"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 24, 2013

The Stories of Henry James (4): "The Treacherous Years," 1892-1898 (Book Review)

The years from 1890 to 1895 were difficult years for James, as he tried to make a career switch to writing plays. But he would have to conclude that the theater was not suitable for his style of work. James is simply too cerebral, too ambiguous - he couldn't write the funny one-liners that Oscar Wilde produced. Of the many plays he wrote in this period, one, The American, lasted 70 nights; the only other one that reached the theater was Guy Domville, and although this was a critical success, it was a complete failure with the public. James was even booed off the stage after the first performance. James' theatrical endeavors were, however, not wasted, for they made him pay more attention to scene and setting in his novelistic writings, instead of concentrating only on character.

In 1892 Henry's sister Alice died - she had lived in England since 1884, near her brother, but not with him. She however did depend on James, especially in periods when her friend and partner Katherine Loring was away. In her last years she kept a diary about her illness.

A second tragedy happened in 1894, when Constance Fenimore Cooper killed herself in Venice. James had known this writer (who was in that period often more popular then he) since 1880 and had become quite intimate with her, even sharing a house with her in Florence in 1886, something which he kept secret. But as James always pulled back again, the friendship was a mixture of joy  and disappointment for Fenimore, and this may have triggered her suicide. James traveled to Venice to help Fenimore's sister sort out things (and presumably to destroy the intimate letters he wrote Fenimore).

The other event in this period is the move to Rye in rural Sussex, in 1896, where James first leased and later bought a beautiful 18th century town house called "Lamb House." Here James spent the remaining 20 years of his life. He had frequent visitors (the house was big enough for staying guests), and also often spent the winter in London, where he stayed at his club and later again rented a small flat. But from now on "Lamb House" became his real home.

In 1995 James wrote two novels, The Spoils of Poynton and The Awkward Age, neither of which became very popular at that time. This was different with What Maisie Knew, written in 1897. With its strong female protagonist, the novel is both lucid and morally complicated.

While pursuing his ill-fated career as a playwright, James continued to write fiction, publishing several of his best stories in this period.

The main themes are the following:
- Dispiriting tales of writers and artists. Good literature is not popular, hacks rake in all the money. Literary writers are "used" by society, but not appreciated, or even read. James also expresses a strong concern for posthumous reputation. These tales form a clear reflection of James' decreased popularity in this period, and his failure to write for the theatre. Stories include "The Private Life," The Death of the Lion, "Greville Fane," "The Next Time," "The Middle Years" and "The Figure in the Carpet." "The Real Thing" asks the question about the perfect model for art, reality or fancy?
- Stories about the theater ("Nona Vincent") or stories based on plays ("The Covering End").
- Stories in which the narrator is haunted by a sense of missed opportunities ("The Altar of the Dead")

Here are the stories Henry James wrote from 1992 to 1998:

"Nona Vincent" [1892]
First publication in English Illustrated Magazine in February—March 1892. First book edition in The Real Thing and Other Tales (London and New York, 1893).
A story born from James's own theatrical endeavors. Alan Wayworth has modeled the heroine of his play on a married friend, Mrs Alsager. When the actress Violet Grey is assigned to this title role, she first fails in it, but then Mrs Alsager helps her by merely showing her what kind of person she is, and now the play becomes a success.

"The Real Thing" [1892]
First published in Black and White, 1892. First book edition in The Real Thing and Other Tales (London and New York, 1893). Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
What is the best model for pictorial art, reality or fancy? An impoverished major and his wife offer themselves as models to an artist who has to make illustrations for a novel, but although they exactly fit the characters in the book, they are not "the real thing" as models. The artist finds that a Cockney lady and an Italian fruit vendor succeed better in striking the right poses - even when modeling high-class society members. A fine account of the nature of artistic illusion.
Gutenberg; Adelaide.

"The Private Life" [1892]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly in April 1892. First book edition in The Private Life, London and New York, 1893. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
A story about a writer with a literally divided self, a man with two bodies. One of them goes about in public, dining, talking and making merry. The other stays in his room where he works diligently. We also meet an aristocrat who is the writer's antithesis: he is always the center of attention at social gatherings, but possesses no private self: he dissolves simply when not in the company of others. The story is also about the dichotomy in James's own life: his dedication to art and need of privacy on the one hand, and his wish to have a respected position in society on the other.
Project Gutenberg Consortia Center; The Ladder

"Lord Beaupré" [1892]
First published in Macmillan’s Magazine in April—June 1892. First book edition in The Private Life, London and New York, 1893.
A humorous tale about the vicissitudes of a conceited young man in the London "marriage market." Lord Beaupré, a desirable catch, has jokingly suggested to his childhood friend Mary that they pretend to be engaged in order to spare him the unwanted attentions of women (and their mothers) hunting for a rich husband. Mary's scheming mother has anticipated them and spread the lie as a fact, with the idea that this may lead to a real engagement between her daughter and Lord Beaupré. But it all turns out rather differently...
Project Gutenberg Consortia Center; The Ladder

"The Visits" [1892]
First published in Black and White weekly magazine in May 1892.  First book edition in The Private Life, London and New York, 1893.
A typical James story in that the central event can not be named and remains a mystery. An elderly lady meets Louisa, the daughter of an old friend, at a party in a country house. Something has happened to Louisa in the gardens and she is very much upset and ashamed, pleading with the lady not to tell her mother. Even so, as soon as she comes home, she takes to her bed and wastes away, unable to tell what happened to her. The elderly lady surmises that Louisa has thrown herself at a young man who has violently repulsed her.
Project Gutenberg Consortia Center; The Ladder

"Sir Dominick Ferrand" [1892]
First published in Cosmopolitan magazine, July and August 1892. First book edition The real thing and other tales, New York - London, 1893.
An impecunious young writer buys a second-hand davenport writing-desk and finds compromising letters in it by a famous politician, Sir Dominick Ferrand. He contemplates selling them and is offered a good price, but at the last moment he cannot bring himself to profit from the damaged reputation of another - even though he needs the money badly. This is fortunate for he now discovers that the woman he is in love with is in fact the illegitimate daughter of Sir Dominick Ferrand. This theme echoes that of "The Aspern Papers." James himself was very worried about damage to his posthumous reputation by stray letters and several times during his life destroyed his papers.
Gutenberg; The Ladder

"Greville Fane" [1892]
First published in the Illustrated London News in September 1892. First book edition The real thing and other tales, New York - London, 1893. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
A light story about literary life. The narrator is asked to write an obituary of an author named Mrs Stormer, a literary hack without talent but with a prodigious output who wrote under a male pseudonym (as more women did in the 19th c., like George Eliot), as "Greville Fane." Despite her lack of talent the narrator - himself a writer - did like her as a person. He also regrets the bad behavior of her two children. After she gets her daughter married to "a title," that daughter does not want to know her unseemly mother anymore. And Greville Fane wants to make her son her successor as author, but he is just an idle pleasure seeker. After the death of Mrs Stormer, her precious children fight over the proceeds of the unpublished papers they find in her desk.

"Collaboration" [1892] 
First published in The English Illustrated Magazine, September 1892. First book edition in The Private Life, London and New York, 1893.
"Collaboration" occurs between a German composer and a French poet on an opera — France and Germany fought a war in 1870 and were often rivals in Europe, but will art be able to transcend national differences?
The Ladder

"Owen Wingrave" [1892]
First published in The Graphic, November 1892. First book edition in The Private Life, London and New York, 1893. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
Owen Wingrave is a young Englishman of military descent who wants to get out of the family profession of being a soldier. Consequently, he is accused by his family of dishonoring his valiant name, considered as a coward and challenged to prove his courage - which he does in a fatal way by facing off with the ghost of one of his martial ancestors. Killed by heredity?
Project Gutenberg Consortia Center; The Ladder

"The Wheel of Time" [1892]
First published in Cosmopolitan Magazine, Dec. 1892 and Jan. 1893. First book edition in The Private Life, London and New York, 1893.
The wheel of time shuffles the characteristics of persons in different generations around. Fanny was in love with Maurice, but he thought her too plain and married another. Fanny has also married and now has a handsome son, Arthur. To the surprise of Maurice, who meets her again by chance after twenty years, Fanny has grown into a beautiful woman. Vera, the - in her turn - plain daughter of Maurice falls in love with Arthur, but he scorns her in the same way in which Maurice once scorned Fanny. So the circle is round...
Project Gutenberg Consortia Center; The Ladder

"The Middle Years" [1893]
First published in Scribner's Magazine, May 1893. First book edition in Terminations, London - New York, 1895. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
A middle-aged writer is not sure that he has developed his artistic abilities to the full, and worries he may have been a failure. He would like a "second chance," but that is not very probable as he has a serious illness. He meets a young doctor who has read his books and is so much affected by them that he is prepared to abandon everything to provide medical care to the writer. The author, dying, finally realizes that the most important thing is not whether there is to be another chance, but to have created works which can arouse such a strong response. "The thing is to have made somebody care."
State University of New York, New Paltz

"The Death of the Lion" [1894]
First published in The Yellow Book, April 1894. First book edition in Terminations, London - New York, 1895. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
A satirical view of the lack of literary appreciation in fashionable society - a story about a famous novelist whom everybody knows but nobody reads. The narrator is an ardent admirer of the writer Neil Paraday, who after a life in obscurity, is written up by the press and therefore becomes a popular although not very willing guest at country houses. He is lionized by a celebrity hunter, until two other vulgarian writers appear, who in their turn win the field. The other guests, who like to hold books in their hands without reading them, have even managed to lose the manuscript of Paraday's last novel. When Paraday later falls ill, he is again wholly deserted.
Gutenberg; Adelaide

"The Coxon Fund" [1894]
First published in The Yellow Book, July 1894. First book edition in Terminations, London - New York, 1895. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
Is Frank Saltram a con man or a holy fool? Whatever he is, he delights others with his conversation. He is such a charmer that people even pay his debts for him. A fund is set apart by a Mrs. Coxon for the care of genius, and Mr. Saltram is the first beneficiary. Under its provisions he is now so comfortable that he produces less than ever...
Gutenberg; Adelaide

"The Altar of the Dead" [1895]
First book edition in Terminations, London - New York, 1895. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
One of James' best stories, that was amazingly enough turned down by the magazines. George Strassmore, at fifty-five, is still in love with the memory of Mary (based on James' youth love Minnie), whom he was to marry. In his mind he has set up an "altar of the dead" for her and - now that he is getting older and family and friends are falling away - he adds his new dead to it. Then he has the inspiration to set up a real altar with candles in an unused part of a church, although he is not religious in the conventional sense. After he has done so, he regularly finds an unknown woman kneeling and praying there (she is based on Fenimore Woolson). As they are both very private people, it is only over the course of many years that they start talking and become somewhat familiar with each other, as if each has found his or her follower for a private cult. But then George finds out that the woman was in love with a - now deceased - man who has betrayed him and who is his enemy - the only one for whom he has set up no candle. He still refuses to do so and that makes her stop coming to the altar. But he is haunted by her need for one candle more, a need that finally is satisfied when George dies in the church and she will set up one new candle on the Altar - one at the same time for him and for his enemy whom she loved. This story can be read in two ways: as a morally uplifting tale of love and forgiveness, but also, like "The Beast in the Jungle" as a story of lost opportunities, of a life spent waiting for nothing, as death in life.
Gutenberg; Adelaide
The Ladder

"The Next Time" [1895]
First published in The Yellow Book, July 1895. First book edition in Embarrassments, London - New York 1896. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
A story about literary life. A writer, Limbert, keeps on trying to produce bestsellers, only to find that he has written a series of literary masterpieces which bring in no money. His work for popular magazines is also refused - he just can't write in a popular vein. Despite his financial problems, he marries, and has three children, and this turns his fate into a tragedy - although he continues to write masterpieces. One theme here is the reputation of the creative artist, who is under-appreciated except by the discerning few. Another theme is the conflict between commercialism and artistic integrity. And the third theme is the traditional Jamesian one of the tension between art and domestic life - artists should remain unmarried. Ironically, the story has an introduction which takes place many years later in which a popular author asks the narrator to write a review of her work for she is tired of being only commercially successful, for once she wants to be an "exquisite failure" like Limbert.
Gutenberg; Adelaide

"Glasses" [1896]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly, February 1896. First book edition in Embarrassments, London - New York 1896.
Orphan Flora Saunt has the most beautiful face (and eyes) in the world and she has many admirers, such as Lord Iffield and Geoffrey Dawling. The narrator, a painter who becomes famous thanks to creating her portrait, notices that she sometimes stealthily uses thick glasses, like his aunt. She is about to marry Iffield, but her myopia which is getting worse as she does not regularly wear the glasses, costs her the love of the lord. Then much later the painter sees her in a box at the opera, comes to her and finds her blind, but with Dawling, now her husband, ever at hand, and her beauty as great as ever. At times she even sweeps the house with her opera glasses. James admired Maupassant and this story has a twist like those of the great French story writer. The tale is filled with images of sight, looking and appearance, with people staring through spectacles, telescopes and opera glasses.
Gutenberg; Adelaide

"The Figure in the Carpet" [1896]
First published in Cosmopolis, January and February 1896. First book edition in Embarrassments, London - New York 1896. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
A puzzle of literary interpretation. Is it a satire of literary criticism or just a literary joke? We never hear what is the illusive design or purpose that underlies the fiction of Hugh Vereker (and perhaps James himself!). A critic writes an article on Vereker; the author tells him there is an intention in his work that people do not divine. Meanwhile another critic discovers the secret, but dies before revealing it to anyone except his wife; who in turn dies without disclosing it to her second husband. The first critic, who is telling the story, is left with no real clue and only one consolation — his rival critic is now also fiercely wondering what Vereker is all about. In the first interpretation above (satire of literary criticism) James takes revenge on critics who are too lazy to study his novels in depth and only try to advance their own career by prying information from others. Criticism was blind and didn't care for the secrets in his art - his "figure in the carpet." The second interpretation, that of a literary joke, would be based on the possibility that Vereker only claims there is a hidden meaning in his work in order to tease the critics and send them on a wild goose chase (i.e. in reality there is no hidden meaning). This interpretation would be supported by the serial deaths of the persons who claim to have found the solution. A biographical interpretation associates the story with the suicide of James' friend Fenimore Woolson, whose death was to James a secret of human relations, a mystery shut up forever.
Gutenberg; Adelaide

"The Way It Came" ("The Friends of the Friends") [1896]
First published in Chapman's Magazine of Fiction in May, 1896, and reprinted the same year in the story collection Embarrassments. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work as "The Friends of the Friends" (1907-09).
A man falls in love with the ghost of a woman he never met (calling to mind Turgenev's final story, Clara Militch). A man and a woman, two friends of the (female) narrator, both have had the experience of seeing an image of a parent at the moment of that parent's dying far away. The narrator therefore thinks these two "sensitive" people should meet, but various accidents prevent their coming together. Then the narrator herself becomes engaged to the man. She once more tries to bring the two together, but at the last moment becomes afraid it will damage her own engagement to the man, and again no meeting takes place. That evening the woman comes to the man, remains speechless with him for a time, goes home, and dies. The narrator realizes that they love each other and that in death the woman returns to the man nightly. She breaks her engagement; the man lingers some years, then goes to join his dead love.
Gutenberg; Adelaide
The Ladder

"The Turn of the Screw" [1898]
First published in Collier's Weekly, 12 installments from January to April 1898. First book edition in The Two Magics, London and New York, 1898. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09).
This suspenseful story is so famous it needs little introduction. It is an ambiguous tale in which a governess tells about her first post in a remote country house. She was in charge of two children who appeared to be haunted by former employees, a governess and butler. She thinks they keep re-appearing to try to get the children to join them in the other world. The children seem very clever in getting away from their new governess and meeting their tempters. We see the story through the eyes of the new governess, whose reliability as a narrator is questionable. Isn't she imagining things? Where does that leave her morally when one of the children dies?
Gutenberg; Adelaide
The Ladder

"Covering End" [1898]
First published in The Two Magics, London - New York, 1898.
A story made out of a play, something which is still quite obvious. The play in question was a one act play called Summersoft, a light comedy written in 1895. In 1907, James again re-converted the story into a three act play called The High Bid, which even saw some performances. An American lady, who knows more about English culture than the English themselves, is interested in Covering End, an ancient country mansion that is heavily mortgaged. The greedy and vainglorious mortgagee wants to marry off his daughter to the impoverished heir - but the American lady has other designs...
Project Gutenberg Consortia Center; Adelaide;
The Ladder

"In the Cage" [1898]
First published in book form in both England and America in 1898. Also included in The New York Edition of James' work (1907-09). 
A young female telegraph operator who sits in a wire cage in the post office (she also dispenses stamps and change) whiles away the time by guessing the "stories" of her customers - especially their love affairs, in so far as she gets hints from their telegrams. A frequent visitor is a handsome playboy type, the Captain, who seems involved in a rather passionate affair and she falls herself in love with him, even following him to sit together in the park. But she knows it can not be - the social gap is too large. So in the end she marries Mr. Mudge, a grocer, who had been patiently wooing her...
Gutenberg; Adelaide

"John Delavoy" [1898]
First published in Cosmopolis of Jan-Feb 1898; first book edition in The Soft Side, London & New York, 1900.
Another story of the literary life, dealing with the relationship between an author (the narrator) and a vulgar magazine editor. The narrator writes an article about deceased author John Delavoy and the sister of the author provides a rare portrait to publish with the essay. The magazine editor, however, doesn't want a serious essay (heavy literature does not fit the magazine) and rejects the article. To the dismay of both the sister and the article writer only the portrait is published with some innocuous, light ramblings by one of the editors. The critic publishes his study in another magazine, but it attracts no particular attention.
Project Gutenberg Consortia Center; The Ladder

"The Given Case" [1898]
First published in Collier's Weekly, Dec. - Jan 1899; first book edition in The Soft Side, London & New York, 1900.
A case of two symmetrical relationships: Barton Reeve is in love with a married woman, Mrs Kate Despard, who is estranged from her husband. Philip Mackern is infatuated with Miss Hamer, who is engaged to a government officer serving in India. Both women have encouraged their lovers but later pull back. Each of the men appeals to the other's lover for help. Finally, the social dilemmas, though similar, are solved in very different ways by both women.
Project Gutenberg Consortia Center; The Ladder

The best stories among the above are in my view:
  • The Turn of the Screw
  • The Altar of the Dead
  • The Figure in the Carpet
  • The Real Thing
  • The Death of the Lion

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.