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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

French novelists


Texte intégral

  • 1 Notes on Novelists, p. 296.

The real difference, I take it, is that whereas we like to be good the French like to be better. We like to be moral, they like to moralise.1

  • 2 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 177.
  • 3 Loc. cit.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 180.

1Feuillet is a feminine and elegant writer, and this probably accounts for James’s indulgence to works so completely opposed to what he generally values in literature. But James read him as he read every line in the Revue des Deux Mondes and he reviewed him as early as 1868. Feuillet, he writes, was probably elected to the French Academy for his elegance rather than for his strength, but M. de Camors, written afterwards, seems to justify this election. James calls the book a masterpiece and says that with it Feuillet has contributed another novel to the superior literature of his country. It is the ripest fruit of his genius and unlike the early works which seemed meant for, and dealt almost exclusively with, fine ladies, M. de Camors combines elegance with strength and energy. It is not only the manner but the subject that appeals to James for the novel deals with the contrast between the face a man presents to the world and the moral thinness of his real self. James gives a detailed summary of the story, and his reaction to the way in which such interesting subject matter has been treated throws light on his objection to French “morality.” In Feuillet’s opinion, James says, the work has a high moral bearing: M. de Camors, trying to live in accordance with his father’s cynical principles, finally dies sick of the world, without remorse and without hope. The lesson is obvious. Yet, James considers the work as thin and superficial because the author himself has no moral imagination: “To stir the reader’s moral nature and to write with truth and eloquence the moral history of superior men and women demand more freedom and generosity of mind than M. Feuillet seems to us to possess.”2 Like most French romancers Feuillet considers morality as something rigid and external. He lacks “freedom of mind” and clearly accepts the established code of morals without ever questioning it. It follows that the characters often seem created as mere illustrations of an idea (as good or evil) and never seem to express a really felt moral conviction. “Men and women, in our conception,” James writes, “are deeper, more substantial, more self-directing; they have, if not more virtue, at least more conscience; and when conscience comes into the game human history ceases to be a perfectly simple tale.”3 M. de Camors and Mme de Campvallar are cold and mechanical. But if the “evil” characters strike him as artificial, James cannot help admiring the portraits of Mme de Tècle and her daughter. These are equally superficial but they are at least portraits of virtue, and in 1868 James still believed that the novel should teach, which, in his view, it does better by presenting beautiful characters than by showing the failure of bad ones. Nine years later James reviewed another novel by Octave Feuillet, Les Amours de Philippe. Philippe is as little estimable as M. de Camors, but unlike the latter, who had died hopeless, he finally repents and falls in love with the young cousin he had scorned at the beginning of the story, which makes James ironically remark that “French novelists are always addicted to making their heroes too unscrupulous first and too comfortable afterward.”4 Here again the characters are unconvincing puppets at the service of a rigid morality imposed from outside.

  • 5 James reviewed Eugénie de Guérin’s Letters for the Nation in 1866. The year before he had already (...)

2The question of morality is ever-present in James’s early criticism. He often contrasts the French moral impotency with the self-directing conscience of the Anglo-Saxons. Even a minor writer led him to define his awareness of the conflict between moral standards and moral sense. His review of Eugénie de Guérin’s Letters5 is illuminating on that point. Her being a perfect Catholic, James says, explains everything about her:

  • 6 Notes and Reviews, p. 215.

So complete a spiritual submission, so complete an intellectual self-stultification, would be revolting if they were a matter of choice. It is because they are a matter of authority and necessity, things born to and implicitly accepted, that the reader is able to put away his sense of their fundamental repulsiveness sufficiently to allow him to appreciate their incidental charm.6

  • 7 Ibid., p. 210.

3The French, even those who are not as consistent Catholics as Mlle de Guérin, are brought up more or less according to the same principles. Like the Catholicism that impregnates the French mind, their “morality” is a “matter of authority and necessity.” People are either good or bad, and the sanctions imposed from outside gradually paralyze their moral being. There is less passivity in Protestant communities, where the idea of personal effort is very important and implies a greater moral energy. It would be difficult to find such “mediaeval saints”7 as Mlle de Guérin in New England although the spirit of devotion is nowhere more frequent:

  • 8 Ibid., p. 211.

but in New England, to a certain extent, virtue and piety seem to be nourished by vice and skepticism. A very good man or a very good woman in New England is an extremely complex being. They are as innocent as you please, but they are anything but ignorant. They travel; they hold political opinions; they are accomplished Abolitionists; they read magazines and newspapers, and write for them; they read novels and police reports; they subscribe to lyceum lectures and to great libraries; in a word they are enlightened. The result of this freedom of enquiry is that they become profoundly self-conscious.8

4This parenthesis helps us to understand what James means by the moral thinness of the French: they moralize but they rarely succeed in giving us an idea of moral richness. Their morality is a question of words and principles more than of felt experience. They flash the full light of their certitude on their characters, which, consequently, are determined from the first and are either conventionally good or conventionally bad. This is very different from the patient inner struggle of a conscience groping alone in the dark.

5What matters for James is not simply whether the characters are models of vice or virtue, but whether there is in them, or in their creator, a moral sense. Feuillet strikes him as having no sensitiveness to moral issues, i.e., to problems involving the moral sensibility. His subjects might have been extremely interesting if they had been treated with greater freedom of mind. But Feuillet is too conventional to be free: his good characters are those who conform to a fixed set of conventions, his bad ones those who deviate from it. James did not write on Feuillet after he reviewed Les Amours de Philippe. As he grew older he became more and more exacting and to be an elegant society writer—even a French one—was no longer sufficient to engage his attention.


1 Notes on Novelists, p. 296.

2 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 177.

3 Loc. cit.

4 Ibid., p. 180.

5 James reviewed Eugénie de Guérin’s Letters for the Nation in 1866. The year before he had already reviewed her Journal and in 1867 he reviewed her brother Maurice’s Journal. These reviews have little interest apart from the light they throw on James’s mind at the beginning of his literary career and on the critics he took as models. He had found these two minor figures—hardly known in France in their lifetime—in Matthew Arnold, who had reviewed Eugenie’s Journal for the Cornhill in 1863 and who had lectured on Maurice in 1862—both essays having been reprinted in his Essays in Criticism in 1865. Matthew Arnold himself had found the Guérins in Sainte-Beuve, and in his lecture on Maurice the English critic had used many passages quoted from Sainte-Beuve in his Causeries.

6 Notes and Reviews, p. 215.

7 Ibid., p. 210.

8 Ibid., p. 211.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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