Henry James Comes to Terms

The London Magazine - - IAN BRINTON - Ian Brin­ton

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

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