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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

III. The Novelist

Five-finger Exercises (1876-1886)

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Siege of London (1883), Complete Tales, V, 54.

“I like this; it’s even better than the pictures in the gallery. It’s more of a picture.”
“Everything in France is a picture—even things that are ugly,” Waterville replied.“Everything makes a subject.”1

1When James turned his back on France in 1876 he was not leaving the country with an empty bag. He had felt from the start that if he was to be a realist at all his true field would be psychological realism and not Flaubert’s art pour l’art or Zola’s naturalism. But he had also understood that an artist could not attain to the best if he did not keep to a strict discipline. He had learned in Paris that the novelist was like any workman in any trade and that he had to learn his craft patiently.

  • 2 D.W. Jefferson alludes to A Bundle of Letters, The Point of View and The Pension Beaurepas. Henry (...)

2Between The American (1876-77) and The Princess Casamassima (1886) James wrote a number of stories of which D.W. Jefferson says that they would be “a useful five-finger exercise for anyone embarking upon a systematic study of American manners in fiction.”2 In them James learned how to sharpen his eye to the sensuous surface of life and how to improve—if he could—upon the French writers by making the detail of colour, sound, smell, or taste enrich the whole picture instead of merely calling attention to itself. We have seen that the descriptions of houses and rooms in The American always throw light on the character of their inhabitants. In the stories James often describes a French landscape or scene in order to show that everything in France appeals to the senses. Poor Caroline Spencer, the heroine of Four Meetings, is so terribly “at the mercy of picturesqueness” that she must have encountered plenty of local colour the one and only time she had been in the Havre. Through the narrator’s eyes we see what the American girl must have seen on her arrival in Europe; he is walking with his brother-in-law in the bright-coloured streets of the French sea-port:

  • 3 Four Meetings (1877), Complete Tales, IV, 93-94. My italics.

We walked along the sunny, noisy quays and then turned into a wide, pleasant street which lay half in sun and half in shade—a French provincial street, that looked like an old water-colour drawing: tall, gray, steep-roofed, red-gabled, many-storied houses; green shutters on windows and old scroll-work above them; flower-pots in balconies and white-capped women in doorways. We walked in the shade; all this stretched away on the sunny side of the street and made a picture.3

3In The Siege of London the Luxembourg offers a still more colourful picture to Mrs. Headway’s eyes:

  • 4 The Siege of London, op. cit., pp. 53-54. My italics.

The autumn sun was warm in the alleys and terraces of the Luxembourg; the masses of foliage above them, clipped and squared, rusty with ruddy patches, shed with a thick lacework over the white sky, which was streaked with the palest blue. The beds of flowers near the palace were of the vividest yellow and red, and the sunlight rested on the smooth gray walls of those parts of its basement that looked south; in front of which, on the long green benches, a row of brown-cheeked nurses, in white caps and white aprons, sat offering nutrition to as many bundles of white drapery. There were other white caps wandering in the broad paths, attended by little brown French children; the small, straw-seated chairs were piled and stacked in some places and disseminated in others. An old lady in black, with white hair fastened over each of her temples by a large black comb, sat on the edge of a stone bench (too high for her delicate length), motionless, staring straight before her and holding a large door-key; under a tree a priest was reading—you could see his lips move at a distance; a young soldier, dwarfish and red-legged, strolled past with his hands in his pockets, which were very much distended. Waterville sat down with Mrs. Headway on the straw-bottomed chairs, and she presently said, “I like this; it’s even better than the pictures in the gallery. It’s more of a picture.”
“Everything in France is a picture—even things that are ugly,” Waterville replied. “Everything makes a subject.”4

4This is certainly one of the longest descriptions in James’s whole work. True, James wants to show that the intensity with which Mrs. Headway responds to life is what enables her to triumph over the artifice of high society, but he would probably never have gone into so many details if the tale had not been written as a parody of a French work. It is still more evident in a little story entitled Rose-Agathe. Here James clearly makes fun of the French and especially of Zola’s sense of smell, but he composes his description with the greatest care in order to show that he can be as good as they are at local colour when it suits his purpose:

  • 5 Rose-Agathe (1878), Complete Tales, IV, 119.

It was a perfect evening, toward the end of April; there was a charming golden glow on the opposite house-tops, which looked toward the west; there was a sort of vernal odour in the street, mingling with the emanations of the restaurant across the way, whose door now always stood open; with the delightful aroma of the chocolate-shop which occupied the ground-floor of the house in whose entresol I was lodged; and, as I fancied, with certain luscious perfumes hovering about the brilliantly-polished window of the hairdresser’s establishment, adjacent to the restaurant. It had above it the sign, “Anatole, Coiffeur;” these artists, in Paris, being known only by their Christian name. Then there was a woman in a minutely-fluted cap, selling violets in a little handcart which she gently pushed along over the smooth asphalte, and which, as she passed, left a sensible trace in the thick, mild air. All this made a thoroughly Parisian mixture, and I envied Sanguinetti the privilege of spending his life in a city in which even the humblest of one’s senses is the medium of poetic impressions.5

  • 6 Ibid., p. 127.
  • 7 Complete Tales, IV, Introduction, p. 7.

5Only in a country where even a man’s nose is made aware of life could such a thing happen as what James relates in this story. Sanguinetti, the Parisianized friend of the narrator, is a great collector and “the perfect authority on pretty things.”6 While he is waiting on the balcony the narrator catches sight of him in front of M. Anatole’s shop-window where he himself had noticed, a few moments before, the hairdresser’s beautiful wife. Sanguinetti finally arrives and, blushing a good deal, confesses that he is passionately in love with Rose-Agathe and will not be happy again until he has made her his own. After some time he indeed succeeds in having her for himself and only then does the narrator realize his mistake: Rose-Agathe is not the barber’s wife but one of the dummies in his shop-window. Sanguinetti has been so completely gallicized that the sensuous surface has become an aim in itself and that he can speak of a beautiful object in exactly the same terms as he would speak of a beautiful woman. This little story, which Leon Edel rightly calls a “trifle,”7 is, however, one more expression of James’s ironical view of the French and of the exaggerated importance they attach to the senses and to aesthetic impressions. After these exercises in the French manner James could begin to be completely himself. By the time he wrote The Reverberator he had already begun to leave out the superfluous images in order to keep only the significant detail. The apartment of the Dossons must have been like Newman’s, but the particular detail the writer singles out makes the former unique:

  • 8 The Reverberator (London, 1948), p. 41.

They had, on the first floor, an expensive parlour, decorated in white and gold, with sofas of crimson damask; but there was something lonely in that grandeur and the place had become mainly a receptacle for their tall trunks, with a half-emptied paper of chocolates or marrons glacés on every table.8

6James has learned the lesson of Balzac but he now leaves realism behind and walks resolutely towards the symbolism of his later works.

  • 9 The Point of View (1882), Complete Tales. IV, p. 504.

7On the whole the stories written between The American and The Reverberator throw more light on America and American ways than on the Europeans. The French—like the Germans—are generally caricatured whereas more serious attention is paid to the contrast between the English and the Americans. In A Bundle of Letters the Frenchman Léon Verdier is as exaggeratedly light as the German Dr. Rudolf Staub is exaggeratedly heavy. The same is true of M. Pigeonneau in The Pension Beaurepas: he seems to be there only to pay compliments to Mrs. Ruck and her daughter and, whenever he finds a ready ear, to praise the former’s Rubensian anatomy. Even M. Lejaune, the distinguished French critic and Academician, writes from America: “je regarde passer les femmes.”9 This seems to be the main occupation of James’s French characters who, when they call a woman “pretty,” refer to her figure, whereas for the Americans a pretty girl is a girl with a beautiful face. Like Balzac James makes some of his characters reappear in different stories: Louis Leverett, for instance, the great admirer of Théophile Gautier, whom we meet in the Parisian boarding-house of A Bundle of Letters, is also one of the characters travelling to America in The Point of View, and on the ship he becomes acquainted with Aurora Church and her mother, the Europeanized guests of The Pension Beaurepas.

  • 10 A Bundle of Letters (1879), ibid., p. 441.

8James lets his travellers express their own point of view. He is now quite aware of the relativity of these opinions and wants to avoid the obvious prejudice he had displayed in The American. But he cannot help interfering now and then. He shows how easily an American strikes the false note when he tries to assume a personality different from his own. Louis Leverett’s blind admiration for the French and contempt for his own country make him a coxcomb and prevent him from seeing the reality behind the surface: he naively believes that Madame de Maisonrouge belongs to “one of the oldest and proudest families in France,”10 and does not see the moral corruption under the appearance of distinction and social form. Mrs. Church, who so much despises her compatriots, has educated her daughter on French lines. She wants to prevent her from going to America lest she should be contaminated, but she does not find in Europe the “distinguished” son-in-law she is looking for. Neither does she find him in New York when she resigns herself to getting there, and at the end of The Point of View her daughter humorously remarks that her mother has now decided to take her to the West and that her last hope is a pioneer.

  • 11 The Point of View (1882), op. cit., p. 474.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 505.

9The most pitiless critic of the Americans is of course a Frenchman, M. Lejaune. He is “the first French writer of distinction who has been to America since De Tocqueville,”11 and what strikes him most in America is the flatness of the democratic system. There is only one type, he writes to his friend in Paris, “the commis-voyageur minus the gayety”12:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 503.

Every one is Mr Jones, Mr Brown; and every one looks like Mr Jones and Mr Brown. They are thin; they are diluted in the great tepid bath of Democracy!13

  • 14 Ibid., p. 508.

10The people are plain, and, unlike the French or the Germans, they have not the beauty of their ugliness. M. Lejaune finds still more negative values in America than James himself had mentioned in his study on Hawthorne, and he concludes his letter by saying that the country is the biggest warning for the French now that they too have a Republic. No Frenchman, he says, could live in America “for life with us, after all, at the worst is a sort of appreciation. Here, there is nothing to appreciate.”14 James was quite aware of this, and he knew that, for an artist, the negative side of his country constituted a serious difficulty. But he also knew that the Bessie Aldens, Pandora Days and Francie Dossons, who entered, all unprepared and unpercieving, the sophistication of European society, were young and unformed enough to be worth saving. And he saved them.


1 The Siege of London (1883), Complete Tales, V, 54.

2 D.W. Jefferson alludes to A Bundle of Letters, The Point of View and The Pension Beaurepas. Henry James and the Modern Reader (London, 1964), p. 66.

3 Four Meetings (1877), Complete Tales, IV, 93-94. My italics.

4 The Siege of London, op. cit., pp. 53-54. My italics.

5 Rose-Agathe (1878), Complete Tales, IV, 119.

6 Ibid., p. 127.

7 Complete Tales, IV, Introduction, p. 7.

8 The Reverberator (London, 1948), p. 41.

9 The Point of View (1882), Complete Tales. IV, p. 504.

10 A Bundle of Letters (1879), ibid., p. 441.

11 The Point of View (1882), op. cit., p. 474.

12 Ibid., p. 505.

13 Ibid., p. 503.

14 Ibid., p. 508.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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