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The Continuum of Consciousness

Aesthetic Experience and Visual Art in Henry James’s Novels


Jennifer Eimers

The Continuum of Consciousness: Aesthetic Experience and Visual Art in Henry James’s Novels examines the transformative experience of art in James’s fiction. In a 1915 letter to H. G. Wells, James declares, «It is art that makes life.» This book traces the rich implications of this claim. For James, viewing art transformed the self. Many of his contemporaries, including his famous older brother, William, were deeply interested in the study of perception and individual consciousness. James’s fictional use of art reflects these philosophical discussions. Although much valuable scholarship has been devoted to visual art in James’s fiction, the guiding role it often plays in his characters’ experiences receives fuller exploration in this book. A prolonged look at visual art and consciousness through the lens of nineteenth-century British aestheticism reveals intriguing connections and character responses. By highlighting and analyzing his representations of aesthetic consciousness in four novels at specific moments (such as Basil Ransom’s and Verena Tarrant’s contrasting responses to Harvard’s Memorial Hall in The Bostonians and Milly Theale’s identification with a Bronzino painting in The Wings of the Dove), this book ultimately explores the idea that for James art represents «every conscious human activity», as Wells replied to James.


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CHAPTER FOUR: Pater and Ruskin in The Wings of the Dove 85


Chapter Four Pater and Ruskin in The Wings of the Dove James’s focus on the means and ends of art flourishes in The Wings of the Dove (1902). Perhaps the most popular reading of this novel compares Milly Theale to James’s cousin Minny Temple, who died in 1870 at the age of 24; indeed, both women ultimately achieve a sort of immortality through art. In addition to this reading, through Milly’s story James also probes the middle ground between Ruskin’s ideas about morality in art and Pater’s ostensibly amoral aestheticism. Through Milly Theale’s encounters with art in The Wings of the Dove, James explores his lingering mixed attitudes about Pater’s and Ruskin’s ideas. When James began seriously to consider Milly’s story in Octo- ber 1899, Pater had been dead for five years, and American and British litera- ture were moving away from the aesthetic and Decadent movements toward Modernism. James’s own late phase novels, beginning with The Wings of the Dove, are now widely noted for their Modernist characteristics. Though it may seem unusual that James chose to develop a Paterian plot at this particular moment in literary history, he had entered his first developed notebook sketches for The Wings of the Dove in early November 1894, a mere three months after Pater’s death. Following John Ruskin’s death in January 1900, James’s thoughts appear to have turned toward the lasting impact these two famous art critics brought to late nineteenth-century art and aestheticism. This turn strongly influenced his 1902 novel.1...

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