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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

II. French and Italian Hours

6. The Citizens of Babylon and the Imperial Imperative: James’s Modern Parisian Women

Claire Garcia

Texte intégral

1”’Be for me,’” implores Lambert Strether to Madame de Vionnet in his head as he ventures into the countryside in search of the original model for the painting he couldn’t afford to buy, ”’please, with all your admirable tact and trust, just whatever I may show you it’s a present pleasure to me to think you’” (The Ambassadors [1994] 307). This sentiment echoes other Jamesian male characters’ demands upon the women they love. Peter Sherringham, in trying to save Miriam Rooth from becoming the actress that her own genius determines she must be, demands of her, ”’Be anything you like, except this’,” to which Miriam laughingly responds, ”’Except what I want most to be?’” (The Tragic Muse [1995] 233). Christopher Newman challenges Mrs. Tristram: ”’Present to me a woman who comes up to my notions, and I will marry her tomorrow’” (The American [1978] 44). In her essay, ”Walking on Water: The Metropolitan Feminine in The Ambassadors, ” Marianne DeKoven claims that, ”Strether’s opening shopping trip chaperoned by Maria Gostrey signals the text’s preoccupation with the reconstruction of gender in urban modernity; the reversal of that chaperone relation at the end—the reinstatement of the conventional patriarchal gender relations—signals James’s retreat from that reconstruction” (DeKoven 5). While I don’t make claims about James’s own anxieties about the modernist reconstruction of gender roles, I argue here to the contrary: that this novel exposes the inadequacy and untenability of the narratives and attitudes which sustain the ”conventional patriarchal gender relations.”

2Henry James, in both his fiction and non-fiction, often critically engages a concept of masculinity which dominated American culture at the end the century—a masculinity epitomised by Theodore Roosevelt and associated with the virile exploration, conquest, and capitalist exploitation of the domestic frontier and non-Western countries. Of course, this masculinity has been mythic since its inception: the romance of the American frontier is an idea born of nostalgia long after the frontier was closed. The men who derived vast fortunes from the gold and silver ore of the American West were not rugged individual miners in lonely campsites in the remote mountains, but shareholders in corporations who had bought up the rights to vast tracts of land long before individual miners staked their claims. The majority of those who struck it rich in the gold and silver rushes were retailers who supplied the miners and went on to become department and grocery store magnates. By the turn into the twentieth century, the power of this myth was primarily discursive and rhetorical, and lay in its ability to shape narratives of nation, identity, and gender to further American colonial projects around the world. The western encounter with the Other always involves a struggle for mastery and control. Written during an era when Theodore Roosevelt’s government and popular culture were associating American national identity with a particular vision of virile masculinity associated with business prowess and physical stamina (Banta ”Men, Women…” 23), The Ambassadors, like other novels of the New Woman era, posits Woman as a site of aesthetic, cultural, and political arguments within discourses of the modern nation and the anxieties of empire (Berman 3).

3Dreamy as they are, Strether’s often Magoo-like misperceptions are attempts to understand and thus control, and we would be remiss not to realise the significance of the ways in which Madame de Vionnet and Paris itself remain ”Other” to Strether simply because they suggest realities and perspectives for which his interpretive tools are inadequate. Already subject to a variety of social, cultural, and economic challenges, including the emergence of the New Woman, the waves of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants, the creation of sexuality as a field of scientific inquiry, the Rooseveltian narrative of American masculinity would reach a point of rupture during the Great War, and inspired a generation of male and female modernist writers to both reflect and create new understandings of gender and sexuality for the twentieth century. By the end of The Ambassadors, Paris and its women have already initiated Strether into a new, distinctly modern consciousness, which questions the power and authority of past narratives and takes as an existential condition what are now accepted as the characteristics of Anglo-American modernist consciousness: fluidity and multiplicity of identities; states of permanent dislocation or dispatriation; a skepticism toward accepted sources of authority, including the links between seeing, knowing, and mastering; a critical stance toward capitalism and a valorisation of individual freedom.

4Years before he brings his ambassadorial portfolio to Paris, Strether’s masculinity has been thrown into question. His quest for the ”France” of the Lambinet landscape is spurred by a moment of failure—the ”only adventure of his life in connexion with the purchase of a work of art” (The Ambassadors [1994] 303)—which highlighted his financial impotence and the frustration of his desire: ”The little Lambinet abode with him as the picture he would have bought” (303). Many years later, as he takes the train into the banlieue of Paris, Strether is seeking not only to possess the original of the representation that he could not afford—the particular light, colors, and vegetation of the French countryside—but also to triumph over the urban, commercial world which determined the painting’s value and so painfully thwarted his desire. For Strether, the painting’s commercial value (beyond his means) is inextricable from its aesthetic appeal. Thus, he wanders from Paris not just to encounter the ”original” which inspired the painting, but also to accomplish ”the restoration to nature of the whole far-away hour: the dusty day in Boston, the background of the Fitchburg Depot, of the maroon colored sanctum, the special green vision, the ridiculous price, the poplars, the willows, the rushes, the river, the sunny silvery sky, the shady woody horizon” (303). This sentence levels and blurs the distinctions between the price, the real landscape, and representation of the poplars, the silvery sky, the dusty day. So when Strether achieves ”success” (305) in possessing, finally, ”what he wanted” (304), it is clear that what he wanted involves a collapse of distinctions between the aesthetic and the commercial, downtown Boston and suburban Paris, the painter and the spectator: ”it was Tremont Street, it was France, it was Lambinet” (304). Everything is so exactly the answer to his desire that he might have walked ”freely” through the landscape ”to the maroon-colored wall” (304). The significance of the painting cannot be abstracted from the emotional context and physical setting which gives it its value for Strether. The urban gallery, and the social and economic power it represents, challenges his financial and sexual authority. Strether, at the moment of his failure before the shop window, is the antithesis of the Rooseveltian male: his ’adventure’ is a sorry thing compared to months of battling wildlife, natives, and Amazonian currents. Like the failed initiation symbolised by the lemon-coloured books he did purchase but never got bound, Strether’s adventure is testimony only to his ”long grind and his want of odd moments; his want moreover of money, of opportunity, of positive dignity” (63).

5During the final moments of his elaborately self-imposed innocence before the shock of the famous recognition scene, Strether feels free in a world which seems to have perfectly met his expectations—what he sees is exactly what he wanted to see— he almost, for a few pages, approximates a Christopher Newman. His imperative plea to the absent Madame de Vionnet characterises both the moral and epistemological hazards of Strether’s failed narratives. Ironically, of course, the very real Madame de Vionnet, in inadvertently providing the ”right thing”—the parasoled lady in a boat which completes the picture to Strether’s satisfaction—provides the final stage of Strether’s fall into modern consciousness.

6Although, as Peter Brooks and others have pointed out (Brooks Henry James Goes to Paris 28), James himself resisted the modernism associated with Paris in the visual arts and other genres, and his own later novels anticipate some of the basic aesthetics and ideologies of modernist fiction. I am particularly interested in how James’s female Parisian characters embody and enact the challenges and possibilities of the modern metropolitan consciousness which provides the ground note for twentieth century modernist writing.

7Lambert Strether, upstanding citizen of Woollett, Massachusetts, arrives in Paris to reel in his fiancée/employer’s son from the what are presumed to be the well-known hazards of Paris, epitomised by the ’bad woman’ with whom he has entangled himself. Strether’s portfolio is stuffed with conventional nineteenth-century identity narratives about sexuality, morality, and national identities. Early in his mission to Paris, Strether fears the challenge of Paris— or more specifically, any receptivity on his part to Parisian or radically ’Other’ perspectives and values—poses to his ’authority’:

His greatest uneasiness seemed to peep at him out of the imminent impression that almost any acceptance of Paris might give one’s authority away. It hung before him, this vast, bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked (64).

8The use of Babylon as a metaphor for a decadent imperial city is common Orientalism in nineteenth-century writing (Greenslade 100); the term ”babylonisme” refers to an appetite for grandiosity, especially huge buildings (Cassells French/English Dictionary). By the mid-19th century, references to Paris as ”the New Babylon” were cliché; even William James, in his letters to his brother during the latter’s first adult sojourn there, repeatedly referred to the city as ”the new Babylon” (Brooks 10). What is interesting in this context, though, is that French opponents to Haussmann’s modernisation efforts used the term ”Babylon” much as people in Colorado use the term ”Californication” in discussing the threat of over-development: the French associated it with American cities. According to historian Alistair Horne,

At the time [Haussmann’s new Paris] had its vigorous critics. The conservative Goncourt brothers said it made them think of ’some American Babylon of the future’; Gautier agreed, ’This is Philadelphia; it is Paris no longer!’ […]. Emile Zola […] depict[ed] the city as ’an enormous storm-tossed ocean, or a distant and alien Babylon’
(Horne 240).

9Babylon had connotations of destruction and loss in the name of modernity; Haussmann was a self-professed ’demolition artist’ and proud of it.

10Paris, from the middle of the 19th century to the eve of the Second World War, has been considered a city which represents the paradoxes, perils, and promises of modernity: the flame-keeper of Enlightenment values which was also a notoriously ruthless imperial power; the cosmopolitan, polyglot city which drew refugees, artists, and tourists from all over the world but still to this day scrupulously maintains one of the most narrow and calcified narratives of national identity; the epitome of urban space that is both technologised and aestheticised. While many critics read The Ambassadors as James’s nostalgic return to the Paris he missed truly experiencing during his earlier sojourn there, and it has been duly noted that Strether never takes the Métro, it is necessary to Strether’s transformation that the Paris-Woollett binary be demolished once and for all, and that the ’international theme’ of James’s earlier work is replaced by a metropolitan form of perception which deconstructs national identities based upon different ’types.’ As noted earlier, Woman in nineteenth-century literature often serves as a site of discourses of the modern nation, so it is not surprising that James’s Parisian women take on a major role in dismantling the truisms of the nineteenth-century imperial narratives. In The Ambassadors, it is the women who embody resistance to and rejection of familiar American national narratives. It is the women Strether encounters in Paris, the citizens of Babylon, who challenge Strether’s American patriarchal authority, and position him at the end of the novel as a man who cannot live according to the conventional understandings of gender and nation.

11In aspects both momentous and trivial, when Strether is struck by the ’Otherness’ of Paris it is usually through his encounters with its women. Strether’s relationships with the women in The Ambassadors force him to experience the collapses and flattening out of differences that challenge the world view which informs his mission to Paris. It is the women of the novel, especially Chad’s lover, who disrupt the extravagant explanatory narratives Strether unsuccessfully attempts to impose upon the baffling barrage of perceptions which constitute his Paris. Such a consciousness as Strether’s can only be developed in the modern metropolis, as Raymond Williams defines the term in relation to the development of modernism:

For a number of historical and social reasons the metropolis of the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century moved into a quite new cultural dimension. It was now much more than the very large city or even the capital city of an important nation. It was the place where new social and economic and cultural relations, beyond both city and nation in their older senses, were beginning to be formed
(”Metropolis and Modernism” 20).

12Within ”major metropolises,” Williams asserts, ”there was at once a complexity and sophistication of social relations, supplemented in the most important cases—Paris above all—by exceptional liberties of expression” (Williams 20). Key to understanding the disruptive and creative role played by the women in these Parisian novels is looking at the specific historical and geographical settings with which they are associated. Strether’s Paris is a city of performance and spectacle, where women particularly are ’on view.’

The Women’s Spaces in Paris

13Maria Gostrey’s apartment, cluttered with the bounty of numerous shrewd shopping expeditions in a variety of European cities and towns, is located in the Quartier Marboeuf, described in a footnote in the Norton Critical edition of the novel as ”[i]n 1900 a modern and handsome section of Paris” (The Ambassadors [1994] 79), although she has decorated it with the debris of other people’s histories (342). Her collection of antiques is, ironically, testament to her modernity. Unlike Strether, Gostrey is a successful participant in the global economy, who can initiate him, without ”vulgarity,” into the border-crossing currents of consumer goods. The past which is present in her apartment is not her own or her family’s: it is an imaginative and aesthetic appropriation of the forms and connotations, detached from the original contexts which had given them meaning.

14More importantly, Gostrey also initiates Strether into an alternative way of understanding and engaging reality. Rather than retreating into what DeKoven has characterised as ”the old patriarchal scripts,” at the end of the novel, Strether adapts (or more accurately, perhaps, ’absorbs’) Maria Gostrey’s rhetorical as well as perceptual strategies such as ’embroidering,’ ’filling in,’ absenting oneself rather than insisting on one’s presence, and allowing events to organically unfold on their own terms rather than controlling. These ways of being in the world are inevitably disruptive of the stabilising fictions which have sustained the identities and fortunes of Woollett.

15In his final conversation with Maria Gostrey, Strether acknowledges his own new disruptive power: he is, according to Chad, ”exciting” and he has ”pretty well to have upset everyone.” He has accepted the impossibility of his ever being ”in harmony” with any surroundings—Woollett, Paris, London—in which he may conceivably find himself (343). He has changed— yet he has not changed to another, fixed state, but rather an identity of being ”different,” in relation to Mrs. Newsome’s ”more than ever the same” (345). His returning ’home’ will not be returning to a familiar, stable, and natural environment, but a return ” [t]o a great difference” from which he will attempt to create something new and meaningful. Whatever Strether ’makes’ of his newfound and hard-earned consciousness of this external and internal ”difference,” it will elude the criteria of value established by American capitalist dynamics; he will not gain or profit from his experience in Paris, even metaphorically. If there is any ’logic’ to his Parisian adventure, it is ”’Not, out of the whole affair, to have got anything for [him]self’” (346). Whatever his future holds, it will involve rupture from past narratives of identity and value.

16Strether initially tries to read Mme de Vionnet as the repository of old and enduring values. From his early impression that her possessions are somehow ”transmitted” rather than exchanged for money, unlike those in Gostrey’s ”little museum of bargains” (145), to his final impression of her as Madame Roland, the sentences which describe his perceptions of her are often shaped around bouleversements and contradictions which undermine his readings. From her putting her elbows on the table in that very Parisian modern invention, the restaurant, to her entrepreneurial dealings on the marriage market, to her sexual discretions, Mme de Vionnet cannot be accounted for by Strether’s perceptions of her. His various narrative templates for female sexuality—Cleopatra, the Madonna, or a maidservant weeping over the loss of her ’follower’—cannot contain or even address her being. What Strether wants to see as her magical and passive embodiment of transcendent ’antique’ values is really, after all, very clever advertising— her manipulation of images and associations for the consumption of a desirous observer. As Maria Gostrey tells Strether, Madame de Vionnet is multiple and polyglot: ”It would doubtless be difficult, today […] to name and place her” (139). An example of the syntactic bouleversements which are associated with Strether and de Vionnet’s encounters occurs in the scene in Notre Dame. Without recognising her, Strether spends quite a bit of time making the woman he observes at prayer into ”a heroine of an old story […] that […] he might himself have written,” noting that ”his impression absolutely required that she be young and interesting” (174). However, Madame de Vionnet does recognise Strether a few moments later, and quickly reads him and takes control of the situation: ” [s]he checked, quickly and gaily, a certain confusion in him, came to meet it, turned it back, by an art of her own; the confusion having threatened him as he knew her now for the person he had been observing” (175). She not only resists but manipulates the narratives Strether’s very act of seeing her attempts to impose upon her. Thus they leave Notre Dame, the medieval cathedral resurrected by Victor Hugo’s 19th-century novel, for a restaurant, ”a place of pilgrimage for the knowing, they were both aware, the knowing who came for the great renown, the homage of restless days, from the other end of town” (177). Other Parisian women, too, confound Strether, and his confusion is often enacted in sentences which contain paradoxes, reversals, and inversions within their syntax and imagery. [Miss Barrace, who, to Strether-the-tourist’s surprise and delight, smokes cigarettes publicly and incessantly, ”is ”so oddly […] both antique and modern” (156); Strether cannot tell if he has either ”soared above or sunk below” Maria Gostrey’s explanations (178).] These modern women are citizens of a public sphere: introducing themselves, as Maria Gostrey does, to strange men in public spaces. They are denizens of hotels, restaurants, streets, and shops. Paris is peopled by women, such as ”the prompt Parisian women […] driving the public pen” at the telegraph office (317) in the novel’s final pages, who give a sharper and more threatening focus to Strether’s earlier impression of Paris’s distinctive ”promptness” (59). Though Madame de Vionnet professes that she has never been to the left-bank restaurant with Chad ”’because I don’t go about with him in public’” (178), she is clearly at ease as a modern woman moving through urban spaces, as she invites him to stroll aimlessly and comfortably through the city streets. What for Strether is the inevitable ’smash’ at the end of a ’runaway’ is her natural habitat: ”The smash was their walk, their déjeuner, the omelette, the Chablis, the place, the view, their present talk and his present pleasure in it” (179).

17Strether first meets Madame de Vionnet in the artist Gloriani’s garden. The physical location of Gloriani’s garden and its allusions to The American set the stage for the revision of the role Paris plays in the transformation of each novel’s protagonists. Gloriani lives in ”the heart of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and on the edge of a cluster of gardens attached to old noble houses […] which spoke of survival, transmission, association, a strong indifferent persistent order” (119). This is the neighborhood where James’s earlier American ambassador on a failed mission to Paris, Christopher Newman, found the quiet privacy of the ”grey and silent streets […] a queer way for rich people to live; his ideal of grandeur was a splendid façade, diffusing its brilliancy outward” (The American [1978] 50). The aristocratic Bellegarde Hotel ”answered Newman’s conception of a convent” (50). Ironically, the convent Claire de Cintré actually ends up immured in is located in ”a quarter [which] has an air of modern opulence and convenience” (275) on the other side of the river. The Carmelite convent in the novel is next to the Parc Monceau, the meticulously preserved remnant of a ducal garden surrounded by Haussmanian-era high intensity real-estate development. The convent, and Claire’s fate, is an archaic disruption of both setting and narrative.

18The Faubourg St.-Germain surroundings of Gloriani’s garden remind Strether, too, of a convent: ”Strether had presently the sense of a great convent, a convent of missions, famous for he scarce knew what, a nursery of young priests, of scattered shade, of straight alleys and chapel bells” (The Ambassadors [1994] 119-20). In the later novel, this air of the convent—suggestive to Strether of aristocratic immutability—encircles the bohemian vivacity and hybridity of Gloriani’s guests, with their ambiguous nationalities and indeterminable social ranks, polyglot conversations, and suggestions of migratory and perhaps louche lives.

19Madame de Vionnet has replaced the chaste and victimised Claire de Cintré as the exoticised and eroticised ’Other’ of desire. Both women have been married to husbands who were ’brutes,’ and thus deserve better men. Madame de Vionnet lives on Rue de Bellechasse, which crosses the Rue de l’Université, where the Bellegardes lived (Fussell The Ambassadors 185).

20While Claire’s names evoke purity and strong connections between opposites (a cintre supports the center of a bridge or arch) and speaks to Newman’s failed fantasies of uniting the values of the Old and New Worlds, of amassing centuries of European history to sit atop his New World spoils, Mme de Vionnet’s names playfully evoke a range of competing femininities, among them ’notre dame’; her foil and perhaps romantic rival, Maria Gostrey; and the French designer Madeleine Vionnet. Although she did not open her own atelier until 1912, Vionnet, the inventor of the bias-cut gown, by turn of the century had developed her own reputation, when she worked for designers such as Doucet, for garments which stylishly allowed her customers to move freely and naturally. Other readers, most amusingly Fussell, have pointed out that Strether’s sense of Madame de Vionnet’s historical connections is based on Strether’s very limited and inaccurate perceptions of French history.

21Strether’s mission to Paris fails because the Woollett/Paris binary upon which he builds his interpretive apparatus fails. The hierarchised differences and distinctions which he must make—between virtuous and bad attachments, for example—are confounded by his adventures in Paris. Yet the confusions, connections, and ambiguities which baffle him during his sojourn in the modern Babylon will also be present in Massachusetts, as he brings this new consciousness back with him to the United States. Chad, the other Woollett adventurer, is also bringing something back to the United States: his commitment to new advertising methods, which he transports from London—where he has the ”revelation” of the ”great new force” that advertising can be (341), which opens the possibility that perhaps Mrs. Newsome, as her company employs the latest marketing techniques to disseminate the product too quotidian to be worthy of naming, is as much a citizen of Babylon as Madame de Vionnet.


Claire Garcia is Professor of English at Colorado College. She writes on diverse topics, including gender and modernism, African American and francophone women’s writing, teaching ethnic studies, and Henry James. She is the author of “Jesse Redmon Fauset, Reconsidered” in The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Arts, Politics, and Letters, “Black Bourgeois Women’s Narratives in the Post-Reagan, ’Post-Civil Rights’, ’Post-Feminist’ Era,” in From Bourgeois to Boojie: Black Middle-Class Performances, and “A ’Native Expatriate’ Reads Henry James” in The Henry James Review, as well as other articles.


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