BOOK REVIEW / Hard times, Washington square: Henry James - by Fred Kaplan - John Curtis/Hodder pounds 25

Claire Tomalin
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:32

AT THE start of his new life of Henry James, Fred Kaplan boldly sets down the same words Leon Edel used as epigraph to his earlier four-

volume biography. The words are James's comment on biography: 'To live over people's lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth, the change, the varying intensity of the same - since it was by those things they themselves lived.' Edel convinced us that he did live over James's perceptions; he took us by the hand and led us through New England, London, Venice, Rome, New York and Rye, opening our eyes to the world inhabited by his subject, and gently unravelling his many mystifications.

For a generation of readers, Edel's volumes were almost a way of life. They appeared between 1953 and 1972, each one eagerly awaited, savoured, even gossiped over - Edel was rumoured to be upset by James's passions for young men, for instance. Despite this intense interest, James's status as a writer was declining. When Edel began work, his books were being busily reissued on both sides of the Atlantic; he was still America's greatest novelist. Twenty years later, this was no longer so. (Who replaced him? Twain? Hemingway? Bellow? Nabokov, even?) Taste has turned against his subtly unfolding tales of innocence and corruption, of the leisured rich whose money never needs to be accounted for. Today, fewer people visit Lamb House in Rye for its association with James than for

E F Benson, who lived there later.

Now comes Kaplan with a less loving book for our harder times. He subtitles his Henry James 'the imagination of genius', but seems less concerned with James's genius than with other aspects. His publishers say the book was 'conceived in the light of late 20th-century attitudes about feminism and homosexuality'. What does this mean? It may point to the fact that Alice James, Henry's sharp-tongued invalid sister, plays a fairly prominent part, though there is nothing new here: she has already had her own biography, by Jean Strouse, in 1980, as well as other studies. And if feminism is Kaplan's interest, why does he make so little of The Tragic Muse, a novel in which the claims of a professional woman to her own value and status are set out with all the clarity a feminist would wish?

It does certainly mean that James's homo-

sexual contemporaries figure largely - Wilde, Gosse, Symonds - and that his romantic friendships with younger men are firmly labelled

'homoerotic'. Labels are only labels, however, and Kaplan does not always know what to do with them once they are fixed in place. He has a way of quoting phrases used by James and his friends which modern readers can find indecent if they choose, and then explaining they were 'almost certainly' innocent. For instance, when the young sculptor Henrik Andersen wrote that he found James 'a bit tiresome with his cocksure penetration', we can be quite certain he was not making a sexual reference; but Kaplan can't resist a nudge. This is to misuse language, not to enlighten.

In other areas, Kaplan is briskly effective. He asserts on his first page that James's primary motivation was the desire for praise and money, and he keeps us steadily informed about his subsequent determined financial pressure on editors and publishers. The wills made by the whole James clan, and the quarrels they led to, are set out with Balzacian thoroughness, and fascinating they are. So is the money motive behind James's disastrous attempts to write for the theatre. So is the account of James's declining years, the stroke that finished him, and his belief during his last weeks that he had become Napoleon, equating art and power at last as he had always thought should be the case.

On character, Kaplan is weaker. He tends to explain behaviour by formulae, and the great figures of Fanny Kemble, Edith Wharton and brother William fail to impress as they should. But there is a scene that is new and immensely striking, in which we see James in a gondola in the Venetian lagoon, vainly attempting to sink the dresses of a newly-dead friend, Constance Fenimore Woolson, only to find them rising round him again, huge persistent black balloons on the surface of the water. Woolson was a writer whose friendship James had greatly valued and enjoyed; almost certainly she hoped for something closer than he permitted. She was deaf and depressive, and when she ended her life by throwing herself out of a high window in Venice, he felt it as a terrible reproach to himself.

Kaplan's story of the dresses is extraordinary, an aquatic enactment of guilt. Yet, if we turn back to Edel, who didn't know about the dresses, he still finds something richer in the episode as a whole, because he understands Woolson and James better, both as characters and as writers. He sees the significance of her request to be buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, where James had caused his heroine Daisy Miller to be laid; and he makes her death point forward to another, imaginary death in Venice, that of Milly in the late novel The Wings of the Dove.

Edel's sensitivity to such links between life and art make him unrivalled as a guide. Kaplan is sometimes perfunctory about the writing. Of The Princess Casamassima (a superb and neglected book) Kaplan tells us only that it had bad reviews, was disliked by William James, liked by Alice and a few others, and was a commercial failure. Compare this with Edel's discussion, in which he draws the links between James, Dickens, Balzac and Zola, and shows how the book grew out of James's direct observation of 'the deep perpetual groan of London misery' in the 1880s; relates it to the political situation; points out how James identified with his hero, who watches the world but is never able to participate, and who is sympathetic to social change, yet fears what revolution might do to art. And more.

To supersede Edel would be a tremendous task, even to complement it a hard one. Jamesians will want to read Kaplan, who is a thorough scholar and an energetic writer; and on some aspects such as the family background, the money and the theatre, he has interesting things to say. Whether he has caught the varying intensity of James's perceptions, or got close enough to appreciate the gleams of humour that appear in his letters, memoirs and fiction alike, is another thing.

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