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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant


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1When, in 1927, Marie-Reine Garnier published her thesis, Henry James et la France, at the University of Strasbourg, the field was still unexplored and provided ample ground for study. Mlle Garnier drew up an inventory of all that referred to France in James’s life and work but unfortunately her book is perverted by nationalistic prejudices and betrays a strong sense of personal outrage at James’s picture of the French characters; she attributes their distortion to James’s personal failure with the French and insists on reducing his reaction to France to mere personal retaliation. In 1929 Morris Roberts published his Harvard dissertation, The Criticism of Henry James, which contains a penetrating analysis of James’s criticism of the French. Miss Cornelia P. Kelley’s pioneer study on The Early Development of Henry James appeared in 1930. For this book Miss Kelley had patiently collected her material in the dusty volumes of the Nation, the Atlantic Monthly and the North American Review, in which James had published his first tales and reviews. She was mainly concerned with James’s work itself and deliberately ignored the nationalistic criticism of her compatriots who, like Van Wijck Brooks, could not forgive James for having given up his American citizenship in the last year of his life. For her research work she was entirely dependent on Le Roy Phillips’ A Bibliography of the Writings of Henry James (1906) and, for information on James’s life, on his own letters and autobiography. Interest in James waned during the thirties, but the centenary of his birth, in 1943, marked the beginning of a revival in James criticism.

2In the sixties the critic of Henry James no longer makes his hands dirty with the dust of old magazines. Most of the early reviews have been collected in books, the complete tales have been edited in twelve volumes by Leon Edel, and Scribner’s is now re-issuing the monumental New York Edition. The pioneer bibliography of Le Roy Phillips has been replaced by A Bibliography of Henry James (1957), compiled by Leon Edel and Dan H. Laurence, and the former’s remarkable biography of the Master is a most useful complement to the sometimes hazy statements made by James himself in his autobiographical writings. Some older studies have survived this tidal wave in Jamesian criticism, and Miss Kelley’s The Early Development of Henry James, which has recently appeared in the paperback dress of our time, is one of them. By now her suggested parallels between James and George Sand, Balzac, Mérimée, Musset, and Turgenev have been completely absorbed by the critic and have stimulated the researches of those who are interested in James’s indebtedness to European writers.

3The influence of Balzac has been noted by Eliot Fay in “Balzac and Henry James” (French Review, XXIV [Feb. 1951], 325-330) and by Percy C. Adams in “Young Henry James and the Lesson of his Master Balzac” (Revue de Littérature Comparée, XXXV [1961],458-467); the latter critic develops Miss Kelley’s suggestions and points out new parallels between James and Balzac. Maurita Willett has drawn attention to a source for The American in Le Père Goriot (Revue de Littérature Comparée, XLI [1967], 204- 227). The relation between James and Zola has been stressed by Robert J. Niess in “Henry James and Zola: A Parallel” (Revue de Littérature Comparée, XXX [1956], 93-98) and by Lyall H. Powers in “Henry James and Zola’s Roman Expérimental” (University of Toronto Quarterly, XXX [Oct. 1960], 16-30). P.R. Grover has lately written a note entitled “Mérimée’s Influence on Henry James,” in The Modern Language Review, LXIII [Oct., 1968], 810-817. In 1941 Daniel Lerner wrote an excellent article on “The Influence of Turgenev on Henry James,” in the Slavonic Yearbook (XX, 28-54); more recently Sylvia E. Bowman drew a parallel between “Les Héroïnes d’Henry James dans The Portrait of a Lady et d’Yvan Tourgueniev dans A la Veille” (Etudes Anglaises, XL [1958], 136-149), while Oscar Cargill discussed the relation between the two writers in The Novels of Henry James (1961). Other interesting parallels were pointed out by I.D. McFarlane in “A Literary Friendship: Henry James and Paul Bourget” (Cambridge Journal, IV [Dec, 1950], 144-161), one of which prompted me to compare James's In the Cage with Bourget’s Posre restante. Daisy Miller has also been compared with Victor Cherbuliez's Paule Méré by Edward Stone in The Battle and the Books : Some Aspects of Henry James (1964) and The Awkward Age with the contemporary bestsellers, especially with Gyp’s Le Bonheur de Ginette and Bijou, by Elizabeth Owen in “‘The Awkward Age’ and the Contemporary English Scene” (Victorian Studies. XI [Sept., 1967], 63-82).

4All these essays—to which must be added separate chapters on James’s criticism of the French in general studies—testify to the interest in James's relation to French writers, but apart from unpublished dissertations there is no detailed study on his general relation to France except for Melle Garnier's outdated thesis. Christof Wegelin’s The Image of Europe in Henry James (1958) aims at tracing James’s relation to the traditional American attitudes towards Europe and his gradual emancipation from those conventional views, but it deals with Europe as a whole and not specifically with France.

  • 1 Leon Edel Henry James. A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs,, N.J., 1963). Introducti (...)

5My own concern in trying to fill this gap was not to discover new French sources for James's work, first because I could hardly improve upon Miss Kelley's achievement, second because I agree with Leon Edel that this is “a form of speculation least relevant when we deal with an imagination as creative as James’s, an imagination so saturated with literature that all the writings of the past may be said to have provided the soil for his own work.”1 My aim is to place James against the French geographical, artistic, and moral background, and thereby to provide a new focus for an explication of his mind and fiction. James indeed defined himself through his attitude to the French mind and through his criticism of French writers just as his own Anglo-Saxon heroes define themselves through their reaction to the French environment.

6The first part of the present study deals with James’s attitude to France as it appears from his travel sketches, letters, and autobiography. Leon Edel’s biography was of course a most helpful companion piece to James’s own writings. Though used in its literal sense—James travelled in France and wrote travel sketches in the American tradition of his time—the word tourist is not devoid of the superficial connotation usually attached to it. That is why I have purposely included in this first chapter most of James’s occasional remarks on French painters and sculptors instead of making them the subject of a separate chapter in the second part. Indeed his judgment on painters was rather amateurish ; it was that of a “tourist” rather than that of a serious art-critic.

7James’s criticism of French writers is the object of the second chapter. This includes not only the novelists but the critics, poets, and playwrights whom James discussed or reviewed. In the case of Dumas and Bourget I have illustrated his theoretical views by comparing one of his own works with one of theirs, but I have avoided doing this systematically. Like all great writers, James reshaped old or contemporary stories, and these are only mentioned nowadays because he used them as models. He borrowed the plot, that is, the external and, for him, less interesting part of these works, and made it pass through the “simmering cauldron” of his imagination and moral sensibility. Whenever he read a novel whose subject appealed to him he wanted to re-write it and he usually did. Yet James and such novelists as, say, Octave Feuillet, Victor Cherbuliez, or Gyp, have so little in common that these writers’ “stories” hardly mattered more to James than the anecdotes told him by society hostesses at London dinners. It was tempting to compare The Portrait of a Lady with Madame Bovary, The Bostonians with L'Evangéliste, The Last of the Valerii with La Vénus d’Ille. The Madonna of the Future with Le Chef-d'Œuvre Inconnu, or What Maisie Knew with Chérie ; but James was too different from the French realists for their works to be fruitfully compared with his. If I have drawn a parallel between James and Dumas the Younger it is because the relation between Le Demi- Monde and The Siege of London had never been noticed before, and because James deliberately set out to satirize French “morality” by writing an American ironical counterpart to Dumas' play. Bourget, on the other hand, was dissatisfied with the French writers' exclusive interest in the external world, and the fact that he shared James’s moral concern brings out the more clearly his own difference from the American novelist.

8My third chapter deals with the novels and stories in which James uses France as a setting, presents French characters, or exemplifies French attitudes. These works are examined in their chronological order. The interest of this third part is that it presents a succession of works linked together solely by their being more or less connected with France. From the early Merimean A Tragedy of Error (1864) to the symbolical The Velvet Glove (1909), similarities appear that would otherwise have remained unnoticed, recurring patterns are brought out that might never have struck the reader in a more familiar arrangement. Besides, the analysis of James’s attitude towards the French and particularly towards French writers in the preceding two chapters throws light on his deep concern with form and life at the time of his year in France. This has enabled me to see some of his novels in a new perspective.

9Most studies dealing exclusively with either James’s life, criticism or fiction fail to show the interplay of his personal experience, intellectual acumen, and creative imagination. I have tried to avoid this mistake by encompassing in the same study James’s “undigested” impressions in his letters and travel sketches, in his criticism and in his fiction, and by attempting to show the unity of his life and literary production. The works of James the tourist, the critic or the novelist are only separate chapters of the same book which do not have their full significance until the whole is known. Only then can his insistence on form, whether in nature, in a writer’s life, or in a story be seen as resulting from his dislike of “unfiltered” reality.

  • 2 The Portrait of a Lady, I, 111. Unless otherwise specified all references to James’s novels are to (...)

10In a book dealing with James’s reaction to a European country I might have been expected to enter the once much-discussed question whether he was a renegade American or an uprooted European. I have not done so, because this question does not seem to me to be worth discussing at all. “One doesn’t give up one’s country any more than one gives up one's grandmother,” Ralph Touchett says in The Portrait of a Lady. “They’re both antecedent to choice—elements of one’s composition that are not to be eliminated.”2 For James America was never eliminated, and his naturalization was the gesture of an angry old man who wanted to give a lesson—it was not the first—to his compatriots. He was American at heart and saw his own world all the better for having known its opposite.


1 Leon Edel Henry James. A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs,, N.J., 1963). Introduction, p. 9.

2 The Portrait of a Lady, I, 111. Unless otherwise specified all references to James’s novels are to the Macmillan edition (1921-1923).

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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