Posts Tagged ‘colm toibin’

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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Jean Henri De Latude (1725-1805) escaping

Roger Daltrey as Macheath (Sheppard) singing a rousing Handelian drinking song (1987 Jonathan Miller’s production of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera)

Dear friends and readers,

We returned from the East Central American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference late Saturday night. I found it rejuvenating — there may be in the world a set of people as enthusiastic over 18th century studies, but surely nowhere is any group more devoted.

The topic for the conference was “What does infamy matter — when you get to keep your fortune” [Juvenal], but of course not everyone does. I had not realized what a fruitful angle this could be until I came to listen to the papers. This was not the emphasis of the papers, but it seems to me a craving for money and all it can buy of luxury, and for respect and all it can gratify of pride and self-esteem were primary motivations leading to the infamy all figures I heard about the first day of the conference endured when they failed, perhaps kept failing, and then tried and tried again. Chance and and the changes of times then wove the kind of curtain or exit each won when they grew old and/or died. This does not cover all cases: women become infamous if they lose their virginity or chastity in an socially unacceptable way. Sometimes people can courageously defy a powerful man and yet not he but they become infamous.

For the 2nd part click here.


Typical vision of a period trial: the seven bishops at trial

Three superb papers in the first session on Friday morning: “Infamous Conduct: Treason, Bigamy and Escape Artistry.” The chair was Jack Fruchtman. In these three cases (as in a couple of others) I offer more detail than I have of late or I do of the others because the papers offered in the first session had such interesting and (to me) new content, but it should not be taken that I’ve gotten the whole of these papers; these are just outlines where I omit much detail, nuance, and post-modern and other arguments.

Jane Wessel spoke on the trial of the 7 bishops. A man could be hung, drawn, and quartered for performing a seditious text in 1688. In 1687 James II suspended the penal laws against Catholics, and debates everywhere (public, private, at work) ensued whether he had the right to do so. James then asked that clergy and bishops read his proclamation;’ in May 1688 the bishops in effect declared that the king had not the right unitaterally to impose tolerance and suspend the penal laws for Catholics. The clergy did not want to read this petition because that was tantamount to saying they approved (they did not).

Well, the bishops had been foolish enough to show up at James’s request to talk to him. It seems the two sides had been alone. James then had them indited for a misdemeanor. The bishops themselves did not publish their petition, but it quickly appeared and no one could say how or who was responsible. So the prosecution focused on publication: they argued that the act of writing was itself a form of publication, writing an armed act of rebellion, a violent act. The defense rejoined that a peer of the realm could not be brought to trial for a misdemeanor.

The prosecution was unsuccessful when the justices could not come to a decision and the jury were appealed to. So the prosecution tried again; a new inditement accused the bishops of “vi et armis.” One of the peers who challenged this was Heneage Finch, later 4th early of Winchilsea (Anne Finch’s husband); a state of mind was not treason. Again the prosecution countered that the Anglican church had a doctrine of passive obedience; writing was active rebellion. Justices split and jury again ruled in bishops’ favor.

This case bring before us the interrelationship of publishing, writing, political engagement with and without arms. The trial transcript was printed, and was over 100 pages.

Barbara Villiers Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland (1640-1709)

Ashley Shoppe discussed the liaison and marriage of Robert (Beau) Fielding to Barbara Villiers, Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland and Castlemaine. Fielding was nearly allied to some powerful people, and he inherited a fortune from his father-in-law. He proceeded though to squander it, and from then on made a career for himself by marrying rich older women. She was 65 when they married; she demanded a divorce and got it pronta. It was on Nov 25th that they married. Meanwhile much earlier Fielding had tried to marry another woman for money and instead ended up marrying Mary Wadsworth. He was before this involved with Anne de Laure. The time together and part included brutal beating by Fielding of Cleveland, emotional humiliation, assault. He was imprisoned as a Jacobite though he had not involved himself in politics. In 1706 Fielding was found guilty of bigamy, which carried a death penalty. Nothing like it was ever inflicted. It should be noted that Fielding and Cleveland later reconciled themselves to one another. It’s important to remember that Cleveland could have had children but apparently did not.

Two popular memoirs were printed not that long after:one memoir defended her as an upper class woman and therefore allowed; Henry is someone who is used to watching his wife flirt and more with his friends and brothers. The other condemned her a worse than useless aristocrat; it has Steele in it as someone who acted out of individual desire and that the reader should emulate his actions.

The one by Richard Steele lampooned Fielding as Orlando the Fair and ridiculed both people, showing real disdain for aristocratic corruption. Steele is criticizing the Tories and that Fielding was mad. Steele was an orientalist and applied sexualized imagery to Valeria. In this tale the seraglio exercises a fascination, and the Stuart abuse of power roundly criticized. His usage of Cleveland is called barbarous; and he is presented as effeminate, ridiculous.

Latude memoirs

Michael J. Mulryn delivered the last paper. Jean Henri de Latude was a man who achieved notoriety by his many escapes from prison, the persecution (as he felt it) from the Marquise de Pompadour armed with an initial lettre de cachet. She had gained power first as the king’s mistress and then as the woman who organized his seraglio and saw to his every need. Today she has been given a positive press as a patroness of the arts. Latude has been depicted as a con artist and madman; he depicted himself as a victim of the excesses of the ancien regime. His Memoirs were popular, and part of the anti-Bastille literature. (One should remember there were people who supported the lettre de cachet system and Bastille, e.g., Sade’s mother-in-law.) The Bastille was stormed to get arms.

Who was he? A fast-talking “Houdini” who eventually had 4 aliases, and could talk himself into and out of situations; he had been the illegitimate child of a domestic servant, and so could not inherit anything. He decided to tell the Marquise of a plot to assassinate her and threaten her that if she did not pay him, the plot would go through. She did fear assassination and put him in prison. Probably this plot was a bunch of lies.

He then (like Sade) spent many years in prison; he became famous for his extraordinary escapes but would be brought back. One of the most famous occurred in the Bastille, notoriously difficult to get out of. This escape included building a ladder, climbing chimneys, getting past grates and sentries, hours spent in a frozen moat. He was helped by a friend, a famous engineer, who organized the escape and he ended up in Charenton. He said he’d rather die than write a letter of apology to the Marquise. He claimed she cast spells on him. In 1777 the Charenton monks at Charenton helped him to escape but when he got out on the streets he mugged someone. One of his re-arrests occurred in Holland in 1756 when he cashed a letter of exchange sent him by his mother. The Marquise herself kept hunting him down, using the state’s resources for this. At last he ended in one of the worst prisons, meant for ordinary people (no gentlemen), where he somehow managed to write copiously (he would use his own blood it’s said).

His Memoirs were then transferred to someone outside the prison and in 1784 published. Many people sympathized and came to his defense; Louis XVI revoked the original lettre de cachet and he was freed. Later in life he dined with celebrities like Thomas Jefferson. After the demolition of the Bastille he was paraded through the streets like a revolutionary hero. Stories of all sorts were printed and it is very hard to distinguish fact from fiction. One historian, Brentano, wrote a tract on behalf of the gov’t; another defended Latude who could present himself as a gentleman. It is possible he was simply a clever common criminal. He was probably emotionally disturbed; his father never would recognize him. Towards the end of his life he had a pension and lived in a lovely apartment.

Then we had a lively question-and-answer period. Someone asked where do the trial transcripts of the Fielding-Cleveland case come from? Ms Wessel said the state published them after the “glorious revolution” (James II ousted); the 1706-7 Memoir is a 9 page cheap publication; Lawrence Stone told the story and there was a popular biography in the 1980s. Someone else was surprised that the King met the bishops alone and had himself insisted on the interview. What went on in the bigamy trial itself? Fielding tried to insert his marriage to Mary Wadsworth and was able to use benefit of clergy to avoid execution. I asked if the brutality he displayed at all influenced the outcome and she said it’s hard to know. A final set of questions were about Latude. Mr Murphy suggested that Latude had a grandiose view of himself, that he never was a loner type. What is telling is how quickly the Marquise could enlist the state apparatus and spies to locate Latude and extradite him from Holland.

It seemed to be felt by everyone that the way the powerful king, the lawyers, and the 7 bishops behaved and the stories of Latude and Pompadour had parallels to our own era of eroding civil rights, and how cases prosecuting whistle-blowers and so-called terrorists show the same avoidance of central issues to argue small points to get the case thrown out of court, the same use of harassing hounding police forces and state apparatus. The class parallels: upper class people are allowed; or upper class people are drones. I see a parallel in the Fielding case in that he was let off and had been so treacherous and brutal to the women he preyed upon.


Sir John Hill (1716-75) where he’s called a botanist and that his “provocative and scurrilous writings involved him in many quarrels, both in the field of science and that of literature.”

Mid-morning we listened to George Rousseau’s plenary lecture on John Hill; this session and a reception later on were really book launches. As Mr Rousseau’s was a talk and included many anecdotes about himself, the Royal Society (he’s a fellow), and the people he’s known, I omit much only bringing in what seems to me might be of interest about Hill and the book. Mr Rousseau’s salient idea is that Hill sought celebrity as a way of getting money; that he was socially a borderline personality, often “badly behaved,” an outsider whose untamed genius led him to offend and outrage all sorts of people so he was continually changing professions or simply involved himself in many areas of life so that he can function as a sort of “filter” or mirror which manifests central aspects of 18th century life. To me Hill seemed a polymath.

Among the stories told were how Hill was blackballed three times by someone in the Royal Society and so Hill never was a member. He was the 2nd son of a clergyman who owned more than 100 books and taught the boy himself (including Greek, Latin, science). His employers included Stukeley (who uncovered Stonehenge); his patrons included the Earl of Richmond, a man living on a cosmopolitan estate, Goodwood, where a highly cultured informal community interacted; Emmanuel de Costa was a geologist and friend whom Hill betrayed by plagiarizing Costa’s research, but then de Costa embezzled funds from the Royal Society and went to prison for this. Hill went after Christopher Smart and was badly behaved to Garrick. Through Hill’s connection with Bute (see below) and Linneaus Hill was knighted. One he tried to fake his own death.

Hill’s writing was enormously varied and continual: like a Grub Street denizen he wrote around the clock to make money, scandal chronicles, early fiction, science, operas, farces, routs (perhaps as many as 200 works). He paid 50£ to get a certificate as a physician; he began a newspaper with Ralph Griffiths called The Daily Advertiser where Hill wrote twice-weekly columns where he made 1500£ a year. He wrote on reproductive science, a treatise on tobacco which correlates it to cancer. Angry that he never got into the Royal Society, he wrote a prose satire about it which like the Dunciad degrades people and names names. Lord Bute, George III’s tutor became a friend, both loved botany and Hill functioned as a master gardener and then published a huge work on vegetables.

Among those who drew or painted him was Allan Ramsay when Hill was 37. Hill married twice, the first time to the daughter of Earl of Burlington, she died early. He then remarried the Viscountess Ranelagh with whom he had 10 children; 6 survived

Mr Rousseau did not seem to like Hill very much, nor be sympathetic. He assumed that his audience would not care for Hill either. In the question-and-answer period someone seemed to suggest perhaps Hill was really most driven into extremes by a need for money. For my part the portrait as presented prompted some empathy nonetheless. I liked Hill for his reactive defiance and anger and non-conformity, counter-productive though some may find it.


Mary Robinson at the height of her beauty as painted by Joshua Reynolds

After lunch, I went to two sessions, and heard five papers altogether. In the first session, Caroline Breashears’s “Secret and Celebrated: Life-Writings by and About Notorious Figures” Ellen Malenas Ledoux’s on Mary Robinson’s Memoirs, was on the now familiar material of a subjective reading of the actress’s images: did Robinson invite interviews half-undressed and breast-feeding and chose the peculiar format of her memoir, 3/4s written by a pious daughter in order to frame herself as good mother to exonerate herself from the infamy of having been the prince regent’s mistress or was she titillating her reader.

Jonathan Wild (1683-1725) in his prison (1725)

Jack Sheppard (1702-24) just before he was executed as drawn by John Thornhill

Peter Staffel’s paper presented Wild in four ways: what we can know of his life, how he is presented by Defoe, John Gay, and finally Fielding. Wild was a highly successful cutthroat businessman type who as first someone in the prison and then a fence-receiver and thief-taker governed a ring of associates, cunning and cruel, he was unable to recognize the resentment and angers of others (e.g., Sheppard), and himself was terrified of execution and tried to kill himself by poison in order to avoid the abuse (physical too) of the hanging scene. His grave was in fact robbed and the body stolen 3 days later — perhaps by people fascinated by him who thought they could learn about his brain this way. As with Michael Murphy, Mr Staffel showed us the difference between what we know of the actual facts of the man’s ilfe and character, the writer’s texts, and various legends.

One question was how did he achieve such notoriety? Prison had been a step up for him, a place he could organize from, terrible though such places were and despised the people in them in this era, with incarceration not seen as a punishment, but a period of waiting either to be freed or murdered by the state apparatus. Wild became Mary Melliner’s lover, herself an effective brothel madam there; he learned a lot from Hitchen, a master in Newgate and the Old Bailey. Wild kept a ledger, had stolen goods to offer others, was a good interviewer of people, could extract high fees and recognized strong desires for given things and manipulated this into high fees.

Isla Mair as Jenny Diver (Mary Melliner? the 1987 Beggar’s Opera)

We didn’t talk very much about the three texts, all of which are read today, nor was there any time to go into the different realizations of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, out of Gay, as black farce (Bertold Brecht), as opera (Benjamin Britten). I found myself remembering how Jonathan Miller in a brilliant BBC production in 1987 aided by theatrically effective actors turned the comic material into invigorating satiric bleak tragedy by its close. More interesting perhaps how certain characters and details Mr Staffel had mentioned still turn up in this production

Patricia Routledge and Stratford Johns as Mr And Mrs Peachum (1987 Beggar’s Opera) pour over those central ledgers

For the last session of the day, Eleanor Shevlin’s “Book History, Bibliography and Textual Studies” see comments.


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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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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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