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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

III. The Novelist

The Reverberator (1888). Urbanity and Provinciality

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  • 1 Matthew Arnold, Lectures and Essays in Criticism, p. 249.

For, not having the lucidity of a large and centrally placed intelligence, the provincial spirit has not its graciousness; it does not persuade, it makes war; it has not urbanity, the tone of the city, of the centre, the tone which aims at a spiritual and intellectual effect, and not excluding the use of banter, never disjoins banter itself from politeness, from felicity. But the provincial tone is more violent, and seems to aim rather at an effect upon the blood and senses than upon the spirit and intellect; it loves hard-hitting rather than persuading. The newspaper, with its party spirit, its thorough-goingness, its resolute avoidance of shades and distinctions, its short, highly-charged, heavy-shotted articles, its style so unlike that style lenis minimèque pertinax—easy and not too violently insisting,—which the ancients so much admired, is its true literature.1

  • 2 The Art of the Novel, p. 180.

1James seems to have been particularly satisfied with The Reverberator when he re-read it for the New York Edition. He describes it as a jeu d’esprit and sees it “quite in the light of an exemplary anecdote and at the same time quite in that of a little rounded drama.”2 The serious hard-working pupil of the French novelists who, in 1875, was still so much immersed in problems of artistic creation has now turned into a real virtuoso and works with a much lighter touch. There is virtuosity—and sometimes more virtuosity than real art—in The Reverberator, and the book clearly marks the transition from the apprentice to the master. It is light and only half serious. From the very first line James distances himself from his characters through his irony. With a benevolent smile and without even trying to conceal himself he then pulls the strings of his puppets.

  • 3 Notebooks, p. 85.

2The book takes up and synthesizes most of the ideas contained in The American and in the stories on the international theme written between 1876 and 1888. The Reverberator is The American stripped of all its superfluous elements. The characters are thin, linear and one-dimensional like characters in a play. Newman, the “baggy monster,” the composite mythical figure of The American, has been split into four characters representing different degrees of American provinciality. Each of them reminds us of one of Newman’s features: Mr. Dosson has his immense blankness and “disponibility,” Miss Dosson his shrewdness, Francie his social innocence, and George Flack his aggressive assertiveness. To these Americans James opposes the Proberts, “an old claquemuré Legitimist circle, as detached as possible from tout ce qui se fait, s’écrit et se pense aujourd’hui.”3 Their respective attitude towards The Reverberator, an American newspaper, determines the degree of culture of the different characters and varies in inverse ratio to their concern for art. Between these two worlds, and with one foot in each, stands Charles Waterlow, an American painter who lives in Paris and who is an excellent judge of both sides because he combines the French artistic sensibility with the American moral sense.

  • 4 Ibid., p. 82.
  • 5 James denounces its exploiters of publicity in The Death of the Lion (1894), a story about the lit (...)
  • 6 Notebooks, p. 85.

3Like The American, The Reverberator has its roots in James’s experience in France. Two important events marked his stay in the French capital: his personal acquaintance with the French novelists and his failure with the New York Tribune. At the time when he wrote The American James was still completely immersed in the reality he wanted to convey and he could not yet see his subject in the proper perspective. That is why, though the book is full of life and sheds light on James’s conception of art at the time, it is a failure from an artistic point of view. In 1888 James had become sufficiently detached from his own experience as a correspondent to write on the subject. Besides, his hatred of journalism had just been revived by two small incidents. In 1886 he had been told in Florence of a Miss McC. who, having received hospitality in one of the best families in Venice, had disclosed in a letter to the New York World the most personal facts about those people’s lives. She had obviously acted in perfect good faith and had never for a moment realized the seriousness of the matter. In the same year Julian Hawthorne had reported in a New York newspaper a private conversation he had had with James Russell Lowell. These two incidents, added to his standing dislike of journalism, prompted James to write a story on the subject and to contrast the “scribbling, publishing, indiscreet, newspaperized American girl and the rigid, old-fashioned, conservative, still shockable and much shocked little society she recklessly plays the tricks upon.”4 The difficulty, he writes in the Notebooks, was to find the little society that would be sufficiently shocked for his dramatic opposition: England wouldn’t do because it was another newspaperized world with as little delicacy as America.5 Neither would Italy because there the feelings “are not interesting enough” and “the race is poor and represents to-day too little.”6 He could only find it in France but in order to avoid the “à peu près effects” of The American he substituted for the French Europeanized Americans, who were still more Gallic than the French themselves.

  • 7 The Reverberator (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1949), p. 25.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 34.
  • 9 From the entry in the Notebooks it appears that James had first intended to make the novel end dif (...)

4Mr. Dosson, a retired and widowed American business-man, has come over to Paris with his two daughters, Delia and Francie. They live in the Hôtel de l’Univers et de Cheltenham, and have their meals at the table d’hôte; they are unassertive and humble people whose “social life, of narrow range, consisted mainly in reading the lists of Americans who ‘registered’ at the bankers’ and at Galignani’s.”7 The only person they meet now and then and of whose acquaintance they are very proud is George Flack, the American correspondent in Paris for the Reverberator, whom they had met on the boat. The young man is not indifferent to Francie’s charm and still less to her money and he hopes to make her his wife. One day he writes home to his newspaper that Francie Dosson is going to sit for her portrait in Charles Waterlow’s studio, and the Dossons “who believed everything that they heard quoted from a newspaper” accept it as “a kind of supernatural sign that she would have to.”8 In Waterlow’s studio they meet Gaston Probert, the son of an old Carolinian family who had settled in Paris in the time of Louis Philippe and had become assimilated with the French aristocracy. The young man, though unable to handle a brush, is interested in art and he had once confessed to his friend that the most important things that had happened to him in his life were impressions of the eye. Francie Dosson is another of them, and he falls in love the moment he sees her. With the help of one of his sisters, who is more “artistic” and less conventional than the other members of the family, he succeeds in making his very conservative father accept, though reluctantly, the American girl as a prospective daughter-in-law. But while Gaston Probert is in America Francie, wanting to make amends to George Flack, whom she has refused to marry, and grateful to him for having made her acquainted with her fiancé, accepts to have a stroll with him and to answer his indiscreet questions about Gaston’s family. George Flack registers each scrap of information she gives him and makes it the subject of a “society letter” for the Reverberator. Soon after this Francie is summoned to the house of the Proberts, whom she finds greatly agitated. They have read the letter in the American newspaper and cannot face the scandal. The girl does not immediately understand why they make such a fuss about it—the Dossons are proud of having their names in a newspaper—and she refuses to deny the facts and to pretend that somebody else has passed on this information to the indelicate journalist. When she understands, however, what it means to Gaston’s family she turns George Flack out and she breaks off her engagement. Gaston Probert is so surprised at the girl’s behaviour that he first submits to the family decision but his friend Waterlow advises him to look behind appearances, to assert his moral freedom and to recognize that Francie has acted in perfect good faith. He shows him that her act had in fact been prompted by delicacy. For the first time in his life Gaston Probert rebels against the family will and “sees” otherwise than with his eyes.9

  • 10 The Image of Europe in Henry fames, p. 83.
  • 11 Henry James and the Modern Reader, p. 98.
  • 12 The Reverberator, p. 19.
  • 13 Ibid., p. 21.
  • 14 Ibid., p. 20.

5Christof Wegelin writes that “the melodramatic black and white of The American has here given way to a delicate balance of comic grays.”10 This is so true that D.W. Jefferson mistakes Whitney Dosson’s gentleman-like appearance for a capacity to harmonize successfully with his surroundings and speaks of his “Parisian possibilities.”11 In fact if Mr. Dosson has not the “extremely bereft and exhausted appearance of certain of his fellows”12 it is not at all because he is more refined than they are but simply because he has fewer personal desires and ambitions: “he had no tastes, no acquirements nor curiosities, and his daughters represented society for him,”13 James writes in the novel. If his clothes are visibly the work of a French tailor it is not because his taste is better but because “he was an American who still held the tradition that it is in Paris a man dresses himself best”14 and if he has a “superficial fineness of grain” and approximates the look of a gentleman it is by mere accident and not because he knows how to behave:

  • 15 Ibid., pp. 19-20.

He never held himself at all; providence held him rather (and very loosely), by an invisible string, at the end of which he seemed gently to dangle and waver.15

  • 16 Ibid., p. 20.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 18.

6Mr. Dosson is humble, unassuming, “as cipherable as a sum of two figures,”16 and in spite of all his money he can be content with very little. He is never so happy as when he sits, quite alone, in the court of his hotel. There, on the border of the great city, he does not feel uncomfortable as he does when he is confronted with the beauties of art or nature. The cries of women selling violets, the rich hum of the city and all the odours of the street ranging “from fried fish to burnt sugar”17 break like waves on his indifferent senses. From time to time George Flack takes him out with his daughters and whenever he returns he finds them in exactly the same position on the same terrace of the same café:

  • 18 Ibid., p. 29.

They complained of no satiety in watching the many-coloured movement of the Parisian streets: and if some of the features in the panorama were base they were only so in a version which the imagination of our friends was incapable of supplying.18

  • 19 Ibid., p. 33.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 22.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 13.

7They have no awareness of “life” and their eyes seem never to have opened to the sensuous surface of things. Consequently they cannot be expected to understand the works of art. They are more shocked than pleased the first time they visit Charles Water-low’s studio and look at his pictures “as they looked at bonnets and confections when they went to expensive shops.”19 Francie will sit for her portrait simply because George Flack has written to his newspaper that she would. If they do not understand Art they greatly admire the Press. Mr. Dosson has the highest opinion of George Flack because “he represented the newspaper and the newspaper for this man of genial assumptions represented Mind—it was the great shining presence of our time.”20 James does not say explicitly that George Flack is vulgar but he remarks that he is clever enough to appear as a person of importance to Delia Dosson in whose mind the press is connected with literature. Even the charming little sister is not spared James’s light irony: “If Mr. Flack was a writer, Francie was a reader,”21 he makes Delia reflect, showing, through the association of their two names, that Francie’s “reading” has as little to do with literature as Mr. Flack’s writing. Though she has some natural delicacy the girl is as provincial as the rest of her family:

  • 22 Ibid., p. 57.

Francie did not in the least dislike Mr. Flack. Interested as I am in presenting her favourably to the reader I am yet obliged as a veracious historian to admit that he seemed to her decidedly a brilliant being.22

  • 23 Ibid., p. 16.

8Although she is as ignorant as the other members of her family Francie Dosson, with her “unformed voice and very little knowledge”23 is young and beautiful enough to be saved from the irremediable lack of awareness of her family. Like the other American girls to whom James alludes in his Preface and whom he considered worth saving, Francie will undergo a “sea-change” when transplanted in an old rigid and complex society:

  • 24 The Art of the Novel, p. 188.

Conscious of so few things in the world, these unprecedented creatures—since that is what it came to for them—were least of all conscious of deficiencies and dangers; so that, the grace of youth and innocence and freshness aiding, their negatives were converted and became in certain relations lively positives and values.24

9Francie Dosson is beautiful enough to be noticed by an artist or by somebody interested in art and beauty, and unformed enough to be transformed by him. Just as Charles Waterlow can turn her into a work of art on his canvas, Gaston Probert could teach her the manners and forms of his own world if he only took the trouble. But Gaston Probert is superficial. Like the Sanguinetti of Rose-Agathe he has been so Parisianized that he has become “perhaps even morbidly sensitive,” and impressions of the eye are the most important things that have ever happened to him in his life:

  • 25 The Reverberator, pp. 44-45.

The society of artists, the talk of studios, the attentive study of beautiful works, the sight of a thousand forms of curious research and experiment, had produced in his mind a new sense, the exercise of which was a conscious enjoyment, and the supreme gratification of which, on several occasions, had given him as many ineffaceable memories… he continued to be thankful for the sensitive plate that nature (with culture added) enabled him to carry in his brain. The impression of the eye was doubtless not everything, but it was so much gained, so much saved, in a world in which other treasures were apt to slip through one’s fingers; and above all it had the merit that so many things gave it and that nothing could take it away.25

  • 26 Ibid., p. 46.

10He has the same sharp eye as Valentin de Bellegarde and when he declines his sister’s invitation to accept Mr. Dosson’s instead, it is because “he was fascinated by the idea of the contrast between what he preferred and what he gave up. His life had long been wanting… in the element of contrast, and here was a chance to bring it in.”26 His impressions are not only exclusively sensuous but limited to the impression of the eye. When Mme d’Outreville asks him what he proposes to do with the girl he answers that he expects to look at her a good deal, and when he tries to persuade his sister of his love the only words he finds are those of a collector:

  • 27 Ibid., p. 76.

And think of the delight of having that charming object before one’s eyes—always, always! It makes a different thing of the future!27

11Sanguinetti used just these words when speaking of Rose-Agathe, and Rose-Agathe was a dummy. But something will make Gaston realize that his beautiful doll also has a soul and can act for herself. George Flack’s bomb detonating in the quietness of the old-world salon obliges Gaston Probert to reconsider his view of Francie and of his own family. This is made possible by the fact that he does not know yet to which world he actually belongs. He does not know the manners of America because he has always lived in France and has been brought up on French lines. But on the other hand he has promised his mother—who had lost another son in the French-German war—never to take service in the French army:

  • 28 Ibid., pp. 38-39.

The young man therefore, between two stools, had no clear sitting-place: he wanted to be as American as he could and yet not less French than he was.28

12This hesitation as to what he really is renders his choice possible. Thanks to the influence of his friend Waterlow he is brought to question the value of the family authority and thereby the value of the whole system based upon it. Indeed everything is held together thanks to the unity of the family and once you take this away the whole system tumbles down automatically.

13As products of a “long historical discipline,” the Proberts have very rigid conventions. The first thing George Flack wants to know about them is whether they are “very bigoted,” which indeed they are:

  • 29 Ibid., p. 122.

‘Very bigoted?’
‘Ain’t they tremendous Catholics—always talking about the Holy Father, and that sort of thing? I mean Mr. Probert, the old gentleman’, Mr. Flack added. ‘And those ladies, and all the rest of them.’
‘ They are very religious’, said Francie. ‘They are the most religious people I ever saw. They just adore the Holy Father. They know him personally quite well. They are always going down to Rome’.29

14They are not only good Catholics but also good royalists, and this dependence on a central power is reproduced in the microcosm of the family. Their love of conversation—another “form” of civilized life as unknown to the Dossons as it was to Newman—suggests a fire-place and concentration around the head of the family:

  • 30 Ibid., p. 99.

They liked general talk and old high salons, slightly tarnished and dim, containing precious relics, where there was a circle round the fire and winged words flew about and there was always some clever person before the chimney-piece, holding or challenging the rest. That figure, Gaston knew, especially in the days before he could see for himself, had very often been his father, the lightest and most amiable specimen of the type that liked to take possession of the hearthrug., People left it to him; he was so transparent, like a glass screen, and he never triumphed in argument.30

  • 31 Ibid., p. 39.

15Mr. Probert, who is essentially “a social animal,” is the centre of the family in which all the members are closely linked with each other and in which the affairs of each are the affairs of all. It is a family in which “there was no individual but only a collective property.”31 He is the central figure near the fire like old Mme de Bellegarde in her own family, like the Pope in the Church of Rome and the King in the Monarchy. Family feeling among the Proberts is like a religion and, as was the case with the Bellegardes, this religion can easily turn into superstition. But instead of criticizing it directly as he had done in The American. James now uses one of his characters as his mouthpiece:

  • 32 Ibid., p. 193.

It was this weakness that excited Waterlow’s secret scorn: family feeling was all very well, but to see it erected into a superstition affected him very much in the same way as the image of a blackamoor upon his knees before a fetish.32

  • 33 Ibid., p. 94.

16When they receive the Reverberator and summon Francie to their house they are all together like a tribunal ready to condemn the poor girl who is quite by herself; when the Dossons invite them to dinner for the first time the Proberts are au complet and Mr. Probert himself cannot help pitying the poor little Dossons “confronted with a row of fierce French critics, judged by standards that they had never heard of.”33 But sunk in their innocence and unawareness, the Dossons do not even realize that they are being judged and they candidly believe, when everything is over, that the Proberts have enjoyed the dinner as much as themselves and are quite delighted to have made their acquaintance:

  • 34 Ibid., p. 97.

They had not in the least seen what was manner, the minimum of decent profession, and what the subtle resignation of old races who have known a long historical discipline and have conventional forms for their feelings—forms resembling singularly little the feelings themselves.34

17When he understands that it would never occur to Francie that all the things his sisters have told her were “mere garniture,” he is a little ashamed and begins to doubt the value of his own world:

  • 35 Loc. cit.

Her lover, whose life had been surrounded with garniture and who therefore might have expected not to notice it, had a fresh sense of it now: he reflected that manner might be a very misleading symbol, might cover pitfalls and bottomless gulfs, when it had attained that perfection and corresponded so little to fact.35

  • 36 Ibid., p. 66.
  • 37 Ibid., p. 197.

18After the scandal of the Reverberator Gaston Probert reflects that his sisters are really immoral and that what they call Francie’s vulgarity was after all an act of delicacy. But he has too little moral sensibility to discover by himself the real value of the girl. Only his friend Waterlow, who combines “many of the forms of the Parisian studio with the moral and social ideas of Brooklyn, Long Island, where his first seeds had been implanted,”36 can help him to discover the truth that lies behind the apparent distinction of his family and the apparent vulgarity of the Dossons. He is the one who makes Gaston understand that Francie is worth saving, that she is “a perfect flower of plasticity”37 and that her future development will depend on Gaston. But before hoping to do something with her Gaston Probert must first become morally independent. So far, his complete submission to his family makes him essentially a foreigner in Waterlow’s eyes:

  • 38 Ibid., pp. 192-193.

He had the sensibility of one, the sentimental candour, the need for sympathy, the communicative despair. A real young Anglo-Saxon would have buttoned himself up in his embarrassment and been dry and awkward and capable and unconscious of a drama; but Gaston was effusive and appealing and ridiculous and grateful—natural above all, and egotistical. Indeed, a real young Anglo-Saxon would not have had this particular embarrassment at all for he would not have parted to such an extent with his moral independence.38

19And at the end when he sees that his friend cannot make up his mind and does not know whether it is better to break with his family or to renounce Francie, Waterlow advises him to marry the American girl “in simple self-preservation.” Gaston does not immediately grasp his meaning:

  • 39 Ibid., pp. 195-196.

‘In self-preservation?’
‘To rescue from destruction the last remnant of your independence. That’s a much more important matter even than not treating her shabbily. They are doing their best to kill you morally—to render you incapable of individual life.’39

  • 40 Lectures and Essays in Criticism, p. 245.

20Thus Gaston Probert saves his moral life, or rather acquires one, by freeing himself from the family ties and by disengaging himself from the system in which he had so far remained enclosed. The conclusion is the same as in The American: Gaston Probert would not have gone very far with his sensitive eye, and only when he opens one of “the greater chambers of his soul” does he become a man. But here James only touches on the problems of art with a very light hand, as though he wanted to make us forget the heaviness of The American. He has now completely freed himself from the influence of the French. If he is able to sketch the contrast between provinciality and urbanity with such light humour it is because he himself has got rid of all provinciality and has reached that stage which, to quote Matthew Arnold again, “brings us on to the platform where alone the best and the highest intellectual work can be said fairly to begin.”40

  • 41 The Scenic Art, p. 3.

21The Reverberator illustrates the contrast between democracy and autocracy, between provincial and urban spirit in the microcosm of the family system. Like Newman, the Dossons are true provincials. They are uprooted and live in impersonal hotel rooms in which their tall trunks are the main ornament. They feel at home everywhere because they have no sense of differences, no sense of contrast, no sense of place, no sense of “form.” Hierarchy and authority are completely unknown to them. They obey no other authority than their own personal intuition and conscience. There is no central force to which they can turn as a standard of correctness and perfection, and the newspaper, which does not take its standards from a central intelligence but responds to the needs of a vague and vulgar reading public, is their favourite literature. The Proberts, on the contrary, have urbanity and manners like the Bellegardes. As good Catholics and fervent royalists, they keep together in the restricted family circle gathered round Mr. Probert. France is the country they have chosen, and it is also the country James chooses to set off the provinciality and blankness of his Americans. What characterizes France and is strikingly absent from their lives, is a central authority or intelligence, a central light to which everybody can turn for guidance. This concentration round a centre is the sign of a high culture. If the centre of France and of the civilized world is Paris, the centre of Paris is the Théâtre Français, the pearl in the oyster, the crystallization of all that is best in France and it is partly to this “most characteristic of French institutions”41 that James will devote his next novel.


1 Matthew Arnold, Lectures and Essays in Criticism, p. 249.

2 The Art of the Novel, p. 180.

3 Notebooks, p. 85.

4 Ibid., p. 82.

5 James denounces its exploiters of publicity in The Death of the Lion (1894), a story about the literary life in which the writer Neil Paraday falls a victim to the lion-hunters around him.

6 Notebooks, p. 85.

7 The Reverberator (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1949), p. 25.

8 Ibid., p. 34.

9 From the entry in the Notebooks it appears that James had first intended to make the novel end differently. He wanted to make Flack interfere again and threaten the Proberts with another letter to the Reverberator in which he would disclose the whole affair. The Proberts were to have prevented him by swallowing their grievance and accepting the girl. This ending—which would have laid the whole emphasis on the newspaper—was abandoned in the novel. The “bomb” here only serves to make Francie and Gaston question their own world and become aware of “values” so far unknown to them.

10 The Image of Europe in Henry fames, p. 83.

11 Henry James and the Modern Reader, p. 98.

12 The Reverberator, p. 19.

13 Ibid., p. 21.

14 Ibid., p. 20.

15 Ibid., pp. 19-20.

16 Ibid., p. 20.

17 Ibid., p. 18.

18 Ibid., p. 29.

19 Ibid., p. 33.

20 Ibid., p. 22.

21 Ibid., p. 13.

22 Ibid., p. 57.

23 Ibid., p. 16.

24 The Art of the Novel, p. 188.

25 The Reverberator, pp. 44-45.

26 Ibid., p. 46.

27 Ibid., p. 76.

28 Ibid., pp. 38-39.

29 Ibid., p. 122.

30 Ibid., p. 99.

31 Ibid., p. 39.

32 Ibid., p. 193.

33 Ibid., p. 94.

34 Ibid., p. 97.

35 Loc. cit.

36 Ibid., p. 66.

37 Ibid., p. 197.

38 Ibid., pp. 192-193.

39 Ibid., pp. 195-196.

40 Lectures and Essays in Criticism, p. 245.

41 The Scenic Art, p. 3.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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