The Tragic Muse

MR. JAMES has achieved a kind of success in his latest novel which goes far to illustrate a great canon of the art of fiction. The mind of his readers may be taken to reflect his mind, and we make the assertion with confidence that if, after reading the novel as it has been appearing in The Atlantic, with delight in the brilliancy of the group of portraits which it presents, they now take up the two comely volumes1 in which the serial is gathered, their attention will be held by what may be called the spiritual plot of the tale. That which first commands admiration may not have been first in the author’s mind, but it was first in the order of presentation. The artistic defect in novels of a purpose is that the function of the novel as a reproduction of life is blurred by the function of the tract. On the other hand, the artistic defect in the novel without a purpose lies in a superficial dexterity which supposes life itself to be shallow and incapable of anything more than a surface gleam. It is in the nice portrayal of surfaces, by which an undercurrent of moving life is now revealed, now concealed, that the highest art is disclosed. Sometimes this undercurrent is made manifest by the steady movement of the characters toward some final catastrophe ; sometimes it is brought to light in the relation of the characters to each other as illustrative of a single large theme, and in such cases neither tragedy nor comedy is necessarily resultant; the issue may be in the decision of each person, the definite fixing of the place of each in some microcosm.

It is this latter class of novels, where the judgment of the persons delineated is not emphasized and made unmistakable by a rude confirmation of external circumstance, that is winning the regard of the most thoughtful and most penetrating writers. And is it not characteristic of a view of life at once profound and bright that the creator of fictitious forms should be indifferent to coups de théâtre, and should care most for those human judgments which seem best to reflect divine judgment ? For the lightning does not strike the blasphemer, vengeance does not fall swiftly upon the parricide, hell does not open before the betrayer of innocence. It is a finer power which discerns the crumbling of the interior defenses of the human citadel, and discloses the ruin by glimpses through the fair exterior. Surely the art of the novelist is acquiring a wider range when to the novel of adventure, the novel of dramatic completeness, the novel of character, is added the novel which gives us a picture of human life as it passes before the spectator, who might himself be a part of it, and at the same time offers an interpretation of that life, and attempts something like a generalization of the suborder to which it belongs.

This, at any rate, is what we conceive Mr. James has done for us in The Tragic Muse. As we have intimated, after we have admired the brilliancy of the figures which compose the group constantly before the sight, we become even more interested in the revelation of those characters to the mind by the patient and apparently inexhaustible art of the novelist, showing them by the aid of a few incidents only, but of innumerable expressions in situation and converse. The simple theme on which Mr. James plays with endless variations is profound enough to justify all the labor which he has expended in illustrating it. We are tempted to say, in the light of his great success, that it is the only adequate mode by which the theme could be treated in fiction. For the relations of man to art admit of and demand such subtlety of thought that the fine shades of these relations can only be distinguished by the most painstaking setting forth of delicate workings of this thought in action and speech. Thus, as one recalls the wealth of phrase in which this masterly work abounds, he will admit that it is the lavishness of true art, not the prodigality of a spendthrift in words. Follow as one will the lines of movement in the novel, they all lead to the few fundamental, authoritative principles which form the groundwork of the novel. To the careless reader there is a waste of material in determining the question whether or not Nick Dormer is to marry Julia, whether Peter Sherringham is to marry Biddy or Miriam. He may be amused by the suspense in which he is kept, and entertained indefinitely by the spirited dialogue, but, judging the novel by its issue, he would have his own applause if he demanded, Is the game worth the candle ?

The triumph of the novelist, in our judgment, lies in the fact that he can hold the careless reader to the close, cajoling him with the notion that he is in for the matrimonial hunt of the conventional novel, while at the same time he slowly opens to the student of life a singularly interesting relation of the progress of human souls, each moving toward its determination by choice and the gravitation of nature, and presenting constantly fresh examples of the problems of which they are themselves only now and then distinctly conscious. Perhaps the subtlest of these disclosures is in the delicately suggested nature of the attitude which Miriam Booth holds at the last toward Nick Dormer. The real stanchness of this artist’s fidelity to his art is seen in the sincerity of his dealings with Julia Dallow, and his absolute immobility under the tentative advances of Miriam. Indeed, the reader comes to have a sense of compassion for the tragedienne which is nowhere directly solicited by the author. He reads between the lines, not because the author has written a story faintly there, but because he has described the persons so truthfully, so completely, that, given the persons and situations, this unexpressed relation is inevitable. Here is an artist brave with no heroics, but through the simple honesty of his nature. He is the rock toward which Miriam turns, uncompromising in fidelity her art, as instanced by her penetrating disclosure of Sherringham’s nature, but also conscious of her own feminine dependency. It was a stroke of genius, and not the pis aller of a novelist intent upon pairing off his characters, which made her contemptuously tuck Basil Dashwood under her arm at the last.

Mr. James, to the thinking of many, gave himself space enough for the explication of his theme, but it is clear that he limited himself deliberately by recognizing in his study of the relations of art to life only two forms of art, the pictorial and the histrionic. He needed two because he needed both Nick Dormer and Miriam Rooth ; and some of his happiest interpretations of the entire theme are in the glimpses which he gives of Nick Dormer’s attitude toward portrait-painting. Once, at least, also, he throws in a fine illustration from the art of writing when Gabriel Nash says : —

“ Life consists of the personal experiments of each of us, and the point of an experiment is that it shall succeed. What we contribute is our treatment of the material, our rendering of the text, our style. A sense of the qualities of a style is so rare that many persons should doubtless be forgiven for not being able to read, or at all events to enjoy us. But is that a reason for giving it up, for not being, in this other sphere, if one possibly can, a Macaulay, a Ruskin, a Renan ? All, we must write our best; it’s the great thing we can do in the world, on the right side. One has one’s form, que diable, and a mighty good thing that one has. I’m not afraid of putting life into mine, without unduly squeezing it. I’m not afraid of putting in honor and courage and charity, without spoiling them ; on the contrary, l ‘11 only do them good. People may not read you at sight, may not like you, but there ’s a chance they ’ll come round ; and the only way to court the chance is to keep it up — always to keep it up. That’s what I do, my dear fellow, if you don’t think I’ve perseverance. If some one likes it here and there, if you give a little impression of solidity, that’s your reward : besides, of course, the pleasure for yourself.”

Nash is a writer, though the fact is lightly stated, and Mr. James has not worked him as a littérateur. It is sometimes hard to say just what he meant to make of the figure, whose personality is faintly sketched, and who seems scarcely more than a stalking-horse of clever approaches to the main game; his taking off is the most effective part. The great character of the book is the title character, and the art which is most elaborately analyzed is the histrionic. The actual development of the perfected artist out of the crude shape in which we first discover Miss Rooth is not given. Instead we have the much more interesting study of Aliss Booth in her earlier phase, and then, presto ! change ! the Miss Rooth who blazes forth. For the author’s interest and the reader’s is not in how to make a great artist out of unpromising material, but how, when the artist is made, everything looks to her. There are few more deft touches in this clever book than the genuine surprise which all enjoy, Sherringham, Dormer, Madame Carré, and the reader, when the cocoon is broken and the brilliant butterfly emerges.

It is a striking illustration of Mr. James’s power of handling his material that from first to last Miriam Rooth is always seen en face. That is to say, though their author indulges in analysis of his other characters, he gives the reader only a front view of his heroine. When she appears she is on exhibition. We see her reflected occasionally in the faces of her audience, but we are not helped to a more intimate knowledge through the private advices of her creator. The brilliancy of the effect is greatly enhanced by this means, and the sort of theatrical show which goes on is wonderfully effective as a mode of carrying off the study which Mr. James is constantly making of the tragedian’s art, as seen in the attitude toward it of the tragedian himself, or, as in this case, herself. He seems to ask himself, How would a girl having this genius for the stage regard herself, the stage, the play, the critic, the audience ; how even would she look upon marriage, so universally regarded as the crown of a woman’s life. But inasmuch as this artistic life is led in the glare of publicity, he preserves the illusion by making Miss Rooth ask all these questions, as it were, in public. There are no concealments, and there is no evasion. The persistency with which histrionic art in its personal aspect is pursued, without any wearisome, impersonal discussion, is most admirable. The unfolding of this theme is the unfolding of the story. Not for a moment does the reader find himself in any eddies of conversation; he is always in the current. It would be easy to quote passage after passage in illustration of the wit, the insight, the broad sense, which mark the development of this interior plot of the story, but we should only be printing over again what already has been printed in these pages. We can only advise students of literature and art who wish to see how a fine theme may be presented with a technique which, at first blush, would seem inconsistent with breadth of handling, but on closer scrutiny proves to be the facile instrument of a master workman who is thinking of the soul of his art, to read The Tragic Muse.

  1. The Tragic Muse. By HENRY JAMES. In two volumes. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1890.