Books: Exit Henry, pursued by the Furies

A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and his Art by Lyndall Gordon Chatto pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
In his 1992 biography of Henry James, Fred Kaplan used the anecdote of James struggling to "drown" the dresses of his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson in the lagoon after her suicide in Venice. It is a perfect Jamesian episode, of course: the man who feels he has let down a woman, and who finds himself attempting, and failing, to destroy her clothes, which rise accusingly around his frail boat. You can see why Lyndall Gordon begins and finishes her study of James with it. With characteristic thoroughness, she has traced the story to its source, an Italian woman named Mercede Huntington who had it from James himself, and recorded it for the BBC Third Programme in 1956.

Like all Gordon's work, this is deeply meditated, a rich book in which it is a pleasure to become absorbed - text, bibliography and notes. Her thesis is that there were two women in James's life whose influence was so profound that they can be seen as partners, even collaborators in his art. Their ties to him were not sexual but imaginative, and their force was exerted posthumously: they were ghostly collaborators.

The first was his cousin, Minny Temple, two years his junior, who died at 24 of tuberculosis. She was a forthright, original, questing girl, blessed with what James called "moral spontaneity". She was also an orphan whom nobody was prepared to look after when her illness was diagnosed. Devoted to Henry, she placed some hopes on him, that he might encourage her to join him in Europe when she desperately needed to get away from the New England winter. She longed for Europe as she longed for life, envying him among other things his meetings with George Eliot ("Kiss her for me," she told him: she had read The Mill on the Floss). She knew that her own survival depended on her will to live, and she went so far as to write to James, "If you were not my cousin, I would write and ask you to marry me and take me with you." It was done with the lightest touch, and James, indulged in every way by his parents, and intent on his own artistic development, did not make any sign. So Minny died.

And so she came to fill his imagination, and something of her fed into his heroines, Daisy Miller, Bessie Alden, Isabel Archer, Milly Theale. James himself acknowledged the debt, and in old age wrote a memoir of her in his Notes of a Son and Brother, quoting - and sometimes altering - her letters. This was judged the most successful part of his book, and he felt he had "endowed her with a kind of dim sweet immortality". He also destroyed the originals of the letters; he did not know copies had already been made. In this way, Gordon says, he both renewed his passion for the dead girl, and used her with the high-handedness of the artist determined to control life. His passion was never sexual, and Gordon is especially good when she insists that there can be ties more intimate than sex.

James's second significant partner, Constance Fenimore Woolson, was sent to him by Minny's sister with a letter of introduction. Fenimore, as James called her, was a great-niece of James Fenimore Cooper, and earned her own living as a writer of stories. So, unlike Minny, she was able to travel to Europe alone, although she was 40 before she could.

Some of the most fascinating part of Gordon's book is the account of her background and antecedents, the women of the American frontier who could not share the physical adventures of the men, but were cut off from culture and comfort, and helpless to save the lives of children who sickened. Miss Woolson lost five of her sisters; she lived through the Civil War, and when her father died she took on the care of her mother and moved with her into a remote part of Florida. It was only with the death of her mother that she was able to go to Europe. She was clever, sharp, humorous; but she also suffered from deafness and depression.

Her friendship with James was treated at length by Leon Edel, who wrote that "Miss Woolson had in her something of the flirt, a very cautious one of 40", that James "turned on the full power of his charm" for her, and that she suffered from his inability to commit himself to more than intermittent friendship. So Gordon is not giving us a new story but a new emphasis. Edel told us that posterity assigned Woolson only "a footnote in the regional fiction of America", but Gordon thinks better of her work than this suggests. She sees it as carrying on some sort of dialogue with James's: "if we align their works ... what seems to come into focus is a debate of the sexes, high-powered on both sides." I can't tell whether she is right, because I have not read Woolson's fiction; but Gordon inspires trust, and I shall try Miss Grief, Miss Vodder and At the Chateau of Corinno.

The tragic end of Woolson's life - she threw herself out of a window in Venice during a bout of depression - cannot be blamed on James. But he felt appalled, distressed, anxious that no one should hold him responsible. He wrote to Venice to make sure there was nothing among her papers that might embarrass him. Then he left "like Apollo fleeing the furies".

This is, as Gordon says, a selective biography, emphasising the woman's point of view. It discards the worldly James for an "inchoate, troubled man who remained in the making to the end of his life". It maintains that he remained essentially an American writer, and so a moralist, rather than an observer of social patterns. This means leaving out a good deal of James: The Tragic Muse, which is feminist social comedy, and The Princess Casamassima, his great political London novel, to begin with. And Milly Theale, innocent rich American as she is, is balanced - overbalanced, for most readers of The Wings of the Dove - by Kate Croy, for whom you feel sympathy precisely because she has been made what she is by a vile, money-driven society. But all Jamesians will want to read Lyndall Gordon, for the breadth of her knowledge and sympathies, for the way she makes us think again about Henry James, and for her finely researched and beautifully presented pictures of the American background from which James, his cousin Minny and his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson came.