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Henry James, 1843– 1916. Oil painting by John Singer Sargent (1913).

Moving from Conrad to Henry James, the other writer of the same period whom Leavis fitted into the Great Tradition, is a leap into another world. The two writers would seem to have little in common except for their concern with subtle moral choices. One deals with the work and duty, the other with conversations. Conrad has the world as his canvas, James the drawing rooms of Anglo-Saxons. In Conrad choices can lead to death, in James they result in sex or its denial.

And yet, despite all this, James is undoubtedly one of the greatest of novelists, telling us about the ways in which people relate to each other, how power balances in relationships shift and adjust, how individuals use each other and allow themselves to be used. Sexuality is obviously an important element in the whole gamut of personal relations, and James wrote at the time when women were coming into their own as social authorities too, owners of property, receiving what might be termed adult education in every sense.

James is often described as giving centre stage in his novels to young ladies learning about the world, showing us ideal innocence coping through experience with social hypocrisy. ‘Daisy Miller’, his finest short story, or novella (the form of the long short story or short novel that James made peculiarly his own), deals with a lively American girl who does not allow herself to be constrained by convention. She is accordingly ostracized by European society for being too free with her tour guide in Italy, a penalty she would not mind too much, were it not that the young American she rather likes, Winterbourne, takes up a similar position – which almost literally breaks her heart.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2010
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