Beyond sensation

Henry James: an author for whom a spade was seldom a spade. And for whom the fleshy carapace of the human soul was, frankly... well, must we? So why, asks Jonathan Heawood, is this prim, circumlocutory Victorian novelist all the rage among a new generation of writers?
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In 1898 Henry James went to the movies and saw a film of the prizefight between "Gentleman Jim" Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons which had taken place the previous year in Carson City, Nevada. Corbett, the heavyweight champion of the world, was knocked out with a devastating blow to the solar plexus in the 14th round. The film was drawing huge crowds on both sides of the Atlantic and James was immediately converted to the charms of the "cinematograph - or whatever they call it", writing enthusiastically to tell his friend Sarah Wister that he "revelled" in this first glimpse of the moving pictures.

In 1898 Henry James went to the movies and saw a film of the prizefight between "Gentleman Jim" Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons which had taken place the previous year in Carson City, Nevada. Corbett, the heavyweight champion of the world, was knocked out with a devastating blow to the solar plexus in the 14th round. The film was drawing huge crowds on both sides of the Atlantic and James was immediately converted to the charms of the "cinematograph - or whatever they call it", writing enthusiastically to tell his friend Sarah Wister that he "revelled" in this first glimpse of the moving pictures.

It's hard to imagine the Master whooping up Fitzsimmons' endlessly repeated victory; yet despite its violence and its vulgarity, the film is peculiarly Jamesian. The two boxers dance together with all the ambivalence that fuels his most characteristic relationships - Lambert Strether and Maria Gostrey in The Ambassadors, Prince Amerigo and Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl, Kate Croy and Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove. In The Portrait of a Lady Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond epitomise the fundamental Jamesian dynamic: "In the manner and tone of these two persons ... was something indirect and circumspect, as if they had approached each other obliquely and addressed each other by implication." Jamesian characters play by a highly organised ritual which conceals something ugly and primitive, compounding desire with hatred, replaying combat as dance, staging fear as spectacle.

James may have enjoyed watching the fight from behind the screen of the cinematograph because it reflected his own position as a novelist - looking on from a safe distance while his characters slugged it out. He once compared the novelist's art to that of the puppet-master, the only difference being that, "the artist must not finger his puppets as a child besmudges a doll, he must endow them with their individuality and with life." In other words, the writer must put his characters in the ring and let them get on with their business of love, death, sex and violence.

It's no accident that James is the second most filmed novelist after Dickens, and one of the most widely imitated by other writers. Beneath the complex and often opaque surface of his novels run plots as brutal, and as simple, as that of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight. Countless British and American authors have incorporated Jamesian storylines, themes and motifs into their writing. One diligent critic has even identified 14 reworkings of the plot of The Wings of the Dove (two characters conspire to profit from the death of a third) among the novels of Agatha Christie.

The standard perception of James as a long-winded aesthete does not explain why popular writers like Christie have flattered him with imitation, nor why he continues to command a following. This year, authors of the stature of Colm Toibin, Alan Hollinghurst, Toby Litt and David Lodge are queueing up to pay homage. What does James have that these writers want?

James began writing in the glory days of Sensation. The novels of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and the plays of Dion Boucicault, were hits on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the 1860s and 1870s. Ghosts, celebrities, lust, addiction and despair were the stocks-in-trade of the Sensation novelist. And, while he was more vocal about the influence on his work of George Eliot, Turgenev and Balzac, James carried the trace of Sensation around with him like a bad plebeian smell.

From early novels such as The American, which contains both a fatal duel and a murder, to the agonised affair between Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond, James toyed with the effects of the Sensation novel. His first published story, A Tragedy of Error, written in 1864 when he was 20, is pure Sensation. It describes a wife's plot to have her crippled husband murdered. The scheme backfires when the boatman she has hired to drown her husband kills her lover by mistake. In the morning, she is horrified to see the familiar limping figure of her husband approaching over the lawn. This destructive sexuality survives in all James's major work, although it is sunk beneath increasing layers of verbiage. In his last books, he writes as though the events of a Sensation novel are taking place in the next room; everyone is straining to listen but intent on not seeming curious.

James's earliest editor, William Dean Howells of The Atlantic Monthly, said that before James could be successful he would have to create an audience able to grasp his meaning - and although he found it a struggle, this, eventually, is what he did. He groomed readers in the art of circumlocution. He trained his public - exposed to the rival attractions of the cinema, the theatre and, soon, the television - in reading between the lines, in pursuing the tortuous connections between brute desires and social behaviour, and in decoding the motivations that propel the most sane people into the most extraordinary actions.

James's characters are routinely bowled over by a lethal cocktail of emotions which they are obliged to discuss in the most fastidious language imaginable. It is as though their precision of expression rises in direct proportion to their intensity of feeling. His circumlocutions - what Alan Hollinghurst calls James's "half-hour subordinate clauses" - spiral out of these unspeakable passions. Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady finds it characteristically impossible to put her desires into words (though not for want of trying): "The depths of this young lady's nature," James remarks, "were a very out-of-the-way place, between which and the surface communication was interrupted by a dozen capricious forces."

The depths of James's own nature were so out-of-the-way that there is still furious debate over what precisely was going on there. The evidence remains circumstantial, but since he was robustly outed in Fred Kaplan's 1992 biography, it has been taken for granted among many readers that James was gay, and that this explains his inability to, as it were, call a spade a spade.

Colm Toibin's new fictional biography of James, The Master, treats him as gay, while the James-obsessed protagonist of Alan Hollinghurst's satirical homage, The Line of Beauty, leads a rich gay sex life. But as Toibin acknowledges, James's own life was largely lived, "before the Wilde case consolidated a certain kind of identity." In other words, the fact that James was attracted to men and found women sexually confusing doesn't necessarily mean he defined himself as gay, nor that he lived his life with a constant eye on the closet door. There are other reasons for fear than repression, and it is not only closet homosexuals who are afraid. James always cautioned against putting a definitive label on anyone: "Never say you know the last word about any human heart."

He was not alone in being afraid. James lived in a tremulous society, afraid of war, afraid of the end of empire, the onward rush of technology, the new psychology. Fear sat heavily on contemporaries like Hardy, Conrad and Stevenson. Even a jolly romp like Treasure Island is soaked in fear - its most famous scene has a small boy cowering in a barrel as a gang of pirates plan to murder him. But whereas Stevenson found frightening things in obviously perilous situations like pirate ships James saw the terror in drawing rooms and salons.

Fear is present in his every tinkling phrase of politesse: "I am afraid I shall be late"; "I am afraid he gets tipsy"; "I'm afraid I'm not sure". James's characters constantly voice their fears of breaking social propriety, and their fears of retribution. Sir Claude's fear of his lover in What Maisie Knew is mentioned repeatedly through the book, until eventually, Maisie realises it is a smokescreen for a far more pressing concern: "Why was such a man so often afraid? It must have begun to come to her now that there was one thing just such a man above all could be afraid of. He could be afraid of himself." What Maisie knows is that Sir Claude, like all James's great characters, is most afraid of his own passions.

James's characters experience desire like no one else; they want, but are ashamed of wanting, afraid of getting what they want and afraid of having to pay for it. This leads to an almost debilitating level of self-monitoring. As Toby Litt points out, "James sees the essential perversity of people. They don't do what keeps them safe or what makes them happy. Often, they do the opposite." They are so afraid of the consequences of their desires that they wind them up tightly within themselves until, suddenly, something abrupt and absurd and violent happens that tears through the aesthetic and social fabric they have spent so many thousands of words in weaving. Isabel Archer contains her attraction to Caspar Goodwood, her love for Lord Warburton, her longing for Ralph Touchett - and then one day marries Gilbert Osmond and all hell breaks loose.

By the time of his last completed novel, The Golden Bowl (1904), James had built up a grand montage of fear. He charts the corrupt, corrupting love affair between Charlotte and Prince Amerigo not through their mutual desire but through their mutual loathing: "The young man held himself, in his silent suspense - only not more afraid because he felt her own fear. She was afraid of herself, however; whereas, to his gain of lucidity, he was afraid only of her." Charlotte and the Prince are locked into this dance of attraction and repulsion.

Graham Greene - no stranger to the dark side - realised that there were powerful forces at work throughout James's novels, that he had a sense of evil which was "religious in its intensity". He believed this darkness was present in James's writing from The American onwards, and that "all he needed afterwards to perfect his work to his own impeccable standard was technical subtlety and that other subtlety which comes from superficial observation, the ability to construct convincing masks for his own personality." In other words, James walks through his novels not only in the figure of the impotent observer but also in the guise of their demonic alter ego. The novels stage the encounter between James's innocence and his desires, and they enact a series of symbolic punishments for wanting the things he couldn't have, or felt he didn't deserve to have. "I used to have morbid, sterile, hateful fits of hunger, of desire," says Osmond, when he is wooing Isabel with a counterfeit charm that occasionally glances against the truth. In Greene's chilling words: "If ever a man's imagination was clouded by the Pit, it was James's."

Fear stalks James's pages like grotesquerie in Dickens, like testosterone in Hemingway, like magic in Angela Carter. Most of his characters are afraid, most of the time, and most of their actions are motivated by fear. They spend much of their time avoiding blows which are slow in coming, which make a noiseless impact, yet which are potentially lethal. Fear is the unspoken force which knits his books together. Without fear, there would be no Henry James.

When he was 17, James's brother Garth Wilkinson ('Wilky') peeped into his room to see "some poetical looking manuscripts lying on the table, and himself looking in a most authorlike way." Fifty years later, James declared: "I am that queer monster, the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility." To be authorlike, for James, was to invent a way in which his social and sexual inaction would be adequately compensated for in the actions of imaginary beings. In becoming "that queer monster", an author, he wrote himself into his own plot. James was a literary creation, a "writer's writer" in two senses: both a distinguished novelist and someone who regularly featured in other people's books. He has made personal appearances in more than 40 novels since the late 1880s, and the numbers continue to grow.

This September, David Lodge will publish Author, Author, a fictionalised account of James's years in London that may serve as a prequel to Toibin's account of the later period. At the same time, Toby Litt's forthcoming novel, Ghost Story, is set to pay homage to The Turn of the Screw. Litt denies that his book is a direct re-writing; but admits there is a "genre-linkage", in that they are both about haunted houses. Litt's own works have been knocking with Jamesian anxieties and misreadings for years, and in 2001 he wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of James's last novella, The Outcry. Although for a long time he "couldn't understand [James] sentence by sentence, let alone enjoy him", he has now seen the light: "To read him properly, you have to grow up. He exists in a much slower time than we do. You can't skim-read him. If you want to hear what he's saying, you have to walk in step."

Not all writers have chosen to walk in step. EM Forster may seem the most Jamesian of novelists, with his Italian settings, his minute social rituals and his own closeted sexuality, yet he affected to despise the Master. He complained that James's characters, "besides being few in number, are constructed on very stingy lines," and thought they were like badly handled puppets: "They are incapable of fun, of rapid motion, of carnality, and of nine-tenths of heroism. Their clothes will not take off, the diseases that ravage them are anonymous, like the sources of their income, their servants are noiseless or resemble themselves, no social explanation of the world we know is possible for them, for there are no stupid people in their world, no barriers of language, and no poor."

Forster's hostility is a devastating piece of literary patricide, an attack on a writer whose influence on his own work is unmistakable. Yet the mud sticks. James's characters' clothes will not take off. Try to imagine Strether so much as unpinning his collar or Isabel Archer pulling down her drawers and it's hard not to blush. This is not true of Oscar Wilde's plays. Wilde, despite his overt homosexuality, was able to put lusty heterosexuality on stage. You can imagine Gwendolen's French knickers around her ankles sooner than you can picture James himself disrobing. One imagines he did it in the dark.

James was known for speaking as portentously as any of his creations. His cousin Jane Emmet described the lethargic pace of his conversation: "He hangs poised for the right word while the wheels of life go round." He was so desperate not to say the wrong thing, not to commit himself to a falsehood or expose himself to ridicule, that a simple statement or question could go on interminably. Toby Litt describes him as "a writer full of doubts and hesitations", and points out that, "the typical late Jamesian sentence gives itself a chance, halfway through, to change its mind."

WH Auden called him the "master of nuance and scruple", and Edith Wharton, who regularly took James motoring, was driven to distraction whenever he asked for directions. "My friend," he once hailed an elderly passer-by in Windsor, "this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station." Wharton was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and only lost her temper when James launched on a second paragraph with the phrase: "In short..."

In her 1998 study of James's relationships with women, Lyndall Gordon rejected the worldly James for an, "inchoate, troubled man who remained in the making to the end of his life." This fits with the prevalence of fear and trembling in his late novels. There are only three mentions of fear in The Europeans (1878), but 32 in The Ambassadors (1903). As he grew more fearful so he became more loquacious, until you find him pouring his heart out to a Buckinghamshire rustic, afraid of losing his coordinates in the night. When Edith Wharton eventually interrupted ("utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis"), she demanded him to ask where the King's Road was: "Ah -? The King's Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King's Road exactly is?" "Ye're in it," said the aged face at the window.

When James's letters came to be collected, many correspondents held them back from publication as being too personal or too intimate - unaware, as his biographer Leon Edel points out, that, "Henry James's tone had been personal and intimate with every correspondent, lavish in feeling yet cautious in self-revelation."

James and his characters say too much and do too little. They rarely come to the point because they are scared that the point will do them harm. The protagonist of Alan Hollinghurst's novel is writing a PhD on James's style - the kind of "style that hides things and reveals things at the same time". Hollinghurst does not attempt to catch James's precise modulations (what he calls his "unfurling beguilements"), but The Line of Beauty is nonetheless soaked in his spirit. Nick is living out the Jamesian role of the observer who becomes implicated in the corruption he witnesses. The salons of 1890s London have become the clubs and parties of 1980s London, and the hints of sexuality are replaced with a number of vigorous sex scenes. Yet Hollinghurst implies that so long as there is a space between what people say and what they mean, between desire and society, there is a need for James and his lessons in social cryptography.

Just as the Nineties fascination with Victorian Sensation literature indicated a hunger for blood-and-guts storytelling, so this new vogue for Henry James indicates a move beyond sensation, and a heightened interest in the processes of information. In a period where the media is consumed by stories about newsgathering, James's convoluted narratives - grounded in speculation, half-truths and distorted perceptions - make for surprisingly familiar reading.

Readers in the 21st century are used to debating every last flick of Rachel's hair on Friends, familiar with Carrie Bradshaw's hermeneutic labours in Sex and the City, accustomed to spending each summer discussing in minute detail the movements of a group of individuals closeted in a house where all they can do is talk, whose least misdemeanour makes front-page news. Who said anything about short attention spans? We, the psychobabble society with the tabloid morality and infinite patience for the minutiae of celebrity gossip - we are more than ready for Henry James.