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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

III. The Novelist


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  • 1 The House of Fiction, p. 81.

1The external events that provoke a character’s reaction were no more interesting for James the novelist than Switzerland’s mountains had been for the tourist, or Flaubert’s epileptic fits for the critic. “There is no such thing in the world,” he wrote, “as an adventure pure and simple; there is only mine and yours, and his and hers”1 Something was important only if someone thought it was, and the French setting was no exception to the rule. That is why we cannot expect to find in James’s work an objective picture of France, but rather the personal vision of a particular mind. James played with the French setting as a painter with his colour-box, and he gave it the tint that best brought out the characteristics of his Anglo-Saxons. From the works examined above it appears that this picture of France undergoes a gradual transformation that clearly reflects the evolution of James’s ideas and sensibility. It is closely linked with his attitude towards the moral and the aesthetic and the relation between the two. The Princess Casamassima, which concludes to their antagonism, and The Ambassadors, which on the contrary reconciles them, are two turning-points in James’s reaction to France.

2In the early works the characters are either French or American, and James obviously sides with his compatriots, whose qualities are set off by the defects of the French. The immorality, licentiousness, duplicity, and fickleness of the latter only serve to put into relief the best American qualities: integrity, generosity, freedom of mind and greater psychological sense. Richard de Mauves is a mere puppet compared with Longmore, and for all their “form” and manners the Bellegardes are a poor show compared with the generous and exuberant Newman. Catholicism and aristocracy are the supreme “forms” in France. The lovely mantillas of praying women, which had seemed to cover horrible fears and remorse in Travelling Companions, and the beautiful proportions of the Castle of Fossy, which made people forget the dungeons and oubliettes in Gabrielle de Bergerac, reappear in The American and the veil is lifted to reveal what they cover: the Bellegardes’ form and their Catholicism are a mere travesty that conceals the crime committed by old Madame de Bellegarde on the person of her husband. In these early works actual crimes are committed: in the very first tale Hortense Bernier had already planned to have her husband killed, and if the boatman drowned her lover instead it was only by mistake; a conspiracy of silence puts a veil over all the horrors while the face presented to the world shows only the grandeur of the aristocracy and the picturesqueness of Catholicism. On the whole James is strictly moral and displays the contemporary American prejudices against France. The image he gives of it is the stereotyped literary image current in the Anglo-Saxon world at the time: when they are not unfaithful themselves French wives are the tender victims of unfaithful husbands; the French social system is based on iniquity and injustice; the perfect surface has been acquired at the cost of a shameless exploitation of the lower classes; the beauty of the past is linked with evil.

3In 1874 James, presumably under the influence of Walter Pater, was attracted by a lighter, more frivolous and more epicurean kind of life. In his portrait of Euphemia de Mauves he no longer approves unreservedly of Puritan seriousness; he questions her dry, narrow, and rigid attitude and contrasts it with the carelessness of the happy French pair in the country. Although he still drew on a literary model in opposing the pagan France of Walter Pater to the Christian values of his Americans, the antithesis between the moral and the aesthetic was sufficiently rooted in his own experience to call for further development, notably in The Ambassadors three decades later. What characterizes the image of France in James’s early works is that it is a kind of backcloth on which all the Anglo-Saxon prejudices of his time have been inscribed and which he uses in each of his novels or tales about France. In the tales illustrating the international subject the backcloth is a colourful canvas carefully painted by James in the French manner.

4A change first appeared in The Princess Casamassima: in this novel James is no longer interested in international contrasts but wants to take up the antithesis between the moral and the aesthetic which he had applied to human relationships in Madame de Mauves and which now bears on the relation between art and society. Paris is the city of Art and the city of the Revolution, it is the most brilliant but also the most bloodstained city in the world and it epitomizes the conflict between Hyacinth’s aesthetic impulses and his social preoccupations. But the two attitudes prove antagonistic, and the young man, torn asunder between them, commits suicide at the end of the novel. Art is not “moral,” the great works of the past are mixed with the tears and sufferings of mankind. Art is the privilege of the rich and the leisured classes but it gives permanence to life and, as a preserving force, it is opposed to the revolutionary forces at work in society.

5This new awareness altered James’s reaction to France. The artist in him gradually prevailed over the moralist and he began to open his eyes to the positive value of France as a country of art which he associated with a particular attitude to life. The characters he takes to France after The Princess Casamassima are either English or American and, though they do not at all react in the same way, they are at one in their Anglo-Saxon “difference” from France. The French traditions which, so far, had been shown to limit and even kill all spontaneous life, which had made a murderess of Madame de Bellegarde and victims of Gabrielle de Bergerac and Claire de Cintré, have become a positive element. Making his own Matthew Arnold’s ideas about the French submission to a central authority, James shows that traditions have enabled the French to achieve the greatest perfection in the field of art. In The Tragic Muse France is clearly better than England. But it is a France without French characters, the symbol of a particular attitude of the mind contrasted with English Philistinism. France is pre-eminently the country of art, whereas England is that of money and material interests. The artists or those who have an aesthetic sensibility have their hearts on one side of the Channel, the worldly on the other. The characters reveal their true nature through their reaction to the French environment: Paris is the mirror of their minds.

6What is true in the field of art is also true, though to a lesser degree, in other fields of French life. There is the same submission to authority and standards in French manners. James had not hesitated between the form of the Bellegardes and the formlessness of his American. Newman’s successors in The Reverberator are judged more severely; true, the Dossons are “better” than the Proberts but they are also more stupid, more helpless, and their social blindness is the sign of a moral vacuum rather than of a moral superiority. Ignorance has become a fault: it is because they do not see anything that the Dossons make social blunders and that they are unaware of the lack of taste and of the vulgarity of mind of a George Flack. Francie is the only one among them who will perhaps attain to maturity because she falls in love with one of “the other side” and because, by entering against her will into the sophisticated Old World, she understands that life is less simple than her father and her elder sister make it.

7When French discipline is applied to the moral life, however, it becomes as negative and destructive as it is positive in the field of art. This is exemplified in The Awkward Age, which illustrates two different attitudes—the French and the English—towards young girls’ education. Here, indeed, to submit to preconceived morality is also to condemn oneself—or the girl brought up on these lines—to moral dryness and poverty. Maturity can only be achieved through personal experience, and personal experience can only be acquired by trial and error. Little Aggie is a perfect bibelot, all “form” outside and void inside; Nanda, on the other hand, the “Northern savage” with her precociously marked face, acquires her full human stature through mistakes and defeat: she loses Old Van as Fleda Vetch loses Owen Gereth, but like Fleda, she is and remains what James, in the preface to The Spoils of Poynton, calls a “free spirit”:

  • 2 The Art of the Novel, pp. 129-130.

the free spirit, always much tormented and by no means always triumphant, is heroic, ironic, pathetic or whatever, and, as exemplified in the record of Fleda Vetch, for instance, “successful,” only through having remained free.2

8The human soul is like a flower that needs space and air to develop. The Duchess has killed Little Aggie’s moral sense by enclosing it in a system. In What Maisie Knew Mrs. Wix tends to smother Maisie’s consciousness and free mind under the weight of her rigorous and life-denying moral judgments. Maisie is all expansion and in Boulogne she is fascinated by the beautiful sensuous surface of the world. She wants to encompass life in her little arms in the same hospitable gesture as that of the symbolical gold Madonna in front of the sea. Mrs. Wix hates France and sees crimes and evil lurking everywhere, but in fact she commits the greatest of all sins by submitting life to her restrictive principles and killing it in the process.

9Except for The Awkward Age in which James’s criticism is directed against French ideas and love of systems, not against French life, the novels written between The Princess Casamassima and The Ambassadors present a favourable image of France and advocate the inclusive aesthetic approach against the exclusive moralistic one. France is no longer a fixed backcloth but changes with the characters who are placed against it. The twinkling diamond of Paris-by-night which Hyacinth sees from Tortoni’s in The Princess Casamassima is what is most distant from the triteness of Lomax Place; the large bright picture of the sea-port which dazzles Maisie’s eyes is what least resembles dull grey England. In The Tragic Muse Paris is the medium in which the characters are bathed, the scene on which they act their parts. France varies according to the “light” projected on it as the French landscape did under the brush of the Impressionists.

10Still more than The Tragic Muse, The Ambassadors vibrates with the air of Paris and twinkles with its light. In the works mentioned above France is only an occasional, temporary setting and the few pages devoted to the trip to France constitute a foreshortening of the whole novel. Hyacinth and Maisie go to Paris and Boulogne as Longmore and Coquelin go to the country in the early tales, and their trip symbolizes their progress into the unknown, into what is most different from their usual environment. Strether’s excursion, on the contrary, is the very subject of The Ambassadors, and it is itself foreshortened in an actual trip to the country in Book Eleven. This great novel of James’s maturity is a kind of fresco for which the other visits to France had been the preparatory sketches, and it is not until we follow the evolution of Strether’s reaction to Paris or to Madame de Vionnet, its living embodiment, that we fully understand what James meant by “life” in his other works. It was easy enough to see that for Hyacinth, Nick and Maisie France represented a possibility of enlargement because its strange and varied “otherness” was the other, so far unexplored, pole of their consciousness. It had the richness of life and was a stimulating challenge for their imagination. But after deciding, in The Princess Casamassima, that the aesthetic and the moral were irreconcilable James had waived the question of morality, and his characters had stopped trying to fathom the depths and mysteries of French life. Unlike them, Strether will not leave Paris until he has discovered what lies under the “vain appearance.” The undertaking is not easy because good and evil intertwine like the threads of a Persian rug. But even when he recognizes that French immorality is a real fact and not a mere Woollett prejudice, Strether does not commit suicide. If Paris contains the best and the worst, so does life, and to reject life is the worst of crimes. Those who do and to whom the French capital offers no attraction—Lady Agnes, Julia Dallow, Paul Muniment, Mrs. Wix, Sarah Pocock—are engaged in the world of action or have no imagination. Paradoxically, the imaginative characters who open themselves to life and gratefully submit to the stimulating influence of Paris are not immersed in life. Their sympathy makes them enter imaginatively into the lives of others but they have no direct experience of life. This distance enables them to remain consistent and to retain, in all circumstances, their profound integrity. Strether is “right” when he refuses to remain in France in spite of the attraction of Madame de Vionnet, and when he refuses the easy solution and material ease offered him by Maria Gostrey’s proposal. So is John Berridge in The Velvet Glove when he refuses to write a preface to the Princess’s novel in spite of the bright prospect of the reward. They are “right,” they are moral, because they are priests in the religion of Art and give up immediate satisfaction in order to maintain the high standard of art and thereby the permanent values of civilization. Finally there is no antithesis between the aesthetic and the moral: the true artist is necessarily moral because he never compromises his essential dignity as those who are immersed in life are compelled to do sooner or later.

11In The Ambassadors and in The Velvet Glove Paris has become something more than a background: it is a concrete presence. It is the light that opens the hero’s eyes and the very air he breathes; it is the smell that penetrates into his room and the noises that creep through his closed shutters; it is the woman he loves and the brim-full cup from which he drinks. The Paris-by-night which Little Hyacinth had admired as a show from Tortoni’s is no longer outside but twinkles in each of the pearls on the Princess’s neck. These late works are to the preceding ones what a Turner is to a Renoir. Life, Paris, Madame de Vionnet, the Princess can hardly be distinguished from each other in the vibrating light. The concrete and the abstract, the literal and the figurative, the moral and the aesthetic all melt into each other. But if all the elements are more closely woven into the general texture of the work the meaning is still the same. Maisie and Hyacinth had looked at life by flattening their little noses against a figurative glass-pane; so does John Berridge when he looks through the window-pane of the car at the Princess inside.


1 The House of Fiction, p. 81.

2 The Art of the Novel, pp. 129-130.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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