Henry James’s Enigmas
Turning the Screw of Eternity?
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Table of Contents
- Introduction: Towards Westminster Abbey: the Twin’s Mythical Eternity
- Chapter I: Deciphering Europe: Landscape and the Art of Fiction
- Chapter II: Walter Pater, Henry James James and Freud Probing Leonardo da Vinci’s Family Novel
- Chapter III: Passionate Attraction: From Faraday, Swedenborg to Théophile Gautier, Charles Fourier and Wilde
- Chapter IV: Henry James and Sacher-Masoch: From the Love for statues to the Fear of ghosts
- Chapter V: Investigating the Victorian Nursery: James’Self-Analysis of the “Frightened Cry-Baby” in the Hands of Dr Skinner
- Chapter VI: The Solar Myth: Twin Structures. Impulses of Death and Civilization
- Chapter VII: Anamorphosis and the Secret of Mr Tishbein Seen “from the Jolly Corner”
- Chapter VIII: Towards the Grotesque and Beyond: Caricature from Francis Grose to Dracula
- Chapter IX: A Love of James?
- Conclusion: “The Heir of all the Ages” in the Pleiades of the Cultural West: a Symbolic Revolution
- Series Index
Inscribed at the threshold of several cultures, James’ literary work continues to be provocative today, as much by the suggestion of a hidden design, concealed from the reader’s view, as by the successive interpretations to which it has given rise. If we consider the writer to be one of the finest critics of his time, as illustrated in the collection of his 1907-1909 edition of Prefaces grouped under the title The Art of the Novel and the thousands of pages of articles he penned on the great European and American novelists or places, then the proliferation of these studies that Henry James foresaw and even anticipated should come as no surprise. His stories abound with the figures of successful artists and writers who shroud themselves in the mystery of their creation or who rouse “a monstrous and morbid curiosity” and an uncontrollable “interpretative heat,” as James wrote about William Shakespeare in his 1907 preface on The Tempest.1 Thus the progressive development of a successful writer with his mysterious personal sensibility grounded in a particular vision of the Western world will constitute the main focus of this study.
Our search will take us first in the direction of Henry James’ landscapes; we shall explore his cult of the genius loci and his visions of castles and towns of the Western world. A passion of archaeology and of the “ruins” of the ancient world in Rome did bring him to share with Sigmund Freud an interest in the work of the German archaeologist Henrich Schliemann and to be the first to explore, even indirectly, the unconscious of his characters in The Portrait of a Lady (1880), thus unwittingly processing an original novelistic “analytical cure.” This proximity to Freud will also be a productive interpretive tool in the case of Leonardo da Vinci. We will see how, exploring the past of the painter with the help of Walter Pater, James produced a brilliant analysis of perversion and of the “cases” of contemporary artists. We will not be confined to such a psychological and cultural approach, but we will also take into account Thorsten Veblen’s anthropological research. The latter provided James with an appreciation of the changes of civilization and of the growing materialism of the period ← 11 | 12 → as portrayed through a questioning of Balzac’s realism. Concurrently, the analysis of the hereditary family and the mutation of psychology best promoted by his brother William James, the “pragmatist” philosopher and great psychologist of his times, will introduce us to Henry James’s portrait gallery and to the affective conditions which directed his most outstanding tales. In our study of the associations linking the cosmopolite traveller’s changing scenery to the analysis of society’s workings, we will see the effects of a culturalist attitude and a cult of “the fatal “Historic Sense.” This attitude, as a last resort, was the result of a founding “turn of the screw” self-inflicted by the young bachelor in 18802 and called for his moralist’s judgement and participation as the heir of both the Enlightenment and of the fathers of American democracy. Charles Fourier, Sacher-Masoch, introduced to James by Madame Thérèse Bentzon and Oscar Wilde will join us in this adventure through the cult of “passionate attractions,” and sometimes into “a comedy of humours,” in which voyeurism and perverse jubilation preside over the penetration of the sanctum of the Victorian family.
Significantly, we will be concerned by the fate of the child in its nursery and by the introduction of a future for the “heir of all the ages.” In his “research in the lines of human progress” patronised by Lewis. H. Morgan’s Ancient Society, James would raise the question of the “fetishism” of the child, a substitute for “primitive” Victorian necrophyliacs associated with the androgyny of spectres. This survey will be concluded by a close examination of the psychopathology of diet and of the nervous collapses of the novelist himself. Focussing on a society threatened by the myth of the degeneration of the species, our search will lead us to wonder how an expatriate, “amiable bachelor” engaged in the “cause of civilization,” but obsessed by the fear of his own “degenerescence” illness,3 was able to probe so deeply into the soul of his contemporaries and to coin the most sophisticated style that led to his current status as one of the great psychological novelists. Théophile Gautier, George Sand, Flaubert and other French and English novelists will direct us through the maze of James’s literary workshop and show the complex elaboration of his fictions and plots, in which borrowing immediately means appropriation and transformation. The ← 12 | 13 → cult of painting, evident in Picture and Text (1893) linked to a passion for caricature cultivated with his friend George Du Maurier and apparent through his admiration for Honoré Daumier will lead us to an inquiry into the clever inventions brought about through an original transformation of Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors. Here, the figure of an unexpected XVIIIth century caricaturist will emerge, showing both the high degree of James’s cultural bend and variety in the disguise of his sources of inspiration. Consequently The Turn of the Screw will stand at the heart of our investigation, grounded as it is in our previously discovered source: Misunderstood, a novel by Florence Montgomery, the aristocrat from Cadogan Place.4 Our investigation will mainly deal with the myth that commanded James’s whole life: the myth of the Twins inspired by his relationship with William, the “Ideal Elder Brother” mentioned in his letter to Thomas Sergeant Perry in 1910,5 a myth supported by the famous research of Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. It was through the literary wielding of this myth that James, under the regular chiming of the Saint Mary Church bells in the little town of Rye, East Sussex, partly wrote or dictated the best novels of his “Major Phase.” With its cobbled streets, its old wooden-beamed inns and its medieval ramparts, Rye was outstanding: its XIVth century church tower has a remarkable clock containing one of the oldest mechanisms in the country. Above its blue face from where its hands and golden numerals stand out, with a solar shine, there is an inscription, also in golden manuscript, which captivates any passer by looking up: framed by two “quarter boys,” sorts of chubby-cheeked baroque cherubs in resplendent gold, it consists of a reference to the Scriptures: “For our time is a very shadow that passeth away” (The Book of Wisdom 2: 5). A merciless tyranny of time brandished for the view of the faithful by two innocent creatures! Might the display of this admonishment to avoid temporalities have reminded the novelist of the sense of urgency he faced with the passage of Time? Might James have been inspired to gather all his energy for full, ultimate recognition of “the younger brother” and “the man of Letters” that he was, as he had been involved from adolescence in endless rivalry with his brother William, a man of science and medicine? Similarly, Gustave Flaubert, whom he admired, had competed with his brother Achille, an element of their raging “family homeostasis,” as I have shown in my essay “Homéostasie et dégénérescence de la famille ← 13 | 14 → héréditaire.”6 Reading Henry James then, one has the feeling that, caught between the contemporary flow of time (Time 1) and his own ceaseless intellectual moves from the present to the past and from the past to the future (Time 2), he would have shared, had he known it, the concept of “the unreality of time” discussed by the Cambridge philosopher J.M.E. McTaggart in his 1908 article,7 and wished to escape this contradiction to win some part of eternity.
Facing the rising influence of fin-de-siècle ghosts, laying aside the “kicking fiend”8 of illness and with a view to the future in his “Ivory Tower,” James who all his life had kept an extraordinary correspondence with his parents up to their death, with his brother and with so many friends from different countries, then devoted his attention to his last unfinished literary creations, “embroidering” for himself a name which would make him eternal in the Pantheon of English Letters. The young man who once enjoyed “the privilege of an afternoon nap beside Herbert Spencer”9 in his Athenaeum Club was much impressed by the aristocracy of Cadogan Place, as his novel The Ambassadors revealed. An admirer of “the Greatness of England,” he became a British Citizen in 1915 and in 1916 King George V awarded him the Order of Merit. In his autobiography, he would define his own conception of glory. His “art of the novel” would be realised as a splendid building, with windows, balconies, secret “coigns of vantage,”10 “fine embossed vaults and painted arches” and “a chequered pavement, the ground under the reader’s feet.”11 Hiding his sources, the novelist was an adept of what he called “delightful dissimulation,” a method, which, as he recognized in the same passage, provided “refinements and ecstasies,” as “all art is expression, and is thereby vividness.”12 Following his scorched earth policy, which led him to burn a fair number of his letters and personal documents, he erased some of the most obvious tracks he had made in his preparatory work, leaving us with the heritage of his mysterious “figure in the carpet.” Afflicted by “an obscure hurt” in his back, he finally staged a scenic victory over ← 14 | 15 → neurosis and its negative forces under the gorgeous fight offered in A Small Boy and Others (1913) through a ciphered nightmare in the Louvre Apollo Gallery,13 there again, with the unsuspected help of another novel by Florence Montgomery… His unfinished autobiography, like The Sense of the Past, which he started writing in 1900 and resumed in 1914, would keep the secrets of his private life entire, crown the cryptic quality of his style and manner, and be left in a significant suspension of time… the wonderment riddle of any eager reader. Through his successive “turns of the screw” of craftsmanship, James would win a prestigious headstone in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey: there he lies between Lewis Carroll and John Hopkins on one axis and T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas on another. Lord Byron, George Eliot, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Anthony Trollope and D.H. Laurence are not far away, and they all rest under the protected shadow of Geoffrey Chaucer’s tomb. ← 15 | 16 →
1 Henry James, Selected Literary Criticism, Ed. Morris Shapira, Prefaced with a Note by F.R. Leavis (London: William Heinemann, 1963), 353.
2 See Chapter 7, note 59.
3 “… an amiable bachelor here and there doesn’t strike me amiss and I think he too may look forward to the cause of civilization.” Letter to Miss Grace Norton, November 7, 1880 in Leon Edel, Ed., Henry James Letters (1875-1883) Vol. IV (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1975) 314.
“This degenerescence of mine” Henry James, Letter to his father, October 26, 1869, Leon Edel, Ed., Henry James Letters (1843-1875) Vol. III (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1974) 156-157.
4 See our article: Perrot, Jean. “Henry James Gambling on Ghosts: “The ‘Private Source’ of The Turn of the Screw” in Tredy, Dennis, Duperray, Annick, Harding, Adrian dir. Henry James and the Poetics of Duplicity (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013) 3-19.
5 The Letters of Henry James, ed. Percy Lubbock, 2 Vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920) Vol. II, 167.
6 Jean Perrot, “Homéostasie et dégénérescence de la famille héréditaire”, La Thérapie familiale psychanalytique. Eds. René Kaës and Didier Anzieu (Paris: Dunod, 1981) 180-201.
7 J.M.E. McTaggart, The unreality of Time, Mind, Vol. 17, 1908, 457-474.
8 “I do feel that I have definitely turned the corner and let the fiend down even though he still kicks as viciosly as he can manage”, Letter to Miss Jessie Allen, February 20, 1910. The Letters of Henry James, ed. Percy Lubbock, 2 Vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920) Vol. II 158.
9 See Chapter 7, note 88.
10 Henry James, The Art of the Novel, (1907, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962) 306.
11 H. James, The Art of the Novel, 52.
12 H. James, The Art of the Novel, 324.
13 Henry James, A Small Boy and Others (London: Macmillan, 1913) 362-364.
The Most European of American Cosmopolites and the Riddle of Europe
Born in Washington Square, New York on 15 April 1843, Henry James travelled to Europe and England in his mother’s arms the very same year. His distinguished and wealthy father, Henry James Sr., author of The Secret of Svedenborg, “an Elucidation of his Doctrine of the Divine Natural Humanity,” had a strong distrust of American education and adopted a pattern of travel and residence abroad to find the best tutors and schools for his children. As a young boy, the future author of The Europeans (1878) crossed the Atlantic on a number of occasions. In 1855, his travels took him to Switzerland, London, Paris, and he spent a year studying in Boulogne-sur-Mer. In 1859, he returned to Switzerland then continued on to Germany. His next visit to Europe lasted a year (1869-1870), following his studies and the Civil War. Having already been published in the main literary reviews in Boston and New York, and as a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson with ties to a small privileged circle of accomplished writers, he arrived as an ‘ambassador’ for America, whilst William James, a future founder of American pragmatism, with whom he would form a distinguished pair, remained in his home country. In 1872, Henry and his sister Alice embarked on a new journey that took them to Italy, where he remained alone in Rome and Florence, partly accompanied by William, with whom he went to Germany in 1874. It was not until the end of 1876, following an attempt to settle in France from November 1875 to April 1876, a period during which he met the likes of Flaubert, Daudet and Turgenev, that the author decided to move to Bolton Street London, just off Piccadilly. His stay there was interspersed with many trips abroad, notably to Italy, and the States in 1881-1883, after publishing his Hawthorne (1879). He was working on The Middle Years when his parents died, a period during which he also wrote the significantly entitled story The Siege of London (1883). The year 1883 was the year in which his first novels received full acclaim in an article written by Madame Thérèse Bentzon (1 May) in the main French literary review of the time, La Revue des Deux Mondes: the article included a first ← 17 | 18 → French translation by Mme Bentzon, significantly enough, of the novella The Point of View. The writer, who spoke fluent Italian, French and some German, was certainly equipped to deal with international culture, but he chose London from which to study the world of Letters. Thanks to the publications of The American (1877), a copy of which was pirated in Engliand, Daisy Miller (1878) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881), Henry James, had already gained some renown in England. In 1886, after having returned to America due to his parents’ death in 1882, he moved to De Vere Gardens in prestigious Kensington, not far from Cadogan Place, which he would cross on his way to Westminster Abbey, and which, midway, would provide the symbolic cynosure of The Ambassadors. The ensuing years, marked by the tragic death of his sister Alice (1892) were a period of intense activity and of travels to France, Italy, Ireland, marked by exchanges with many literary personalities, his friendship with Robert-Louis Stevenson, and his regular visits to the Athenaeum and the Reform clubs. His short stories on the personality of writers (The Lesson of the Master, 1892, etc.) or of artists (in particular The Tragic Muse, 1890), express both the acknowledgement of success and the wish for success on the stage. The failure of his play Guy Domville (1895) was perhaps in coincidence with a certain desire to get away from London. He would return to America in 1904-1905 gathering materials for The American Scene (1907), and again in 1910, with the death of his brother William. Finally, in a kind of Proustian “Recherche du temps perdu” he would revisit the land of his youth and his literary beginnings in the first volumes of his autobiography, A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), leaving The Middle Years unconcluded, as he himself became the riddle of a writer who finally turned into an enigma.
The House at Rye “in the Scraps of Time and Odds and Ends of Moments”
In our opinion, a significant turning point in James’ career lies in the writing of the striking The Turn of the Screw (1898),1 a work of international renown, which later became the subject of several films and of a musical composition by Benjamin Britten, and epitomizes certain artistic features of his style. The story was finished when the writer moved to Rye in East Sussex, dividing his time between Lamb House and the De Vere Gardens in London, as well as, from 1913, Cheyne Walk in Chelsea where he died in 1916. James then wrote some of his greatest works: the period had symbolically begun with a rewriting of The Other House in ← 18 | 19 → 1896; What Maisie Knew followed in 1897, preceding ‘the Major Phase’ of The Awkward Age, The Sacred Fount, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl. The discovery of the “remote and romantic little house in the country,” as he described it in a letter dated 15 June 1898,2 initiated an actual settling-down. The discovery was made in 1896, as the novelist was riding around the English countryside on his bicycle; the lease was signed on 29 September 1897, in the middle of working on The Turn of the Screw, and he moved into the house in June 1898.3 Following the failure of the play Guy Domville which was booed off the London stage, this chosen residence with its rather austere Georgian style seemed to present new horizons and respond to an intimate dream from the mind of the expatriate traveller. However, as we shall see, this traveller was to experience, albeit in reversal of perspective and temporality, a genuine repetition of events: those of his arrival in England in 1869, nearly thirty years before. This repetition was accompanied by the growing complexity of his style and of his plots.
At that time Henry James was looking for a haven of peace in which “to escape the dusty rush and crush of the Jubilee,” as he stated in a letter he dictated to his secretary Mac Alpine and addressed to Edward Parker Deacon on 6 June 1897: “London,” he declared, “engulfs me more and more, by which I mean not socially (heaven forbid!), but by mere accumulation of time, habit and use.”4 The perverse capitalization of time in the capital had an adverse effect on the most noble activity for this man of letters, notably, the act of correspondence, which became the first victim of lost moments: “I have needed all these months to pick up the pieces of my correspondence, for I am only able to do so in the scraps of time and odds and ends of moments that I can help my amanuensis to spare from my work.”5 Faced with the assembly of the temporal pieces enabling such privileged exchanges in an England, which was cultivating the myth of the eternity of its Royalty, the exiled American alluded to the realities pertaining to the human condition. In the same letter from De Vere Gardens, he wrote:
In all the year at any rate, I have had in London but two homes and in the present one, I have all the air of being destined to end my days and (all but) lay my bones. It is quite in the cards that I shall never again behold I fear the land of my birth.6 ← 19 | 20 →
Here, the urgency of time fleeing is a call, against death, for the eternity of childhood. Not that of the golden cherubs on the church’s steeple, but the fanciful childhood of Bly’s golden-haired children, Miles and Flora, actual reminders in 1898 of James’s youth, as reactivated later in A Small Boy and Others. A turn of the screw was delivered first to Dolcino and to Morgan, the innocent boys of The Author of Beltraffio (1884) and of The Pupil (1891) but more severely and metaphorically to Maisie, rejected and now in the care of her governess, then to the young boy Miles who faces the “horrors” perceived by his own neurotic governess. For pressure from society accentuates the stream and the rise of ghosts; they are a surge of shadows from the past. Intuitively, James establishes the law that governs these movements when, in describing the bustling activity of the Jubilee, he evokes the town which is “converted by planking and partitions, hoardings and boardings of every description into the likeness of a huge cattle pen” and warns his correspondent that there is no solution either in travelling to Paris – sharing this dream with Maisie – because “Paris, alas, is rather dolefully changed. It is full of ghosts. You will be one of them …”7 In London too, the ghost of Dracula is raging on the English stage through the figure of Henry Irving and in the novel of Bram Stoker…
Faced with this prevailing materialism, Rye, its church (James first thought that he might live in the Vicarage, as close as possible to the spiritual centre) and its landscape (he admits in a letter from 28 August 1896 that “The peace and prettiness of the whole land, however, have been good to me”8) are hailed as a return to lost innocence. This may recall the Sunday morning ritual of attending service in The Turn of the Screw: the governess and her small troop tumultuously making the journey from the manor at Bly to the church. The two mises-en-scène, the one of the actual town and the other of the fictional one, from Rye to Bly, embody in the novelist’s eyes a duplicate of the distinction seen twenty years earlier: the ideal image of old England in a contradictory time which has lost its ideals. It is the incursion of this idyllic setting by spectres that must be warded off.
On venturing into the actual church of St Mary, the inquisitive reader may discover other unexpected ghosts mentioned on the commemorative plaques, which decorate the walls: those of the many English soldiers who died in the Boer Wars (1880-1881 and 1899-1902) which would cast gloom over the turn of the century, but especially those of two particular townspeople. Beneath the leaning figure next to the left pillar of the chancel, is the following inscription: “Sacred to the Memory of Elizabeth, ← 20 | 21 → Wife of John Woollett, of the Town, Attorney at Law, who died on the 28th of June 1810, aged 40 years.” Woollett? Why, the whole American chapter from the novel The Ambassadors seems to be resurfacing here! So here is the secret, only partly brought up, that surrounds the fearful “Mrs Newsome, Woollett, Massachusetts,” who sends the widower Lambert Strether to Paris. The inscription in the church at Rye goes on to read: “From the tenderest Regard to a Virtuous Woman, a most Affectionate Wife, a faithful Christian and a Sincere Friend, her Afflicted Husband Caused this Tablet to be Erected.” Symmetrically, the pillar to the right of the chancel reveals another inscription, this time in memory of John Woollett, Esquire, dated 23 March 1819: “Thy Gentle Arm, Benevolence, Sustains our fainting Hope…” Although this “Gentle Arm” on the walls of St Mary would not in fact inspire Henry James’s pen at that time, as he was directly dictating his prose to a secretary, it would nonetheless give voice to literary figures suddenly coming to life in the creative process.
Touching symmetry inspired by the respect of noteworthy men and by conjugal love! The tone in James’s novels is certainly a far cry from this religious rhetoric, but we shall see that the novelist does in fact inscribe himself, notably in The Ambassadors (1903), in a subtle parodied discrepancy based on the analogy uniting mystic and aesthetic experience. The latter had immediately marked the young American who had just arrived in 1869, and who had set off on “the conquest of London” and of European Letters.
Premonitive “Turns” and Intertextual Links
We will note, retrospectively of course, that from the first stories written by Henry James following his arrival in England in 1869, all the “germs” of mannered realism which characterize his “Major Phase” were in place. This is true, for example, for Roger, the protagonist from Watch and Ward (1871), who offers Miss Sandys a violet, “a mere pin’s head of bloom,”9 blushing in his inability to propose to her: “an offered cup – the deep-hued vision of illusion – the bitter draught of constancy.”10 The heroine also picks a violet, “the shy field-flower of spontaneous affection,” in the same story. Her name is Nora and, for a moment, this name is confused with Flora, heralding, with another “golden-haired child,” the little girl from Bly in The Turn of the Screw. Similarly, the streets of Paris are filled with the fragrance of the violet, much to the pleasure of the expertly indecisive aesthete Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, whereas the image of the bowl presented for marriage would be tarnished by a crack in The Golden ← 21 | 22 → Bowl (1904). It is in this way that Gilles Deleuze would characterize a “rhizomatous” spread of never-ending intrigue.
Congruent with this practice of “germs,” the significant use of metaphors highlights the coherence of the novelist’s imagination: thus the metaphor of “the turn” first appears to loom in the short story A Light Man, where a perverse game is established preparing the impending “possession” of the heart of one of the protagonists: confessing to his strategy, the narrator, Max, induces Theodore’s illness by playing a “turn” on him, as he himself puts it, by using “the embellishments of fiction,” and concealing his thought behind a literary reference: “My confession gave him ‘that turn’ as Mrs Gamp would say, that his present illness may be the result of it.”11 With the allusion to Mrs Gamp, the plot of Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit is evoked, as well as, more implicitly, the efforts of Pecksniff, lusting after the fortune of the hero’s grandfather, who has become a misanthrope like Mr Sloane. This reveals one initial expression of the “turn” which presides over the structure in the renowned and eponymous story of 1898: it exploits its literary ambiguities with metaphorical formulations of language. Furthermore, “The Turn of the Screw” is also the title of chapter 34 in Bleak House (1852-1853) another novel by Charles Dickens, whom Henry James might have read closely, of course, since the English novelist had been a guest at James’s home in 1867 while lecturing in the USA. Writing, for Henry James, often echoes and playfully transforms the voice of great masters of the past: A Light Man, for instance, ends with the introduction of a “Miss Meredith”….
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- 2014 (July)
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- Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 309 pp., 1 ill.