Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations. III. By W. C. Brownell
At least they do not people one’s memory, I think, as the personages of many inferior artists do. When one thinks of the number of characters that Mr. James has created, each, as I have said, carefully individualized, and none of them replicas—an amazing world they certainly compose in their originality and variety—it is odd what an effort it is to recall even their names. The immortal Daisy Miller, the sensitive and highly organized Ralph Touchett, the robust and thoroughly national Christopher Newman, the gentle Miss Pynsent, and a number of others that do remain in one’s memory, mainly belong to the earlier novels and form but a small proportion of the great number of their author’s creations. Different readers, however, would no doubt answer this rather crude test differently, and in any case it is not because they fail in precision that Mr. James’s personages lose distinctness as their story, like all stories, fades from the recollection. They have a sharp enough outline, but they are not completely enough characterized.
Why? Why is it that when the American heroine of one of his stories, beautifully elaborated in detail, a perfect specimen of Dutch intarsia, kills herself because her English husband publishes a savage book about her country, we find ourselves perfectly unprepared for this dénouement? Why is it that with all the pains expended on the portrait of the extraordinary Mrs. Headway of “The Siege of London,” we never quite get his point of view, but are kept considering the social duty of the prig who passes his valuable time in observing her attempts at rehabilitation and—no doubt most justly—exposes her in the end? There is nothing to complain of in the result, the problem is worked out satisfactorily enough, but Mrs. Headway herself does not count for us, does not hang together, in the way in which Augier’s Aventurière does, or even Dumas’s Baronne d’Ange. It would be difficult, for example, for this reason, to make a play of “The Siege of London.”
The answer to this query, the explanation of this incompleteness of characterization in Mr. James’s nevertheless very precise personages, consists, I think, in the fact that he rather pointedly neglects the province of the heart. This has been from the first the natural peril of the psychological novelist, the neglect of what in the Scripture view constitutes “the whole man,” just as the neglect of the mind—which discriminates and defines personalities once constituted—was the defect of the psychological novelist’s predecessor. But for Mr. James this peril has manifestly no terrors. The province of the heart seems to him, perhaps, so much to be taken for granted as to be on the whole rather negligible, so far as romantic exploitation is concerned.
Incidentally, one may ask, if all the finest things in the world are to be assumed, what is there left for exploitation? Matter for curiosity mainly—the curiosity which in Mr. James is so sharp and so fruitful. The realm of the affections is that which—ex vi termini, one may say—most engages and attaches. Are we to be interested in fiction without liking it? And are we to savor art without experiencing emotion? The fact that few reread Mr. James means that his form, however adequate and effective, is not in itself agreeable. But it means still more that his “content” is not attaching. When Lockhart once made some remark to Scott about poets and novelists looking at life as mere material for art, the “veteran Chief of Letters” observed: “I fear you have some very young ideas in your head. We shall never learn to feel and respect our real calling, unless we have taught ourselves to consider everything as moonshine compared with the education of the heart.” Is it possible that Mr. James’s controlling idea is a “young one”? Is his undoubted originality, after all, the exploitation of what seemed to so wise a practitioner as Scott, “moonshine”? That would account, perhaps, for the pallid light that often fills his canvas when his characters are grouped in a scene where “the human heart”—insight into which used to be deemed the standard of the novelist’s excellence—has a part of any prominence to play. The voluntary abandonment by the novelist of such a field of interest as the province of the heart is witness, at all events, of an asceticism whose compensations ought in prudence to be thoroughly assured. Implied, understood—this domain! Very well, one may reply, but what a field of universal interest you neglect, what a rigorously puritanic sacrifice you make!…
He has, however, chosen to be an original writer in a way that precludes him from being, as a writer, a great one. Just as his theory of art prevents his more important fiction from being a rounded and synthetic image of life seen from a certain centralizing point of view, and makes of it an essay at conveying the sense and illusion of life by following, instead of focussing, its phenomena, so his theory of style prevents him from creating a texture of expression with any independent interest of its own. The interest of his expression consists solely in its correspondence to the character of what it endeavors to express. So concentrated upon this end is he that he very rarely gives scope to the talent for beautiful and effective expression which occasional lapses from his rigorous practice show him to possess in a distinguished degree. There are entire volumes of his writings that do not contain a sentence like, for example, this from a brief essay on Hawthorne: “His beautiful and light imagination is the wing that on the autumn evening just brushes the dusky pane.” Of a writer who has this touch, this capacity, in his equipment, it is justifiable to lament that his theory of art has so largely prevented his exercise of it. The fact that his practice has not atrophied the faculty—clear enough from a rare but perfect exhibition of it from time to time—only increases our regret. We do not ask of Mr. James’s fastidiousness the purple patch of poetic prose, any more than we expect from him any kind of mediocrity whatever. But when a writer, who shows us unmistakably now and then that he could give us frequent equivalents of such episodes as the death of Ralph. Touchett, rigorously refrains through a long series of admirable books from producing anything of greater extent than a sentence or a paragraph that can be called classic, that has the classic “note,” we may, I think, legitimately complain that his theory of art is exasperatingly exacting.—From “American Prose Masters” (1909).