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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

French novelists


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  • 1 A Little Tour in France, p. 334.

… and as the light faded in the Parc the vision of some of the things I had enjoyed became more distinct1

1James’s cultivation of indirectness and mystery as a means to get at reality is thrown into relief through a comparison with Paul Bourget, who seems at first sight to have had much in common with the American novelist. Bourget shared James’s moral preoccupations and, after having studied the method of investigation of the French realists he parted company with them and applied their method to the analysis of the soul rather than to the concrete and external world. He also differed from them in that he did not confine himself to Paris or even to France but was, like James himself, a modern cosmopolitan at home in London or in Rome as well as in the French capital.

  • 2 Essay on Loti (1888) in Essays in London and Elsewhere, p. 164.

2All this accounts for James’s interest in the young writer who “alone parmi les jeunes” was not open to his usual criticism that the French were excellent painters of the external world but poor analysts of human motives. “He looks,” James writes “much more within than without and notes with extraordinary closeness the action of life on the soul, especially the corrosive and destructive action.”2 Travelling as he did from one capital to another Bourget was sure to meet James, to discuss with him questions of form and technique and perhaps to become his friend and pupil. They first met in London in 1884, when Bourget was working on Cruelle Enigme, which appeared the following year and was dedicated to Henry James. In the dédicace Bourget evokes the evenings he spent with James at the Athenian Club or on the Dover esplanade:

  • 3 P. Bourget, Cruelle Enigme (Paris, 1899), p. II.

Nous avons souvent discuté au sujet de cet art du roman, le plus moderne de tous parce qu’il est le plus souple, le plus capable de s’accommoder aux nécessités variées de chaque tempérament. Nous tombions d’accord que les lois imposées au romancier par les diverses esthétiques se ramènent en définitive à une seule: donner une impression personnelle de la Vie.3

  • 4 P. Bourget, Outremer (Paris, 1895), p. 92.
  • 5 P. Bourget, La Duchesse Bleue (Paris, 1902), p. 9. Terminations contained The Death of the Lion, T (...)
  • 6 He was also a great admirer of William James, who appears in Nos Actes nous suivent as the master (...)
  • 7 Selected Letters, p. 218.
  • 8 Letters, I, 192.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 226.
  • 10 Ibid., pp. 199-200.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 206.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 211.
  • 13 Ibid., p. 296.

3The situation was now reversed. In 1876 James, still on the threshold of his career as a novelist, had listened to Flaubert and his friends, very much impressed by the zeal and seriousness of the little group. Now a young French writer was listening to him and attention was drawn to James’s name on the other side of the Channel. Besides his dedication in Cruelle Enigme Bourget praised his new friend in Outremer, where he wrote that “personne n’a rendu comme ce maître la nuance exacte des propos échangés par les gens de Boston ou de New York, dans un coin de salon et à une table de dîner.”4 In the preface to La Duchesse Bleue he regrets that so few writers should have concerned themselves with the psychology of the artist and adds: “Je ne connais, parmi nos contemporains, que M. Henry James qui ait donné quelques analyses de cet ordre dans son remarquable recueil: Terminations.”5 If Bourget professed great admiration for James6 the American seems to have been far less impressed by his French collègue. He lost all interest in the writer when he saw how little Bourget applied his own critical opinions in his fiction, and his sympathy for the man gradually cooled down after the Dreyfus affair. James’s Letters and Notebooks provide some information on their friendship and on James’s reaction to his work: “I am glad Bourget advises and assists you,” he writes to Urbain Mengin in 1894; “a man so intelligent and so sagacious can’t touch you without giving you something.”7 Bourget’s criticism was indeed excellent, and his advice most useful for young novelists. James also finds the travel essays very good reading. In 1892 he sends Stevenson Sensations d’Italie and recommends the book as “one of the most exquisite things of our time”8; he writes to Edmund Gosse that Outremer “will be much the prettiest (and I should judge kindest) socio-psychological book written about the U.S.”9 But James was far less laudatory when he had to judge Bourget’s works of fiction. He advises C.E. Norton against reading any one of Bourget’s novels though he admits that some have remarkable parts. Yet he makes an exception for Terre Promise and tells Norton to read it if he thinks he can stand “so suffocating an analysis”: “It is perhaps ‘psychology’ gone mad—but it is an extraordinary production.”10 In a letter to Stevenson (February 1893), in which he says that he has no copy of Cosmopolis to send him, he writes: “even if I were to send you one you would find it too round and round the subject—which heaven knows it is—for your taste,” and instead he recommends him Anatole France’s Etui de Nacre.11 In another letter to Stevenson (August 1893) he says that he is sending him Un Scrupule, a book which Stevenson will probably be unable to read. Bourget’s intentions, he remarks, have been the best “but he leads so migratory a life that I don’t see how any intention can ever well fructify.”12 To Bourget himself James writes (August 1898) that the Duchesse Bleue “inspires him with lively admiration,” but that “the excess of anticipatory analysis undermines too often the reader’s curiosity.”13 In the same letter he says that he would like to read some of Bourget’s books with him in order to point out to the young novelist the passages where he finds him too prophetic or too reflective, or where the superabundance of psychological analysis is prejudicial to the aesthetic value of the work:

  • 14 Ibid., p. 297.

Your love of intellectual daylight, absolutely your pursuit of complexities, is an injury to the patches of ambiguity and the abysses of shadow which really are the clothing —or much of it—of the effects that constitute the material of our trade.14

4A comparison between Bourget’s Poste restante and James’s In the Cage may serve to illustrate the former’s “love of intellectual daylight” as opposed to James’s preference for the chiaroscuro. The two tales deal with the same subject: an imaginative girl in a post-office is in contact with the rich and elegant people who come up for the season; she builds all kinds of romances and lets her imagination carry her farther and farther away from reality, which proves in the end to be far less poetical than her dreams.

5From the start Bourget emphasizes the contrast between the modest post-office officials and the leisured people who spend the summer at Bijou-sur-Mer:

  • 15 P. Bourget, “Poste restante” in De petits faits vrais (Paris, 1930), p. 134.

Comment tout ce menu peuple de modestes travailleurs ne serait-il pas troublé par le contraste entre son étroite destinée et l’existence si libre, si comblée que mènent, ou semblent mener, ces hôtes et ces hôtesses de passage qui ne respirent que pour leurs caprices et leurs plaisirs?15

  • 16 Ibid., p. 137.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 135.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 134.

6Meynal and Nadeau are “aigris par la servitude de leur médiocre métier”16 and look at the rich with bitterness and envy. The wealthy and beautiful Madame Toussaint-Montarut “excitait la haineuse envie du scribe en train de griffonner,”17 that is, of Nadeau, who is a communist and wears on his face an expression “voisine de la révolte sociale.”18 The only one who does not despise the rich and even naïvely admires them is Françoise Logeais, the heroine of the story. Bourget is careful to give us every detail about the girl:

  • 19 Ibid., pp. 138-139.

Cette petite employée, fille d’un jardinier et d’une pauvre couturière, avait ce trait de caractère que le langage courant ridiculise ou condamne d’un mot, d’ailleurs susceptible de traductions si différentes. Elle était intimement et profondément “romanesque” et le roman imaginé derrière la quotidienne visite de Mme Toussaint-Montarut à la poste restante, hantait son esprit d’humble provinciale, vouée d’avance aux prosaïsmes d’un humble foyer.19

  • 20 Ibid., p. 139.

7The girl is presented from the outside, and we know at once her past, her present, and her future. Nothing is left in the dark. The little dévote—so her two fellow-employees call her—is deeply impressed by the beauty and the elegance of Madame Toussaint-Montarut, who comes every day to get, under a false name, a letter from her lover. The girl does not think it bad: for her the lover can only be generous and kind, the husband old and tyrannical. “Une aventure d’amour, c’était pour elle une plongée dans l’idéal, un paradis d’impressions exaltées et anoblissantes.”20 But her fellow-employees’ remarks on the rich in general and on Madame Toussaint-Montarut in particular begin to awake her suspicion. She first refuses to believe that something wrong might be connected with her beautiful pair. Disturbed, however, by the young men’s allusions she decides to see for herself and indeed she sees reality, for Bourget has apparently found no other means to bring the girl in contact with it than by obliging her to spy on the lovers at the Casino of Bijou-sur-Mer and to overhear their conversation from her hiding-place. There she sees the lady give the young man money and the latter behave in a way that hardly befits a gentleman. She understands that Madame Toussaint-Montarut helps her lover to pay his gambling debts and that she stoops so low as to receive money from her maid, whose name she also uses for the poste restante. In short the heroine hears everything concerning the lovers and so does the reader. She is cruelly disappointed and immediately decides to accept the proposal of M. Hamelin, an honest young man who has been in love with her for a long time but whom she had so far hesitated to marry because she secretely hoped to have her own romance some day. So, Bourget concludes,

  • 21 Ibid., pp. 166-167.

ce roman d’amour dont Françoise avait rêvé, il se vivait là, près d’elle, dans ce simple et loyal garçon qu’elle avait cru si vulgaire, si médiocre, si plat. La hideuse expérience dont elle était encore meurtrie, lui faisait sentir avec une force singulière la secrète poésie de ce coeur d’homme jusqu’alors ignoré d’elle.21

8And the reader cannot help rejoicing at seeing her so easily and so promptly convinced.

9The way James’s tale opens immediately shows the difference in tone:

  • 22 In the Cage. Complete Tales, X, 139.

It had occurred to her early that in her position—that of a young person spending, in framed and wired confinement, the life of a guinea-pig or magpie—she should know a great many persons without their recognising the acquaintance.22

  • 23 Ibid., p. 166.

10Throughout the tale the girl is merely “she” or “the betrothed of Mr. Mudge.” She is never presented from outside: we are in her consciousness and we feel, observe and guess with her. She is engaged from the start and she also knows from the start what “smart people” really are. Though she spends most of her life in her “cage,” that is, in her isolated imagination, she is not merely romanesque like her French sister. She does not indulge in vague and sterile upper-class musings but builds her dreams patiently as a necessary antidote to a reality she despises and tries to put off as long as possible by postponing her marriage to Mr. Mudge. She has a strong sense of her superiority and when she thinks of Mr. Mudge’s imperviousness to what really matters to her “there were times when she wondered how in the world she could bear him, how she could bear any man so smugly unconscious of the immensity of her difference.”23 The only one in her own circle whom the girl considers as an equal is Mrs. Jordan, a clergyman’s widow who comes in direct contact with the rich by arranging flowers at their homes. But the girl does not envy her for she prefers to handle combinations of men and women rather than combinations of flowers and greenstuff. She has an insatiable curiosity about the high society whose loves, lies, struggles, and miseries she tries to unravel out of the cryptic telegrams they send to one another. The task is not easy. While Mme Toussaint-Montarut is always addressed under the same false name, which we know to be her maid’s, her counterpart in James’s tale is now Mary, now Cissy, now Lady Bradeen according to the persons she wires to. As for this lady’s lover he assumes a still greater number of identities, and James admirably succeeds in suggesting the complexities of high life by contrasting them with the mere “she” by which he designates the girl:

  • 24 Ibid., p. 152.

He was sometimes Everard, as he had been at the Hôtel Brighton, and he was sometimes Captain Everard. He was sometimes Philip with his surname and sometimes Philip without it. In some directions he was merely Phil, in others he was merely Captain. There were relations in which he was none of these things, but a quite different person— “the Count.” There were several friends for whom he was William. There were several for whom, in allusion perhaps to his complexion, he was “the Pink ‘Un’.” Once, once only by good luck, he had, coinciding comically, quite miraculously, with another person also near to her, been “Mudge.” Yes, whatever he was, it was a part of his happiness—whatever he was and probably whatever he wasn’t. And his happiness was a part—it became so little by little—of something that, almost from the first of her being at Cocker’s, had been deeply with the girl.24

  • 25 Loc. cit.
  • 26 Ibid., p. 152.
  • 27 Ibid., p. 151.
  • 28 Ibid., p. 164.

11This “something,” we are told, “was the queer extension of her experience, the double life that, in the cage, she grew at last to lead.”25 Her imagination is an enlargement of experience. It allows her to live in a world that is not hers and that would otherwise remain closed to her. Out of the hints she gets in the telegrams she re-constructs the complex world of those who have enough time to be entangled in dangerous love-affairs and enough money to wire their expensive feelings. She reads stories and meanings without end in the intercourse between her ladies and gentlemen. And she reads well: the ideally composed world of her imagination provides her with an Ariadne thread for the confused and fragmented reality. Unlike Françoise Logeais, she does not remain outside the story of her lovers but enters it and plays an active part in it at its most crucial moment. What really happens James does not care to let us know. The reader is asked to share the girl’s cleverness and lucidity, to hover with her about reality, to guess for himself and to have, if he likes, as many conflicting theories as she has concerning the lady and her lover. The girl circles breathlessly round an object that is lighted only by patches. Her imagination, like James’s when encountering an “interesting” situation or character, fills in the gaps; she does not want more light. There are times when she wishes that instead of working in a branch post-office at the back of a grocery store she were in one of the bigger offices at Knightsbridge or Paddington where telegrams arrive as well as depart. But on the whole she feels, like James again, that it is better to have only “germs,” to remain in “the world of whiffs and glimpses”26 for she “pressed the romance closer by reason of the very quantity of imagination that it demanded.”27 In practising her little job Mrs. Jordan actually meets the rich but the girl does not want her friend to describe them to her: “They’re too real!” she says, “they’re selfish brutes.”28 She knows that the truth imagined is more important than the actual situation, but like James himself she also feels that life is very confusing and that too much reality prevents those endowed with imagination from exercising their divine faculty:

  • 29 Ibid., p. 143.

The only weakness in her faculty came from the positive abundance of her contact with the human herd; this was so constant, had the effect of becoming so cheap, that there were long stretches in which inspiration, divination and interest, quite dropped.29

12or again:

  • 30 Ibid., p. 156.

What virtually happened was that in the shuffling herd that passed before her by far the greater part only passed—a proportion but just appreciable stayed. Most of the elements swam straight away, lost themselves in the bottomless common, and by so doing really kept the page clear. On the clearness, therefore, what she did retain stood sharply out; she nipped and caught it, turned it over and interwove it.30

  • 31 Ibid., p. 148.
  • 32 Ibid., p. 191.
  • 33 Ibid., p. 216.

13Nothing matters more to her than her lucidity, her conscious awareness of things and people, and she is afraid of a reality that might empoverish or even destroy it. Sharp and clever as she had always been when she transmitted her messages before seeing the captain, she becomes almost stupid when she sees him in the flesh: “her immediate vision of himself had the effect, while she counted his seventy words, of preventing intelligibility. His words were mere numbers, they told her nothing whatever; and after he had gone she was in possession of no name, of no address, of no meaning, of nothing but a vague, sweet sound and an immense impression.”31 When she meets him one evening out of the “cage” the peopled darkness of the streets is less confusing to her than his own real presence: “They were near, near, and all that she had imagined of that had only become more true, more dreadful and overwhelming.”32 The nearer she comes to reality the more her imagination is flagging: “She knew at last so much, that she had quite lost her earlier sense of merely guessing. There were no shades of distinctness—it all bounced out.”33 Life has forced its way into the girl’s inner self and her only idea is to shut the door of her cage again as quickly as possible. She shrinks from love and when she realizes that the captain is waiting for her outside she finds shelter in her cage, where she remains longer than usual:

  • 34 Ibid., pp. 213-214.

To be in the cage had suddenly become her safety, and she was literally afraid of the alternate self who might be waiting outside. He might be waiting; it was he who was her alternate self, and of him she was afraid.34

  • 35 Ibid., p. 203.
  • 36 Ibid., p. 167.
  • 37 Ibid., pp. 201-202.

14Though we don’t know what has happened between the Captain and Lady Bradeen we guess that there was something the girl could have prevented had she so chosen. She could have escaped her fate and left the cage; instead she goes back to her betrothed: “Mr. Mudge was distinctly her fate,”35 and Mr. Mudge, “the perfection of a type,”36 is the British grocer, the perfect representative of the world without imagination and with nothing ever left to chance, in which she is condemned to live or, rather, in which she condemns herself to live. For she knows that within the limits she voluntarily imposes on herself she will remain free and keep her beautiful lucidity and awareness, which life and love were sure to injure. There is no tyranny on Mr. Mudge’s part and when they are together they do not encroach on each other’s life. They spend some time at Bournemouth and while Mr. Mudge, in his grocer’s way, joins the herd and endeavours to see as many people and as many things as possible to “get his money back” she remains “at the far end, away from the band and the crowd” and reflects that she largely gets hers “by seeing many things, the things of the past year, fall together and connect themselves, undergo the happy relegation that transforms melancholy and misery, passion and effort, into experience and knowledge.”37 Like James at the end of his little tour in France she sits alone, and like James’s her vision of the things she has enjoyed becomes more distinct as they recede into the past.

15Since nothing in the tale is presented from outside the girl’s return to reality had to be suggested indirectly. At the end of the tale Mrs. Jordan tells her that she is going to marry into society. No direct question is asked, no definite information is given about the prospective husband’s position in the world, but from the widow’s allusions the girl understands that Mr. Drake is not one of the rich but one of their servants and that, ironically, he has been engaged as a butler by the very Lady Bradeen who occupied such a place in her imagination. Through Mrs. Jordan— who has it from Mr. Drake—she also hears that Lord Bradeen is dead and that the lovers are going to be married but that something happened that almost prevented the marriage. In Mrs. Jordan’s situation the girl sees the reverberation of her own:

  • 38 Ibid., p. 236.

What our heroine saw and felt for in the whole business was the vivid reflection of her own dreams and delusions and her own return to reality. Reality, for the poor things they both were, could only be ugliness and obscurity, could never be the escape, the rise.38

  • 39 Ibid., p. 150.

16This last note of bitterness reminds us of the first meaning of the cage. Its bars are a separation between the girl’s social condition and the class “that wired everything, even their expensive feelings.”39 But if we compare In the Cage with Bourget’s tale we see that James has added a new dimension: the girl is a prisoner of her class but also a prisoner of herself. Her extreme sensibility isolates her from the other human beings. The social class to which she belongs is, in the last analysis, less important than the particular quality of her soul, the highest good she—and her author—can conceive of.

  • 40 Ibid., p. 207.

17The opposition between James’s ambiguity and Bourget’s “love of intellectual daylight” clearly appears from their respective treatment of a similar theme. In Bourget’s tale the writer’s intelligence sheds an equal light on everything. Nothing is left in the dark. The girl never guesses, never finds out by herself: she must see and hear in order to know; she only trusts her senses. James, on the contrary, does not explain anything and his final meaning is utterly different. Instead of looking at his heroine from outside as Bourget does, he introduces us into the very consciousness of the girl. Nothing is seen, heard or mentioned: “We never mention anything. What I’ve told you is just what I’ve found out,”40 the girl says to Mr. Mudge. Facts matter less than the girl’s vision and consciousness of them. This allows James to work in his beloved chiaroscuro, which resembles life much more than Bourget’s electric light. With its clear-cut division between dream and reality, Poste restante has a strange flatness compared to In the Cage, where the parts deliberately left in the dark create an extraordinary impression of volume, of fullness, and of “something behind.”

18Though an excellent critic, Bourget is certainly inferior to James as an artist and interpreter of life. When he first became acquainted with him James was glad to notice in the young novelist a deep interest in the moral and psychological values which the French realists had too long neglected. But the older Bourget grew the more he liked to theorize, and he often sacrificed the beauty of form and composition to an excess of analysis and demonstration. Besides, his theory itself was so schematic that it oversimplified life; he neglected the sacred duty of the artist, and the seriousness of his moral preoccupation did not, in James’s eyes, compensate for the flaw in his artistic sensibility.


1 A Little Tour in France, p. 334.

2 Essay on Loti (1888) in Essays in London and Elsewhere, p. 164.

3 P. Bourget, Cruelle Enigme (Paris, 1899), p. II.

4 P. Bourget, Outremer (Paris, 1895), p. 92.

5 P. Bourget, La Duchesse Bleue (Paris, 1902), p. 9. Terminations contained The Death of the Lion, The Coxon Fund, The Middle Years and The Altar of the Dead.

6 He was also a great admirer of William James, who appears in Nos Actes nous suivent as the master of Patrick Muller and whose ideas play an important part in the novel.

7 Selected Letters, p. 218.

8 Letters, I, 192.

9 Ibid., p. 226.

10 Ibid., pp. 199-200.

11 Ibid., p. 206.

12 Ibid., p. 211.

13 Ibid., p. 296.

14 Ibid., p. 297.

15 P. Bourget, “Poste restante” in De petits faits vrais (Paris, 1930), p. 134.

16 Ibid., p. 137.

17 Ibid., p. 135.

18 Ibid., p. 134.

19 Ibid., pp. 138-139.

20 Ibid., p. 139.

21 Ibid., pp. 166-167.

22 In the Cage. Complete Tales, X, 139.

23 Ibid., p. 166.

24 Ibid., p. 152.

25 Loc. cit.

26 Ibid., p. 152.

27 Ibid., p. 151.

28 Ibid., p. 164.

29 Ibid., p. 143.

30 Ibid., p. 156.

31 Ibid., p. 148.

32 Ibid., p. 191.

33 Ibid., p. 216.

34 Ibid., pp. 213-214.

35 Ibid., p. 203.

36 Ibid., p. 167.

37 Ibid., pp. 201-202.

38 Ibid., p. 236.

39 Ibid., p. 150.

40 Ibid., p. 207.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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