The literary ferocity of Henry James

In response to an aspiring writer who, perhaps somewhat foolishly, had asked him for feedback, Henry James, after some preliminary gentleness, was rather brutally direct: “I’m not so sure that [your work] strikes me as quite so ferociously literary as my ideal.”

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of discouraging a young writer; and leaving aside also the justice of James’ criticism, or the unexpected use of the adverb “ferociously”; James’ response is striking: the problem, for him, is not that the work he had been asked to judge was bad, as such: it was just not as ferociously literary as he might have liked. For the enemy of the good is not really the bad: it is the mediocre, which can often be mistaken for something better.

Nowadays, “mediocre” is often used as a synonym for “bad”. It isn’t, of course: far from it. Mediocrity is, indeed, something I often strive for myself in these blog posts, and feel happy if I ever I think I have attained it. And though I have long given up the idea of writing a novel myself, should I ever resurrect that ambition, I would be more than delighted to achieve something that may be deemed “mediocre”. But it is that tantalising gap between the mediocre on the one hand, and James’ literary ferocity on the other, that gives me pause.

For, sadly, I have read too many novels that are often praised by reviewers in fulsome terms, sometimes even with comparisons with Austen and Tolstoy and Flaubert and the like, where, mediocre though the novel is (and, once again, I do not use the term in a derogatory sense), it falls well short of James’ literary ferocity. There’s nothing wrong with that: I do not mean to sneer. Mediocrity, properly understood, is by no means a pejorative, since it is, virtually by definition, the norm in any field of human activity: it can even, sometimes, cover some works that are very good indeed. But those many reviewers who make so freely such comparisons seem to me to lack awareness of the gap between the book they are reviewing, and the books they are comparing it to. For the standards of the latter are exceptionally high, and only very rarely achieved.

The problem I so often have with so many of these highly praised novels is that, all too often, I really don’t care. Just as when, in a pub, some boozing crony tells me of some friend of his, whom I do not know; and he tells me of a marriage I do not know slowly drifting apart; of difficult parents whom I do not know; of rebellious offspring too, whom I also do not know; and the like; and I sit there, nodding away as sympathetically as I can, wondering all the time why I should be expected to take an interest in the lives of those strangers whom, as I say, I do not know. Not that these things are not important: it’s just that there is no reason why a stranger like myself should find these matters relating to people I do not know particularly interesting.

I feel similarly with many novels I read. For I begin any novel a mere stranger, and the characters contained therein are also strangers to me. The success or otherwise of fiction depends to a great extent on how well the author can make me feel that these characters in the fiction are more than mere strangers, and that what happens to them, what they think, how they act, how they interact with others, are all worth taking an interest in. How authors who achieve this do so isn’t easy to explain: since different authors achieve this in different ways, the means of their achievement cannot all be corralled together into any definite set of criteria; and even considering single works, determining just what the author does to render these characters as something more than mere strangers generally proves a fruitless task: in any major work of art there lies a mystery the heart of which not even the finest analysis can quite pluck out. But it’s when the author doesn’t achieve this that the failure, for me at any rate, becomes all too apparent. Or – who knows? – it may be that I just get too easily bored in my advancing years.

I spent much of last year reading James’ The Wings of the Dove. I was about to write “re-reading”, but given how little I had taken in at my first reading, such boasting didn’t seem appropriate. It took me a great many months to read. This is, firstly, because I am a slow reader at best of times; secondly, because the notoriously opaque prose style characteristic of the later works of James is not conducive to anything resembling a “quick read”; and, thirdly, since my illness a few years ago, I find it frankly difficult to maintain my concentration on anything for long, uninterrupted stretches of time. But despite all this, I got through it. Progress was painfully slow – sometimes a mere two to three page a day – but I got there, eventually. No, it wasn’t an easy read, and neither was it un-put-down-able: on the contrary, I had to put it down frequently, to think about what I’d just read. Or what I’d just re-read, since many of the sentences needed more than one reading. I realise that none of these encomia is likely to make it to the cover of the book to encourage readers to take it up, but, despite eventually finishing around October or so last year, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. Here was literary ferocity.

As with much of James – especially in his late works – nothing is ever spelt out: James seems endlessly to be circling about his points, hinting, suggesting, indicating, but never doing anything so vulgar as to spit it out. The plot proceeds subterraneously, as it were, rendering any attempt at summary crude; but should such a summary be attempted, what would emerge would most probably be melodramatic, and, by the end, not a little sentimental (although both melodrama and sentimentality are terms that should be used carefully in criticism). What emerges, when read carefully (which is, after all, the only way possible to read a book such as this), is the most penetrating insight into the vagaries of human perceptions and of human motives, the most delicate account of the developing sensibilities, and the most harrowing account of guilt and of forgiveness – or, rather, of the inability to accept forgiveness.

I will, despite what I have said, give some indication of the plot. It centres around a dying heiress, and of the vultures who gather around her – an impoverished aristocrat, and, more significantly, a young couple who don’t quite plot as such (that would be too crude in James’ fictional world), but who reach an unspoken understanding with each other that should he convince the dying heiress of his love for her, he might then inherit her wealth, and then marry the woman whom he really loves. It all seems terribly sordid, and it is. But once the dove folds its wings (the Biblical echoes of the title can hardly be mistaken), what she leaves behind is a sorrow that is more than that due to her passing: it is her forgiveness that leaves a chasm in the souls of those she leaves behind; it is her forgiveness that cannot be accepted.

It left me in tears. Such was its literary ferocity, for a long time I found myself unable to think about anything else: any other fiction I attempted thereafter seemed to me insipid. I had initially thought to write a blog post on it, but soon realised I couldn’t. That isn’t because the work is complex: foolhardy as I am, I am not averse to writing at excessive length on works of great complexity. It is, rather, that I didn’t understand how James achieved it. Yes, I could analyse the structure to the best of my ability, I could focus in on individual details and expatiate on their significance, and all the rest of it. But nothing would take me close to the effect it had on me.

I am not really, I confess, at home with James. I do not feel I have an instinctive grasp of his aesthetics, as I do with, say, the works of Dickens. Reading something like The Wings of the Dove, I seem to find myself in an unfamiliar land, and struck to the point of being overwhelmed by unfamiliar landmarks, and yet unable to articulate why they affect me so. Analysing the art with which he achieves all this, working out how he invests his characters, their relationships with each other, and, more perhaps to the point, their relationships with their own selves, with more than merely the passing interest of a stranger, would really be well beyond me. But I wanted to register, at any rate, how this novel made me feel; and also express my growing impatience that superlatives that should only be reserved for the finest should so liberally be applied to, frankly, the less deserving. For while the distinction between the good and the bad is still apparent – no-one would think of ranking any of the shades of grey, say, alongside the achievements of an Austen or a Tolstoy – the distinction is becoming increasingly blurred between the mediocre (once again, no pejorative intended) and the finest.

Or, as James might have put it with so uncharacteristic a bluntness, between the mediocre, and that which has about it a literary ferocity.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Maybe James is using “ferocity” in the way I use “audacity.” Or maybe not. Whatever it is, I am all for it.

    Wings is one hard book. You’ve probably seen brother William’s letter to Henry, saying (I paraphrase) “What the heck is this stuff?” And I take William James as highly intelligent. If he found it that difficult, well – and there we are, as the characters in the book so often say.


  2. A wonderful novel about an young heiress who, in the shadow of death, seeks—beyond all else—to live: the very prescription of her specialist. And nothing could stand in her way!

    I happened to find The Ambassadors difficult but The golden Bowl, the last of the three, is exquisite.


  3. I am loving reading your blog. This last year I have started reading James, working backward for some reason, starting with The Golden Bowl and The Ambassadors before moving to The Wings of the Dove. While I enjoyed the first two greatly, The Wings pained me at times. As with your first experience, I don’t think I truly absorbed all that was to be absorbed. At times, I was infuriated with the characters never saying anything but endlessly hinting etc. I actually wanted to give it up. BUT I couldn’t. I absolutely adore this book, and I cant, for the life of me, work out why!


    • If “endlessly hinting” infuriates, how on earth did you cope with The Golden Bowl, where everything is implied but never stated?

      For me, The Wings of the Dove was the easiest to read of the three great novels because its plot is well defined – like reading a thriller.


      • Hello Joydeck,
        The Wings of the Dove certainly has a stronger plot line than the other two, but I can’t say, speaking personally, it made it easier to read, because, of course, its focus lies not in “what happens next?” but in other matters that I found far too elusive even to describe.
        Best wishes,

    • Hello Boris, and welcome. And thank you too for your kind comment.

      I don’t know whether I’ll ever get these three late novels “completely”. This endless hinting (on the part of the narrative voice as well as the characters) is infuriating, as you say, but also fascinating. We feel ourselves to be in the presence of something profound but elusive, and whatever frustration we may have with its elusive nature co-exists with gratitude for the presence. These novels seem as enigmatic as life itself.
      Best wishes,


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