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Henry James

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Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

III. The Novelist

The Velvet Glove (1909). Olympians and Mortals

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  • 1 The Velvet Glove, Complete Tales, XII, 236.

That was the disservice, in a manner, of one’s having so much imagination: the mysterious values of other types kept looming larger before you than the doubtless often higher but comparatively familiar ones of your own, and if you had anything of the artist’s real feeling for life the attraction and amusement of possibilities so projected were worth more to you, in nineteen moods out of twenty, than the sufficiency, the serenity, the felicity, whatever it might be, of your stale personal certitude.1

1The Velvet Glove, which first appeared in the English Review, (March 1909), is a further illustration of the contrast between those who, quite beautifully and quite unconsciously live and those who reflect upon life and thereby save it from chaos, those who are so much immersed in life that they have no time to think and those who think so much that they have no time to live.

2John Berridge has become famous not only in the Anglo-Saxon world but all over Europe through his book The Heart of Gold and he owes to his newly acquired celebrity all kinds of interesting experiences, one of which he relates in this short tale. At a party given at Gloriani’s studio in Paris Berridge is introduced to a handsome young Lord who asks him if he would not mind having a look at a novel written by one of his friends. Berridge is used to such requests but this case is somewhat different from the others because the young man strikes him as interesting in himself and stirs vague memories in his consciousness. He has seen him before but he cannot remember the circumstances:

  • 2 Loc. cit.

He had met him, had noted, had wondered about him, had in fact imaginatively, intellectually, so to speak, quite yearned over him, in some conjunction lately, though ever so fleetingly, apprehended.2

3Tormented because he cannot place him, Berridge recognizes that the young Lord is “all right where he is” and that, besides, there is no use trying to place such people:

  • 3 Ibid., p. 238.

One placed young gods and goddesses only when one placed them on Olympus, and it met the case, always, that they were of Olympian race, and that they glimmered for one, at the best, through their silver cloud, like the visiting apparitions in an epic.3

4While he is thus reflecting upon “his Seigneurie” a beautiful young woman enters the room where the company is listening to music. Berridge immediately understands that she is the young Lord’s friend, for he is the only one of her race among the persons present. When he sees them together Berridge catches his clue: he had entered their compartment in the train that took him from Cremona to Mantua the autumn before. They hadn’t noticed him of course—Olympians never do—but he had wondered a great deal about them, and his present encounter only rekindles his interest:

  • 4 Ibid., p. 241.

Who had they been, and what? Whence had they come, whither were they bound, what tie united them, what adventure engaged, what felicity, tempered by what peril, magnificently, dramatically attended? These had been his questions, all so inevitable and so impertinent, at the time, and to the exclusion of any scruples over his not postulating an inane honeymoon, his not taking the “tie,” as he should doubtless properly have done, for the mere blest matrimonial; and he now retracted not one of them, flushing as they did before him again with their old momentary life.4

  • 5 Ibid., p. 243.

5Berridge is still lost in his thoughts when his hostess introduces him to “the greatest of contemporary Dramatists,”5 who does not, however, appeal to his imagination as the Olympians do. Berridge asks him whether he knows the beautiful lady, but the only words he can catch—the rest losing itself in a new outburst of music—is that she is “the Princess,” a vague title that further stimulates his imagination. The Princess then notices him and comes to him with a smile, accompanied by the young Lord. She has read all his works, she tells him, and The Heart of Gold three times, on which the writer reflects that if he were an Olympian he would certainly never read a single line of his own stuff:

  • 6 Ibid., p. 245.

He should have consented to know but the grand personal adventure on the grand personal basis: nothing short of this, no poor cognizance of confusable, pettifogging things, the sphere of earth-grubbing questions and twopenny issues, would begin to be, on any side, Olympian enough.6

  • 7 Loc. cit.

6To be Olympian is to be supremely indifferent and absolutely unconventional. Even the great Dramatist, “with his tempered and tested steel and his immense ‘assured’ position,” is not, as his look sufficiently testifies when the Princess turns her back on him and addresses John Berridge instead; even he is a mortal, “full of the torment of earth.”7 But why then, Berridge wonders, has she singled me out, rather than the great Dramatist and the great Sculptor? Am I really the prepossessing young shepherd whom sooner or later every goddess comes to like?

  • 8 Ibid., p. 249.

7The Top of the Tree by Amy Evans, handed him by the young Lord as the novel he should have a look at, suddenly intrudes upon Berridge’s daydream and strikes him as “an object as alien to the careless grace of goddess-haunted Arcady as a washed-up ‘kodak’ from a wrecked ship might have been to the appreciation of some islander of wholly unvisited seas.”8 Soon after this the Princess crosses the room and comes to him as through he were the only person worth speaking to in the whole party. She notices the book in his hands and says that it is not the one she wants him to read. She is, she further tells him, the author of the novel; Amy Evans is her penname and she writes in English in order to have a larger public. The book she would like him to read is The Velvet Glove; she will send it to him the next day, but now she wants to forget everything about it: she is weary of the company and invites him to a quiet supper at home. Struck dumb with astonishment and flattered by her proposition, Berridge follows the Princess to her car, where the “rigid liveried backs” of the chauffeur and the valet-de-pied soon present themselves “like a protected wall” for their intimacy. With Paris around him and the Princess’s gloved hand on his own Berridge feels actually transported to Olympus:

  • 9 Ibid., p. 257.

Her hand was there on his own, in precious living proof, and splendid Paris hung over them, as a consecrating canopy, her purple night embroidered with gold.9

8Paris, like the Princess, is feminine, and Berridge yields to their charms, flattered by their marked attentions and beguiled by their combined seductions. But quite unexpectedly the Princess turns the conversation on literature and he understands with a chill that she has a motive, that she wants him, not only to read The Velvet Glove, but to write a Preface to it and to say, beautifully and publicly, that he likes her:

  • 10 Ibid., p. 259.

It was as if she had lifted him first in her beautiful arms, had raised him up high, high, high, to do it, pressing him to her immortal young breast while he let himself go, and then, by some extraordinary effort of her native force and her alien quality, setting him down exactly where she wanted him to be—which was a thousand miles away from her.10

9The Princess fails, however, to see Berridge’s shame, his humiliation and his despair. She never for a moment guesses his thoughts and while he leans on the upholstered back of the seat she raises to her lips the hand she has not yet released and keeps it there for a long moment. Meanwhile the car has arrived before the great porte-cochère of her house and Berridge steps out of it. The Princess remains inside and, although she looks like a goddess in her shrine, he feels obliged to tell her that he will not have supper at her house:

  • 11 Ibid., p. 263.

He had felt for an instant as if he were speaking to some miraculously humanised idol, all sacred, all jewelled, all votively hung about, but made mysterious, in the recess of its shrine, by the very thickness of the accumulated lustre. And “Then you don’t like me—?” was the marvellous sound from the image.
“Princess,” was in response the sound of the worshipper, “Princess, I adore you. But I’m ashamed for you.”
“Ashamed—?”
“You are Romance—as everything, and by what I make out every one, about you is; so what more do you want? Your Preface—the only one worth speaking of—was written long ages ago by the most beautiful imagination of man.”
Humanised at least for these moments, she could understand enough to declare that she didn’t. “I don’t, I don’t!”
“You don’t need to understand. Don’t attempt such base things. Leave those to us. Only live. Only be. We’ll do the rest.”11

  • 12 Ibid., p. 264.

10More than anything else he fears that she should reproach him with dodging the question “because he hadn’t the wit... to knock off the few pleasant pages she asked him for and that any proper Frenchman, master of the métier, would so easily and gallantly have promised.”12 In order to make any further protest from her impossible he presses his lips on her own after repeating: “You are Romance.” The car starts off without her having uttered a word, and poor Berridge, left alone on the pavement, waves his hat for her as she disappears within the gates, which fold like wings behind her.

11In A Backward Glance Edith Wharton relates that the exquisite picture of Paris in The Velvet Glove is associated with one of James’s visits to the rue de Varenne where she lived at the time. He had his subject, she says, from the day when a beautiful young English lady of high rank had asked him to write an introduction to, or at least a review of, the book she was writing. But the theme “lay unused for lack of a setting”:

  • 13 Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance, pp. 308-309.

And then, one soft spring evening, after we had dined somewhere out of town—possibly at Versailles, or at a restaurant in the Bois—knowing his love for motoring at night, I proposed a circuit in the environs, which finally brought us home by way of Saint-Cloud; and as we hung there, high above the moonlit lamplit city and the gleaming curves of the Seine, he suddenly “held” his setting, as the painters say, and, though I knew nothing of it till long afterward, “The Velvet Glove” took shape that night.13

12Once again, indeed, and quite significantly, it is Paris that provides James with his setting for this symbolical tale; the French capital is meant to represent “life” and is itself epitomized in Gloriani’s studio. Paris is both the “goddess-haunted Arcady” and the tiger-haunted jungle in which Strether had already tried to find his way, and the town is foreshortened in the house of the great sculptor, who is himself a subtle combination of the sensitive artist and of the “glossy male tiger.” His studio is the meeting ground for the splendid Olympians and the poor tormented mortals, the place where Strether had met Mme de Vionnet and where Berridge now meets the Princess, the place where the artistically-minded are sure to meet those who least resemble them and who, just for that reason, most appeal to their imagination. While Berridge vainly tries to place his young Lord he finally concludes that he could hardly place him better than where he is:

  • 14 The Velvet Glove, op. cit., p. 238.

He was all right where he was; the great Gloriani somehow made that law; his house, with his supreme artistic position, was good enough for anyone, and to-night in especial there were charming people, more charming than our friend could recall from any other scene, as the natural train or circle, as he might say, of such a presence.14

  • 15 Ibid., p. 237.

13Gloriani’s house is “good enough for anyone” and the great variety of types among its guests—the variety of life itself—makes it the ideal hunting ground for artists. The beautiful and the artistic coexist with the sinister and the violent, and the Princess, a female Gloriani, is another personification of Paris and of life, another more beautiful but also more cruel Marie de Vionnet. True, if the fact that she writes in English in order to have a bigger public suggests that English is not her native language, it does not necessarily follow that she is French. But this matters little for James purposely remains vague about her: as a goddess she cannot be bound to any particular place and must feel at home in any European Cosmopolis. What we know about the young Lord and herself is that they are young, beautiful and that they belong to the upper classes. Their appearance is that “of life in irreflective joy and at the highest thinkable level of prepared security and unconscious insolence.”15 They are those who “live,” Chad and Mme de Vionnet transported on Olympus and given vague grand names. They most attract the notice of the people who, like Strether and Berridge, only live by the imagination and sometimes envy the rich personal life and the supreme indifference of Lords and Princesses:

  • 16 Loc. cit.

What was the pale page of fiction compared with the intimately personal adventure that, in almost any direction, he would have been all so stupidly, all so gallantly, all so instinctively and, by every presumption, so prevailingly ready for?16

14But, as Strether had said to Little Bilham, “one lives as one can.” Those who “live” and those who reflect upon life belong to two different classes of people. When John Berridge, out of male vanity, accepts to get involved in the treacherous flux of life and follows the Princess to her house it is only to fall from a greater height back on the earth to which he actually belongs. And when the Princess descends from her Olympus to “the torment of earth” there is something so profoundly painful and shocking about it that poor Berridge incriminates the very civilization that renders such aberrations possible, the

  • 17 Ibid., p. 252.

really “decadent” perversity, recalling that of the most irresponsibly insolent of the old Romans and Byzantines, that could lead a creature so formed for living and breathing her Romance, and so committed, up to the eyes, to the constant fact of her personal immersion in it and genius for it, the dreadful amateurish dance of ungrammatically scribbling it, with editions and advertisements and reviews and royalties and every other futile item.17

15Strether had likewise been disappointed in his direct contact with experience, and Mme de Vionnet deeply disturbed by Strether’s explanation of her state. Both attitudes, however, are necessary and even complementary: without those who live the artists could never feed their stream; without the artists the rich personal lives would have no meaning at all and would vanish into nothingness. Paris is a house for those who live and an inexhaustible source for those who don’t. Like life, it contains the best and the worst. It is the ideal field for experience. When he takes his night drive through the city Berridge feels that he has never known it, never seen it, never appreciated it as he does now with the Princess at his side:

  • 18 Ibid., pp. 256-257.

In spite of his constantly-prized sense of knowing his enchanted city and his way about, he ceased to follow or measure their course, content as he was with the particular exquisite assurance it gave him. That was knowing Paris, of a wondrous bland April night; that was hanging over it from vague consecrated lamp-studded heights and taking in, spread below and afar, the great scroll of all its irresistible story, pricked out, across river and bridge and radiant place, and along quays and boulevards and avenues, and around monumental circles and squares, in syllables of fire, and sketched and summarized, further and further, in the dim fire-dust of endless avenues; that was all of the essence of fond and thrilled and throbbing recognition, with a thousand things understood and a flood of response conveyed, a whole familiar possessive feeling appealed to and attested.18

16Like life, Paris is an attractive and dangerous woman, who allures you one day and ignores you the next and who can destroy without remorse what she has most cherished.

17Was the young James’s fear justified after all? Cannot the magnificent goddess of this last tale set in France join hands with the bourgeoise of the first? Isn’t Berridge, with his failure to live, a late version of Hortense Bernier’s lame husband, and isn’t the Princess’s treachery a subtler version of Hortense Bernier’s intended crime? In spite of the distance between them—half a century—the Merimean murderess and the proud Artemis on her cloud of Romance are one and the same woman. The physical has become the psychological, the interest now centers on the inner instead of the outer world, and the murders take place in the invisible world of the consciousness. The only life that matters and that dangerous fascinating creatures might attempt to kill is the life of the soul, the profound integrity of the individual and the artist’s unflinching faithfulness to his art. But between the French bourgeoise—whom James’s prejudices at the time prevented him from liking—and the Princess—whom he likes—there has been the experience of Paris, of which the Princess is the living embodiment. James has come to know the city with its exuberant vitality and its infernal flippancy, its serious interest in art and all things of the mind and its relish for bawdy anecdoctes and vulgar faits divers; he has fallen in love with its beauty and at the same time has been repelled by the smell of blood in its streets. Hortense Bernier’s crippled husband had escaped by mistake the awful fate that awaited him. Like him, Newman, Strether and Berridge, though more and more in love with their dangerous French women, finally escape from their too clever hands and retain their integrity. But the old gentleman of Rye, remaining prudently away from the treacherous allurements of Paris, never ceased loving it. “Princess, I adore you,” John Berridge sighs in the tale. James could have addressed his hero’s words to the beloved city and to the “life” it embodied. Like Berridge, he kissed the Princess’s hand with all the intensity of his passion, aware all the time, however, of the threatening claws inside the velvet glove.

Notes

1 The Velvet Glove, Complete Tales, XII, 236.

2 Loc. cit.

3 Ibid., p. 238.

4 Ibid., p. 241.

5 Ibid., p. 243.

6 Ibid., p. 245.

7 Loc. cit.

8 Ibid., p. 249.

9 Ibid., p. 257.

10 Ibid., p. 259.

11 Ibid., p. 263.

12 Ibid., p. 264.

13 Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance, pp. 308-309.

14 The Velvet Glove, op. cit., p. 238.

15 Ibid., p. 237.

16 Loc. cit.

17 Ibid., p. 252.

18 Ibid., pp. 256-257.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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