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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

IV. Allusion

15. C’est strictement confidentiel: Buried Allusions in Confidence (1879)

Rebekah Scott

Texte intégral

1Falling between ’Daisy Miller’ (1878) and The Europeans (1878), on one side, and Washington Square (1880) and The Portrait of a Lady (1880-81), on the other, Confidence (1879) belongs to the early, Austenian phase of James; coruscating, ironic, compact—it goes about its business transparently and unswervingly. Or does it? Already in James, even in 1879, there are the stir rings of his inveterate tendency towards ”merciful indirection” (The Art of the Novel 306), the kind of indirection that manifests itself in style more than in syntax: in innuendo, euphemism, allusiveness, and the irony that reveals even as it pretends to conceal.

2I would like to do two things in this paper. Firstly, to speculate on the role of allusion in the Jamesian imagination and to ask how it contributes to forming ”the very atmosphere of the mind” that belongs to the writer of genius. Secondly, I’d like to examine some of the glancing allusions in Confidence, including its French allusions, to see if any conclusions can be drawn about the nature and scope of this practice. How far along the scale of winks and nods does the secret, or secretive, allusion have to be before it is merely an unconscious twitch? Can one ever determine the extent to which the buried or glancing allusion is intentional or unintentional, substantial or superficial? And is this effort of determination somehow beside the point?

3We are told by the narrator of Confidence that its hero, Bernard Longueville, is a man of imagination—witty, suggestible, and, on at least four occasions, ”allusive” (30, 40, 80, 100). His best friend, Gordon Wright, is a man of science—stuffy, insensible, plain-speaking; his ”every phrase” ”march[ed] in stout-soled walking boots” (19). As the narrator says, not without considerable partiality, Gordon’s ”deficiency” of imagination ”was a matter of common jocular allusion between the two young men”:

Bernard had often spoken of his comrade’s want of imagination as a bottomless pit, into which Gordon was perpetually inviting him to lower himself. ’My dear fellow,’ Bernard [would say], ’you must really excuse me; I cannot take these subterranean excursions. I should lose my breath down there; I should never come up alive. You know I have dropped things down—little jokes and metaphors, little fantasies and paradoxes—and I have never heard them touch bottom!’ This was an epigram on the part of a young man who had a lively play of fancy; but it was none the less true that Gordon Wright had a firmly treading, rather than a winged, intellect (19).

4Considering that Bernard’s quip recalls the narrator’s allusion to that other bottomless pit of The Inferno and ”the Dantean injunction to renounce all hope” (9), made as our hero is weaving his way through the ”dark, pestiferous archway[s]” of Siena, it is no wonder that Bernard’s little jokes and epigrams fall on deaf ears. They sound so much like insults. Despite the rather one-sided raillery that characterises their relationship, the two men are firm friends when the novel opens. The story takes off when Gordon issues a plea to Bernard to act as his ”assistant” in an amorous ”experiment” (Gordon’s words), designed to sound the depths of a mysterious girl he’s been pursuing, Angela Vivian. Somewhat bemused, Bernard agrees to this odd commission. On the train from Venice to Baden-Baden, he muses that ”nothing could better express [Gordon’s] attachment to the process of reasoning things out than this proposal that his friend should come and make a chemical analysis (a geometrical survey) of the lady of his love” (19). In exasperation, Bernard concludes:

Gordon’s mind [...] has no atmosphere; his intellectual process goes on in the void. There are no currents and eddies to affect it, no high winds nor hot suns, no changes of season and temperature. His premises are neatly arranged, and his conclusions are perfectly calculable (20).

5The fundamental problem with Gordon Wright’s imagination is, clearly, that it is scientific.

6If we project forward five years to James’s 1884 essay on ”The Art of Fiction,” we get a sense of what this ”atmosphere of the mind” might amount to for a literary imagination. In this essay, James argues that the aspiring novelist must make his ”impressions” count as ”experience”; this type of experience, he writes, and only this type, ”is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative—much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius—it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations” (Selected Literary Criticism 85-86). It was certainly not unusual for James to recycle his most felicitous phrases, but it is equally true that this phrase (”atmosphere of the mind”) was circulating in the intellectual air of mid-to-late nineteenth-century England. One finds it, for instance, in the plush rhetoric of aestheticism: Walter Pater, in his 1866 essay on Coleridge first published in The Westminster Review, describes Wordsworth’s ”flawless temperament, his fine mountain atmosphere of mind” (Appreciations 87). Or in Matthew Arnold’s critical introduction to Thomas Gray, first published in 1880 in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, which mentions Samuel Butler’s bracing ”atmosphere of mind” (Essays in Criticism: Second Series 94).

7As Leon Edel has gone to great pains to point out, Bernard Longueville is like James in a lot of ways—both temperamental and professional (see The Conquest of London). But there is more to it than this. Like James, the narrator tells us that Bernard ”had not made much of the law; but he had made something of his talents” (Confidence 21); like James, Bernard ”was almost always spoken of as ’accomplished’[yet] people asked why he didn’t do something” (21); like James, he is a chronicler of his ”impressions”; like James, he is a sensualist and a wit (22); like James, Bernard returns to America ”as a distinguished stranger in his own land,” even a ”restless” ”wanderer” (115; 119); like James in A Small Boy and Others (99-100), he is fond of remembering the way he used to kick the autumn leaves of the Indian Summer along the pavements of New York’s Fifth Avenue in his ”riotous infancy” (106). One might extend this comparison to ask whether the two are also in agreement about what constitutes ”the atmosphere of the mind.” Does it hinge for Bernard, too, on ”the power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things” (86)—where ”implication” is taken to mean both ”conclusion” or ”consequence” and ”implicature,” or that which is implied? Does it all come down to a susceptibility to ”impressions”? Bernard, we know, is always ready with ”impressions, opinions, speculations, anecdotes” (35), is always ”roaming afield and plucking personal impressions in great fragrant handfuls” (80); has ”laid up a great store of impressions and even a considerable sum of knowledge” from his travels (99); and despite his demurral that his ”impressions are never fresh” (67), we are made to feel how very far from stale they are, even when they are second-hand—that is to say, the impressions of others.

8Due to the secret nature of his undertaking to put the incipient flirt Angela Vivian to the test, Bernard adopts the cloak-and-dagger custom of allusiveness. As soon as he realises that he has already met Angela in Siena, he is confined to ”alluding” to their meeting (The narrator actually describes thesemomentsas”allusions”:30,40).Whenthisfailstogetaresponse,Bernard tries a different kind of allusiveness, one that forms the very fabric of his dissimulation: ”He flattered himself that the civil indifference of his manner, the abstract character of the topics he selected, the irrelevancy of his allusions and the laxity of his attention, all contributed to this result [of distracting her from his relentless scrutiny of her]” (80). This time his ”allusions” are not to a fleetingly shared past, but to artists, poets, and philosophers, and his recourse to them is only partially motivated by the desire to throw her off the scent of his investigation. Primarily, he alludes in order to conspire—not with Gordon this time but with Angela. Their allusion-making resembles other people’s love-making: it is a secret language, an emotional heavy weather, very much a part of the upper atmosphere of the mind. Now the comparison between Bernard’s methods and James’s methods, between the allusiveness of creature and creator, starts to become meaningful.

9Of the two available American editions of Confidence (Herbert Ruhm’s edition of 1962 and William T. Stafford’s 1983 Library of America edition), neither is concerned with sourcing allusions. Had they been so inclined, these editors might have begun with the title. In 1857, the American writer Herman Melville published a book called The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade. James didn’t write about or own this novel, but he would have known of it, and known too that the term ”confidence-man” had an American origin: it was coined by the American press in 1859 to describe a notorious confidence-trickster. Melville’s novel is one very-extended pun on ”confidence,” a word that appears upwards of 200 times. (Apart from the word ”confidence,” which appears, alongside its cognates, in James’s novel some sixteen times, other words and phrases associated with confidence trickery, such as ”frank” and ”enterprising stranger,” reverberate between the two works). James, like Melville, seizes on this word to represent a range of social and economic manoeuvres, both salutary and destructive. Yet James scrutinises the one type of confidence-brokering that Melville neglects in his sceptical novel about loan sharks, shysters, quacks, and evangelists: that is to say, the love-con. In transferring his con to Europe, James calls up another set of literary antecedents, most of whom are French writers of romance or comedy.

  • 1 As noted by Walter Cohen, editor of the Norton edition of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594-95): ”Alone a (...)
  • 2 The Quarto of 1598 has the spelling Longauill, or Longaville as it appears in most modern editions (...)

10Actually, James’s edgy romance has an even older, less anxious association with that great anxious romance, Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. The two share a motivating conceit, a protagonist’s name, a forest setting, a very peculiar joke about ”remuneration,” and the claim to being, arguably, the least-read work in the author’s oeuvre.1 There are even one or two direct verbal echoes of the play in James’s novel. But the relation must not be overstated. It does not suggest itself as a clear source-relation, such as that between Love’s Labour’s Lost and Tennyson’s The Princess, but as a sub-generic sharing of patterns and preoccupations, signaled by a common set of key words including ”study” and ”wit.” The lovers’ sallies of wit do more than invite the old comparison between love and war. For Shakespeare’s Biron and Rosaline, Dumaine and Catherine, and Longueville and Maria, and for James’s Bernard Longueville and Angela Vivian, Gordon Wright and Blanche Evers, wit is an ambiguous mode of courtship; it is both a stimulant and a scourge. Very often wit is not so much an invitation as a displacement activity for sex, its cerebral equivalent. This lends Confidence an admiring collusiveness with Love’s Labour’s Lost that is manifested both in its buried allusions and in its competitive exertion of wit. But before I move on to draw out one or two of these allusions, it is perhaps time to say a word about the name Longueville, since James was such a conscious christener.2 The name contains the French term for length, ”la longueur,” a nice conceit given that Bernard takes his time over Angela. Then there is ”la longue-vue,” which designates a spy glass; Bernard’s commission, of course, is to spy on Angela. Apart from Shakespeare’s Longueville, Bernard Longueville may claim another French line of ancestry: Victor Cousin. Cousin is the idealist philosopher whom Mrs. Vivian reads amidst the dissipation of Baden-Baden, and who wrote a book entitled Madame de Longueville (Paris, 1863), a philosophical ’study’ of an eighteenth-century Parisian society woman, which James kept in his library—along with Washington Irving’s Journals, in which there is mention of a Baroness de Longueville who marries a Bernard de Pichon in 1641. (See Edel and Tintner, The Library of Henry James). Curiously, James changed the names of his protagonists in the intervening years between his Notebook sketch of the novel, where he writes that ”their names are perhaps provisional” (6) and indeed where he confuses them, and its first publication in Scribner’s Monthly from August 1879 to January 1880.

11As mentioned earlier, James spent much of the 1870’s as a theatre critic, on both sides of the Atlantic. While he could not have been in attendance at Augustin Daly’s 1874 production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York (he was in Florence), it is very likely that a reading of the play was fresh in his mind at the time of writing Confidence, since he alludes to one of its incidental jokes—on ”remuneration”—in a newsy letter to his father dated 30 March 1880. After discussing his recent fictional projects, James writes:

I also wrote an article which you will find some day in Scribner’s, without my name, and which I beg you to keep a religious silence about. The said Scribners [sic] had asked me two years ago, to write a disquisition on the London theatres, to be richly illustrated; but though they were very pressing, I declined, owing to the dreariness of the subject. Since Gilder [Richard, editor of Scribner’s] has been abroad, however, he has ardently returned to the charge, offering me so rich a ”guerdon or remuneration,” as Shakespeare says, that I at last wrote the article, on condition that it should be profoundly anonymous
(Henry James: Letters 1875-83 277-78).

12The recurring joke in Love’s Labour’s Lost centres on fixing the monetary value of ”remuneration”: Costard the clown, according to the ”remuneration” he is given by Armado for the delivery of a love letter to his sweetheart, assumes the term to be a bombastic Latinism for three farthings, which works out less than the ”guerdon” (or reward) of one shilling given to him by Biron for delivering his love letter (Act III Scene I, 156-58). (To refer to Scribner’s payment in this way is typical of James’s tact in financial matters.) This joke on ”remuneration” is carried over into Confidence: after Bernard has sketched Angela without her permission, rather than apologise for the liberty he has taken, he complains that, since she is by no means a professional model, he is unable to ”remunerate” her and she must treat him as ”beggar” (14). Bernard’s mock formality in this case clearly expresses itself as flirtation. Indeed, courtship is everywhere presented as a highly literary (if not Latinate) phenomenon proceeding by coups de grâce and written ”confidences.”

13In ”Henry James and the Poetry of Association,” Philip Horne catalogues some of the recurrent if truncated Shakespearean allusions in James, particularly of the kind that have passed into the Jamesian idiom. One of these is the phrase ”declined upon a wretch” from Hamlet, Act I Scene V, uttered by the Ghost of old Hamlet in reproach of Gertrude for settling on his brother and usurper:

O Hamlet, what a falling off was there!
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine.
But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage (47-57).

14As Horne notes, James’s use of the expression ”declined upon a wretch” usually goes unacknowledged, slipping seamlessly into his text without reference or quotation marks, noticeable only through its archaism. We find it re-appearing in Confidence, only this time James flags it with both a titular reference and scare quotes:

Gordon knew it must seem strange to so irreverent a critic [as Bernard] that a man who had once aspired to the hand of so intelligent a girl—putting other things aside—as Angela Vivian should, as the Ghost in ”Hamlet” says, have ’declined upon’ a young lady who, in force of understanding, was so very much Miss Vivian’s inferior; and this knowledge kept him ill at his ease and gave him a certain pitiable awkwardness (111).

15”Though to a radiant angel [or Angela] linked,” Gordon ends up marrying ”garbage.” This allusion lends Gordon’s final choice of the frivolous Blanche for his bride a certain mock-ominousness, which the original melodramatic sketch of the novel in the Notebooks vividly fulfils by having Gordon kill his wife. It is enough, at least, to make Bernard ”ill at his ease,” though this phrase (”ill at ease”) properly belongs to Cassio (Othello Act III Scene III, 30) and not Hamlet.

16Dipping back into Philip Horne’s repository of stock Jamesian allusions, we find a line from Milton’s ”L’Allegro” (I 28):

Jest and youthful Jollity,
Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods, and becks, and wreathèd smiles,
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek
And love to live in dimple sleek.

17Horne notices the line ”nods, and becks, and wreathèd smiles” surfacing (in a mutant form) in James’s 1887 letter to James Russell Lowell (”Henry James and the Poetry of Association” 17-18). Although, in this letter, the reference is clearly to Milton, it is worth pointing out that it may have been a double allusion on James’s part, since Lowell himself uses the phrase ”wreathed in smiles” in his ”Dramatic Sketch,” a dialogue between editors about the editorial nightmare of rampant and indeed mutant quotation. The phrase ”wreathèd smiles,” or ”wreathed in smiles” as it appears in Confidence, is applied to the newlywed, Blanche Wright:

On going down to Gordon’s house in the country, [Bernard] was conscious of a good deal of eagerness to know what had become of that latent irritation of which Blanche had given him a specimen. Apparently, it had quite subsided; Blanche was wreathed in smiles; she was living in a bower of roses (120).

18”Wreathed in smiles” nicely captures the decorativeness of Blanche’s ”jollity”; it seems a conscious and apt allusion. (Blanche’s ”bower of roses” may also recall line 22 of the poem: ”And fresh-blown roses washt in dew.”) But at the same time it is worth noting that the phrase is ubiquitous in the literature of Aestheticism (for example, in The Picture of Dorian Gray) and variations on ”nods and becks and wreathed smiles” can be found in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet (1824), Thomas Carlyle’s essay on ’Boswell’s Life of Johnson’ (1832), and Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth (1861), which says as much about the Victorian practice of glancing allusion as it does about James’s habits. Similarly, staying with Milton, one wonders just how much can be made of the ”forbidden fruit” (136) of Bernard’s erotic awakening, or of the peculiarly Miltonic phrase ”his sapient faculty,” except to signal Bernard’s stirrings of guilt over his (potential) sexual betrayal of his friend. If the glancing allusion sets in motion ”a train of associations” for James, so that it is useful as a kind of intellectual and affective shorthand, it would appear to have the same function for James’s hero. When he is not observing Angela Vivian, Bernard is preoccupied with observing her mother:

’She has the Boston temperament,’ he said, using a phrase with which he had become familiar and which evoked a train of associations. But then he immediately added that if Mrs. Vivian was a daughter of the Puritans, the Puritan strain in her disposition had been mingled with another element. ’It is the Boston temperament sophisticated,’ he said; ’perverted a little— perhaps even corrupted. It is the local east wind with an infusion from climates less tonic’ (56).

19This ”phrase” with which Bernard ”had become familiar” belongs to Thomas Gold Appleton (1812-84), the American epigrammist, who quipped that ”A Boston man is the east wind made flesh” (Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, attributed). Thomas Gold Appleton, it may be remarked, is best remembered for a one-liner reported by Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858): ”Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris” (Ch. 6). This was a witticism that Oscar Wilde made his own in the first act of A Woman of No Importance (1893):

20MRS. ALLONBY: They say, Lady Hunstanton, that when good Americans die they go to Paris.

21LADY HUNSTANTON: Indeed? And when bad Americans die, where do they go to?

22MRS. ALLONBY: Oh, they go to America (37).

23Perhaps bad Americans in James go to Baden-Baden, along with the bad Russians in Turgenev (Smoke, or Life at Baden) and Dostoevsky (The Gambler), and the bad Englishwomen in George Eliot (Daniel Deronda). James certainly isn’t immune to the novelistic (ill-?) treatment of Baden-Baden that promotes a certain continuity between the pathologies of over confidence at the gaming table and cocksureness in the ’game’ of love.

24The question of where to draw the line between a glancing allusion and an unconscious appropriation is a difficult and perhaps futile one. In Allusion to the Poets Christopher Ricks writes that ”there is (as Wittgenstein proposed) nothing self-contradictory or sly about positing the existence of unconscious or subconscious intentions” (Ricks 4), and that, on the matter of degrees of intentionality, ” [r]eaders always have to decide—if they accept that such-and-such is indeed a source for certain lines—whether it is also more than a source, being part not only of the making of the poem but of its meaning” (3-4). I can’t help but view these ”sources” as a niggling part of the novel’s meaning, sharing with it, if not a source-relation, then something like a kin-relation—something that establishes an esoteric set of ”confidences” between characters as well as between author and reader, and between author and fellow author (both living and dead), since the habit of allusion was a vital part of the Arnoldian cultivation of an ”atmosphere of mind” (5, 272). Then again, maybe James’s buried allusions are meant to stay buried, as little private jokes designed to leaven the re-readings that formed the basis of his revisions, in the manner that Bernard’s ”brilliancy” lay in his ”entertaining himself”: ”Clever as he often was in talking with his friends, I am not sure that his best things, as the phrase is, were not for his own ears” (Confidence 10).


1 As noted by Walter Cohen, editor of the Norton edition of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594-95): ”Alone among the First Folio plays, Love’s Labour’s Lost went unperformed between 1642 and 1839, and it remained unpopular until the mid-twentieth century” (738). Famously, Dryden dismissed it as ”incoherent.” Comparably, Leon Edel dismissed Confidence as James’s ”worst novel” (The Conquest of London 385).

2 The Quarto of 1598 has the spelling Longauill, or Longaville as it appears in most modern editions, a transliteration of the French Longueville. Both editions of the play that James owned, the single-volume Works of William Shakespeare (1864), edited by William George Clark and William Aldis Wright, and the 10-volume Works of Shakespeare (1899), edited by C.H. Herford, have the spelling Longaville. However, the Herford edition notes that ”The three lords, Biron, Longaville, Dumain [...] derive their names from three conspicuous figures in the war, Henry [IV]’s captains, Marshall Biron and the Duke du Longueville, and the General of the Catholic League, the Duke du Maine” (6).


Rebekah Scott recently completed her PhD on Henry James at Cambridge University, where she now teaches. She is also a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Ghent. She has published essays on Henry James and Charles Dickens and is one of the volume editors of The Complete Fiction of Henry James, to be published by Cambridge University Press.


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