Literary Notes: Monstrous vanity and romantic myth

NEWTON SAID that he stood on the shoulders of giants. This acknowledgement to antiquity concealed his failure to give his due to Leibniz, whose invention of calculus had beaten Newton to it. Similarly, Henry James claimed in a preface to The Portrait of a Lady to be the first novelist to make a woman central in her own right - as though he had never heard of Emma and Jane Eyre. Half a century later, Auden wanted to give James "a good shaking". He saw how "out of their monstrous vanity human creatures want to be their own cause".

James's insight into "ladies" didn't come just from reading. He involved himself with two advanced women. One was his cousin Minny Temple, whose "psychologic" approach to character James took up, and whose restless search for a plot on a par with her promise provided a source for Isabel Archer (in The Portrait) and Milly Theale (in The Wings of the Dove). After Minny Temple died at the age of 24, James told his brother that he had hoped to take the lead in a masculine way, but in fact he preferred to possess Minny in memory and art: "locked", he exulted, "within the crystal walls of the past".

His feeling for new women did not extend to women writers. An early review snubs Louisa May Alcott for her "precocious" American girl. Of course, this was the ground he wished to colonise.

In 1887 he disparaged a best-selling writer called Constance Fenimore Woolson. She was a great-niece of James Fenimore Cooper - privately, for they were "intimate friends", James called her "Fenimore", fascinated by her connection with fame on a scale which lay as yet beyond his reach. Her popular heroines manifest native grit on the frontiers of existence, but James slights them for their "shipwrecked" air. His subtlest ploy is to ignore her best work: three innovative stories of artists, a vein in which James was to become pre-eminent. He took from her ideas for two of his most brilliant tales, "The Figure in the Carpet" and "The Beast in the Jungle".

Minny and Fenimore differed from the helpless muse. Minny was more familiar with James than anyone would be again. "If you were not my cousin, I would ask you to marry me," she said in 1869, reminding him "that of all the princes and princesses . . . who now seek your society, none of them love you half so well as I do." Fenimore took her stand in stories that recreate him as a beguiling authority who proves a destroyer.

James had a genius for the interior life: its hidden motives and the untested potentialities of women. To know the unseen, he depended on living beings. "I want fire," he begged Morton Fullerton in 1900: not sex, but "a Light on your Life".

In 1901, when Minny's niece Rosina would not yield her secret "self" in the run-up to The Wings of the Dove, James spelt out a fantasy in which she can't escape. Seated in his box, he trains his glass on her. "If opera glasses could penetrate & hypnotise, I could drag her down over the front of the box & jerk her . . . into my arms."

Sex wasn't non-existent; it was transformed as desire to possess souls. His spectatorial posture - immortalised in Sargent's portrait of James at 70 - obscured his involvements: the plan he shared with Minny of meeting "romantically" in Rome, and the expatriate "home" he shared with Fenimore for 14 years before her mysterious death in 1894.

Genius appears to soar above such ties, but this is romantic myth, perpetuated by James in the rarefied solitude of a writer in his tale "The Private Life". Genius, though, can't emerge in a void. The lives of two women who "fired" James tell a truer story of what we might call collaboration.

Lyndall Gordon is the author of `A Private Life of Henry James: two women and his art' (Chatto & Windus, pounds 20)

Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower