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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

French novelists


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  • 1 The House of Fiction, p. 85.

So far as we do move we move round him; every road comes back to him; he sits there, in spite of us, so massively, for orientation.1

1Now a Gulliver walking among pigmies, now an enormous statue at the end of a dusky and deserted avenue, Balzac remained for James the master of the art of fiction, the father of all novelists, one who had nothing behind him and who must set himself to work with nothing at his disposal but his formidable energy and his extraordinary imagination. James considered himself as one of the numerous fils de famille who had Balzac’s heritage to enjoy and to spend. The grandson was not ungrateful: whenever the opportunity offered he reaffirmed his gratitude, and said that his debt was so enormous that it could only be discharged in instalments.

  • 2 “Honoré de Balzac, ” first published in the Galaxy, December 1875. Reprinted in French Poets and N (...)

2The first of these2 is perhaps less laudatory than those James wrote later but it is also the one that throws the best light on his opinions and especially on his differences from Balzac and from the French novelists in general. Indeed James’s objections to Balzac also recur in his criticism of the latter’s compatriots. As he grew older and more experienced as a writer James became more and more aware of Balzac’s importance and he felt too shy to dare criticize him. What first strikes him in the Comédie Humaine is the absence of fresh air. Balzac weaves a dense, close web and he is neither loose nor superficial in spite of the amazing quantity of matter he wields together. Yet, he appears to James as a Prometheus chained to his task. The enormous amount of energy he devoted to his work, his lack of leisure, his refusal to waste time, are felt behind the apparent facility of the pages:

  • 3 Op. cit., pp. 95-96.

Between the lines of the “Comédie Humaine” the reader too often catches a glimpse of the Dominican robe and the darkened room, and longs for an open window and a costume somewhat less capricious. A realistic novelist, he remembers, is not an astrologer or an alchemist.3

3In a short review of Balzac’s Letters in 1877 James developed the same point: he explained that he was struck and shocked when he read these letters because there was nothing in them except sordid details about Balzac’s own affairs; not one intellectual or moral reflection, not one trace of emotion but only the complaints of the hurried and exhausted worker. Like Dickens Balzac was a practical, active man who treated his imaginative force as a matter of business and succumbed to the task.

  • 4 Ibid., p. 150.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 136. Struck by James’s interest in Le Père Goriot at the time when he was working on The (...)

4James is likewise struck by the facility with which French writers in general and Balzac in particular can ignore what is outside their own country. Balzac made France his universe and Paris the centre of it. Does this limitation, James asks, account for the intensity of their work? When he compares Balzac with Shakespeare, James feels “how Shakespeare’s characters stand out in the open air of the universe, while Balzac’s are enclosed in a particular artificial atmosphere, musty in quality and limited in amount, which persuades itself with a sublime sincerity that it is a very sufficient infinite.”4 This limited world has amazing solidity because it has been gradually constructed, brick after brick and dose of mortar after dose of mortar, before our eyes. Nothing is left unnoticed in the places we enter, and some of them are more real to us than real ones. The shabby Maison Vauquer for instance, which serves as a stage for vast dramas, has become “a sort of concentrated focus of human life, with sensitive nerves radiating out into the infinite.”5 Balzac’s portraits have the same solidity, though some of them are not so good as his portraits of places.

5His characters’ physical features are described with the same minuteness as the exterior of the houses; as a consequence, the character stands solidly on his feet and we know everything about him, from the features of his face to the state of his banking account.

6Balzac’s lack of generosity towards some of his characters, especially when they belong to the despised bourgeoisie, is another feature he has in common with other French novelists. James finds French irony cruel and cannot help contrasting it with what passes by the same name on the other side of the Channel:

  • 6 Ibid., p. 130.

There is almost always, to us English readers, something cruel and wounding in French irony—something almost sanguinary in French caricature. To be ridiculous is made to appear like a crime and to deprive the unhappy victim of any right that an acute observer is bound to respect.6

7James goes on to say that this is not the case in English literature and he exemplifies this from George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss: in this novel Mrs. Glegg and Mrs. Pullet, though ridiculous, are always treated with generosity and are never grudged a particle of their freedom in spite of the author’s awareness of their absurdities:

  • 7 Ibid., pp. 130-131.

In a single word, the picture is not invidious. Balzac, on the other hand, in corresponding pictures—pictures of small middle-class ignorance, narrowness, penury, poverty, dreariness, ugliness, physical and mental—is always invidious. He grudges and hates and despises.... Like all French artists and men of letters, Balzac hated the bourgeoisie with an immitigable hatred, and more than most of his class he hated the provincial.7

  • 8 Ibid., pp. 106-107.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 107. This criticism of the French is not new. Two centuries earlier, Dryden had already (...)

8In his book on Daumier James likewise contrasts the ferocious pessimism of Daumier and Gavarni, for whom the weaknesses of men are either ugly and grotesque or touchingly miserable, with the optimistic views of the caricaturists of Punch. French irony is quite different from English humour. It is “a relish, sentimentally more dry but intellectually more keen, of all grotesqueness and quaintness and uncleanness.”8 For a Frenchman, to be humorous means “to emulate Rabelais, to torture words, to string together names, to be pedantically jovial and archaically hilarious.”9

  • 10 Ibid., p. 114.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 105.

9Balzac’s hatred of the provincial appears most clearly in his portraits of women and it is closely associated with his lack of moral sense, another feature James often denounces in the French novelists of his time. Balzac obviously finds duplicity more picturesque than honesty and he prefers his coquettes and courtesans to his honest women. He finds the depravity of a Parisienne a far more interesting spectacle than the virtue of a provinciale, and he does not try to render the moral quality of his characters which, for James, was a serious fault in a novelist. “Be the morality false or true,” he writes, “the writer’s deference to it greets us as a kind of essential perfume.”10 Balzac, he goes on, is an “extraordinary physical phenomenon” rather than a great mind or conscience. His imagination itself strikes James as a sort of physical faculty. To approach such writers as Thackeray, George Eliot, George Sand and Turgenev means to enter great consciences and great minds; to approach Balzac is to enter a great temperament. This is the reason, James says, why Balzac’s incursion into the supernatural was hardly more than pure fancy and had no real connection with his moral life. Finally, James makes a few remarks on Balzac’s conservatism—calling him “a Tory of the deepest dye”11—and on the picturesque side of a monarchical and Catholic society:

  • 12 Ibid., p. 86.

A monarchical society is unquestionably more picturesque, more available for the novelist than any other, as the others have as yet exhibited themselves; and therefore Balzac was with glee, with gusto, with imagination, a monarchist.12

10In these remarks we feel that the artist already prevails over the democrat, and if James refuses to let the moral life of the individual be sacrificed to aesthetic values, he shows less scruple when society becomes the subject of the picture. He speaks of it in terms of painting: a society is like a landscape to which a hierarchy gives relief and colour. This is the American, born in a country where there is neither King nor Pope, speaking:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 110.

A hierarchy is as much more picturesque than a “congregational society” as a mountain is than a plain. Bishops, abbés, priests, Jesuits, are invaluable figures in fiction, and the morality of the Catholic Church allows of an infinite chiaroscuro.13

11These features—the absence of fresh air due to the constant strain and tension of the novelist, the lack of concern with what is not French, the hatred of the bourgeois, the greater attention to aesthetic than to ethical values—are not peculiar to Balzac; James will find them in other French novelists as well, and he considers Balzac as a good representative of the French mind and imagination:

  • 14 Ibid., pp. 103-104.

The French mind likes better to squeeze things into a formula that mutilates them, if need be, than to leave them in the frigid vague. The farther limit of its power of arrangement (so beautiful as it generally is) is the limit of the knowable. Consequently we often see in the visions and systems of the Frenchmen what may be called a conventional infinite. The civilization of the nineteenth century is of course not infinite, but to us of English speech, as we survey it, it appears so multitudinous, so complex, so far-spreading, so suggestive, so portentous—it has such misty edges and far reverberations—that the imagination, oppressed and overwhelmed, shrinks from any attempt to grasp it as a whole. The French imagination, in the person of Balzac, easily dominates it, as he would say, and, without admitting that the problem is any the less vast, regards it as practically soluble. He would be an incautious spirit who should propose hereupon to decide whether the French imagination or the English is the more potent. The one sees a vast number of obstacles and the other a vast number of remedies—the one beholds a great many shadows and the other a great many lights.14

  • 15 “Their plots are single, they carry on one design which is pushed forward by all the actors, every (...)

12The French tendency to generalize, to build systems, to “squeeze things into a formula,” to make neat intellectual constructions at the expense of life and feeling, strikes James from the beginning as a national idiosyncrasy. His belief that both life and form are necessary in art has a long tradition behind it. Two centuries before, when London already looked to Paris for guidance, trying to recover a theatrical tradition broken by twenty years of troubles, and when the prevalent taste was for more regular plays, few English critics could countenance the limitation imposed by the rules on life. They wanted variety as well as regularity, life as well as form. Neander, Dryden’s mouthpiece in the essay Of Dramatic Poesy, maintains that the Elizabethan drama is superior to the French because it contains more life.15

  • 16 French Poets and Novelists, p. 189.

13The two essays on Balzac collected in French Poets and Novelists still express the point of view of a young writer. In spite of his objections James recognizes the superiority of the Master, whose Père Goriot he does not hesitate to compare with King Lear. If Balzac lacked charm he had solidity, if he lacked delicacy he had energy. The Comédie Humaine, James concludes, “has a thousand faults, but it is a monumental excuse.”16

14Not until 1902 did James write about Balzac again. The 1902 article, James’s most eulogistic tribute to Balzac, was first published as an introduction to a translation of Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées (The Two Young Brides). It is a fine homage to the Master. Between the lines we feel the emotion and tenderness of an older writer whose memory has just been refreshed and who realizes that his relation with Balzac has lost nothing of its former intensity. Years have passed and James is now a master himself; the authors and books which once nurtured his young mind have gradually become part of himself:

  • 17 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 190.

They have been intellectually so swallowed, digested and assimilated that we take their general use and suggestion for granted, cease to be aware of them because they have passed out of sight. But they have passed out of sight simply by having passed into our lives.17

  • 18 Ibid., p. 192.

15Balzac, James says, set himself an immense, almost heroic task by wishing to turn over the great garden of life. Fortunately, he knew no other world than France and the garden of life happened to correspond exactly to the garden of France. This gave the artist a mould for his work, with definite edges and corners. The work was seen as a whole from the start. Balzac wanted to be the historian of his country and of his time; if this seems natural for a novelist it is particularly meaningful when applied to Balzac because he saw his subject in the light of science, “in the light of the bearing of all its parts on each other, and under pressure of a passion for exactitude, an appetite, the appetite of an ogre, for all the kinds of facts.”18 Inside the mould there is no selection, no limitation. And because he does not select we wonder at times whether the voice we hear is that of a poet gone astray in the realm of arithmetic and statistics, or that of an economist observing passions and characters to pass the time. The historian often half smothers the artist: each has his own laws which generally clash with each other because the imagination of the artist must be free whereas the mind of the historian is bound to keep to the facts.

16Balzac’s impressive completeness accounts for both his power and his occasional lack of grace. There is an obvious absence of grace, for instance, in his continual insistence on money:

  • 19 Ibid., p. 197.

The general money question so loads him up and weighs him down that he moves through the human comedy, from beginning to end, very much in the fashion of a camel, the ship of the desert, surmounted with a cargo. “Things” for him are francs and centimes more than any others, and I give up as inscrutable, unfathomable, the nature, the peculiar avidity of his interest in them. It makes us wonder again and again what then is the use on Balzac’s scale of the divine faculty. The imagination, as we all know, may be employed up to a certain point in inventing uses for money; but its office beyond that point is surely to make us forget that anything so odious exists.19

  • 20 Partial Portraits, p. 310.

17James himself, however, does not make us forget that anything so odious exists. Writing on Turgenev he says that it is not out of place to allude to this novelist’s considerable fortune, because it is “too important in the life of a man of letters”20 since it enables him to write according to his taste and mood. The same is true of James’s characters, who rarely have to contend with real financial difficulties and are generally rich enough to live as they choose. From the start James had been interested in the effect of money on his characters and on their relation with one another:

  • 21 A Landscape Painter, Complete Tales, I, 104.

How can a man be simple and natural who is known to have a large income? That is the supreme curse. It’s bad enough to have it; to be known to have it, to be known only because you have it, is most damnable.21

18James wrote this in an early tale; in The Wings of the Dove, however, money is the very cement that holds the plot together, and in The Ivory Tower it is still the central theme.

19James differs from Balzac in his use of the money question as he will differ from the naturalists in his picture of sexual passion. He is not interested in money and sex for themselves but only for their incidence on man’s inner life. They are important forces, and a novelist cannot ignore them, but for James they are important only as they are related to, and can therefore alter, the rest of man’s moral life. While Balzac introduces the reader to the incidents, deeps and shallows with which the making of any great fortune is connected, James creates characters who enter the novel when their fortune has already been made: Newman as the hero of a tale of the Western world, Isabel Archer as an “independent” niece from America, and Milly Theale as the fine flower of a luxuriant tribe. In the same way The Golden Bowl is not the history of a passion in the French tradition but rather, as in Hawthorne, the history of the moral situation that results from the adulterous relation of the Prince and Charlotte Stant.

20The aristocracy also plays an important part in the Comédie Humaine. James, no doubt, remembered Balzac’s patrician families and great women when he created his own Claire de Cintré and Madame de Vionnet. Balzac had given him many models, many specimens of their brilliant world:

  • 22 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 209.

He knew them up and down and in and out, their arms, infallibly supplied, their quarterings, pedigrees, services, intermarriages, relationships, ramifications and other enthralling attributes. This indeed is comparatively simple learning; the real wonder is rather when we linger on the ground of the patrician consciousness itself, the innermost, the esoteric, the spirit, temper, tone—tone above all—of the titled and the proud. 22

  • 23 Ibid., p. 210.

21Was the patrician consciousness, James wonders, such as Balzac painted it, was it really so splendidly fatuous, did the great ladies really behave as he made them behave? He thinks of Mme de Bargeton in Les Illusions Perdues who escapes from her province with Lucien de Rubempré but leaves him as soon as she arrives in Paris because Mme d’Espard is shocked at his coat and trousers. He thinks of the sophistication of the two young brides bragging about their social position. Were they really like this, James asks, feeling at the same time that he will never find the answer, that he will never know “whether [Balzac] be here directly historic or only quite misguidedly romantic;”23 but he soon realizes that he does not care for the answer:

  • 24 Loc. cit.

It is done—we are always thrown back on that; we can’t get out of it; all we can do is to say that the true itself can’t be more than done and that if the false in this way equals it we must give up looking for the difference.24

22James has the same impression when he visits Tours and its surroundings. The characters of the Comédie Humaine impose themselves on his mind with the fullest intensity as he walks about in the places where they are supposed to have lived, for they are much more real than living people. But then, James asks, apologizing for coming back to this point once more, how was this possible considering how little personal experience the writer had? There is only one answer: the imagination alone is the source of both the conception and the execution of the work. Moreover, Balzac’s historic sense spurred his invention. Whatever he wrote was, in his view, history and had the dignity of history.

23James’s article was obviously prompted by love and sympathy. It is a fine piece of prose written in his elegant and somewhat elaborate late manner with a profusion of images and similes. James finally apologizes for having said so little when there was so much to say. But in front of Balzac’s achievement criticism strikes him as rather futile:

  • 25 Ibid., p. 202.

There is no such plain account of the Comédie Humaine as that it makes us fold up our yard-measure and put away our note-book quite as we do with some extraordinary character, some mysterious and various stranger, who brings with him his own standards and his own air. There is a kind of eminent presence that abashes even the interviewer, moves him to respect and wonder, makes him, for consideration itself, not insist. This takes of course a personage sole of his kind. But such a personage precisely is Balzac.25

  • 26 First published in the Atlantic Monthly, August 1905.
  • 27 The House of Fiction, p. 79.
  • 28 Ibid., p. 79.
  • 29 Ibid., p. 76.

24The lecture James delivered at Bryn Mawr College in 1904 on “The Lesson of Balzac” was partly addressed to his fellow-craftsmen.26 The burden of his message is that Anglo-Saxon novelists must learn the lesson that “there is no convincing art that is not ruinously expensive.”27 Any kind of frugality signifies the death of the novel. English writers—most of them inexperienced women—do not take their task seriously enough. As a consequence the novel has ceased to be interesting, it has become a mere article of commerce no longer hand-made but bearing the stamp of the machine. James strikes the same note as in “The Future of the Novel.” Aware of the narrow-mindedness of his American public, he feels obliged to emphasize his point lest it should be missed: “Nothing counts, of course, in art, but the excellent; nothing exists, however briefly, for estimation, for appreciation, but the superlative.”28 Balzac’s work is certainly, more than anything else, the superlative. Comparing it to Zola’s James sees the superiority of the Comédie Humaine (though he now recognizes the merits of Zola’s achievement) in the fact that Balzac has somehow paid for his knowledge whereas Zola has not. Because he wanted to waste no time Zola was never “saturated with his idea.” He wrote from documents, that is, from a copy of life, never from life itself. Balzac, it is true, made some mistakes which to James are serious ones, but “they are faults, on the whole, of execution, flaws in the casting, accidents in the process: they never come back to that fault in the artist, in the novelist, that amounts most completely to a failure of dignity, the absence of saturation with his idea.”29 Balzac understands his characters because he gets into their very skin, speaks with their mouths, walks with their legs, suffers and enjoys as they do. The process is always the same. Unlike James, Balzac does not start from an idea but rather from the concrete world around him, which gradually organizes itself into a picture that acquires significance, relation and value. He penetrates directly into the subject, entering the numerous and ramifying corridors of his labyrinth and, in his love for details, penetrates further and further:

  • 30 Ibid., pp. 72-73.

His plan was to handle, primarily, not a world of ideas, animated by figures representing these ideas, but the packed and constituted, the palpable, proveable world before him, by the study of which ideas would inevitably find themselves thrown up.30

25Balzac’s complete immersion into his subject was rendered possible by love. As he loved his characters he entered not only their clothes but their consciousness and by loving them he knew them. “Balzac aime sa Valérie,” James writes, quoting Taine, and this attitude towards Madame Marneffe, contrasted with Thackeray’s towards Becky Sharp, accounts for the difference between the two writers and even between two different conceptions of the novel. If Thackeray does not like his Becky it is because he is prevented from doing so by prejudices that do not exist in France:

  • 31 Ibid., p. 78.

The English writer wants to make sure, first of all, of your moral judgment; the French is willing, while it waits a little, to risk, for the sake of its subject and its interest, your spiritual salvation.31

  • 32 Loc. cit.

26This is very different from the first article in which the younger James objected to Balzac’s lack of moral sense. The insistence on the moral judgment he now calls a prejudice, a lack of respect for the liberty of the subject if it prevents the novelist from writing the best. “It all comes back,” he concludes, “to that respect for the liberty of the subject which I would be willing to name as the great sign of the painter of the first order.”32 James clearly wants to lash his public, to shake up its indifference and to arouse its interest for a more serious form of art.

27Balzac succeeded in mastering two elements which particularly fascinate James because they present the greatest difficulty for the novelist. The first is the principle of composition: in a void the characters could not be interesting. They exist and interest us only by virtue of their being placed in a particular situation, and having been infused with individual identity:

  • 33 Ibid., pp. 80-81.

Their situation takes hold of us because it is theirs, not because it is somebody’s, any one’s, that of creatures unidentified. Therefore it is not superfluous that their identity shall first be established for us, and their adventures, in that measure, have a relation to it, and therewith an appreciability. There is no such thing in the world as an adventure pure and simple; there is only mine and yours, and his and hers.33

  • 34 Ibid., p. 82.
  • 35 Notes on Novelists and Some Other Notes, pp. 349-350.
  • 36 The Art of the Novel, pp. 127-128.

28Though Balzac often lacked a sense of proportion his work generally appears as admirably composed. All the elements of the picture fuse to perfection: he never contents himself with enumerating a series of items without any link between them as is so often the case with English novelists. Balzac’s is “the art of the brush... as opposed to the art of the slate pencil,”34 and to the art of the brush, James says, the novel must return if it is to recover its honour and dignity. The second difficulty that Balzac could master was that of representing the lapse of time, duration, otherwise than by mere quantity of statement or by an abusive use of dialogue. The dialogue must keep to its special function in the novel which is to be illustrative. It must be a scrupulously weighed and measured part of the novelist’s general plan. In his “London Notes” of 1897 James had already insisted on the importance of the time-scheme. To give the sense of duration, of the lapse and accumulation of time, he had said, is an important problem too often neglected in English fiction. He added that he could think of no novel in which the sense of the gradual and the retarded are properly rendered.35 Even the time-scheme of his own Roderick Hudson struck him, at the time of the Prefaces, as quite inadequate: everything moves too fast and Roderick’s disintegration is not represented as a gradual process; a character is interesting “as it comes out, and by the process and duration of that emergence; just as a procession is effective by the way it unrolls, turning to a mere mob if all of it passes at once.”36

  • 37 The House of Fiction, p. 69.

29James wonders again how it is that the immense amount of life represented only corresponds to a minimum of personal experience on the part of the author. Who will ever understand such a man, who was “always astride of his imagination, always charging, with his heavy, his heroic lance in rest, at every object that sprang up in his path,” but who, at the same time, was “always fencing himself in against the personal adventure, the personal experience, in order to preserve himself for converting it into history?”37 Who will solve the mystery of this man, who wanted to represent such a gallery of lives and who himself lived like a Benedictine monk? The man and his work remain a problem for the critic, but also a lesson for the novelist who, wherever he turns, always finds Balzac as a giant in his path:

  • 38 Ibid., p. 85.

So far as we do move, we move round him; every road comes back to him; he sits there, in spite of us, too massively, for orientation.38

30Towards the end of his life, in 1913, James wrote a last article for the Times Literary Supplement. As in all previous critical papers James is perplexed by the secret of Balzac’s amazing activity, which, he says, can only be explained by his extraordinary preliminary intuition. Nobody would recognize in the mature critic writing here the novelist who once dared to criticize the French master. Even Balzac’s vulgar side has become a positive element. James shows that some books—César Birotteau for instance—gain rather than lose from the insistence on money matters. Since Balzac gives every detail about his characters, why should he not specify their economic conditions as well? At the end of his literary career James understands how ignorant he himself was as a painter of life and society. Turning over his American impressions in the Preface to Pandora, he confesses that his experience of New York had been restricted, that he had been obliged to leave out many things from his picture of the town simply because its larger part, Wall Street, the world “down-town,” the huge mystery of the money passion and of business life had remained definitely closed to him. Balzac’s “vulgarity” was part of his force and contributed to his solidity:

  • 39 Notes on Novelists, p. 126.

The vulgarity was at any rate a force that simply got nearer than any other could have done to the whole detail, the whole intimate and evidenced story, of submission and perversion, and as such it could but prove itself immensely human. It is on all this considered ground that he has for so many years stood firm and that we feel him by reason of it and in spite of them, in spite of all that has come and gone, not to have yielded, have “given,” an inch.39

  • 40 Ibid., p. 125.

31James stresses another aspect of Balzac’s personality. Times have changed, and the industrial revolutions have greatly unified society. The old differences of form and tone, of contrast and colour begin to disappear. Though describing a society Balzac never neglected the individual. Unlike Zola, who describes crowds, Balzac describes person after person; his multitude “exists by addition and extension, not by a chemical shaking-together, a cheapening or diminishing fusion.”40 James would have agreed with Bourget’s conclusion about Balzac:

  • 41 P. Bourget, Etudes et Portraits (Paris, 1889), p. 273.

En définitive, il est demeuré le seul capable de cette double vision du monde social et du monde individuel, grâce à une puissance de génie créateur qui le met à part de toutes les théories.41


32There is a clear evolution in James’s criticism of Balzac. To the starved young novelist who devoured all French books with equal avidity, though he could already distinguish between the first- and the second-rate, Balzac appeared as a remote but dazzling light. He had not only talent and energy but also France as a garden and the fruits of French culture and history at his disposal. At the same time, however, he stood for a whole system of thought and manners with which the young James could not yet completely agree. Though he raised repeated protests against the narrow-mindedness of English and American writers as well as against the restrictions they imposed on the novel, the young James himself did not quite escape the prejudices which he denounced in his Anglo-Saxon fellow-writers. He still saw art more or less as a means of edification, and the novel as a practical model of conduct. He wrote tales of virtue rewarded and disapproved of Balzac’s depraved Parisiennes. As he grew older, the artist in him gradually prevailed over the moralist, and by 1913 most of his objections against Balzac had disappeared. The presence of Balzac had then become as natural and as necessary to him as the air he breathed. Besides, it had helped him to see his own literary world in its true light. That is why he urged his compatriots to take the French master as a guide if they wanted the Anglo-Saxon novel to survive at all. Balzac, he said, would teach them that the novel is a serious form of art and not a cheap product for the entertainment of young ladies; he would show them how to give their characters greater consistency by providing them with a strong concrete basis; he would teach them not to shrink from the picture of the real and not to be hindered in their task by moral taboos. Not before having learned this lesson, James felt, would the English novel be able to stand on its own feet.

33After having himself outgrown all kinds of prejudices and claimed complete freedom for the novelist, James realized that there existed further limitations imposed on the writer by his very turn of mind. Although he had learned Balzac’s lesson, James did not resemble him. He had not the French novelist’s all-encompassing love for reality. He disliked the accumulation of details which made of man a mere extension of the concrete world, and he was more interested in the shifting complexities of man’s inner life. After he had moved round the Comédie Humaine James was still confronted with a series of unanswerable questions. How could such a work have been written in closed rooms? How did Balzac succeed in making the fictitious more real than the real? How did he know so much about the world of business or that of the salons? How, in such and such particular cases, would Balzac have “done” it? More than once, and even after he had left Balzac far behind, James was to turn back to him for advice. If the lesson of the French master was so fruitful it was probably because it left the mind unsated and finally raised more questions than it solved.


1 The House of Fiction, p. 85.

2 “Honoré de Balzac, ” first published in the Galaxy, December 1875. Reprinted in French Poets and Novelists, 1878.

3 Op. cit., pp. 95-96.

4 Ibid., p. 150.

5 Ibid., p. 136. Struck by James’s interest in Le Père Goriot at the time when he was working on The American, Maurita Willett has analysed the relation between the two novels in “ Henry James’s Indebtedness to Balzac, ” Revue de Littérature Comparée, XLI (avril-juin 1967), 204-227.

6 Ibid., p. 130.

7 Ibid., pp. 130-131.

8 Ibid., pp. 106-107.

9 Ibid., p. 107. This criticism of the French is not new. Two centuries earlier, Dryden had already written: “The French, though they have the word humeur among them, yet they have small use of it in their comedies or farces; they being but ill imitations of the ridiculum, or that which stirred up laughter in the Old Comedy.” (Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays [London, 1962], I, 73).

10 Ibid., p. 114.

11 Ibid., p. 105.

12 Ibid., p. 86.

13 Ibid., p. 110.

14 Ibid., pp. 103-104.

15 “Their plots are single, they carry on one design which is pushed forward by all the actors, every scene in the play contributing and moving towards it: ours, besides the main design, have under-plots or by-concernments of less considerable persons and intrigues, which are carried on with the motion of the main plot.” (Dryden, op. cit., p. 59.)

16 French Poets and Novelists, p. 189.

17 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 190.

18 Ibid., p. 192.

19 Ibid., p. 197.

20 Partial Portraits, p. 310.

21 A Landscape Painter, Complete Tales, I, 104.

22 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 209.

23 Ibid., p. 210.

24 Loc. cit.

25 Ibid., p. 202.

26 First published in the Atlantic Monthly, August 1905.

27 The House of Fiction, p. 79.

28 Ibid., p. 79.

29 Ibid., p. 76.

30 Ibid., pp. 72-73.

31 Ibid., p. 78.

32 Loc. cit.

33 Ibid., pp. 80-81.

34 Ibid., p. 82.

35 Notes on Novelists and Some Other Notes, pp. 349-350.

36 The Art of the Novel, pp. 127-128.

37 The House of Fiction, p. 69.

38 Ibid., p. 85.

39 Notes on Novelists, p. 126.

40 Ibid., p. 125.

41 P. Bourget, Etudes et Portraits (Paris, 1889), p. 273.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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