Henry James Asks for Directions

I just adore this story, told in Edith Wharton's memoir, A Backward Glance, about driving around in England one rainy night with her maddening friend Henry James. It's as good as satire, but better because it's true. 

“While I was hesitating, and peering out into the darkness, James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. ‘Wait a moment, my dear — I’ll ask him where we are’; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator. ‘My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer — so,’ and as the old man came up: ‘My friend, to put it to you in two words, 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.’

I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: ‘In short’ (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), ‘in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to…’

‘Oh, please,’ I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, ‘do ask him where the King’s Road is.’

‘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."

A fatal cheapness

Hilary Mantel has reconciled me to the idea of historical fiction, if not every expression of it, but I still find myself in sympathy with these cogent objections from Henry James. He was writing in 1901 to his friend Sarah Orne Jewett, who had sent him a copy of her latest work, a historical novel. 

The ‘historical novel’ is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labour as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness, for the simple reason that the difficulty of the job is inordinate and that a mere escamotage, in the interest of ease, and of the abysmal public naivety, becomes inevitable. You may multiply the little facts that may be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like – the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as naught: I mean the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose mind half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent. You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman or rather fifty – whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force – and even then it’s all humbug.

I think the fiction of our own age, historical and otherwise, suffers greatly from just this preoccupation with little facts. Few writers capture the consciousness or mind of our modern world, let alone a past one. Most are content with a proliferation of objects. These are what seem 'real' in our age, whereas to James they were less real than the inner world of which they survived as relics. That's why his writing remains unapproachably rich, and ours seems condemned to cheapness.


Henry James described Jane Austen as a great “painter of life,” but the metaphor cannot be pushed too far. In Austen you rarely get any real description of a scene, either an interior or a landscape, and when you do it reads more like a guidebook than a word picture. Mostly you're left to imagine the contours and colours that form the background for her human subjects. 

James, on the other hand, is an almost unparalleled describer of rooms. Their dimensions and decor, the fine detail of their furnishings whether large or soft. Where the windows are placed, and what can be seen through them. The pattern and colour of the wallpaper, and perhaps one or two of its predecessors. How many ornaments adorn the occasional tables, and how they were gradually collected. Sofas and mantelshelves, vases, miniatures, mirrors, candles, silks, lacework.  He is always at pains to thoroughly set the scene before any characters appear, and the rooms always reflect the histories, manners and moods of their inhabitants. 

That's why I was struck, recently rereading Washington Square, by this passage describing so vividly an outdoor scene. 

One day at the end of the summer, the two travellers found themselves in a lonely valley of the Alps. [Catherine] sat upon a stone and looked about her at the hard-featured rocks and the glowing sky. It was late in the afternoon, in the last of August; night was coming on, and, as they had reached a great elevation, the air was cold and sharp. In the west there was a great suffusion of cold, red light, which made the sides of the little valley look only the more rugged and dusky. During one of their pauses, her father left her and wandered away to some high place, at a distance, to get a view. He was out of sight; she sat there alone, in the stillness, which was just touched by the vague murmur, somewhere, of a mountain brook. She thought of Morris Townsend, and the place was so desolate and lonely that he seemed very far away. Her father remained absent a long time; she began to wonder what had become of him. But at last he reappeared, coming towards her in the clear twilight, and she got up, to go on. He made no motion to proceed, however, but came close to her, as if he had something to say. He stopped in front of her and stood looking at her, with eyes that had kept the light of the flushing snow-summits on which they had just been fixed."

James is not often a painter of romantic landscape, but even here, the psychological interior dominates. Catherine thinks only of the distance between her and her lover, but the hard-featured, rugged valley is emblematic of her arid relationship with her father and the Doctor's grim determination not to yield his high ground no matter how weary Catherine becomes. He is remote and lofty, and when he gazes on her there is ice, as well as the flush of anger, in his eyes. This scene, though so extramural, is in fact as claustrophobic as anything that happens in their house in Washington Square. 

Isabel in Rome

I showed you Dorothea in Rome at the beginning of her suffering, and Isabel in Florence affronting her destiny with no hint of what would follow. Here she is in Rome, after her great doom has come upon her.

She had long before this taken old Rome into her confidence, for in a world of ruins the ruin of her happiness seemed a less unnatural catastrophe. She rested her weariness upon things that had crumbled for centuries and yet still were upright; she dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places, where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective, so that as she sat in a sun-warmed angle on a winter's day, or stood in a mouldy church to which no one came, she could almost smile at it and think of its smallness. Small it was, in the large Roman record, and her haunting sense of the continuity of the human lot easily carried her from the less to the greater. She had become deeply, tenderly acquainted with Rome; it interfused and moderated her passion. But she had grown to think of it chiefly as the place where people had suffered. This was what came to her in the starved churches, where the marble columns, transferred from pagan ruins, seemed to offer her a companionship in endurance and the musty incense to be a compound of long-unanswered prayers.