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A Few Notes upon Mr. James

By Lena Milman


TO think of form as characteristic of emptiness, as though all
    spheres were bubbles, is an aesthetic heresy bequeathed to us
by the Puritans who, as surely as they added to our national
muscle, bereft us of a certain sensibility of touch. In their eyes,
art was a mere concession to the bauble-loving folly of the crowd,
and beauty itself was anathema to the wise few unless it clothed
some grave moral teaching, which could not otherwise be made
acceptable to the foolish many. Bunyan could not help but deck
his parable in the beautiful prose of his day, but he would have
scorned to bespangle it consciously with jewels of diction, and he
could only shudder if he realised that Mercy and Greatheart spoke
the same idiom as the players of Vanity Fair.

The contempt for the short story prevalent in England, but
unknown elsewhere, is surely as traceable to Puritan influence as
the mutilation of the Mary Altar at Ely, and of the shrine of
Saint Thomas ; for, insisting, as it has become our English bent
to do, upon some serious side-purpose in art, we are not content
with a beautiful suggestion, with a sketch be it never so masterly ;
the narrative must illustrate a principle, the picture, a fact. It is


                        72 A Few Notes upon Mr. James

not yet ours to realise how the most exquisite in life are just those
passing emotions, those elusive impressions which it behoves the
artist to go seeking, over them so cunningly to cast his net of
words or colour as to preserve the rapture of that emotion, that
impression, for the delight of mankind for ever. We are too apt
to regard the short story as the cartoon for a possible novel,
whereas any elaboration of it is as thankless a process as the
development of a fresco from an easel-painting. The treatment,
the pigment, the medium, the palette are other from the very
beginning. The rugged outline, which adds vigour to the fresco,
could not be tolerated on canvas, the gem-like tones of the easel-
painting would look blurred if transferred to the wall. Mr. James’s
pictures must be on the line ; sky them, and it is not worth while
to crane our necks for the modicum of pleasure they can afford.
He has indeed written several books in the form of novels, but his
method is too analytical, and we enjoy the stories much in the
way we enjoy travelling over a picture with a microscope. We
can detect no fault of technique; on the contrary, each movement
of the glass reveals some new beauty, some wonder of skill ; but
we are conscious all the while that, as a whole, the work is a
failure. The ” American ” is an example of this. The charac-
terisation is masterly, the observation unerring, and yet Newman’s
passion carries no conviction with it, although the story treats of
its dawn, its noon, its setting.

Distinction, of all qualities the one most rare in young writer’s,
brought Mr. James’s work instant recognition, and his personality
was from the very first so clearly stamped upon his writing that
it is nowhere more marked than in a story printed as early as
1871 : “A Passionate Pilgrim.” Not only does every page
reveal him as “enamoured of literary form,” (we quote
from “The Middle Years,”) but also as full of love, both for his own


                        By Lena Milman 73

countrymen and for England—a love none the less real because so
undemonstrative that superficial observers describe him as cosmo-
politan. In one so guiltless of Chauvinism as Mr. James, it is
surely not a little charming to find how rarely the exigencies of
narrative induce him to portray his own country-people in a light
altogether unamiable. Her innocence, her untimely death, forbid
us to think lightly even of that type of frivolity, Miss Annie P.
Miller ; and of all Mr. James’s portraits of women, surely the most
lovable is that of Euphemia Cleve, afterwards ” Madame de
Mauves.” So great, indeed, is his love for England, his appreci-
ation of things English, that he would fain persuade himself that
it is shared by his countrymen in general :

“The latent preparedness of the American mind for even the
most characteristic features of English life is a fact I never have
got to the bottom of. The roots of it are so deeply buried in the
soil of our early culture, that without some great upheaval of
experience it would be hard to say when and where and how it
begins. It makes an American’s enjoyment of England an
emotion more intimate, as the French say, than his enjoyment, for
instance, of Italy or Spain.”

With a delightful style, a facile invention, a wide culture, what
writer could be better equipped than Mr. James ?

Alas, that he must write for a generation upon whom two at
least of these qualities are as though they were not ! Alas, that it
should be the concurrence of illiterate opinion, (an opinion often
then most illiterate when most elegantly uttered,) that constitutes
popularity ! The select multitude that surges up Belgravian stair-
cases, that larger one that spends its holidays among the bowers of
Rosherville, agree in preferring “Claudian” to “Hamlet,” Mr.
Jerome’s humour to Elia’s, Mr. Ellis Roberts’s adaptations to
Mr. Watts’ portraits. There are certain elementary emotions,


                        74 A Few Notes upon Mr. James

there are certain melodramatic situations, of which they never
tire ; and a writer who prefers to tell of subtle emotions, of
bloodless situations, whose reputation, moreover, does not chiefly
rest upon one of those respectable monuments of British in-
dustry, novels in three volumes, will never see his works stacked
high upon the bookstalls. If, like Mr. James, he is further
hampered by a tender literary conscience, which makes him
reverent and temperate in the use of words, which hinders him
from writing even daintily of things foul, it will go even harder
with him, since he cannot hope for a place on that index which has
made so many reputations in the marring.

La qualité la plus rare chez la femme,” says Balzac, ” c’est une
certaine gaieté qui n’altère point la tendresse,” and surely the rarity
may be predicated of other than women, of whole communities
indeed. To steer between the Scylla of flippancy on the one
hand, and the Charybdis of sentimentality on the other, is given
to but few. It is such a perfection of taste, as one would
expect an ancient civilization to produce ; and, lo ! an example
of it, a very apostle of form, comes to us over the Atlantic,
beyond whose wave the forefathers of his race sought immunity
from form, civil and religious.


It is as difficult to express the charm of an individual style in
words other than the author’s own as to convey that of music
without a snatch of illustrative melody ; and this is especially true
of a style which, like that of Mr. James, expresses an exquisite
sense of fitness rather than a musical ear. It is not that his
epigram is ever discordant, but rather that his system of short,
closed sentences does not lend itself to flowing cadence.


                        By Lena Milman 75

He is the least self-conscious of writers, but surely when, in
“The Middle Years,” he describes Duncombe as “a passionate
corrector, a fingerer of style,” he lets slip an autobiographical detail ;
and, indeed, supposing all other sources of information to be
closed to us, we might construct a tolerably correct biography of
Mr. James from the evidence of his works. We might detect,
for instance, his American birth and education in his idiom, his
Celtic blood in his satire, his sympathy with English convention
in his dainty morality, his intimate knowledge of French in his
lapses of Gallicism.

With provincial France, indeed, where the poplars twinkle
beside the white ways, he is as familiar as are but two of our
English writers, Miss Thackeray and Mr. Wedmore ; and with
Paris too he is acquainted, not only in those her obvious aspects
which opulent but illiterate youth can learn superficially in a week
or so, but also as the Paris beyond Seine that lounges in the shade
of the Luxembourg chestnut-trees, that saunters through the book-
lined arcades of the Odéon, that hides its dignity in the bastion-
like palaces of the Faubourg Saint Germain ; the Paris that dis-
plays its wealth in the Parc Monceaux, that flaunts its poverty on
the Buttes Chaumont.

Occasionally Mr. James’s unremitting warfare against the
Obvious, whether of epithet or of incident, has misled him into
artificiality. He should remember that whereas the Obvious in
life is always the most easily attainable, in art, convention has so
fenced it round as to place it almost out of reach, and that some-
times startling effect is best produced by perfect simplicity of
phrase. We cannot recall any passage in Mr James’s stories as
poignant as poor wandering Clifford’s cry in the ” House of the
Seven Gables ” :

” I want my happiness ! Many, many years have I waited for


                        76 A Few Notes upon Mr. James

it ! It is late ! it is late ! I want my happiness.” And yet
Hawthorne worked within far narrower limits than does the author
of ” Washington Square.”

Mr. James’s descriptive passages are as vividly impressionist as his
characters are subtly analytical, and it is perhaps for this reason that
they best exhibit the charm of his style. It is no mere word-
painting. This cant-phrase but ill expresses the magic of words
able to convey not merely colour but the scent and sound and
movement which, welded together, form one idea. Who that
knows Paris will not testify to the accuracy of observation
displayed in this description of a characteristic scene at the
Comédie Franҫaise ?

” The foyer was not crowded ; only a dozen groups were
scattered over the polished floor, several others having passed out
to the balcony which overhangs the square of the Palais Royal.
The windows were open, the brilliant lights of Paris made the
dull summer evening look like an anniversary or a revolution ; a
murmur of voices seemed to come up from the streets, and even in
the foyer one heard the slow click of the horses and the rumble
of the crookedly-driven fiacres on the hard, smooth asphalt.”

But Mr. James has another manner, of which the following is a
sample. Surely Gautier himself never wrote more gracefully of
travel :

” In so far as beauty of structure is beauty of line and curve,
balance and harmony of masses and dimensions, I have seldom
relished it as deeply as on the grassy nave of some crumbling
church, before lonely columns and empty windows, where the
wild flowers were a cornice and the sailing clouds a roof. The
arts certainly have a common element. These hoary relics of
Glastonbury reminded me in their broken eloquence of one of the
other great ruins of the world—the Last Supper of Leonardo. A


                        By Lena Milman 77

beautiful shadow, in each case, is all that remains ; but that shadow is the artist’s thought.”


In one of Mr. James’s earlier stories we read of a young German
who has heard of the population of the United States as being “a
highly humorous people.” The author may or may not concur
in this opinion, but certainly his own vein of humour is as far
removed as possible from that usually regarded as typically
American, and it may be that, in crediting his countrymen with
an exclusive appreciation for the exaggerated burlesque of their
most popular writers, we do them the same injustice they do us
who conceive of our being moved to mirth by that humour known
as the ” New.”

Mr. James’s humour is like Miss Austen’s, in being so entirely a
part of the texture that it is almost as difficult to detach an
illustrative fragment as to cut a pattern from one of those fabrics
which we are advised to “see in the piece.” And, spite of what
we have said of his being chiefly successful as a short-story writer,
it is perhaps in one of his shorter novels, ” Washington Square,”
that his humour is best exemplified. The character indeed of
Aunt Penniman, always advising, but always ill-advised, is worthy
a place beside the immortal aunts who watched over Maggie
Tulliver and the thrifty Aunt Norris of ” Mansfield Park.”
We read of Aunt Penniman that ” Her manners were strange and
formidable, and her mourning robes—she dressed in black for
twenty years after her husband’s death, and then suddenly appeared
one morning with pink roses in her cap—were complicated in odd,
unexpected places with buckles, bugles, and pins, which discouraged


                        78 A Few Notes upon Mr. James

familiarity. She took children too hard both for good and evil,
and had an oppressive air of expecting subtle things of them, so
that going to see her was a good deal like being taken to church
and made to sit in a front pew.”

But Mrs. Penniman was as romantic as she was inaccurate (“it
must be delightful,” she said, “to think of those who love us
among the ruins of the Pantheon”), and it needed but the
attentions of an heiress-hunting young man to convert the poor
little heroine of the story, weak at every point save her affections,
unattractive, ungifted, into a heroine of romance in her aunt’s eyes,
the father’s opposition only making the situation more dramatic,
and—”Mrs. Penniman’s real hope was that the girl would make
a secret marriage, at which she should officiate as brideswoman or
duenna. She had a vision of this ceremony being performed in
some subterranean chapel—subterranean chapels in New York
were not frequent, but Mrs. Penniman’s imagination was not
chilled by trifles—and of the guilty couple—she liked to think of
poor Catherine and her suitor as the guilty couple—being shuffled
away in a fast whirling vehicle to some obscure lodging in the
suburbs, where she would pay them (in a thick veil) clandestine
visits, where they would endure a period of romantic privation,
and where ultimately, after she should have been their earthly
providence, their intercessor, their advocate, and their medium of
communication with the world, they should be reconciled to her
brother in an artistic tableau, in which she herself should be, some-
how, the central figure.”

But apart from the context, deprived of the contrast afforded
her by the matter-of-fact sincerity of her niece, the dry perspicuity
of her brother, Aunt Penniman’s figure cannot be made to stand
as firmly as in the novel. Indeed, humour is so volatile a thing,
the perception of it requires so delicate a sensibility, that the mood


                        By Lena Milman 79

cannot be maintained, except by that transition from grave to gay,
from gay to grave, which is the whole art of the story-teller as of
the dramatist.

The peculiar humour whose sparks are struck by the clash of
nationalities in European hotels and pensions has surely never been
so deftly distilled as in the ” Bundle of Letters.” Miss Miranda
Hope, of Bangor, Maine, ” decorated all over with beads and
bracelets and embroidered dandelions,” whose travelling ” for
general culture” obliges her to go to a Paris theatre unattended,
and who there sees “plenty of other ladies alone (mostly French);”
the aesthetic youth from Boston, who talks of a real “Corot Day,”
and who paints ” for the knowledge that leaves a trace—that
leaves strange scars and stains and reveries behind it;” the English
girl who describes the landlady as ” exceedingly foreign ; ” the land-
lady’s cousin, who enjoys free board and lodging so long as he
keeps “an eye on the grammatical eccentricities of the pension-
naires” are all equally typical, and yet none of them lack that
touch which makes them human as well as humorous.

To sustain humour as long as he is in the mood, without once
lapsing into caricature—this is what Mr. James has essayed to do,
and has done admirably.


There is another side to Mr. James’s genius—a side of whose
existence they never reck who are content to know him merely as
the social satirist of “Daisy Miller” and “A Bundle of Letters”
—a side which links him with his great compatriots Poe and
Hawthorne—a way, namely, of setting his characters in an atmo-
sphere of the supernatural with so admirable a skill as never by
over-statement to impel the reader to scepticism. The little


                        80 A Few Notes upon Mr. James

story, “Sir Edmund Orme,” is an example of this. The ghost of
Sir Edmund is invisible to all but two persons, and all that these
two have in common is a great love for one woman—a love so
great that, as we read, it seems almost natural that it should suffice
to rarefy mortal sense and extend its range beyond things of
matter. There is something, too, of this mystical element in
“The Madonna of the Future,” although here the question is not
of the dead appearing, but of one whose gaze is so constantly fixed
upon the ideal that the real becomes a shadow. It is the story of
Don Quixote over again, but, in place of the knight, we have
Theobald, the poor artist, in place of Dulcinea, his model Sera-
fina, whose virtue, whose beauty is as imaginary as was that of her
Spanish prototype. The scene is laid in the Florence of to-day—
that Florence whose hotel windows look out upon Arno’s bank,
where Dante’s gaze first lit upon Beatrice, where the shrine of
Our Lady of the Flower is thronged by a cosmopolitan crowd
who refuse her homage. And upon this background, mediaeval in
outline but modern in every detail, the little wan figure of the
artist stands out, imaginary no doubt as an individual, but typical
of how much pathos, of how much high endeavour ! There are
some to whom Quixote himself is merely a caricature ; there are
others to whom he recalls a singleness of aim, a tender sensibility,
an undaunted courage which was once theirs. They are wiser
now : they have seen how ridiculous is vain effort, how contempt-
ible a figure he cuts who sets himself a task beyond his strength,
and yet . . . But in this vein Mr. James has never done better
than in the “Altar of the Dead.” The many will never so much
as read it—the many who can only read stories which they can
imagine of the “people over the way ;” but to the few who grieve
when the Master is content to do merely well what he can do
exquisitely, this last story comes as a pledge of yet further possi-


                        By Lena Milman 81

bilities, a promise of further progress towards perfection. It tells
of one who “had entered that dark defile of our earthly descent in
which some one dies every day”—one, the keynote of whose
nature was constancy—one who could forgive all except betrayal.
So, in the recesses of his heart, he reared an altar to the memory
of “the Others,” as he called the dead. For a time this sufficed,
but one day he chanced to enter “a temple of the old persuasion,”
and the idea struck him of dedicating a material altar to those
with whose memory he would some day link his own. So it came
to be a great joy to him to see the faithful participating in his
devotion for the Others, although none but he knew what souls
they were in memory of whose mortal life the tapers burned, the
flowers bloomed. Soon his altar boasted a devotee even more
constant than himself—a woman came to kneel there whose
devotion to the others was more absorbing than his. The altar
grew more and more radiant as the founder’s friends grew fewer ;
the woman still came to kneel there, and one day the founder
learned that her thoughts were all of One, and that One the only
friend of his who, proving false, had never been commemorated by
flower or taper.


Again and again does Mr. James recur to the fatal effect of
importunate society upon talent, an effect not always the less
fatal when the claims of society are tempered by those of
domesticity. Neil Paraday, ” the Lion,” is hustled to his grave
by interviewers and ladies eager for prey as any Tartarin ; Henry
St. George, ” the Master,” squanders his talent by writing for
money with which to meet his wife’s housekeeping expenses and
his boys’ school-bills ; Mark Ambient, ” the author of ‘Bel-


                        82A Few Notes upon Mr. James

traffio,'” lives to see his wife prefer their only child should die
rather than live to read his father’s works. This last story, by
the way, is one of those in which the author has so far stepped
aside to avoid the Obvious as to stray into the Abnormal.
But be the stories what they may (and to our thinking two of
them are among Mr. James’s best), they have afforded the author
so many incidental opportunities for self-revelation as to be ex-
ceptionally interesting to the student of his work. Listen for
instance to Mark Ambient’s address to his young disciple :

“Polishing one’s plate—that is, the torment of execution, the
effort to arrive at a surface—if you think a surface necessary—
some people don’t, happily for them ! My dear fellow, if you
could see the surface I dream of— as compared with the one with
which I have to content myself. Life is really too short for art
—one hasn’t time to make one’s shell ideally hard. Firm and
bright—firm and bright !—the devilish thing has a way some-
times of being bright without being firm . . . . there are horrible
little flabby spots where I have taken the second-best word,
because I couldn’t for the life of me think of the best.”

Flaubert lay awake, the guilt of a double genitive lying heavy
upon his conscience. We can imagine Mr. James haunted by the
fear of an epithet misplaced. For to this longing for perfection of
form, there is also constant reference in ” The Lesson of the
Master.” ” The sense of having done the best,” says St. George,
” the sense which is the real life of the artist and the absence of
which is his death, of having drawn from his intellectual in-
strument the finest music that nature had hidden in it, of having
played it as it should be played.”

” In every son of woman,” says Mr. James, in one of his
early stories, ” there are two men—the practical man and the
dreamer. We live for our dreams—but meanwhile we live by


                        By Lena Milman 83

our wits. When the dreamer is a poet, the other fellow is an

English restricts the title of poet to writers of verse, but what
is poetry but a fusion of life with dream, of dream with life ?
And is not he who can supply the requisite heat a poet, be
his emotion expressed in stone or chord, colour or spoken
words ?

“The thing is to have made somebody care,” says Duncombe,
in ” The Middle Years.” There are many on either side of the
Atlantic to tell Mr. James that he has succeeded at least in

MLA citation:

Milman, Lena. “A Few Notes upon Mr. James.” The Yellow Book, vol. 7, October 1895, pp. 71-83. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.