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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

IV. Allusion

16. James and the Habit of Allusion

Oliver Herford

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1In this paper I shall trace a single literary allusion through the last dozen years of James’s life, and on this basis make some suggestions about the habitual dimension of his allusive practice. Allusion becomes one of James’s stylistic habits, I shall be suggesting, not least because it offers him a way of analysing the role of habit in his own life and in others’—a major concern of his late biographical and autobiographical writings. The allusion I shall attend to has a Shakespearean source: Hamlet’s line to Gertrude about the Ghost, ”My father, in his habit as he lived!” (Act III Scene IV, 130). The pun is not mine—nor indeed exclusively James’s, as we shall see. Nor is James alone in alluding to this line. Throughout the nineteenth century it figures as a commonplace of life-writing: again and again, the biographer’s stated aim (or achievement, or despair) is to present the dead man ”in his habit as he lived”—occasionally, too, the dead woman in hers, though much less frequently. But just that general currency helps to make the allusion a characteristically Jamesian one. James habitually alludes to a small number of the most familiar lines and phrases in English literature, and his relation to those household words gains a particular freshness of invention in contexts of personal retrospect from his accumulated self-consciousness about the interplay of memory and imagination that literary allusion both underwrites and depends upon.

  • 1 The First Quarto (1603) does not present a reliable text of the play, but as a retrospective recon (...)
  • 2 I quote these remarks as they appear in English translation in an unsigned 1849 survey of Shakespe (...)

2A couple of early instances of the allusion to Hamlet will serve to show the conceptual range it covers in a biographical connection. Hazlitt’s 1826 essay ”Of Persons One Would Wish To Have Seen” recalls a question put in company to Charles Lamb: ”’Who is it, then, you would like to see ’in his habit as he lived,’ if you had your choice of the whole range of English literature?’” (33). Lamb chose Sir Thomas Browne and Fulke Greville ”as the two worthies whom he should feel the greatest pleasure to encounter on the floor of his apartment in their night-gown and slippers, and to exchange friendly greeting with them” (33); and in specifying the dress—the habit—of these visitants, or rather their comparative undress (”night-gown and slippers”), Hazlitt seems to be making play with the disagreement among editors, performers, and critics of Hamlet about what the Ghost should wear in the Closet scene. He appeared in full armour in the first Act, on the battlements of Elsinore; a stage direction in the First Quarto, ’Enter the Ghost in his night-gown’ (after Act III Scene IV, 95), suggests that he may have taken another habit in the meantime.1 Writing more or less contemporaneously with Hazlitt, Goethe approved of the night-gown as a contrast with—a change out of—the Ghost’s earlier ”complete steel” (Act I Scene IV, 31): ”How much more homely, domestic, and terrible he now appears, in the same form in which he was wont to appear in this chamber, in his night dress, and unarmed!” (”Shakespeare’s Critics” 65).2 The emotional tenor of that ghostly apparition is quite unlike the exchange of greetings envisaged by Lamb in Hazlitt’s essay, but both writers emphasise the value of the ”homely”: indeed it is arguably the Ghost’s night-gown that makes this Shakespearean moment available as a focus for the common ambition of biographers to enter into a familiar, ”domestic” relation to their subjects. And yet in both fiction and non-fiction James will weigh the biographical fascination of the private life against his awareness of the pervasive publicity of selfhood. When in Chapter 16 of The Ambassadors (1903) Mme de Vionnet, splendidly dressed for Gloriani’s garden-party, is described as representing to Strether ”the idea of the femme du monde in her habit as she lived,” another Shakespearean reference (not quite an allusion) promptly points up the extent to which her identity is constituted as a social performance on occasions like this one: ”Above all, she suggested to him the reflection that the femme du monde—in these finest developments of the type—was, like Cleopatra in the play, indeed various and multifold” (200). The ”femme du monde” is a social ”type” or role, and her proper habit is a kind of stage costume.

  • 3 Philip Horne has argued that James’s several allusions to this line in works published after 1903 (...)

3Goethe’s remarks on the Ghost’s night-gown assume a criterion of dramatic appropriateness that suits the character’s apparel to the immediate setting and context, but we may say too that the clothes in which Old Hamlet ”was wont to appear in this chamber” represent a habit in the sense (also current at the time of the play) of ”a settled disposition or tendency to act in a certain way […]; a settled practice, custom, usage” (Oxford English Dictionary): it was, and is, habitual to him to wear such a thing in such a place. Broadly speaking, nineteenth-century allusions to this line in biographical contexts are drawn to the pun on ”habit” because, in pointing to a dimension of behaviour that is regular, customary, and to some extent involuntary (even if, as for the femme du monde, the habit is a habit of performance), it helps the biographer’s endeavour to represent the whole of a life on the basis of only a few observations or recollections. An anonymous article of 1824 on the ”Personal Character of Lord Byron” builds its claim to ”peculiar interest” on the writer’s having enjoyed ”unusual opportunities of observing the extraordinary habits, feelings, and opinions of the inspired and noble Poet”: this biographer, who signs himself ”R. N.,” is ”quite sure that, after a perusal of the following paper, the reader will be able to see Lord Byron, mind and all, ’in his habit as he lived’:—Much that has hitherto been accounted inexplicable in his Lordship’s life and writings is now interpreted, and the poet and the man are here depicted in their true colours” (337). The movement—in successive sentences— from Byron’s ”extraordinary habits” to ”’in his habit as he lived’” treats habitual behaviours as constitutive of a character, and accords them an explanatory value for the representation of that character. In what follows I want to attend a little to James’s ways with this pun in connection with the overlapping categories of biography, autobiography and social history that so occupy him in his last works. I shall also try to draw out some reflections on the principles of continuity and recurrence that are embodied for James in any act of alluding, but above all in writing that looks to the past—insofar as an allusion is a return to an earlier form of words that both counts on and renews a tradition of value.3

4So far as I am aware, James makes this Shakespearean allusion for the first time (an isolated early instance) in his story ”The Author of ’Beltraffio’,” which was published in June-July 1884 in the English Illustrated Magazine and reprinted the following year in Stories Revived. If that was indeed his first ever allusion to ”My father, in his habit as he lived!” the timing might be felt to have significance, as his own father had died only eighteen months before in December 1882. I do not intend to consider now whether or not the line had a particular filial resonance for James (incidentally, the words ”My father” are never part of his allusions to it); but we may observe at least that an association with Henry Sr.’s death would make this a retrospective allusion from the outset, which it certainly is later on. Again, I am not really concerned here to gauge how much of the dramatic context of Hamlet should be read into any instance of this allusion. The familial situation in ”The Author of ’Beltraffio’” bears some resemblance to the situation adumbrated in the play (a sensitive only son is divided between rival parental claims on his loyalty and affection, and the conflict proves fatal to him); but for my present purpose, where the principal context is rather all the other appearances of this line in James’s published writing, it will be more productive to begin by considering the manner in which the young American narrator of the story alludes to it.

5He has been left alone over tea with Mark Ambient’s wife shortly after his arrival at their cottage in Surrey, and takes the opportunity—which he half sees is unwelcome—to praise her husband’s writing to her: ”’He’s magnificent, Mrs. Ambient! There are pages in each of his books that have a perfection that classes them with the greatest things. Therefore, for me to see him in this familiar way—in his habit as he lives—and to find, apparently, the man as delightful as the artist, I can’t tell you how much too good to be true it seems, and how great a privilege I think it’”” (Stories Revived I 14). ” ’I knew that I was gushing,” he immediately notes, ”but I couldn’t help it, and what I said was a good deal less than what I felt.’” We might think of the allusion he makes, then, both as a self-conscious flourish of his enthusiasm and as an indirection—a displacement of emotion comparable to his thus declaring something about Ambient to a third party when he is ”by no means sure that [he] should dare to say even so much as this” directly to the novelist. His seeing Ambient in person and ” ’in this familiar way’” (of course it is unfamiliar to him) is taxing as well as exciting, more difficult than reading him.

6Once out of his youth, James seems to have been beyond awe at meeting anyone; but the narrator of ”The Author of ’Beltraffio’” anxiously discriminates, in his first, delighted view of Mark Ambient at home, between the author in person and his differently personal literary achievement. In James’s very late commemorative essay ”Mr. and Mrs. James T. Fields” (1915), the same allusion combines two distinct causes for wonder at an eminent authorial presence: at its appearance in a place where it might not have been expected (Boston, Massachusetts—”literally”); and again, half a century later, at its reappearance in memory, attended by whatever reflections on the value formerly attributed to it. Recalling the transatlantic literary salon maintained by the editor James T. Fields and his wife Annie Adams Fields, a social resource for James in the 1860’s, he writes: ”I see now what an overcharged glory could attach to the fact that Anthony Trollope, in his habit as he lived, was at a given moment literally dining in Charles Street.” James’s word ”overcharged” drily allows (”now”) for the possibility that Trollope was accorded more ”glory” in Boston than his literary achievement could justify, or bear; and yet in recalling these ”projected assurances and encountered figures and snatched impressions, such as naturally make at present but a faded show,” James unabashedly states that ”not one of [them] has lost its distinctness for my own infatuated piety” (Literary Criticism: Essays on Literature 172). Part of the meaning of ”in his habit as he lived” in such contexts, it seems, is that it expresses an infatuation. I would suggest that for James, looking back to his personal past in the works of the fourth phase, that infatuation is not an incidental emotional colouring of retrospect but rather a condition of the kept ”distinctness” of his memories; nor is his ”piety” incompatible with the critical acuity he displays in handling them. I shall come back to this.

7The allusion to Hamlet has a special witty aptness at this point in ”Mr. and Mrs. James T. Fields,” as James has just commemorated the Fieldses’ patronage of the French actor-manager Charles Fechter and noted the ”delightful roused state under which we”—that is, his own generation of Boston theatre-goers—”grasped at the æsthetic freshness of Fechter’s Hamlet in particular” (171). James represents Fechter’s audience as delightedly and perhaps unwontedly roused by his performance to make a critical comparison:

Didn’t we react with the finest collective and perceptive intensity against the manner of our great and up to that time unquestioned exponent of the part, Edwin Booth?—who, however he might come into his own again after the Fechter flurry, never recovered real credit, it was interesting to note, for the tradition of his ’head,’ his facial and physiognomic make-up, of a sudden quite luridly revealed as provincial (171-72).

  • 4 By a coincidence that James does not remark, the John Wilkes Booth who shot President Lincoln was (...)

8The sense of an aesthetic reaction against a representative American head is present too in the extraordinary passage in Chapter 12 of Notes of a Son and Brother (1914) on Andrew Johnson, who became President of the United States in 1865 on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.4 James assumes again the ”collective” plural voice of the time in pronouncing Johnson ”almost too ugly to be borne”:

[F]or nothing more sharply comes back to me than the tune to which the ’esthetic sense,’ if one glanced but from that high window (which was after all one of many too), recoiled in dismay from the sight of Mr. Andrew Johnson perched on the stricken scene. We had given ourselves a figure-head, and the figure-head sat there in its habit as it lived, and we were to have it in our eyes for three or four years and to ask ourselves in horror what monstrous thing we had done
(Autobiography [1956] 491).

9James ruefully recalls that ”it was open to us to waver at shop-windows exposing the new photograph, exposing, that is, the photograph, and ask ourselves what we had been guilty of as a people, when all was said, to deserve the infliction of that form.” Johnson’s inauguration photograph was taken by Matthew Brady. James’s next sentences contrastingly refer to ”Lincoln’s mould-smashing mask,” the ”admirable unrelated head” that ”had itself revealed a type,” thus implicitly arranging a comparison between ”the photograph” of Johnson and any one of the many photographic images of the former President. That comparison is all to Johnson’s disadvantage, but also (obscurely) to his discredit; which of course is terribly unfair. But the trope of the contrasted portraits, and perhaps also the unfairness, return us to Hamlet again, and to just the scene in which the ghost appears ”in his habit as he lived.” A little before this in the Closet scene, Hamlet confronts Gertrude with the likenesses of his dead father and his uncle: ”Look here upon this picture, and on this, / The counterfeit presentment of two brothers” (Act III Scene IV, 54-55). The dramatic logic of this gestural allusion casts Andrew Johnson, more unfairly still, as Claudius, not just Old Hamlet’s successor but his murderer. And a very little later in Notes of a Son and Brother James executes a turn on the word ”habit” that recalls his earlier, verbal allusion, as he outrageously suggests that Johnson’s personal appearance was ”the grand inward logic or mystic law” of his eventual impeachment in 1868, a sequel he rejoices in for its intimations of an improvement in national taste: ”What […] was to be more refreshing than to find that there were excesses of native habit which truly we couldn’t bear?” (Autobiography [1956] 491).

10That is magnificently fanciful—or grotesquely so, looked at from another, lower window. James M. Cox is particularly hard on this passage, complaining that James’s elaborate dismay at Johnson’s ugliness only dresses up ”the easiest, the most utterly complacent and conventional judgments on national politics” (Cox 22). But I would argue that this digression in Notes is not meant, as Cox assumes, as a retrospective comment on the politics of the American Civil War and the Reconstruction era, but rather as a demonstration that the record of taste—the record of what can and cannot be borne, aesthetically speaking—may also be counted as a part of the historical record; necessarily a neglected part, James implies, in a society that prejudicially neglects ”the ’esthetic sense’.” In detailing the failure of his generation to habituate itself to something objectively trivial (the way Andrew Johnson looked American, his lurid ”excesses of native habit”), James pays a deliberated tribute of attention to what he calls the ”aspects” of the historical moment. ”I speak but of aspects, those aspects which, under a certain turn of them, may be all but everything” (Autobiography [1956] 491): the sentence itself characteristically turns depreciation to a measured assertion of all but absolute value. James gives ground a little on the complex satisfaction he took in Johnson’s impeachment, allowing that ”That was at any rate the style of reflection to which the humiliating case reduced me”; and yet the ”style of reflection” exemplified by this passage as a whole seems the apt embodiment of his retrospective sense of a ”generally quickened activity of spirit” at the time—a quickening he attributes to the shock of Lincoln’s death—and of ”our having by the turn of events more ideas to apply and even to play with” (491-92). That opportunity, discovered in 1865, is taken up again fifty years later by the play of James’s late style, which yet matches its allusive turns at every point to the recollected ”turn of events.”

11His retrospective writing notably rings its changes on ”in his habit as he lived” in putting just this question of the value, for an improved acquaintance with the past, of ”aspects”—observed and recollected appearances. But it is equally interested in sounds and voices, and frequently sets these registers Wetmore Story and His Friends (1903), reproducing an unpublished note by Story’s wife on their friendship with the Parisian salonnière Mme Mohl, James parenthetically comments:

What a fortune indeed […] would have assuredly awaited any chronicler able to produce her image, by the light of knowledge, quite intact and as a free gratuity to his readers; produce it in its habit as it lived, in its tone as it talked, with its rich cluster of associations, and above all with the mystery of the reasons of its eminence (I 365).

  • 5 Emelyn Story, unpublished manuscript notes. The phrase ”& topsy [turvy]” is a cramped insertion ab (...)

12The allusion here adds another association to that ”rich cluster.” James’s amplification of the Shakespearean line—”in its habit as it lived, in its tone as it talked”—picks up the verbal detail of Emelyn Story’s reminiscence, which characterises Mme Mohl in terms of corresponding idiosyncrasies of dress and speech, and which James immediately quotes: ” ’Her talk was all her own; nobody was like her for a jumble of ideas and facts, which made her mind much like her clothes, topsy-turvily worn’” (Story I 366). We may take that conversational ”jumble” as emblematic of James’s retrospective volumes altogether—in his own public characterisations of them, at least, which do not acknowledge the minute detail of these volumes’ patterning and cross-referencing, but invoke ”the ragbag of memory” and speak of the author’s ”doubtless now appearing to empty it into these pages”—those of his 1913 memoir A Small Boy and Others (Autobiography [1956] 41). Or again, at the end of the long passage on Andrew Johnson: ”Everything I recover, I again risk repeating, fits into the vast miscellany—the detail of which I may well seem, however, too poorly to have handled” (492). James’s handling of detail may sometimes be questioned in these volumes, but surely not on grounds of poverty. It might be noted that Emelyn Story’s words as printed in William Wetmore Story are not all her own: as elsewhere, James rephrases the documentary source so as to smooth down textual oddities. In the manuscript he worked from, Emelyn Story’s note on Mme Mohl reads: ”Her talk was all her own, nobody like her for a jumble of ideas and facts, like dress like mind, the one and the other infinitely original and clever & topsy [turvy].”5 That is rather more topsy-turvily expressed than James’s version, but arguably truer to both its writer and her subject. It is only in the late non-fiction that such questions of fidelity can arise at all, however, since it is here that James becomes interested for the first time in the detail of the past, its habit and tone, as these are preserved by documentary or anecdotal testimony and by personal memory. That development was occasioned by the commission to write the Life of William Story, which James informally received in 1895, not at first recognising it as an opportunity. He took eight years to complete the book, a longer and more frankly resentful procrastination than Hamlet’s—and indeed the sense of a duty repeatedly deferred may have contributed something to the prevalence of this ghostly allusion in his subsequent writing. The 1908 Preface to The Aspern Papers is in this context an intermediate work, displaying still the caginess of a writer (mostly) of fiction contemplating a change of mode that will entail an obligation to historical fact. Here James recalls learning that Claire Clairmont had ”been living on in Florence, where she had long lived, up to our own day, and that in fact, had I happened to hear of her but a little sooner, I might have seen her in the flesh” (Literary Criticism: French Writers 1175). He rationalises his sense that he should probably not have chosen to see Clairmont even had the opportunity presented itself, as a preservation—for fictional use—of the ”romance-value” attaching ”to her long survival”: his concern was with ”the mere strong fact of her having testified for the reality and the closeness of our relation to the past,” and he would freely re-invent her situation and her character in writing The Aspern Papers.

13These considerations perhaps explain the slight oddness of the allusion to Hamlet that occurs in this Preface. Unlike the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, Clairmont is an unimportunate and unsuspected presence, and unlike him she is a phantom in her own lifetime—partly, as Philip Horne notes, from James’s imaginative appropriation of her, ”turning her as writers do into a ghost even while she is still in life” (”Poetry of Association” 48), but partly also as the representative of ”a dislodged, a vanished society” (William Wetmore Story I 14) and a survivor of the Byron-Shelley circle with whom she notoriously associated. James writes:

The thrill of learning that she had ’overlapped,’ and by so much, and the wonder of my having doubtless at several earlier seasons passed again and again, all unknowing, the door of her house, where she sat above, within call and in her habit as she lived, these things gave me all I wanted; I seem to remember in fact […] my more or less immediately recognising that I positively oughtn’t —’for anything to come of it’— to have wanted more
(Literary Criticism: French Writers 1175).

14These departures from the underlying Shakespearean scenario point up, we might say, the pathos of Clairmont’s having been able to make James want so little.

15As a novelist, that is. As a biographer and autobiographer, by a marked contrast, he welcomes every recollected detail that comes back to him. These late volumes repeatedly dramatise his sense of being able to remember more than he can really tell; an unexpected fulfilment of the desire he attributes to ” [t]he historian” in the Preface to The Aspern Papers, a desire for ”more documents than he can really use” (1175). A passage in Notes of a Son and Brother analogously recalls the welcome repeatedly given throughout the 1860’s by the James family in America to George Sand’s new novels, imported presumably, and issued in a uniform binding: ”oh the repeated arrival, during those years, of the salmon-coloured volumes in their habit as they lived, a habit reserved, to my extreme appreciation, for this particular series” (Autobiography [1956] 404). That bibliographical detail now starts an associated memory for James, as the pink covers of Sand’s novels are retrospectively revealed as a match for something she once momentously wore:

The sense of the salmon-coloured distinctive of Madame Sand was even to come back to me long years after on my hearing Edmond de Goncourt speak reminiscentially and, I permit myself to note, not at all reverently, of the robe de satin fleur-de-pêcher that the illustrious and infatuated lady […] s’était fait faire in order to fix as much as possible the attention of Gustave Flaubert at the Dîner Magny (404-05).

16In the continuum of retrospect, the ”vision of a complicated past” afforded James by Goncourt’s anecdote (and ”recovered even as I write”) encounters his grateful recollection of the ”social education” that Sand’s novels gave him and his family; so that, as he says, ”I see that general period as quite flushed and toned by the salmon-coloured covers” (405). Habit in this complex of association signifies a visual appearance or fashion that makes a mark for memory (the salmon-coloured covers, the peach-blossom satin dress), and also personal behaviour in two senses: an isolated act or coup that is completely characteristic of the agent (the set that Sand makes at Flaubert), and a regular, habitual course of conduct. It is in this latter sense that the Jameses are remembered reading and discussing Sand en famille, their ”early complacencies” of American literary response being gradually modified, more or less, by exposure to her writing (405). These are second readings, moreover, ”renewals of acquaintance” that affirm the family habit of George Sand (404); for they had read her novels once already in serial format in the Revue des Deux Mondes. In his essay on the Fieldses, written the next year, James would describe his own relation to the past with the same word he gives to Sand in this passage, ”infatuated”: he too, in this late, summative writing, is ”illustrious and infatuated,” and the remembered habit of things receives some of his happiest announcements of infatuation.

17In the last chapter of A Small Boy and Others, writing of the family’s two residences at Boulogne in the mid-1850’s, James invokes ”a special association, too ghostly now quite to catch again—the sense of certain Sundays” on which he made visits, alone, to a ”quite ideally old-world little […] musée de province,”

…where I repeatedly, and without another presence to hinder, looked about me at goodness knows what weird ancientries of stale academic art. Not one of those treasures, in its habit as it lived, do I recall; yet the sense and the ’note’ of them was at the time, none the less, not so elusive that I didn’t somehow draw straight from them intimations of the interesting, that is revelations of the æsthetic, the historic, the critical mystery and charm of things (of such things taken altogether), that added to my small loose handful of the seed of culture
(Autobiography [1956] 226).

18The exact association in this case is now ”too ghostly” for identification, and the artworks the young James looked at steal away, not standing to be remembered in their habits as they lived. Yet the ”sense” of his having gone to look at them—and gone ”repeatedly,” which is to say, for the time, habitually—does live in his memory; and James grants to that sense alone, even without reference to its forgotten objects, a seminal value in the development of the faculties of interest that flower so lavishly in these late volumes. So simply, he shows us, and from so little, can a style and its habits be formed.


1 The First Quarto (1603) does not present a reliable text of the play, but as a retrospective reconstruction from early performances it has a certain authority with regard to stage directions. The sparer direction of the Folio (1623), just ’Enter Ghost’, gave rise to the stage tradition of the Ghost’s appearing in full armour in this scene.

2 I quote these remarks as they appear in English translation in an unsigned 1849 survey of Shakespeare criticism; they come from Goethe’s essay on an 1825 reprint of the First Quarto, posthumously published in 1833 as ”Erste Ausgabe des Hamlet” (see Goethe’s Werke XIV 61).

3 Philip Horne has argued that James’s several allusions to this line in works published after 1903 share ”a double recognition—both of the insubstantiality, deadness and real absence of the thing or person evoked in memories and in works of the imagination; and of the vivid illusion of substance, life and immediate presence to which such evocations give rise” (Horne ”The Poetry of Association” 49). This seems to me true of all the instances Horne discusses; indeed it suits one of them, in James’s 1907 Introduction to The Tempest (see Literary Criticism: Essays in Literature 1213), so much better than anything I have found to say about it that I have gratefully left that one out here.

4 By a coincidence that James does not remark, the John Wilkes Booth who shot President Lincoln was Edwin Booth’s younger brother, and like him an actor and a Hamlet.

5 Emelyn Story, unpublished manuscript notes. The phrase ”& topsy [turvy]” is a cramped insertion above the line, a second thought; indeed my reading of the phrase is conjectural, as only the first three letters of the last word can be plainly made out.


Oliver Herford is a Darby Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Lincoln College, Oxford. He received his PhD (2009) from the University of London for a thesis on Henry James’s late non-fiction, which he is currently revising for publication; other work in progress includes essays on some ethical problems of personal correspondence (for letter-writers and editors), and on the vocal dimensions of late Jamesian style. He will edit The Prefaces in the forthcoming Cambridge Edition of The Complete Fiction of Henry James.


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