Henry James Comes to Terms
The Jolly Corner and Other Tales 1903-1910, by Henry James and edited
by N.H. Reeve, Cambridge University Press, September 2017, 688 pp., £95.00 (Hardcover)
In the first decade of the twentieth century as he completed his last three major novels, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl, Henry James, master of fiction, finely tuned his focus to bear upon shorter tales. In the full and carefully written introduction to this new Cambridge edition N.H. Reeve offers us his perspective on these twelve late short fictions:
In keeping with the spirit of retrospection in this decade, some of the stories take the opportunity to revisit ideas James had treated elsewhere, but there is also much that is new: not just thematically, but by way of a harsher, more aggressive tone of address to the times he was living in, starker depictions of a vacuously narcissistic society, of financial or cultural poverty, of manipulations and betrayals of friendship or faithfulness so frequent as to seem almost routine.
In August 1905 the American novelist of European manners had sailed back to his homeland for the first time in twenty-one years and recorded his immediate perceptions in a series of essays later collected under the title The American Scene. One of these, ‘New York Revisited’, offers the reader a picture of a city ‘in its might, its fortune, its unsurpassable conditions’; a city of floating and hurrying, a ‘panting thing’ pulsing with the ‘throb of ferries and tugs’ the shrill whistles of which and breeze-born cries appear like ‘a wasted clamour of detonations’; a city which possesses a financial sense of ‘being backed and able to back’.
‘The Birthplace’ and ‘The Papers’ are the substantial first two tales in this authoritatively edited new addition to Cambridge’s Complete Fiction of Henry James. Both written in the years just before the author embarked upon that return to a homeland which he had left in the summer of 1883 these stories focus upon the difference between shams and reality, between a private and a public identity. The roots of ‘The Birthplace’ can be traced back to a visit James made to stay with his friends Sir George and Lady Caroline Trevelyan at their country retreat near Stratford-on-Avon. It was here that he was made aware of the tale of two new custodians having been appointed to show the public round Shakespeare’s Birthplace at Stratford. In a Notebook entry made in June 1901 James contemplated the difficulties of this ostensibly high-profile position as guardians of a major cornerstone of British heritage. However, the Skipseys from Newcastle soon became sick of the sham presentation that was expected of them, ‘full of humbug, full of lies and superstition’ that was
imposed upon them by the great body of visitors, who want the positive impressive story about every object, every feature of the house, every dubious thing – the simplified, unscrupulous, gulpable tale.
In James’s fictionalised account of what may have been taking place Mrs Gedge embraces the opportunity offered to her and her husband Morris by a grateful Mr. Grant-Jackson (‘a highly preponderant, pushing person’). The appointment was an expression of thanks owing to the Gedges after they had saved the life of a young Grant-Jackson who had been boarding at a minor preparatory school run by the couple in Blackport-on-Dwindle after he had become seriously ill whilst his father was abroad. Although the Gedges see themselves as poor and modest they also recognise that they are not a part of the vulgar masses:
We’ve no social position, but we don’t mind that we haven’t, do we? a bit; which is because we know the difference between realities and shams. We hold to reality, and that gives us common sense, which the vulgar have less than anything, and which yet must be wanted
there, after all, as well as anywhere else.
As Morris Gedge is being shown the ropes by the former custodian who is going into retirement he becomes increasingly aware of the subtle responsibilities of this post as the guide looked up to by a paying public. The unquestioning self-confidence of the retiring Miss Putchin, her ability to be able to answer any question put to her by the awe-struck visitors to the great shrine, reveals to Morris Gedge ‘as it had never yet been revealed, the happy power of the simple to hang upon the lips of the wise.’ Since so little was actually based upon verifiable historical information Gedge starts to discover ‘an agitation deep within him that vaguely threatened to grow.’ The embroidery of fictional narrative had over the years become a major part of the custodian’s job, one that his wife enters upon with unstinted enthusiasm, and the public pay their good money down to have their own preconceptions concerning the Birthplace of Shakespeare, the genius of our National Heritage, fully confirmed:
What they all most wanted was to feel that everything was “just as it was”; only the shock of having to part with that vision was greater than any individual could bear unsupported.
When Nathaniel Hawthorne had visited Shakespeare’s Birthplace in the mid-1850s he had found it ‘a smaller and humbler house than any description can prepare the visitor to expect’ and went on to refer to the room which was presented to the public as the very one in which the genius first drew breath as containing the ‘shadow of an ugly doubt’ as to the veracity of what was being put on display. The dilemma facing Morris Gedge as his critical faculties develop and his ability to shift well-worn fiction into authentic fact becomes increasingly difficult is placed in quite simple terms by his wife. If they are sacked for not talking up the greatest show on earth they will beg their bread, ‘or I should be taking in washing’. In the hope of finding some genuine factual basis for the stories he and his wife are expected to peddle Morris Gedge takes to prowling round at night as if to unearth something and even during the first week in post he more than once rises in the small hours
To move about, up and down, with his lamp, standing, sitting, listening, wondering, in the stillness, as if positively to recover some echo, to surprise some secret, of the genius loci.
The growing difference in the attitudes of Morris Gedge and his wife becomes increasingly marked as she sees herself fully absorbed by the daytime routines of assuring the wide-eyed public that everything is genuine within the Birthplace and thereby supporting the show which provides their income:
She rejoiced in the distinctness, contagious though it was, of their own little residence, where she trimmed the lamp and stirred the fire and heard the kettle sing, repairing the while the omissions of the small domestic who slept out; she foresaw herself with some promptness, drawing rather sharply the line between her own precinct and that in which the great spirit might walk.
The visiting public, assisted by their guidebooks, ensure that the Birthplace is a central attraction but Gedge’s sense of critical decency will not simply lie down. His wife asks him if he considers it ‘all a fraud’ and he replies:
‘Well, I grant you there was somebody. But the details are naught. The links are missing. The evidence – in particular about that room upstairs, itself our Casa Santa – is nil. It was so awfully long ago.’
The sympathy and awareness of two American visitors who arrive at the end of the summer season, shortly before closing, permits him to voice his doubts and his growing awareness of the sham behind the Show:
…They want also to see where He had His dinner and where He had His tea… They want to see where He hung up His hat and where He kept His boots and where His mother boiled her pot.
Morris Gedge is trapped in his financially dependent position and must simply continue to peddle the line set by the Board of owners and trustees;
unless of course he can discover his own way of resolving the issue of the difference between shams and realities.
In the Preface to the New York Edition of James’s work, an edition he had been working on between 1905 and 1909, he referred to the ‘artistic need’ of the dramatic poet ‘to cultivate almost at any price variety of experience and experiment, to dissimulate likenesses, samenesses, stalenesses, by the infinite play of a form pretending to a life of its own.’ The writer of fiction is ‘after all but a nimble besieger or nocturnal sneaking adventurer who perpetually plans, watches, circles for penetrable places.’ In the 1906 story ‘The Jolly Corner’ James described Spencer Brydon’s return to a New York he had left many years before seeing it as ‘a miraculous masterpiece in the line of the fantastic-gruesome, the supernatural-thrilling, or anything else of that sort it may best be called.’ Brydon had left New York when he was twenty-three and he was fifty-six when he returned to note the effect of his absence:
It would have taken a century, he repeatedly said to himself, and said also to Alice Staverton, it would have taken a longer absence and a more averted mind than those even of which he had been guilty, to pile up the differences, the newnesses, the queernesses, above all the bignesses, for the better or the worse, that at present assaulted his vision wherever he looked.
Originally titled ‘The Second House’, the eerie and unsettling tale of a man haunted by the thoughts of what might have become of him if he had chosen a different path some thirty-three years earlier is played out against the background of two New York properties. One is in the process of reconstruction ‘as a tall mass of flats’ the lease of which will provide him with a good income enabling him to remain abroad. The older and more substantial property is the childhood home which he refers to as built on ‘the jolly corner’. It is the house
in which he had first seen the light, in which various members of his family had lived and had died, in which the holidays of his overschooled boyhood had been passed and the few social flowers
of his chilled adolescence gathered, and which, alienated then for so long a period, had, through the successive deaths of his two brothers and the termination of old arrangements, come wholly into his hands.
As Brydon shows Alice Staverton around ‘the great gaunt shell’ they are accompanied by Mrs. Muldoon who keeps a daily eye on the empty property, opening windows and dusting and sweeping. This good neighbour ventures the statement that ‘glad as she was to oblige him by her noonday round, there was a request she greatly hoped he would never make of her.’ If for any reason he should ask her to enter the property after dark she would tell him that he must ask that of somebody else. Brydon seems to take up the challenge of confronting whatever might be in the large empty house in which ‘the impalpable ashes of his long-extinct youth’ were ‘afloat in the very air like microscopic motes’. He takes to spending each night alone in the house, walking from empty room to empty room and wondering what sort of person he might have been like had he stayed in the fast-developing world of urban New York. He wonders about his alter ego and whether its presence might be still in the house as he roams warily and restlessly with ‘the desire to waylay him and meet him’. As with the man who is shocked into discovering what love and loss really are in the earlier tale, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’, Spencer Brydon stalks the world of alternatives. Like Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors he might well cry out ‘Live all you can, it’s a mistake not to’ and when Alice Staverton rescues him from the house on the jolly corner he pleads with her to remain with him. Her reply gives us another tone, that of reconciliation, within these late tales:
It took her but an instant to bend her face and kiss him, and something in the manner of it, and in the way her hands clasped and locked his head while he felt the cool charity and virtue of her lips, something in all this beatitude somehow answered everything. ‘And now I keep you,’ she said.
Which is more than can be said of Mrs. Worthingham about whom the middle-aged White-Mason thinks as he sits in a New York park contemplating asking her to marry him. The short tale ‘Crapy Cornelia’ was