had reached now, with her extraordinary self-control, the pitch of quiet bland demonstration. ‘I wanted the poor thing, que diable, to have another string to her bow and another loaf, for her desolate old age, on the shelf. When everything else is gone Mitchy will still be there. Then it will at least be her own fault—!’ Mrs. Brook continued. ‘What can relieve me of the primary duty of taking precautions,” she wound up, ”when I know as well as that I stand here and look at you— ‘
’Yes, what?’ he asked, as she just paused.
’Why that so far as they count on you they count, my dear Van, on a blank.’ Holding him for a minute as with the soft low voice of his fate, she sadly but firmly shook her head. ’You won’t do it’ (295).

21That is the ‘noise’ of a decision. Mitchy is shown in, and she turns to him with the ”wonderful piece of news”—of Mr. Longdon’s wish to ”make it worth somebody’s while to marry my child.” At this blatant betrayal of his confidence, Van stiffens.

He was not angry—no member of the inner circle at Buckingham Crescent was ever angry—but he looked grave and rather troubled. He addressed his hostess straight—’I can’t make out quite why you’re doing this. I mean immediately making it known.’ (304)

22Mrs. Brook threads her way through various possible outcomes for her daughter, till Vanderbank protests at the tone of ”high intellectual detachment”: ” ‘What are we playing with, after all, but the idea of Nanda’s happiness?’ ‘Oh I’m not playing!’ Mrs. Brook declared with a little rattle of emotion” (306).

23Indeed she is not: insisting on the note of special collusion among friends, Mrs. Brook seals the ‘fate’ not just of Nanda but of her entire circle. Can we, a century later, still feel the shock—the shockingness—of these words?

24James’s goes in for leitmotifs. Some are pure comedy—the wonderfully obnoxious Harold cadging £5 notes (in today’s terms worth some £400), and the wonderfully telling notations of dress. Then there are books: compromising French novels, their covers carefully colour-coded. Circulated in London their implications only multiply. All these motifs are acrobatically in play on the January night of Tishy Grendon’s party. The evening begins with Mrs. Brook’s unfortunate fib to Mr. Longdon—the improbable fiction that she wanted Nanda back, comically exposed by her own husband. Then there is the game of ”hunt the book”— a book that proves to be the French novel lent by Van, too ”bad” even to be returned except under cover of darkness. Altogether too much is revealed by Tishy’s unnerving décolleté: but what is revealed in Mrs. Brook’s staged exposure of Nanda before the circled friends? Publicly challenged, Nanda is forced to admit that she has read the ”hideous” thing. The party—already a ”civilised saturnalia”—becomes a catastrophic ‘outing’ as Mrs. Brook chalk marks her daughter as damaged goods. Afterwards Mitchy asked her why, Samson-like, she should have pulled down the whole temple. Was it by impulse or design? The casuistry of the moment is diabolical.

25Some months later, Vanderbank calls at Buckingham Crescent. He had come for Nanda, but instead has tea with Mrs. Brook. With double tongue she invokes their old comradeship in obliquity: he leaves without seeing Nanda. On a June afternoon, Nanda arranges to see Van, Mitchy, and finally Mr. Longdon. The three interviews that close the novel raise questions to which there are no answers. Nanda reassembles the scattered ”atoms” of what Mitchy calls her mother’s ”saloon.” Behind her careful agenda is an omission: what is at stake for her, her own end-game. The Duchess had seen earlier (as her mother had not) that Nanda’s ”fairly sick—as sick as a little cat—with her passion” for Vanderbank (252). Mitchy too knows the unspoken fact, and wants to believe that a ”passion so great, so complete is—satisfied or unsatisfied—a life” (488). The girl’s self-control cracks only once, as Mr. Longdon pities her plight. She breaks down in a torrent of tears, ”in a passion as sharp and brief as the flurry of a wild thing for an instant uncaged” (540). The cost is finally plain—the price-tag of being (in her words) ”the horrible impossible,” of being herself. ”I’ll come,” she tells Mr. Longdon, ”if you’ll take me as I am.” Unlike George Sand, Nanda pays in full for a transgression too subtle for words.

26Absurdities abound, yet where in all this is the crime? James knew a letter George Sand wrote to her son, Maurice, in 1851—a despairing letter about her daughter, knowing full well the ”evil” Solange was up to. ”Burn this letter but don’t forget it,” she ends:

  • 3 George Sand to Maurice Sand, 2 janvier 1851. ”Brûle cette lettre, mais ne l’oublie pas. Le crime n (...)

Crime isn’t always what we think. It’s not a set purpose, a fatal drive that slowly takes root in monsters. More often it’s a blind act, a flash of rage. Catholics call it the devil’s breath, le souffle du diable—a fanciful metaphor, that catches nicely the destructive and unpredictable impulses of human nature
(Karénine III 609).3

27James doesn’t ask us to believe in monsters, but in the present figures of evil; not in Fate, just in the way things happen. Yet we are very close to things that prompt a ”moral shudder.” Mrs. Brook’s destructive impulse is naked. But what of her ”comrade in obliquity”? Initiating Mr. Longdon into the Buckingham Crescent set at the start, Vanderbank had told him: ”You see we don’t in the least know who we are. We’re lost...” (35). Words that come to have the weight of the whole novel behind them. Unable to commit himself, to act or not to act, Van is the ”blank” Mrs. Brook predicted—one of the Hollow Men, brushed by ”the devil’s breath.” ”What in the world, Mr. Van, are you afraid of?” Nanda asks (503). He is simply evasive, as constrained as the speaker in Eliot’s ”Portrait of a Lady”:

I take my hat: how can I make a cowardly amends
For what she has said to me
I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark
Suddenly, his expression in a glass,
My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark [...] (21)

28There is a final somersault. Nanda, the modern daughter, assumes her mother’s role and puts back together again the ruined ”temple.” ”Without these friendships—life, what cauchemar!” (18). Quietly she connives with the world that has destroyed her; only she has no place in it. Is her stoic clairvoyance the heroism of the present? Oris Nanda so much’ of’ the shabby world of Buckingham Crescent that she can do no other? Is it an act of conformity, or a declaration of independence? Intelligent and natural, Nanda sees that ”everything’s different from what it used to be” (The Awkward Age 544). Tragically compromised, she is way ahead of the ‘compromises’ of the London circle.

29Satire is never simple. For Flaubert, James said, ”the bad smell of the age was the main thing he knew it by.” Flaubert looked down on his theme as ”une blague supérieure” [‘the finest of jokes’]—that is, with ”the amused freedom of an observer as irreverent as a creator” (”Correspondance de Gustave Flaubert” 311). James knew well that ”horror of the cliché” which had led Flaubert to collect over a lifetime the cultural banalities of his Dictionnaire des idées reçues—a demonstration of that thin membrane between irony and the absurd. But he admired the ”extraordinary ingenuity” with which Flaubert could find a ”middle way into grandeur,” could ”edge off from the literal without forsaking truth.” James too revelled in the technical challenges of writing. Artistic integrity, for both, was in ”objectivity.” But James also loved to drag out ”odds and ends from the ‘mere’ storyteller’s great property-shop of aids to illusion” (Preface to The Awkward Age 1131). It was not by its bad smell that James knew la Belle Époque. He is never the judge; always the detached yet connected observer—imaginatively both inside and outside his ”labyrinth of mere immediate appearances.” The Preface to The Awkward Age argues the need for art to be ”shut up wholly” in its own terms—with the crucial caveat: ”save, of course, by the relation of the total to life” (1134). Those phrases about finding a middle way to grandeur, of edging off the literal to get at truth, perfectly fit what is new in The Awkward Age. The multiple idioms of the surface allow for mockery, for the release and the focus of tensions. They guarantee that distance from available resources so distinctively the note of Modernism. By 1910 Eliot had written ”Portrait of a Lady” and was drafting ”Prufrock.” Proust had begun À l’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs.


  • 4 See letter of 8 November 1905 to Mrs. Wharton, in Horne A Life in Letters, 419; and letter of 18 D (...)

30There is another (unnamed) French figure behind the Preface. Marcelle Tinayre is less known than Colette (or even ‘Gyp’) but she was a far more interesting player on the Parisian scene than she’s been given credit for. A friend of Lina Sand (George Sand’s daughter-in-law), her portrait was painted by Frédéric Lauth, married to George Sand’s grand-daughter. Her background was politically radical, and included working for Marguerite Durand’s newspaper La Fronde, run entirely by women. Her novel Avant l’Amour (1897) was one of the pleasures James shared conspiratorially with Edith Wharton.4 The heroine, Marianne, makes her own acquaintance with life at first hand: she exposes the ”conspiracy” of education, religion, and upbringing to distort and suppress the ”facts of life,” the double standard in sexual relations, and makes her own painful journey to selfhood. Like George Sand’s Valentine, Marianne affirms her right to happiness, to equality in love, despite the fate, the plight of her destiny as a woman. [”J’ai revendiqué ma part de bonheur sur la fatalité, sur la misère de ma destinée de femme (Tinayre 336) [‘I’ve exacted my share of happiness from all that’s failed, from the plight of my destiny as a woman.’] James called her ”the demonic little Tinayre” (Letters, Vol. IV 386).

  • 5 James’s diary for 6 November 1911 reads ”Covent Garden — to Russian Ballet.” That night he would h (...)

31In 1876, at Étretat, James had been amused by an actress’s scant bathing-dress. After 1910, he was watching the Ballets Russes.5 Léon Bakst’s costume designs for the dancers were frankly explicit: they pushed the limits of the convenable even for sophisticated audiences at Covent Garden and le Châtelet. When Diaghilev took The Firebird to St Petersburg, the ”appreciably scant” tunic Nijinsky had worn in Paris was deemed not convenable” for a performance at the Mariinsky Theatre before the tsarina (Wulshlager 122). Despite a back-stage row Nijinsky insisted on wearing it. The tsarina was not amused. Nijinsky was sacked, and the Ballets Russes left in a hurry—for Paris. The Devil really is in EXPRESSION.


1 ’Brada’ was the pen-name of Henrietta Consuelo (Sansom), Contessa di Pulago. James’s entry is dated 4 March 1895, but extends over several pages.

2 ”I eat and drink, I sleep and dream Dreyfus. The papers are too shockingly interesting.” To Elizabeth Cameron, 15 October 1898 [Edel, Henry James IV 83]. Dreyfus spent almost five years’ solitary confinement in the penal colony of Devil’s Island in Guyana.

3 George Sand to Maurice Sand, 2 janvier 1851. ”Brûle cette lettre, mais ne l’oublie pas. Le crime n’est pas toujours ce qu’on croit. Ce n’est pas un parti pris, une tendance fatale qui germe lentement chez les monstres. C’est une acte de délire le plus souvent, un mouvement de rage. Les Catholiques attribuent cela au souffle du diable, c’était une métaphore fantastique qui caractérisait assez bien les mouvements terribles et imprévus de l’être humain” (Karénine III 609).

4 See letter of 8 November 1905 to Mrs. Wharton, in Horne A Life in Letters, 419; and letter of 18 December 1905 to Mrs. Wharton, in Letters 386-87.

5 James’s diary for 6 November 1911 reads ”Covent Garden — to Russian Ballet.” That night he would have seen Nijinsky and Pavlova in Giselle and Le Carnaval. On 25 June 1913 he went with Mrs. Hunter to the London première of ”Jeux” at Drury Lane. See The Complete Notebooks of Henry James 345 and 375.


Jean Gooder, a Fellow Emerita of Newnham College, Cambridge, has edited the Penguin edition of The Education of Henry Adams and published on Henry James and Edith Wharton. Her interests are in connections between Anglo-American and French writing.


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