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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

French novelists


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  • 1 Notebooks, p. 89.

Oh, spirit of Maupassant, come to my aid!1

  • 2 The House of Fiction, p. 143.
  • 3 Loc. cit.

1Maupassant’s preface to Pierre et Jean, entitled “Le Roman” and containing his conception of the novel, was the starting-point for James’s article in the Fortnightly Review (March 1888). There he expresses his gratitude to Maupassant for having given in intelligible terms his general ideas on the novel and for having insisted on the necessity for the writer to express himself in the form that best suits his temperament. For if a novel is to be a direct impression of life there will be as many impressions as there are writers. Accordingly a writer is at his best when he follows his own nature and refuses to let his gifts be corrupted or diminished by prejudices and interdictions. This is often the case with English and American writers: “More than the French,” James writes, “we are apt to be misled by some convention or other as to the sort of feeler we ought to put forth, forgetting that the best one will be the one that nature happens to have given us.”2 If they generally have the courage of their opinions, those writers rarely have that of their perceptions: “There is a whole side of our perceptive apparatus that we in fact neglect, and there are probably many among us who would erect this tendency into a duty.”3

  • 4 Ibid., p. 145.

2Maupassant is hardly conceivable in the Anglo-Saxon literary world. He follows the natural bent of his temperament and he does his best to master his instrument. But this instrument happens to be that of the senses. Even the visual sense would be different in England. There is contempt, impudence, and an obvious absence of love in Maupassant’s intelligent and penetrating glance.“He has none of the superstitions of observation, none of our English indulgences, our tender and often imaginative superficialities.”4

3When it comes to mentioning sex James—be it irony or timidity— does not even use the word:

  • 5 Ibid., p. 146.

As regards the other sense, the sense par excellence, the sense which we scarcely mention in English fiction, and which I am not very sure I shall be allowed to mention in an English periodical, M. de Maupassant speaks for that, and of it, with extraordinary distinctness and authority.5

  • 6 Loc. cit.

4Maupassant is a rarity, a “case,” a “lion in the path,” “embarrassing and mystifying for the moralist.”6 It is embarrassing for an Englishman or an American to admit that low views of man and life can be compatible with great art, that a cynic can be a master. James considers that the tales represent Maupassant at his best and that they are a collection of masterpieces. They are strong, but also brutal and violent. The short story has never had a very good fortune in England, James says; in America it is associated with the names of Hawthorne and Edgar Poe; in France it is particularly popular and it has always been associated with a tradition of “indecency”:

  • 7 Ibid., p. 153.

I say indecency with plainness, though my indication would perhaps please better with another word, for we suffer in English from a lack of roundabout names for the conte leste, —that element for which the French, with their grivois, their gaillard, their égrillard, their gaudriole, have so many convenient synonyms.7

  • 8 Ibid., p. 157.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 157.
  • 10 Ibid., p. 158.

5Among the tales James prefers those about the Norman peasantry, but though he finds them real and perfectly observed he cannot help resenting Maupassant’s choice of the ugly, shabby, sordid detail of human life. Maupassant’s pessimism is the very opposite of the optimism generally prevailing in English fiction. When we read Maupassant, he says, we feel a kind of nervous exasperation which is due to the fact that his dark picture of life is “ighted up simply by more or less polissonnerie.8 An Anglo-Saxon reader looks in vain for all the qualities with which he is familiar in his own fiction: “the love of sport, the sense of decorum, the necessity for action, the habit of respect, the absence of irony, the pervasiveness of childhood, the expansive tendency of the race.”9 But Maupassant’s pessimism, together with the perfection of his art, makes James question the optimism of the English novel. It is partly he says, “the optimism of women and of spinsters; in other words the optimism of ignorance as well as of delicacy.”10 The tone is different on each side of the Channel and so is the way in which life is apprehended:

  • 11 Ibid., pp. 158-159.

The feeling of life is evidently, de part et d’autre, a very different thing. If in ours, as the novel illustrates it, there are superficialities, there are also qualities which are far from being negatives and omissions: a large imagination and (is it fatuous to say?) a large experience of the positive kind. Even those of our novelists whose manner is most ironic pity life more and hate it less than M. de Maupassant and his great initiator Flaubert. It comes back I suppose to our good humour (which may apparently also be an artistic force); at any rate, we have reserves about our shames and our sorrows, indulgences and tolerances about our Philistinism, forbearances about our blows, and a general friendliness of conception about our possibilities, which take the cruelty from our self-derision and operate in the last resort as a sort of tribute to our freedom.11

6The feeling for life is greater in English literature: there is a deeper pity, a deeper tenderness. The French are dry, cynical, often negative and they have no sense of humour. Their exclusive concern for form and style makes them hate life and ignore more important values. That is why Maupassant prefers the epic manner to the analytic fashion of telling a story. Psychology, according to him, must be “hidden in life.” Here again the two writers differ profoundly, and James remarks that all depends on the observer:

  • 12 Ibid., p. 148.

For me an act, an incident, an attitude, may be a sharp, detached, isolated thing, of which I give a full account in saying that in such and such a way it came off. For you it may be hung about with implications, with relations, and conditions as necessary to help you to recognise it as the clothes of your friends are to help you know them in the street. You feel that they would seem strange to you without petticoats and trousers.12

  • 13 Ibid., p. 163.

7Unlike Maupassant, James needs the petticoats and trousers. Significantly, he pronounces Pierre et Jean the best of Maupassant’s novels and finds that the fault of Une Vie resides in its excessive elimination. Une Vie, James says, is a good example of the way the French can convey an impression of truth by a minimum of arrangement. But it would have been far better if the novelist had not eliminated so much: “What it really amounts to is that if the subject of this artistic experiment had been the existence of an English lady, even a very dull one, the air of verisimilitude would have demanded that she should have been placed in a denser medium.”13

  • 14 Preface to The Awkward Age. The Art of the Novel, p. 101.
  • 15 Introduction to The Odd Number, Thirteen Tales by Guy de Maupassant translated by Jonathan Sturges (...)

8James is convinced that Maupassant’s conciseness results from his limited range of interest rather than from a conscious intelligent attempt at brevity, that if he thinks meanly of “explanations” it is because they do not come to him in great affluence. Maupassant is not concerned with values and judgments but only with the perfectly done. He is fortunate because his theory can make the best of his limitations. Maupassant, it is true, had not been “condemned by nature to a liberally amused and beguiled, a richly sophisticated, view of relations and a fine inquisitive speculative sense for them” and he did not, like James, “find himself at moments flounder in a deep warm jungle”14; on the other hand, it is difficult to believe that his performance is the result of mere chance. His was a studied sobriety in subject as well as in form. “Le Roman” was partly intended as a criticism of Pierre et Jean, in which Maupassant had tried to write in a more analytic way. James liked the novel as he liked Fort comme la Mort. He wrote the next year: “Lately he has given signs of adding a new cord to his bow—a silver cord, of intenser vibration. His last two novels Pierre et Jean and Forr comme la Mort deal with shades of feeling and delicacies of experience to which he had shown himself rather a stranger.”15 Yet Maupassant’s experiment in the analytic mode was hardly successful. In Fort comme la Mort he ventured in a kind of psychological realism which does not suit him at all. The book has less strength, less vigour than the others for the simple reason that psychology is not, as usual, hidden behind the facts. James does not ignore the difficulty there is in conveying much—including a feeling of life— in a minimum of words. But he himself cannot do without analysis, introspection, explanations. A detailed analysis of human motives would only destroy the touching naivety of Boitelle’s love for his negrowoman, the poignancy of Une Vie, and the directness of certain tales in which the humble and the poor appear to us in their naked truth.

9Though James charges Maupassant with having stressed too much the carnal side of man, with the uncleanness and obscenity of certain subjects, with a too definitely pessimistic view of life, he is grateful to him for claiming the freedom of choice for the novelist, for condemning the vanity of certain dogmatisms in saying that the novelist must write in the form that best suits him and according to his temperament. There is more than one kind of reality of things because the novel is a vision of the world from the point of view of the writer, and there are always many possible responses to a given situation. Of course Maupassant was philosophically thin and the reader who tries to go beyond the surface often bumps against the wall of a hard and obstinate pessimism, but James’s final feeling is one of admiration, which is also an admiration for the French novel in general. He even goes so far as to praise the French novelists for exploring the vast section of society lying between the higher circles and the darkest and most picturesque misery. He wishes that English novelists should follow their example, become as democratic as the French are and stop confining themselves to the “country-house and the hunting-field”:

  • 16 The House of Fiction, p. 165.

In England, where the fashion of fiction still sets mainly to the country-house and the hunting-field, and yet more novels are published than anywhere else in the world, that thick twilight of mediocrity has been little explored. May it yield triumphs in the years to come!16

  • 17 The Odd Number, Introduction, p. xiv.
  • 18 Ibid., p. xvi.

10In the following year James wrote an introduction to The Odd Number, which begins with a few remarks about the French and their literature. He says that if their literature reaches such a high degree of perfection it is probably because they stay at home and waste no time in dealing with life in foreign countries. Whereas many English and American writers try to paint French or Italian life, few French novels are devoted to the portraiture of the Anglo-Saxon world. His remarks on Maupassant himself are more or less the same as in the first article. He shows that he achieved perfection by serious selection, by going “straight to the strongest ingredients, and to them alone,”17 but also that his perfection is limited since the life of which his tales are full is itself limited, all the more so as Maupassant was far from “having taken its measures in all directions.”18 In this introduction as well as in the first article James is careful to apply Maupassant’s own rules. A critic, Maupassant had written in “Le Roman,” is intelligent in proportion as he enters into the particular case and wastes no time in quarrelling with it because it is not another. James here proves an intelligent critic but an Anglo-Saxon one with an immensely different background.

11Apart from their dedication to literature and their claim for freedom in art James and Maupassant have nothing in common. Maupassant’s characters are stripped of the external forms of a developed and refined social life. They often verge on the animal world, close to nature, heathen and violent, ignorant of the complexities of a more sophisticated way of life. James, on the contrary, always chooses the special case, the fine mind, the rarity. Moreover, he generally presents it as seen in a “reflector,” in a consciousness most capable of intensification and enlargement:

  • 19 Preface to The Princess Casamassima, The Art of the Novel, p. 67.

The person capable of feeling in the given case more than another of what is to be felt for it, and so serving in the highest degree to record it dramatically and objectively, is the only sort of person on whom we can count not to betray, to cheapen or, as we say, give away, the value and beauty of the thing. By so much as the affair matters for some such individual, by so much do we get the best there is of it, and by so much as it falls within the scope of a denser and duller, a more vulgar and more shallow capacity, do we get a picture dim and meagre.19

12Far from being humble and natural, James’s characters are, to use one of his favourite expressions, full vessels of consciousness, loaded to the brim, introspective and complicated, free from material care and as far from animal life as Maupassant’s are close to it. But it is precisely because Maupassant was so different that James constantly kept his eyes on him. He felt that the example of this writer, who achieved such perfection on the opposite side of the house of fiction, would always remind him to abide by the demands of form and composition and would thereby help him to improve his craft. James wished to attain to Maupassant’s classical sobriety by exerting a control on his form, yet he also wanted to sacrifice nothing. That is why he disliked limits imposed from the outside, as was often the case when his stories were to be serialized in periodicals. He had to squeeze his subject, whatever it was, in a rather exiguous receptable and he often had trouble with his editors when his stories exceeded the length that had been foreseen for them. When the Yellow Book began to appear James was invited to contribute to the first number and he rejoiced at being allowed to give his composition the form and length he judged most convenient. Such matters could only be determined by the writer himself. If the nouvelle had arrived at such interesting results in other countries it was because of the greater liberty authors enjoyed there:

  • 20 Preface to The Lesson of the Master, ibid., p. 220.

It had taken the blank misery of our Anglo-Saxon sense of such matters to organise, as might be said, the general indifference to this fine type of composition. In that dull view a “short story” was a “short story,” and that was the end of it. Shades and differences, varieties and styles, the value above all of the idea happily developed, languished, to extinction, under the hard-and-fast rule of the “from six to eight thousand words”—when, for one’s benefit, the rigour was a little relaxed.20

  • 21 Notebooks, p. 89.
  • 22 Ibid., p. 92.
  • 23 Ibid., p. 102.
  • 24 Ibid., p. 104.

13Apart from this mere practical point of view the problem of conciseness had been from far back one of James’s main preoccupations. Again and again we see him insist in his Notebooks on the necessity for his tales to be brief, but though he sincerely intends to make them so they always appear to be much longer when they come out. Between 1890 (The Tragic Muse) and 1897 (The Spoils of Poynton) James stopped writing long novels. He only wrote tales which he tried to make very short, after the manner of Maupassant. In this he followed the fashion of the nineties, which witnessed an unusual production of short stories in the line of Maupassant. The vogue, however, did not last, and the writers who had tried their hands at the new genre (G.S. Street, H.D. Lowry, G. Egerton, H. Harland, H.M. Gilbert, E. Dawson etc.) simply stopped writing short stories after 1898. At that stage of James’s literary career Maupassant is the prominent figure, the muse he constantly calls to his aid: “Oh, spirit of Maupassant, come to my aid!” he exclaims in his Notebooks21 when trying to take notes for The Patagonia, a story which was to have three parts and finally had four. “A la Maupassant must be my constant motto,” he writes again in February 1889 when preparing The Tragic Muse.22 In 1890, after having outlined the subject of a short tale that was never written, he adds: “The sketch, picture, vision—à la Maupassant.23 Concision, rapidity, vividness are words that recur again and again in the notes of 1891. The Real Thing should be “something as admirably compact and selected as Maupassant24… and obviously is nor! In July he writes:

  • 25 Ibid., p. 105.

I must hammer away at the effort to do, successfully and triumphantly, a large number of very short things. I have done 1/2 a dozen, lately, but it takes time and practice to get into the trick of it. I have never attempted before to deal with such extreme brevity.25

14In October he expresses the same concern in a letter to Robert Louis Stevenson:

  • 26 Selected Letters, p. 176.

I mean never to write another novel; I mean I have solemnly dedicated myself to a masterly brevity. I have come back to it as to an early love. “La première politesse de l’écrivain” says lately the exquisite Anatole France, “n’est-ce point d’être bref? La nouvelle suffit à tous. On peut y enfermer beaucoup de sens en peu de mots. Une nouvelle bien faite est le régal des connaisseurs et le contentement des difficiles. C’est l élixir et la quintessence. C’est l’onguent précieux.” I quote him because il dit si bien.26

15These are only a few examples of an almost childish insistence on a quality which was, in fact, quite alien to James’s temperament. Yet he felt the need for it because it contributed to closer organization. His obsession with conciseness and brevity is related to his desire to imitate the art of the dramatist. James admired in Maupassant’s short stories the very characteristics of classical drama: roundness, impersonality, sobriety. The scenic presentation used by Maupassant required brevity and compactness. James admired his manner and wanted to have done with the loose end of the novel and to find a form that would have the same consistency, the same closeness as the stage-play. In the Preface to The Reverberator he says that he has tried to place the subject

  • 27 The Art of the Novel, p. 182.

in that blest drama-light which, really making for intelligibility as nothing else does, orders and regulates, even when but faintly turned on; squares things and keeps them in happy relation to each other. What “happens,” by that felicity, happens thus to every one concerned, exactly as in much more prodigious recitals.27

16It is significant that, at the time of his interest in Maupassant, James was always trying to “dramatize,” that is, to present the subject objectively by leaving the author out of the picture. He even tried his hand at drama but never really succeeded. “Dramatize!” he said to himself whenever he heard an interesting anecdote. Most of the tales of that period developed out of such grains of seed dropped in the field of conversation, picked up by the attentive writer and handled dramatically. Re-reading the pages he had written in the nineties (The Pupil, In the Cage, What Maisie Knew) was for him “to watch the scenic system at play”:

  • 28 Preface to In the Cage, ibid., pp. 157-158.

The treatment by “scene” regularly, quite rhythmically recurs; the intervals between, the massing of the elements to a different effect and by a quite other law, remain, in this fashion, all preparative, just as the scenic occasions in themselves become, at a given moment, illustrative, each of the agents, true to its function, taking up the theme from the other very much as the fiddles, in an orchestra, may take it up from the cornets and flutes, or the wind-instruments take it up from the violins. The point, however, is that the scenic passages are wholly and logically scenic, having for their rule of beauty the principle of the “conduct,” the organic development, of a scene—the entire succession of values that flower and bear fruit on ground solidly laid for them.28

  • 29 Ibid., p. 157.

17All those little pieces “demean themselves… as little constituted dramas, little exhibitions founded on the logic of the ‘scene,’ the unit of the scene, the general scenic consistency.”29

  • 30 Preface to The Awkward Age. ibid., p. 117.
  • 31 Preface to The Tragic Muse, ibid., p. 90.

18James’s experiments in drama were to reach their climax in The Awkward Age. In the Preface he spoke of the “exemplary closeness” of the book and called the composition of the chapter entitled “Tishy Grendon” “triumphantly scientific.”30 In a play no character has a “usurping consciousness”31: the consciousness of each character is exhibited exactly in the same way as that of the hero. Moreover no part of the action is related to anything but some other part. When he wrote The Awkward Age James tried to abide strictly by the principle of the stage-play. Each scene is related to each and to all of its companions. When he had done, he felt the satisfaction of the dramatist,

  • 32 Preface to The Awkward Age, ibid., pp. 113-114.

the beauty and the difficulty… of escaping poverty even though the references in one’s action can only be, with intensity, to each other, to things exactly on the same plane of exhibition with themselves. Exhibition may mean in a “story” twenty different ways, fifty excursions, alternatives, excrescences, and the novel, as largely practised in English, is the perfect paradise of the loose end. The play consents to the logic of but one way, mathematically right, and with the loose end as gross an impertinence on its surface, and as grave a dishonour, as the dangle of a snippet of silk or wool on the right side of a tapestry.32

19James tried to develop towards a still greater objectivity. But, paradoxically, what he ultimately achieved was exactly the contrary of what the French writer had done. Maupassant’s objectivity consisted in looking at the world as it stood in front of him and in describing it with perfect coolness, impartiality and absence of passion. He chose the simplest, the most uncomplicated human material so that his stories were also stripped of superfluous elements: what remained was the very kernel and a direct apprehension of life which, for James, also meant the end of it. Though art is simplification it must not simplify too much if it is to render the mystery and the density of life. While Maupassant looked at the bottom, James looked at the top. The portion of life to which, from his window, he directed his field-glass was not the animal life in its utmost simplification but the life of the consciousness in its most elaborate form. Maupassant despised life and quickly reached its kernel. James loved it and never reached the kernel because he saw depth within depth in its richness and complexity. If, as James himself often assumed in his prefaces, life is all expansion, muddle, waste, and art all economy and composition, if the writer’s task consists in drawing a line around his subject and in creating artificial limits to relations which, in reality, stop nowhere, it is easy to understand that the novelist who chooses in the muddle of life the simplest subject and the simplest relations will encounter less difficulty when putting the picture into its frame than the one for whom a case is never rare enough, a consciousness never large enough:

  • 33 Preface to The Tragic Muse, ibid., p. 87.

To put all that is possible of one’s idea into a form and compass that will contain and express it only by delicate adjustments and an exquisite chemistry, so that there will at the end be neither a drop of one’s glass to spare—every artist will remember how often that sort of necessity has carried with it its particular inspiration.33

20Limited as it was Maupassant’s philosophy could easily adjust itself to the hard, rigorous form. In the same golden vessel James—who let himself be defeated by no technical difficulties— endeavoured to put all the complexities of the human mind at its finest. To do this, however, while also keeping the vessel from brimming over, was a tour de force which he did not always bring off.


1 Notebooks, p. 89.

2 The House of Fiction, p. 143.

3 Loc. cit.

4 Ibid., p. 145.

5 Ibid., p. 146.

6 Loc. cit.

7 Ibid., p. 153.

8 Ibid., p. 157.

9 Ibid., p. 157.

10 Ibid., p. 158.

11 Ibid., pp. 158-159.

12 Ibid., p. 148.

13 Ibid., p. 163.

14 Preface to The Awkward Age. The Art of the Novel, p. 101.

15 Introduction to The Odd Number, Thirteen Tales by Guy de Maupassant translated by Jonathan Sturges with an introduction by Henry James (New York, 1889), p. xvi.

16 The House of Fiction, p. 165.

17 The Odd Number, Introduction, p. xiv.

18 Ibid., p. xvi.

19 Preface to The Princess Casamassima, The Art of the Novel, p. 67.

20 Preface to The Lesson of the Master, ibid., p. 220.

21 Notebooks, p. 89.

22 Ibid., p. 92.

23 Ibid., p. 102.

24 Ibid., p. 104.

25 Ibid., p. 105.

26 Selected Letters, p. 176.

27 The Art of the Novel, p. 182.

28 Preface to In the Cage, ibid., pp. 157-158.

29 Ibid., p. 157.

30 Preface to The Awkward Age. ibid., p. 117.

31 Preface to The Tragic Muse, ibid., p. 90.

32 Preface to The Awkward Age, ibid., pp. 113-114.

33 Preface to The Tragic Muse, ibid., p. 87.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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