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.

The subject has its resonances in Sri Lanka, where foreigners too familiar with their drivers used to be the object of criticism when tourism first began to flourish. The different worlds involved were too far apart from each other though, for complications to arise, so it was not really important that the different dimensions of sociability and sexuality were conflated in different ways in different mindsets. Of course they can slide into each other, equally obviously they need not, and often do not.

Pertinent to this is the fact that, though Daisy and her fate are the subject of the story, its theme rather is Winterbourne, and a consciousness that allows for cruelty. The motives for Winterbourne’s callousness towards the girl are manifold, related to his own irregular liaison with an older woman, his doubts about Daisy’s class and social acceptability, even elements of what might be jealousy. James gradually shows us that it is Winterbourne who is as much under scrutiny as Daisy, in a manner that draws attention to the need for all of us to consider our own motivations too in terms of ethics rather than custom.

In three different novels, James deals with a rich young lady who is preyed upon by a man. In the earliest of these, which Leavis thinks one of his best novels, ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, the man is a world weary American long settled in Europe, with a European mistress who encourages the heiress Isobel Archer to marry him. The scene in which Isobel realizes that her husband is continuing with the other affair is stunning in its simplicity, exemplifying a technique James perfected, what he described as fitting in the cornerstone of an arch. The idea is that the novelist has described things in a manner that becomes clear only when he delivers a final crucial bit of information – rather like the two sides of an arch going up separately, the whole fitting together only when a stone is slotted into place between them, completing the structure and giving it meaning.

James has scene after scene of this sort in his books, in this case Isobel suddenly noticing that her husband remains sitting while Madam Merle is standing, something no gentleman would do, unless…..unless relations between the two are what they should not be. It is a measure of James’s skill, and the intensity of his vision, that the reader sees this simple sitting down as a symbol of Gilbert Osmond’s selfish cruelty. And it also helps us to understand and sympathize when Isobel decides to go back to him, despite the increasing attractions of a young American who loves her. She feels she has to protect Osmond’s daughter from a former marriage, whom Osmond is manoevering into another loveless marriage, that would be as profitable to him as his own.

The other two examples of a similar theme occur in two of James’s last three novels, which even Leavis granted were incredibly difficult to read. In both ‘The Wings of the Dove’ and ‘The Golden Bowl’, the man in question is young and attractive, and James manages in wonderfully detached prose to convey the intensity of the sexual attraction his heroines feel. In the first case Milly Thrale is dying, and Milton Densher’s plan is to marry her and have her money when she dies so that he can marry his first love. But Milly realizes what is planned, and decides to gift him the money, which puts him in an impossible position.

Maggie Verver’s triumph in ‘The Golden Bowl’ is even more remarkable, or so it would seem initially. That was a novel I found impossible on several occasions when I started it though, when I actually managed to finish it, I felt the effort immensely worth while. The story line is simple enough, but explains why I have heard James described as an immensely wicked man, in terms of his imagination. Maggie falls in love with an Italian prince who obligingly marries her, with affection but also because of her money. She had been introduced to him by her best friend, who then marries her father.

Naturally, in James’s world, it turns out that the Prince and the friend had been having an affair, and intended to continue with it. The manner in which Maggie deals with this, ensuring in the end that her father and his wife go back to what will amount to permanent exile in America, seems to leave her triumphant. But one wonders then whether she will be happy with a husband who obviously does not love her as much as she does him. And then one realizes that perhaps it was not his love she wanted, and that not having to share him with the unfortunate Charlotte was quite enough for her.

All this may seem slightly precious and, though the intensity of the psychological interplay is fascinating, it is understandable that some critics regret the wider social canvas (extending even to international terrorism in ‘The Princess Cassamassima’) of the earlier James. But one should mention also the third novel of the last period, ‘The Ambassadors’, which I find his most impressive. Its central consciousness is an elderly American, sent to Europe by a rich lady to persuade her son to return. The unspoken suggestion is that, if Lambert Strether succeeds in this diplomatic mission, the lady will marry him.

But Strether ends up sympathizing with the young man, whose attachment to a French lady he believes to be ‘pure’; and continues sympathizing even when he discovers this is not the case. Whether this is a simple moral perception, or has something to do with his own awakening sensibilities in the liberating – or corrupting – atmosphere of Europe is another question. But the presentation of Strether and his responses to the different inspiring characters he meets in Paris is compelling. And in exploring the varying moral perspectives of individuals faced with new experiences, James confirms his mastery of relations between people, the foundation and the pinnacle of fiction.   

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