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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

III. The Novelist

A Tragedy of Error (1864). Lame Husbands and Unfaithful Wives

Texte intégral

  • 1 A Landscape Painter, Complete Tales, I, 138.

“It was the act of a false woman”…
“A false woman? No, it was the act of any woman—”1

  • 2 The tale appeared anonymously in the Continental Monthly of February 1864. It remained unidentifie (...)

1James was twenty-one when he wrote A Tragedy of Error, a little story set in a French sea-port town. It has little literary value, but it is James’s first published tale2 and already reveals some of the characteristics of his later works. It is also an interesting document on the psychology of the young James.

  • 3 A Tragedy of Error, Complete Tales, I, 47.

2Hortense Bernier receives a letter from her lame husband, who has been travelling abroad and who quite unexpectedly informs her that he is coming back. During their two years’ separation Hortense has taken a lover. Vicomte de Meyrau, with whom she is getting on tolerably well. At first the news upsets her so much that she thinks of committing suicide but she eventually changes her mind. Without making her decision known to the Vicomte she plots to have her husband drowned on his arrival. Cold-bloodedly she settles everything with a mercenary boatman. Fate, however, upsets her plans. While she is away her lover leaves a letter at her house in which he informs her that he will meet Charles Bernier aboard his steamboat. On the morning the ferryman mistakes the lover for the husband, and Hortense, who is waiting on her terrace, utters a cry when she sees a figure “emerge from below the terrace, and come limping toward her with outstretched arms.”3

  • 4 Ibid., p. 23.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 28.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 45.
  • 7 Ibid., p. 23.

3Such is the plot of this highly melodramatic story, in which the omniscient young author communicates directly with his reader: “My story begins with a gentleman coming out of the office and handing her a letter”4; “Josephine… applied her eye to the keyhole. This is what she saw”5; “Though I have judged best, hitherto, often from an exaggerated fear of trenching on the ground of fiction, to tell you what this poor lady did and said, rather than what she thought, I may disclose what passed in her mind now.”6 But what passes in Hortense Bernier’s mind shows that James had still much to learn before mastering the complexities of the human mind, especially when it happened to be that of a woman. He still drew in thick black lines with little sense of the delicate shades of meaning he was to use later. Yet he already proved a gifted apprentice who had read the French storytellers (especially Mérimée) with the greatest care and who showed a precocious sense of technique. Some characteristics of his mature fiction can be found in this first venture: the indirect presentation of his characters, his concern for the characters’ reactions rather than for the facts that provoke those reactions, the mixture of literal and figurative language, the vague ending, the unfathomable-ness of women. The characters are not described when they appear; their true nature is revealed through their acts and words. The Vicomte’s insincerity is disclosed from the first: although he read the letter while Hortense was half swooning from despair he pretends to read it for the first time when she hands it over to him. This letter is full of the unsuspecting husband’s joy at the prospective reunion with his wife. The dubious relation of the lovers is suggested through the reactions of the passers-by, for whom the couple in the phaeton is “full of interest” and most of whom “stared hard and exchanged significant glances.”7 The heroine is less easily labelled: we only notice her paleness when she lifts her veil to read the letter, but she soon takes it down again. We then see her through the keyhole—a rather clumsy device!—and share the maid Josephine’s surprise at seeing her swallow brandy by the glassful and scan the sea with a small opera glass. We follow her to the quays among the fishermen and boatmen, scrutinizing every figure she meets in the falling dusk. We see her shudder at the sight of the brutal boatman who seizes a jug of milk from the hand of a child and empties it himself, and we can measure her cool, rational mind from the way she succeeds in overcoming her repulsion by going straight to the man whom she has recognized as the right one to carry out her plan. Finally we witness her shameless bargaining while the ferryman rows her to the cemetery; only after she has said “Propose a sum” can we scan her face, which so far had been veiled or kept in the penumbra:

  • 8 Ibid., pp. 42-43.

The boatman had by this time resumed his seat and his oars. He stretched out for a long, slow pull, which brought him closely face to face with his temptress. This position, his body bent forward, his eyes fixed on Madame Bernier’s face, he kept for some seconds. It was perhaps fortunate for Hortense’s purpose at that moment—it had often aided her purposes before—that she was a pretty woman. * A plain face might have emphasised the utterly repulsive nature of the negotiation. Suddenly, with a quick, convulsive movement, the man completed the stroke.8

4The evocation of Hortense Bernier’s beautiful face close to that of the sinister boatman while they are bargaining is the best stroke of the story and reveals the promising gifts of the young writer. The asterisk refers to a footnote—another clumsy device!—in which James addresses his reader in order to make the impression stronger and to give it an air of greater authenticity:

  • 9 Ibid., p. 43.

I am told that there was no resisting her smile; and that she had at her command, in moments of grief, a certain look of despair which filled even the roughest hearts with sympathy, and won over the kindest to the cruel cause.9

5There is no other comment on the heroine. But nothing could describe her better than the glimpse we catch of her angel face while she is bargaining in hell and tempting the devil himself.

  • 10 Published in the Atlantic Monthly, March 1865.
  • 11 Published in the Atlantic Monthly, February 1866.
  • 12 Published in the Galaxy, 15 June 1866.

6It is not surprising that James’s first story should deal with the classical French trio, husband, wife and lover, and that he should have associated the French setting and especially the French woman with perfidy and blood. In fact, the tale reveals the young James in a cruder but probably truer light than that in which he appears in his autobiography. What strikes us in many tales from his youth is his fear of women, whom he did not yet consider as possible friends but as dangerous temptresses and puzzling objects of passion. In The Story of a Year10 Elizabeth Crowe is unable to wait one year for the return of her betrothed who is gone to the war. She falls in love with another man and if she has not the cruelty of the Frenchwoman, the effect of her conduct is the same since the truth kills the poor soldier when he comes home. In A Landscape Painter11 Miriam Quarterman pretends to hate money and marries a young painter, but not before having read in his diary that he possesses a fortune. In A Day of Days12 Ludlow escapes from Miss Moore’s net only because he has the good fortune to stand solidly on his feet.

7The meaning of these tales is clear enough and without going so far as to draw from these fictional statements any inferences about possible events in the author’s life we can assume that he feared the general fickleness of women and was puzzled about their mystery. Significantly, he chose a French heroine to embody all the cruelty and duplicity of womankind. He imputed to her all the immorality of France, which was still for him as for most Americans of his time a country where scandalous novels were written about unfaithful wives. This image of the levity of the French reflects both the mistrust of American Puritans and the stereotyped image of France in England, where Thackeray’s Paris Sketch Book and letters to Punch had reinforced the old prejudice that France was the most immoral country in Europe. The young James, still unaware of the difficulties of his task, does not deviate from the tradition and creates French characters from second-hand knowledge. As an artist, he is attracted to literary France and eager to know it better, but his puritan background still conditions his reaction to the immorality of its inhabitants.


1 A Landscape Painter, Complete Tales, I, 138.

2 The tale appeared anonymously in the Continental Monthly of February 1864. It remained unidentified until Leon Edel established it as James’s first published tale in 1953 (Henry James: The Untried Years, pp. 215-219). It was reprinted in the New England Quarterly, XXIX (September 1956), 291-317, under the title: “‘A Tragedy of Error’: James’s First Story, with a Prefatory Note by Leon Edel.”

3 A Tragedy of Error, Complete Tales, I, 47.

4 Ibid., p. 23.

5 Ibid., p. 28.

6 Ibid., p. 45.

7 Ibid., p. 23.

8 Ibid., pp. 42-43.

9 Ibid., p. 43.

10 Published in the Atlantic Monthly, March 1865.

11 Published in the Atlantic Monthly, February 1866.

12 Published in the Galaxy, 15 June 1866.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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