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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

I. The Tourist


Texte intégral

  • 1 Four Meetings, Complete Tales, IV, 92.
  • 2 A Small Boy and Others, p. 292.

1“You have the native American passion—the passion for the picturesque,” the narrator tells Caroline Spencer in Four Meetings. “With us, I think, it is primordial—antecedent to experience. Experience comes and only shows us something we have dreamt of.”1 Like his American characters, James “dreamed” of France before being actually confronted with the country. He dreamed while reading French writers in the Revue des Deux Mondes, while listening at home to conversations about French actors or actresses, while visiting art galleries or beholding a specimen of French art at a Boston dealer’s. His trips to France were therefore pilgrimages to things long known before: leaning on his balcony over the rue de la Paix, he recognized a scene that had always been present in his mind and “that now filled out its frame… from every lighted window.”2 In the passage of the autobiography relating his first two memories of France the “dream” significantly blends with the actual experience: the Colonne Vendôme in Paris and the peasant in front of old ruins in the country become a vision “framed” by the window of a carriage, a stereotyped post-card of France seen through American eyes with, on the one hand, the symbol of France’s central authority and military power and, on the other, the symbol of its past and traditions.

  • 3 French Poets and Novelists (London, 1878), p. 251.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 242.

2The reality with which James was confronted did not always square with his dreams. The self-sufficiency and the parochialism of the people he met often irritated him. There lingered at the back of his mind a nostalgic regret for the France of the past, the “good old crooked, dirty, picturesque Paris of Charles X and Louis-Philippe”3 which he had discovered as a child when turning over the pages of the “Idler in France,” an old back-parlour volume by the Countess of Blessington. The second Empire, by setting its seal upon things, had removed the ease, good taste, and urbanity of that blessed old time. “The cleverness is greater than ever,” James wrote in French Poets and Novelists, “but the charm is gone; the music is elaborate, but the instrument is cracked. The gaiety becomes forced and hard and the urbanity ironical; the lightness turns to levity.”4 At other times, however, he enjoyed the contemporary scene and let himself be saturated with the general atmosphere of a country in which the problem of life was solved more comfortably and the art of living carried further than anywhere else in the world. He filled his mind with words caught at tables d’hôtes, faces met in trains or in coaches, paintings admired in galleries, houses with high windows and closed doors. Past, present, and future melted together: the people encountered were either old acquaintances stepping forth out of old frames and books to greet him, or silent shadows, still unknown, waiting at the door of his mind to be one day introduced into his fiction.

  • 5 At Isella, Complete Tales, II, 307.

3James was no ordinary tourist and he approached France almost exclusively through art and literature. Natural scenery such as that of Switzerland did not appeal to him at all. “What was Switzerland after all?” he wrote in one of his tales, “little else but brute Nature surely, of which at home we have enough and to spare. What we seek in Europe is Nature refined and transmuted to art.”5 Italy offered to James and to his American pilgrims the kind of nature they were looking for. But no country was more interesting than France because there the life on which artists had drawn was still present everywhere. Never tired of exploring the French countryside, James recognized the rolling curves of a Daubigny near Etretat, sat with the originals of a Renoir painting in a country inn, or followed Balzac’s characters in the streets of Tours. He walked in the steps of the French writers and painters and made his way in the opposite direction—from art back to life.

4Underneath the surface of France James tried to get at the creative imagination capable of disciplining the muddle of life into the perfect arrangement of a jardin français. The ending of his Little Tour is extremely illuminating. If James likes the Pare of Dijon so much it is because it bears the stamp of the French mind, because more than any other place he has seen, it can tell him something about the French sense of form. This sense of form, together with the general submission to a central authority, strikes him in the very configuration of the country, with the provinces as the outer edge of a large circle and Paris—itself built round the Ile de la Cité—at its centre. As he grew older James more and more fixed his eyes on this “iridescent jewel” in which all the genius of France seemed to glitter and which made him all the more aware of the grey intellectual vacuity of his own world.

  • 6 Letter to William James, 29 October 1888, Letters, I, 145.

5James’s interest in France had always been enhanced by the contrast it offered to his own Anglo-Saxon world. In 1888 he wrote to his brother that he aspired to write in such a way that it would be impossible for a foreigner to say whether he was an American writing about England or an Englishman writing about America. The English-American world appeared to him, he said, as a big Anglo-Saxon total and the two countries as destined to melt together since they were simply “different chapters of the same general subject.”6 The otherness was beyond the Channel:

  • 7 Loc. cit.

THERE is the real difference—a gulf from the English (or the American) to the Frenchman, and vice versa (still more); and not from the Englishman to the American.7

6James knew where he belonged and he never really became gallicized. Between the two contrasting worlds he led a “pendulous life,” continually readjusting his views on contact with the other side, convinced that their differences were highly stimulating for the mind and thanking heaven for being neighboured by a genius that no civilized nation could afford to ignore.

7James’s first recollection as a baby was associated with Paris and his last thoughts before dying were directed towards France. In between there were the ups and downs of a relation that was far from being always cloudless, a relation that strikes us as exceptional in a life from which passion seems otherwise to have been excluded. It oscillated between exasperation and adoration and never stopped at the dead centre of indifference. It reminds us of the Prince’s relation to Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl. Like his Amerigo, James “married” elsewhere—but the love, like the Prince’s, remained.


1 Four Meetings, Complete Tales, IV, 92.

2 A Small Boy and Others, p. 292.

3 French Poets and Novelists (London, 1878), p. 251.

4 Ibid., p. 242.

5 At Isella, Complete Tales, II, 307.

6 Letter to William James, 29 October 1888, Letters, I, 145.

7 Loc. cit.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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