On the Real Pleasures of Henry James (and Georgette Heyer)

| | Comments (7)

I suppose it is odd to put these two writers together, and I do so for only one reason--so I'll start with that and move on to tpleasures one derives from Henry James alone.

While there are a great many things delightful about reading both Georgette Heyer and Henry James, one thing the two have in common is a sensibility that seems to have long since fled the world. They come from a world and a time that was not completely genitally obsessed. In Henry James, marriage, infidelity, and the like make up the fabric of the story, but we are not invited into the intimacy of the physical marital union--it is not germane to his point--as it is not germane to most of what we read. It is an add-on that has long since lost its shock-value, novelty, and, frankly, its interest. It's one thing to read Lawrence Durrell trying to turn the literary world upside down (a little late considering he came in the wake of Henry Miller), and quite another to read the tawdriness of most modern novels wherein sex is interjected because there seems to be nothing else to keep the reader's interest for pages on end.

As with Henry James, so too with Georgette Heyer. In most cases her virginal heroines are married or about to be married on the last page. There is always some kiss or another misinterpreted, unasked for, or otherwise "transgressive," but nothing that would offend the sensibilities of my grandmother. And that's exactly as I like it. I have read, at the recommendation of another, some modern romances and have, in some cases, been delighted with the writing, but nearly always disappointed by the perceived necessity to make the stories "hot."

While Henry James and Georgette Heyer both share in this delight, there is another pleasure in James's writing that cannot be said to be a characteristic of Ms. Heyer's. Henry James forces us to slow down. It is nearly impossible to get anything out of reading Henry James rapidly, except perhaps a sense of vertigo and a headache that threatens to split your skull. Henry James, particularly in the later period, specializes in periodic sentences that require slowing down and reading with great care. To wit:

"She hadn't pretended this, as she had pretended on the other hand, to have divined Waymarsh's wish to extend to her an independent protection homeward; but Strether nevertheless found how, after he had Chad opposite to him at a small table in the brilliant halls that his companion straightaway selected, sharply and easily discriminated from others, it was quite, to his mind, as if she heard him speak; as if, sitting up, a mile away, in the little apartment he knew, she would listen hard enough to catch."

Now THAT is a sentence. And The Ambassadors as well as The Golden Bowl is a book of such sentences and more. (I cannot yet speak to The Wings of the Dove, but hope to do so soon.) It was one of my great plesures when the reading group I belong to expressed delight and great pleasure with reading The Portrait of a Lady. There is a sense of accomplishment in just getting through the books; however, there is a lingering element--a kind of spirit of the book that stays long after the last page has been finished and the last word said that provides a sustained pleasure--that gives one a true sense of why Henry James is rightfully called "The Master." There is none other like him, not remotely, and I have to say that it came as a woeful surprise to me that I was unable to pick up much of anything in the way of modern literature after having taken in the real and solid pleasures of The Portrait of a Lady. The modern sensibility palls in comparison. Henry James turns pleasure, leisure reading into an edifying and strengthening activity that delights both heart and mind in the recollection of it. There is no modern writer of whom I would say the same.

Bookmark and Share


Hmmm... interesting post and I would probably say the same thing, though let me play devil's advocate (perhaps too literally). When we say it's not "germane to his point", doesn't that illustrate a fundamental difference in the way people view art and aren't both views "correct"?

Reid Buckley, WFB's brother, writes that "Coleridge famously divided human beings between Aristolelians and Platonists - that is, between inductive and deductive thinkers, between those who move easily into abstractions and those who prefer dealing with particulars....The creative verbal imagination - most of us agree - is torn between polarities: the polemical and the Dionysian. There is that eximious infatuation with language, the sheer, lush love of the sound *for* the sound of it..."

Should we not tolerate inductives and deductives? Does art need a point, when a flower or a meadow doesn't have a point? (I say this with much hypocrisy knowing that all my fictive attempts are horribly preachy.) But I think womanly beauty and the natural world are two things that impress most men as beautiful and transportive, and so it is very understandable that writers would want to describe and thus attempt to recapture that beauty in prose/poetry.

Dear TSO,

Perhaps my own point is not sufficiently well made. An intense interest in the erotic borders perilously on the prurient. James's own interest in the erotic is the inevitable fall-out that results when the erotic is the focus to the detriment of all else. That is a fascinating topic.

What people do in their bedrooms is not only not really of interest, it can be absolutely horrifying and repulsive. It is rarely the proper domain of the literary endeavor. As I have pointed out, some few have been successful at it and made of it some art--so that is not to say that it cannot be done. However, most people writing today are not artists of the caliber that allows their prurient attentions to rise to the realm of art. I think here of the contrast between the "satire" or so-called "social commentary" of _I Am Charlotte Simmons_--and the truly masterful work about Kinsey written by T.C. Boyle (the title of which eludes me now). I think of the genital obsession of Philip Roth with no real redemption of the subject matter, and the way similar toopics are handled in Beloved.

I'm not arguing that everyone should write like James, but I am saying that one of the delights of James is that I am absolutely certain that he won't be breaking down the doors of anyone's bedroom to peer in and describe the goings-on. In fact, one of the high points of _The Ambassadors_ is the utter confusion Strether is plunged into when he finally realizes without question that young Chad is carrying on with "that woman" he is seeing. And that's as much as the reader is vouchsafed.

In our sex-drenched culture, I find that refreshing.



Dear TSO,

One last point--I think perhaps you may have too vaunted a notion of why many "artists" seek to extol the womanly form in prose, poetry, and art. And my objection, would not be to singing this beauty, but to the objectification of people that results when the beauty slumps over into the less savory aspects of the human endeavor.




I remember musing once that if the Romance genre understood the beauty of veiling, then it would be perfect.

You liked the TC Boyle work on Kinsey? Wow, maybe I should take another look at that one. I usually like Boyle, but avoided that one because I thought it would be too purient.

I did sort of disingenuously bait & switch the argument by discussing the portrayal of the human body, rather than discuss what you were - the portrayal of what humans do with it in the privacy of the bedroom. I agree the latter is iffy at best.

My point is that no one objects to the portrayal of beauty when it is of the flower or the field or the mountain, but heaven forfend if it's a woman's curves! Beauty is there too, even if we can't handle it in our fallen world. I'm not saying the writers in question can handle it either (i.e. without falling into lust) but that's their business. I can't pre-emptively j'accuse them without proof. It seems like Bouguereau, for example, could innocently appreciate the human female.

Dear TSO,

I know a great many gay men who can innocently appreciate the human female.

But I take your point, and it wasn't at all what I intended to say--so sorry for any misapprehension. While it is, in theory, possible to appreciate in a non-prurient way, I would argue that a large number, perhaps a majority of modern artists fail to do so. So, I don't deny that such appreciation is possible and plausible. I think James himself did a fine job of truly appreicating the human female in Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, and any number of other books. But he did so without prurience or reliance on what too many modern writers indulge in without much quibble.

As to TC Boyle--I found it the consummate argument AGAINST Kinseys life, work, and attitudes. But you need to remember that I looked upon Oliver Stone's paean to the Doors as the ultimate condemnation of the entire era--the film was like a descent into Hell as far as I was concerned. So too with this book, darn but I wish I could remember its title. You may not reach the same conclusion so approach with caution.



You're likely right about Boyle concerning Kinsey's life and work because TC's book "Drop City" takes a dim view of the hippie 'free love' experiment.



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on July 18, 2008 1:06 PM.

How to Be Enlightened was the previous entry in this blog.

Gandhi's Gita is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

My Blogroll