Cult of the Master

The later Henry James was a master of technique. But how good a novelist was he?

By James Wood

The story of Henry James's fruitless flirtation with the theater has been so often told that it has become folkloric, invoked and repeated by generations of marveling Jamesians. Everyone knows the tale of the first night, in London, of his historical play Guy Domville (1895) —how the nervous playwright spent the evening down the road at the Wildely successful new play An Ideal Husband, by James's despised rival, the "mechanical Oscar"; how he finally slipped into his own theater just as the performance was ending; how he was led on stage by the play's actor-manager, ostensibly to enjoy the curtain call but in reality to receive the boos and jeers of a large proportion of the audience; how a few moments earlier, when this same actor-manager had declaimed from the stage, "I'm the last, my lord, of the Domvilles!," a cry had come from the seats: "It's a bloody good thing y'are!"

Leon Edel, who tells this story well in his five-volume biography of James, fails to mention only one detail: that James's play was preceded in the same program by a one-act comedy written by a certain Julian Field, titled Too Happy By Half. That tells us, in four words, what the mandarin moralist was up against in his quixotic campaign amid the lights of the West End; he had about as much chance with his audience as Don Quixote had with his gang of convicts. Guy Domville was his only original play to make it to the boards. He had loaded it with all his longing for popular success. He was never seriously involved in the theater again.

Few writers have been as reliably amnestied as Henry James. From the 1940s to the 1970s he was steadily enshrined as both the greatest American novelist and the most solid object of academic study. There was something cultish about the way modern American critics talked about "the Master" and his exquisite refinements; it was palpably painful for them to admit that James ever blotted a line. Edel's biography was the breviary of that cult, and it was Edel who—with some help from James himself—converted James's disastrous pursuit of theatrical success into a narrative of the novelist's failing at success but ultimately succeeding at failure. James, it was argued, took from his many wasted years of playwriting a new style of novel writing: one based on what he called the "divine principle of the Scenario." Plundering his own efforts at stagecraft, he began to cut away all extraneous detail, to write only in dramatic scenes, and to make his dialogue wholly germane to the thematic forwarding of the story. The most glorious results of this late, post-theater period are the last novels: The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). But the immediate results, the first fruits, are The Spoils of Poynton, What Maisie Knew, and The Awkward Age, written from 1895 to 1899 and now collected, with The Other House (1896), in a useful single volume by The Library of America.

There is some justice in the idea that the theatrical experiment "rescued" James at a pivotal moment in his life. He had been interested for many years both in the theater and in certain popular novelists, especially those who wrote extensively in dialogue. "I have worked like a horse—far harder than anyone will ever know—over the whole mystery of 'technique,'" he wrote to William James, referring to his intense study of questions of dramaturgy. In 1882 he had turned Daisy Miller into a play, though it was never produced. In the early 1890s he was led toward Ibsen, whom he admired, though with the usual precise flutter of Jamesian qualifications: "so dry a view of life, so indifferent a vision of the comedy of things." Ibsen, he felt, wrote "moral tales in dialogue." James, one feels, wanted to write novels in dialogue and then stage them.

But it is still an open question—isn't it?—whether James was a great writer of dialogue. He rightly complained that all Wilde's characters spoke like Wilde; but many of James's characters, especially in the late work, sound like James. The particular difficulty, and the difficult reward, of late James is the way in which he transfers his own acute sensitivity to verbal calibration onto his characters: they become Chief Justices of the word, forever raising to moral scrutiny certain anointed terms and phrases. This is what gives late James its strongly philosophical flavor. Most readers learn not to read this speech as realistic dialogue and instead consider it as essentially continuous with all the other language that surrounds it on the page—a borderless region of inquiry. His fictional dialogue needs his fictional nondialogue to apologize for it, as it were. One can sense this just by looking at the way that James, even in the supposedly "dramatic" novels collected in this volume, is always restlessly confirming his characters' speech: "she passionately asseverated" (this is at one of the most obviously passionate moments of What Maisie Knew, when Maisie is clearly asseverating); "[she] wonderingly moaned"; "she helplessly wailed"; "she then simply ejaculated."

Orphaned from its larger family of prose, the dialogue in James's plays can seem precious, a silken music for cloth ears. Whatever the reason, popular success in the theater was never to come his way. In 1894 he published four unproduced plays—something of an admission of failure for a writer as distinguished and famous as James then was. By February of 1895, a month after the Guy Domville collapse, James had abandoned the theater and was beginning to speculate about how he might turn his recently acquired knowledge to fresh use. He wrote The Spoils of Poynton over the next several months (it was serialized in this magazine from April to October of 1896) and immediately afterward began work on The Other House, which was developed from a discarded play scenario. What Maisie Knew followed a year later, The Turn of the Screw (not part of this collection) in 1898, and The Awkward Age in 1899.

The four novels in this collection are indeed peculiar ones—and very peculiar ones to come from Flaubert's great (if critical) disciple, because they are distinctly anti-Flaubertian. Exposition, for example, is starved to a thin dramatic minimum, though people—or certain people—are flamboyantly and sharply described. The formidable and morally questionable women who dominate most of these novels—Mrs. Gereth in The Spoils of Poynton, Maisie's mother and stepmother in What Maisie Knew, and Mrs. Brookenham in The Awkward Age —are painted with fitting luridity. But James has hardly any interest here in setting up characters in the usual visual way, by piling details of clothing and gesture and face on top of one another. Instead he selects one or two attributes and then works them until a strange, grotesque essence is achieved.

He was clearly influenced in this by Dickens's genius for caricature, though he affected to have little time for Dickens. Thus Maisie's mother, Ida Farange, is seized, descriptively, by her eyes: "like Japanese lanterns swung under festive arches." Later in the book we read that "her huge eyes, her red lips, the intense marks in her face formed an illumination as distinct and public as a lamp set in a window." One of her lovers, the unfortunate, heavily moustached Mr. Perriam, is seen as a Dickensian gargoyle: "He seemed also to have moustaches over his eyes, which, however, by no means prevented these polished little globes from rolling round the room as if they had been billiard-balls impelled by Ida's celebrated stroke." (Ida is known in society for her skill at billiards.)

If James's characters are allowed the odd descriptive donation, his settings are not. As in a play, most of them are domestic rooms, and these rooms are hardly mentioned. Only when an object, such as a picture, is important to the action is it included in the visual sweep. Poynton, a great house full of immaculate treasures, has hardly any physical presence in the novel; we have to infer the beauty and preciousness of these "spoils" from the intensity with which the characters battle over them. In What Maisie Knew, Maisie is taken to the great Exhibition at Earl's Court, an event that Flaubert would have researched, as he researched the agricultural fair in Madame Bovary, to get the many details exactly right. But James tosses off the entire spectacle in one sentence, as "a collection of extraordinary foreign things, in tremendous gardens, with illuminations, bands, elephants, switchbacks and side-shows." That's it, essentially. He is interested in what his subjects make of this show, not in what he, the writer, can make of it.

The result—for all that James's late style is thought of as a braided nest of interminable additions and qualifications—is in fact an art of great purification. It is striking just how much the novels do without. Focus is all, and the focus is only on what James once called (in his notebook) "something important ... something intimate, something vital." This is an art of the essence. The reader, used to being fattened by Flaubert and Zola on big visual spreads, is forced to become a lean decipherer who must imagine the various visual contexts, using the characters as clues. The modernism of this style lies in its frank intellectualism, in its admission that reading has now become hermeneutic. If one mark of modernism is that it reveals the fragmentary, these novels sneakily inaugurate modernism in English.

Yet how good are they as novels? If it was difficult for the James cult of the 1950s to find fault with the Master, contemporary scholars are simply not interested in value judgment at all (they have smaller fish to fry), and the two sides are therefore oddly allied in obscuring a proper adjudication. The old side winces to judge; the new side winces at those who do judge—and the field is left open to those complainers who simply find all of late James "unreadable" or "not worth the effort."

Of the novels collected here, only What Maisie Knew seems a really great book. The Other House is an unworthy melodrama; James himself somewhat disdained it. It has an uncharacteristic cruelty about it—quite the opposite atmosphere of the other three books, which represent tender arguments in defense of innocence. The Awkward Age offers a powerful satire on the callousness of London society, and has at its center a striking creation, the beautiful, striving, terrible Mrs. Brookenham. But it lacks the relentless precision of What Maisie Knew. The Spoils of Poynton, a work of real penetration, is marred, I think, by an inadequate sense of the motivations of its heroine, Fleda Vetch. Fleda, a young woman of considerable insight and intellect, is the new friend of Mrs. Gereth, the owner of Poynton. James got the idea for this novel—what he habitually called the donnée—at a dinner party; he dined out frequently and used these evenings to truffle for rich stories. His neighbor at the table had told him about a "small and ugly matter" in which a Scottish widow was suing her son over the fine furniture he had inherited, which she would not let him have. Mrs. Gereth, like the Scottish widow, has become embroiled in a struggle with her son, Owen, who is about to marry the vulgar, nouveau riche Mona Brigstock. Under English law, once Owen marries, he and his wife will become master and mistress of Poynton.

In general, James's characters divide into gentle but weak men; formidable and finally monstrous manipulators (mostly women, but sometimes men); and those whose innocence needs to be protected (sometimes young women, sometimes young men, sometimes children). Mrs. Gereth is one of the manipulators, like Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady and Aunt Maud in The Wings of the Dove. She cannot bear the idea of the brash Mona in charge of her beautiful objets, and determines to act. Her weapon—at first unwitting, and then unwilling—will be young Fleda, whom she takes under her wing. Mrs. Gereth becomes excited when she hears that Owen and Mona have not yet agreed on a date for the wedding, and assumes that something is amiss with this detestable union. She sees that Fleda is attracted to her son, and soon hears that Owen returns the attraction. She decides to use Fleda as a wedge between Owen and Mona, so that he might eventually marry the malleable Fleda. The spoils would then be in safe hands once again.

But goodness always works dialectically in James, forcing ironic reversals. Fleda is very bright and very good; precisely because she comes to Owen, and Owen to her, she feels she must resist Mrs. Gereth's machinations. Fleda declares that she will accept Owen only if Mona releases him from his bond. She has a hunch—a moral hunch—that Owen does not love her as freely as he says he does, that he is making a fuss over her in part because of the pressure from his mother. And indeed, given a free choice, Owen, a weak, bumbling, honorable fellow, does return to Mona, and Fleda, once so near to what she desires (she truly adores Owen), loses it forever.

The Spoils of Poynton, What Maisie Knew, and The Awkward Age all close with acts of apparent renunciation, in which the heroines reject happiness in favor of good. In What Maisie Knew this gesture has a truly paradoxical power. We feel that Maisie's innocence is very much worth defending, and has already been so badly damaged that any bargain that might salvage it—even at the cost of her obvious and immediate happiness—is worth accepting. But Fleda is a contradictory moral presence. She is supposed to be clever, sensitive, the proper point of view of the novel. Yet she is in thrall to wickedness. Though James is critical of Mrs. Gereth's materialism (her treasures are, after all, called spoils), in the end he and the novel seem too ready to agree with Mrs. Gereth's sense that the spoils merit the commotion that ensued. The highly moral Fleda consistently—like the novel itself—conflates mere acquisitiveness (Mrs. Gereth's good taste) with virtuous behavior. She reflects that "To have created such a place was to have had dignity enough; when there was a question of defending it the fiercest attitude was the right one." And later: "[Owning the spoils] was not the crude love of possession; it was the need to be faithful to a trust and loyal to an idea. The idea was surely noble."

One view might be that James wants us to see Fleda as somewhat naive, duped by her very virtuousness into becoming the agent of stealthy wickedness. But this is hard to square with the powerful intelligence and tact that Fleda otherwise shows in her analysis of the situation. And if James is perhaps inviting us to judge, even to disapprove of, Fleda's final renunciation (I doubt it, but the notion is worth entertaining), then it is still hard to read it as tragic, given our dim view of her earlier surrender to Mrs. Gereth. Many of James's heroes and heroines almost destroy themselves in their strenuous efforts at moral self-cleansing. But we feel that Fleda should have been bright enough, and good enough, to resist getting so dirty in the first place.

Early in 1896 James complained of pain in his right (writing) wrist, and in February of the next year he hired a stenographer, William MacAlpine. A lot has been said about the connection between James's dictation to MacAlpine at the typewriter and his famous late sentences—those beautiful, maddening, loaded convoys. Leon Edel wrote that James's friends swore they could identify the very chapter in What Maisie Knew that marked his new method of writing. But The Spoils of Poynton, written before MacAlpine's arrival, has its share of fairly appalling sentences ("I may not perhaps too much diminish the merit of that generosity if I mention that it could take the flight we are considering just because really, with the telescope of her long thought, Fleda saw what might bring her out of the wood"), and the speedy and compact What Maisie Knew in fact has very few.

What Maisie Knew is both deeply affecting and technically remarkable, a novel whose plot races ahead like a drawing-room comedy's but leaves a wake of grief wherever it goes. Like The Awkward Age, it is a scathing swipe at London high society, here figured in the dreadful husband and wife—now divorced—Beale and Ida Farange. The novel (also powered by a dinner-party donnée) opens with the couple's divorce and their decision, enforced by the court, to share custody of their daughter. Young Maisie (who is seven or eight) must spend six months a year at each parent's London house, back and forth. The arrangement is complicated by the parents' loathing of each other and by the moral irregularity of their households; Beale and Ida pile up lovers like dirty dishes.

James tells the story in what seems like conventional third-person narration but is really a way of seeing everything through Maisie's wide eyes. The effort to be faithful to a young girl's vision prompts James to create extraordinary and wonderful effects. Each parent's household is seen as if on the canvas of a German Expressionist. Her father's house is a blurred picture of men with cigarettes and bared teeth, who are forever pinching and patting Maisie: "Her features had somehow become prominent; they were so perpetually nipped by the gentlemen who came to see her father and the smoke of whose cigarettes went into her face." Her mother's is characterized by endless "shrieks" from Ida's friends, and by secrecy: "Everything had something behind it: life was like a long, long corridor with rows of closed doors."

Maisie's life becomes even harder when her father and mother both remarry. Ida marries the gentle and wise Sir Claude; Beale marries Maisie's glamorous governess, Miss Overmore. Maisie is fond of both of these new additions. But relationships last no longer than a chapter or two in this novel, and before long Sir Claude and Miss Overmore have left their respective spouses and have fallen in love with each other. Throughout the novel adults use Maisie for their own purposes, even while congratulating themselves on not doing just that. Sir Claude and Miss Overmore promise to look after Maisie as neither her mother nor her father can. But Maisie rightly suspects (like Fleda, she has a moral hunch) that Sir Claude and his lover really care more for each other than they do for her.

Maisie, abandoned by her parents, finally has to choose between this handsome and apparently loving couple and the dowdy, self-righteous Mrs. Wix, her new governess, who strongly disapproves of the liaison between Sir Claude and Miss Overmore (they are not yet married), and who longs to take Maisie away from the moral dishevelment she has witnessed. Very subtly, James makes Mrs. Wix noble but unlikeable. She is lower-class, dresses poorly, and knows very little, yet she is the only character in the novel who loves Maisie as a mother would—and that is because she lost her own little daughter, Clara Matilda, in a road accident years earlier. Maisie feels that Mrs. Wix is safe, "as safe as Clara Matilda, who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green, where they had been together to see her little huddled grave."

That last sentence is a perfect example of James's mastery of technique. What appears to be third-person storytelling is in fact much closer to first-person narration, so saturated is it with Maisie's language and vision. "Embarrassingly." Whose adverb is that? It is the word Maisie would have used to herself, dragged by poor Mrs. Wix to visit her daughter's grave. The technical term for this kind of thing, in which the author inflects third-person narration with the language of a particular character, is "free indirect style," and James uses it systematically and devastatingly throughout this novel, to keep close to Maisie's knowledge and Maisie's sensibility. (James's greatness as a controller of free indirect style links him with Jane Austen, and makes all the odder his apparent dislike of Austen's work.)

Nothing is more powerful in this novel than the moment when Maisie, out walking one day with Sir Claude, sees her mother in the park with a strange man, clearly a new lover, identified only as the Captain. As Sir Claude and Ida talk, the Captain eventually leads Maisie to a couple of chairs under a tree. He assures her that it is not as bad as it looks, that her mother has had a hard life, that above all she is "true." Maisie is deeply moved, and seizes on this word. Tears fill her eyes, and she says to the Captain, "Oh, do you love her?" The Captain assures her stiffly that he does.

It was an almost incredible balm—it soothed so her impression of danger and pain. She sank back in her chair; she covered her face with her hands. "Oh, mother, mother, mother!" she sobbed ... "Say you love her, Mr. Captain; say it, say it!" she implored.

The Captain again assures her that he loves her mother. "Then don't do it only for just a little," begs this extraordinary and damaged child. A moment later she has returned to Sir Claude's side and is cheerfully denying that anything much took place between her and the Captain. Maisie knows what she knows—and in a world of secrets, she knows how to keep her own. When she chooses to spend the rest of her childhood with Mrs. Wix, the reader rejoices.

This Library of America selection, impeccably edited by Myra Jehlen, presents just the texts themselves, with a minimum of notes and no introduction. The enterprise, like Henry James's charge into the West End, seems quixotic; it suggests a faith in the interests, not to mention the capacities, of the common reader that may turn out to be sweetly superstitious. We shall see. Still, it is welcome, and adds permanence to permanence, enshrining these now canonical works in this now canonical library.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/04/cult-of-the-master/302716/