Books: BestsellersThe portrait of two ladies

John Sutherland reports on scholarly spats over a novelist's sexual identity; A Private Life of Henry James by Lyndall Gordon Chatto & Windus, pounds 20, 500pp
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The Independent Culture
LYNDALL GORDON'S incursion into Henry James's private life opens with a vivid vignette. "In April 1894, a middle-aged gentleman, bearing a load of dresses, was rowed to the deepest part of the Venetian lagoon. He began to drown the dresses, one by one. There were a good many, well- made, tasteful, and all dark, suggesting a lady of quiet habits and some reserve. The gondolier's pole would have been useful for pushing them under the still water. But the dresses refused to drown. One by one, they rose to the surface, busts and sleeves swelling like black balloons... the gentleman pushed them under, but silent, reproachful, they rose before his eyes."

The gentleman is 51-year-old Henry James; the black clothes belonged to Constance Fenimore Cooper, who committed suicide (as Gordon believes) three months earlier by throwing herself out of a window in Venice. James had not attended her funeral. Gordon's biography, subtitled "two women and his art", pivots on the enigmatic scene in the Venetian lagoon. What drove James to this exorcism?

Another vignette generates a parallel enigma about the second woman: "Locked in a drawer in Lamb House, wrapped in silver paper, James kept a photograph of a young woman. Once when Violet Hunt [a writer who lived with Ford Madox Ford] came to visit, James unlocked his treasure and carefully unwrapped it. He touched it as though it were sacred." That relic, Gordon believes, was a photograph of Minny Temple, the cousin who died of tuberculosis in 1870.

When we explore the private recesses of James's life, Gordon asserts, we find that these two women, Minny and Fenimore, were "central" to the great works of his early and late periods. Stepping back we can see Gordon's book as a counter-claim in what is, essentially, an ownership dispute. Put crudely, who owns James: the queer-theorists or the feminists?

The gay appropriation of Henry James - the most confirmed bachelor in all literature - gathered force with Fred Kaplan's 1992 biography. Kaplan detected "homoerotic sensibility" as the foundation of James's art. But, like an Edwardian scoutmaster, Kaplan's James kept his sexual proclivities in check, sublimating them into fiction. In Henry James: the young master (1996), Sheldon M Novick went a step further, arguing, on slender evidence, that James was an active homosexual from the 1860s. The final step was taken last year in a long and provocative article in Essays in Criticism, by John R Bradley, which alleged that James was an active pederast.

Lyndall Gordon reclaims James for the other sex. Not by direct refutation (Kaplan and Novick are dismissed in a note), but by a forceful mounting of the contrary case. Gordon's biography "emphasises the woman's point of view". She accepts, or seems to, the Leon Edel line that James was "celibate" either because of inhibition, or a mysterious "obscure hurt". Yet the "posthumous possession" of Minny and Fenimore was the "germ" from which his greatest works grew. In short, James was a necrophile - but a heterosexual necrophile.

In one respect, feminist Gordon and the queer theorists join forces. They both resent the dominance of Henry James studies in the past 40 years by Leon Edel, the "auth- orised" biographer. Gordon eschews Edel's tendentious selection of James's letters, going to the still unpublished correspondence. And the most vigorous sections of her book are those in which she controverts Edel's caricature of Fenimore as a post-menopausal crone, pursuing a very reluctant "Master".

There is nothing like a dogfight to enliven literary studies. Nor is it hard to see where the counter- attack on Gordon will come. Novick is a lawyer; like Anthony Julius in his study of TS Eliot's anti-semitism, he has an advocate's skill in twisting evidence to make a case. Gordon relies instead on what used to be called "woman's intuition".

When, very belatedly, we learn the provenance of the "drowning dress" episode, what do we discover? The story came from a 1956 BBC interview by an old woman (of whose reliability we know nothing) recalling something told her 40 years ago by a "dribbling" James, allegedly recalling an event 20 years before. All that business about the "busts and sleeves swelling like black balloons" is Gordon's imaginative reconstruction. It would not stand up in court, nor does it convince as biographical evidence. So too with the picture in silver foil. Gordon "knows" it was Minny's - but she cannot prove it.

What is the more reliable, Novick's sophistry, which would cast James as sexually bent, or Gordon's intuition, which would cast him as straight? Take your pick.