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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

I. The Tourist


Texte intégral

  • 1 The Letters of Henry James, ed. P. Lubbock (New York, 1920), I, 48.

Paris… is a sort of painted background which keeps shifting and changing, and which is always there, to be looked at when you please, and to be most easily and comfortably ignored when you don’t.1

  • 2 The American Scene (London, 1907), p. 223.
  • 3 A Small Boy and Others (London, 1913), p. 57.

1James was barely one year old when he first went to Europe with his family, and in one of his late works he confesses that he was then “pierced by the sharp outland dart” and was to move till his death “with the shaft still in [his] side.”2 Although we might be tempted to believe that a man has no recollection of what happened to him as a baby, we have James’s testimony to the contrary. Riding through Paris in 1844 and sitting as a baby in long clothes on somebody’s lap opposite his parents, he had been quite clearly impressed with the view “framed by the clear window of the vehicle as we passed, of a great stately square surrounded with high-roofed houses and having in its centre a tall and glorious column.”3 This was James’s very first memory of Paris. The “square” was the place Vendôme and the glorious column in its centre the Colonne Vendôme. Whether this first memory of Paris related in A Small Boy and Others is due to the imagination of an old man who turns to his past and stirs “the imponderable dust” of his childhood, or to the imagination of an artist who wants to “round” his own life as he rounds the story for his tales, forcing the truth a little in order to reach his aim, is difficult to say. What is certain, is that James had been taken to Paris at a very early age and that he had become a nostalgic cosmopolitan even before he was conscious of it:

  • 4 Introduction to A Passionate Pilgrim, The Art of the Novel, p. 195. James’s Prefaces to the New Yor (...)

The nostalgic cup had been applied to my lips even before I was conscious of it—I had been hurried off to London and to Paris immediately after my birth, and then and there, I was ever afterwards strangely to feel, that poison had entered my veins. This was so much the case that when again, in my thirteenth year, re-exposure was decreed and was made effective and prolonged, my inward sense of it was, in the oddest way, not of my finding myself in the vague and the uncharted, but much rather restored to air already breathed and to a harmony already disclosed.4

  • 5 A Small Boy and Others, p. 277.

2James’s consciousness had waked very early to the sense of Europe, which as a boy he associated with art and culture as much as he did with “soldiers and lodgings and concierges.” He knew there was Art in Europe at a time when he also knew that “there were practically no hot rolls and no iced water,”5 and from what he wrote of those early years it is easy to see that for him “Europe” meant France and that France meant Paris.

  • 6 Ibid., p. 79.

3In his home country James had received a foretaste of French grace, charm, and civility when he admired the French acrobats, dancers, and pantomimists who performed at Niblo’s. He had listened with the greatest interest to everything that was told him about Paris. He had often accompanied his father to the office of the New York Tribune (of which he was later to become a correspondent), where one of the elder James’s friends used to speak of Paris and the Parisian stage. Long afterwards James remembered a scrap of gossip there in which the name of Madame Judith occurred and which sank into him “turning [his consciousness] to the Comédie with an intensity that was long afterwards to culminate.”6 Thanks to his parents’ fond interest in their children and to their liberal view as to what children might see James soon found himself at home among the theatres and showed a precocious interest in actors. But even then he had heard so much about the Théâtre Français that he looked forward to the day when he would have the opportunity to applaud French actors on a Parisian stage. The main interests and preoccupations of the adult writer were latent in the child, and James’s life, seen in retrospect, appears as a long pilgrimage to things and places already known.

4In June 1855 the whole family sailed again for Europe and after a short stay in London went on to Paris, Lyons, and Geneva. Henry was happy to revisit the French capital, and when an old man the impression it had made on him from a balcony hanging over the Rue de la Paix was still fresh in his mind. It was as though he could take possession of a picture whose original he had long wanted to behold and that now fell in its place, fitting the frame ready for it:

  • 7 Ibid., p. 292.

I recover what I felt as so much relation and response to the larger, the largest appeal only, that of the whole perfect Parisianism I seemed to myself always to have possessed mentally—even if I had but just turned twelve!—and that now filled out its frame or case for me from every lighted window, up and down, as if each of these had been, for strength of sense, a word in some immortal quotation, the very breath of civilised lips.7

5The elder James had grown more and more dissatisfied with the New York schools and placed the boys in Mr. Roedinger’s “polyglot pensionnat” near Geneva, where he hoped to have them taught foreign languages. But the instruction given there having proved less fruitful than he had expected he took the family back to London through Lyons and Paris again and finally settled in Paris in June 1856. In his autobiography James evokes the time when they were hotel children, floated from one institution to the other and from one country to the next:

  • 8 Ibid., p. 227.

The literal played in our education as small a part as it perhaps ever played in any, and we wholesomely breathed inconsistency and ate and drank contradictions.8

  • 9 Ibid., p. 341.

6In Paris the boys first listened to M. Lerambert in a pavilion overhanging the Avenue des Champs-Elysées between the Rond-Point and the rue du Colisée, but the “warm somniferous mornings by the windows that opened to the clattery, plashy court”9 were replaced at the end of the winter by lessons at the Institution Fezandié, rue Balzac. The James family remained in Paris from June 1856 to the summer of 1857, when financial difficulties compelled them to sublet their Paris residence in the rue Montaigne and to move to Boulogne-sur-Mer; there the boys attended the local collège. That year in Paris was to leave its mark on their sensitive and maturing minds. Henry was never to forget the rich and vivid Parisian scene that he saw from their premier in the rue d’Angoulême:

  • 10 Ibid., pp. 349-350.

What faced us was a series of subjects, with the baker, at the corner, for the first—the impeccable dispenser of the so softly-crustly crescent-rolls that we woke up each morning to hunger for afresh, with our weak café-au-lait, as for the one form of “European” breakfast-bread fit to be named even with the feeblest of our American forms. Then came the small crêmerie, white picked out with blue, which, by some secret of its own keeping, afforded, within the compass of a few feet square, prolonged savoury meals to working men, white-frocked or blue-frocked, to uniformed cabmen, stout or square, but all more or less audibly bavards and discernibly critical; and next the compact embrasure of the écaillère or oyster-lady, she and her paraphernalia fitted into their interstice much as the mollusc itself into its shell; neighboured in turn by the marchand-de-bois, peeping from as narrow a cage, his neat faggots and chopped logs stacked beside him and above him in his sentry-box quite as the niches of saints, in early Italian pictures, are framed with tightly-packed fruits and flowers. Space and remembrance fail me for the rest of the series, the attaching note of which comes back as the note of diffused sociability and domestic, in fact more or less aesthetic, ingenuity, with the street a perpetual parlour or household centre for the flitting, pausing, conversing little bourgeoise or ouvrière to sport, on every pretext and in every errand, her fluted cap, her composed head, her neat ankles and her ready wit. Which is to say indeed but that life and manners were more pointedly and harmoniously expressed, under our noses there than we had perhaps found them anywhere save in the most salient passages of “stories.”10

  • 11 Ibid., p. 347.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 352.
  • 13 Ibid., p. 353.

7The varied scenes offered by the streets of Paris and watched from a balcony were to recur more than once in Henry’s fiction. The budding novelist tried to lose nothing of the show. He was never tired of walking, now with William, now with Mademoiselle Danse, the most Parisian of all his French governesses, in the animated streets of Paris or along the quays. The Paris of the time, before Baron Haussmann had started transforming it, had less the air of “a great shining conspiracy to please,”11 and everything in it appealed to the boy, to his senses, to his sensibility, to his imagination. His emotion always increased when they went up the rue de Seine. It was as though mysterious words were trembling in the air: “Art, art, art, don’t you see? Learn, little gaping pilgrims what that is!”12 and as though the beautiful old houses of the rue de Tournon were whispering: “Yes, small staring jeune homme, we are dignity and memory and measure, we are conscience and proportion and taste, not to mention strong sense too: for all of which good things take us—you won’t find one of them when you find (as you’re going soon to begin to at such a rate) vulgarity.”13

  • 14 Ibid., p. 361.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 364.
  • 16 Ibid., p. 366.

8What Henry liked best was to accompany his elder brother to the art galleries and to discover with him the treasures of the Louvre and the Luxembourg. He was still too young to have more than a vague idea of art. He was aware of an enormous mystery surrounding him, of things unknown in his own country and dispensed with profusion in Paris, but he was not yet aware of style. When he entered the Louvre he was at first overwhelmed by the “deafening chorus” of the pictures gathered there, and unable to distinguish anything. But then he felt himself “most happily cross that bridge over to Style constituted by the wondrous Galerie d’Apollon.”14 The discovery of the Louvre, young though Henry was at the time, may be said to have been the most important experience in his life. Its rooms, as so many fountains at which his young fancy drank, were “educative, formative, fertilising, in a degree which no other ‘intellectual experience’ our youth was to know could pretend, as a comprehensive, conducive thing, to rival,”15 and his repeated visits there were as “so many explorations of the house of life, so many circlings and hoverings round the image of the world.”16 The Louvre was not only a miniature Paris, it was life in a nutshell, life expressed more harmoniously and more beautifully than anywhere else, and from there his young mind could start on infinite discoveries and extensions:

  • 17 Loc. cit.

I had looked at pictures, looked and looked again, at the vast Veronese, at Murillo’s moon-borne Madonna, at Leonardo’s almost unholy dame with the folded hands, treasures of the Salon Carré as that display was then composed; but I had also looked at France and looked at Europe, looked even at America as Europe itself might be conceived so to look, looked at history, as a still-felt past and a complacently personal future, at society, manners, types, characters, possibilities and prodigies and mysteries of fifty sorts.17

  • 18 Notes of a Son and Brother (London, 1914), p. 57.

9Such was Paris for Henry James’s hungry young mind, and before leaving Europe in September 1860, after another brief sojourn in Switzerland and Germany, he once more haunted the arcades of the glass galleries of the Palais Royal in order to make his provision of culture. He knew that his sole nourishment in America would be the Revue des Deux Mondes and he endeavoured “to store up… treasures of impressions that might be gnawed, in seasons or places of want, like winter pears or a squirrel’s hoard of nuts, and so perhaps keep one alive, as to one’s most vital faculty above-mentioned, till one should somehow or other be able to scramble back.”18

  • 19 Collected by Leon Edel and Use Dusoir Lind in Parisian Sketches. Letters to the New York Tribune 18 (...)

10James was right to store up as much as he could since he was not able to “scramble back” until the autumn of 1872, with his sister and his aunt. But it was not until the autumn of 1875, when he was engaged as a regular correspondent in Paris for the New York Tribune that his old desire was fulfilled. The letters James wrote to the American newspaper19 throw some light— however feeble—on his reaction to the French. We follow him to the numerous exhibitions in Paris, we visit the Salon of 1876, the Durand-Ruel’s gallery, where the early Impressionists were being laughed at, we admire the cathedral at Chartres or simply rest on the beach of Etretat; we listen to Johann Strauss conducting his waltzes or to Victor Hugo addressing the communal delegates; we see Rossi play Macbeth or Romeo; we smile at the British tourist appearing on the boulevards on the first day of the Easter holidays, and from time to time we get some hints at French politics and at the progress of the young Republic, together with ironical remarks on the French love for controversy in general and for politics in particular.

  • 20 Transatlantic Sketches (Boston, 1875),p. 100.

11James seems to note his impressions as they come to him, without apparent order. He charges the French with a certain lightness and irresponsibility. He finds their national conceit extremely disagreeable and not to be matched anywhere else. On the other hand, the outward aspect of Paris on Christmas Eve, 1876, suggests to him some reflections on the mystery of the thrift, energy, and good spirits of France, on the amazing elasticity of a country which has just been beaten and humiliated and is yet as radiant for Christmas as if her sky had never known a cloud. He admires their ability to hide, under elegance and charm, wounds that are still bleeding. We find the same admiration in Transatlantic Sketches when, listening to Molière and Alfred de Musset on a beautiful evening in the early summer, he cannot help wondering “that the tender flower of poetry and art should bloom again so bravely over blood-stained pavements and fresh-made graves.”20 Charm and good taste are to be found at every turn: in the music of the language, in the elegant acting of Céline Chaumont, in the shop fronts of the Rue de la Paix, in the good dinners served by smiling young girls in black dresses or by quick, zealous waiters. Even when he dines in the country in the company of “voyageurs de commerce” James feels that when paying his three francs fifty centimes he is paying for more than his dinner.

  • 21 Parisian Sketches, p. 15.
  • 22 Ibid., p. 20.
  • 23 Ibid., p. 131.
  • 24 Ibid., p. 132.

12The letters dealing with art express the writer’s admiration for the seriousness of the French and help us to understand his early objections to realism. He hates Barye’s animal miniatures and speaks with disgust of his Lion au repos, with which the “unclean, prowling, muscular beast of the jungles and deserts made his entrance into sculpture.”21 Carpeaux’s group La Danse does not appeal to him either. The “poor, lean, individualized bodies” of his figures are “pitifully real.”22 He opposes their aggressive nakedness to the unconsciously naked heroes of Greek art and their individualized bodies to the idealized beauty of the Greeks. Though we cannot help thinking of Hawthorne’s similar objections to naked statues, it would be too easy to attribute James’s to Puritan prejudices: after all the French reaction was violent too and La Danse would probably have been removed from the Opera House, had not the sculptor died shortly afterwards. At the exhibition of the Impressionists James’s reaction is hardly different from that of the French public: he does not find among them any artist showing signs of first-rate talent. He reproaches them with advocating bare reality, refusing selection and arrangement and ignoring the beautiful, which, he says, was to them “what the supernatural is to the Positivists—a metaphysical notion.”23 He compares them to the English Preraphaelites, which leads him to reflect on the moral differences between the French and the English; the Preraphaelites were at least laborious in their treatment of reality but the Impressionists “who, I think, are more consistent, abjure virtue altogether, and declare that a subject which has been crudely chosen shall be loosely treated”24: the English were pedants, the French are cynics. Strangely enough, James did not understand immediately that the Impressionists were doing exactly what he himself wanted the novelist to do, i.e., combine the truth to nature with the colouring of their own mind, fuse observation with imagination. He could detect promising young writers, and most of them proved him to have been right; but he was not so sure a critic of the visual arts.

  • 25 The American Scene, p. 46.
  • 26 Loc. cit.

13For all this James was probably undergoing the influence of France, like Newman, his American, who did not realize, until everything was over, that he had been changed and definitely marked with the stamp of Europe. James was to develop towards a better understanding of French art and the day would come when he would be able to appreciate the Impressionists. In The American Scene he relates that strolling in the New England country on a beautiful autumn evening he had come to an old house where he had the pleasure and surprise of discovering modern “impressionistic” pictures by Manet, Degas, Claude Monet, and Whistler. They struck him as “a large slippery sweet inserted, without a warning, between the compressed lips of half-conscious inanition.”25 He had not realized how starved he was and—although he adds that any other art form would have had the same effect—the sight of these pictures “made everything else shrivel and fade: it was like the sudden trill of a nightingale, lord of the hushed evening.”26 His comments on other painters reflect some of his general ideas about art. He objects to Meissonier’s La bataille de Friedland because it contains no “ideas.” The details are minutely depicted but the picture as a whole does not convey anything:

  • 27 Parisian Sketches, p. 38.

The parts are admirable, and the more you analyze them the better they seem. The best thing, say, is a certain cuirassier, and in the cuirassier the best thing is his clothes, and in his clothes the best thing is his leather straps, and in his leather strap the best thing is the buckles.27

  • 28 Ibid., pp. 106-107.

14Decamps, on the contrary, pleases him because he has a certain independence of fancy that is quite personal and can be learned in no school. He does not paint according to the canons which had lately come into fashion, but James ranks individual talent higher than dependence on a group or school. Decamps, James says, will always find admirers “among the people who cannot help believing that the great charm of art is in its being a change from life, and not a still narrower consciousness of it.”28 He likewise praises Munkacsy’s Intérieur d’Atelier, the picture he liked best in the 1876 Salon, because the painter treats this simple subject in his own way and suffuses it with his imagination; the vision is entirely his own.

15Even if we consider that James was far less gifted as an art-critic than as a critic of literature we should not underestimate his reflections on the visual arts for they have their counterpart in literature—at least at an early stage. He rejects a method whose sole purpose seems to be to render the subject with the utmost precision without caring at all for the principle of composition. His objection to much of French art is that through what he calls a “skeptical cleverness” it generally fails to render the intensity of life. It is clever and lifeless like the novels of Flaubert and lacks the Anglo-Saxon naïveté that would make it more human.

  • 29 Ibid., p. 44.

16Some of his letters to the Tribune are devoted to the theatre. In Paris the theatre is not, James writes, a mere amusement as it is in other countries. It is “an institution, connected through a dozen open doors with literature, art, and society.”29 James had already explained in Transatlantic Sketches that the theatre played an important part in French culture and that it was the best place for anyone to go who wanted to get copious information about French manners and philosophy:

  • 30 Transatlantic Sketches, p. 99.

The stage throws into relief the best gifts of the French mind, and the Théâtre Français is not only the most amiable but the most characteristic of French institutions.30

  • 31 hoc. cit.

17He says that any foreigner “leaves the theatre an ardent Gallomaniac”31 and that he, for his part, never listened to the traditional toc-toc-toc at the beginning of a play without murmuring to himself that the French were prodigiously great and that their talent could only imply the existence of every virtue. What always struck him in Paris was the number of honnêtes gens for whom the theatre was one of the necessities of life, and he came to the conclusion that

  • 32 Ibid., p. 104.

in the theatre the French mind se reconnaît, according to its own idiom, more vividly than elsewhere. Its supreme faculty, the art of form, of arrangement and presentation, is pre-eminently effective on the stage.32

  • 33 Ibid., p. 109.

18The perfection depends almost exclusively on arrangement and ingenuity because the substance of the plays is often extremely meagre and the actors are usually much better than the authors. But in spite of the superficial perception of life and of the conventional adultery theme which has become a mere ficelle in French plays, James does not hesitate to say that “to an ingenuous American the Théâtre Français may yet offer an aesthetic education.”33

  • 34 Parisian Sketches, p. 50.
  • 35 Ibid., p. 61.

19Dumas’ L’Etrangère, with its highly improbable plot, struck James as a disagreeable play, saturated with loose living and indecent people. He looked in vain for a trace of personal emotion in Sardou’s plays which “seem to have been produced in a sort of mental vacuum.”34 On the other hand, he enjoyed Les Danicheff because of a “certain imaginative good faith and naïveté which offer a grateful change from the familiar gyrations of that terrible tough and lean old performer, l’esprit parisien.35 Naïveté, freshness, sincerity are words that often recur in the letters, as qualities definitely lacking among the French and therefore purely American. France also possesses qualities of its own, quite as delightful, but they are of the surface of things.

20During his stay in Paris James became acquainted with Turgenev, who introduced him to Gustave Flaubert and his cénacle. There James met Edmond de Goncourt, Emile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, and Guy de Maupassant, and with them he discussed questions of art and form. James is by turns delighted or shocked. He complains of their narrowness, of their lack of interest in anything not French, of their ignorance of the English language, mind and culture, and of their dogmatism in aesthetic matters. But at the same time he enjoys their brilliant talk and the seriousness with which they consider their craft. They are not interested at all in the relation between art and morality, their exclusive concern being with form and style. James often finds them parochial, yet recognizes that the numerous coteries and schools, the differences of opinions, though often leading inside each group to passionate and even ferocious discussion, can produce very good work:

  • 36 Ibid., pp. 55-56.

A little school that dislikes every other school, but is extremely active and industrious within its own circle, is an excellent engine for the production of limited perfection, and French literature abounds in books in which particular tendencies have been pushed to lengths which only a sort of artistic conspiracy of many minds could have reached, but which seem like mere blind alleys of thought, where explorers perish, suffocated for want of having taken heed of possible issues to right or left.36

  • 37 Ibid., p. 55.

21The passage is significant. James’s admiration is qualified. He understands the lesson and will probably never forget it. But neither will he ever be one of them. The cosmopolitan in him would soon “perish suffocated” in their “blind alleys of thought.” Flaubert’s cénacle appears to James as a miniature of France, parochialism and “cleverness” are for him typical features of the French character. “Nothing,” he writes, “is more striking to a foreigner, even after he thinks he has grown used to such things, than the definiteness with which people here are classed and ticketed.”37 He is himself ticketed as an American in Paris and as such he will never have any real contact with these people. Although it does not always appear from the subjects he treated, James needed space and air as much as did Melville or Cooper. Like his friend Turgenev, who liked Paris but never became gallicized either, James found it impossible to remain in the closed rooms of the French writers. A letter written from Etretat to his brother William throws light on his state of mind at the time when he decided to leave Paris and settle in London:

  • 38 The Selected Letters of Henry James, ed. Leon Edel (London, 1956), p. 78.

Your remarks on my French tricks in my letters are doubtless most just and shall be heeded. But it’s an odd thing that such tricks should grow at a time when my last layer of resistance to a long-encroaching weariness and satiety with the French mind and its utterance has fallen from me like a garment. I have done with ’em forever, and I am turning English all over. I desire only to feed on English life and the contact of English minds—I wish greatly I knew some. Easy and smooth-flowing as life is in Paris, I would throw it over tomorrow for an even very small chance to plant myself for a while in England.… I have got nothing important out of Paris nor am likely to. My life there makes a much more succulent figure in your letters, as my mention of its thin ingredients comes back to me, than in my own consciousness. A good deal of Boulevard and third rate Americanism: few retributive relations otherwise. I know the Théâtre Français by heart!38

22James’s experience as a journalist had proved a complete failure; he had been obliged to recognize his inability to be newsy and chatty enough for an American newspaper, and a great deal of his disappointment certainly went into his letter. For the rest of his life he never missed an opportunity to express his hatred of pot-boiling. But like most of his correspondence at that time this letter also reveals the sour and melancholy state of mind of the exile at odds with an alien environment. He had sensed at an early date that an American would always find it difficult to be quite at home in Paris. As a child at the Institution Fézandié he had already noticed that some of his friends were in full possession of Paris and that others were not. He had the impression of witnessing a “rite” that revealed a great and mysterious order from which he felt himself excluded. The same doubt is discernible in a letter to T.S. Perry dating from 1867. Using the vernacular of the city of his dreams to praise her better, he writes:

  • 39 Ibid., p. 48.

Je fus bien aisé de te savoir de retour à Paris, que tu n’as sans doute pas quitté. Je crois que tu ne regretteras jamais d’y avoir passé une grosse partie de ton temps; car enfin, quoi qu’on en dise, c’est une des merveilles de l’univers. On y apprend à connaître les hommes et les choses, et pour peu qu’on soit parvenu à y attraper le sentiment du chez soi, quelque genre de vie que l’on mène plus tard, on ne sera jamais un ignorant, un ermite — enfin un provincial.39

  • 40 Ibid., p. 49.

23He repeats it in English, saying that a man who has seen Paris attentively has seen the “biggest achievement of civilization in a certain direction” and that “he will always carry with him a certain little reflet of its splendour.”40

24Having once dreamed of fathoming the brilliant capital and of becoming initiated into its mysteries James now resented being held at arms’ length by the very people he had wished to know and having to content himself with the tiresome and unprofitable company of his compatriots. “Of pure Parisianism,” he wrote to W.D. Howells, “I see absolutely nothing,” and he went on:

  • 41 28 May 1876, Letters. I, 48.

The great merit of the place is that one can arrange one’s life here exactly as one pleases—that there are facilities for every kind of habit and taste, and that everything is accepted and understood.41

  • 1

25He also confessed that he had seen almost nothing of his fellow-craftsmen and that he was not likely ever to become intimate with them. His personal unhappiness and disappointment made him pass querulous remarks on his hosts: “I don’t like their wares, and they don’t like any others; and besides, they are not accueillants.”42

  • 43 The Notebooks of Henry James, ed. F.O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (New York, 1961), p. 26.
  • 44 The House of Fiction, ed. Leon Edel (London, 1957), p. 230.

26Referring to his Parisian experience six years later in his Notebooks James gave various reasons to explain his change of mind, but his concluding sentence probably summarizes them all: “I saw, moreover, that I should be an eternal outsider.”43 In fact, he had got far more out of Paris than he could realize at the time. He was often to remember the year spent in the capital of the Third Republic. In his 1902 essay on Flaubert he recalls with warmth and enthusiasm the long evenings and interesting talk by the novelist’s winter fire. In the essay on Zola written the following year he evokes his Sunday afternoons in Paris when the members of the little group “exchanged free confidences on current work, on plans and ambitions, in a manner full of interest for one never previously privileged to see artistic conviction, artistic passion (at least on the literary ground) so systematic and so articulate.”44 But this came much later, when time had turned his resentment into lasting admiration.

27James never severed his connection with France and French literature, nor did he wait long before renewing contact with Paris. After living for upwards of a year in London he came back to the French capital in 1877. He relates his impressions in an essay entitled “Occasional Paris,” collected in Portraits of Places.

  • 45 Portraits of Places (London, 1883), p. 80.
  • 46 Ibid., p. 86.
  • 47 Ibid., p. 87.

28His eyes, now used to a different scene, re-discover the most brilliant city in the world with renewed pleasure. True, he finds that the realizations of Baron Haussmann and the other benefits of the Empire have deprived the streets of Paris of nine-tenths of their charm and former individuality; he dislikes the pompous, featureless sameness of the new houses, and the Avenue de l’Opéra, opened in the interior of Paris, “smells,” he says, “of the modern asphalt.”45 But one year in London had made him forget the sociability diffused in the very air of Paris. When the waiter of a little café where he used to come as a regular customer recognized him and remembered his favourite table James remarked ironically that his heart had suffered on the other side of the Channel from the incorruptible dumbness of the British domestic. He also observed French individuals with greater attention than before. After contrasting the broad shoulders and well-cut features of the English porters with the ugly fellows gesticulating at Boulogne he goes on to consider the French faces in the streets of Paris and comes to the conclusion that if they are not handsome they are the most expressive in the world. The French working people strike him as “the cleverest, the most perceptive and, intellectually speaking, the most human of their kind.”46 But if the working class has more of the intellectual stamp in France than in England, those of the better sort, on the contrary, are much less “respectable.” James looks in vain for a gentleman in the streets of Paris and when he sees some Frenchmen sitting together in a café he notes how natural and spontaneous they are, less formal and more personal than the English. “I did not know,” he confesses, “till I came back to Paris how used I had grown to the English cachet.”47 The Frenchwoman, on the other hand, is always respectable and suggests all the civic and domestic virtues. James admires her, sees her everywhere in the forefront of action, considers her as superior to the men and pays tribute to her qualities:

  • 48 Ibid., p. 88.

the neatness, compactness, and sobriety of her dress, the decision of her movement and accent suggest the civic and domestic virtues—order, thrift, frugality, the moral necessity of making a good appearance.48

  • 49 Letter to Grace Norton, 15 December 1877, Letters, I, 58.

29There are two things, he writes, a foreigner must do on arriving in Paris: first, to go and dine at some cabaret; secondly, to spend the evening at the Théâtre Français. He himself does both, admiring Sarah Bernhardt in Andromaque and reflecting on the different reactions of the English and the French to such a play as Alexandre Dumas’ Le Demi-Monde. For all this, James did not fathom French society any more than he had done one year before. When he writes to Grace Norton that he knows too many people in Paris and has too many visits to pay we understand that he was thrown back upon the company of his own compatriots, whose chief quality after living thirty years in Europe seems to him “a fierce susceptibility on the subject of omitted calls.”49

  • 50 Preface to The Tragic Muse, The Art o[ the Novel, p. 87.

30James went on making short visits to Paris. He was there in the autumn of 1879; when revising his works for the New York Edition, he remembers the small shabby salon of the hôtel garni not far from the rue de la Paix, where he was writing A Bundle of Letters while a snowstorm raged outside with a violence rare in Paris. He was there again in the autumn of 1889 when the Exposition du Centenaire was about to end and when he was struggling with the difficulties of plot and structure in The Tragic Muse. On re-reading the novel he recaptures the very odour of Paris and he remembers how the plot of the city “thickened at such hours beyond any other plot in the world” while he sat “with another, on [his] hands, absolutely requiring precedence.”50

  • 51 Letter to W.E. Norris, 23 December 1907, Letters, II, 88.
  • 52 Letter to Edith Wharton, 17 November 1906, Letters, II, 58.

31In 1907 James had another closer contact with the French capital. He was then a guest at the Whartons’ who lived rue de Varenne, in a beautiful old house of the Rive Gauche, amid old private hotels and hidden gardens. He paid them “a visit of ten months,” and “tasted socially and associatively… of a new Paris altogether and got a bellyful of fresh and nutritiveimpressions.”51 He now discovered the fashionable Paris of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, where distinguished Anglo-Saxons were admitted to tea-parties in refined drawing-rooms. All this was a new and exciting experience for the old man who had only frequented artistic and Bohemian circles during his previous stays in Paris. The boy of thirteen, to whom the beautiful mansions of the rue de Tournon nodded as he passed, could not imagine that he would have to wait so long for admittance. One year before joining her in Paris James had advised Mrs. Wharton to keep to her native and primary material instead of treating the French or the Franco-American subject; there was between American and French elements, he said, “a disparity as complete as between a life led in trees, say, and a life led in—sea-depths, or in other words between that of climbers and swimmers—or (crudely) that of monkeys and fish.”52 James had become weary of the international theme, which, he understood, could not be treated in a realistic way. What now attracted him was the contrast between human beings, hardly discernible under the smooth surface of uniform conventions.

  • 53 Preface to The American, The Art of the Novel, p. 24.

32Even if the doors of the rue de Varenne had remained closed in 1907 James would not have minded much. He no longer romanticized what was hidden behind them. He believed in an intellectual élite, a Cosmopolis where everyone had the same mask on. He knew that under the unrippled surface of good manners and civility, there existed mysterious undercurrents, tensions as violent as the former black-and-white oppositions between the American order and the complicated social system of European countries. To discover these tensions, to read behind the masks was what James had come to consider the supreme pleasure as well as the supreme art of the novelist. He found it too easy and unworthy of a good writer to make the moral standards of a character break down simply because the action takes place in Paris. In 1875 he had already felt that “the conception of Paris as the consecrated scene of rash infatuations and bold bad treacheries belong [ed] in the Anglo-Saxon imagination, to the infancy of art.”53 Yet The American had been conceived in those terms. More than twenty years later, when he was writing The Ambassadors, James hated the “dreadful little old tradition… the trivial association, one of the vulgarest in the world”:

  • 54 Preface to The Ambassadors, ibid,, p. 316.

The revolution performed by Strether under the influence of the most interesting of great cities was to have nothing to do with any bêtise of the imputably “tempted” state; he was to be thrown forward, rather, thrown quite with violence, upon his lifelong trick of intense reflection: which friendly test indeed was to bring him out, through winding passages, through alternations of darkness and light, very much in Paris, but with the surrounding scene itself a minor matter, a mere symbol for more things than had been dreamt of in the philosophy of Woollett. Another surrounding scene would have done as well for our show could it have represented a place in which Strether’s errand was likely to lie and his crisis to await him. The likely place had the great merit of sparing me preparations.54

33There is more to be discovered in Paris than corruption, immorality and loose life. The town is also the symbol of a quality of living to which Woollett is entirely impervious but which the man who wishes to taste all the fruits of civilization must once experience.

  • 55 Letter to Mrs. Wharton, 19 April 1909, Letters, II, 129.
  • 56 Letter to Miss Henriette Reubell, 19 October 1909, ibid., p. 144.
  • 57 Letter to Mrs. Henry White, 29 December 1908, ibid., pp. 121-122.

34James visited Mrs. Wharton again in 1908 and spent ten days with her in April but afterwards declined further invitations. “Paris,” he writes to her from Rye, “as I look at it from here figures to me a great blur of intense white light in which, attached to the hub of a revolving wheel, you are all whirled round by the finest silver strings.”55 The French capital is glittering forth but he, the old man, no longer dares mingle in the fray. He has become a quiet “Sussex burgher” who has “great occasional bouffées of fond memory and longing from [his] dear old past Paris56 but who could not bear the mad rhythm of the modern town. The “pendulous life” he had led for so many years now frightens him beyond measure: “I am a stopped clock,” he writes, “and I strike (that is I caper about) only when very much wound up.”57 The war was to make him “strike” for the last time. He left his quiet place of retirement and went to London, where he spent the rest of his life with his eyes fixed on the big wounded heart of France; he never again lost sight of it, watched each of its pulsations, suffered from its injuries as if he had himself received them and feared lest it should cease to beat because this would mean, he felt, the end of the civilized world.


1 The Letters of Henry James, ed. P. Lubbock (New York, 1920), I, 48.

2 The American Scene (London, 1907), p. 223.

3 A Small Boy and Others (London, 1913), p. 57.

4 Introduction to A Passionate Pilgrim, The Art of the Novel, p. 195. James’s Prefaces to the New York Edition of his fiction have been collected and edited by Richard P. Blackmur in The Art of the Novel (New York, 1953 [1934]).

5 A Small Boy and Others, p. 277.

6 Ibid., p. 79.

7 Ibid., p. 292.

8 Ibid., p. 227.

9 Ibid., p. 341.

10 Ibid., pp. 349-350.

11 Ibid., p. 347.

12 Ibid., p. 352.

13 Ibid., p. 353.

14 Ibid., p. 361.

15 Ibid., p. 364.

16 Ibid., p. 366.

17 Loc. cit.

18 Notes of a Son and Brother (London, 1914), p. 57.

19 Collected by Leon Edel and Use Dusoir Lind in Parisian Sketches. Letters to the New York Tribune 1875-1876 (London, 1958).

20 Transatlantic Sketches (Boston, 1875),p. 100.

21 Parisian Sketches, p. 15.

22 Ibid., p. 20.

23 Ibid., p. 131.

24 Ibid., p. 132.

25 The American Scene, p. 46.

26 Loc. cit.

27 Parisian Sketches, p. 38.

28 Ibid., pp. 106-107.

29 Ibid., p. 44.

30 Transatlantic Sketches, p. 99.

31 hoc. cit.

32 Ibid., p. 104.

33 Ibid., p. 109.

34 Parisian Sketches, p. 50.

35 Ibid., p. 61.

36 Ibid., pp. 55-56.

37 Ibid., p. 55.

38 The Selected Letters of Henry James, ed. Leon Edel (London, 1956), p. 78.

39 Ibid., p. 48.

40 Ibid., p. 49.

41 28 May 1876, Letters. I, 48.


43 The Notebooks of Henry James, ed. F.O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (New York, 1961), p. 26.

44 The House of Fiction, ed. Leon Edel (London, 1957), p. 230.

45 Portraits of Places (London, 1883), p. 80.

46 Ibid., p. 86.

47 Ibid., p. 87.

48 Ibid., p. 88.

49 Letter to Grace Norton, 15 December 1877, Letters, I, 58.

50 Preface to The Tragic Muse, The Art o[ the Novel, p. 87.

51 Letter to W.E. Norris, 23 December 1907, Letters, II, 88.

52 Letter to Edith Wharton, 17 November 1906, Letters, II, 58.

53 Preface to The American, The Art of the Novel, p. 24.

54 Preface to The Ambassadors, ibid,, p. 316.

55 Letter to Mrs. Wharton, 19 April 1909, Letters, II, 129.

56 Letter to Miss Henriette Reubell, 19 October 1909, ibid., p. 144.

57 Letter to Mrs. Henry White, 29 December 1908, ibid., pp. 121-122.

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