THE ART OF FIC­TION

Tessa Hadley dis­cov­ers Henry James’ lit­er­ary legacy in our ar­chive

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Contents -

n the spring of 1906 the Amer­i­can au­thor and lit­téra­teur Wil­liam Dean How­ells had a bril­liant idea. How­ells had a con­tract with Harper’s Bazaar and was work­ing a day or two each week at an of­fice in the cor­ner of its ed­i­to­rial room on Franklin Square in Man­hat­tan – where he in­sisted on hav­ing tea served, English fash­ion, ev­ery af­ter­noon be­tween four and five. He shared his bril­liant idea with his friend El­iz­a­beth Jor­dan, the Bazaar edi­tor. They would bring to­gether a num­ber of writ­ers to col­lab­o­rate on a novel about a young Amer­i­can girl be­com­ing en­gaged: each writer would be as­signed one chap­ter, fo­cus­ing on one mem­ber of the fam­ily. How­ells wanted it to be a re­al­is­tic por­trait of a typ­i­cal Amer­i­can fam­ily in ‘mid­dling cir­cum­stances, of av­er­age cul­ture and ex­pe­ri­ences’. It doesn’t ex­actly sound like lit­er­ary dy­na­mite. How­ever, be­tween them How­ells and Jor­dan knew ev­ery­body who was any­body in Amer­i­can let­ters – Mark Twain and Henry James, along with other writ­ers suc­cess­ful and ad­mired in their day. They had an ocean of tal­ent at their dis­posal. What could pos­si­bly go wrong?

What en­sued was a rather won­der­ful com­edy of lit­er­ary man­ners and the gen­der wars – it’s a much bet­ter story than the com­pos­ite novel it­self, even­tu­ally pub­lished in in­stal­ments in Bazaar in 1907 as The Whole Fam­ily. Need­less to say El­iz­a­beth Jor­dan – a hu­mor­ous, en­er­getic en­thu­si­ast for peo­ple and causes, and a pas­sion­ately professional jour­nal­ist – ended up do­ing most of the work; not only com­mis­sion­ing and col­lat­ing the chap­ters but also nurs­ing the eas­ily wounded sen­si­bil­i­ties and van­i­ties of the var­i­ous writ­ers, try­ing to keep them all on­board. The Whole Fam­ily is ex­actly as you’d ex­pect: plot veer­ing all over the place, pro­tag­o­nists chang­ing their per­son­al­i­ties as abruptly as in a long-run­ning soap, the tone of the book a zero sum of con­flict­ing in­ten­tions. Mark Twain wisely didn’t want any­thing to do with it.

How­ells launched the whole thing with a pon­der­ous first chap­ter nar­rated by the Fa­ther of the fam­ily; noth­ing less to be ex­pected from the pa­tri­arch of Amer­i­can let­ters. Mary E Wilkins Free­man – her name in it­self a piece of pe­riod Amer­i­cana – was sup­posed to write the next one from the point of view of the Old-Maid Aunt. Only she staged a mini-re­volt in fic­tion: in­stead of writ­ing a com­i­cal set-piece, mak­ing the aunt lu­di­crous be­cause she was unmarried, all scan­dalised in­hi­bi­tion and pince-nez glasses, she made her an at­trac­tive sin­gle woman in her early thir­ties who has a prior re­la­tion­ship with the young girl’s fi­ancé and be­comes the mov­ing force be­hind the plot. It’s not great writ­ing, but it’s an in­spired cheek. How­ells was duly out­raged. ‘Don’t, don’t let her ruin our beau­ti­ful story!’ But when the chap­ter was cir­cu­lated, most of the other writ­ers cheered up, as the novel promised to grow more in­ter­est­ing – and Jor­dan even­tu­ally de­cided to keep it in. Then some of the writ­ers tried to pun­ish the aunt in their plot­ting, oth­ers to vin­di­cate her. There was more ed­i­to­rial fun later on when Edith Wy­att’s chap­ter on the Mother came in and was frankly aw­ful: ‘Con­fused, dull, stupid, va­pid, mean­ing­less, halt­ing, lame,’ some­one said.

Henry James, the great nov­el­ist-chron­i­cler of high so­ci­ety in his era and of the ad­ven­tures of wealthy Amer­i­cans in Europe, had by this time long been set­tled in Eng­land; but he’d al­ways kept up re­la­tions with Amer­i­can pub­lish­ing, and had been as­so­ci­ated with Bazaar for years. A sig­nif­i­cant part of his in­come came from pub­lish­ing in pe­ri­od­i­cals, and he had writ­ten short sto­ries as well as ‘Lon­don Notes’ – about theatre, lit­er­a­ture and pol­i­tics – for El­iz­a­beth Jor­dan’s pre­de­ces­sors at Bazaar, Mary Booth and Mar­garet Sang­ster. He en­tered into The Whole Fam­ily project with an ar­dour that’s al­most touch­ing. No doubt he was partly fas­ci­nated by the idea of com­pos­ing a nar­ra­tive out of so many dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, though one sus­pects that he’d have liked to do them all; in his fic­tions the in­ter­pre­tive fil­ter of the char­ac­ter re­lat­ing or see­ing is ev­ery bit as im­por­tant as the story they tell. But that doesn’t mean James wasn’t in­ter­ested in plot. His great nov­els al­most all orig­i­nated in found frag­ments jot­ted down in his note­books, bits of gos­sip and anec­dotes told to him at din­ner par­ties. As soon as he got a sniff of the shared Bazaar story he be­gan in­vent­ing, imag­in­ing, elab­o­rat­ing; he rel­ished the com­pli­ca­tion of the sexy pos­si­bly-not-so-maiden aunt and de­vel­oped it richly in his own chap­ter, the Mar­ried Son – which un­sur­pris­ingly came in to poor Jor­dan at twice the re­quired length. James’ Son is an aes­thete, he’s his mother’s favourite and loathes his fa­ther (‘the fine damp plas­ter of whose com­po­si­tion … can’t be touched any­where without let­ting your fin­ger in’). He is in­ca­pac­i­tated with ‘nerves’, winces from the en­ergy and vul­gar­ity of the ‘belted and trin­keted’ naughty aunt, and dreads the time he has to put in at the Works where the fam­ily money comes from – they make ice-pitch­ers.

James was dis­ap­pointed and ex­as­per­ated when the chap­ter that fol­lowed his threw away, as he saw it, all the funny and sub­tle pos­si­bil­i­ties he had brought into play – El­iz­a­beth Stu­art Phelps Ward had only found James’ con­tri­bu­tion ‘long and heavy’. ‘I had en­gaged to play the game,’ he protested in a let­ter to Jor­dan, ‘& take over the el­e­ments as they were & hated to see them so help­lessly mud­dled away when, oh, one could one’s self (ac­cord­ing to one’s fatu­ous thought!) have made them mean some­thing, given them sense, di­rec­tion, and form.’ But how had he ever imag­ined it might work, or that he wouldn’t hate hav­ing to let other writ­ers take over where he left off? Fa­mously, James once said that a nov­el­ist must be an in­di­vid­ual ‘on whom noth­ing was wasted’, and per­haps that ca­pac­ity for mak­ing some­thing out of what­ever came his way felt on oc­ca­sion al­most like a com­pul­sion, a help­less­ness not to try to make any given

story, once it was trailed un­der his nose, yield up its in­ter­est. His chap­ter isn’t the best of James, but it’s em­bar­rass­ingly much bet­ter than all the oth­ers; it’s too dif­fer­ent in fact, in its sheer den­sity and so­phis­ti­ca­tion, to work as part of the patch­work com­po­si­tion.

Un­doubt­edly, some of those writ­ers whose chap­ters sit along­side James’ in The Whole Fam­ily sold more copies of their books in their life­times than James did; the ones we separate out now as be­long­ing to our great tra­di­tion were strug­gling once in a crowded mar­ket. James was paid $400 for his chap­ter, El­iz­a­beth Ward $750. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see James’ short sto­ries in their orig­i­nal con­text in the mag­a­zines: how his idio­syn­cratic, ex­trav­a­gant high style rubbed shoul­ders not only with other fic­tions but also with news of roy­alty, snip­pets of art ap­pre­ci­a­tion, fash­ion plates. ‘An In­ter­na­tional Episode’, for in­stance, was run in Bazaar in eight in­stal­ments be­tween 1878 and 1879: the print is small and the story is packed into four dense col­umns of type along­side an ar­ti­cle on opera di­vas, a de­scrip­tion of a sen­ti­men­tal paint­ing called ‘But­ter­flies and Roses’, scraps of po­etry and An­swers to Cor­re­spon­dents. ‘Daisy: White cash­mere is lit­tle used for a bride’s dress: a lus­trous or al­paca is pre­ferred. Mar­garet: We can­not as­sist you in procur­ing em­ploy­ment. Min­nie: It is and al­ways has been fash­ion­able to put “Miss” on the en­graved vis­it­ing card of an unmarried lady.’ An il­lus­tra­tion of two gor­geous women dressed in Win­ter Wrap­pings – ‘black satin elab­o­rately trimmed with old gold bead passe­menterie and fringe of che­nille strands’ – takes up so much space that James’ story has to be squeezed around it into thin col­umns of two or three words.

And those early is­sues of Bazaar were sim­ply crammed with fic­tion. The fi­nal in­stal­ment of ‘An In­ter­na­tional Episode’ be­gins a scant half inch be­low where the 30th chap­ter of All or Noth­ing by Mrs Cashel Hoey signs off with this su­perbly melo­dra­matic flour­ish: a storm of ‘rage, pity, for­bid­den love, re­sent­ment against his fate’ is let loose in a cer­tain Cap­tain Dun­stan’s heart, and ‘their work was wild with him, as all their voices gath­ered into one ut­ter­ance which drove and goaded him by its in­tol­er­a­ble whis­per: “Too late! too late!”’ What did the read­ers who en­joyed Mrs Hoey’s style pos­si­bly make of James’ in­di­rec­tions and ironies, his ad­dress to a know­ing, dis­crim­i­nat­ing au­di­ence? Well, read­ers have mar­vel­lously flex­i­ble imag­i­na­tions and sym­pa­thies; it’s per­fectly pos­si­ble, thank good­ness, when it comes to fic­tion, to like chalk and cheese and re­spond to both. And any­way, al­though the writ­ing in ‘An In­ter­na­tional Episode’ is un­mis­tak­ably in­tel­li­gently Jame­sian, it isn’t dif­fi­cult – the lan­guage and the point are both fairly trans­par­ent.

By the time James wrote his story ‘The Faces’ for El­iz­a­beth Jor­dan in 1900, in the full flush of his baroque late man­ner, the mag­a­zine was look­ing very dif­fer­ent. The for­mat was smaller and the lay­out was more con­sciously stylish; the print was larger, and ar­ranged in two broad read­able col­umns. Also, the story was set apart in its own pages, as well as rather beau­ti­fully il­lus­trated. Mrs Gran­tham has been dropped by Lord Gwyther, who was her – what? Ad­mirer, or lover? James is dis­creetly am­bigu­ous. We never hear a word of Mr Gran­tham. Lord Gwyther has mar­ried abroad and brought his pretty, in­ex­pe­ri­enced young wife home to make her en­trance into Lon­don so­ci­ety; in a risky ges­ture of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion he asks Mrs Gran­tham to ‘take her by the hand’ and be her friend. We en­counter them all some­time later at a week­end party in a coun­try house; in the mean­time Mrs Gran­tham has taken Lady Gwyther to her dress­maker – and had her re­venge. The poor girl is over­dressed, she’s ru­ined, she looks ‘like a mon­key in a show’. It’s like Medea send­ing Ja­son’s new wife the wed­ding clothes that will burn her up, only for a less bloody age.

James and El­iz­a­beth Jor­dan got along very well; she de­scribed them as hav­ing a ‘cheer­ful ca­ma­raderie’. They first met in Lon­don, at a din­ner at Clar­idge’s, when he was flat­tered be­cause she could re­mem­ber whole pas­sages from his nov­els; she thought he looked like a suc­cess­ful lawyer or banker rather than a soul­ful nov­el­ist, and by her own ac­count she could do a rather good imi­ta­tion after­wards of his ‘hem­ming and haw­ing and re­pro­duc­ing a sen­tence two or three times’. James of­ten made friends with dy­namic and pow­er­ful ca­reer women – jour­nal­ists and writ­ers and ac­tresses – even if the hero­ines in his nov­els are usu­ally leisured and the women who work for a liv­ing are rel­e­gated to the comic pe­riph­ery; he couldn’t find his sto­ries in women’s work, only in their in­ner lives. Jor­dan helped to ar­range a lec­ture tour when James vis­ited Amer­ica in 1904 for the first time in 20 years; Bazaar laid on a din­ner in his honour at the New York Metropoli­tan Club, and James wrote a cou­ple of es­says for the mag­a­zine on his im­pres­sions of Amer­i­can women’s speech and man­ners.

These late es­says can’t have been much to Jor­dan’s taste, as they seem to de­plore the very things she rep­re­sented, la­ment­ing that the com­ing of demo­cratic free­doms for women has meant the end of the old ‘high ci­vil­ity’ and ‘true ur­ban­ity’ of the ‘fem­i­nine type’. They sound hope­lessly dated now, and like a fuss about pre­cisely the wrong prob­lem – whereas so many of James’ con­tri­bu­tions to the pe­ri­od­i­cal lit­er­a­ture of his age shine out as guid­ing lights in the oth­er­ness of the past, help­ing us find our way. A more in­ter­est­ing late Bazaar es­say, ‘Is There A Life Af­ter Death?’, ar­gues for the tran­scen­dent pow­ers of con­scious­ness and art, which work against ex­tinc­tion: our con­scious­ness, James writes, ‘gives us im­men­si­ties and imag­in­abil­i­ties wher­ever we di­rect it’. The friend­ship be­tween James and Jor­dan be­longs to a pe­riod of happy col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween great lit­er­a­ture and the mag­a­zine. James gave Bazaar his lovely copy and his im­pri­matur of se­ri­ous high cul­ture and class; in re­turn, the mag­a­zine pro­vided him with its nur­tur­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion, an in­come, and that thing no writer can quite man­age without – an au­di­ence.

Left: El­iz­a­beth Jor­dan. Above: Henry James, painted by John Singer Sar­gent in 1913

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.