THE ART OF FICTION
Tessa Hadley discovers Henry James’ literary legacy in our archive
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