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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

French novelists


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  • 1 Emile Zola, Les romanciers naturalistes (Paris, 1881), p. 297.

Il est chargé de toucher les cœurs, d’ouvrir les portes à la troupe des romanciers plus farouches qui viennent derrière lui…. Le bourgeois, en l’accueillant, ne se doute pas qu’il laisse l’ennemi, le naturalisme, pénétrer dans son foyer; car lorsque M. Alphonse Daudet aura passé, les autres passeront.1

  • 2 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 189.

1Zola was probably right when he said that Daudet’s main characteristic was his séduction and that he would be the one to open the door for the other naturalists. Alphonse Daudet indeed found his way to James’s heart as easily as George Sand had done. This “great little novelist”2 who above all wanted to please—even if, as was often the case, this entailed a brilliant indifference to truth—succeeded in delighting his American friend with his charm, grace, vivacity, and fancy. Though he was part of it, Daudet always remained more or less outside the Flaubertian school. He believed in observation, painted from life, and took notes, but he never submitted to the influence of science. Instead of merely using the whole amount of material he had gathered he preferred to select the elements that best corresponded to his temperament. Though he was so completely different from him, Zola tried to be fair in judging Daudet:

  • 3 Emile Zola, op. cit., pp. 259-60.

M. Alphonse Daudet agit loyalement envers la nature; il ne ment pas, il ne se farde pas de rose; il en extrait simplement tous les éléments heureux, et les place au premier plan, tandis qu’il recule dans l’ombre les éléments mauvais. C’est en somme la même opération que font les esprits révoltés lorsqu’ils mettent l’odieux en avant et qu’ils laissent en arrière la partie consolante. Dans l’un et l’autre cas, il y a une simple question de perspective, une manière d’aimer ou de ne pas aimer l’humanité; au fond, la probité littéraire est égale.3

2In this Daudet resembled English writers: he had their tenderness, their sensibility and the light irony that is nowhere to be found in the French literature of the time. Dickens influenced his work by giving him a taste for the picturesque, for oddities, for exceptions, but also for exaggeration and pathos.

  • 4 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 183.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 189.

3In 1882 James wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly which was meant as a commentary on Ernest Daudet’s Mon Frère et Moi: Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse. After a few remarks concerning the growing taste of the age for revelations about the private life of artists, remarks that once more throw light on James’s dislike for such violations of privacy, James comes to Daudet himself, and calls him “the most charming story-teller of the day.”4 What he likes best in him is his attitude towards the real: though a wonderful observer of all external things, he always lets his fancy light up the picture. Just as he had approved of George Sand because she succeeded in making the unreal credible, James did not mind Daudet’s liberties with the real, provided his imagination were capable of sustaining credibility. Daudet, though sometimes false, is never vulgar and he is “intensely living”5 James suspects that his fancy made him find the doctrine of naturalism “a good deal of a bore”: it was too much opposed to his temperament; he was above all an observer of the whole realm of the immediate, the actual. He had nothing of Zola’s solemnity, but neither could he go so far in one single direction.

4Remembering his article of the previous year, James wrote in 1883:

  • 6 Partial Portraits, p. 204.

In writing of him some time ago, in another place, I so far lost my head as to remark, with levity, that he was “a great little novelist.” The diminutive epithet then, I must now say, was nothing more than a term of endearment, the result of an irresistible impulse to express a sense of personal fondness.6

5A successor of Dickens and Thackeray as a painter of manners, Daudet combines a sense of the real with a sense of the beautiful. He is more fanciful than Flaubert and Zola, but he shares their interest in the surface and, like them, belongs to the new literary school in that he conceives everything in a concrete, visible, and pictorial form:

  • 7 Ibid., p. 207.

Like most French imaginative writers (judged, at least, from the English standpoint), he is much less concerned with the moral, the metaphysical world, than with the sensible.7

6In Daudet there is a discrepancy between his manner and composition on the one hand, and the subjects he treats or the situations he describes on the other. The French novelist is a master of composition, his manner is delicate and sociable, but he often describes painful and even odious situations, and he creates characters who bear no relation to reality. He has invented a manner of his own, but the portraits—especially those of women-remain thin and conventional. Whenever he invents parts or characters, Daudet is vague and unconvincing. He is an observer much more than an inventor, a painter much more than an analyst, and for all their pictorial quality his works lack moral sensibility. This is most obvious in his portraits of young girls such as that of Cécile, the heroine of Jack or that of the heroine of Fromont Jeune:

  • 8 Ibid., p. 197.

She is one more proof of the fact that it is difficult to give the air of consistency to vanity and depravity, though the portraiture of the vicious side of life would seem, from the pictorial point of view, to offer such attractions.8

  • 9 Ibid., p. 225.

7The English reader of French novels has met this mechanical doll so often that he knows beforehand what she will do and say in every situation as though there were “a receipt among French novelists for making little high-heeled reprobates.”9

  • 10 Ibid., p. 217.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 199.

8The heroine to whom James devotes most attention in this paper is Madame Autheman, the “theological vampire of L’Evangéliste.10 Although the subject of this book is the saddest conceivable, it is lighted throughout by the author’s extraordinary vivacity, by high spirits so typically French, by his capacity to find entertainment in the spectacle of life, however distressing it may be. But the book is a failure which exemplifies the shortcomings of Daudet’s method. The outward signs and consequences are admirably depicted but Madame Autheman and Eline Ebsen are grotesquely void. We are not shown the inner springs that govern Madame Autheman’s behaviour, nor the spiritual steps by which Eline Ebsen goes over to the enemy. The figure of Madame Autheman interests James much more than any other because she is the only one of Daudet’s heroines who is not conventional.“It was,” James writes, “a great opportunity for a piece of spiritual portraiture,”11 but Daudet missed the opportunity and we fail to believe in his heroine.

  • 12 Notebooks, p. 47.
  • 13 James also took many hints from Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. The relation between the two n (...)

9The figure went on haunting James, and on 8 April 1883 he transcribed in his Notebooks part of the letter he had just written to J.R. Osgood, his publisher, giving an outline of what was to become The Bostonians two years later. He said that he wanted to write a typically American novel but that Daudet’s L’Evangéliste had given him the idea of the book. He added that he would like to do something “with that pictorial quality.”12 James was the more attracted to the figure of Madame Autheman as he himself had bathed in the atmosphere of New England which swarmed with reformers, lecturing prophets and women who often held human relationships cheap in the face of a religious call. He knew Madame Autheman for having met her type many times. He wanted to re-make her and to re-make Eline Ebsen as well, and to place them in Boston, whose moral atmosphere would suit them better.13 The incident of Daudet’s novel was perfectly plausible, but the French novelist treated it badly because he lacked the necessary acquaintance with the subject:

  • 14 Partial Portraits, pp. 237-238.

He has not felt nor understood the matter, has looked at it solely from the ouside, sought to make it above all things grotesque and extravagant…. The fact is that Mr. Daudet has not (to my belief) any natural understanding of the religious passion; he has a quick perception of many things, but that province of the human mind cannot be fait de chic— experience, there, is the only explorer. Madame Autheman is not a real bigot; she is simply a dusky effigy, she is undemonstrated.14

10As long as he keeps to the mere surface of life Daudet is perfect because his manner is perfect; but he fails when he begins to take the soul into account, he has not a great number of ideas. Though James ends his paper by once more professing his love for his friend, he must recognize that he would be at a loss to put his finger on Daudet’s philosophy.

  • 15 Selected Letters, pp. 109-110.

11The following year James was in Paris and visited Alphonse Daudet. In a letter to T.B. Aldrich he speaks of the intense seriousness of the little group: “About Daudet’s intensity of efforts,” he says, “there is something tragical, and his wasted, worn extraordinarily beautiful and refined little face expresses it in a way which almost brings tears to my eyes.”15 There James learnt something new about the torment of style:

  • 16 Ibid., p. 110.

Daudet tells me that the act of production, and execution for him, is nothing but effort and suffering—the only joy, (and that he admits is great) is that of conception, of planning and arranging. This all proves, what one always feels that (in their narrow circle) terrible are the subtleties they attempt. Daudet spoke of his envy and admiration of the “serenity of production” of Turgénieff—working in a field and a language where the white snow had as yet so few foot-prints. In French, he said, it is all one trampled slosh—one has to look, forever, to see where one can put down his step. And he wished to know how it was in English. What do you think I ought to have told him?16

  • 17 Emile Zola, op. cit., p. 377.
  • 18 Letters, I, 103.

12We do not know what James did tell him but we guess that he was once more surprised and impressed by the earnestness of their tone and by their effort to express themselves as perfectly as they could in a language in which everything had already been said. James was perhaps one of the foreigners with whom Zola had discussed the same questions, and who made him say “les étrangers ne comprennent absolument rien à nos soucis de style. J’en ai causé avec des Anglais et des Allemands; jamais aucun mouvement semblable n’a eu lieu dans leurs littératures.”17 Another letter from Paris addressed to William James is full of Henry’s sympathy for Daudet, who has, he says, “a remarkable personal charm and is as beautiful as the day.” Unfortunately, he is as intense a pessimist as the other French naturalists, as appears from “the general sadness of life, and his fear, for instance, whenever he comes in, that his wife and children may have died while he was out.”18 In the last years of Daudet’s life, the sadness became real suffering and was converted into art in La Douleur. But in spite of all—and James always admired him for this—he remained gay and fresh and was still able to write the lovely Tartarin, which James was to translate for Harpers.

  • 19 Selected Letters, pp. 179-180.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 180.

13James was concerned about Daudet’s well-being as well as about his craft: the friend and the fellow-writer, the man and the artist could not be separated. Daudet was his “cher ami et confrère,” and he did not hesitate to give him advice or at least to express his opinion on what he wrote. He read Petite Paroisse, “ce beau et riche roman, où la vie se joue si largement et librement, où l’observation et la poésie s’étreignent et se confondent.”19 He attended a lecture devoted to some of Daudet’s novels and noticed “un appétit, une curiosité du sujet qui m’a fait bien regretter que le pauvre conférencier se doutât si peu de ce qu’il y avait à en tirer. J’étais tout tenté de lui arracher la parole.”20 James had already used French in another letter in which he explained to his French confrère what he thought of Sapho. It is, he said, a good study of the girl, but by directing almost all the light on her Daudet sacrificed, as it were, the figure of the young man. He should have insisted more on the spiritual experience, leading to the breaking down of the will, rather than on the mere physical relation with Fanny. The divergences between the two writers are made clear in James’s conclusions:

  • 21 Letters, I, 109.

En un mot, le drame ne se passe peut-être pas assez dans l’âme et dans la conscience de Jean. C’est à mesure que nous touchons à son caractère même que la situation devient intéressante — et ce caractère, vous me faites l’effet de l’avoir un peu négligé. Vous me direz que voilà un jugement bien anglais et que nous inventons des abstractions, comme nous disons, afin de nous dispenser de toucher aux grosses réalités. J’estime pourtant qu’il n’y a rien de plus réel, de plus positif, de plus à peindre, qu’un caractère; c’est là qu’on trouve bien la couleur et la forme.21

  • 22 Ibid., p. 247.
  • 23 Ibid., pp. 276-277.

14In the letter to his “cher ami et confrere” (1895) James had invited Daudet to England; in spite of his bad health, Daudet accepted the invitation and went to England with his family during the spring of 1895. James took them on an excursion to Windsor, which he relates in a letter to A.C. Benson, apologizing for not having come to Eton because Daudet was “so unwell and fatigable and unable to walk or to mount steps or stairs.”22 When he heard of his friend’s death two years later James did not cross the Channel to go to his funeral, not because he loved him less but because, as he told Grace Norton in a letter sent her on Christmas Day, he would be unable to bear a French funeral with the “terrific organised exploitation… of every kind of personal privacy and every kind of personal hysterics.” He preferred to remain in England and think of his friend in silence. Daudet’s whole career, he writes in the same letter, was “the most worked thing that ever was” and his talent was so great that the best of it will certainly remain but “he was a queer combination of a great talent with an absence of the greater mind, as it were—the greater feeling.”23

  • 24 Literature, I, 306.
  • 25 Ibid., p. 307.

15James’s last essay on Daudet appeared on the same day (25 December 1897) in Literature. It has often been referred to as a proof that James’s admiration had, by that time, cooled down and that he was to forget Daudet afterwards, a view with which I can hardly agree. True, Daudet has lost much of his modernity, but James’s admiration is still the same. Literary fashions change, and by 1897 Daudet was not only accepted but, in the light of the lately-risen stars like Anatole France or Maurice Barrés, he had already “grown virtually antique, indirectly ancestral.”24 If he had once struck people as intensely modern, if he had been the one who opened the door to the other naturalists, he now seems to close this door behind him: even Zola has passed and the controversy over naturalism is dying down. Daudet’s death represents the end of an epoch. Like the other critics of his time James sees other issues at hand, but this does not mean that he has changed his mind about his friend. Indeed this essay reasserts all his former views on Daudet. Trying to characterize him with a single word James speaks without hesitation of his “warmth.” Even when he suffered most, physically, Daudet was faithful to fancy. The sun of his Provence never burnt out in his blood: “he was as warm as the south wall of a garden or as the flushed fruit that grows there.”25 That quality made him stand apart among the little group of French naturalists. He never ceased being personal and intimate, taking his reader into his confidence, which Flaubert, for instance, never did:

  • 26 Ibid., p. 307.

He is at the opposite pole… from Flaubert, with whom a kind of grand, measured distance from his canvas… was an ideal, and who seemed to attack his subject with a brush twenty feet long.26

  • 27 Loc. cit.

16James had always been aware of his friend’s shortcomings. Daudet was a perfect observer but no philosopher. Whenever he had to deal with the concrete and the palpable, with sensations or contacts, with images or appearances, whenever he had to paint the visible he was perfect because every impression he rendered passed through his imagination and was coloured by it. But he remained on the surface of things, never penetrating into the life of the soul, the play of character, the idea. Yet, if he did not make his reader think, he at least made him see and hear and feel, and James liked him “best of all the novelists who have not the greater imagination, the imagination of the moralist.”27

  • 28 Partial Portraits, p. 223.

17In Partial Portraits James had called Daudet “a genius who is truthful without being literal, and who has a pair of butterfly’s wings attached to the back of his observation.”28 Fourteen years have passed without altering James’s judgment. A butterfly is something charming, attractive but also superficial and light. It is because of his lightness and seduction that Daudet was received more kindly in England than the other naturalists, but it is also because of those very qualities that he was more quickly forgotten there than his more serious and less attractive confrères.


1 Emile Zola, Les romanciers naturalistes (Paris, 1881), p. 297.

2 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 189.

3 Emile Zola, op. cit., pp. 259-60.

4 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 183.

5 Ibid., p. 189.

6 Partial Portraits, p. 204.

7 Ibid., p. 207.

8 Ibid., p. 197.

9 Ibid., p. 225.

10 Ibid., p. 217.

11 Ibid., p. 199.

12 Notebooks, p. 47.

13 James also took many hints from Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. The relation between the two novels has been discussed by Marius Bewley in The Complex Fate (London, 1952), pp. 11-30.

14 Partial Portraits, pp. 237-238.

15 Selected Letters, pp. 109-110.

16 Ibid., p. 110.

17 Emile Zola, op. cit., p. 377.

18 Letters, I, 103.

19 Selected Letters, pp. 179-180.

20 Ibid., p. 180.

21 Letters, I, 109.

22 Ibid., p. 247.

23 Ibid., pp. 276-277.

24 Literature, I, 306.

25 Ibid., p. 307.

26 Ibid., p. 307.

27 Loc. cit.

28 Partial Portraits, p. 223.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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