Version classiqueVersion mobile

Henry James

 | 
Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

III. The Novelist

Madame de Mauves (1874). Christians and Pagans

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Author of “Beltraffio,” Complete Tales, V, 334.

“The difference between us is simply the opposition between two distinct ways of looking at the world, which have never succeeded in getting on together, or making any kind of common ménage, since the beginning of time. They have borne all sorts of names, and my wife would tell you it’s the difference between Christian and Pagan… It’s the difference between making the most of life and making the least—”1

  • 2 The story appeared in the Galaxy, February-March 1874 and was first published in book form in 1875

1In Madame de Mauves2 James still uses the French setting and French secondary characters but his main characters, Euphemia de Mauves and Longmore, are both Americans; the image of France is no longer presented directly, but as reflected in their American consciousnesses. The significance of the story is again given concrete expression in a place exterior to the setting of the narrative: at a given moment Longmore, like the heroes of the preceding tale, goes to the country but instead of coming, like them, to picturesque ruins emphasizing France’s political iniquities he stops at a homely inn where he encounters a young couple whose healthy carelessness mocks his own moral preoccupations. But just as the beautiful proportions of the castle of Fossy did not correspond to a social system of equal perfection, so there is a real moral dubiousness under the pleasant pastoral appearance of the two young people. The discrepancy between the surface and what it conceals is still the same, though transposed here on a level which James found easier to handle.

  • 3 Madame de Mauves, Complete Tales, III, 129.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 130.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 132.

2The heroine is quite unaware of differences between appearance and reality. Brought up in a Parisian convent she is convinced that “the best birth is the guaranty of an ideal delicacy of feeling.”3 By calling her Euphemia James makes her the prototype of the American girl who falls a victim to Europe because of her romantic delusions. Having never read anything but “ultramontane” works of fiction, the only books admitted to the convent library, she sees France and the French nobility through the rosy glasses of romanticism. Through these novels she gathers “a mental image of that son of the Crusaders who was to suffer her to adore him.”4 This ironical remark obviously contains a criticism of the girl’s unconscious egotism. She considers love as a one-way feeling and seems to forget that she will not be the only one involved: the young man will simply have to answer to her view of him and to be beautifully passive. To the selfishness of an Emma Bovary Euphemia adds the self-assurance of a Newman and thinks that France is for sale and that an American girl is sure to have the best of it provided she only has money enough—which she has. The novels she has read have made her acquainted not only with her Prince Charming, but also with the surroundings in which he is supposed to live. They have given her “a taste for old servants, old anecdotes, old furniture, faded household colors, and sweetly stale odors.”5

3Such is the preparation with which Euphemia enters real life: her classmate Marie de Mauves invites her for a three weeks’ holiday to the castel in Auvergne where she will find both the musty treasures and the hero of her romance made real. And like her hero, Richard de Mauves will indeed” suffer her to adore him, “his passivity being further increased by a fall from his horse which immobilizes him at home for a fortnight and offers Euphemia an excellent opportunity for studying his character. But she reads him in the same way as she read her bad novels, that is, by projecting her own feelings on the young man:

  • 6 Ibid., p. 136.

M. de Mauves’s character indeed, whether from a sense of being generously scrutinized, or for reasons which bid graceful defiance to analysis, had never been so amiable; it seemed really to reflect the purity of Euphemia’s interpretation of it.6

  • 7 Ibid., p. 132.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 133.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 141.

4Euphemia will have to pay for her ignorance and her ulterior sufferings are the result of her blindness to the real world. It is not, however, for want of warning: before it is too late Euphemia is warned by Marie’s grandmother on the French side and by her own mother on the American side. Old Madame de Mauves, “a graciously venerable relic of a historic order of things,”7 scruples to sacrifice such a tender victim to her ambition and, though she does not try to dissuade Euphemia from marrying her grandson she wishes to put her own conscience at rest and tries to open Euphemia’s eyes to the reality she will have to face if she enters their family. “I don’t know whether you’re better,” she says, “but you seem to me to listen to the murmur of your own young spirit, rather than to the voice from behind the confessional or to the whisper of opportunity.”8 She advises the girl not to listen too much to that voice which is neither the cure’s nor the world’s if she expects to live in France and wants to be happy there. Like Gabrielle de Bergerac, Euphemia has only two ways open to her: either be a dévote or an intrigante, either resign herself if she is not clever, or play the game of life and win it if she is. But Euphemia does not listen. Neither does she listen to Mrs. Cleve, her widowed mother, who immediately comes to Paris when she hears of her daughter’s intended marriage, to which she refuses to give her assent. She knows the French better and after having seen Richard de Mauves she is convinced that his good manners only conceal “horrible morals.”9 Blind to everything and deaf to every warning Euphemia goes back to America where her mother takes her in the hope that after two years she will have changed her mind. But the two years elapse and Euphemia marries her hero. She is married and unhappy when the story opens and when Longmore makes her acquaintance through a mutual friend, Mrs. Draper, whose hurried and inconsiderate summing up of the situation expresses the average American’s point of view. Euphemia’s story, she tells Longmore, is

  • 10 Ibid., p. 128.

the miserable story of an American girl, born to be neither a slave nor a toy, marrying a profligate Frenchman, who believes that a woman must be one or the other.10

  • 11 Loc. cit.

5For her “the silliest American woman is too good for the best foreigner,” and the poorest of them “have moral needs a Frenchman can’t appreciate.”11 As James’s mouthpiece Longmore will try to correct this point of view and to see whether Euphemia is really a victim of the Old World. This will bring him to examine the contrasting values of the two worlds and to explore—though still timidly—the implications of the American girl’s ignorance. But only by falling in love with her and suffering from it will he reach knowledge.

  • 12 Ibid., p. 143.

6Longmore’s first impression of Madame de Mauves is not very different from Mrs. Draper’s: he sees her as a beautiful flower transplanted in the artificial garden of France. Seeing how she lives in her “old-fashioned pavilion, between a high-walled court and an excessively artificial garden, beyond whose enclosure you saw a long line of tree-tops,”12 he wonders why she should have chosen a Frenchwoman’s lot if it is not even to take advantage of the Paris facilities for shopping. He realizes that she has no contact with the world in which she lives. When he asks her if it has cost her nothing to transplant herself she answers:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 146.

After all, for a woman, what does it signify? This is not America, perhaps, about me, but it’s quite as little France. France is out there, beyond the garden, in the town, in the forest; but here, close about me, in my room and”—she paused a moment—“n my mind, it’s a nameless country of my own. It’s not her country,” she added, “that makes a woman happy or unhappy.”13

  • 14 Ibid., p. 144.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 153.

7Though this throws light on the intensity of the young woman’s inner life it also reveals (to us, though not yet to Longmore) a flaw in her character. What is beyond the garden is not only France but also life. Her refusal to know it implies a similar refusal to know the people who live around her and whose life she has chosen to share. But Longmore only sees the positive side of her nature, he perceives that she has “none of the coquetry of unhappiness,”14 and that she has strength of will and moral energy. An elder sister of Isabel Archer, she refuses grief and sadness, has “a really pusillanimous dread of moral suffering”15 and is convinced that there is always a way of escaping from it. Longmore’s admiration gradually turns into love. He becomes aware of it the day he lingers in Paris instead of joining a friend with whom he had planned a tour in Belgium. He strolls for hours, frightened by the tumult in himself and wondering whether he is experiencing “passion”:

  • 16 Ibid., p. 163.

He had never been fond of the word, and had grown up with a kind of horror of what it represented. He had hoped that when he fell in love, he should do it with an excellent conscience, with no greater agitation than a mild general glow of satisfaction. But here was a sentiment compounded of pity and anger, as well as admiration, and bristling with scruples and doubts.16

8But his passivity is stronger than his passion, and he would have let things stand had not something happened that prompts him to act. Sitting in one of the establishments of the Bois de Boulogne to have his dinner Longmore sees Richard de Mauves at another table, accompanied by a belle brune who looks very happy in his company. Longmore immediately makes up his mind to go back to Euphemia. For the first time the young woman confides in him. She recognizes that she is romantic and that she has to pay for having once thought that all the prose was in America and all the poetry in France. If she refuses to understand the world around her she at least recognizes the truth about herself and her revelation gives us the key, not only to her character, but to the tale itself:

  • 17 Ibid., p. 171.

“I believe, Mr Longmore,” she added in a moment, “that I have nothing on earth but a conscience,—it’s a good time to tell you so,—nothing but a dogged, clinging, inexpugnable conscience. Does that prove me to be indeed of your faith and race, and have you one for which you can say as much? I don’t say it in vanity, for I believe that if my conscience will prevent me from doing anything very base, it will effectually prevent me from doing anything very fine.17

9After leaving her Longmore meets her sister-in-law, Madame Clairin, who suggests to him that he present himself to Euphemia as a lover and who also gives him to understand that the husband would have no objection to it. At once disgusted by their cynicism and tempted by their suggestion, Longmore leaves the house and rambles for hours in the country. He walks so far that he finds himself in an unfamiliar region where a little tavern and a typically French landscape have a soothing effect on his excited nerves. The message they convey is one of peace and homeliness:

  • 18 Ibid., p. 184.

The homely tavern sounds coming from out through the open windows, the sunny stillness of the fields and crops, which covered so much vigorous natural life, suggested very little that was transcendental, had very little to say about renunciation,—nothing at all about spiritual zeal. They seemed to utter a message from plain ripe nature, to express the unperverted reality of things, to say that the common lot is not brilliantly amusing, and that the part of wisdom is to grasp frankly at experience, lest you miss it altogether.18

10What Longmore feels most intensely in the light atmosphere of the French landscape is life, that is, something on which he himself with his sense of renunciation and Madame de Mauves with her spiritual zeal, have turned their backs. But life allures him, it invites him to take what it offers with the simplicity it requires and not to shrink any longer from experience.

11Torn between two opposite forces Longmore for the first time curses the “lurking principle of ascetism” in himself and finds renunciation difficult:

  • 19 Ibid., pp. 184-185.

To renounce—to renounce again—to renounce forever—was this all that youth and longing and resolve were meant for? Was experience to be muffled and mutilated, like an indecent picture? Was a man to sit and deliberately condemn his future to be the blank memory of a regret, rather than the long reverberation of a joy? Sacrifice? The word was a trap for minds muddled for fear, an ignoble refuge of weakness. To insist now seemed not to dare, but simply to be, to live on possible terms.19

  • 20 Ibid., p. 189.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 191.

12While Longmore muses in this way he catches sight of two young people who seem to be the living illustration of his meditation and are in perfect harmony with the surrounding nature. Their light existence seems to “mock his moral unrest like some obtrusive vision of unattainable bliss.”20 Like the field and the crops, they suggest very little that is transcendental and they know nothing of moral seriousness. This is confirmed when the hostess tells Longmore that the young man is a painter and that his present feelings towards his girl-friend Claudine are not likely to last for ever. The whole passage is both very significant and very beautiful. Longmore’s will grows weaker as the solicitations of the external world grow stronger. The still closer hold of life on his mind is suggested by an extraordinary crescendo, abruptly broken at its highest point by the ensuing silence of Longmore’s sleep. Like a little musical phrase Madame Clairin’s suggestion falls in Longmore’s mind. It is taken up again by the fields and crops, by the “plain ripe nature” that amplifies it. It is repeated with some variations by the young couple until all the instruments of the surrounding nature join in the chorus and sing loud in Longmore’s ears that “the only sound policy in life is to grasp unsparingly at happiness.”21

  • 22 In his Appendix to Literary Reviews and Essays Mr. Mordell gives a psycho-analytic interpretation (...)
  • 23 See Mordell, op. cit., p. 409.

13At this crucial moment James very skilfully introduces Longmore’s dream. This allows him to lift the veil that conceals his hero’s most secret feelings and to make sure that the reader understands the influence of the French landscape on his mind. It also constitutes, from a mere technical point of view, an adequate transition, the dream clearly revealing what Longmore has decided to do and announcing what will actually happen. Longmore dreams that a stream separates him from Madame de Mauves. A boatman takes him to the opposite shore but when he lands there Euphemia is again on the other side. In the boatman, who turns back to look at the still divided couple, Longmore recognizes M. de Mauves. Attention has recently been paid to this dream and to the important part it plays in the story,22 but it is no more necessary to resort to psycho-analysis in order to interpret it than it was for James to know Freud’s theory of dreams in order to imagine this one. Nor is it important, for the general understanding of the story, to assume that Longmore’s dream discloses a hidden chapter in James’s life. James may indeed have been interested in a real and unattainable Madame de Mauves, but the particular case does not add much to what we know of James’s constant struggle with temptation. Not once but many times was James tempted by experience under whatever form, and concern with the lived life is one of his recurring themes. What is more interesting is what the dream, as an allusive transposition of Longmore’s most intimate desires, reveals of the hero’s—not of James’s— subconscious. In it he performs the act that he will no longer be able to perform when awake: he plunges in the stream, which is not, as has been suggested,23 James’s conscience, but the stream of life and of experience, on the side of which Euphemia, by a mystery only conceivable in dreams, manages to remain.

  • 24 Madame de Mauves, op. cit., p. 195.
  • 25 Ibid., p. 205.
  • 26 P.R. Grover has drawn attention to the similarity between Madame de Mauves and Mérimée’s La Double (...)

14When he awakes from his dream Longmore is determined to have done with conventions and to yield to his passion, but when he comes to Euphemia something in her paralyzes him, something with which he had not reckoned because it did not exist in the carpe diem quality of the French air: her spiritual zeal throws cold water on the fire that burns in him and quenches it. When he speaks of love she answers in terms of friendship and in terms of reason when he speaks of feeling. Standing close to him with her eyes on his and “the singular appearance of a woman preaching reason with a kind of passion,”24 she foreshadows the terrible Olive Chancellor of The Bostonians. Longmore thinks of the charming Claudine, for whom life seemed so light and so easy, and he tries to fathom the motives of Euphemia’s behaviour. He recognizes her constancy and respects it. He forgets the solicitations of the pagan air and submits to her reason. But then his place is no longer in France but in America, and he decides to go back there. While he holds Euphemia’s hand before parting from her for ever, something prevents him from returning the light pressure of her fingers: “Something of infinite value was floating past him, and he had taken an oath not to raise a finger to stop it. It was borne by the strong current of the world’s great life and not of his own small one.”25 As in the dream the stream of life passes between them, and they both remain on the bank, facing each other, with their conscience at rest but with a hungry heart. After Longmore’s departure M. de Mauves repents his former life, but Euphemia refuses to forgive him and her inflexible attitude finally drives him to suicide. This violent and hardly credible ending reminds us of Mérimée, whose tales often end in the same way.26

  • 27 Madame de Mauves, op. cit., p. 131.
  • 28 Ibid., p. 131.
  • 29 Ibid., p. 148.

15Longmore and Euphemia are both balanced by French characters who bring them into relief. Richard de Mauves is Longmore’s counterpart and Marie de Mauves Euphemia’s. When she becomes Madame Clairin after her marriage with a rich druggist, who afterwards loses his fortune and kills himself, Marie de Mauves is still exactly the same as she was at the convent. Only Euphemia’s view of her has changed. If the American girl had opened her eyes better at that time she would have noticed Marie’s aristocratic impudence when the girl made “raids among her friend’s finery… quite in the spirit of her baronial ancestors in the twelfth century.”27 But instead of blaming her for it Euphemia admired her and felt herself unpardonable for not being like her “very positive, very shrewd, very ironical, very French.”28 Longmore, on his part, is afraid of her as he is of most French women, whom he finds“metallic,” an adjective James himself often uses in his criticism of the French to designate their mixture of cleverness and of moral dryness. In her presence Longmore feels a kind of moral chill and when he mentally alludes to her it is as “that dreadful woman.” Whenever he sees her he feels uncomfortable and “though he was at a loss to conceive how he could be an object of interest to a shrewd Parisienne, he had an indefinable sense of being enclosed in a magnetic circle, like the victim of an incantation.”29 He proves partly justified since Madame Clairin is the one who, like Eve’s serpent, drops the seed of temptation into his mind. Yet, she has qualities which are those of her class and which consist in keeping up appearances in any situation whatever the tricks fortune may play on her. A De Mauves, she tells Longmore, must respect the traditions of good manners and must never look unhappy even if she is. So did the wives whose portraits hang in the gallery and who hold up their heads in spite of their husbands’ unfaithfulness:

  • 30 Ibid., pp. 177-178.

They were femmes d’esprit. When they had a headache, they put on a little rouge and came to supper as usual; and when they had a heart-ache, they put a little rouge on their hearts. These are fine traditions, and it doesn’t seem to me fair that a little American bourgeoise should come and interrupt them, and should hang her photograph, with her obstinate little air penché, in the gallery of our shrewd fine ladies. A De Mauves must be a De Mauves. When she married my brother, I don’t suppose she took him for a member of a société de bonnes œuvres. I don’t say we’re right; who is right? But we’re as history has made us, and if any one is to change, it had better be Madame de Mauves herself.30

16A De Mauves, like a De Bergerac, is a product of history, of the past; long-standing traditions have made them what they are, and they feel bound to respect them.

  • 31 Ibid., p. 141.

17Though James’s characterization of Marie de Mauves is better than that of Gabrielle de Bergerac there are flaws here and there. It is highly improbable, for instance, that the young woman should have called her brother a “real Frenchman” for the simple reason that he has given his wife the right to be jealous. This is the American, not the French, conception of the “real Frenchman.” James makes the same mistake at the beginning of the tale by putting in the mouth of Marie’s grandmother a long piece of advice that contains the usual American prejudices against the French. All her experience and all her perspicacity could not have enabled old Madame de Mauves to explain so clearly that a French woman must either listen to the curé or to the world. Besides, you must see things from outside, as a foreigner does, in order to go so straight to the mark. James could have avoided this mistake by putting the advice in the mouth of Euphemia’s mother. Having an ample experience of the French and belonging to that class of Americans “who make light of America in familiar discourse, but are startled back into a sense of moral responsibility when they find Europeans taking them at their word,”31

18Mrs. Cleve would have been the right one to make this clever synthesis of French views as seen through American eyes.

  • 32 Ibid., p. 137.
  • 33 Ibid., p. 138.

19Richard de Mauves is the conventional light and frivolous nobleman for whom women are not essentially different “from the light gloves one soils in an evening and throws away.”32 He does not object to marrying a foreigner provided she refills his purse and pays his debts. When he comes home to make her acquaintance he is agreeably surprised, however, because of her original behaviour, so different from that of an unmarried French girl. She has a way “of not dropping her eyes, according to the mysterious virginal mechanism, of not fluttering out of the room when she found him there alone, of treating him rather as a benignant than a pernicious influence,”33 which is as charming as it is new to him. After his marriage the Baron is seen mostly through Longmore’s, that is, through prejudiced eyes. Longmore is prejudiced both as a lover towards the husband and as an American towards the Frenchman. He writes to Mrs. Draper that M. de Mauves is a Frenchman to his fingers’ ends and that he would dislike him for this even if he were a much better man. But in spite of his lack of sympathy Longmore cannot help envying the Baron his superb positiveness:

  • 34 Ibid., p. 151.

a manner rounded and polished by the traditions of centuries—an amenity exercised for his own sake and not his neighbors’-—which seemed the result of something better than a good conscience—of a vigorous and unscrupulous temperament. The Baron was plainly not a moral man, and poor Longmore, who was, would have been glad to learn the secret of his luxurious serenity.34

  • 35 Ibid., pp. 151-152.

20At the convent Euphemia had admired the same qualities in Richard’s sister. The admiration of his two heroes for French “style” is also James’s, and the Baron’s “amenity exercised for his own sake” is an obvious echo of the French writers’ art for art’s sake. M. de Mauves is “as unable to draw a moral inference of the finer strain, as a school-boy who has been playing truant for a week to solve a problem in algebra,”35 and Longmore sees the explanation of this moral sterility in the essential grossness and limitations of the Baron’s imagination. The account the latter gives of his visit to America corroborates this view:

  • 36 Madame de Mauves, op. cit., p. 158.

He had understood nothing, he had felt nothing, he had learned nothing; and our hero, glancing askance at his aristocratic profile, declared that if the chief merit of a long pedigree was to leave one so vaingloriously stupid, he thanked his stars that the Longmores had emerged from obscurity in the present century, in the person of an enterprising lumber merchant.36

21This is the voice of America, the voice of personal merit; it reminds us of Coquelin and announces Newman and his followers, proud of their democratic birth, of their solidity, and of their moral good health.

  • 37 Ibid., p. 152.
  • 38 Loc. cit.
  • 39 One year after the publication of Madame de Mauves James wrote in his first essay on Balzac that t (...)

22Comparing himself with the Baron, at whom he looks “in irreconcilable antipathy, across a dim historic mist,”37 Longmore is indeed proud of being a modern bourgeois able to recognize the fineness of Euphemia’s character rather than a grand seigneur capable of judging “how far a pretty woman’s tongue may go at supper without prejudice to her reputation”38 but unable to appreciate the sweetest of women. James clearly had the French writers in mind since he attributes to his French hero their well-known dislike of the bourgeois39:

  • 40 Madame de Mauves, op. cit., p. 152.

M. de Mauves was tired of his companion: he relished a higher flavor in female society. She was too modest, too simple, too delicate; she had too few arts, too little coquetry, too much charity. M. de Mauves, some day, lighting a cigar, had probably decided she was stupid. It was the same sort of taste, Longmore moralized, as the taste for Gérôme in painting, and for M. Gustave Flaubert in literature. The Baron was a pagan and his wife was a Christian, and between them, accordingly, was a gulf.40

  • 41 The Painter’s Eye, Notes and Essays on the Pictorial Arts by Henry James, ed. with an intr. by Joh (...)
  • 42 Ibid., p. 74.

23In order to understand what Longmore means by the taste for Gérôme and for Gustave Flaubert we must resort to James’s criticism. In his review of P.G. Hamerton’s Contemporary French Painters, dating from 1868, he had written: “Mr. Hamerton speaks of Gérôme’s heartlessness in terms in which most observers will agree with him. His pictures are for art very much what the novels of M. Gustave Flaubert are for literature, only decidedly inferior.”41 They are also, we could add, what Richard de Mauves’s behaviour is for manner. In another allusion to Gérôme in 1873 James insists on the total absence of moral atmosphere and on the artist’s “cold literalness”: Gérôme, he writes, “paints at best a sort of elaborate immobility.”42

  • 43 Madame de Mauves, op. cit., p. 159.
  • 44 Ibid., p. 160.
  • 45 The Nation, 21 January 1875. Reprinted in Literary Reviews and Essays.
  • 46 “Swinburne’s Essays,” The Nation, 29 July 1875. Reprinted in Selected Literary Criticism.
  • 47 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 23.
  • 48 Ibid., p. 20.

24Though he had been aware of different values and of a different philosophy of life (possibly as valid as his own) in the French countryside Longmore’s relationships with the French are falsified by national prejudices and personal rancour: he condemns them without even trying to understand their point of view. But James wants to suggest that, with his different code of morals, the Baron is also perfectly justified in his objection to his wife’s character. M. de Mauves’s main ground for complaint is that Euphemia never forgets herself and that she sits for hours “poring over her English books and looking at life through that terrible brown fog which they always seem to me to fling over the world.”43 One day she undertook to read Wordsworth to her husband; this gave him the impression of being forced with his head in a basin of soupe aux choux, and he thought that he would die of suffocation. He suggests to Longmore that he talk to her of everything, that he make her acquainted with the poetry of Alfred de Musset and that he advise her to travel. This, he says, would wake up her imagination and would teach her that “one may bend a trifle without breaking.”44 The Baron’s opinion of Wordsworth may pass at first sight for an obvious criticism of his taste, especially if we remember that James had expressed his admiration for the poet in his review of Stop ford Brooke’s Theology in the English Poets,45 that he had compared him to Goethe in his essay on Emerson and that he had denounced Swinburne’s perversity of taste for having written in his essays that he could not consider Wordsworth “as mere poet” equal to Coleridge as mere poet.46 But then James also blamed Swinburne in the same review for calling Musset “the female page or attendant dwarf of Byron.”47 In fact, both poets represent in James’s mind two very different and even contrasting values and they illustrate respectively morality and passion. It is quite natural that the Baron, standing on the side of passion, should fail to appreciate Wordsworth. It is the most natural attitude for a Frenchman to adopt, and in 1872 James himself had written in his review of Taine’s English Literature: “We are tempted to say that a Frenchman who should have twisted himself into a relish for Wordsworth would almost have forfeited our respect,”48 a remark that also reveals the price he himself attaches to the “paganism” of the French. The Baron’s point of view contains the seed of a criticism of Puritan rigidity to which James will come back in later works. His suicide is James’s second attempt to justify him. It may be a bad and melodramatic solution, and the way it is related in a conversation between Mrs. Draper and an unknown Frenchman may be unsatisfactory from an artistic point of view. Yet James kept it as it was in the New York Edition, which seems to imply that its meaning was too important for him to sacrifice it. Indeed if Euphemia’s beautiful moral character has achieved the miracle of the Baron’s conversion, her refusal to forgive his past is distasteful. James wants us to take the suicide as a condemnation of Euphemia’s righteousness: she has more conscience than heart and, as she herself so rightly recognizes, this enormous conscience of hers prevents her from doing anything very base but also prevents her from doing anything very fine. Right and wrong are perfectly balanced in this extraordinary character: on one side, the solidity, the moral good health that characterizes Isabel Archer and culminates in the strong-headed Maggie Verver of The Golden Bowl, two heroines who have learned that “one may bend a trifle without breaking”; on the other, the Puritan rigidity with its destructive force that kills the gracious Dolcino in The Author of “Beltraffio” and culminates in the perverted idealism of Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians. Neither condemned nor really approved of, neither very base nor very fine, Euphemia stands at the cross-roads, containing all the latent values that James was to develop in his later works.

  • 49 Madame de Mauves, op. cit., p. 209.
  • 50 Ibid., p. 208.

25Madame de Mauves shows a greater awareness of the complications involved in the description of foreign characters. An artist who doesn’t paint from life is not worth the name and James, being an American with an American—at least, Anglo-Saxon—sensibility cannot render the French mind with much truth. The most convincing characters in the tale are indubitably his two Americans. They are intended to illustrate the problems James knew best and for which he could draw largely on his own experience. Longmore’s sense of life and of renunciation in the French country is certainly the most beautiful because the most “felt” passage of the whole story. But whenever he wants to give a special meaning to the behaviour of his French characters James is obliged to create highly improbable situations such as the Baron’s suicide, or to resort to literary references which are apt to elude the reader unacquainted with James’s criticism. Since James does not know the characters and does not feel like them he cannot paint them from within. They are a mere backcloth against which Longmore and Euphemia act their part. This insufficient rendering of the French side is probably the reason why the ambiguity of the story is so often overlooked. Critics usually stress the ambiguity of the last line of Madame de Mauves, in which we are told that Longmore, though he knows that Euphemia is free, lingers in America because he has become conscious of “a feeling for which awe would be hardly too strong a name.”49 A less superficial reading shows that not only the last line but the whole story is ambiguous. A criticism of Euphemia’s selfishness is implied in her ignorance of the world in which she has chosen to live; Longmore is clearly shown as prejudiced against the husband and against the French in general; the “dreadful” (for Longmore) Madame Clairin is called “lovely” by the young Frenchman who relates the Baron’s suicide and who, in the same conversation, alludes to Euphemia as “the charming little woman who killed her husband.”50 Like Madame Clairin, James does not know who is right: two worlds face each other with two different codes of morals, two different philosophies of life, and the gulf between them is as wide as that between paganism and Christianity.

  • 51 The Author of “Beltraffio,” Complete Tales, V, 337.
  • 52 Ibid., p. 336.

26The association of France with paganism, the light epicurism of the young couple and the message of the French landscape that “the only sound policy in life is to grasp unsparingly at happiness” are an echo of Walter Pater, whose Renaissance Studies had appeared the year before. No doubt James had read the book and its ideas had insinuated themselves into his mind. In the French countryside Longmore rebels against his ascetic temperament and for the first time in his life he feels the strong fascination of passion and of the pagan world. Likewise James, as an artist, feels the attraction of beauty and secretly rebels against the ascetic Christian ideal and the moral zeal that prevents one from tasting life fully. There is a strange and illuminating discrepancy between his theory and his practice, between the ideas expressed in his criticism and those embodied in his fiction. It is significant indeed that in 1902 James continued to blame Flaubert for having paid too little attention to the beautiful character (from a moral point of view) of Madame Arnoux while he himself had already illustrated opposite views in The Author of “Beltraffio” in 1884. Like Euphemia, Beatrice is “an angel of propriety,”51 like her she is a Christian married to a pagan and like her she is also the destructive element in the tale. The gracious Dolcino who symbolizes Art is killed between their irreconcilable views, but the wife is the one who provokes his death. Sharing Flaubert’s sense of beauty and hatred of Philistinism James makes his hero exclaim like the French writer: “There’s a hatred of art—there’s a hatred of literature!”52 There is much more in Madame de Mauves than a eulogy of the American moral sense and a condemnation of the French view of life. James awakes to the consciousness of Beauty as a value irreconcilable with Morality. For the first time he really feels its immense appeal and, like his hero, is tempted to yield to it.

Notes

1 The Author of “Beltraffio,” Complete Tales, V, 334.

2 The story appeared in the Galaxy, February-March 1874 and was first published in book form in 1875.

3 Madame de Mauves, Complete Tales, III, 129.

4 Ibid., p. 130.

5 Ibid., p. 132.

6 Ibid., p. 136.

7 Ibid., p. 132.

8 Ibid., p. 133.

9 Ibid., p. 141.

10 Ibid., p. 128.

11 Loc. cit.

12 Ibid., p. 143.

13 Ibid., p. 146.

14 Ibid., p. 144.

15 Ibid., p. 153.

16 Ibid., p. 163.

17 Ibid., p. 171.

18 Ibid., p. 184.

19 Ibid., pp. 184-185.

20 Ibid., p. 189.

21 Ibid., p. 191.

22 In his Appendix to Literary Reviews and Essays Mr. Mordell gives a psycho-analytic interpretation of the tale, pp. 407-409.

23 See Mordell, op. cit., p. 409.

24 Madame de Mauves, op. cit., p. 195.

25 Ibid., p. 205.

26 P.R. Grover has drawn attention to the similarity between Madame de Mauves and Mérimée’s La Double Méprise in “Mérimée’s Influence on Henry James,” Modern Language Review, LXIII (Oct. 1968), 814.

27 Madame de Mauves, op. cit., p. 131.

28 Ibid., p. 131.

29 Ibid., p. 148.

30 Ibid., pp. 177-178.

31 Ibid., p. 141.

32 Ibid., p. 137.

33 Ibid., p. 138.

34 Ibid., p. 151.

35 Ibid., pp. 151-152.

36 Madame de Mauves, op. cit., p. 158.

37 Ibid., p. 152.

38 Loc. cit.

39 One year after the publication of Madame de Mauves James wrote in his first essay on Balzac that this writer, like all French artists and men of letters, “hated the bourgeoisie with an unmitigable hatred” and “found more interest in the duplicity of a courtesan than in the virtue of a bourgeoise” (see above, p. 101). In the 1902 essay on Flaubert he still reproached the novelist for having allowed his hatred of the bourgeois to prevent him from developing the beautiful character of Mme Arnoux in L’Education Sentimentale.

40 Madame de Mauves, op. cit., p. 152.

41 The Painter’s Eye, Notes and Essays on the Pictorial Arts by Henry James, ed. with an intr. by John L. Sweeney (London, 1956), p. 42.

42 Ibid., p. 74.

43 Madame de Mauves, op. cit., p. 159.

44 Ibid., p. 160.

45 The Nation, 21 January 1875. Reprinted in Literary Reviews and Essays.

46 “Swinburne’s Essays,” The Nation, 29 July 1875. Reprinted in Selected Literary Criticism.

47 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 23.

48 Ibid., p. 20.

49 Madame de Mauves, op. cit., p. 209.

50 Ibid., p. 208.

51 The Author of “Beltraffio,” Complete Tales, V, 337.

52 Ibid., p. 336.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search