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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

French novelists


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  • 1 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 154.

… it was not that he went too far, it was on the contrary that he stopped too short. He hovered for ever at the public door, in the outer court, the splendour of which very properly beguiled him, and in which he seems still to stand as upright as a sentinel and as shapely as a statue.1

  • 2 Notebooks, p. 26.
  • 3 I have used the spelling “Turgenev” all through since there is not one correct spelling of the nam (...)

1Evoking his year in Paris in the Notebooks, James expresses his satisfaction at having known Flaubert, “a powerful, serious, melancholy, manly, deeply corrupted, yet not corrupting, nature.”2 He often associates him in his mind with Turgenev, the first man of letters he had met in Paris and the one who had introduced him to Flaubert and his circle.3 He compares them in Partial Portraits and presents them as large, massive men, sincere, pessimistic and with a deep regard for each other, a regard which on Turgenev’s part was not without compassion. From the first James shared this compassion, and the following extract, though somewhat long, is worth quoting because it is a kind of summary of what James thought of Flaubert as a man and as a writer:

  • 4 Partial Portraits, pp. 319-320.

He had failed, on the whole, more than he had succeeded, and the great machinery of erudition,—the great polishing process,—which he brought to bear upon his productions, was not accompanied with proportionate results. He had talent without having cleverness, and imagination without having fancy. His effort was heroic, but except in the case of Madame Bovary, a masterpiece, he imparted something to his works (it was as if he had covered them with metallic plates) which made them sink rather than sail. He had a passion for perfection of form and for a certain splendid suggestiveness of style. He wished to produce perfect phrases, perfectly interrelated, and as closely woven together as a suit of chain-mail. He looked at life altogether as an artist, and took his work with a seriousness that never belied itself. To write an admirable page—and his idea of what constituted an admirable page was transcendent—seemed to him something to live for. He tried it again and again, and he came very near it; more than once he touched it, for Madame Bovary surely will live. But there was something ungenerous in his genius. He was cold, and he would have given everything he had to be able to glow… there were some parts of his mind that did not “give,” that did not render a sound. He had had too much of some sorts of experience and not enough of others. And yet this failure of an organ, as I may call it, inspired those who knew him with a kindness. If Flaubert was powerful and limited, there is something human, after all, and even rather august in a strong man who has not been able completely to express himself.4

2The note of compassion was never quite absent from James’s criticism of Flaubert. He liked him, not as he liked Daudet or George Sand, but with the kind of sympathy we cannot help feeling for a strong man full of possibilities but suffering from a mysterious illness which paralyzes half his movements. Whenever he was on the point of passing a severe judgment on Flaubert, James seemed to retract a little, to make it milder, as though he remembered to be indulgent to a man who had already been so ill-treated by nature. The disease appeared to James as one of the mind, psychological rather than physical. He found something immensely sad in this man who took everything so hard, who never knew exactly how to come to terms with life for the simple reason that he hated life as well as humanity as a whole and the bourgeois in particular; a man whose main occupation consisted in trying to write beautiful pages and who decided to lead a flat, uneventful and secluded life at Croisset in order to reach an aim that always eluded him. From the start, James admired Madame Bovary. He never forgot his first impressions when, as a child, he read its first instalments in the Revue des Deux Mondes. In later years he still admired it because it contains emotion, because at the time he wrote it Flaubert’s sensibility had not yet begun to atrophy. It did atrophy later on, and it was Flaubert’s mistake to go on writing after completing his masterpiece. From the start also James appreciated Flaubert’s single-minded devotion to his art and his extreme seriousness, although as an Anglo-Saxon he would probably have liked to see it occasionally lightened by a smile. On the whole—with the exception of Madame Bovary—James objected to Flaubert’s novels. But he was pleased they had been written because a lesson could be derived from them:

  • 5 Literacy Reviews and Essays, p. 146.

Lying there before us so unmistakably still-born, they are a capital refutation of the very dogma in defence of which they appeared. The fatal charmlessness of each and all of them is an eloquent plea for the ideal.5

  • 6 Ibid., p. 150.

3James had been acquainted with Flaubert long before he actually met him in Paris and he had read Madame Bovary as soon as it began to appear. In 1874 he wrote an unsigned review of La Tentation de Saint-Antoine for the Nation. The young critic does not hesitate to call the book a “ponderous failure.” He is struck, disappointed, and shocked by the treatment of such a theme as the hallucinations of the saint: the visions, instead of being suggested with the vagueness usually associated with such phenomena are described in a realistic way, with the minute exactness of a series of photographs. Flaubert merely aimed at being pictorial and even his picturesque is cold-blooded and artificial; infinite labour and research can be felt behind the finished work. What still more surprises James is Flaubert’s complete indifference to the spiritual problem, his reducing to almost nothing the saint’s reaction upon his own hallucinations. James does not understand why the novelist chose such a subject if its appeal to him was only pictorial. It is obvious that the American writer, had he ever embarked on the same subject, would have treated it in a quite different way, most probably from the saint’s point of view. As it is, the performance gratifies the senses but leaves the mind unsatisfied. There was an idea, an interesting human problem but Flaubert passed by without seeming to notice it. James concludes his review with a general remark on the condition of the French literary intellect: “M. Flaubert and his contemporaries,” he says, “have pushed so far the education of the senses and the cultivation of the grotesque in literature and the arts that it has left them morally stranded and helpless.”6

  • 7 The House of Fiction, p. 214.
  • 8 In his introduction to the French translation of Faulkner’s Sanctuary.

4Flaubert too often forgot that “even when we are so queerly constituted as to be ninety-nine parts literary we are still a hundredth part something else.”7 Comparing him with Charles de Bernard in 1876 James shows that, though the latter hardly had more moral sense, he was at least better company because he belonged to an older generation which had urbanity and good taste. Flaubert’s fault was to let his sense of technique, his love of form, grow so thick that it completely choked his sensitiveness. His style, rich as it is, renders only the visible, the world of the senses. His beauty is merely verbal, his conception merely plastic. He does not concern himself with the life of the soul; therefore he is cold, and his work never totally beguiles. His novels represent lifeless beauty, beauty associated with coldness, with the immobility which made Malraux speak of the “beaux romans paralysés de Flaubert.”8 Flaubert’s theory is to begin on the outside, to look at life as a spectacle. Unfortunately, he lacked facility and he was so conscientious a writer that he was doomed to remain for ever in the realm of the visible. His emotional development did not keep pace with his technical development. He encountered so many obstacles on his way that he never even reached the door of the soul; he began on the outside but also ended there:

  • 9 French Poets and Novelists, p. 257.

What our eyes show us is all that we are sure of; so with this we will, at any rate, begin. As this is infinitely curious and entertaining, if we know how to look at it, and as such looking consumes a great deal of time and space, it is very possible that with this also we may end.9

  • 10 Partial Portraits, p. 208.
  • 11 Roderick Hudson, p. 121.

5Poor Flaubert was, as James noticed in his article on Daudet in 1883, “destitute of this sense of the beautiful, destitute of facility and grace,”10 two qualities James could never praise too much in an artist. He liked Daudet for possessing them; he enjoyed George Sand’s novels for the same reason and, charmed by her in spite of major faults in her work as well as in her life, he repeated again and again that she was a great improvisatrice. In Roderick Hudson he insisted on his hero’s “divine facility” and through Rowland Mallet he exhorted the young sculptor not to play with it, to “respect it, nurse it, adore it, save it up in an old stocking,”11 because it was too important to be speculated on.

  • 12 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 140.
  • 13 Ibid., p. 148.

6When he reviewed the Correspondance de Gustave Flaubert published by the latter’s niece, Madame Commanville, in 1893— which once more led him to digress on the question of privacy— James was particularly interested in the letters addressed to George Sand because they revealed two contrasting temperaments, the one eagerly in search of experience, the other shrinking from it. They showed how limited Flaubert’s field of experience was. For him mankind was made up of three or four persons who shared his interest in literature: the rest of the world simply did not exist. The letters “exhibit an extraordinary singleness of aim, show us the artist not only disinterested but absolutely dishumanized.”12 The absence of the human element also accounted for the coldness of Flaubert’s works, in which, James writes, we “breathe the air of pure aesthetics” and which are “as hard as stone… wonderful bristling metals and polished agates.”13 That Flaubert should have reached a kind of perfection, in spite of his lack of facility and his obstinate refusal to encounter experience and life, is sufficient to make him one of the embarrassing “cases” who confound both the novelist and the moralist. Unable as he is to separate a work of art from the mind that produced it, James wonders whether the limitations of Flaubert’s works are not to be related to a defect of his mind, whether, in the last analysis, the limitations in the novelist are not simply a lack of intelligence about life. Though Flaubert and James cared for their art more than for anything else, their experience of life was quite different: while the former spent his evenings at Croisset, away from the world and society, the latter, whether in Rome, Paris or London, spent his dining out in the best society and listening to a thousand anecdotes which were to become the themes of his stories. Flaubert did not care for an anecdote or for an idea. All that counted was the way to do it. He did it and he did it, in fact, to perfection, but it was at the cost of life. All this is of the first importance for younger novelists: the perfection as well as the blank, the beautiful achievement as well as the failure, for it teaches them both the best and the worst, what can be achieved and what must be avoided. So Flaubert’s effort will not be wasted, and all those who practise the art of the novel will always derive benefit from a serious study of his work.

  • 14 Ibid., p. 225.
  • 15 The Art of the Novel, p. 4.

7Flaubert was indeed the “novelist’s novelist”14 as James calls him in the 1902 essay that served as a preface to Madame Bovary. By the time James wrote this article (reprinted in Notes on Novelists) Madame Bovary was generally recognized as a classic. How a book becomes a classic is an adventure that greatly interests James. “The private history of any sincere work, however modest its pretensions,” he was to write in the preface to Roderick Hudson, “looms with its own completeness in the rich, ambiguous aesthetic air, and seems at once to borrow a dignity and to mark, so to say, a station.”15 First unnoticed and, when noticed, persecuted, contested, Madame Bovary gradually acquired its significance by a slow and small process as one perceptive reader after another discovered its value and interest. Young as he was at the time when he first became acquainted with Madame Bovary in the Revue des Deux Mondes, James was already one of these perceptive private readers, and he felt that the novel gave promise of a glorious future. He mentioned it in the review of the Temptation, in which he said that, as a picture of the misery that results from vice, Madame Bovary should be used for educational purposes. He devoted the greatest part of his article on Flaubert in French Poets and Novetists to Madame Bovary and called it the most characteristic work among the literary production in France. The book, he said, could never have been written in English:

  • 16 French Poets and Novelists, pp. 253-254.

It is not in the temper of English vision to see things as M. Flaubert sees them, and it is not in the genius of the English language to present them as he presents them. With all respect to “Madame Bovary,” “Madame Bovary” is fortunately an inimitable work.16

8Though the novel had probably been written for sensation’s rather than for meditation’s sake, and was thus didactic by mere accident, it did provoke meditation on the consequences of loose living and a kind of morality could be drawn from it. Moreover, since there were a great many potential Madame Bovarys it could serve as a warning. In his review of Flaubert’s correspondence James no longer mentioned the immorality of Madame Bovary and presented the novel as the best among Flaubert’s production because it was the only one that contained a little emotion. This view marks a transition to his more mature criticism as it is expressed in the 1902 article.

9In this article—the longest and the best about Flaubert—James examines the novel much more closely than before. His criticism has gained in maturity and he sees Flaubert’s works in a new light. Emma Bovary is a victim of the imaginative habit; she is an embodiment of helpless romanticism, and Flaubert paints her with extraordinary insight and truth because the problem was also his own, because he himself had to react against romanticism in order to avoid resembling his heroine. This mixture of real (constituting the background) and romantic (occupying the front) also contributes to the richness of the book:

  • 17 The House of Fiction, p. 196.

Emma Bovary’s poor adventures are a tragedy for the very reason that in a world unsuspecting, unassisting, unconsoling, she has herself to distil the rich and the rare.17

10Such was also Flaubert’s tragedy, and James, who had always sensed something tragic in Flaubert’s case, now feels that the inward strife in the writer is what gives Madame Bovary the emotion it contains. He also understands better the nature of the strife: Flaubert wanted to be a realist but by temperament he was a romantic attracted to impressive and exotic subjects. When he tried to paint the near, the world he could directly perceive, he had to silence his eloquence, to keep down his tone, he had, in other words, to find a compromise, and this gave him all the more trouble as the only sphere he knew from experience was that of the bourgeois, whom he hated:

  • 18 Ibid., p. 210.

In the bourgeois sphere his ideal of expression laboured under protest; in the other, the imagined, the projected, his need for facts, for matter, and his pursuit of them, sat no less heavily…. Singular enough in his life the situation so constituted: the comparatively meagre human consciousness… struggling with the absolutely large artistic; and the large artistic half wreaking itself on the meagre human and half seeking refuge from it, as well as a revenge against it, in something quite different.18

11So there are two parts in his literary production, as distinct from each other as—to use James’s image—the divisions on the back of a scarab. But Flaubert is most pleased when he can be both precise and rare, and since he values the quality of the expression above everything else, the image always takes precedence over the object. More than ever before, James insists on Flaubert’s sense of form, composition, distribution, arrangement. Nothing is left to chance, everything holds perfectly together. The form of Madame Bovary is unsurpassable, it is not only interesting in itself but it is so closely related to the subject that it never strikes us as disconnected from the whole. Everything round Emma is perfectly observed:

  • 19 Ibid., p. 199.

That is the triumph of the book as the triumph stands, that Emma interests us by the nature of her consciousness and the play of her mind, thanks to the reality and beauty with which those sources are invested. It is not only that they represent her state; they are so true, so observed and felt, and especially so shown, that they represent the state, actual or potential, of all persons like her, persons romantically determined.19

  • 20 This was later echoed by D.H. Lawrence, who, comparing Giovanni Verga with Gustave Flaubert, showe (...)
  • 21 The House of Fiction, p. 201.

12Unfortunately Emma, as a character, is too poor for her part.20 True, the novel is a picture of the middling, but, James wonders, does Emma even attain to that: “hers is a narrow middling even for a little imaginative person whose ‘social’ significance is small.”21

  • 22 Ibid., p. 202.

13Had she been the sole example in Flaubert’s work of a vessel too small for its contents James would have hesitated before attributing it to a limitation in the writer’s psychological insight. But Frédéric Moreau, chosen by Flaubert to be the register of his mind, is a still more abject human specimen than Emma. James cannot understand why Flaubert—unless he was limited himself—could have chosen such poor reflectors of the life he proposed to depict. The only character in which James sees the seeds of a more interesting personality is Madame Arnoux, the author’s one attempt “to represent beauty otherwise than for the senses, beauty of character and life.”22 There was an opportunity but Flaubert missed it, a blunder which James finds it difficult to forgive because, unlike Flaubert’s other mistakes, this one is moral rather than intellectual. Seen as she is through the eyes of Frédéric Moreau, Madame Arnoux is scarce invested with a character at all. She could have been the link between the reader and the other characters of L’Education Sentimentale, for there is not a single one with whom we can directly communicate. The fact that Flaubert missed such an opportunity certainly reveals a flaw in his sensibility. His hunger for the rich, the far and the rare seems to have limited itself to the concrete world. He had a great and splendid imagination but he never approached the rich and the rare in human character, James’s most affectionate field.

  • 23 Ibid., p. 206.

14Apart from this reservation on Flaubert’s “vessels of consciousness” and more particularly on Emma’s scantiness James’s praise is by now unqualified. Flaubert’s works are “so written and so composed… that the more we look at them the more we find in them, under this head, a beauty of intention and of effect; the more they figure in the too often dreary desert of fictional prose a class by themselves and a little living oasis.”23 What now matters about Madame Bovary is no longer whether the heroine is depraved or not but how she touches us thanks to the reality that surrounds her. Some writers, James says, can render their subject best because they feel it most. Flaubert went the other way round: he could feel it best because he had rendered it to perfection. Madame Bovary is a classic because it is ideally done, and when a book is perfect to this point nothing else particularly matters.

  • 24 Selected Letters, p. 110.

15Poor Flaubert had been denied by nature the precious gift of charm, and James finds something tragic in this massive figure chained to his task as Prometheus to his rock and, in his love of perfection and form, wrestling with phrases and syntax, trying again and again to catch the right word and only occasionally coming near it. None of the French realists seems to have better answered to James’s description of “galley-slaves tied to a ball and chain.”24 The only thing at which he aimed in his secluded life was literature, and the man was sacrificed to the artist; his only aim in literature was the real, and the life of the soul was sacrificed to the picture of the external world. By devoting all his work and energy to this one half of himself and to this one half of reality, Flaubert achieved limited perfection. But his works are strangely deprived of sympathetic characters. Even Madame Bovary, which yet contains more emotion than the others because it is deeply rooted in the writer’s split consciousness, has a rigidity, a moral immobility which displeases James. Thrusting his torch in every corner of his picture Flaubert makes everything clear, definite; he exhausts the reality he describes and leaves no blank for the reader’s imagination to fill in. Emma, who is a part of this reality, is condemned from the start and has no moral freedom: a prisoner of her creator still more than of her fate, she is as beautiful as a statue and as rigidly enclosed in her form as a cold marble figure. James deplores the lack of tenderness, of generosity, Flaubert’s pessimistic view of life and his tragic, unmitigated irony. Yet he finds him even more interesting for his failure than for his success:

  • 25 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 224.

I find myself feeling for a moment longer in presence of L’Education how much more interesting a writer may be on occasion by the given failure than by the given success. Successes pure and simple disconnect and dismiss him; failures—though I admit they must be a bit qualified—keep him in touch and in relation.25

  • 26 Henry fames and H.G. Wells, p. 267.

16The difference between James and Flaubert as artists can be related to their different attitudes to life. In Flaubert’s embittered mind there was only hatred and contempt; in James’s infinite capacity for wonder there was tenderness and respect. The French writer turned to art to forget the ugliness and mediocrity of life; the American wrote works of fiction to save as much of the richness of life as he could. James constantly felt the pressure of life on his limited form and tried to combine the expansion of the one with the rigour of the other; Flaubert only knew the nightmare of toil and deliberately kept life at a distance by his flights in the rare and the strange and by his ostentatious irony. But though they did not follow the same paths James and Flaubert reached the same height because of their seriousness and of the great amount of “doing” in their works. It is art indeed, James wrote, “that makes life, makes interest, makes importance… and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”26


1 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 154.

2 Notebooks, p. 26.

3 I have used the spelling “Turgenev” all through since there is not one correct spelling of the name. James usually wrote “Turgenieff” but the owner of the name used by turns “Turgeniew,” “Turgèniew,” or “Tourguénieff.”

4 Partial Portraits, pp. 319-320.

5 Literacy Reviews and Essays, p. 146.

6 Ibid., p. 150.

7 The House of Fiction, p. 214.

8 In his introduction to the French translation of Faulkner’s Sanctuary.

9 French Poets and Novelists, p. 257.

10 Partial Portraits, p. 208.

11 Roderick Hudson, p. 121.

12 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 140.

13 Ibid., p. 148.

14 Ibid., p. 225.

15 The Art of the Novel, p. 4.

16 French Poets and Novelists, pp. 253-254.

17 The House of Fiction, p. 196.

18 Ibid., p. 210.

19 Ibid., p. 199.

20 This was later echoed by D.H. Lawrence, who, comparing Giovanni Verga with Gustave Flaubert, showed that they both tried to read their own sense of tragedy into people smaller than themselves. Emma Bovary and her husband, he wrote, are “too insignificant to carry the full weight of Gustave Flaubert’s sense of tragedy.” “Mastro-don Gesualdo by Giovanni Verga,” Phoenix. The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence, ed. Edmund McDonald (London, 1961), p. 226.

21 The House of Fiction, p. 201.

22 Ibid., p. 202.

23 Ibid., p. 206.

24 Selected Letters, p. 110.

25 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 224.

26 Henry fames and H.G. Wells, p. 267.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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