Posts Tagged ‘Henry James’

We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art — Henry James

An English Home, Albert Coburn (1907 illustration)

Dear friends and readers,

I began Gorra’s marvelous book as an alternative read to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a kind of companion-match antidote: I felt it was the same sort of book, one which took the reader through a deeply-felt reading experience of a book, in this case James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I discovered that Gorra’s does not pretend to be a semi-confessional autobiography as semi-literary criticism; indeed I learned very little about Gorra’s life, though I did learn how he reacted not only to James’s The Portrait of Lady but many of James’s other books — without any particular references to Gorra’s life, except that Gorra is also American and regards himself as having an American identity (whatever that is). Gorra’s book rather elaborated in how James’s other books and The Portrait fit into James’s private and writing life, into James’s career, and into how James’s readers and critics have seen him since he began publishing and up to the time of his death.

In other words, this is an unconventionally-written biography. Gorra’s can offer insights into James’s life not allowed by most methodologies: his method is to bring together how he feels (impersonally put) about James’s writing, what he Gorra sees, and how James wrote James felt about it with what we know of James’s life from all sorts of angles, some of them drawn from phases of writing The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra weaves a sort of biography where the writer does not have to follow the life history of the subject but can weave in what he or she wants and when, with the justification that well I’m going through associations from this novel. So we skip dull parts of the person’s life and also get new sorts of insight as the material is reconfigured.

We out James in a new way: this is a new sort of biography, one which moves out from one central great book, rather like someone deciding to write Trollope’s biography by intensely going through every detail of say The Way We Live Now or The Claverings — or both together. Mead’s book was not a biography of Eliot in disguise it was “her life” in Eliot

For example, Gorra can’t prove it yet he makes a persuasive case for seeing Isabel Archer and Ralph Touchett as a doppelganger out of the dying Minnie Temple, James’s cousin. Sometimes the method is inadequate: I was much entertained by his reaction to Henrietta Stackpole – only he seems not to know that Stackpole is also an unkind caricature of Kate Fields, beloved of Anthony Trollope, an entertaining travel writer, journalist in her own right.

Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett (Portrait)

Another example: Gorra re-sees Isabel’s early refusal to marry in terms of James’s — for James was under pressure to marry; her going to Europe, her choice of waiting to see (Ralph Touchett’s) of being a witness not a doer — all these three are brought together with James’s gayness and made sense of — he is masking himself in Isabel is the point and it’s an interesting one, for else we just do really have another story of the chaste heroine making a bad or good marriage.

He dwells on Madame Merle who emerges upon Isabel getting the money (women has a good nose) and how she stands for a social animal. She and Isabel have a debate with Isabel coming out on the side of that she is not expressed solely or nearly solely by her outward behavior, dress, occupation — as Madame Merle implies. I’ll add that From Daniel Deronda the mother shows one has a self apart which will break away, but Isabel’s tragedy will be she cannot

Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle (Portrait)

In a section early in the book called the Envelope of Circumstances where Gorra talks almost of himself — at least of an American identity (which often makes me uncomfortable) — he elaborates on the idea that Portrait is unusual in its lack of religion and Gorra says this is true of all James’s work but the ghost stories. I know I like James and feel he is equally European/English (not British)

I much enjoyed the chapter in Gorra after the one detailing all James’s homosexual friends, contacts, strains (“An Unmarried Man”): in “A London Life” he tells of how James came to live in London, that it was no foregone conclusion: he tried Paris first; about an expensive apartment he lived in for quite a while that was well located for theater, plays, making a life of going out to dinners and socializing with the upper class, near enough to publishers and parks. I quite envy James — we also get a strong sense of him supporting himself through writing for magazines and the kinds of texts he was writing to do that. I knew all this but not in this way and Gorra quotes from James’s wonderful thick diary commonplace book so well. He intuitively holds onto and writing about the most astute utterances of James: after G.H. Lewes died, James visited her and described her as “shivering like a person who had had a wall of her house blown off.”

It may be these names of James’s possible lovers and his relationships with them are known, but I’ve never seen the series of men set out so clearly, the stories told so intelligently, and rightly the doubts sowed over the idea James was physically celibate without overdoing it. People are still today writing books which obscure this aspect of James’s life and when they do write about James’s complex feelings, they write turgidly, with embarrassment, hedging. Gorra tells of James’s important life long relationship with his woman amaneunsis-secretary, Theodora Bosanquet whose biography of the boss she spent 2 decades with and lived in close intimacy gives us a lot of the leads and details that help us see this aspect of James’s life. Her book: Henry James at Work and published by Hogarth Press (the Woolfs).

Thus I found finding Gorra’s book more satisfying than Mead’s because I was made to realize more about James and his writing. Most of what Mead wrote I knew about Eliot — and while she is applying our information about Eliot is more subtle autobiographical ways, it does not change what I have seen. Since James’s homosexuality has only recently been openly admitted to and discussed as central to his life — as it was the way what gender you are is — there are new insights to be gotten

He begins with the richness of the letters and how much we can learn about James from them (most have not yet been published, a many year project by many people). The question is how far can we be ourselves apart from social life and within ourselves how much there is a real separate I from construction. I agree with him (and James) it’s there but vulneragble and fragile — as we see in Isabel Archer. Touchett is in retreaet and sinks his life in Isabel’s – I believe that outside his job Jim sunk his life in mind and job in the last years was also endured to support the two of us. That it was not him is seen in how he didn’t mind retiring and only thought of going back in order to move to England.

Still the great source for all people wanting to know James is a book edited by Mattiessen, a continuous diary: it’s vignettes of going out, little bits of stories he later worked up into his great novels, thoughts on aesthetics, whatever popped into his head: The Notebooks of Henry James. I read it while doing my dissertation and trying to understand the creative mood of reverie underlying novels. Gorra emphatically uses this book.


Rome, outdoor Market, Piazza Navona by Guiseppe Ninci (1870)

Gorra first shows us James’s situating himself in London and ambivalent; how he tried Paris, and we go on to his trips to Italy – where much of the later action of The Portrait of a Lady takes place and we get a chapter on Madame Merle and Osmond – not moralizing but how they represent some real aspects of the expatriots. It was not all high (or today unacceptable) art. Then Gorra moves into a portrait of the community in Florence and Rome at the time. Several interesting pages on his relationship with Constance Fennimore Woolson’s. As sympathetic to the people caught up there as Mead on Main – I’ve been at least to the Spanish Steps and some of the places Gorra describes – which he takes you through with him as your walking guide – and connects them to the atmosphere of the novel which is un-Victorian … bringing all this to bear on Isabel’s wrong choice gives it a whole new kind of aspect – and connects it to the modern reader too.

Gorra follows James from place to place as James writes The Portrait of a Lady. James was escaping his American identity as he traveled from place to place in Italy, and tried to find a quiet place to write a lot and yet have some company and enrichening landscape. From expatriats he moves onto strangers, and how James was surrounding himself with strangers, was himself an exile, a stranger, and saw that the American communities were themselves disconnected from Italian society, didn’t understand it, in search of what they couldn’t find at home. Then he says they were – -and James is – drawing on the heritage of different countries and cultures to make a new amalgam for themselves.

That aspect of American identity as self-invention I do see in myself, though the amalgam is mostly from English sources. I turned to read James’s Roman Rides as Gorra said it’s better than just about all James’s early fictions — and it struck me that’s right. The opening is a meditative piece on the landscape of the campagna. Jim and I went there and walked alone one morning — we did not take our children who were with us on that holiday because they would have been so bored. Often the places he and I wanted to go to were to them places with nothing there. James does a gorgeous rendition of the feelings one can have just outside Rome among these ruins in this desolated place — it was still that way in 1994. How important place and history are to some authors.


John Malkovich as Osmond (Portrait)

Gorra then moves onto Isabel’s strange choice of the stifling Osmond and how Isabel came to make such a bad choice. Gorra suggests we don’t bring in the sexual angle enough and Isabel was attracted to the man who declined openly to chase her. I did not remember that time went by and Isabel traveled with her sister I Europe and then Madame Merle in the Middle East (that was dangerous). Ralph tells her she is going to be put in a cage but it’s no good. We are not shown the moment of submission, the marriage or its first experience. Why? It’s a sleight of hand that takes us to thwarted aspiration, imprisonment, narrowing but not how she got there. Are these James’s fears for himself?

The book moves onto Venice as James does – and an immersion occurs as James is drawn into this defeated place filled with poverty striken people, even then dying, dependent on tourism. James himself eat and drank expensively as Gorra finds this out by going to the same place (still there). A political fight over the vaporetto and the vaporettos won – James didn’t like the noise either. He makes two friends whose houses he can stay at, ordinary upper class American and English, not the resident famous homosexual population …. It’s the evocation of these places through quotation of James’s travel writing that makes this section so appealing …

John Singer Sergeant, An Interior in Venice (1899)

Gorra is trying to relive the experiences James had while writing the book at the same time as he re-imagines what the characters feel as the story progresses: tracing James’s steps in Venice, looking at paintings Sergeant made of the expatriot people into whose houses James was welcomed. From James’s letters Gorra picks up that the landlady was offering her daughter as a sex partner by sending her to hang around the fourth floor. Byron took up such invitations, not James. He moves onto the this kind of atmosphere in Venice, and its treacheries, the grim whiff of the closed streets (seen in Sergeant”s pictures too I know) and says this seeped into Portrait of a Lady and what Isabel’s chose of Osmond brought her


Constance Fennimore Woolson

Venice prompts by association the really poignant story of James’s long time and finally failed relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolston. Gorra characterizes her with great empathy and tells a lot I didn’t know or had forgotten. Again he brings together what is not usually brought together: how they quietly lived in one building she on the first and he the ground floor — in Florence. She apparently went to Venice to live on the assumption he would follow her but he never did. The letters to and from and her were burned. As everyone knows she killed herself by jumping out a window and he tortured himself by trying to drown her dresses — why he just didn’t throw them out or give them away as rags I can’t guess.

Woolston’s death though partly in reaction to James’s behavior is obviously not his fault. She suffered depression much of her life. When she’d finish a book she’d be in a state of nervous collapse. It’s said some people are exhilarated by it. I was neither. Eliot went into collapse mode.

As he tells the story, Gorra connects it James’s “Aspern Papers,” “he Beast in the Jungl”e (Sedgewick renamed that “closet”) and a couple of other uncanny stories (“The Romance of Old Clothes) which he retells very well — and The Wings of the Dove.

Quite what this has to do with The Portrait of a Lady? it illuminates James’s feelings towards relationships, the real life of expatriates … A central “sin” in James is when one person uses another, makes them an instrument for his or her needs. Imposing your will on them. He suggests Lyndall Gordon (who wrote a conventional biography) accuses James of doing this to Woolson. Now the second version a Portrait of a Lady occurs well after Woolson’s death and so we are left to make our own allegory here.

Paris, La Rue de Rivoli, Anonymous, undated

I love the illustrations in this book, picturesque, in the mode of Alvin Coburn, the illustrator for James’s turn of the century complete revised edition.

Following upon the chapter on James and Constance Fenimore Woolston, we move into “sex, serials, the continent and critics.” A full chapter on how near impossible it was to get into print and distributed in the UK and US too a story which told what every one know to be the case with sexual life; you could only tell supposedly what life was supposed sexually to be like, to teach lessons. The French were much freer.

This part of the book includes a chapter on the magazines James wrote for and Gorra uses is also valuable beyond telling us how James dealt with the problem of instalment publication: demands for a certain length, for cliff-hangers, who and where his work appeared (with what provided the context of respectability for the reader); it’s an intelligent portrait of a world where people are still reading magazines. James was apparently a writer who had in mind his whole book so would start a new instalment not with a reader turning the pages of a magazine who might need (as we call them today) recap. Today’s American context is alluded to: the importance of Atlantic, Harper’s then – New Yorker today

Gorra is showing us how Isabel Archer could come to say she did not want to hear anything that Pansy could not hear — this is supreme foolishness on her part; far from being dangerous for her, it will be dangerous for her not to have more knowledge of what a man can do to his wife once he marries her — Cameron’s movie makes Osmond into a sadistic man in bed too — as does Andrew Davies make Grandcourt in his film of Daniel Deronda. This is chapter comparing French fiction of the period that was admired by the English with the English. A rare novelist to break through what was allowed was George Moore (Esther Waters) but his novels were not distributed by Mudie’s.

Gorra spends a long chapter on the whole long chapter in Portrait of a Lady after Edward Rosier comes to call – he is the young man who loves and could be loved by Pansy, but Osmond won’t allow it, and he lets Isabel know that she ought to use her sexual pull on Warburton to lure Warburton into marrying Pansy — for Osmond assumes that’s a front for a love affair Warburton means to have with Isabel.

Isabel is sickened, appalled, desolated — we come upon her well after the marriage has taken place, we even missed the birth and death of a young son. Gorra says this is deliberate on James’s part: he does not want to show us directly (remember our thread on showing and telling) such dramatic moments but their affect on consciousness.

I was not surprised to see Gorra attribute some of James’s sophistication to his reading of Daniel Deronda where Gorra finds the same kinds of techniques. The difference is that James goes on for much longer (he says) and makes the narrative stop still and ruminate a past we’ve not seen.

He also says the shrewdest most aware appraisal of Portrait was by Constance Fenimore Woolson. So James is in a women of ecriture-femme — with Oliphant ranging herself on the other side in defense of what she thought of as English fiction.

He finds this so original. I don’t think so — Trollope does it, Austen does it, Eliot does it a lot but the interior monologue is important and Gorra’s way of discussing it as becoming central to the art of fiction does show one important innovation. Hitherto story was said to count a lot and more; and it’s clear that for James the actual story matter — the events that manifest the inner life — does not matter. Gorra says this changes the novel’s emphasis and is part of a switch over that finds an extreme in Woolf.

Romola Garai as Gwendoleth Harleth Grandcourt telling Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy) about what her life has been (2004 Daniel Deronda, scripted Andrew Davies)

No what makes the difference is the content. Trollope’s Julia (The Claverings) does not think one really unconventional thought. She never thinks to herself these people are shits, why should I want to sit with the housekeeper, look at their terrible values. Nor any of them until Daniel Deronda with the magnificent portrait of his mother (the same actress who played the role in Davies’s film played Madame Merle in Campion’s film) Isabel does not break away but she has utterly subversive thoughts about the values of those around her. Eliot invents another set of ethics using Gwendoleth Harleth’s experience (which Davies’s film brings out), implicitly anticipating Flaubert but much more sympathetic to the woman, as is James. Again and again Gorra links James to Eliot. So when Gorra exaggerated because he so goes on about it, one can learn and see …

He is tracing an important direct new line — into it was fed the travel writings that he has been going over too. Roman Rides, Venice. Also William James’s books on cognitive psychology show up the new interest. The new line was objected to intelligently by RLStevenson in his Gossip on Romance and James’s prefaces, his Art of Fiction was intended to intervene in this debate. Gorra’s discussion of James’s use of stream of consciousness in Portrait of a Lady is so rousing that I become eager for Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust to come — I just hope I’ve read enough of Proust’s volumes to be able to appreciate it. I’ve only read one and almost to the end of the second volume.

Gorra then uses his analysis of Isabel Archer’s long meditation to launch into more than James’s Art of Fiction; he makes large claims for James as an innovator of a new kind of novel: one based wholly on inner life, nuances. Of course these were written before — in epistolary narratives of high quality in the 18th century but not self-consciously. Gorra argues that Woolson was one of the first to understand, and Howells to defend James and his Art of Fiction should be understood as part of a debate which includes RLS’s Gossip on Romance.

I like how Gorra fits this into the growth of serious literary criticism of the novel, taking it seriously. James could not get himself to write in the other “new” school of naturalism (Princess Cassamassima is the one that may be linked): too pessimistic, too bleak he felt, though Howells did it in his Modern Instance. The novel’s stature is going up

Henry James by Katherine McClellan (1905)

The last part: putting out the lights. This one takes us through James’s response to the deaths of his father and mother; he came for the funerals, just missed the dying. I think he’s right to argue against Edel’s insistence it was the mother who screwed the family up: common sense and all evidence suggests it was the father (if people can be screwed up who produced what Wm and Henry James and even Alice did and lives the lives the first two did) with the mother complicit. It seems to have been a contest which of the parents self-destructed first and in reaction to the other’s coming demise. They did cling together.

As with Mead at the close of her book, but without personal references, Gorra then makes leaps into the fiction to find analogies about death. Gorra shows how often James wrote about death after this period, and how a metaphor for loss. In this chapter he says it was at this time James began to keep his journal of all anecdotes, an important source for this book (and many others).

And he suggests it was after this or around this time several of the great Victorians died and I’m glad to say — serendipitiously — for James this includes Trollope. Trollope for James a major voice like Eliot, Flaubert and Turgenev. James’s essay on Trollope has been very influential — perhaps too much so but I didn’t know about the line calling Trollope a “difficult mind.” That’s good. What a different list from the modern canon, no?

James’s “The Altar of the Dead” is about the ghosts we live with, the ghosts in our memories of who died and Gorra speaks eloquently of it. Alice was another great loss by then and Constance Fenimore Woolson. No wonder I liked this chapter and it leads a powerful chapter centering on the last image Isabel has at the end of her mediation: Madame Merle and Osmond talking together. Gorra takes us through to Isabel’s realization that when Madame Merle said to her “let us have him” (italics added) Madame Merle has given away 1) that she and Osmond think that Isabel wants Warburton for herself, not that she is appalled by the proposition that she should use his attraction to her to win him to marry Pansy as payoff for a liaison; and 2) they assume what bothers Isabel is not the amorality of all this but that she wants Warburton for herself, and finally 3) Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother.

When Osmond’s sister comes to tell Isabel of this truth however indirectly it’s after the realization and this is followed hard on by the most quiet and devastating of needlings I’ve ever read. Madame Merle comes in to tell Isabel as Isabel is contemplating visiting Ralph as he lies dying (after Osmond has forbidden it) that it was Ralph who gave her the enormous sum of money that made her “a brilliant match,” spoken in bland feigned innocence she is nonethleless triumphing over telling Isabel that Isabel owes this hellish marriage to Ralph. And pointing our to her yes “she was perfectly free” so she did it to herself.

One problem for the modern reader who wants to read hard truths about life is these earlier novels (and many since) end ambiguously in ways that allow us to think the characters will be all right, make do by following conventional norms and thus uphold the very structures that the whole novel has been designed to expose.

Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer Osmond (Portrait, scripted Laura Jones, directed Jane Campion)

It is a startlingly even terrifying moment when Madame Merle so quietly and blandly lets Isabel know it was after Isabel who chose to marry Osmond and she was given all the clues she needed to what he was if she had only looked.

Austen has scenes of withering corrosion where the speaker does not realize what he is saying and the listener is mortified and hurt, but nothing quite so horrible in feel or mean and malicious in intent. Madame Merle’s purpose is to make Isabel angry at Ralph and prevent her going — as Lucy Ferrars in telling Elinor of the long engagement was to make Elinor give up on Edward, be very angry with him. The increase in subtlety and what has been done is a hundredfold.

For the book’s last chapters, see the comments.


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Kate O’Hara of An Eye for an Eye by Elisa Trimby

Dear friends and readers,

More than a week ago now a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies finished reading Trollope’s powerful Anglo-Irish novella, An Eye for an Eye. We’ve been having a sort of Anglo-Irish year and a half, having now read (in this order) just before (but not directly after one another), The Kellys and O’Kellys, Castle Richmond, The Macdermots of Ballycloran. The links I provide will taken the reader to group reads of these books a different group of us read on the same list-serv some ten years ago.

The Macdermots of Ballycloran was the first novel the first list-serv group for Trollope I ever was on read together (we chose it because it was Trollope’s first novel), and the reading and book is the subject of the first chapter of my book, where, with its second chapter on all the other Anglo-Irish books of Trollope (excluding the Phineas books) I argue this set of books is a powerful sub-genre, a series whose books share a group of characteristics and repeating motifs; Trollope maps its landscape (and thus Ireland). I wrote in my book it’s:

a place apart, filled with characters who have little hope, who encounter cruelty, hardship and indifference with a combination of pragmatic acceptance, stern heroism, mythic gestures and extravagant fantasies. It is a place ‘especially unhappy’, rural, archaic, primal in customs. When it is realistic, we explore paralysis. When it is romantic, we find ourselves in providential, picaresque or gothic worlds, in the latter of which uncanny happenings are at home. Sutherland remarks that when an English novelist turned to Ireland he evoked ‘a vein of Celtic romance and pathos’ unavailable in English novels.

Well it won over a new set of people (plus me, and any other old-timer). I’ve assigned it twice to my students, have read good student papers on it, and I again wrote about their reaction, how they identified with the young hero and heroine whose lives are destroyed by ethnic, religious, class prejudice.

The best of Trollope’s critics, Richard Holt Hutton, who identified Trollope when he tried to publish anonymously, saw the novella as one where: that two decent people are destroyed by the inhumane twisted mores of our society. Hutton writes: “Of all the strange perversions of which the moral nature of men is capable probably none is stranger than the tendency of certain socalled “social obligations” to override the simpler personal obligations in certain men’s breasts, an dyet to work there with all the force of high duty, and all the absoluteness of an admitted destiny.” Hutton goes over all the characters and how [the hero] Fred is led by them and the place in England to do what he is ashamed of [not marry Kate after he has impregnated her], to tell himself he owes more to “society” than his conscience or God; a “sacred promise” become a thing of “contempt” when what is contemptible is not making Kate is true wife. Hutton does not blame Fred but he shows how he is hardened.

This time I will quote from my book:

An Eye for Eye is a small masterpiece. Nearly all those who have read and written about it have pronounced it a stark, passionate, and poetic romance of surpassing merit. Richard Holt Hutton, Trollope’s contemporary, and still one of his best critics, thought An Eye for an Eye would ‘take a high place among Mr Trollope’s works’. He said ‘there is something in the atmosphere of Ireland which appears to rouse his imagination, and give force and simplicity to his pictures of life’. Holt analysed the novella as a ‘tragic story of mastering passion and over-mastering prejudice, — of a great sin, and a great wrong, and great revenge’ and ‘family pride’, one with a full array of subtly observed real characters’. An Eye for an Eye is a ‘story which no man without a very powerful imagination could have written’.

Lady Scroope, Fred’s adopted stepmother has prided herself on her austere Christian life, but ‘the strange perversion of which the moral nature of man is capable’ leads her for the sake of her family’s prestige first to hound Fred to break off with Kate, then to forbid him to marry her. When Kate becomes pregnant, Lady Scroope hints to him if he cannot desert Kate, he can live with her without marrying her (Eye for An Eye, pp. 156-64). The novel teaches us — most unusually says Holt — that moral justice demands that its hero, who feels contempt for the girl he has seduced, shall still not desert her.

John William North, “Requiescat in Pace,” for Jean Ingelow, Poems, 1867 — it could be Fred wandering on the Moher cliffs

What gives An Eye for an Eye the power to astonish and keeps the reader compulsively turning pages is the dilemma the book turns on — the struggle between Fred’s pragmatic and proud ambition which prevents him, a young man upon whom rank and money have been unexpectedly thrust, from offering to marry Kate, and his equally intense desire to escape reponsibility and social ties in order to lose himself in a wild landscape of dreams. There is something deeply appealing to him in the tender love of a wholly undemanding girl (pp. 62-64, 66-67, 71, 81). This is also one of Trollope’s many novels whose meaning cannot be understood apart from, and whose events could not have happened anywhere but in its particular landscape (pp. 189-94).

A suggestive photograph by Carleton Watkins (1865-66)

Trollope’s uncanny insight into Kate’s mother’s character is absorbing. Mrs O’Hara married against her family’s advice and found herself isolated and married to a betrayer, a low-life drone. When her husband deserted her, she came to live in a cottage on the Moher cliffs; her only friend is a Catholic priest, Father Marty, who encourages Fred because Father Marty thinks Fred a great prize, especially for Kate (pp. 52-60). Mrs O’Hara allows the courtship to continue because she is moved by her daughter’s silent plea that before Fred her life in isolation was no life (pp. 42-43).

Trollope presents Mrs O’Hara as a woman who has been driven to the edge of desperation by a hard cold society; Fred’s refusal to marry Kate awakens in her a latent ferocity created by her past, one of which Fred was only half-aware and which frightened him (p. 65). Fred cannot foresee this last blow to her pride will be one blow too many for Mrs O’Hara to sustain without resorting to some form of crazed behaviour.

An Eye for an Eye is structured as an explanation of how Mrs O’Hara’s mind came to disintegrate suddenly — it opens with her madness. After I read it for the first time I compared it to Elsa Morante’s 1974 La storia, a fictionalised history of Italy in the first half of the twentieth century as experienced by Ida [Iduzza] Ramundo:

An Eye for An Eye is written as a flashback. It opens with a one and one-half page ‘Foreword’ in which we met a woman in a private asylum ‘somewhere in the west of England’ [in the manuscript Trollope wrote 'Ireland']. She sits quietly all day, occasionally uttering the same phrases over and over, ‘An eye for an eye . . . and a tooth for a tooth. Is it not the law?’ And her attendant agrees ‘An eye for an eye, madam. Oh, certainly. That is the law. An eye for an eye, no doubt’. The book isan unraveling of this opening image, an explanation of who the woman is and how she came to be there, of the meaning of her formula repeated ‘a dozen dozen times’ a day. Morante takes 656 pages to get us to a remarkably similar page and one-half where Iduzza similarly goes mad when one day she comes home from work to find all she had left to value gone. Her beloved disabled young son lies dead on the floor. We are told she spends the rest of her life repeating and muttering a strange series of syllables no-one understands. They are the words of the child who was an epileptic and thrown out of school because he was thought an idiot. When nine years Iduzza finally dies (the last paragraph of this book), we are told she had really died the day her son died. Iduzza has been shattered and destroyed by four years of terrible war, isolation and despair.

In a book of one-quarter the length Trollope presents us with a similarly desperate woman who has severed herself from all other people because she has been scorned as well as betrayed, and when her treasure, Kate, is betrayed by Fred, we watch her gradually strained beyond endurance lose all control until on the cliff, when she is once again asked to listen to Fred refuse to marry Kate, she pushes him to his death.

In Trollope’s and Morante’s novels we are made to feel what the hierarchies of society cost the vulnerable. The epigraph of Morante’s novel is a comment by a Hiroshima survivor: ‘there is no word in any human language capable of consoling the guinea-pig who doesn’t understand why she died’. This epigraph applies to Thady in the Macdermots and the lovers in An Eye for an Eye.

The novella ends tragically; it is intense as are Trollope’s other novellas. The one closest to it for poignant ironic romance is Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite whose stories show strong resemblances, and which itself is a closely analogous story to Henry James’s Washington Square, with the daughter dying unfairly turns against her own father and her maid. Since James was so hard on Trollope, it’s not that often noticed how James reads Trollope assiduously as each Trollope novel is published and how much James owes to Trollope as a source.

A scene found in Agnieska Holland’s Washington Square which has an equivalent in James’ and Trollope’s novellas alike

I can’t recommend it too highly.


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Woolf’s working desk at Monk House

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve four more sessions to report on from this year’s MLA (see a rejuvenating time, the 18th century, public poetry, audio books, films): two on Virginia Woolf (one with Katherine Mansfield as part of a dual subject), one on Mark Twain and Henry James, and a fourth on the Victorian marriage plot.

Duncan Grant (1885-1978), The Coffee Pot (1916)

“Everyday Woolf” (No. 31, Thurs, Jan 3rd, noon to 1:15 pm) was the first I attended and (as sometimes happens) it was one of the best. All three papers were superb. Adam Barrows talked of “Mrs Dalloway and the Rhythms of Everyday Life”. Mrs Dalloway is confined to one day is a polyrhythmic sympohy felt in the body of biological rhythms, social patterns intersecting with the irreducably local and yet it all fits into a cosmic pattern. Discordant uneasy rhythms which function as disruptions. The text covers sleeping, eating, a continual melange of noise, visual perception, silence. We hear an irregular heartbeat. Septimus is made ill by what is imposed on him from war and now work. Mr Barrow read aloud great reveries from the novel. Kayla Walker discussed To the Lighthouse; each character is at work, Mrs Ramsay cooperatively, carving out space and time; she close-read the text for its rhythms and imagery.

In his paper, “Virginia Woolf and the Modern Blessings of Electricity,” Sean Mannion suggested that modernism begin when electricity began to spread. At first it was written about as a disenchantment, and Woolf shows nostalgia over fire- and gaslight. Newspapers found the world now looked like an amusement park; moonlight would not have the same function or meaning; light is now separated from fire. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of he warmth and radiance of gaslight. There were dangerous and fatal incidents early on as people had to learn how to use electricity. Woolf’s Night and Day captures a love of firelight lost in the glare of electric light; her Jacob’s Room has a mixed assessment. Of course the power of what electricity could do more than compensated for the losses, and there is an ecstatic feel too (in The Voyage Out), among other places, the library.

Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), a friend reading in a library

A second session on Virginia Woolf, this time with the Katherine Mansfield Society, was about their personal relationship and aesthetic and professional interactions (No. 338, Fri, Jan 4th, 3:30 4:45 pm). I missed the paper on their reaction to the newly formed theories of psychoanalysis, but I did hear part of Bret Keeling’s talk on their dealings with masculinity in their work and men in their lives, and Kathryn Simpson on their differing attitudes towards gifts (also in the sense of talent) and desires. She defined a gift by its function: it can consolidate social bonds, be an assertion of power and identity and authority. What was the central focus of all I heard (including the discussion afterward) was how the two women were different in background: Woolf the daughter of the Victorian intelligensia, and then a member of the Bloomsbury intellectual art-radical group, a highly defensive writer; Mansfield a colonial who needed money more desperately than Woolf and was treated badly by men, plagiarizing sometimes, radical, adventurous in during her tragically short life. Writing was central to their identity and their styles and aims were coterminous; they were rivals.

James Whistler (1834-1903), The Giudecca (chalk & pastels on grey paper, 1879)

The joint-societies’ session of Henry James and Mark Twain (No. 377, Fri, Jan 4th, 5:15-6:30 pm) was filled with unexpected perspectives. Kaye Wierzvicki’s paper focused on James’s The Bostonians, Book 3 set in Cape Cod. We encounter a post-civil war US, a central nub in a global network as well as tourist attraction. James explores its geographic identity, what places in the world it brings together through culture and characters; it figuratively projects other places like it. Kathryn Dolan taught me that Twain was anti-imperial. Twain wrote several travel books, and one (1866?) about Hiawaii exposed how the product sugar led to cruel exploitation of imported (coerced) efficient labor patterns. In his later travel writing he reported on British islands in the South Pacific, Following the Equator, then he traveled to islands in the Indian ocean. He sees forms of slavery in the transported. I just loved Harold Hellwig’s paper which he read very fast as it was long: he covered the many images, myths and stories, and visions of Venice found in Twain and James’s writing. Both show that the allure of Venice is a cover for its ruined condition. Venice provides an inner journey of the mind; Twain presents a place false, destructive marketplaces yet its people with strong self-respect. Both have famous character sketches where they capture qualities of life (James an American Mrs Bronson, Twain an escaped black enslaved man). He recited powerful passages by both writers and had a continual montage of images of Venice from the Renaissance until today when few can live there because of the continual floods.

Christopher Eccleston as the hopeful aspiring Jude at the begining of the film (1996 Jude directed by Michael Winterbottom; see my blog on Hardy films)

The last session we attended (suitcases under our chairs) was “Rethinking the Victorian Marriage Plot” (No. 745, Sun, Jan 6th, noon to 1:15 pm). Despite an apparent contemporary emphasis on women characters looking to be useful, do real work in the world (for which they are paid in some way), a professed interest in disabilities and people in need, the underlying perspective was that of women reading for love stories that teach the female reader what she wants to hear as relevant to her. Talia Schaffer suggested that Jane Eyre scorns St John Rivers because his ideal of meaningful work represses private satisfactions. Ms Schaffer looked upon Rochester as disabled and needing Jane’s help and love. Maia McAleavey discussed how the bigamy plot in Victorian novels substitutes for an argument on behalf of divorce: in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd a female bigamist makes choices she escapes from; in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure Arabella marries bigamously and finds more opportunity while Jude and Sue by behaving ethically find themselves bound and destroyed.

Sue (Kate Winslet) in a similar hopeful moment (1996 Jude)

As I sit here tonight I find myself going through the MLA book of sessions and wondering why I didn’t go to this or that (tonight seemingly) far more interesting session than those I chose. In these four blogs I have omitted a lot I did try because the time turned out dull, or jargon-ridden and phony, people posing, or the topic actually preposterous. Some were hard to write about or take notes: like a session given by companies who have put huge dictionaries on line. I went to no sessions on translation; none on intriguing odd topics (“Denis de Rougemont and appropriations of the troubadours”); there were sessions on dubbing and subtitling in movies, on animals, on psychoanalysis in literature, prison architecture, the poetics of death, global Shakespeare. It was a matter of guessing, try what I knew and where I might meet friends and acquaintances, try to go to some with Jim, leave a little time for going out and eating (it was too cold to explore Boston much). I can’t prove this but I had a sense there were fewer sessions than there used to be, and consequently a greater proportion of sessions on job hunting, careers, teaching and scholarship politics (all of which I’ve learned to avoid, especially anything for contingent faculty which often are semi-acrimonious).

I need tonight to remind myself that when we left we were exhilarated by our time away, and said we would go again the next time the MLA came to the east coast (as long as it was not too far south). We have two planned for this year already (ASECS in April and EC/ASECS next fall) and I’m going to one on Popular Culture here in DC in March where I plan to spend a full day listening to sessions on film adaptations, films and hear a paper on Winston Graham’s historical fiction from a feminist standpoint.

Inge Morath (1923-2002), A Park Bench


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Colm Toibin when much younger

Dear friends and readers,

Last night we went to a local bookstore which regularly hosts talks and classes about books (as well as a weekly storybook hour for children and tours too), Politics and Prose. We’d never been there before, and to the area only once, when last July we were invited to come to a fourth of July barbecue (what a treat for us). A member of the Irish embassy asked all those who came to read James Joyce’s Ulysses on Bloom Day. We heard about this because Jim got an email from the Irish embassy which now has his name.

A large old-fashioned bookstore, two floors (!), where books are actually set up by their categories and within that the author’s name (like a library, like Borders once was). A couple tables upfront with latest sellers, and in the back audiobooks on CD. You can wander about and come upon treasures just like this. I saw Alice Kessler-Harris’s A Difficult Woman (a biography of Lillian Hellman) on display, but had decided for Toibin’s Love in a Dark Time: And Other Explorations of Gay Lives and Literature, a book of somewhat rewritten essay-review meditations published elsewhere (the LRB, the NYRB and other places). If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know how much I like his essays, and how I’ve loved those of his novels I’ve read thus far. It turns out I’ve read 4 of 7 (In praise of Colm Toibin: Un-put-downable).

Last night he was there to promote his latest novel (apparently the 7th), The Testament of Mary. Yes the central character is the Virgin Mary (does she have a last name like the rest of us?). It’s a really a novella, a short one at that, and from what he wrote a retrospective meditation by Mary some 20 years after the brutal crucifixion of her son. She is now living in safety, relative peace, left to herself by all and two visitors show up, one Lazarus. Yes he takes liberties — good historical fiction often does. The core idea is the irretrievableness of what happened and how she cannot forget and if she could change it, do it differently somehow, how she longs to. It’s memories poured out. As a subjective narrative by a women it harks back to his great The South. He seems to have a predilection for writing heroine’s texts (Brooklyn, Henry James in The Master is a kind of male heroine).

What a large crowd. It did not overwhelm the store, but it was much larger than we’d expected of such an intellectual sensitive author. There were not enough chairs for all.

He began by telling us of his trips to Venice and two paintings of the Virgin he had stood before repeated: a Tintoretto, perhaps The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and a Titian, The Assumption. What he seems to have liked especially about the latter was her red robe and how she soared above reality. He is himself getting older.

Recent photo — he does look like this, only he is a small man, somewhat bent, light brownish-white skin, light brown hair

Today I see that the Tintoretto has Mary in a red robe too, and the picture’s content against the reason for its festival, takes us across her life.

They were the inspiration for the book. He did not tell us why he wrote it, only that he would like it to be taken seriously and he didn’t mean it as a mock. He didn’t think the church would bother notice it — he said this in answer to one question afterwards. He does read very well, and his voice was how I’d imagined it, Irish lilt but not too heavy. I stayed awake and listening for much of it, though when his register came too low I couldn’t hear it all. We were in the back, having arrived only ten minutes before the “reading” started.

It was obvious he’d done this many times. He was smooth, and seemed such a sweet man. These sorts of things are part of what makes an author successful. The book launch. He’s learned how to do it. Among questions asked were does he have a routine, a place he always writes, what does he write with. He said he writes anywhere and with any thing (mostly a pen) and no he’s not a routine type. He does sometimes have to write a book quickly or whatever quickly lest he forget it; get it down, and then he comes back to work at it. He is not a man who has written a lot of very long books, say like Dickens, Trollope, Margaret Oliphant, Wm Dean Howells, and they all had fixed routines and places they wrote. He has made his career through socializing too and his oeuvre (in pages) most actually be preponderantly non-fiction.

I wanted to reply to something he had said before starting his readings. He said that other “classic” fiction novels, 19th century, were no help “here.” He comically alluded to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Dickens’s Miss Havisham, they could not help him. Nor Henry James. Perhaps Mrs Touchett (Ralph’s mother, isolated, alone, an “odd” woman.) While he was reading I thought of Daniel Deronda’s mother, Eliot’s older heroine who returns 25 years after giving her son up to another so she could have an operatic career, a life of her own. Now bitter, not remorseful, but regretful because after all she ended up marrying and having children anyway. The dreams she had had not been realized and how here was this son reproaching her.
But the mike was too far away.

I didn’t try to buy anything directly afterwards. The line became very long. Instead we walked three stores down to the Comet, a pizza place with ambience. A large screen played over and over the poignant short Italian film, The Red Balloon. No sound just the images before you. The walls gray. The tables ping-pong, the seats benches. Soft lights. We had two pizzas, small, a white (all cheese, garlicky nothing else) and a red (just tomato sauce topping, more spicy, reminding me in its heavy dough and yummy surface of pizza in NYC in the 1950s, so-called Napoles-like). A carafe of chianti. The place was moderately full.

We talked. We realized this was probably the first book reading we’ve ever gone to as such. Play readings by a group, lectures, maybe a book reading within a performance of other things, but not alone. Jim said we never went to the Folger poetry readings because they cost. This was for free. Also the people were less known and there was obviously time for too much talk. So too much egoism would be on display he felt. I remembered going to listen to Empson read his poem in the Graduate Center in the 1970s. How he read little and talked much of his poetry. But the talk was splendid, really insightful (as Toibin’s was not quite, though not deliberately misleading as say Andrew Davies on his films), and how John Hollander got up to ask questions, all admiring and how Empson (spiteful in this but perhaps made uncomfortable) cut him down, half-mocked him. Also a lecture by Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History. All I can recall is how intelligent and humane she was and ever after have reacted to all dismissals of her work, denigrations of her with a memory of this seeing her and knowing they are unfair to her.

We decided we would try some more at this place. Then to support the bookstore, we went back. That’s when I bought Love in a Dark Time. All the Testaments to Mary were gone. To tell the truth, I was not sure I wanted it, as I felt it would be wrapped up in Catholicism as some level, and I’m an atheist. I was sure it’d be feminist in intent. If Toibin had said he found out or invented a last name for her, and told us of it, I might’ve. They had only had his most recent novels: (Blackwater Lightship two copies, one still left, and mostly Brooklyn and The Master, latest and best known. I have them all plus The South and Homage to Barcelona (not there). But there was suddenly one copy as if from deep in a basement (the girl at the counter said it was “a backlist” book), this book of essays. So I snatched it. His essay on Wilde’s exposure of his homosexuality as “found out,” as a person wanting to be “found out” has influenced my thinking ever since.

We got home by 10ish, not too long to write one final blog on Jane Austen’s letters. I’m not going to give them up, but maybe go yet slower and do it by myself. The prompting from Austen-l helps, and the sense (however deluded) of reaching people, but the flak, the continual cliched readings and occasional either preposterous or theoretical agendas don’t help me at all. I waste time and make no friends refuting them.

Earlier that day I had talked on WWWTTA about Temple Grandin’s film about how animals form bonds, friendships, and people’s perception of them, and the trajectory the film belonged to. Really worth while and gotten into other debates on the growing dissemination of how it’s okay for women to subjugate themselves to sadism, even light fun … ), but I’ll add these as brief comments here later today.

We wished we could have more such nights. People are only gradually becoming aware of what a delightful city DC is slowly turning into. The neighborhood around there is small houses, apartments further off, and some shopping blocks. It’s marred by a large street which traffic streams through daily and that obscures the quiet ambience of the play otherwise. I’ve vowed to myself to read Love in a Dark Time, Homage to Barcelona, and (connected to Toibin and the project on book illustrations to Trollope which I’ve just finished — a blog this weekend), Amy Tucker’s The Illustration of the Master.

Reprinted by Tucker, it was chosen by James as a frontispiece for A Portrait of Lady, and could serve as frontispiece for Toibin’s The Master.


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Stuart Wilson enacting Lopez just before he gets on a train to go to another station with the intention of throwing himself under an oncoming engine (Pallisers 11:23)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m trying to turn over a new leaf, and write blogs that are not only shorter but not worked up as much. Hitherto I’ve been taking postings I write to list-servs and developing and elaborating them before putting them on my blog. Since that takes time and energy (plus often finding the exquisitely-apt picture or exemplary passage), I don’t write as often as I could and many of my postings remain in list-serv archives. I’m going to try to put an end to this over-wrought sense of standard and blog more freely.


So, to begin this morning,

Over on Victoria (Patrick Leary’s list-serv, mostly academic in content, a forum for discussing every and all Victorian matter), someone asked for suicides in novels and people began to list them. I was prompted to write this because there was one longish posting about a Kipling story (“Thrown Away”) where the person writing the posting seemed to condemn the suicide, especially for having told the truth of what people had done to him, and what he felt. This bothered me. As the person wrote it up, it would seem she was reflecting Kipling who condemned this unhappy male character too.

Original vignette by George Housman Thomas to the chapter in which Dobbs Broughton shoots himself through the head (Last Chronicle of Barset)

Trollope has quite a number of suicides as well as some near-suicides. Many of them fit into Barbara Gates’s default positions (so to speak) in her Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories. Speaking generally, the men kill themselves because they have been or feel they have been publicly disgraced and cannot bear to face people, to live with the position they would not be put down into. These include Melmotte (The Way We Live Now), Ferdinand Lopez (The Prime Minister), and from Last Chronicle of Barset, Dobbs Broughton; from The Bertrams, Henry Harcourt. Lopez is a rare instance where we actually witness the suicide and while it may be hard poetry, I’d call the power of the scene, a huge railway station, anonymous in the modern way and the depiction of the smash poetry.

From The Prime Minister, “Tenway Junction”

Trollope depicts a modern railway station with power. Slowly he builds up a scene familiar to many of us:

After a while he went back into the hall and took a first-class return ticket not for Birmingham, but for the Tenway Junction, as everybody knows it. From this spot, some six or seven miles distant from London, lines diverge east, west, and north, north-east, and north-west, round the metropolis in every direction,
and with direct communication with every other line in and out of
London. It is marvellous place, quite unintelligible to the
uninitiated, and yet daily used by thousands who only know that
when they get there, they are to do what someone tells them. The
space occupied by the convergent rails seems to be sufficient for
a large farm. And these rails always run into one another with
sloping points, and cross passages, and mysterious meandering
sidings, till it seems to the thoughtful stranger to be impossible that the best-trained engine should know its own line. Here and there and around there is ever a wilderness of waggons, some loaded, some empty, some smoking with close-packed oxen, and
others furlongs in length black with coals, which look as though
they had been stranded there by chance, and were never destined
to get again into the right path of traffic. Not a minute passes
without a train going here or there, some rushing by without
noticing Tenway in the least, crashing through like flashes of
substantial lightning, and others stopping, disgorging and taking
up passengers by the hundreds. Men and women,–especially the
men, for the women knowing their ignorance are generally willing
to trust to the pundits of the place,–look doubtful, uneasy,
and bewildered. But they all do get properly placed and unplaced, so that the spectator at last acknowledges that over all this apparent chaos there is presiding a great genius of order. From dusky morn to dark night, and indeed almost throughout the night, the air is loaded with a succession of shrieks. The theory goes that each separate shriek,–if there can be any separation where the sound is so nearly continuous,– is a separate notice to separate ears of the coming or going of a separate train.

I like his sense of how people order themselves. This is something human beings are good at. Like so many small animals in a maze. The way it’s done is each person does attend intently to his particular destiny. My analogue is Penn Station at 34th Street or Heathrow airport.

Trollope then enters the mind of the man who notices that Lopez is not getting on a train. From the outside we watch the man march, walk this way and that, getting ever closer to the trains. It’s not until the last moment we realize he has worked his way to get as close as possible to the smash. We are (at least I am) led to sympathize since we realize how hard this act must’ve been to him and yet how determined he was. Very efficient. Very businesslike:

Now, Tenway Junction is so big a place, and so scattered, that it is impossible that all the pundits should by any combined activity maintain to the letter the order of which our special pundit had spoken. Lopez, departing from the platform which he had hitherto occupied, was soon to be seen on another, walking up and down, and again waiting. But the old pundit had his eye on him, and had followed him round. At that moment there came a
shriek louder than all the other shrieks, and the morning express
down from Euston to Inverness was seen coming round the curve at
a thousand miles an hour. Lopez turned round and looked at it,
and again walked towards the edge of the platform but now it was
not exactly the edge that he neared, but a descent to a pathway,
–an inclined plane leading down to the level of the rails, and
made there for certain purposes of traffic. As he did so the
pundit called to him, and then made a rush at him,–for our
friend’s back was turned to the coming train. But Lopez heeded
not the call, and the rush was too late. With quick, but still
with gentle and apparently unhurried steps, he walked down before
the flying engine–and in a moment had been knocked into bloody

In some of these cases, Trollope’s attitude towards the man who killed himself is ambivalent: he feels for them, he enters into their cases, and Lopez is one of these, so too Melmotte. He does this by conveying critiques of those who showed them up or despised them or dropped them. He also has characters who apparently killed themselves for similar reasons (again males) before the novel opened: this time the loss of an estate, an inheritance, the brother in Belton Estate. In some of these he brings out how important it was to hide the suicide both out of public shame and (apparently) for fear somehow the property inheritance might be endangered (as it would have been in earlier times).

Women kill themselves too, and sometimes violently. Here it’s because they are being driven to marry someone they don’t love, often intensely distasteful to them: the girl in “La Mere Bauche” throws herself off a cliff rather than marry the aging captain her protectress has picked out for her. She cannot be brought back. But sometimes it really is left ambiguous whether a young woman actively killed herself or died of intense harassment and misery: Linda Tressel for example (a kind of Clarissa character). We have a fascinating instance of watching a girl about to kill herself (throw herself from a bridge) and draw back: Nina Balatka. (Their novellas are titled with their names.) Another young woman appears and in part helps Nina not to do it, but we are in Nina’s mind as she’s about to do it.

She had always been conscious, since the idea had entered her mind, that she would lack the power to step boldly up on to the parapet and go over at once . . . She had known that she must crouch, and pause, and think of it, and look at it, and nerve herself with the memory of her wrongs. Then, at some moment in which her heart was wrung to the utmost, she would gradually slacken her hold, and the dark, black, silent river should take her. She climbed up into the niche, and found that the river was far from her, though death was so near to her and the fall would be easy. When she became aware that there was nothing between her and the void space below her, nothing to guard her, nothing left in the world to protect her, she retreated, and descended again to the pavement. And never in her life had she moved with more care, lest, inadvertenty, a foot or a hand might slip, and she might tumble to her doom against her will (Nina Balatka, pp. 183-4)

And there’s a parallel in Trollope’s Autobiography where he describes himself as dreaming or plotting of suicide and going up high somewhere but thinking the better of it and coming down). I can’t think of any young woman who kills herself because she has discovered she is pregnant outside marriage and will have a baby or has had a baby (which would connect in trajectory and motive to women forced to marry someone they don’t want — which would result even if not called that marital rape) — is that not the case of Hetty in Adam Bede in effect? They suffer badly (Kate in An Eye for an Eye); also women ostracized because they have been divorced or lived with someone outside marriage (Mrs Atherton in Belton Estate) but they are not driven to destroy themselves.

Oliver Dimsdale as Louis in his last moments in Italy (He Knew He Was Right, scripted Andrew Davies)

A couple of these cases of “of was it?” do cross gender lines. Louis Trevelyan (He Knew He Was Right) driven by his sexual anxiety, shame, jealousy, may be said to bring his death on himself as he drives himself mad. Lady Mason (Orley Farm) who herself faces public disgrace for having forged a signature to keep her son’s property for him so he can be a gentleman holds on, just, and partly by telling someone. There is one remarkable scene of her brooding depicted by Millais (a picture Trollope pointed out as seeing more into the character than he had).

John Everett Millais’s original full-size illustration of Mary Lady Mason deep in thought (Orley Farm): Skilton shows Trollope was criticized by his public for having such woman (who gets off by the way) for his heroine

I would say Trollope might well disapprove in a novel of a character telling the full truth of what happened to him or her and leaving it in a letter. Just about all of his suicides do it without telling. But the near self-destroying tell; Josiah Crawley (Last Chronicle) for example, a genuinely tragic figure in letters described by the narrator as noble in intent.

It’s in these moments in his fictions that Trollope (as Henry James puts it of the closing sequence of He Knew He Was Right and Nina and Linda) that Trollope does himself justice. Had he ever written this way … I am not sure that today we have gone as far from Victorian condemnations as at least I would like to think, so Trollope’s empathy really speaks home to us.

I’ve written this to counter an implied spirit I felt from some of the postings on Victoria of self-distancing and judgmental evaluation from the point of view of social status of those left or the person’s reputation among them after he or she has died. There were excellently informative ones too of course.

I’ll try to find a similar posting I wrote about disability in Elizabeth Gaskell where I was startled to see on this list reflected a lack of understanding (much less sympathy) for what a disability is and how its worst aspects come from how other people respond to the person’s particular disability (how they won’t let the person be him or herself otherwise). Like Trollope on suicide, Gaskell on disability is still well above the narrowness and blindnesses of our as well as their own time.


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Toibin’s Ireland

Dear friends and readers,

It’s about time I wrote in praise of Colm Toibin, of his biographical and critical essays, of his novels, his biographical fiction, his travel books. I can’t think of any writer as originally thoughtful, perceptive, humane, quietly iconoclastic, informative, absorbing, who reads authors as interesting or simply writes as well so consistently. When I see his name on a list of contributors to any periodical I subscribe to, I go to him first and he doesn’t disappoint. This morning I was lifted out of bleak loneliness (Coping) into a consoled companionableness by his review of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (for New York Review of Books LIX, 8 (May 10, 2012)9-11 where he quoted Larkin in ways that resonated with my feelings, validated them.

Toibin an Irish journalist who comes from precisely the area he has set his story in; he is himself gay or homosexual and he has written out of this perspective more directly at times. While he does write about overt politics, there is much travel writing and three of the novels at least center on this business of the compromises and concessions you must make if you want to stay in a family circle at all, or the difficulties of being in a family setting. He is interested in colonialists and hybrid-identities and literature: Anglo-Irish, Anglo-Indian, French-African, Irish-American. Catholic by faith, liberal-leftist in outlook, sympathetic to revolutionary movements, he’s a gifted writer: delicately powerful stories. He now lives in Dublin.

I can’t list all the essays by him I’ve read, over the years especially on Henry James, Oscar Wilde; his arguments stay with me and I use them in my essays and postings and they become part of my thinking. I’ve not read his short stories, but I have read The Master (a fictional biography of Henry James, see my blog on Kaplan’s biography), The South, Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn. I wish I had read more, and now that my reading time at night is limited I shall have to turn to him during the day.

The South

I remember parts of the book vividly still. Reading The South made me choose to read his The Master and teach Blackwater Lightship and most recently (as my Christmas treat) Brooklyn.

The heroine in The South leaves cold husband and unsympathetic son to make a new life for herself in the south with a wholly unconventional painter who had fought on the left side against Franco; he had been tortured, is now under surveillance and the way he leaves is to retreat to the mountains to live very meagrely (since he has little money and no way of getting any kind of middle class income-producing job). She loves the escape, release, life with him, and herself begins painting. Much on Spanish landscape and customs of a leisured pattern of days. Eventually she gets pregnant by him and years pass and they do improve their (what some would say) squalid living arrangements. Alas, the authorities decide to come after the man again, he is again trying to do some good in the political world. He is again imprisoned, perhaps tortured (I’m not sure on this latter detail), at any rate deeply distraught once more. He has retired from society as a reaction to what he saw in the thirties. (The texts to read here is Orwell’s Reflections of the Spanish Civil War and the Homage to Catalonia). Alas, a horrible accident kills both this man and the new son — we are to see this accident is also wanted; the man wants out and he takes his son with him.

The devastation to our heroine is for a time crushing — though her behavior manifests the same pragmaticism of approach. Some wandering, and meandering and eventually she does return to Ireland, partly lured there by her son by the first husband. Not forgiven (for what should she be forgiven? is the sense of the text) nor forgiving (they are not sorry for what they are), nonetheless, her older family finds a place for her to live in Ireland.

Meanwhile (I’ve left this part out) her career as an artist has gone on quietly flourishing with paintings recording her sense of Spain and experience. She has lived an authentic life and continues to do so until the book quietly closes and at whatever price she had to pay in others’ refusal to countenance this since they did not.

The reverse is true of the heroine of Brooklyn. Indeed the slightly shocking close shows the heroine returning to Ireland and her originally intended husband because 1) she had promised to, and under the stress of circumstances been pressured into literally marrying the first lover, he having surmised she might just not come back when she sees improved living standards and freedom — he had been her only choice; no jobs anywhere that are fulfilling or money-making for such as someone from her family); and 2) the authority figures in Brooklyn discover she has married elsewhere and threatened to expose her; she knows she will become a pariah because this is the way such people as a group work, so home she goes, leaving then the man who had come to love her in his compromised way (he needs her, she fits in &c&c).

I remember the devastatingly accurate assessment of her relationship with the mother, used and she knows using her. We had been thinking the heroine was better than all these, but she is exposed as just like everyone else. And we are to feel for her, deeply feel for us all in her case.

The heroine in The South escaped all this; hers is the reverse story. But she did for much of her life live hard, in poverty, alone, her beloved man tortured, hounded and escaped through killing herself and she ends in this cottage provided for her, silent again (as the kind of talk in her Irish family is once more irrelevant to anything that matters to her for real).

But the meaning inherent in The South and Brooklyn is the same, the perspective out of which they come and the ultimate message about the obstacles to living an authentic life.

I love candour and hard-truth telling in a book; the unexpected ending exhilarated me. So many falsely easy and happy pseudo-optimistic stories are told; rather than give hope, they irritate and depress me as having the effect of throwing the blame on people who don’t do well. On the the other hand, wanting to think very well of the heroine, Eilis Lacey, when she was in the very final pages of the book obviously willing to overthrow her Brooklyn husband, Tony, and marry the new Irish man, Jim, who owned a pub and was admired by all, in a situation where she saw that instead of being ignored as the useless superfluous second sister, she would get a better job than in NYC (the competition in NYC was too keen for her to rate an office job), I liked her less. I was anxious for her because I thought it would matter to her so much to lose the beloved Tony, but when I was shown how she would give this up, I acceded it was truthful but cared less.

I loved the portrait of the mother who knew or had enough to suspect all along
her daughter had formed new ties in Brooklyn but ignored it, pretended not to
know in order to pressure the girl into lying and staying. But when the girl was
to go because her marriage in Brooklyn was found out, instead of showing affection, the mother shut the door on her. Here we see how people really value one another and what for. Now she can’t get from the girl what she wanted: not just a companion but someone who this pub owner would marry so she the mother would be admired in public.

On the immigrant patterns: I grew up in the south east Bronx mostly, in a slum which at first was heavily Irish but by the time my parents moved out was heavily black. The patterns of Irish life were to me no different than the working class Italian life I saw in Richmond Hill, a neighborhood near the one we moved to. I didn’t dislike them; they seemed to me American catholic working class by the time I was in my teens, only on the surface different from middle to upper middle class Jewish life in Kew Gardens where we did move. The Kew Gardens neighborhood I did hate and had a hard time getting used to: much snobbery, ostentation, and we lived in a 3 bedroom apartment on the ‘low end’ of life there. My name, Ellen, is partly the result of my mother imitating the names she heard around her in the Bronx. (It’s also the name of the mother in Gone with the Wind, which however she denied knowing and said it was just the people around her. I doubt she would have called me Colleen though as my mother was Jewish and that would have been gonig too far.)

Toibin sets the two other novels I’ve read by him partly or wholly in Ennisworthy. It’s where he comes from. And he has a poignant statement about missing it (boyhood memories) in Blackwater Lightship.

The Brooklyn New York parts were truth to life. My mother’s people lived in Brooklyn and for about 2 years (one year when I was small) I lived in Brooklyn and did on occasion visit these relatives growing up. The climate would seem extreme after the British Isles.

I read with an intense anxiety on behalf of Eilis, worried for her as succumbing to pressure. I had to peek ahead to assure myslf she broke away and returned. But when I experienced why and how my feelings for her changed dramatically. But this is a truthful probable portrait. It showed me patterns in my family’s reactions to me I’ve seen repeatedly.

Blackwater Lightship throws yet another permutation and light on this central experience — as does The Master, only then the partial escapee is James. This novel is about a homosexual young man who returns to his family for a weekend just before he died. They had nothing to do with him until then because they didn’t want to know or allow anyone else to know he lived a gay life. We see all their estrangements from one another too.

It’s been criticized for not centering more emphatically on the issue of homosexuality, even marginalizing it. To my mind that Toibin presents Decclan’s sexual orientation, and condition as another important element in the life of the family, not more devastating or central than say the father’s death (Mr Breen) or Lily’s long time adjusting to being alone and her giving her two children to her mother, Dora Devereux while she coped is one of its strengths.

It’s realistic: no false sentiment about family life, but that biological ties are there and for reasons that are hard to explain pragmatically except that people turn to families and families take them in as a matter of survival; there is no alternative to rely on so people come through for one another most of the time. Not all. Homeless people not uncommon. People living away from families and managing to support themselves and find company and worlds with friends happens a good deal.

Still the family pattern is the dominant one whether in a modern country and culture like the US or traditional one like Zimbabwe and India (there we have an arranged marriage and couple who come to live in the US.

Key theme of this and two other of his books, The South and The Heather Blazing (I’ve read about it), and his fictional biography of Henry James called The Master are The key themes, “are the compromises and concessions involved in belonging to a family and in calling somewhere “home”.

The DVD cover of the TV movie adaptation

Three complex female characters: Helen (now married to Hugh O’Doherty), her mother, Lily Breen, and the grandmother, Dora Devereux. All three have similar characters: proud, standoffish, determined with the ability and knowhow of domineering, running a situation, self-contained, self-possessed, but like most people wanting affection, support, and Helen shown as having sensitivities like her older son, Cathal; Manus has mean bullying personality from the get-go, huge ego. You might say it’s about the problem of mothering; by no means does this come more naturally to women than men though the task is forced on them by social arrangements and expectations.

There is no easy reconciliation. The family’s fumbling attempts at change are set against the natural process of erosion that is eating away the coastline close to the family home in Cush. The liminal space of the beach as a setting for the beginning of Helen and Lily’s reconciliation, and the novel ends with the muted triumph of Lily spending the night at Helen’s home after returning the now severely ill Declan to the hospital in Dublin.

It’s a delicately powerful story of a family’s failure to face difficult feelings and their stubborn refusal to admit need (especially the grandmother). He through them delve into memories with a visceral, unsparing depiction: main character through whom we see action is Helen: snapshots of the family’s fraught past are filtered through her memory.

When Helen was 11, she had had to deal with her father’s illness and death virtually alone – she was left with her 8-year-old brother at her grandmother’s house for six months while her mother nursed her father, or tried to. Gradually Helen withdrew from everyone except Declan into a watchful guardedness. She “trained herself to be equal to things, whatever they would be.” But her defenses against the pain of the past are a barrier against present life. She mothered Decclan, came into his room at night the way she does for Cathal and Manus. Helen’s memory of the day before her father’s funeral when she arranged on her parents’ bed a suit of his clothes complete with underwear, tie, socks, hat, and shoes, then lay down beside the father figure she had made.

There is no father figure here; Hugh kept from us; Helen and Decclan’s father died young, we see almost nothing of the grandfather. We have instead Decclan and his two friends, three male characters match three female ones: the strong Paul (a counterpart to Helen) who tells us of his marriage with Francois, and Larry, who has had bitter experiences with his family about his homosexuality and shows us the hypocrisy of the world, but is bright and cheerful in temperament and gets along very well with the grandmother, planning architectural changes to the house we know she’ll never do, and she and he know it, but he does teach her to drive a little a stick-shift car.

The theme is not coming out but coming to terms with oneself. And humour — evolving from camp Larry’s unlikely affinity with the grandmother and from her own sardonic wit–leavens a sombre load. Each has a story:

Larry tells how he came out to his family on the six o’clock news. Paul tells how he and his mate were married by a priest in a traditional Catholic ceremony.

Granny Dora tells how she got the switchblade knife that’s in her apron pocket. Helen’s mother, Lily, who fled into a fast-lane business career and a huge designer house she occupies alone, tells Helen about her father’s last days.

Then we get Declan’s graphic deterioration. The family members and friends do not avoid him

It is about homosexual man regarded as other and I understand the frustration of some gay critics because Decclan is kept at a distance from us: he seems dependent, unable to make a permanent relationship like Paul, acting out as a child to Paul. But there’s revisiting the same theme over and over: Toibin has written novels focusing on a gay man, the one I’ve read is The Master, and Henry James lived away from his family, estranged. Looking at otherness is kept away to some extent

The sense of place, here, is germane and its adjoining strand–close to a disintegrating cliff, caught in the reiterative sweep of the lighthouse–permeate the book with an elemental atmosphere.

Beautiful spare graceful prose: measured and restrained as a Victorian memoir yet poetic in precision-”extraordinary skill for rendering time and place. This quiet novel achieves its effects gradually and with subtlety

The presence of Decclan’s homosexual friends influence the behavior of his family to one another and him as he lays dying in Blackwater Lightship, and we discussed pretty fully of the six main characters, three women, daughter who is now a mother, Helen, mother, Lily, and grandmother, Dora; and we went briefly the three men: Decclan, Paul and Larry.

Decclan is dependent, not strong, looks for help from friends. He has no permanent relationship with a significant other unlike Paul and perhaps Larry. We don’t learn much about his private life for the past years. He is the person in the book dying about whom we learn least. He is kept away from us, except to give us these graphic descriptions of his suffering as perceived by the other characters. Who does he seem to depend upon? Paul.

Paul knows what to do; he finds the emergency room to bring Decclan back to at the end. He is in charge. And he and Helen, as a similarly strong character exchanges stories. Thing is they are not that strong: they need someone depending on them. We see that it’s Helen’s husband Hugh who has the friends, who is the open more giving person, really there, and she needs that. Paul’s partner. What is his story? Francoise who was an only child and needed to be married to have security. Waiting for Paul to return.

Larry, you might call him the comedian, but he’s getting through life that way. Let’s look a little more carefully at the passage where he tells his parents and family he is gay: he gets involved with public politics and finds he appears on the six o’clock news as a gay person, which his family was watching. What is the hard thing? Not the actual event or even the retelling, but the reaction in the room to when he tells of his present love relationships with a nearby family where the men lead overtly heterosexual lives.

The book is named after a lighthouse that no longer exists. Helen and Lily are talking. We don’t learn much about Decclan’s private life nor about him directly; when we learn about Larry’s life it’s indirect and the powerful stuff is about here and now and yet what is not there matters; so too Paul’s relationship with Francoise. About how important memories are and the intangible invisible lives we don’t show publicly shape the public. At the close of the edition I ordered into the bookstore, we have Toibin’s statement about his book: he gains meaning and solace through reliving his memories, and bringing them alive again.

There are eight chapters with some of the stories (memories plus present time) achieving a kind of quiet climax in the 7th, with 1st as prologue, Helen at home, and 8th as the denouement as they prepare to and bring Decclan back to the hospital and Helen brings Lily back to her house. her mother has never been there before. For those working on Blackwater Lightship for this coming journal entry: a series of inset stories or memories embedded into the narrative. People talking with Helen present, Helen and Paul confiding. Then Helen and Decclan’s story from when their father dies We see grandmother and grandfather watching TV and arguing over what they see. Then Larry’s story, Lily’s story, Paul’s story (Toibin a Catholic and has written about Catholicism in travel book on Barcelona central here); Helen’s story (Decclan the spoilt favored child as the boy). Back to Lily’s story; how Blackwater Lightship as a long gone lighthouse is central; Helen’s story again; Helen’s portrait of Lily.

Our cat (Ian) facing forward

The cats — They run away and to the Grandmother this is a bad loss. Cats are affectionate clinging creatures; Lily’s story again; told to Helen, talking of grandmother and past, signals some understanding

Book about the rhythms of the night, and how people cope with death: the Grandmother turns to these mediums who feed people’s desire to reach the dead. A dark theme of redemptive power of death runs through all his books.

The comfort in The Master is James got to live his own life to some extent. He lives as the heroine in The South, only because he has money, property and connections he manages far better than our heroine and ends up with his measure of independence, until of course he’s done in at the end by terrible sickness and death and again finds himself taken over. We see how he lives a life apart, the price of it and the achievement he managed by remaining apart.

I find I don’t have separate notes on The Master, but I do on an essay he wrote for the LRB: The Importance of Aunts. in his usual cagey or elusive way Toibin manages to say what he pretends would be “too crude” to say: especially with respect to James. The problem with Austen’s getting rid of the useless mother (which Toibin does connect to her relationship with her own) is the caricatures she creates are in danger of being taken non-seriously; you can laugh at Lady Betram, which would be to misunderstand or ignore her effect on Fanny Price.

I particularly like how Toibin deals with James’s family: he says how James loved his mother, but in the same breathe, how he kept away from her as it was all too painful to contemplate or let touch (and destroy) him. In Washington Square despite the understatement and careful avoidance of offering the readers ways of not reading what’s in front of them, her heroine has to cope with a loathsome father, a morally idiotic scheming aunt and her own pent-up sexuality. Her nobility comes from her enduring steadfastly being alone in the world. She escapes the fate of Isobel Archer because she knows how to feel and is not to be dissuaded by those around from to violate herself.

She is then a cynosure for James himself.

On Austen’s use of aunts: Austen feels free, on the other hand, to make Lady Catherine de Bourgh both imperious and comic, her wealth and power serving to make her ridiculous and unworthy rather than impressive; but she is not meant merely to amuse us, or to show us an aspect of English society that Austen thought was foolish. She is an aunt who does not prevail; her presence in the book succeeds in making Darcy more individual, less part of any system. Her function is to allow her nephew, who refuses to obey her, a sort of freedom, a way of standing alone that will make him worthy of Elizabeth ….

From the 1983 BBC Mansfield Park: Mrs Norris (Anna Massey) berating Fanny (Sylvestre le Tousel) in front of the whole family

The reader is invited, then, to dislike Mrs Norris for her cruelty and to admire Fanny for her forbearance. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin sees Mrs Norris as `one of the great villains of literature’; Tony Tanner thought she was `one of Jane Austen’s most impressive creations and indeed one of the most plausibly odious characters in fiction’. All this is clear, at times rather too clear. What isn’t clear is what the reader should feel about the other aunt, Lady Bertram, mistress of Mansfield Park. Tomalin dislikes her. `Fanny’s experience at Mansfield Park is bitter as no other childhood is in Austen’s work. Her aunt, Lady Bertram, is virtually an imbecile; she may be a comic character, and not ill-tempered, but the effects of her extreme placidity are not comic …

Just one from James: This sexualisation of an aunt figure is what gives the book its power. James radically destabilises the category, moves Madame Merle from being Isabel’s protector, who stands in for her mother without having a mother’s control, to being someone who seeks to damage and defeat her

More generally: The idea of the family as anathema to the novel in the 19th century, or the novel being an enactment of the destruction of the family and the rise of the stylish conscience, or the individual spirit, has more consequences than the replacement of mothers by aunts. As the century went on, novelists had to contemplate the afterlives of Elizabeth and Darcy, Fanny and Edmund, had to deal with the fact that these novels made families out of the very act of breaking them. It was clear that, since something fundamental had already been done to the idea of parents, something would also have to be done to the idea of marriage itself, since marriage was a dilution of the autonomy of the individual protagonist. There is a line that can be drawn between Trollope and George Eliot and Henry James: all three dramatise the same scene, each of them alert to its explosive implications. What they are alert to is the power of the lone, unattached male figure in the novel, someone with considerable sympathy, who moves unpredictably, who keeps his secrets and ego intact …

Photo of Henry James as the master, late in life


Toibin’s greatness also lies in his quiet unassuming style. He gets so much in
and yet does not seem to stretch or have to overwrite at all. It’s part of what makes the novels seem so truthful.

He teaches we must find and live out our own identities at the same time as he compassionates those who do not as the cost can be so high.

From the movie adaptation of Blackwater Lightship

I need to read his Homage to Barcelona next. See the LRB archive for treasures.


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“Hill House” — a genuine house just outside London, chosen as embodying just what Jackson imagined, and then photographed as where all the outdoor scenes around it using infrared light (1963 The Haunting)

John Atkinson Grimsaw (1836-93), The Haunted House (1882)

Dear Readers, Students, Friends,

Tonight one of the great American gothic novels and psychological terror films of the 20th century: Shirley Jackson’s highly original 1959 Haunting of Hill House, and Robert Wise’s even more unusual rendition of the literary genre not as a horror film (what was mistakenly tried in 1999), but as a psychological film contextualized by

1) the domestic realism of Eleanor Lance’s character and circumstances;

2) the Citizen Kane representation of the Hugh Crain family (as back-story);

3) the quiet lesbianism of Theo (Claire Bloom);

4) and the undercutting sceptical mockery of Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) whose contingent of characters brings into the film the ordinary American upper class who’d love to make money on the house.

The blog will also delve the gothic as such and its history. See my review (evaluation and summary) of Richard Davenport-Hines’s The Gothic: 400 (!) Years of Excess, Evil, Horror and Ruin Both Jackson and Wise’s works are in the Radcliffian mode, sometimes called the female gothic.


Eleanor (Julie Harris) turned down by her relatives when she asks for the car (half hers) for a vacation

Eleanor resolute, with all her worldly goods (come to take the car anyway)

When I first read the book I was struck by how it begins in a very secular modern feel atmosphere. Dr Montague (the name of the doctor in Jackson’s book) wants to investigate the supposed presence of ghosts and terrors at Hill House scientifically and he goes about to find people willing to participate in the experiment of living there together for the summer. He gets up a list of names of people from psychic societies, sensational newspaper stories — people who have sighted or been willing to believe they saw or are interested in “paranormal” (the “in” word today) experiences. He doesn’t want any crackpot and there’s a distrust of unknown uncredentialled people which remind me of the distrust of experience on the Net.

He turned up two single women, Eleanor Lance (it’s an “L” in the book), one who cared for her mother all the mother’s life until she died and now lives with a selfish sister and her husband; and Theo, the other who had fought intensely with her woman lover. He also finds the present owner insists he take in a relative. So there are four of them. Then two surly servants (as I said). Now his wife and her chauffeur, Arthur have been invited.

What emerges is something I’ve seen in astute writers of the gothic before. Hell is other people; the group has begun to gang up on Eleanor because she’s susceptible to bullying. It’s a it’s a gothic that analyses the psychic source of terrorizing and why it happens. But beyond that we are beginning to experience terrifying unexplained phenomena. Theodora’s dresses are torn to bits and covered with blood so now she sleeps with Eleanor. One night Eleanor listens to moaning and groaning of a baby elsewhere. Scary things happen in the landscape; all done very slowly you see. Eleanor is suddenly being called Nell and writing appears on the walls which demands she come home.

And we begin to get threats: Mrs Montague talks of being buried alive. She brings a planchette and we have a seance like experience where again Eleanor is picked on, picked out as the one words are hurled at. Slowly I’ve noticed the others are irritated and turn away from her need of them. In the book Dr Montague doesn’t want her around lest she ruins his experiment. (The movie is softer and makes Dr Montague and Theo genuinely concerned for her, and Luke put off by her suicidal impulses on the twirling metal staircase.)

to a sudden powerful close. I was stunned by the ending and yet it was coming at me all the time. The very last words might be said to put a close to a future of endless pain: “and whatever walked there [in Hill House] walked alone.” But …

Warning I’m telling the ending:

There is a constant repeat of lines from Shakespeare’s Twelth Night, the song of the fool: “present mirth hath present laughter” and especially the line; “journey’s end in lovers’ meeting.” This line runs through what I now realize is our heroine’s head: Eleanor. The question is whether when she killed herself by smashing herself and car against the tree, she does know peace or is returned to hill house to walk with whatever walked there.” Journey’s end in lovers’s meeting; the hideous writing on the wall and cruel comments written down are invites to Eleanor (Nell) from whoever or whatever riddles and warps the house — which under assault becomes a wild tempest (making me think of the emotions at the close of Ethan Frome by Wharton, a book I hope never to read again, especially its ending).

Eleanor’s story suddenly is seen so clear as one of a miserable wretched woman: sleeps in sister’s baby’s room and only shares that car, has no right to it, for no husband, no salary. When she loses it after Mrs Montague’s (meant to be obtuse funny — think Mrs Jennings from S&S) antics over a planchette, and nearly kills herself and others by trying to jump off a crumbling bit of gothic convention masonry, they want her out. They kick her out. She’d have to go back to that sister. Theodora has already refused to take her in at summer’s end.

So what were her options? Backstory of clan has two sisters in deadly frightening rivalry.

But what really is chilling is the sudden experience. No one does gothic like Jackson. The cold, the sounds, the wild weird evocation of what can’t be and can’t be explicitly but only allusively described.

The Gothic:

Eleanor and Theo (Claire Bloom) talking of their lives

Luke (Russ Tamblyn) thinking about the cold spot

First we need to understand the gothic. It’s been a major US popular subgenre since the 1790s — around the time of the French revolution, which can be regarded as a watershed in western culture (another is World War One).

The gothic is easily identified by some repeating central characteristics: the haunted place, usually a labyrithine house with a past where much misery had occurred. Haunted: it is a genre which uses all the realistic conventions so as to make you believe in and enter the fictional world, and then there is this disruption, this intrusion from the world of the supernatural, at first mild, but then insistent and finally overwhelming.

It evokes in us atavistic beliefs we thought we had almost discarded; the fear of something under the bed, the dark, sudden ounds. We can say almost because many people believe in God or gods, and in supernatural realms, but our beliefs usually don’t unnerve us because they come in the form of controlled doctrines from churches. The church works hard to exclude this kind of belief and include that. The gothic undermines this.

Most deeply it’s a pessimistic questioning of what’s beyond the natural; it’s serious even if popularly treated frivolously. Robert Johnson (the actor who plays Dr Markway — Montague in the novel — the anthropologist-physician) and the director Wise in their voice over commentary in the DVD feature brought up the issue of belief centrally. From one of Johnson’s commentaries: the film prompts or comes out of questions about “what happened to the dead, to one’s relations who died … does it all just end like that; it’s all those things connected to religion as well ..I wonder about these things just like everybody else … where am I going … why am I here … ”

Dr Montague (Richard Johnson) introducing himself to Nell and Theo

The gothic is also metaphysical and asks question about the nature of the universe, about God, about justice and life’s value; Kafkaesque, paranoic and death’s effects are central to the gothic too:

Some sub-genres specialize in horror (violence, the vampire story which attacks people bodily; the werewolf story — Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is ultimately a werewolf story); others in terror (spiritual undermining, psychologically traumatized) and that is the ghost story. Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story.

So first we need to define ghost and carefully. A ghost is a the spirit or soul of a living person who died and comes back to haunt those living, usually in malevolent retribution for irretrievable hurt. Very very rare is the benign ghost and it’s no coincidence since people like reassurance and optimistic stories the most famous ghost story is precisely this rare type: Charles Dickens’s The Christmas Carol, where the ghosts come back to redeem Scrooge. Most of the time the ghost are not into redemption.

They form a kind of social protest: social protest books have victims in the center who expose the injustices and cruelties of a system or social/economic/sexual arrangement. I wouldn’t lean too heavily because sometimes the person victimized at the center is actually not to blame for anything at all and makes the mistake of coming to live in this house. Most of the time if you look you find the person has been treated unfairly, is sensitive, and in need of love and comfort and help — so the ghost uses them.

Jackson’s novel as gothic

Eleanor climbing the twisted metal staircase

Montague and others (we too) watching her climb

Eleanor Vance/Lance is the quintessential gothic heroine (it can be a hero): The gothic is about the patriarchal family, at its center is an exploration of its interior life, and the film is brilliantly inward. The house itself is alive: its past includes a number of exploited victimized women. Hugh Crain is like Citizen Kane — back story told up front in movie, brought out slowly in book.

Obviously Eleanor has been taken bad advantage of and is still being taken bad advantage of. spent the last 11 years of life caring for her mother; she is broke, has no car, no place of her own to live, no way to get an independent life; the two women in the story have lesbian orientations so they are just the kind of women our society marginalizes, will not even recognize the existence of

When it’s a woman at the center, she is imprisoned, buried alive, chased down, when it’s a man he’s made an exiles, outcasts; both experience pursuit, being hunted down, labyrinths. So the gothic critiques our society.

The fantasy element is an enabler because it sets up a false screen of frivolity.

Sex is often central — some sexual experience has been very bad — this is seen clearly in Vampire ones. But since we are not doing a vampire one let’s just stick with what we’ve got.

Films have genres and most scary films are horror films: they connect to vampire stories and are physical attacks with computer enhanced imagery today; often sadistic. Wise’s film is not a horror film. The 1999 film is a horror one and the second hour becomes ridiculous. Wise’s film is a psychological study in terror where a woman is slowly driven to lose her mind — other such films as good are The Woman in Black from Susan Hill’s novel; I’ve shown a number of hour long ones from short stories from the BBC archives (Afterward is one)

Shirley Jackson

A young Shirley Jackson

Her life in brief:

Shirley Jackson: in his book, Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic, Darrly Hattenhauer tells her life well and concisely. The problem with most lives and the biographies is they have been slanted by her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a leading critic, publisher-editor, adept in the kind of critical readings that convince people.

The reality is her writing supported them in their life-style and she did write a lot of junk, meaning short crude gothic fictions, to keep the income flowing in. She did all the housework, had several children; he had affairs openly. She didn’t leave. This was the 1950s and very hard to get a divorce; if you may think the discourse against women today is bad, this was pre-feminism. She became very heavy and that’s a no-no in American society.

Mostly what has happened to her books is they are interpreted
apolitically; as if she has no social protest in them but is merely reflecting her own or other people’s neurotic condition (often women’s). Paradoxically that’s partly because her husband and she were once part of the Young Communist league in the 1940s so to distance them from any politics, it’s all erased. The one good book beyond Hattenhauer is Joan Wylie Hall, Shirley Jackson: A Study of the Short Fiction.

She is also forgotten and all but her “Lottery” (a startle) and Haunting of Hill House out of print. Like many women her work regarded 20 years later as biodegradable.

She was the daughter of a middle class Republican businessman who sent her to Bennington College where she met and married Hyman in 1937; he did publish her works. Driven as she was and treated the way she was, with the conventional life in the suburbs (this is before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique exposed that), she became alcoholic; later
she used tranquillizers. She did find real comfort in her children. here’s often a sub-theme of protection of children in her books.

How does it reflect the 50s: the story of the woman is central; it’s proto-feminist before feminism became fashionable. Deep upsets in cultural rifts over religion. Like other popular sub-genres the features and characteristics of the kind often make its assertions feel more universal and about the genre.

She did what she could to avoid publicity. Like J. L. Carr (A Month in the Country) she was no networker.

Then on her work in general: What she is is a satirist within gothic, showing up human nature as the source or our unjust social arrangements. The society we live in is not some result of imposed conditions; people collude in it. What
we see at the close of The Haunting of Hill House is Eleanor is thrown out, really heartlessly. If the ghosts are after her, the others want nothing to do with her. She tries to suggest to Theo she could come and live with her, but Theo makes quick work of that. Go back to her sister?

I perfectly understand why Eleanor yields to the spirits of the house and crashes into a tree. We should regard her ending the way we do gods in Homer: the gods in Homer are projections of the inner lives of the characters and so when Venus prompts Aeneas to do something erotic, it’s because Virgil’s Aeneas wants to; but they are also there.

One of the most disturbing things I’ve discovered in the criticism of this book is the idea that it’s all in Eleanor’s mind. That is to blame her, see this neurotic woman and encourage others to despise her. The book is parallel then to The Turn of the Screw; Henry James insisted that the ghosts were malign and there but because he presented them subtlety, many readers insist he is wrong and she is this repressed angry spinster who hurts everyone around her. Can’t
take a joke you see.

It can’t be all in Eleanor’s mind. Crain’s young wife crashed into the tree. Crain’s family was blighted. Theo hears all that
Elinor does; by the end of the novel even Luke is persuaded, and in the movie he gets the last (invented line): “[this house] ought to be burned down and the ground sown with salt.”

The modern 1999 (Jan de Bont) film wants to blame the doctor: in 1999 Liam Nelson as the physician has this secret exploitative agenda to further his career; in the book, Dr Montague is a genuine researcher into psychic phenomena who is making no money on his investigations. He may be wrong to play with the spirits as many a person in gothic is, but he is not personally to blame except insofar as he doesn’t take responsibility for others he has brought here. We are our brother’s keepers. Jackson does not incline to Cain’s heresy (I refer to the Biblical Cain).

There is a semi-comic parallel plot in Jackson’s novel with the Dr wife’s Mrs Montague and her silly planchette board, but she is doing explicitly what lies behind the gothic: trying to get in touch with gods. Arthur is her absurd sidekick: there is a parody of the form, a self-reflexive feel to it.

Very refreshing is the lack of a love story. I am sorry to say the 1963 film does project an implicit thwarted love story between Eleanor and the doctor: Eleanor yearns for him. There is no sense of that in the book. If anyone, Eleanor years for the companionship of Theo is made into a closet lesbian – Wise was aware of this and tried to hint at all. Theo is briefly chased by Luke but she quickly debunks and pushes him away.

Outline of novel, followed by how the 1963 film adaptation differs

Eleanor’s Thelma and Louise moment

The novel:

Chapter 1, p 3:

The opening paragraph with phrases that end the books: “whatever walked there, walked alone.” Introduces the characters, Dr Montague, Eleanor Vance, Theo, Luke.

Eleanor’s escape from her unkind exploitative relatives with her car (half hers) and we see the working class world of the US; its malls, family types; past the bullying gatekeeper, Mr Dudley

Chapter 2, p 34

Eleanor gets in, Mrs Dudley, her blue room, meeting Theo, the walk in the landscape — a difference from the film is in the film all takes place inside the house once Eleanor gets past her car ride; the idea was to be claustrophobic. In the novel the characters wander about the landscape — with hope; they hope to have a picnic even. Eleanor buoyed by her new relationship: she hopes Theo and she will be like sisters; Theo does at least say they shall be cousins.

Chapter 3, p 56

Luke, Dr Montague, the explanation. The first night’s dinner. They are to take notes (making fun — like Ashima (Namesake) shelves books as opposed to reading them). What are the good of notes if you don’t have any brains. Bits of the back story begin to emerge: p. 67: the first woman crashed against a tree even before she got to the house. Pp. 71-82: the rest of the history; the growing up of two daughters, their fierce rivalry over money (very common in US life), how the younger was married (Theo persists with invented story she cut out the older – a common happening) and envied the older for her dishes. Older loved the house, grew old, companion came to live with her: parallel with Eleanor and perhaps neglected her. The companion inherited the house and the Saundersons are the heirs and relatives of the unnamed companion. Often women are unnamed in gothics. Like Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca where we never learn the name of the narrator. We learn Theo is lesbian in orientation; Dr Montague reads Pamela; also likes Sterne, Fielding, Smollett

Chapter 4, p 93

First breakfast; investigating house; more talk introducing characters, interrelationships; first terrifying night: the knocking begins.

Chapter 5, p 136

Dr Montague’s first statement he will turn Eleanor out of the house. Histories of ghosts (o. 139ff); the writing on the wall; the cold spot in the hall (p. 150); Theo’s clothes covered in blood, she removes into Eleanor’s side of their shared space; evil spirit puts ugly thoughts in Eleanor’s mind (p. 159); where she slips backwards on the terrace and could have fallen. Eleanor talk to Dr Montague with great sincerity about how she hates to see herself slipping away; they smell in her a potential victim and they begin to circle her (p. 160). About a third of the way in central sequence; Luke finds handwriting: Help Eleanor Come Home; the night of terror where Eleanor thinks she is holding Theo’s hand and it turns out not so

Chapter 6, p 164

Eleanor learning “the pathways of the heart.” Book for daughter Sophia Craine by Demond Lester Crain found, p 168. Fearful illustrations. Theo curses Crain (p. 171) They wander in the landscape with Luke (pp. 173-80).

Chapter 7, p 179

Mrs Montague coming; again Eleanor is outside. The comic inadequacy of her insensitivity; Mrs Montague goes to live in hursery; the planchette with Arthur again produces a message about Eleanor and home. The four caught in the parlor, and terrible pounding, and cannot reach the nursery (pp. 196-205)

Chapter 8, p 206

The landscape, jokes about rabbits, Eleanor begs Theo to take her back with her, Theo harsh and unkind, Eleanor followed in landscape while Luke and Theo joining forces

Chapter 9, p 227

By this time Eleanor has lost her sanity in effect; the sequence in the hall, the statues, her climbing the stairway, but no one is sympathetic, and they seek to rid themselves of her and she smashes into tree.

The 1963 film: it is not a horror film, but film noir: see comment: The Haunting as film noir

The last seconds of the film: all look at the wreck

All happens inside — significant change. Mrs Montague comes only in the equivalent of Chapter 9, her face at the top of the stairway used to terrify Eleanor down and again to drive her into driving the car into the tree.

The back story is simplified in the film: Hugh Grain now has only two wives, not three, and just one daughter, not two. Also, Wise gives us our history lesson immediately after the opening title sequence: An unidentified speaker (who we soon discover is Dr. John “Markway” [Richard Johnson]) provides voice-over narration to accompany what we can only assume is an objective/omniscient montage of Crain’s first wife dying in a carriage crash, of his daughter Abigail spending most of her life inside Hill House’s nursery (an extraordinary temporal ellipsis is achieved here via special effects as Abigail’s face transforms from child to adult to elderly woman without any apparent cuts), and of old Miss Crain’s female companion committing suicide in the tower. By way of contrast, Jackson’s Dr. Montague does not share his knowledge of Hill House’s dark past until much later.

Dr. Montague a slim, clean-shaven, and decidedly romantic figure in the film; Dr. Markway to take the object of Eleanor’s (Julie Harris) affection, with the result that their scenes together operate on multiple discursive levels: They converse not only as scientist-subject, teacher-pupil, and doctor-patient, but as potential lovers.

There are three additional differences: 1) Dr. Markway’s wife plays a much smaller role in Wise’s film than does Dr. Montague’s wife in the book, and the latter spouse’s hyper-masculine (though quite possibly asexual or lover-friend) Arthur does not appear in the film at all.

Theo’s relationship with Eleanor: in the book extremely ambivalent, is in the film here rendered in somewhat (though not entirely) more straightforward lesbian (if implicit) terms. On the one hand, Jackson’s Theo, although probably gay, expresses only a mild attraction toward Eleanor, and by the end of the novel seems to be hitting it off quite well with Luke. Wise’s Theo (Claire Bloom), in contrast, makes a number of fairly obvious passes at Eleanor and evinces a strong negative reaction toward Luke. Going in the other direction, Theo’s insensitivity, if not outright cruelty, toward Eleanor becomes manifest as The Haunting of Hill House proceeds (“I don’t understand. . . . Do you always go where you’re not wanted?” [2091]); in the 1963 film, Theo only becomes angry in response to Eleanor’s own expressions of jealousy and animosity.

Finally, Eleanor’s last moments alive are handled quite differently by Jackson and Wise. In The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor’s death drive is, at least until the “unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree,” a) indisputably self-willed–perhaps even suicidal–act: “I am really doing it, she thought, turning the wheel. . . . I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself” (245). Gidding and Wise, almost certainly under pressure to rule out suicide as a possible motive for their protagonist’s demise, make it cle ar that Eleanor is not trying to kill herself, that the wheel of her car is being controlled by an outside force that she cannot resist, despite her strongest efforts.

Movie is less sympathetic to Eleanor’s dread of going home; makes more of the Crain presence in the house; the house becomes a chief character, a malign alive presence. In book Eleanor seems to alienate them all from her; they seem to feel she has in her the spirits of the house; in the movie they are protecting her from these spirits and thus themselves.


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The governess realizes Miles is dead becomes frantic with grief (Turn of the Screw by Sandy Welch, 2009)

Dear friends and readers,

I feel I’ve had a full Henry James double season. First this summer, Roderick Hudson, then the biography of James by Fred Kaplan, and now as part of the course “exploring the gothic” I’m teaching and my study of the gothic for a paper on Northanger Abbey, I’ve slowly read James’s “The Turn of the Screw” and would to suggest an uncommon but recently endorsed view: the governess is neither simply a victim, utterly passive, nor pathological liar.

It’s convenient to begin with the older view of Oscar Cargill: he opens with rejecting documentary evidence of three different kinds. As a scholar of earlier periods, this is prima facie suspicious. I do not question documentary evidence unless I have evidence to show it’s made up. So for example, the argument that James made up the archbishop, lied in his story in the notebooks is unacceptable unless Cargill has evidence to show this. His rejection of James’s preface is wrong on the same grounds. He is calling James a liar in effect. I found four places in the story where Mrs Grose acknowledges the governess has seen the ghosts because the governess knows details about their appearance she couldn’t any other way and several where she says she believes the governess is seeing ghosts.

The argument the governess is a pathological liar won’t do also for the reasons Wayne Booth outlined in his classic The Rhetoric of Fiction in the 1950s. We can only go so far with unreliability; we can have an unreliable narrator whose judgment is misguided but if we begin to say the very narrator is a liar from the get-go we can believe nothing we read. We would have to reject the basis of most stories written since the popularity of unreliable narrators began (later 19th century). The opening gambit on Xmas eve has the narrator, Douglas, go out of his way to say the governess was the most aimable well-educated governess he ever met, that he liked her very much (almost loved her).

The arguments that dismiss the external documentary evidence provided by James remind me of the arguments which call Mary Shelley a liar and say she made her notebook entries up so Frankenstein is written by Percy Bysshe.

Also that what allows these readings of the tale castigating the young woman is that the other three chief character do not unambiguously admit to seeing the ghosts. As a reader of ghost stories, I know this is commonplace. Often the ghost only shows him or herself or themselves to one person, the one the ghost is harassing. This is true of Susan Hill’s Woman in Black which we recently read in my classes (a classic novella ghost story). It’s part of driving the central character mad and isolating him or her.

Quint and Miss Jessel (2009 TOTS)

That the governess misjudged and overreacts is true — she is another in the long line of unreliable narrators: Like Winterbourne in Daisy Miller, like Rowland Mallett, she is overreacts with conventional morality and, meaning to do some good, she makes things much worse. In her case though her situation against these sinister ghosts with no help from her employer is very bad.

My argument is that James is showing us how hard it is for us to deal with what we term unspeakable (Eve Sedgwick’s term) and unconventional sex. We deal with it very badly and make things worse — as we deal with mean teasing, money problems and class. On one level, everyone in the story, all the adults, cause Miles’s death. The uncle first of all. He wants to know nothing, will not even read the headmaster’s letter, left his valet, Quint, in charge of the house.

The plausible too busy man, who wants to know nothing, be told nothing, not be bothered (2009 TOTS)

He doesn’t care what happens to Miles. We have hints from Mrs Grose that Quint and the master were in the house together and shared clothes so probably the master has sex with Quint. Quint had sex with Miss Jessel and probably got her pregnant. He was “free” with everyone says Mrs Grose — so the other servants. That he was found dead on the road coming back from the pub shows he had enemies in the pub too. A roughhouse type, nasty, a Stanley Kowalski so-to-speak (the nightmare of the sensitive homosexual male).

Mrs Grose sometimes admits that she thinks Quint molested Miles but in front of the children she always draws back. She also does not want to get involved.

Sue Johnson as frightened Mrs Grose; sometimes she is sinister and complicit in this movie too (2009 TOTS)

Again and again she won’t admit she sees anything in order to turn away (this is the way the role is played in the 2009 film). So she is like her employer. No wonder he keeps her on.

Mrs Grose tells the story of Miles going off with Quint to the governess when the letter comes. We are to understand the school was a place of bullying, fag system, and Miles was part of this. The governess’s first response to say and do and ask nothing is not a good one, but she was told by her employer not to bother him and she has no rank to write the headmaster.

Miss Jessel was also to blame as when confronted by Mrs Grose on how Quint was with the boy, Miss Jessel said “mind your business.

The governess kills the boy too because she over-rreacts and hates homosexual sex and also child-abuse but because the children tease her and seem complicit, she sees them as allowing it and so regards them as evil too.


This is what happens by the way in the stories about priests’s molesting boys: it does not come out because parents fear their boys will be blamed.

One level of the story is this shows how “I am not my brother’s keeper” leads to evil

But another is, what can we do? Once Miles is molested, what can we do? to transgress on his psyche and insist he tell, confess, be abject is wrong the story tells us. It’s wrong to bully the boy this way and it doesn’t help. Here that James was himself a young boy with homosexual orientation suggests he identifies with Miles — and indicts society for the way it treats such a boy — and encourages him too (as a rich boy).


James also engages or identifies with the governess. It’s not until about half-way through the story that the governess seems to change from simply protecting the children. It’s an old motif of ghost stories the ghost wants to take the child away. About p 79 or Chapter 10-11 in my book she begins to want power. She begins to gloat over knowing more; she seems to want to penetrate (that’s the word) not just Mrs Grose but both children and she herself wants to possess Miles. She becomes an instrument of the evil infecting the house. She knows she would be called “mad.”

It’s around this time the letter business happens. Miles does want to contact his uncle. That shows the boy has a healthy instinct there. He wants another school. So the governess lets both children write but she hides their letters. She does not want their account to reach the Powerful Man. Then she writes a little later and Miles steals her letter because he does not want her account to reach the uncle.

A power struggle between Miles and the governess ensues. The children smell a weak woman who is sensitive and can’t cope with teasing so they play games with her by waking her, going into the garden and so on. At one point I think the text does show that Flora sees Miss Jessel and went off with her but won’t admit it — as she enjoys teasing the governess. It’s the incident where Mrs Grose is dragged out to the scene and, harried, the governess asks Flora if she saw Miss Jessel. Not in front of the children. Mrs Grose then shouts that Flora is an angel and pulls her away.

Flora is a survivor, not an angel.

Other themes of the story which relate to our world: Miss Jessel as governess. Since the master seems to know how she died and know about her going away, it might have been the master who impregnated her. It’s hard to tell. The governess sees Miss Jessel crying at one point and her immediate reaction is mean: she calls Miss Jessel “wretched terrible woman’ instead of empathizing .After all the governess is herself a governess: poor, played upon by the uncle-master. But in the next scene the governess does seem to have listened to a story told by Miss Jessel which made her see they are alike in situation. The Dear movie had Miss Jessel sitting at the desk in a way then precisely imitated by the governess to make the point they are a doppelganger. What saves the governess (ironically) is her overstrict morality and her loneliness.

So it’s about women’s positions too.

Class: the governess at first sneers at Miss Jessel for gong with Quint as “dreadfully low” and Mrs Grose too. This is the dialogue where I felt James laughing at them as a pair of clowns.

And sex. At times the story anticipates Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The simplest statement about something else can be read as about sex because of the use of innuendo. For example,

To do it in any way was an act of violence, for what did it consist of but the obtrusion of the idea of grossness and guilt on a small helpless creature who had been for me a revelation of the possibilities of a beautiful intercourse (Chapter 23).

The governess is literally saying she would like to know what happened to the letter she had written Miles’s uncle, her employer.

But at the end it’s a tragedy too: the house is haunted. Evil things have been happening there for quite some time and ends in disaster. How did Miles die? In that final scene he turns and admit he sees Quint and calls him “you devil.” Maybe Miles has a heart attack because finally he is terrified of this ghost and doesn’t want to go with him. The Governess’s hysteria may given him a heart attacK. It might be she asphyxiated the boy by holding him so tight so as to keep Quint from grabbing him.

Now all this occurred 70 years ago. The governess told no one the true story and no one cared enough to investigate. It was in the uncle’s interest to cover it up. She went on being a governess and first told a young man she like who liked her 40 years later. 20 years ago just before she died she wrote what happened down, and now on Xmas eve Douglas brings this story forth.

But it’s not about the past. It’s about today.

I was bothered by something that did occur in my second class. It’s 21 males against 3 females. The first reaction some of the guys had what the governess killed the boy and their first impulse was to blame her because she was sexually uptight. In talking though other of the boys saw the larger picture and Russell Baker’s introduction about it’s being a story of child-abuse by the ghosts also helped. So did the film So I conclude the so-called Freudian Cargill reading is partly a strong symptom of the misogyny of our culture which hates single women especially those who seek to control male sexuality (there’s a hatred of Austen in Twain, Lawrence that comes from this). We despise those who can’t cope with teasing as the governess could not. out of this comes the feeling the children are just playing. Right: that’s Mrs Grose. (gross is the allegory behind that one).

I think also the unwillingness to confront that Miles talked dirty sex with other boys (that’s what he says he did) and maybe allowed Quints to indulge in sex with him comes out of the unwillingness even to discuss pederasty or homosexuality.

So moral panic kills but not doing something moral is wrong too. At the time when Quint was left in charge the evil began. Something should have been done then and again by Mrs Grose when Quint took over the boy. The boy was puzzled, confused, led to boast and try for power as an upper class male against the governess, but he was too young and weak physically if nothing else so died.


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Henry James, a photo (1897)

This is not the effete young man, or the tired weary old guarded bland one, but an imposing solid guy, distinctive, intense, modern looking too without being (as he is in another) crumpled. Look at the powerful thigh, the stub of a cigar and flat cap.

Dear friends and readers,

When we finished reading James’s Roderick Hudson on Trollope19thCStudies, two of us had enjoyed ourselves enough to want to go on to read more of James’s works, biographies of James, more criticism. We lit on Fred Kaplan’s biography, The Imagination of Genius, read it through and have now gone on read two short stories, “The Middle Years” (autobiographical) and “The Turn of the Screw” (ghost gothic).

I hope to show that while Kaplan’s lengthy biography is admirable, perceptive, at once rich in so many details and perception, yet it’s still less than satisfying. Its subtitle: “The imagination of genius” is inappropriate. Precisely because Kaplan does not go into the books as art and remains literally on the surface of the letters, his book ultimately fails to convey a sense of a full person. He pretended to (or did believe) James was totally celibate; and — very bad, great lack — he didn’t begin to go into James’s imaginative and travel and critical writing sufficiently.

I also want to show (I’ll do this on Reveries under the sign of Austen) that at the center of The Turn of the Screw is a novella of a young woman forbidden by her employer to seek his aid, who is beset, terrified, harassed by the ghosts and teased by the children: where were we? The theme: the evil moral panic can wreak.
Chapters 1-2

Henry James when young

I began Kaplan’s Henry James: Imagination of Genius this morning and found I could read it, and more, I like it. He’s trying to recreate the inner worlds that James knew as a boy (and presumably as one continues) young man to account for what we find in the novels. Kaplan begins with a large get-together, one with plenty of food. What does it feel like to a young male heir: Kaplan opens with James at age 21, at age 29, and then dying, each as a vignette of what James is contemplating: he wants praise and money at 21; at 29 he’s made his way to Venice, to Italy, and (using quotations again) dreams of a handsome Italian boy rising from Adriatic waters, and then all the burning of stacks and stacks of letters, the nervous breakdown and illness at WW1, stroke.

Many of the vignettes of people remind me of characters in James without Kaplan saying so. We are perhaps expected to see that on our own. So there is Roderick Hudson in Henry James’s senior’s refusal to chain himself down to a business life, and instead his years of drinking heavily, his failure at an art life but success at a personal one.

Immersed in the US until he was 12 and then immersed in Europe, detached from all, not placed inside communities and the mother allowing all this. Bob, one of the two un-literary brothers ended an alcoholic.

That James did not “take to change, especially when it threatened values and ways of life that he believed had permanent value” (p. 5).

Kaplan shows Henry James Senior’s moving was a deliberate and effective method of isolating his children and controlling them. Thus when they did make their way in Newport, finding friends, going to schools, he moved them back to Europe and they were desolate. Newport was acceptable because its middle class was of the gentry fringe type — no successful comparisons in other walks of life to compare to Henry Senior’s. It’s obvious to an intelligent person from the letters what he’s about and Kaplan quotes these. William begged to be able to go to school, to college, and Henry Senior wouldn’t let him; ditto for Henry Junior. On one level, Henry Senior was against the kinds of friends the two older boys were making (aesthetic, painting), but a deeper one was they were developing integrated lives very different from his own.

As to the mother, he apparently simply wiped the floor up with her. Aunt Kate was the only force opposed.

When they got to Europe though the boys were too old to just take it, and while there is no record of this, the failure of the schools there (as it’s said in the letters) drove the father back — probably open complaints. One visitor described quarrels at the table about other things, but there are ever subtexts.

So all returned to Newport where still Henry Senior refusing to pay for college for the older boys, and trying to force patterns he approved of on the younger.

Meanwhile Alice, the girl is left at home — to stew I suppose.

Alice James, much later in life

I’ve read Kaplan’s book on Whitman (also a homosexual writer) and one (but a while back) on the letters between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning: all three show the same kinds of insights.
Chapters 3-5

Minny Temple

It’s hard to do justice to the compelling brilliance of the third and fourth chapters of Kaplan’s book. It’s not sterile and not suave. For example where Kaplan explains the attraction of Minnie Temple for James (pp. 77-78). The quality of insight, general reach of evaluative critique, choice of quotation from James are stunningly insightful plus give this reader great pleasure in the integrity of outlook Kaplan himself displays. The candor of the chapter on the illness of these four adults and the lack of enough money from the father equally well done.

Still a gap, or a hole begins to emerge. Kaplan offers no real explanation for how these young adults became so fucked-up. Was it keeping them apart? But so many people don’t integrate into society nor their children well at all. This is the dirty little American secret so insistently hidden in popular media (but seen in intelligent blogs and postings and websites seen on the Net at long last).

I take it the father covered his tracks and so did the mother and the James children were brought up so repressed and pious, they couldn’t get themselves literally to write down what was said and done when they were in their adolescence beyond this obvious pragmatic intense control and repression.

Henry escapes — goes abroad in Chapter 4. Henry seems the least maimed of this band of children — William will emerge later once he marries and escapes. I read into the early phases of Henry’s time abroad and how he needed and was dependent on conventional family friends — like the Nortons. By contrast, Trollope went to taverns and bars and so on by himself in his young adult hood in London but then Trollope was a native.

The frankness of Kaplan extends to Henry’s constipation. I feel for him. None of our modern day pills was available to him, no MaxExLax, no docusate calcium.

And the homosexuality or homo-eroticism of the young James and his first stories and interpretations of these connecting to James’s rivalry/love for his brother good too. I did like Flowers seeing how the supposed noble souls in James do much damage (that include Rowland)., but the kind of reverse readings (where female characters stand in for males) and story as metaphor (where the story line is re-morphed into what is going on in James’s life) is not easy to do and to write lucidly on top of it.

In Chapter 5 James forced home for lack of funds; uncertain time, but beginning to make enough money to live on (with a little help from father) and he, his sister, Alice, and their aunt Kate set forth again, this time the rationale Alice’s health. They are mistaken for husband, wife and mother and Henry doesn’t mind. Alice and Kate return, leaving Henry who’s career is slowly growing, as he writes for The Nation and other venues and produces one novel (Watch and Ward, what a mess) and several stories.

I don’t envy these young people. I know they are among the privileged elite of their time, fringe elite, precariously privileged, but well above the driving necessitous lives of most people then — and in the US increasingly now as the middle class is now grindingly beginning to be visibly destroyed. Rather they remind me of my students in this light: the years of our 20s are very hard, because we are trying to find ourselves, and in a way are placed will we, nill we. The horizon at 36 has closed to a large extent for many so the pressure is on. For women this is complicated by a perceived demand we marry — for men too though it’s less for both than it once was. It is scary and it is hard and I feel for my students as who knows what to do, or what choice will matter.

I do see them as maimed. Far from envying, I wonder just what really went on in that household. The mother was either dense or covered her “ass” and manipulative or (one can find different explanations) complicit with the father as not only was it easier but alone in their rooms who knows what kinds of deep unpleasantness he could pull off. I think of Mrs Harlowe in Clarissa — in her complicity. I used the phrase “fucked up” as an allusion — to Larkin’s poem. It has some fame. Perhaps Linda will think it harsh too, but he means to make us look at the raw power of our parents’ terrible hangups and miseries and how they pass them on to us, will they nill they. Here it is:

“This be the Verse” by Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

By alluding to this I meant to suggest also we cannot know really what the grandfather handed on to Henry Senior — beyond Kaplan’s attempts to show him to have been a driving commercial relentless ruthless man. Of the grandmother we are as usual confronted with silence. Another women not allowed to have a history of her own.

Minnie did die young and while she is presented as cheerful, the paragraphs I pointed to configure an attitude which remind me of Milly in Wings of the dove. I don’t know if Linda has read that one: it ends with the heroine not just near dying but turning her face to the wall rather than see the betrayal and (humiliating) use that has been made of her by Kate and her lover (I forget this male’s name but he is a type repeated in James). The key Kaplan felt was the strong integrity Minnie held to. At the same time Kaplan critiques this ideal as coming out of a stereotyped view of women that represses them sexually, something handed on (as in Larkin’s poem) to Henry junior from his father (again pp. 78-79). Minnie was ever dying in James’s mind and he knew her letters were gallantry.

We are told that with Fanny Kemble he developed an “intimate friendship”. Kemble wrote two long autobiographies, a powerful book on slavery as she experienced as a mistress of an adulterous cruel master-type, many poems and once she divorced this man and was forced to give up her children to do it, lived an unconventional life — she couldn’t manage the stage so performed privately pieces from Shakespeare, in many ways a much harder way to survive (rather like Kate Field’s lecture-performances).

I was touched by his friendship and intense liking for Fanny Kemble. Me too

“To Mrs Norton”

I never shall forget thee — ’tis a word
Thou oft must hear, for surely there be none
On whom thy wondrous eyes have ever shone
But for a moment, or who e’er have heard
Thy voice’s deep impassioned melody,
Can lose the memory of that look or tone.
But, not as these, do I say unto thee,
I never shall forget thee: — in thine eyes,
Whose light, like sunshine, makes the world rejoice,
A stream of sad and solemn splendour lies;
And there is sorrow in thy gentle voice.
Thou art not like the scenes in which I found thee,
Thou are not like the beings that surround thee;
To me thou art a dream of hope and fear;
Yet why of fear? — oh sure! the Power that lent
Such gifts, to make thee fair, and excellent;
Still watches one whom it has deigned to bless
With such a dower of grace and loveliness;
Over the dangerous waves ’twill surely steer
The richly freighted bark, through storm and blast,
And guide it safely to the port at last.
Such is my prayer; ’tis warm as ever fell
From off my lips: accept it, and farewell!
And though in this strange world, where first I met thee,
We meet no more — I never shall forget thee.

—– Fanny Kemble

Chs 5-7: the career and life style begins to emerge

DeVere Gardens, London — it took a long time before James could afford to rent an apartment in this place, but eventually he did and lived there

In these chapters James moves from Paris to London, partly because he could not “break” into Parisian society. We see him do just that in London, and as he does so, his career and life style begin to emerge. He is writing for the Tribune, for Howells, and others, and (as will continue) his work is not sufficiently appreciated — yes, for an elite taste, but it doesn’t sell widely enough, and he finds he needs his father’s letter of credit more than he wants to. He remains thinking of himself as an American abroad. The chapters also take you through the writing of Roderick Hudson and The American and in quick thumbnail sketches they are somewhat attached to James’s life.

I say somewhat because not only in both cases but in Kaplan’s discussion of James’s life there is a real silence about his homosexuailty. Kaplan was openly able to translate the earlier stories into parables connected to James’s life but not these two books. This discretion makes the book duller and with less insight much less when it comes to Roderick Hudson. For the American Kaplan allows himself “Henry wanted to assert strongly that the individual was more important than the family, that personal achievement should have priority over social inheritance or structure” (p. 163). I did like Kaplan’s insight into James’s fantasies of forgiveness: Kaplan finds in Jame’s fiction “a deeply restrained anger.” On the surface this unreal adherence to believing his family really thought of him as an “angel” and people really forgive one another but below the rage not confronted. Kaplan feels James moves away from seeing how power to be felt and enjoyed must be exerted. I wonder about that myself. Must it? If so, then action must be cruel to satisfy people? Does that explain why continually in the political world we see the powerful trying to axe the powerless even when whatever it is is no skin off their backs? But I do think James does show lurches for power: what else is Rowland spending his money for but to work Roderick as a puppet. That’s put harshly but it has accuracy.

Paul Joukowsky

We are told James fell in love briefly with Paul Joukowsky and get two franker pages (pp. 171-72). It’s apparent that James continues to buy into seeing a lived-out free homosexual life as disgusting and offensive, and this can to some extent justify Kaplan’s reticence (as James was reticent), but not discussing this in terms of the fiction or his moods and tones in the fiction or his life. His mother describes his life as reclusive and that’s not contradicted by Kaplan. My comment is the ironic one that even so (as I said) I found the academic reviewers excoriating him.

James’s not so kind comments about Anthony Trollope are quoted Trollope kept a strong carapace in public himself. I note how much James liked Turgenev. I’ve read very little of Turgenev’s fiction — this past year a story or so, late at night, very dark indeed.

James then writes a series of masterpieces: Europeans, The Portrait of a Lady are two.

Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan), Jane Campion and Laura Jones’s 1986 The Portrait of a Lady, produced by Steve Golin

Kaplan has situated and described the circumstances and (in his discreet way) the personal life James was living while writing his earlier distinguished non-fiction — the essays on French literature, French poetry, the book on Hawthorne, early travel pieces.

I was struck by how Daisy Miller sold precisely because it was misunderstood and the conversation about it then is the same one I’ve heard today here on the Net and among students. Did Daisy have sex with her cavaliere servente. If we go on to read further fictions by James we should remember his comment that he wrote so as not to be understood too well as “it would be dangerous” — as well as cut his sales even more drastically.

I love the choice of utterances, sentences and longer passages Kaplan makes. They bring before me on the page the sensibility that I am so drawn to in James. Kaplan unerringly quotes James’s finest humane moments — as well as the ironic ones. It’s funny how bad he finds the actors and actresses still cried up today.

I admire James so for soldiering on – he is making no or such painfully small sums. He write a masterpiece on American literature and culture and Hawthorne, called Hawthorne and is excoriated. He is underpaid; when a book sells, he has lost the copyright. I don’t blame him for not getting an agent. I have dealt with agents for other things on occasion, enough to corrode the soul for months. The rivalry between William and Henry bad. Constance Fennimore Cooper relationship develops and means deeply to both of them.

Occasionally Kaplan shows real limitations: in his reading of Washington Square he talks of the father as sincere, intelligent, &c — identifying with the father (who hates the girl) he misses the whole point. But also occasionally he is willing to bring in James’s homosexuality in a reading and the text is made sense of (p. 214, “Confidences”).

He carries on quoting aptly: James: “I should pretend to think just a little better of life than I really do.” (p. 228)

Henry James may seem and is doing very well with 7/8s of the population around him, but that’s not how he feels. People see themselves in comparison, and while it’s clear he sees and registers the abysmal poverty of the streets in Italy and London, he compares himself with his fellow writers and people of his class. Kaplan offers many stories, sets of pages and quotation after quotation and example after example of James being paid much less than he felt he should have gotten and saw as meagre sums. One example (pp. 216-18). Or when he was galled to find he has sold the copyright of a book which did after all sell very well and he got nothing in comparison to what he should have gotten. We are told how he leaned on the letter of credit from his father and how he had to write his mother for more.

There’s a biography of Trollope by R.H. Super where Super argues that Trollope had a good childhood and is himself seeing the things black. But if that’s how Trollope experienced it and that were his memories, that’s what counts.

I don’t see James as a loner so much as we have no record of what he did when not writing and not out to dinner. For good reason. He”s in love with this man Paul Joukowsky but we are not told how they meet or what they did; all that exists is an indirect passage in a letter where James recorded his moral distaste for the debauched groups of people Paul surrounds himself by — I take this as code for homosexuality. James was there and he wanted it all to be in good taste I assume. Rather like Rowland — people should control themselves in public too. At the end of Chapter 7 we are told he had fallen desperately in love — with Paris.

I don’t feel I’m getting to know James well enough. His statements are often vexed, disappointed, and hurt; there is much dark, sad desperateness which can explain why he said he has an “imagination” which dwelt on the “sinister” when it comes to the nature of human life at the same time (for him to marry would be to “pretend to think just a little better of life than I really do” — a typical utterance as he writes in high ecstasy of physical beauty in the places he visits. He seems to look to art for intense compensation.

I do miss more discussion of art: we are given thumbnail interpretations of some of the novels and short stories but only some. The talk is much more about the social circumstances of composition — very typical for modern biographers. And there is nothing about his essays on poetry or travel books. That would be lovely and probably make the book more cheerful.

Chapter 8: Felt triumph

Villa Brichieri, Florence (where James stayed and wrote)

His book Portrait of a Lady really appreciated, and he makes good money on it, indeed (Kaplan points out that James does not say this but he could have been seeing it) more than his father would take from his unearned property-income in a given year. He goes home on the wave of this success. He is in fact a man of letters, known across those parts of Europe his family and he understand and so care about, respected as a brilliant mind, fine writer. One of the reviews I sent yesterday summarized one chapter on the periodicals where it was said that James’s erudite small-audience kind of prose was a “plus” for those periodicals seeking to present themselves and make a place for themselves as belonging to finer literature and art.

When he looks about (comparisons again), he cannot help but see that he is succeeding at least as well as William and far better than Alice (who though has a woman companion-lover Katherine Loring) or the two younger brothers, one desperately depressed, the other now an alcoholic. And Henry could not have stood William’s kind of happiness, the last thing in the world that would sustain him is this heterosexual marriage with a conventional woman and children. He looks at his parents and sees them not as powerhouses any more: the mother shrunken, and now the father not all powerful at all. He’s growing up, freeing himself, a little.

There is such reticence in James that we feel this — we have a picture of a man who goes to his club for breakfast, dawdles about, then gets down to writing and in the evening socializes. Many details about this but it’s like a hole at the center. Not that I really think he was endlessly debauching himself; it seems that in fact he was super-discreet to the point that whatever sexual or private relationships beyond his business and social life and family he had were kept to a minimum, fleeting.

Some of this silence can be seen in the almost crazy worshipful way the mother was treated after death, like some kind of saint. Hardly likely. The father then starves himself to death for a year and leaves an unfair will — apparently partly through the influence of this Aunt Kate. I begin to wonder about some of these older dominating aunts we find in James’s fiction. Henry is the executor and has to fight William to get him to agree to fair distribution. The whole sordid spectacle is before us, but notably only general kinds of bleak pessimistic statements are uttered by Henry. That he did not admit his homosexuality is seen in letters quoted where he is explaining to someone why he doesn’t marry.

Among other things he could say he hasn’t the money for it. Again he is surviving by his pen, but he is endlessly being he feels cheated this and that way through his own bad guesses, business softness (or incompetence some would call it). We see these attempts to write plays and how they failed and general statements about how appalling was his meeting with this or that manager. The comparison of this with “Henry James Leaves Home” by Colm Toibin brings out the comparison between the two kinds of texts and the living person fully brought out in incomparably in Toibin’s favor.

Not that I’m not learning a lot: for example how James came to write A Tour in France, the circumstances, the money, what he enjoyed and what was so ennui to him. But it’s something beyond one desires in biographical art.

Genius, Chapter 9

James’s close friendship with Edith Wharton came later in life

Not much to say as I didn’t get much further (just a bit): only that I feel the book’s spirits lifting as James’s spirits lift. He is still making painfully small sums in comparison to what he sees others of his caliber and reach make, still then using his inheritance, but he is now it seems free. He has at least freed himself because of his parents’ death and the settlement of the estate.

Wilky dies but he doesn’t get there. Still of the five children he does seem to have become the most responsible. It’s true monetarily and as far as respect and achievement goes, William is catching up or has, but I am impressed by Henry James’s real decency in divvying up the property and his friendships. He seems to me becoming a figure of honesty and integrity — how it must’ve hurt to have to despise his own sexuality and keep it a secret. We cannot fathom it until we begin to imagine analogous experiences of our own … Then one understands aspects of his fiction better too.

How generous are the photos, and how many and how revealing. James not only lived into the photo era, he was a member of groups who took camera pictures of themselves. Kaplan says he didn’t like how he looked, but he did let people photograph him. Also the other people, the places — they are well chosen. It’s worth it to slowly linger through them — like a story.

It’s the same story still. Kaplan has the eternal problem of the biographer: he is hampered by the letters or can’t readily go beyond them, and they are apparently filled with talk about the money James is not getting and what he got, and how he was not treated right and so on. He sticks with the American versus British (Europe v US) contrast and it comes home to him all the more because he gets caught (stuck) by the way the publishers on two sides of the ocean take advantage. Happily though he has enough to settle into his first home, an apartment of his own at De Vere Gardens, London, with a good view (ahem) and is very cheered: “a moment of euphoria and fulfillment — the lifelong wanderer with a place of personal rest” (p 297)

Not so about the continual failure of his books to please a wide audience. He makes his money on short stories. It’s true the way Kaplan describes the book (Bostonians) makes them not very likable. They do have some real politics about socialism, and even James doesn’t discuss it in his letters, it is there — especially The Princess Casamassima which I remember.

I like Stevenson and am glad to see Kaplan show their friendship and shared concern with art (p. 276-77). But Stevenson couldn’t stay put, a wanderer who really did wander.

Kaplan comes out on the side of James as repressed: he did not act out his homosexuality nor did he think of himself as a homosexual. We have to remember the word comes in the 1890s in a medical sex book (I think it was). We have a different vocabulary, much more secularized (we don’t include damning people through Biblical connotations as in the world “harlot”) I was struck by this when reading James’s thoughts about Wilde (p. 301) and also how Kaplan describes the strong homo-eroticism of the tales of this era — very like Roderick Hudson apparently. Kaplan will describe a short story in terms that allegorize (interpret) it as homoerotic or sexual and then back off to tell us how James distanced himself — often by making a gender change so the person he’s identifying with is a woman.

The way Kaplan described “The Pupil” gave me pause. A young boy dies at the end; this is what happens in Turn of the Screw. I can’t find it now but the sense of the passage was James was expressing his deep sympathy with this boy out of an outsider sexual orientation. Was this what happened in Turn of the Screw? Are we to see the boy punished for having had sex with Quint and how unfair that is? (that he should have been exploited, expelled and then die of a heart attack). Then we get the humane use of language about his sister, Alice; he is telling the aunt maybe even if it’s not “so good for Alice” to have Katherine with her; there is no such thing as the long run. What nonsense to have to talk this way in the first place (p. 277). There were two in the family who were GLBT.

His attempt to break into the theater

Guy Domville (Act III, Marion Terry and George Alexander)

These chapters are on James’s attempt to succeed on stage and deaths, many deaths. They are very moving. I think perhaps Kaplan in repeating the idea that James’s problem was he was determined to write down is misguided. James may have said that but it seems to me he was determined to write differently because he know the angle at which he pitched his fiction was not external; he didn’t write Ibsen plays because his point of view was not modern in Ibsen’s way at all — he is anything but for women’s liberation. Guy Domville shows a man writing autobiographically about what is near his heart and using metaphors that draw from learned reading.

Clearly James had enough money but he didn’t think so; what a throwing away of himself one might say. I wonder if he was intensely stirred by the social interaction.

From death to death, and the portraits of each of the people (Browning, Stevenson, Fanny Kemble, Alice James, and finally Constance Fennimore). In each case I’d like to make the point that what’s so stirring is Kaplan’s presence his voice.

We haven’t been talking enough about the biography as art. In the biographies I wrote about over the last couple of years (Nokes’s, Sutherland’s, McCarthy’s, Plessix-Grey) I stress the biographer and the interaction for that’s what makes the book. Nick tells me he’s reading Glendining on Trollope: what makes her book singularly interesting is her take, her prose, her world view interacting and impinged upon.

We’ve been talking as if this is somehow coming at us from some impersonal place. I do this because 1) I don’t know enough about Kaplan to have a sense of him (as I did Nokes and Sutherland) or the subject (as I do of Trollope, Scott, Anna Barbauld) and this is deep stuff — unlike Plessix-Grey who on the face of her book was clearly inadequate, shallow.

And 2) Kaplan piles so much in. This is a hard-worked book so every sentence is thick with James’s wonderful quotations. So Kaplan keeps himself the shaper who is more silent.

Still he came out in these chapters. Death brings out the commemorator and celebrator in him. He gives us a sense of each person as so precious and how terrible to lose them. Like James, he has no sense of an afterlife — and he has James thinking this way.

I don’t know that I’m getting a lot about the fiction in this book. Probably not. I do know that the egregious reviews which castigated it as making James a gay man (and how they couldn’t stand this) are absurd and misrepresenting the book. James is not all that different in activity thus far than Edel had him. It’s only that Kaplan continually leaves rooms for what we have no documentation for and a wanderer whose sexual orientation is so different and his dreams; for Kaplan though the sex is only one aspect of what made James a man alone amid so many friends, associates, people who respected him (rightly).

If I’m liking James, it’s Kaplan that’s doing it.

Chs 12-13

Constance Fennimore Woolson

I’ve gotten into 13 and found myself a wee bit put off by James’s reiteration of how little money he makes — yes from books, but he’s got a fine income if he can purchase Lamb House in Rye, a central house in the area, built 1723, place for long established upper class people to live.

I was struck by James’s intense grief over Woolston’s death and how he rowed out into the middle of the lagoon and threw her black dresses into the water and they all came up to the surface and bobbed about him. He was doing public penance. It was a ritual public humiliation and how he hated these black dresses. The account of her independent but lonely life was moving: she must not have been sane at the end, though.

I am myself sceptical about James’s celibacy. I see there’s no evidence for sexual interaction but by the nature of the case there would not be. I’m impressed by how he got hold of and burnt all his letters to Woolston, how he burns others. There young men come to live at Lamb house for extended periods.

Hendrik and Andreas Anderson (painted by the latter): Hendrik was one of a group of young male friends of James’s

The nights are long and silent and tell nothing. He keeps the Smith couple despite their alcoholism and negligent ways. There’s one photo of James where he sits in a chair so crumpled: to me that’s a man returned from a tour of the streets.

I had not thought that James’s behavior in that lagoon might make some people laugh at him. It becomes even more painful to me to contemplate then. That moment in the theater when he (innocent still) came out on stage after the playing of Guy Domville to be hooted and jeered and the target of catcalls — at the same moment as other groups in the house frantically applauded, stomped and so on — I imagine it never left his consciousness quite, burnt into his brain. So too perhaps this scene which he engineered himself.

I had not thought of Kaplan’s interpretation of the Turn of the Screw at all. Henry is the little girl, and William Miles; Miles is (as I thought) expelled for homoerotic adventures with other boys, having been taught by Quint. The governess Aunt Kate. It’s too pat. Nor do I see Homosexual panic in it — rather it’s a defense of pederasty and of boys having sex. I see James identifying with the governess in her repression (so that is the side he writes the letters out of where he decries open debauchery) but also with those the governess is so appalled and horrified by, the stud Quint (having sex with Miss Jessel who killed herself) and the master and Miles too. He got around. Quint is the Stanley Kowalski from Streetcar that Tennesse Williams so loathed and feared first created by James: the man who would destroy him. In that sense homosexual panic.

I had thought Maisie knew all.

I thought I’d begin with this line, as indicative of so many passages paraphrased by Kaplan so one can see how the book is an interaction of Kaplan and James:

“He could think of nothing more wasteful, more brutal, more detestable, more personally soul-shaking than people killing one another in an organized way.” p 432

On politics this is James utterance; “The crudity of the struggle for place is … mainly what strikes me. It isn’t pretty.” p 432

I mentioned how two of the reviews online available to me (there were not that many) excoriated this book for its flagrant “making up” (mandarin words for this) of James’s homosexuality. I’m still thinking about this as I read paragraphs where Kaplan has written comments like “In various forms, many of them disguises, such a retreat frmo overt sexuality had been central to James’s life …” Kaplan insists — to me improbably — that weeks of visits from people like the very sensual sexy Hendrik Anderson results in no physical sex (for example, p 452). Of course we have no photos, of course they didn’t write it down. Rather I imagine something painful like having sex very quietly at night and then returning to separate rooms and never ever discussing it. So I am guessing that the reviewers who were so offended had the reaction I’m having: Kaplan is pretending to assume celibacy to sell widely all the while giving us huge skeins of evidence which suggest otherwise. Not wild debauches, but covert sexuality – and alas self-hatred.

Which leads me to say I have never been able to understand why the hatred of sexual interaction between people of the same sex. So what? Biblical and other injunctions are the outside rationales for gut fears but there are other fears — like of the dead which result in myths about vampires and of old women which result in burning old women as witches. This one lives on. Statistics show repeatedly that say anal intercourse occurs frequently between heterosexuals as do other forms of sex. One might argue that the only difference is the cultural deformations imposed by large groups of people in various places.

I finished the book in the early hours of this morning. As I think about it, I find it a dissatisfying or frustrating book. I honestly don’t think the general outline Edel erected years ago is changed. More pieces are put into the puzzle: we are told the names of James’s young male lovers/friends, how often they stayed; we are told more of his moving about, and I dare say a much better choice of passages by James, much better maybe – this book is packed with quotations, some pages are sheer pastiche.

The choice really gives us a sense of an acutely alive person. When he died, I felt his agony at this annihilation made its progress across his body, then mind, and then whole being. But repeatedly there are lines in the quotations totally at odds with the general sense of the man at the given point offered by Kaplan. So we have these long passages practically chortling with joy as James visits friends in the US and travels; they register so beautifully (to allude to one of his favorite ironic words in the novels) the quality of his experiences, the details of what he perceives physically, viscerally, his deep ethical horror at much in human life (e.g., the war). But then there’s this line about his ‘deep bitterness’ out of nowhere, unexplained and out of kilter with the rest. This happened repeatedly.

Also Kaplan’s discussions of James’s writing are short and really most of the time are simply read autobiographically. If he did this to save space and write a compact book or because he knows that “lit crit” is not what sells and not what publishers want, it leaves a huge hole in his book. Why are we interested in James if not what he says to us generally too? Why his books are beautiful? What he thought of other authors, art.

So on the whole while this may at this point be the best on offer that’s concise, and miles better than the Plessix-Grey sort of thing. It’s not cant, Kaplan has not produced a book of cant or stupidities and has not himself written on behalf of or out of the perspective of the privileged order to which James belonged as if it were reality for us all. But it’s not a satisfying book. When you finish a book on Austen and feel you are no closer, well the papers have been destroyed most of them and she produced but 6 novels and all of them censored to be a lady’s books and not displease her family on whom she was dependent.

But this is not the case with James at all. We’ll rely on HD TV.

I find it moving that at the end of his life Jame is finally saying to hell with a wide audience and writing the last three masterpiece novels. How he hurried back to Lamb House and the depiction of him on, writing long letters with “his little dog breathing softly by his side.” And “He found the world an increasingly brutal, violent place. He often felt lonely.”

I was struck in these last chapters how much Henry James relied on people who were not his family members; how uneasy and miserable his brothers at the close made him, and how his brother’s wife took over his existence and body to the point of removing a faithful long time servant who when Henry James was able to exert his own consciousness was close to him. William’s wife thought she owned him, body and all, to the point of disobeying his last desires and returning his ashes to the US. James’s relationships with a group of young men were all intimate in the letters in what they reveal of their souls and emotions to one another and they were a great solace for this man in his later years. Not enough. No, for they too were caught up in the same order of scorn. I do agree on how James loathed what humanity did in WW1. His friend, Edith Wharton, too and she worked hard to relieve suffering with her huge amounts of money.

This is an admirable but unsatisfying biography. After I wrote my last last week I thought to myself the title is inappropriate: it’s precisely that Kaplan does not go into the books as art and remains literally on the surface of the letters that the problem with the book lies.

People were not ontologically different from today nor did they withhold themselves from having sex any more than they do today. They wrote it down much less; it was far more dangerous. As today in public people tell many lies and present guarded versions of their lives so then even more so. Also that there no general mind (or will) at any time. Of course there is no documentation of what literal sex life and what James did with many of his hours; it would be deeply against his interests to write this stuff down clearly. What is astonishing is how much there is. Sedgwick credits James with beginning homosexual literature. Oh yes before him we do during freer period find poems by men to others they love (Shakespeare, Michelangelo), from the Renaissance on pornography begins to last (Aretino), the later 17th century is rich in documentation of lesbianism as reflected in conventionalized poetry too, but nothing as realistic or aware of the pain of being despised as James. That’s what’s so new, the self-reflexivity of placing the self against the conventional society — Shakespeare doesn’t do that nor Aphra Behn (who writes lesbian poems). Roderick Hudson is an important landmark first in this.

James late in life, in front of Lamb House, Rye, Sussex


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Pool, Villa D’Este, Tivoli, from Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Gardens

Dear friends and readers,

Over the month of August on Trollope19thCStudies a very few of us read Henry James’s Roderick Hudson, if not James’s first novel, his earliest in print and still read. I had not read it since I was in my early thirties when I probably read it naively as all I had to go on was (quoting Dean Flowers on the vast superiority of the recent 2 volume biography of James by Sheldon Novick) “the suave sterilities” and evasive misleading generalities of Leon Edel. Since getting on the Net in the mid-1990s, and participating in a Henry James listserv community, coming across and reading Colm Toibin’s The Master and other essays on James, and simply growing up into candour at long last, I’ve become aware of how central to James’s oeuvre is his homosexuality. Still, I was astonished when I was confronted with this frank text, not just for its time and place (homosexuality was still a seriously prosecutable crime, and led to harassment and blackmail by the unscrupulous, as described by J. M. Forster), but for James himself. How it leaps out at us.

At first I thought it might make Roderick Hudson a clearer book than any other James published, but soon discovered that since James didn’t have the courage to build his plot-design around his pair of potential lovers, Roderick Hudson and Rowland Mallet, but rather created an enfeebled version of the conventional courtship and thwarted marriage story of Victorian novels. Still what he has left us with is valuable: a partly hidden because not coped-with story of the howling anguish of a life of a man made to feel what is natural to him is profoundly sick.

To summarize the story: it is ostensibly the story of Roderick Hudson, a young artist who given money to free himself of his boring job and repressive family by the rich idle gentleman, Rowland Mallet, goes to Europe to fulfill his gift. This after he engages himself to Mary Garland, a supposedly super-innocent good young woman (this characterization is part of the flaws of the book). Once in Europe (Italy to be specific) he finds a corrupt society (debauched offstage), most people unable to appreciate fine subtle visions in art (and certainly his kinky statues of beautiful naked young men), encounters Christina Light, the unacknowledged bastard daughter of a ruthless mercenary mother, Mrs Light, and biological father discreetly living off her (Giacosa). Like Roderick, Christina is forced to make a decision (marry a dull prince) which will prevent her ever from having a fulfilled inner life. We are asked to believe they are in love. The real thwarted lover is Rowland Mallet who harasses Roderick to live a compromised existence, invited Mary Garland and Roderick’s ludicrously child-like mother to Italy to follow him, Rowland himself said to be in love with Mary. Driven and angry, depressed, and not knowing how to live out what he is, Roderick throws himself or falls off a cliff.

At the same time or just before reading and posting about this book we had rapidly and briefly read and posted about Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and Martin Scorcese’s film adaptation.

Newland Archer (Cecil Day Lewis) and Ellen Olsenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) in Scorcese’s Age of Innocence (they could stand in a types for a film of the story Roderick and Christina Light)

Not unexpectedly (given the close friendship of James and Wharton and the known parallels of their work and shared milieu), we found the same moral design in both this book and film: a hero and heroine, Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, forced to deny their love for one another because she was a divorce (abused by her husband) and he is pressured into marrying a supposedly innocent but manipulating controlling woman, May Weyland. Wharton’s book ostensibly justifies Archer’s throwing away of his and Ellen’s precious possibility while Scorcese’s film delineates Archer as spending his life as a lost depressive. (For more on this book and film see the comments to this blog.)

Susan Fraiman’s Unbecoming Women, a study of novels of female development sheds unexpected light on Roderick Hudson. One of the chapters is on the humiliation of Elizabeth Bennet. The gothic may be seen as a special or strong instance of such novels I’d say (and it’s no coincidence that Fraiman edited the Norton edition of Northanger Abbey). Novels of female development and female gothics differ from novels of male development and male gothics strongly: men are self-fashioning, travel, gain integration into the world (in gothics they are outcast and exiled); women have a vexed embattled time where they are pushed into conforming and punished when they don’t, all the while driven not really to conform in order to survive.

Now (as we shall see) Roderick Hudson; he is embattled and being pushed to do what he doesn’t want to, be a heterosexual conventional male. And destroys himself or is destroyed (depending on how you look at this).

What follows are a selection of parts of my and other people’s postings as we read the book over a few summer weeks.


John Singer Sergeant, In the Medici Villa, 1907 (the cover illustration for a 1970s reprint of the New York edition of Roderick Hudson).

Chapters 1-3:

What struck me is the homosexuality: how it leaps out at one. Roderick Hudson’s statue of the beautiful young (ripe, luscious, athletic, choose what words seem to you delectable) male water-drinker and how Rowland Mallet can’t resist it. In later books this kind of origination and temperature is marginalized.

Robin Ellis playing such a character, Robert Action in an early Merchant-Ivory-Jhabala Europeans (like Dan Steevens who also played a gay male in Line of Beauty, Ellis played Edward Ferrars in film adaptations of Sense and Sensibility)

“‘The cup is knowledge, pleasure, experience, anything of that kind.’
‘Then he’s drinking very deep,’ said Rowland (Ch 2, p 27, Houghton Mifflin 1977 edition, introd. Edel)

Rowland’s attraction to Roderick is contrasted to the sexless feeling of of Rowland Mallet with his cousin-in-law — suitably distanced in kin and later Roderick with Mary Garland. Again in later books this kind of duo pair will be presented as themselves somehow embroiled. It’s franker here. Later in his life James will have more acquaintance in Europe and people to model characters on. I wondered how much this cousin and American mother reflect either James’s mother or his brother’s wife (about whom recently a book has been written).

Directly parallelling (or contrasting) to Wharton’s Age of Innocence, as Archer is pressured into conforming to his society to live a life of ease and convenience on his wife’s money and amid a respectable money-making firm, Hudson has to fight his family and mother to avoid going into the family business and become an artist. His brother has died in the war — more autobiography. Two of the James’ brothers fought in the civil war and (as I recall) it shattered at least one of them). Some guilt here and remembrance. There is sympathy for Hudson’s mother.

The usual tired ostensibly plot-design of opposition of European as knowing, sophisticated culture and American as innocent, repressed, philistine is put before us. Hudson must go to Europe to learn his art.


Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan in Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady) as the repressed gay male who gives a fortune to the protagonist; Touchett’s living vicariously is excused by his illness, and he is a much kinder figure than the strait-laced blaming Rowland Mallet

Chapters 3-5:

Linda R put it this way: “Only one line really summarizes the action of these chapters as Ellen describes them.

“This is what we’ve got here: one proto-gay man gives the other a forture, setshim free, and sends him off to dangerous places.”

To me what gives James his peculiar stance is the intersection of his homosexual or gay stance with this dual perspective found in Wharton: conformity and wealth, surface respectability (based on hypocrisy) and ease and convenience versus self-fulfillment, precarious (very) independence and living out one’s truth insofar as this is permitted socially. Far more than in Wharton James shows us a strong retreat and critique in both American and European characters — and, partly because of inner conflict and pressure by the conformist characters, a persistent disaster course taken by the central presence where the central character kills himself or dies (in the case of The American the heroine opts out totally), or (just as bad) somehow does not involve himself in life, remains outside and terribly a loser because of this or stays with a decision that means death-in-life (Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady). The parallel books are Daisy Miller say, many of the short stories, “The Beast in the Jungle,” Wings of the Dove (disaster for the heroine), most strongly The Ambassadors (Strether).

The next chapters occurring in the US include satires on the Amercan Strikers at the same time as the middle class respectable characters’ cold response and pragmaticism is acknowledged as prudent.

Another parallel I see with other novels by James is the giving of a character a fortune or some gift which frees him or her, and ends up ambiguous. At the opening of Portrait of a Lady Ralph Touchett enables Isabel to have a fortune. As those who have seen the movie know, this is what does her in since she becomes prey to Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond.

This is what we’ve got here: one proto-gay man gives the other a forture, sets him free, and sends him off to dangerous places.

I do love the exquisitely beautiful descriptions of places; James’s prose is a delight — he’s a wonderful travel writer.

For those who might be bored and the book seems effete let’s say — like Forster’s Passage to India the tea- picnic- scenes will explode, and the book does end in the imagination of disaster that James says his books are often about (in his introduction to Turn of the Screw). So plug on, things will get interesting. I remembered the ending yesterday as I was reading but won’t give it away for I forget how we get to it


Henry James as a young man, photo

Chapters 4-6:

I wrote this in response to people who did not want to take into account what we know of James’s life:

As to James’s homosexuality, I can’t pretend myself not to have read several biographies which simply say he was. The question is whether he was a closet (not practicing gay) or quietly semi-active one — he has letters of correspondence with a few young men which show intense affection and sensuality and they visited and lived with him a couple of times. Colm Toibin’s great fictional biography, The Master, dwells on these incidents.

The old “school” — Leon Edel with his magnficent 5 volume biography took the tack that James was a closet gay, never practiced. This is in accordance with strong reluctance to tell or admit to hard truths — they are seen in Genlis studies I’m just now doing where still two children she had by Orleans are said to be adopted, on the basis of ludicrous stories. Of course we don’t have evidence, if for no other reason than in James’s era he was in danger of arrest. Sodomy was a crime and blackmail was a very bad problem for men. Forster talks about this and didn’t publish Maurice until late in life. The world seems to be filled with people who won’t believe someone had transgressive sex of any kind or an illegitimate child by someone unless we have photographic or DNA evidence.

The recent writers and biographers are divided as to what James’s private life was. Mostly they remain discreet, and I this morning have an article to share with people if they are interests: Michelle Mendellson: “Homosociality and Aesthetic Theory in Roderick Hudson.” If anyone would like to read this, let me know and I can send it separately. Not only can we not search our archives anymore, but we cannot put essays in our files. Mendellson is discreet, because the novel is, and what we have are not two male open lovers, but two male loving friends. She is also protecting her career; Rictor Norton’s two histories of homosexuality, one on the 18th century is similarly discreet in its terminology (I forget their titles, but one is about Mollies in the 18th century).

I’d say that Mary Garland is a kind of convenient cover story: she stands for “innocence” in the US way and the values of keeping to a job, a business, obeying and staying with the family which Roderick needs to break away from to even practice his art. Read with the grain one could say Rowland’s upset about the engagement is as much from his love of Roderick as his supposed yearning for Mary.

LIterary criticism today mostly joins the old themes of Europe versus America with a group of new ones. The book I most recommend (though it’s hard reading) is Eva Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet which has a long section on James. She, among others, regard him as the first writer in English to treat homosexuality almost at all, and certainly with sympathetic imagination, understanding, and as central to his particular repeated story: which is, as in Rowland Hudson, the man who doesn’t engage in life because the terms on which it’s offered, he doesn’t want at all.

I like Azar Nafisi’s long chapter on James in her Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I summarized on my blog, Reveries under the Sign of Austen: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Parts 3 & 4: Austen and James. Nafisi presents herself as an “internal exile” too, refusing to act for ease and convenience; her book is compromised badly because she never admits the revolution in Iran had real economic and social causes (she is utterly pro-capitalist, American) and may be likened to the memoirs of upper class French women about the 1790s, but unlike most of them she analyzes her situation and makes these older books’s ordeals parallel to say someone who refuses kowtow to whatever regime is in charge at this particular moment.

For my part the homosexuailty or sociality leapt out at me. Why? Because I’ve read lots of middle and later James and thought about them. Because in the later books such a relationship is marginalized, and the characters who are loving men are found on the margins or as sheer observers not involved in life and often are impugned in various ways. The characters who indulge quietly live apart as drones (in The Wings of the Dove there is a striking character of this type). There’s a self-hatred going in on James’s depiction of Winterbourne, a deep depression in his depiction of Strether.

So it’s startling and brave and he didn’t do this again in quite this way. This is also his (to me) book about hope lost. I’ve gotten up to Chapter 7 where Rowland and Roderick part. Roderick is beginning to lose his great intensity of idealistic belief, and it’s shattering him.

“Standing in his place as the coach rolled away, he looked back at his friend lingering by the roadside. A great snow mountain behind Roderick was beginning to turn pink in the sunset. The slim and straight young figure waved its hat with a sort of mocking solemnity … ” (p. 129).

It’s poignant, pathetic. I am as taken and interested in Roderick as Rowland. It’s true we are in Rowland’s consciousness much more, or most of the time, but this story of a young person who goes abroad to get in touch with finer art, profound positive attitudes towards the imagination which makes it central to life moves me.

I went to the UK to get away, and just the other day wrote on Women Writers Through the Ages At Yahoo about my first moments coming up to Europe:

When I first came to England and it was just to be for the year, among the first books I read was James’s Golden Bowl. I remember the copy, remember reading it on the train: grey Penguin. I was advised to read Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier (about the north) which I duly did. But for me the memory which counts, Fran and all, is one I have seen analogies in since for Americans abroad. I felt I was coming home. I was thrilled to see those white cliffs of Dover as our boat came up the channel. The Channel was green that day, the sun sparkled. I had been 12 days at sea. It remains with me. There are travel books by Americans (James is one) registering just the same unreal or imaginative feeling.

One reason I love James is his partial rejection of the US and its philistinism. I love his travel books where he is the American seeking culture and an identity to be at home in.

In his books we find again and again his characters do not find an identity. And in Chapter 6 the characters we are introduced to while far more interesting because they are leading genuinely individualistic lives (fulfilling their appetites to some extent) are also sordid in ways the folks back home are not. They prey on one anther desperately to make some money which is scarce for them all. The painter, Sam Singleton has had to change his pictures to sell them and his compromise shames him.

Roderick we are to understand sees what is in front of him. He begins to lose that idealistic spirit which was enabling him to work so “beautifully” as it’s put. One Rowland no longer has: Rowland sees the many sides to life in Europe and when he says why should Roderick not have a “lick” at them, he is using a slightly lascivious term for the experience of Europeans. Sedgwick calls this kind of thing covert language in her epistemology of the closet.

I do have a real criticism of the book so far; it’s curiously empty. James speaks in such general hesitant terms about art, much of the talk lacks content, specific content about what makes this or that statue so nice. It’s all airy kinds of orgastic talk intermingled with ironic underminings by the disillusioned characters (say the art dealer Gloriani). While James is bolder about homosexuality in this book than he will be later, he is unwilling to be bold about what it is that makes Roderick’s art so vivid and alive, so “fresh” and innovative (to use a modern term).


An illustration for an 1890s edition of James’s Ambassadors (by Coburn)

Chapter 7-9: Christina Light who becomes a recurring character

Chapter 7 finds Roderick going to pot: in a vague kind of airy way we are given to understand he becomes debauched: gambling, perhaps drinking and sex. The sex is suggested so diffidently (I feel) because what James has in mind is homosexual sex, but no matter, the point is he stops serious work. He overspends. He is losing his beauty, fine spirit, and (we worry) wearing out his gifts. We see how susceptible he is to other influences. Not a strong character and does not augur well.

Rowland comes to meet him, they return to Rome and he does regenerate, and begin work again. At the end of Chapter 7, beginning Chapter 8 they meet a trio who we saw at a distance before the summer, a particularly vivid sensual and slightly campy portrait (reminding me of Sondheim’s way of sending up upper class types) reappears: an apparently down-at-heels cavalier servente cum-lover, Giacosa, Italian fallen on hard time; the big lady he is attached to (like a dog is the feel or the poodle the lady’s daughter has on a chain), Mrs Light and the beautiful daughter, Miss Light.

Miss Light is an American by ultimate origin though brought up in Europe, super-beautiful and supplants in her beauty and more alert, unconventional character, Mary Garland. Roderick has no interest in Mary for real; Rowland thinks about how he went for her because she was there. Roderick suggests at Rowland’s nagging what do you mean to do about Mary, they send for her and Roderick’s mother (with whom Mary Lives), but Rowland is not sure this will be a comfortable (or successful) time for any of them. We have two letters, one by mary and one by Mrs Hudson to remind us of their supposed innocence. This is such a curious idea James has — how does he define innocence: it’s seems to be more than sexual, something about loyalty and spending your time making money as a man or staying home with family as a woman. It’s very superficial if you think about what goes on in businesses and families. Wharton’s “Afterwards” shows the cutthroat amoral nature of business and no one needs to be told that repression of the surface does not make for innocence.

The treatment of innocence is for me a flaw in the book — not thought out, not real. Roderick had begun to make a louche sexy statue which projects something that embarrasses Rowland. It’s debauched? Again I see here a self-hatred and intense discomfort with sexuality that is not “wholesome.” But then Roderick makes a bust of Christina and is retrieving himself. The statue is so realistic, beautiful and yet not disturbing we are told.

But wait. Let’s look and pay attention to Christina. What interested me though is Christina Light — the history of her grandmother and mother, and herself. Why? She will become the Princess Cassamassima. We will see her with Hyacinth Robinson, and we did read that book on this list several years ago, at least two of us, myself and Angela and two others at the time. Perhaps people will remember it: a political book. On p. 186 James describes Christina as “a complex wilful passionate creature who might easily draw down a too confiding spirit into some strange underworld of unworthy sacrifice.” She is described as possbily “preying” on “the faith of victim” (types). This is just what happens books later: the Princess takes over Hyacinth, in type very like Roderick only older and susceptible to political idealism and she causes his destruction.

Her background is not airy-empty quite. Her grandmother was a Miss Savage, daughter of a miserably failed American painter, depressed with horrible wife (we are told) an English actress who beat Savage with his stick. She pushed him to paint, got him customers, bullied him, and then ran away with an English Lord. He died in an asylum. Her daughter, our Mrs Light, handsome, married an American consul, mild, a gentleman and he was drowned 3 years later. Since then she has led a ratty kind of amoral life, her surprizing variety of bonnets and men in her train tells the tale of paying lovers. Giacosa began to hang in there then.

And under this woman’s aegis has Christina grown up, been educated. A lawsuit which was triumphant brought in money at the last, and now she makes a show in Florence (pp161-65). She’s after a Prince for her daughter.

She gets him and it’s not exactly happiness for Christina who we also meet in The American in a Jamesian reclusive phase.

What we see here is not just that a character recurs but in their beginning is their end. One can trace the same kind of inherent development from the beginning in a few of Trollope’s characters in Barsetshire (Josiah Crawley) and Pallisers (Lady Glencora) but many are changed.

I can see how Christina could be the child in The Awkward Age.

Rewind: how is it this child of this woman can produce in Roderick this ethically beautiful statue?

There are problems in this early text, things James has not at all come to terms with in himself.


Veduta della Grotta, St. Kesian (1801, picturesque-sublime print)

Chapters 11-14: art & betrayals; family & suicide; departure

I really enjoyed these chapters early in the dawn hours this morning. Finally the book is totally coming alive for me. It has taken time for James to build up his situation to the boiling or intensely troubled point so that our two central characters (as it’s emerging), Roderick Hudson and Christina Light, lovers who’d like to have a liaison and more, though hard to say what given the pressure she’s under and responds to to marry the stupid dull but thoroughly rich and socially conventional prince, and the pressure he feels to remain respectable, and if not return to Mary Garland, at least do sufficient justice to her to tell her why and let her down easy. It appears he cannot bear even to think of her. There’s a passage uttered by Christina where she articulates his betrayal and described how he is stifling remembrance of what he promised that I applied to Ross Poldark in Warleggan as he sat and thought about (but could not article) a more striking and active betrayal (he rapes an ex-lover who is now about to betray him and marry his enemy and then returns to his wife who unlike Hudson he has no intention of betraying for this erotic attachment). The passage with its compassion and humanity and insight (Ch 13, p 262) is the best thing uttered in the book thus far in the sense of high ethical understanding, and it shows that however “vampiric” (the word is used) Christina’s effect on Roderick is, she could be otherwise were the world to let her. Of course too as her mother and father (Giocosa is clearly her father) tell him if she marries the Prince it’s because she wants those riches, that security, those luxuries.

Chapter 11 is a debate, dialogue on genius. Roderick defends the idea that a genius in order to fulfill his gifts must be allowed to break conventions – which means hurt other people, and we can see as he’s talking to Rowland, live off them. This is an old debate whose terms are most brilliantly set forth in Diderot’s Rameau’s nephew. I’m afraid Roderick is in the position of the louche lousy nephew, but we are not to reject him as Rowland doesn’t, we see he does want to create seriously and there are lines that show James is thinking of himself, his life choices as he enacts Roderick. Of course why not compromise like Sam with his landscapes. Roderick does and he finds himself writhing with frustration as he has to sit with Mr Leavenworth for whom he is making something inferior because it flatters and pleases him and the old man is so dense the darts Roderick cannot resist never reach him.

Chapters 12-14 gives us Christina’s parents giving Rowland their views of Christina. Mrs Light finds ‘the radical talk’ we hear all the time ‘deadful (p. 253

Then another debate between Rowland and Roderick this time over Roderick’s future and how Mary Garland is waiting. We are asked to believe Rowland loves Mary and that’s part of his drive, but it is not felt in the text at all. I suppose nowadays we’d have Rowland pursuing Roderick himself :). We do see how Roderick is beginning to despise himself (“weak as a cat”) both for compromising and not compromising, for betraying and not betraying and these “squalid dark streets” that Rome really is for most people.

She tells the prince she does not laugh at him, oh no, she takes him seriously 9237), and there’s a little piece of gothicism, an imagination of being buried alive that is chilling.

A high point. The imagination of disaster James called it. Roderick comes near to committing suicide to make a gesture to Christina. He and she have been meeting it seems (not so secretly because they can’t) and now are in the ruins of the Travestere. Their conversation is poignant and bitter as they present the different points of view of whether to have an affair, if she should marry this prince, who she is (her parents and her background she moans over). They don’t come to a resolution and to prove his devotion to her and over a dark flower she sees on a ruined wall and wants (p. 263). She needles him: “Fancy feeling oneself ground in the mind of a third-rate talent.” He can’t take it any more. He should like to hear of a person offering him a career (p. 263) but this is unlikely, Roderick almost climbs high on it and would have fallen to his death. Rowland is overhearing this dialogue and leaps to save him. He is shaken. So too Christina who Rowland meets separately and urges to leave Roderick alone. She does, she flees, leaving a short letter of adieu.

I was reminded of Winston Graham’s Poldark again when Roderick says Christina will “wipe up her feet with him:’ it was what Ross was afraid an upper class woman (modelled on the 18th century gay lady of plays), Caroline Penvenen would do to the earnest idealistic doctor, Enys; it turns out she doesn’t and wouldn’t. The two women characters are archetypal parallels.

Linda responded with a set of quotations and detailed analysis of the debate on the rights of the artist:

I thought Chapter 11, which is comprised mainly of dialogue between the two main characters (oh, why did James give them both names beginning with “RO”?) to be quite interesting. Here James also reflects on the trials of life as an artist–perhaps his own trials.

The conversation in chapter 11 is as intimate here as any we find in the book. It delineates their relationship more clearly than at any other point that I’ve read so far. Rowland has told Miss Light of Roderick’s engagement. It leads to a conversation where Roderick implies Rowland is meddlesome.

“There had been from the first no protestations of friendship on either side, but Rowland had implicitly offered everything that belongs to friendship, and Roderick had to every appearance as deliberately accepted it.” We gather from this that the friendship is more one-sided than Rowland had imagined. Or at least that Roderick has let him down.

At one point he says, “You’re the best man in the world. Only…you don’t understand me.”

Rownland reflects: “Genius was priceless, beneficent, divine, but it was also at its hours capricious, sister, cruel; and natures ridden by it, accordingly, were alternately very enviable and very helpless.”

It goes on. They are talking at one point of inspiration or the lack of it.
Roderick says, “It’s worse out here than in Rome…for here I’m face to face with the dead blank of my mind.There I couldn’t think of anything either, but there I found things that helped me to live without thought.”

Rowland reflects: “This was as free a renewed tribute to forbidden fruit as could have hoped to pass; it seemed indeed to Rowland surprisingly free–”

It is not clear to what “forbidden fruit” refers. The implication is that it is sexual. One might say that for James this was unusually frank, also.

They go on to discuss other aspects of an artist’s lot. Rowland seem to discourage the connection with Miss Light He suggests that in his
“speculation”, Roderick may come to grief artistically.

Roderick rejoins:

“Well, then, I must take life as it comes–I can’t always be arranging grand bargains. If I’m to fizzle out, the sooner I know it the better.”

Curious word–”fizzle”–to use regarding an artistic gift. It comes up again a few pages later.

Roderick expounds on the nature of genius.

“The whole matter of genius is a mystery. It bloweth where it listeth, and we know nothing of its mechanism. If it gets out of order, we can’t mend it; if it breaks down, we can’t set it going again. We must let it choose ts own pace and hold our breath lest it should lose its balance. It’s dealt out in different doses, in big cups and little, and when you’ve consumed your portion it’s as naif to ask for more…”

“What am I, what are the best of us, but a desperate experiment? Do I more or less idiotically succeed–do I more or less sublimely fail? I seem to myself to be that last circumstance it depends on. I’m prepared, at any rate, for a fizzle. It won’t be a tragedy, simply because I shan’t assist at it. The end of my work shall be the end of my life.”

It is a grand speech. Rowland reflects on his friend’s outpouring with less eloquence. We may imagine that in Roderick’s summary, we have the opinions of James on the nature of artistic genius.

I haven’t half done the chapter justice, but I wanted to bring up some of its outstanding points of interest.


Bob Lapides had suggested that Rowland and Roderick were two aspects of the same self, so I responded to his and Linda’s:

I enjoyed Linda’s posting on this chapter very much, for the me question seemed to fall down also on the artist’s assertion that conventions get in his way so he does not have to be responsible to other people in the way non-artists do. Thus Roderick could pick up and then drop Mary Garland because she fed and now gets in the way of his spirit. Diderot’s famous novella Rameau’s Nephew both accepts and argues against this as self-serving and cruel.

When I got to the chapters where Roderick is interacting with Christina, and she needles him, manipulates him and it seems he would have literally jumped off a cliff for her, I felt we were to make a parallel. She is not excused for this behavior nor ought Roderick to be for his.

Roderick Hudson, Chs 11-14: Roderick acts out for Rowland, Christina a Newland Archer

If we see Rowland and Roderick as two aspects of James, that does somewhat flatten out the anguish of the book, which I suggest we are to sympathize with. Our heroine is not Mary Garland; she disappears; it’s Christina Light. Our heroes are neither the businessmen at home nor the social elite in Italy, France and England. These are the enemies of promise.

I offered the article by Mendelssohn because not only does she not skirt the issue of homosexuality/sociality, but she reads the novel in a way that makes sense of the two figures and the plot-design. I agree with her that Rowland is a kind of failed flaneur who has hired, bought, Roderick to act out what he cannot; Rowland can evade his morality and work ethic through what Roderick does. We are told Roderick does lots of stuff offstage that we are not told about — that’s one problem with other of James’s novels too. The insidious morality of the imagined audience James has to write too makes for this, and under it Rowland becomes a voyeur; Roderick may seem to be beating his wings against a wall (like many a poet in 19th century poetry from Shelley on and there’s a famous metaphor about this in the later 19th century French aesthetes and Baudelaire), but he tries, and if she’d have him, he might marry Christina. (In a more recent novel, they’d have already tried a liaison and the scene in the Coliseum about their despair of having any really fulfilled future, could take place in ed.) It is interesting we are asked to see the statue of Christina as peculiarly ethical. She has an honesty neither Rowland nor Roderick attempt

The dialogue where Roderick comes out for the right of an artist to live amorally, disregard other people’s needs around him, is in the context of a world where his high art is not understood or wanted. Nafisi talks about the nobility of the “perfectly equipped failure” in James: in the worlds they are in, success is a mark of lowness or stupidity in your nature. The refusal to follow conventions and seek success as it’s understood (like marrying the stupid prince for his name, wealthy, respectability — which turns out to be the shallow admiration of passing people, a point James makes) is described thus by Maria Gosprey to the ultimate type of this male character (Strether): “Thank goodness, you’re a failure — it’s why I so distinguish you! Anything else to-day is too hideous. Look about you — look at the successes. Would you be one, on your honour? …”
The gay male whose sexuality is normal, natural (as is bisexuality) is a perfect type for alienation from a society which has constructed him as not existing in the first place or. In the same passage from Ambassadors (quoted by Nafisi on p 201), Maria says further: “our realities is what has brought us together. We’re beaten brothers in arms.”

So the realities of Christina brings her to these two alienated men.

The thing about this novel I like is that many of the failures in it are awful too: it shows failure can be the result of wrong cruel inhumane mercenary ideals: we see this in Christina’s parents who are pressuring her too to follow conventions. She’s a kind of Newland Archer who will obey the world, only she will not justify it by delusions he puts forth about the “innocence” of those who want others to give up their lives to their ease and convenience.

This directly connects to us in just the way Wharton’s novel does only it goes to the quick in ways hers evades utterly.


L. Luisa Vidal, untitled (1890)

Chapters 15-18:

I’m back from Queens, NYC (see my “Return to Queens College” at Reveries under the Sign of Austen). On the way there I read the opening sections of James’s The Turn of the Screw, apparently a 1898 text, and when I rose this morning 3 and into fourth more chapters of Roderick Hudson. Then I read Linda’s typed out note (thank you, Linda), and realized I’m reading either the 1879 or 1907 latest revision of Roderick Hudson. I also have James’s preface (as well as Edel’s for this edtion). It may be this 1879 (or perhaps 1907) Roderick Hudson is a much revised book, but it is still eons away from The Turn of the Screw. There is a kind of mocking poetry to every sentence of the Turn of the Screw, a way the sentences have of backtracking and also talking about what they mean to say rather than quite saying it or as well as saying it. In comparison RH even in this later version is direct with the sentences meaning what they say directly, not playing at their meaning sentence by sentence.

The nameless governess (Jodhi May) in Nick Dear’s 1999 Turn of the Screw on her way to the interview with her prospective employer

On first blush one might say that the later book, meaning The Turn of the Screw, is strong poetry while the earlier, Roderick Hudson, is without the lexical ironies James left us to pick up through the ironies of the story and our own adult intelligences and sensibilities. And I do think that myself. But reading The Turn of the Screw (as I was) with an eye to remembering I’m going to assign this to students, I know I’m glad I’m showing one of the films, for many of them will find this later poetry very irritating, a waste of their time — rather like Mr Leavenworth in the novel would. They will not understand what meaning is added — quite like Roderick’s mother fails to understand what she is seeing. I read (as a comparison) also the opening of The Hound of the Baskervilles: in comparison, it’s silly stuff but it is direct and would seem very little self-indulgent (except for the occasional joke to the reader).

These chapters continue our story with Roderick supposedly going down down down. I do wish we were told what he’s doing offstage with these disreputable people. We never even hear their names. The princess has allowed herself to be pressured into an engagement. Alas Rowland still thinks of her as contamination and has brought Mary Garland and the mother to bear down on Roderick. After dropping Roderick for a while (though I suppose the money kept coming), Rowland had thought (we are told this was the devil in him) of enabling, pushing Roderick into the suicide, destruction he was headed for.

How I wonder? How would he have done this? We are not told.

But no, instead he will bring him back by sending the good mother and wise virgin, Mary.

I begin to think to myself that reading this book morally in the way of Rowland’s mind is to miss the point. I suggest the book may be read with Rowland as one of James’s dense narrators. He is missing the point altogether — and that is seen in the way he treat Christina Light as ugly, a contamination we are told, polluted.

The book shows us the spectacle of life as about doing nothing at all meaningful because you can’t. The great solemnity of the American characters (except for Christina Light) in the way they treat their emotions and how they spend their time so earnestly is the central obstacle. Madame Gandoni is closer to what is the truth of experience, with Rowland the self-complacent ass. This then is as ironically bleak a book as any of James’s, with here what makes life endurable the beauty of texts and works themselves contaminated (great word, Rowland) because they are set up with money and as symbols to impress people earnestly.

Roderick did not know how to accept what he saw and live with it, Christina by contrast is learning to.

Linda’s response:

Well, I don’t have it all worked out yet–I just think the relationships James creates deserve to be more fully explored. He is all about relationships. And yes, I agree the language of Person and others is preposterous–one has to work too hard to figure out what they are really saying–although they do suggest some interesting ideas from time to time.

Yes, I also agree James focuses on exploitation of one person by another, especially in Portrait of a Lady. I am not familiar with the Americans. But by whom is Roderick being exploited–his employer in Mass. or Christina? Christina is, of course, exploited by her mother.

Rowland is dangerously meddlesome. How can he justify it to himself? What motivates him? It is implied that he suppresses his homoerotic impulses toward Roderick. Yet we find later that Roderick has been living a flagrantly immoral life in Rome. What a slap in the face to Rowland, who must be so confused about his own sexuality by now. Not sure of what he wants or feels–but clearly he is most unhappy about Roderick’s choices.

I’d say Rowland was being idealistic in trying to maintain this relationship on a platonic level. Whether he succeeds at this or not is lost in the greater tragedy of Roderick. He continues to insist to himself and others that he is only trying to nurture Roderick’s genius, but we all suspect his interest is motivated by other considerations. So repression of one’s sexual nature would also be a theme here, although James very carefully skirts around this issue. And comes to no conclusions.

My rejoinder:

I’ve not time to explore the ideas you throw out here, so interestingly (to use a Jamesian grammar), but can’t resist the idea that Rowland is too meddlesome. I suggested here is an early version of the dense narrator we see in say Winterbourne. Now I’ll add as meddlesome he becomes a kind of Fanny Assingham you see — more subtle as Fanny is clear an ass :)


The Prince (Daniel Massey and Charlotte Stant (Gayle Hunnicutt) as the driven-apart pair in the 1972 BBC Golden Bowl

Chapters 18-20:

It’s devolving into a story about two young people whose families don’t want them to marry and what’s happening is the fuss occurring because the girl has broken her engagement and the boy is refusing to see his mother and bethrothed!

Christina and Mary met socially and it did not go well. Underneath all the deflecting James’ rhetoric, it seems to me that Mary was spiteful and Christina jealous and angry at the way she was despised. So Christina broke off with the dull Prince; hearing this, Roderick wrote to his mother he couldn’t bear to be around her nor Mary for a few days. It’s apparent he’s hoping for some sign from Christina so they might elope. Meanwhile both are beseiged only we don’t see the beseiging of Christina, only Roderick: by Christina’s probable biological father (the Cavaliere), by Rowland, by Mrs Light (we even have a bad mother here).

Naturally the American characters are kept away from us as innocents.

I’m reminded of how Trollope said he tried to write Miss Mackenzie without a love story, basing it on a 35 year old spinster, but after a while he caved into the paradigm.

What’s different is the angle. Most of these novels focus on the heroine and bullying scenes of her parents imposing themselves on her, her distress is put before us. Not here, and Roderick is guarded, ironic. All we get are these authority figures who have been presented to us as anything but authoritative.

What to make of it? In part, James is not much trying to throw anyone off the track, attempting to “serve up what’s wanted.” That’s why I instanced Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie. Sales were bad: here he had a plain 35 year old woman who has gotten the barest inheritance and she has (so to speak) a minimal world ahead of her. But it wasn’t selling. Plus Trollope could not think of another plot but courtship and marriage since he was determined never to show women at careers.

The heterosexual courtship plot is there because it’s popular — but note that the heroine is a bastard (cavaliere her father) so James will only pander so far. Then as now most people were heterosexual, and alas, then as now, most of these do not want to acknowledge homosexuality openly as natural. It’s worse than that, some people are filled with hatred for those whose sexual orientation is different from their own.

The unbelievable parts include the mother as so very naive. James nods in this book more than once too.

I do love James’s evocative prose. Beyond the photo I’ve put at the head of this blog, another from the beautiful photos from Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and Gardens seems to capture the settings of several crisis scenes:

Villa Borghese Aesculapius Temple, again from Wharton’s Italian Villas and Gardens

Someone on the list had persisted in ignoring all the postings on homosexuality and wrote about how the characters didn’t make sense. He argued he was reading the novel as what he asserted was the way later 19th century readers read it. So I finally responded this way:

I suggest we don’t know how many people read the book. Reader response studies and theories show there is no such thing as a uniform reading at all. From what evidence we have then and now it’s startling how idiosyncratically people take books, how personally many read them, without regard to the author’s purpose or design of the book at all.

People might have a sceptical response to this but Sedgwick and others (Rictor Norton for 18th century studies and someone named Pat for plays) argue that people did recognize these homosocial (the favorite word) patterns and some of the coded words and motifs. It’s hard to deny Michelangelo for example in his poetry didn’t know what he was writing; the coded young man love in Shakespeare’s sonnets is similar. I think the patterns were recognized in the Renaissance among the poets, and in the Restoration again in poets and playwrights; in a biography of John Gay Nokes argues this for circles in the 18th century.

I also think James understood what he was doing and did hope for readers to understand him. You wouldn’t try to imitate the naive or conventional reader today of books or viewer of films; why try to imitate them then. The naive reader won’t see the sexual trouble between Emily and Louis Trevelyan in Trollope’s HKWHR because it’s done sotta voce, but it’s there for the reader capable of seeing it and understanding and makes that book much deeper. What’s gained by imitating naive and conventional readers & viewers? Muddle. The book probably puzzled naive and conventional readers at the time. People doing TV and film programs today address different audiences at once and so did James.

Anyone in the later end of the 18th century who had a hero or heroine who committed suicide was intensely attacked. If this is no longer so in the later 19th century, still there is not sympathy for such a central figure, and James wants sympathy for his hero. When James chooses such a hero, he knows he’s defying norms and means to. It’s not as obvious as Werther; he’s more subtle.

To me it’s like not acknowledging gravity. At one time people didn’t have a theory of gravity to explain why we stick to the earth. Now we do.

I don’t see it. Surely one reads a book to gain enriched insight for our own lives from our author as well as good intelligent emotionally decent feeling companionship and beauty and truths that are real and matter.

I don’t think the book does fail because I don’t think it’s meant to be about heterosexual love and marriage. I was more than half-ironic when I pointed out in fact we can discern Roderick and Christina as our conventional lovers who are being forced apart by her parents and his family. James does not think marriage to the prince a good solution for Christina, nor marriage between Roderick and Mary Garland a good idea. It’s a bad idea. He’s not particularly keen on marriage in this and many of his books. We are supposed to pick up the cavaliere is Christina’s father though it’s not explicit — so as not to offend. James is clearly more interested in this sordid desperate but kindly man for himself than any imposed marriage for Christina. He’s interested in the non-conventional and (I feel) finds Roderick’s mother pathetic. He reveals that Mary Garland is not so impeccable when we see her spite to Christina, her contempt for her.

It’s a novel about art and probably that central chapter which Linda talked of and I chimed in on is its center — with a debate going on about what an artist should or should not be permitted to do to make his art. I agree we don’t get a lot of description of the statues, but they are (again) very sexy (probably kinky too) and James is careful. There are several perspectives: not only the debate on what an artist has to do or be allowed to do to work his art (time is necessary, freedom) but the problem that most people are not going to appreciate what he does anyway. The patrons want conventional mediocre dull stuff. They want courtship-marriage novels one might say. So that’s why Leavenworth is there.

So there is a great irony in Roderick arguing he ought to be allowed to fulfill his gifts when we see how few will appreciate it anyway. He writhes in private after his darts fail to reach the unimpressionable Leavenworth. This is a desperate book about art in life.

I finished reading Turn of the Screw tonight. It cannot be explained or understood fully similarly. James here moves directly into unspeakable areas: the governess thinks Miles has been ejected from school for good for sexually molesting the other boys and that he learned this from Quint. Some have liked to dismiss this tale by saying the governess was mad and made it all up, except James provides a preface where he says the ghosts are there, and inside the story has the housekeeper validate some of what the governess surmises — including an affair between Miss Jessel and Quint. James wants us to empathize with the lonely repressed governess, but at the same time he actually invites us to laugh at her and the housekeeper as silly women for making such a fuss: they are ludicrous snobs and go on about how all this was “dreadfully low.” There’s an acceptance or at least acknowlegement of what conventional people regard as anathema in all this as part of nature.

To sum up, Rowland is in love with Roderick; we have a repressed homosexual love put before us. And it’s not that repressed in the sense that surely Rowland knows what Roderick is off doing when he’s debauched elsewhere: having homosexual sex. If you just see this as an indirect presentation, everything falls into place. You can also see an implicit critique of the imposition of illegimate norms on Rowland, how it leads him to meddle with others; further that this is an early instance (not quite pulled off enough) of an unreliable narrator, someone whose outlook is sadly/tragically/ inadequate. You write as if none of us had mentioned homosexuality at all.

If James allows himself only to present heterosexual enthrallment, that helps explain Christina’s vividness; but he is also very hostile to her; she represents real risk and danger and is herself wilful and would enjoy seeing others go down we are told. She’s deeply angry of course at what her life has been and now what she’s being forced into. It’s curious how James though almost perversely refuses to give us the usual scene of the girl forced by the mother or girl bullied and browbeaten by ther father (the Giacosa is her biological father).

He’s struggling to find a conventional plot he can stand to tell. Heterosexual courtship leading to marriage seems to him sheer stupidity as a central paradigm I suppose; who gives a shit? it doesn’t rule the world at all; those marrying are made to behave this way because the real stakes are money, property, leisure to enjoy these beautiful gardens and make statues.


Villa Isola Bella, from Wharton’s Italian Villas and Gardens

Chapters 21-26: Shedding a queer light on things

I finished the book this morning. If I say I laughed, that’s not quite true; rather the feeling when James managed to present his real feelings about his story and character was of dry sardonic ironies running through it all

For examples: Mrs Light we are told turns brutal and tells Christina the cavaliere is her father, and if Christina does not marry the prince, she, Mrs Light, will advertise this to the world. Christina apparently can’t take this shame, and quickly folds, and the marriage occurs one morning. In a later chapter we are told the Prince paid the cavaliere off at long last so he was able to return to his home city and be at peace.

Would that others have paid people off to leave them be. But no one is as sensible as this Prince (I hope if anyone reads this ever they understand I write ironically in this phrase), who however (we are told) when Rowland encounters him and Christina on a hill in Switzerland that while “what is called a well-meaning husband,” someone who “could not in the nature of things be a positively bad husband” (he won’t beat her or remove funds?), did by his conduct deprive Christina of the “sanction of relative justice” and in his countenance showed he was aware of what had happened (“profound consciousness” unlike the rhinoceros-brained Leavenworth) and showed “a record of … pride, of temper, of bigotry, of an immense heritage of more or less aggressive traditions…” — Christina is not in for a good time with this guy.

Would that Roderick, had been as lucky as this to have a mere consciousness of what someone could do and will when he gets round to it. His mother and Mary turn into leeches. One of the narrator’s remarks (and James often in this section drops all sense of Rowland) is of Mrs Hudson as “a little malevolent fairy.” Now that Roderick goes into a tizzy of extravagantly-gestured depressions, she becomes superl-oyal. Suddenly he can do no wrong. This is Austen’s Mrs Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) taken to the nth degree and not believable as a private behavior. Yes in public such a woman might blame everyone but her darling boy, but in private? no. Still this is what we are shown, and we are shown how she expects Mary to be utterly abject. And Mary is. Again there are lines by the narrator showing Mary’s steel and resentment, but she doesn’t go off.

This is where the Prince provides such as shining example to us all. I wondered if Mary lacked the money. Isn’t she after all the Victorian niece who has nowhere to turn? no job. No occupation. Trollope’s niece was carefully never given an outright allowance all the life of his wife lest the niece leave the wife.

Another ironic parallel is Sam Singleton. Before the final denouement of Switzerland, Rowland meets him and he’s as ever drawing away, but says he is being forced back to his family. Not because he lacks the money to stay, but out of some moral blackmail. Yet he does not go. Just as Mrs Hudson at one point says ever so pathetically how Roderick has told her to sell her house and give him this money to live on as long as he can, she doesn’t do that either. Fittingly then he is the one to find Roderick’s body, which however is not smashed to bits but leaves his beautiful face upwards. (Not very probable, Mr James.)

Sam doesn’t get depressed. Sam doesn’t insult his patrons the way Roderick did Mr Leavenworth. Sam doesn’t throw back the several thousands Leavenworth had at the ready to give Roderick.
Such an example to Roderick and Sam doesn’t go off half cocked to fall off mountains.

Not that others don’t try. There is an exact parallel scene of Rowland risking his life to get a flower for Mary the way Roderick wanted to for Christina. Only he being the cautious careful soul he is, doesn’t fall. She is puzzled. What did you do that for? Her best moment in the book.

Another fine moment and memorable to me occurs in the penultimate scene between Roderick and Rowland — the second to last chapter of the book. Rowland suddenly turnst to Roderick and reproaches him. Do you not see the sacrifices I have made? do you no see the self-control I practice? What do you know of anyone’s feelings but your own? Again a parallel with Austen, this time Sense and Sensibility: when Marianne discovers that Edward is engaged to Lucy and Elinor has known this for months and not complained, not gone round like she Marianne ratcheting up the depression, they have an exactly parallel scenes. Elinor reproaches Marianne for not seeing her sacrifices and her self-control and says she has felt very deeply, been hurt enough even to satisfy Marianne. All this does to Marianne is make her cry at first, but then the self-indulgent person shows she has learned her lesson at last, apologizes and says you know I was so self-destructive. Right, my dear. Not Roderick. Confronted with Rowland as an Elinor Dashwood, and the vision of himself playing the role of the self-indulgent egoist (Rowland’s apt word) Marianne-type, he is not at first aghast. He asks why Rowland didn’t tell him before and upon being given Rowland’s image of himself as this utterly good man, says “It’s like being in a bad novel.”

The best line in the book because it shed light on S&S as absurd, which because of its extravagance of presentation and insistent moralizing patterning it can be seen to be.

But Roderick falls away from this high point and in the next chapter (unlike Marianne who abjures her Willoughby in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility) is chasing after Christina. Going to walk to Inverlaken or wherever she is, and being Roderick, stumbles off a mountain. We don’t know if he willed his death or not.

So now Mary and mommy go home, and Mary lives out her life by this equally egoistic woman’s side; Sam probably does, and Christina, well, as James says in his evasive obscure preface to this novel, being the one character who has reality to her, will turn up again in a later walk of life in a novel — in fact the next one, The American.

It’s curious the light Roderick sheds on other characters — for me at least. I began to see how Hamlet can be read as a homosexual hero. That’s his core problem after all. Why does he not connect to Ophelia? get thee to a nunnery. She is a Mary Garland to him. Fortinbras the macho male, as in Turn of the Screw where Quint plays a sort of Stanley Kowalsky to everyone else (the governess calls him “rough trade), so Fortinbras. With Claudius our cavaliere. Gertrude, ah, well, as Thomas McFarland says in his book no one does her sophistication and complicity justice; and there is no one near her in Roderick Hudson. We must wait for Madame Merle (only Gertrude lacks her concern for her child, or at least her ability for effective activity.

As to the preface, reading this after years have gone by, all I have read about James since and lived since too, it made me think of Orwell: “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish squirting out ink.” He says this book is “sincere” and “modest” and as such should be treated with “dignity” but patently in the following paragraphs shows the limits of this: he had “to give the image and the sense of certain things while still keeping them subordinate to his plan … to give all the sense, in a word, without all the substance …” to make “the values rich and sharp” but not give us the concrete reasons for his moral lesson. To put this in less preposterous English, he had to give the image and sense of what it was to be a bisexual artist (for Roderick in the book is bisexual as he chases after Christina on stage) as a metaphor for a homosexual one, without showing us the substance, that debauched life lived offstage and his frustration at having to hide his intense desire to live life in some other sets of relationships than that of this heterosexual biological family group.

And he didn’t manage it. He admits in the preface there’s no “verisimilitude” to the love Roderick is said to have for Mary in the first place, none in the feelings Rowland really displays and behaviors towards Mary. He evades, never speaks of Rowland’s feelings for Roderick in the private sense, only as a man giving freedom to the young artist to flourish in a controlled way. That’s where Roderick fell down on the job; he was supposed to be so much free (to do art) but no further (not to fulfill his own innermost urges and desires).

Cyril Cusack, magnificent as a Henry James displaced into the sexually bullied Bob Assingham, storyteller of the 1972 Golden Bowl


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