"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 18, 2013

The Stories of Henry James (3): "The Middle Years," 1885-1891 (Book Review)

In 1886, James took for the first time a flat which he furnished himself, in De Vere Gardens in London. In this year he also published The Bostonians and The Princess Cassamassima, two novels concerned with political issues, a rarity in James' work. In 1997 followed a long stay in Italy - including Venice -, which led to "The Aspern Papers." In Italy James also frequently met his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson (grand-niece of Fenimore Cooper), but he remained a bachelor.

In 1888 the non-fiction book Partial Portraits, which essays on such various writers as Turgenev and De Maupassant, was written.

In 1889 James published another novel, The Tragic Muse, and from around this time dates his obsession with the theatre - although there was also a practical, financial reason: his stories and essays/articles sold well enough to various magazines, but the income from novels was very small. James hoped a successful play would improve his income. The years 1890-95 are therefore called "the dramatic years." James dramatised The American which had a short run, but four other comedies he wrote were all refused by producers.

The stories from this period date almost all from either 1888 or 1891. It is clear James had less time to write his "tales," although one of them, "The Aspern Papers," is one of the best he ever wrote - if not the best.

As regards themes, although James continues to set his stories in international environments, the theme of the "cultural clash" between Americans and Europeans has become rare (a rather virulent exception is "Two Countries"). But we do find the "fear of marriage" theme time and again, in "The Aspern Papers," and turned on its head in "The Lesson of the Master." We also find the theme of "the tormented child", which had been started in "The Author of Beltraffio," and is here continued in "The Pupil". Several other stories continue the theme of the "unexpected resolution" in masterful ways, showing how efforts to meddle in the lives of others lead to unwanted or even tragic results.

There are no stories from the years 1885 and 1886. In the years 1887 to 1891 James wrote the following stories: 

"Mrs. Temperly" [1887]
First published in Harper’s Weekly, August 1887. Original title "Cousin Maria." First book edition in A London life, etc., London / New York, Macmillan, 1889. 
Raymond, a would-be artist with no prospects wants to marry the eldest daughter, Dora, of a rich widow, Mrs Temperly. Both mother and daughter ask him to wait. Five years later he visits the family in Paris - he even poorer, Mrs Temperly even richer.  Again Dora keeps him politely at bay. A third time, at a grand musical evening, Raymond again tries his luck. Now Dora explains marriage with him would impact negatively on the prospects of her two younger sisters. They have to wait until the sisters are grown up and married. Is he willing to wait - even very long (the second sister seems to have a growth disorder, so "long" could well be "indefinite")?
GutenbergThe Ladder.

"Louisa Pallant" [1888]
First published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine for February 1888. First book edition in The Aspern Papers, etc. (1888). Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09). 
In the German spa town of Homburg, the narrator meets Louisa Pallant and her pretty young daughter Linda. Louisa was his old love, who jilted him for Mr Pallant (now deceased), and so destroyed his youth - he has remained a bachelor ever since. Now his nephew Archie falls in love with Linda and history seems about to repeat itself. But Louisa takes effective measures to separate the couple - as she tells the narrator, this is her atonement for the wrong she did him in the past. As Louisa explains, her daughter has the faults of the mother and because of her peculiar upbringing is cold as stone and only out to marry money. The narrator half thinks the ladies are aiming higher than Archie - and indeed, he later reads in the paper Linda has married a very rich Englishman. Archie remains single, like the narrator - so has history after all repeated itself? Was separating the couple an act of generosity, or was it a second jilt?
Gutenberg; The Ladder.

"The Aspern Papers" [1888]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly, March-May 1888. The same year reprinted by James in book form with other stories as The Aspern Papers, etc. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09). 
James was deeply in love with Italy and in this story, the city of Venice is one of the "characters" - its past has almost become palpable. "The Aspern Papers" is an exploration of literary reputation and the relationship between authors and readers. The unnamed narrator, an American writer and biographer of the famous (fictional) poet Jeffrey Aspern hears that Aspern's former lover, the American Miss Juliana Bordereau, is living in seclusion in an old palazzo in Venice. At an extremely high age and an invalid, she presumably is in the possession of love letters from the poet. The narrator manages to rent rooms from her (she wants the money as a dowry for her niece, Tina, who is living with her, but who herself is already an "old spinster") so that he can secretly hunt for the letters. A case of ruthless literary scholarship! Much of the suspenseful action takes place in the palazzo, with the principals spying on each other and conducting occasional conversations in the halls and garden. There is also tension between the two women, as Miss Tina is a virtual prisoner in the palazzo. She begins to consider the narrator as a possible savior, but there James' "fear of marriage" theme kicks in at full force.  So we have the knotty situation that the narrator wants the papers, Juliana Bordereau tries to thwart his plans while extracting money from him, and Miss Tina sees him as a way out of her captivity in the palazzo - she will even get the letters for him, if.... A stunningly suspenseful novella, the very best of the shorter works James wrote.

"The Liar" [1888]
First published in Century Magazine in May—June 1888. First book edition in A London Life (1889). Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09). 
Oliver Lyon, a portrait painter, has an unexpected reunion with a beautiful woman he loved in the past, but who jilted him. She is now married; her husband, Colonel Capadose, is an exuberant, handsome man, who likes to be the center of social attention by telling tall tales. Although these "lies" are innocent and don't hurt anyone, Lyon starts seeing the husband as a pathological liar and he wonders why Mrs Capadose preferred this man to himself. He decides to paint a portrait of Colonel Capadose to show his real character to his wife, calling it "The Liar." What he doesn't realize (as an obvious unreliable narrator) is that he himself is "the liar" (Lyon = "lying") as he lies about his intentions and tricks the Colonel into posing for the portrait. In the end, the portrait is a shocking surprise, but Mrs Capadose stand firm on the side of her husband, even if that necessitates another lie. Who is truly deceitful, in the sense of hurting others, Lyon or Colonel Capadose? Obviously, the painter is motivated by vengeful feelings as he lost the woman he loved to the Colonel.
Gutenberg; The Ladder.

"Two Countries [The Modern Warning]" [1888]
First published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, June 1888. First book edition The Aspern Papers, etc. of 1888.
The last of James intercultural stories, written at a time he seems to have been tired of them himself. An American woman is torn between her brother and her English husband over their antagonistic attitudes to each others' countries. The ending is rather melodramatic.
The Ladder.

"A London Life" [1888]
First published in The Century Magazine for August—September 1884. First book edition in A London Life (1889). Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09). 
A story about a divorce and its effects on a younger sister. Laura Wing, a young American woman who is orphaned and therefore staying with her sister Selina in England, is the horrified witness to the breakup of the marriage of that sister with her English husband. The main reason is the flirtatious Selina, who has affairs with other men, but also the oafish husband is a superficial figure with no real conscience. The reader can sympathize with neither of them. In the end, Laura, unable to bear the sleaziness of the London life, returns in a sort of flight to the United States. A no-nonsense approach to the realities of a marital breakup.
Gutenberg; AdelaideThe Ladder.

"The Lesson of the Master" [1888]
First published in The Universal Review, July and August 1988. First book edition The Lesson of the Master, etc., London / New York, Macmillan, 1892. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09). 
A "fear of marriage" story, but here turned ironically on its head. The famous novelist Henry St. George, who is married, advises his admiring disciple George Overt against marrying the woman he is in love with, Marian Fancourt - arguing that a wife and children will be the death of Overt's creativity and career. Marriage and a life dedicated to art don't go together, he stresses. Overt goes on a long trip to think matters over. When he returns, to his surprise, St. George's wife has died and St. George himself has taken Marian Fancourt as his new wife! Has the older writer played a mean trick on Overt, or has he saved Overt and his career, as he insists?
Gutenberg; Adelaide.

"The Patagonia" [1888]
First published in The English Illustrated Magazine, August and September 1888. First book edition in A London life, etc., London / New York, Macmillan, 1889. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09). 
A flighty young man cavalierly flirts with a young woman en route to her wedding in England. As they are always together on the deck of the ocean liner bringing them to England, they become the subject of rumors among the other passengers. When the young man is strictly warned off, an unexpected disaster follows. Nobody had envisaged that the betrothed woman so much hated her destiny...
Gutenberg; Adelaide.

"The Solution" [1888]
First published in The New Review between December 1889 and February 1990. First book edition The Lesson of the Master, etc., London / New York, Macmillan, 1892.  
A story set in the diplomatic world in Rome. The unnamed narrator and others try to trick a naive and simple American secretary of the legation, Wilmerding, into marrying one of the daughters of Mrs Goldie, a rather vulgar woman, telling him he has gone too far with the daughter so that her reputation is compromised. Wilmerding dutifully offers marriage to the daughter and is accepted. The narrator feels guilty of engineering this mesalliance, and asks a woman friend, Mrs Rushmore, with whom he is in love, to help him out. She does find a solution to get Wilmerding out of the fix he is in, but the way she does this is rather shocking to the narrator...
The Ladder.

"The Pupil" [1891]
First published in Longman's Magazine for March—April 1891. First book edition in The Lesson of the Master, etc. (1892). Also included in The New York Edition (1907-09).
A seedy American family (the Moreens), traveling in Europe, engages an impoverished young man (Pemberton) as tutor for their invalid son, a precocious boy (Morgan). The deceitful family behaves cold towards the boy and therefore Morgan puts all his trust in the tutor. They become friends. But when the mendacious Moreens - who never pay the tutor - try to trick Pemberton into assuming complete responsibility for Morgan, Pemberton hesitates - a moment of hesitation that triggers the final drama, as it causes Morgan to lose confidence in humanity.
Gutenberg; Wikisource Adelaide.

"Brooksmith" [1891]
First published in Harper's Weekly and Black and White in May 1891. First book edition in The Lesson of the Master, etc. (1892). Also included in The New York Edition (1907-09).
A moving portrait of a house servant. Brooksmith has worked in a cultured, retired diplomat's salon, where he was responsible for the preservation of the atmosphere and treated as one of the family. After the death of the diplomat, Brooksmith finds no pleasure in other butler jobs, as he encounters no people of value anymore. Dispirited, he drifts into odd jobs as a waiter and finally "disappears."
Gutenberg; Adelaide. The Ladder.

"The Marriages" [1891]
First published in the Atlantic Monthly in August 1891. First book edition in The Lesson of the Master, (1892). Also included in The New York Edition (1907-09).
After the death of his wife, a father wants to remarry but his daughter remains devoted to the memory of the mother and thinks the new woman, Mrs Churchley, is rather vulgar. With a lie, she manages to prevent the marriage. But behind her back in the meantime another marriage has taken place, that of her brother, with a lower class woman, which will destroy his chances of joining the diplomatic service. It also comes out that Mrs Churchley never believed her lie, but called off the marriage because she didn't want her as a step-daughter.

"The Chaperon" [1891]
First published in the Atlantic Monthly of November and December 1891. First book edition in The Real Thing and Other Tales (1893). Also included in The New York Edition (1907-09).
Normally mothers will be the chaperones who introduce their daughters into society, but in this story it is the daughter who chaperones the mother. Mrs Tramore has been ostracized from society after eloping with a lover, and also lost contact with her children. But after her father's death Rose neglects the warnings of her family and starts living with her mother with the intention to restore that mother - who is a very fashionable person - to society. She succeeds - with the help of a discarded suitor who suddenly appears in a changed light.

"Sir Edmund Orme" [1891]
First published in Black and White, Christmas number, November 1891. First book edition in The Lesson of the Master, etc. (1892). Also included in The New York Edition (1907-09). 
An inventive "ghost story," not dependent on Gothic trappings, with a ghost who appears in broad daylight on the seafront in Brighton. Mrs Marden, a widow, and her daughter Charlotte live in Brighton. Mrs Marden is haunted by the ghost of her jilted lover, Sir Edmund Orme, who committed suicide because of her. She is the only one who can see the ghost, who appears to be a force for good, wanting to check that the same injustice is not repeated: the ghost wants to prevent that the daughter treads in the footsteps of the mother. So he stands next to the daughter whenever she meets other men, like a sad shade lingering in the background, as a warning not to play lightly with the heart of another. The narrator of the story is in love with the daughter and he can also see the ghost - will he be able to get rid of the apparition?
The Ladder.

The best stories among the above are in my view:
  • The Aspern Papers
  • The Liar
  • The Lesson of the Master
  • The Pupil
  • The Chaperon


If you prefer to read the stories in book form, the recommended edition is that of the Complete Stories of Henry James, in five volumes, in The Library of America. Collections of stories are also available, for example in two volumes in Everyman's Library, or in Penguin Classics.

Essential websites about Henry James are: The Ladder, a Henry James Website written and edited by Adrian Dover; and The Henry James Scholar's Guide to Websites by Richard D. Hathaway.

The definitive biography on James has been written by Leon Edel, The Life of Henry James, in five volumes (1955-1972). There is also a shortened version: Henry James, A Life (1985) - which still runs to above 700 pages.