Posts Tagged ‘Henry James’

“The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton

*** SPOILER WARNING: Please note that although the following does not focus on the plot of the novel, some elements of the plot are inevitably revealed. ***


First of all, the title. Wikipedia tells me that the title is ironic. Perhaps. But if so, it is a rather unsubtle and heavy-handed irony, and somewhat at odds with the subtlety and lightness of touch that are apparent in the novel itself. The title of Wharton’s earlier novel, The House of Mirth, had certainly been intended ironically, but that was very caustic in tone, almost bitter and angry; this, on the other hand, is far gentler, and far more genteel in its manners. So let us, for the moment at least, take the title at face value: let us assume that Wharton is, indeed, depicting an Age of Innocence.

But whose innocence? The two principal characters, Wayland Archer and Ellen Olenska, though both relatively relatively young, are not in the first flush of youth; and neither are they sexually inexperienced. These do not preclude innocence, of course, but if Wharton intends the “innocence” of the title to apply to these two principal characters, then we must look beyond what is seen merely on the surface.

Or perhaps the “innocence” applies to May Welland, Wayland’s fiancée and subsequently his wife. This is possibly more likely, as she really is, at the start of the novel, very young, and inexperienced. However, despite being one of the major participants in the drama, she is rarely allowed to occupy centre-stage, and she plays a quite shadowy (though intriguing) role throughout. One should not rule her out, though: her role, though shadowy, proves vitally important; and throughout the novel, despite her youth and experience, she embodies all the values most prized by the society these characters inhabit: formality, decorousness, correctness. And if the innocence of the title applies to her, it applies also to the society that she and her powerful family represent. And perhaps this isn’t intended ironically either.

The society Wharton depicts is the same society she had depicted earlier in The House of Mirth – the aristocracy of East Coast America, some time late in the 19th century. In the earlier novel, Wharton’s depiction had been quite acrimonious: there’s a sense almost of anger in her portrayal of the various cruelties and hypocricies of a society that, for all its formal and decorous surfaces, heartlessly crushes and destroys the novel’s tragic heroine Lily Bart. However, that earlier novel had been published in 1905; The Age of Innocence, on the other hand, was published in 1920, on the other side of the Great War, when all the old certainties seemed precariously balanced on the edge of extinction, and all values – moral, social, aesthetic – seemed in danger of being turned upside-down. Under the circumstances, it was perhaps not unreasonable to see what had gone before, for all its manifold shortcomings, as being, indeed, an “age of innocence”.

The plot itself is fairly straight-forward: one may go so far as to call it a “standard plot”, ready-made and off-the-shelf. A man, no longer very young but not yet middle-aged, is engaged to a younger woman who is innocent and virginal; but he falls for a more experienced woman who is closer to his age, and a passion develops; and it all ends unhappily. This is the blueprint for any number of Turgenev stories. Indeed, there is more than a whiff of Turgenev to all the proceedings, right down to a nostalgic and regretful epilogue that takes place many years after the main events. And we cannot help but ask ourselves what Wharton was thinking of, at the very time when modernism was on the ascendency and the air was suffused with the excitement of the new, writing a novel of a kind that could very easily have been written some sixty or seventy years earlier. Was it a mere act of defiance, a mere extolling of the values of the past, aesthetic and moral, in the face of their likely demise?

I think that is certainly the case, but only partly. Wharton’s aesthetics and morals were, I think, by nature conservative, but not blindly so. The society she depicts here is still a society of cruelty and hypocrisy: it still values outward show and formality higher than emotional needs, and stability above individual fulfilment. And if someone’s individual needs threaten this stability, then they are crushed. Wharton is still very much aware of all this. At the centre of this novel, after all, is a profoundly sad love story: the love, which grows into a passion, is never consummated, and the two lovers end up apart from each other, living out lives that are empty and hollow. All this Wharton knows; and, what is more, she is sympathetic. And yet, the society which could do all this, the age in which all this could happen, where the turbulence of the inner life is drained to maintain the unruffled nature of the surface, are still, Wharton seems to insist without irony, an innocent society, an innocent age. Social stability may indeed come at a great cost, but at a time when everything seemed up in the air, and the world itself seemed on the verge of turning upside-down, this stability, though dearly purchased, is not something to be easily dismissed.

And if this society is itself essentially innocent, then its representative in this novel (in the sense that it is she who acts to maintain society’s values), May Welland, is also innocent. But this innocence is more complex than it may at first sight appear to the reader. It is certainly more complex than it appears to Newland, who becomes her husband: towards the end of the novel, he is taken by surprise on hearing that, shortly before her death, she had told their son that he could rely on his father, as his father had already made the greatest sacrifice for the sake of his family. In other words, she had known what her husband had felt about Ellen Olenska: she had known the extent of his passion for her, and how much his sacrifice had cost him. And if this knowledge had occasioned in her grief and pain, both had been hidden so perfectly, that not even her own husband had noticed. The external surfaces must, at all costs, remain unruffled: and if her husband has to deny his passion towards this end, May has to deny her injury.

We also cannot help wondering whether Wayland had also underestimated her earlier. During their engagement, she had suggested postponing the marriage, so as to give her fiancé the opportunity to change his mind, should he so wish. Wayland had assumed that May had been thinking of a former flame of his, and he had no worries on that score. But, given how badly he had mistaken May throughout his long marriage to her, it seems likely, in retrospect, that he had mistaken her in this also – that, in truth, May had known all along, possibly earlier than he had done himself, of the true nature of his feelings for Ellen. May, for all her innocence, plays her hand perfectly, much as Maggie Verver plays her hand in Henry James’ The Golden Bowl: May tells Ellen that she is pregnant before she is sure of the fact, and, in effect, packs Ellen off, leaving Wayland for herself. May is utterly victorious. We may ask whether she is happy, or emotionally fulfilled by her victory: perhaps not. It is hard to discern what emotional fulfilment there can be when one is married to someone who, one knows, is deeply in love with someone else. But to May, as to the powerful society family she comes from, social norms and formalities, social stability, all take precedence over mere individual fulfilment. And if Wayland has to sacrifice his inner self to this end, so does she. And all of this, Wharton insists, is indeed innocence.

May Welland is rarely in the forefront of the novel, but the more I think about this, the more important her role appears to be. Shadowy though her presence is, it is her actions in the background that determine the outcome. The novel may be read simply as a sad love story; and as such, it is as exquisite as anything by Turgenev. But while it portrays unfulfilled lives with great sympathy, it also raises, it seems to me, uncomfortable questions on whether the price to be paid for personal fulfilment is a price that is worth paying. The gentleness and, indeed, the gentility of the writing cover matters considerably more disturbing.

Some ferocious feedback from Henry James

An article in a recent edition of the London Review of Books quoted some feedback received by a young author from Henry James:

I am myself a fanatic on the subject of form, style, the evidence of intention and meditation, of chiselling and hammering out in literary things that I am afraid I am rather a cold-blooded judge, rather likely to be offensive to a young story-teller on the question of quality. I’m not so sure that yours strikes me as quite so ferociously literary as my ideal.

I love the use of the word “ferociously” in the second sentence after all the circumlocution and, seemingly, the gentlemanly reticence of the first. How very Jamesian.

As for the young author in question, I guess it serves him right for asking feedback from Henry James in the first place.

“The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James

This post is not primarily about the plot of The Portrait of a Lady, but inevitably, elements of the plot do emerge. So it is best to issue what is commonly known as a “spoiler warning”.

             Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance,
That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.

  • From “Why Should Old Men Not be Mad?” by W. B. Yeats

Flicking through a printed copy of The Portrait of a Lady, one finds long sections that are on the page intimidating blocks of print, with what little clear white space there is only visible at the end of the paragraphs, alternating with equally long sections of dialogue, with clear white space in abundance. Of course, most novels contain sections of narrative and sections of dialogue, but rarely are they quite so distinct from each other as they are here. James liked dialogue: much of the novel can read like a play, with important information conveyed to the reader through what the characters say. Take, for instance, the climactic scene towards the end as Isabel discovers Madame Merle’s secret:

“Ah, poor creature!” cried Isabel, bursting into tears.

It is a surprising reaction in many ways, even given what we know of Isabel’s generosity of spirit: it’s a remarkable person indeed whose immediate reaction on learning that she has been betrayed and abused is to feel sympathy for her betrayer and abuser. But we get to know what Isabel thinks at this point purely from what she says and does – much as we would do if she were a character in a play or in a film.

James makes his dialogue do much of the narrative work throughout the novel. It may be objected that no-one really speaks as these characters do – that no-one, James himself possibly excepted, could be so precise and so articulate in their verbal expression. But if we can accept Shakespearean characters speaking in blank verse, I think we can accept also James’ characters speaking in exquisite Jamesian prose: it is part of the convention, part of the pact we make with the author. There are a few other things we need to agree as part of this pact: we need to agree that the author is an omniscient narrator, but that he won’t always give us the benefit of that omniscience; that he is happy to enter into the minds of different people, but that he will choose whose minds he wishes to enter into at any given time; that he can show us whichever scene he wants, but that the choice of which scenes to show and which he prefers to suppress will, once again, be entirely at his discretion; and so on. These are the rules of the game, as it were. So of course the narrator knows from the start the secret of Madame Merle; many readers, I think, will guess the secret for themselves long  before it is revealed, and may even wonder why Isabel is so slow in guessing what is so obvious; but the narrator, omniscient though he is, confirms the secret only when it is presented to Isabel, and not earlier. What the reader learns, which of the reader’s suspicions are confirmed, and when, are all strictly controlled by the author, and the ground rules are that we, the readers, must submit to this.

James’ felicity with dialogue, idiosyncratic though that dialogue may be, makes it perhaps surprising that he fared so badly as a dramatist. As is well-known, he tried, presumably inspired by Ibsen, whom he admired, to refashion himself in the mid-90s from a novelist to a dramatist, but failed miserably. I should try to get hold of some of his plays just to figure out why they are, by common critical consent, such failures as drama, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the scenes of dialogue only work in his novels because of that one element novels have but plays don’t – the narrative passages. All that is so remarkable about his passages of dialogue – the registering in what is said of the subtlest shifts in perception, or the finest alteration of the balance of power between the characters – seems to rely on the narrative around it to set it off: without all those pages blocked with print, and with barely any clear white space visible to relieve the reader’s eye, the dialogue would, I think, have fallen flat; but, once set in the context of the narration, it’s a different matter entirely. The dialogue in the early chapters is little more than conversation, but as the novel progresses, it becomes far more than that: it depicts the intricate interplay of the characters, and of the seemingly intangible shifts in the way they perceive each other, and themselves. And it is these long narrative passages that alternate with the dialogue that make this possible.

These narrative passages are almost purely internal: they describe what is going on in the characters’ minds – what they perceive, what they think they perceive. There is very little description, if any, of what the characters look like: what impression we get of their appearance we get merely from what they say and do, and from how they react to each other. And neither does James seem very interested in a sense of place: he will give us a few lines to set the scene, in the manner, as it were, of stage directions in a play, but once the dialogue starts, there’s where the interest lies – in what the characters say and think and perceive, and not in where they are. Quite often, in the middle of these scenes of dialogue, I’d quite happily forget whether the dialogue is taking place in an English country house, or a terrace of a Florentine villa, or amidst the ruins of Rome. That may, of course, be because I am a bad reader, but the point is, I think, that in this novel, it doesn’t matter much: when, say, Myshkin and Rogozhin exchange crosses in The Idiot,  we are always aware, and, indeed, it is important to be aware, that the scene is taking place in Rogzhin’s vast, gloomy old house; but when say, Ralph Touchett warns Isabel about marrying Gilbert Osmond, it matters little where this takes place: James’ interest seems focussed almost entirely on people, not on places.

James’ shaping of the novel is also curious. Most readers will agree that at the centre of the novel is a dissection of a bad marriage, so it is rather surprising that the man Isabel marries doesn’t make his entrance till almost half way through. The novel is in roughly three movements (it seems appropriate here to borrow terminology from music), each of these movements ending with an important scene between Isabel and Caspar Goodwood, the disappointed suitor who remains nonetheless devoted. In the first movement, we are mostly in Gardencourt, an English country estate somewhere near the Thames in Berkshire, and the choice of the name is far from accidental: it is a clear reference to the character Grandcourt in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, a work to which this novel clearly owes much (as it does also to George Eliot’s Middlemarch); but it is also a reference to a prelapsarian state in the Garden, a state both of innocence and of inexperience: Isabel Archer here, though intelligent and independent of thought, is also innocent, and lacks experience of the world; and this world is, indeed, all before her. Isabel must make her decisions on how, and where, to take her place in it. For Gardencourt is also a court – a place where judgements and decisions are made, with far-reaching consequences.

At the start of the second movement, the serpent enters the garden, in form of the very charming and accomplished Madame Merle, and Isabel, now wealthy (thanks to the manoeuvring, unknown to her, of her cousin Ralph Touchett), soon leaves the Garden to engage with the evils and temptations that reside outside. The decision she eventually makes, we can see quite clearly, is a wrong decision – a disastrously wrong decision; and James does not hide from the reader its wrongness: we are actually given scenes of Osmond and Madame Merle conspiring with each other like conventional villains from melodrama on how best to entrap the innocent Isabel. There are shades, certainly, of Mary and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, and  of  the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses; and also, I think, of the Gothic thriller: the innocent heroine who marries a villain, and who is then persecuted and terrorised by her husband, is a staple of the Gothic mystery novel, and is, indeed, the basis of the plot of one of the most famous examples of the genre – Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. (Later in James’ novel, the villain even has his daughter locked up in a convent! It is indeed astonishing how happy James was to use motifs from the old-fashioned melodrama even while pushing forward the art of the novel.) But although we can see all this villainy clearly, Isabel can’t, and James, in this movement of the novel, has the hardest of tasks: he has to show us his heroine acting foolishly, and against the best of advice, and yet convince us somehow that she is nonetheless intelligent; he has to show Gilbert Osmond both as a villain of a Gothic novel, and yet also as someone whom Isabel can credibly accept. This is not an easy task for the novelist to accomplish, but, as one of his own characters might say, James brings it off quite beautifully.

Of course, we do have to accept that someone who lives in a villa in Tuscany and does not have to work for a living is actually “poor”, but once again, that’s part of the pact we have to make with the author: in the milieu he is depicting, Gilbert Osmond is, in comparative terms at least, “poor”. He is also middle-aged, a widower, generally undistinguished, and in every sense, one would have thought, an unsuitable match for the wealthy, young, and beautiful Isabel (at least, one thinks of her as beautiful, though I don’t think James says so himself directly); but his very seeming unsuitability is among those things that draws Isabel to him. Back in Gardencourt, she had rejected the extravagantly eligible Lord Warburton – wealthy, young, handsome, titled, and by nature kind and generous – at least partly because, one suspects, he was so very eligible: Isabel wanted to experience life on her own terms, and make her own decisions, and so, to this end, any decision determined by conventionality and approved of by custom is from the start dismissed. This determination not to abide from the stultifying demands of conventionality, and to make her own way, does indeed, in James’ hands at least, indicate on Isabel’s part an independence of mind and a certain intellectual pride that indicate intelligence, even when, as here, both that independence of mind and that intellectual pride are so woefully misdirected.

Not that Gilbert Osmond is a stereotype villain: James is happy to use elements of the Gothic thriller, but that is not the genre in which he is writing. Osmond does indeed woo and marry Isabel for her money, but her money, though a necessary criterion for Osmond, is not in itself a sufficient criterion: he wants power – power over other people; and the idea of power over Isabel, who, it is thought, had turned down even a wealthy and handsome English aristocrat, excites Osmond’s sensibilities. Osmond is an unforgettable portrait of a man who lives primarily by his ego, and whose principal delight lies in having that sense of ego heightened by exercising power over others.

It is in the third and longest movement of the novel, which begins some years after the second movement had ended, that it all unravels: it is here that we are given the anatomy of a failed marriage. Isabel is, predictably, unhappy: in the patriarchal society she inhabits, her husband has easily assumed a dominant role. And Osmond too is unhappy with the marriage: Isabel, her pride still intact, keeps aloof as best she can, and does not flatter her husband’s ego as he had hoped she would. They generally tend to keep out of each other’s way.

This third part begins not with Isabel or with Osmond, but with Edward Rosier, a character we had only very briefly glimpsed earlier, and whom I certainly did not remember by this stage. It is almost as if Isabel’s story has ended, as all good stories should, with a marriage. We do see Mr and Mrs Osmond after a while, though they seem at first more supporting characters rather than leading characters of the drama; but even here, we sense how unhappy Isabel is, and how dissatisfied Osmond is, despite having had his way: she does not openly defy him, but neither does she submit to the power he wishes to wield over her. It is many more chapters before we actually see them together: the person whom we see with Osmond, close to Osmond, is not is wife, but, rather ominously, Madame Merle.

Things come to a head with the various machinations around the marriage of Pansy, Osmond’s innocent daughter now on the verge of adulthood. Edward Rosier wishes to propose to her, but Osmond, while not disapproving, has higher things in mind for his daughter: she, too, exists, as far as he is concerned, primarily to serve his ego. So Osmond is casually and calculatedly rude to Rosier. He has bigger fish in mind: Lord Warburton, a few years older than when we had first seen him, but still very eminently eligible. And Lord Warburton appears interested in Pansy, although Isabel suspects that the interest not to be wholly sincere, and, observing all proprieties though he may be, his chief aim is to be close to her, Isabel. And Isabel has too much pride to yield to this.

This situation sets up a series of tremendous scenes in which the dialogue is more, much more, than the somewhat inconsequential conversation it had been in the early chapters of the novel: the more James tells us about his characters, the more we find every word they speak weighted with meaning and significance. The balance of power is intricate: the slightest thing can alter it. And perceptions of where one stands in the struggle for power can be as powerful as the thing itself.

Isabel warns off Lord Warburton. Not explicitly, but she knows how to do this kind of thing without being explicit. Osmond senses Isabel’s part in Lord Warburton’s withdrawal: he has no hard evidence, but does not require it. All this brings about a series of conflicts between husband and wife that are among the most dramatic scenes in all fiction, though very little, as such, happens. Everything relies on the reader being aware of the shifting balances of power between the characters.

It all leads leads to a denouement that frankly breaks the heart. I did not remember from my last reading some thirty or so years ago just how affecting this ending was: I suppose that, as with so much I read in my younger days, I had not been a good enough reader, nor had been sufficiently mature emotionally, to take it in adequately. This time round, I found an emotional directness that I had not expected from James. In his later fiction, he often allowed emotional scenes to take place off-stage, such as, say, the final meeting between Milly Theale and Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove; but here, James presents directly scenes of the deepest of emotions, of the most tender of feelings, with a lack of embarrassment I am tempted to describe, despite James’ own well-known aversion to Dickens, as “Dickensian”. I really had not remembered this ending being quite so affecting. However, this ending did not spring out of nowhere: it could not have been so affecting had James not laid the necessarily groundwork for it with such painstaking care earlier in the novel. And so exquisitely is the novel structured, that to understand properly what happens at the end, we must consider it from the very beginning: James’ decision to delay the entrance of Gilbert Osmond till almost half way into the novel is, after all, no mere whim: this novel is, one must remember, the portrait of a lady, rather than the portrait of a marriage.

It is in the prelapsarian and innocent wold of Gardencourt that we begin. The very opening sentences suggest a sense of calm and inactivity that quite belies what is to come afterwards. I have often wondered whether there has been another novel of comparable stature that has so unpromising an opening:

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

This is what, on this side of the Atlantic, we would describe as “twee” – self-consciously arch and affected and cloying. It suggests a world where everything is delightful and lovely, where nothing really changes, where even the drinking of tea in the afternoon becomes a “ceremony”. This could almost be the opening of a Wodehousian idyll. The setting is right for Wodehouse – an English country estate, wealthy Americans, and so on. But James is not writing a country house comedy any more than he is a Gothic thriller: instead of Bertie Wooster, we have a somewhat different kind of English aristocrat – Lord Warburton. It is into this static situation that Isabel Archer emerges, and, quite literally, sets the novel in motion.

These early chapters proceed at an extremely leisurely pace, as if nothing of any great moment lies on the horizon. A flashback tells us of Isabel’s background, and of how she came to be where she is; and a flashback within a flashback gives us some more detail of Isabel’s past. Isabel is characterised in these early chapters principally by how the other characters react to her: all three men in Gardencourt fall in love with her. Mr Touchett is an old man, but he almost from the start develops for her a deep paternal affection. Meanwhile his son, Ralph, finds himself utterly entranced by his cousin; but he knows he is seriously ill and dying – this prelapsarian garden contains its shades – and he doesn’t even pause to consider a future for himself with Isabel – or, indeed, a future for himself at all. And there is also Lord Warburton, who makes possibly the most delicate of proposals in all literature, and is turned down: Isabel is looking towards other horizons. If the world is all before Isabel, she will explore it, and find her own place in it, on her own terms.

The pace is so leisurely here, that the reader may well wonder where, if anywhere, all this is leading. There are elements of humour, it is true, and some of that humour is – quite surprisingly, once again, given James’ aversion – “Dickensian”. Henrietta Stackpole is a name – like Caspar Goodwoood –  that could easily have been invented by Dickens, and her general air of uncouth brashness provides a much needed contrast to the endless refinement of moneyed and aristocratic England that James presents. And as for the brusque and peremptory manners of Mrs Touchett, there seems to me more than a touch of Betsey Trotwood about her. There’s an element of Dickens also, I thought, in the cameo appearance of Mr Bantling, and the talked about, though never seen, Lady Pensil (how Dickens would have loved these names!) But despite this occasional touch of Dickensiana, we are unmistakably in Jamesworld – a world of moneyed and leisured people, whose work, should they work at all, is of no interest to anyone (and certainly not to James); a world where the young and wide-eyed visitors from the New World meet the more cynically sophisticated environment of the Old. Not that James’ characterisations are in any way schematic: Lord Warburton, of the Old World, is principled and very much a man of integrity; while the villains, Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle, are expatriate Americans; but the novel turns on the encounter between moral innocence and moral corruption, and in James’ fictional world, these states are represented respectively by the New World and the Old.

The first movement of the novel ends in London, with Isabel’s meeting with Caspar Goodwood, who is devoted to her, and has followed her to Europe, despite there being little hope of his being accepted. He is everything lord Warburton isn’t – rough-edged, energetic, vigorous, and all the other qualities befitting a denizen of the New World. Isabel’s rejection of Caspar turns out to be more difficult than her rejection of Lord Warburton: she did not even have to think about rejecting the English aristocrat, but after declaring her final rejection of Goodwood, she sheds tears. But she has a sense of her own destiny, and Ralph, already under a death sentence, and the only one not to declare his love for his cousin, persuades his father to leave to Isabel much of what had been marked out for him. So, soon into the second movement of the novel, Isabel finds herself not merely searching for her destiny, but with the means to do so. The world is indeed all before her; but beside her is Madame Merle, and in her calculated coils, Isabel, although she doesn’t realise it, is helpless.

The pace is slow; nothing much appears to be happening; but all the seeds are carefully planted that are later to flower to such devastating effect. It is only after all these seeds have been planted, after all these elements have so carefully been put into place, that James allows Gilbert Osmond to make his entrance. And, with an insidious sense of inevitability, the unthinking happens: the proud, intelligent Isabel, who had turned down Lord Warburton and even Caspar Goodwood, who is loved hopelessly and selflessly by her cousin Ralph, falls prey to, of all people, the scheming Gilbert Osmond. He and Madame Merle engineer Isabel into accepting.

The second movement ends as the first had done, with Caspar Goodwood once again meeting with Isabel, this time to ponder uncomprehendingly on the proud, independent searcher coming to this of all ends. And once again, the meeting moves Isabel to tears.

But the story is not over yet: we have the final tragic movement yet to come. And the drama that is let loose here is electrifying. In scene after scene, James tightens the tension, knowing precisely to what extent to turn the screw at each scene; and in between these scenes are those passages of narration, increasingly metaphor-laden. One metaphor in particular struck me:

After he had left her, Madame Merle went and lifted from the mantel-shelf the attenuated coffee—cup in which he had mentioned the existence of a crack; but she looked at it rather abstractedly. “Have I been so vile all for nothing?” she murmured to herself.

  • From Chapter 49

The coffee-cup in which there is a crack is an image that very obviously foreshadows the central symbol of James’ later novel, The Golden Bowl. There, the crack had been a fine in an otherwise exquisite bowl of gold, but it was a fatal crack: the bowl was bound eventually to break. It is a mysterious and enigmatic symbol purely because its most obvious interpretations are too banal given the weight James gives to it, and we are forced therefore to peer further. Why does this crack in the coffee-cup resonate so powerfully both with the reader and with Madame Merle at this point?

For Madame Merle has been vile, and she has known it. James, rather disconcertingly, refers quite frequently to the “horror” and the “terror” felt by Isabel, almost as if she really were a protagonist in a Gothic horror novel. And the adjective “evil” is used to describe Osmond and Madame Merle. This may seem somewhat over-the-top to some readers, just as the use of the same word in Mansfield Park in relation to Mary and Henry Crawford is seen also to be a gross overstatement, but James is as serious as Austen was: to seek to exert power over others is indeed, both to Austen and to James, an evil, and that it happens in a real world rather than in some Gothic world of dungeons and torture chambers does not make it any less evil.  Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle are clearly, without any exaggeration, forerunners of the evil spirits Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, who also seek to “possess” other human beings for their own ends.

But by the end, Madame Merle is defeated. Isabel has a sudden intimation of the evil in the relationship between Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond when she enters a room, and is struck by the way the two are positioned with respect to one another:

Madame Merle sat there in her bonnet, and Gilbert Osmond was talking to her; for a minute they were unaware that she had come in. Isabel had often seen that before, certainly; but what she had not seen, or at least had not noticed—was that their dialogue had for the moment converted itself into a sort of familiar silence, from which she instantly perceived that her entrance would startle them. Madame Merle was standing on the rug, a little way from the fire; Osmond was in a deep chair, leaning back and looking at her. Her head was erect, as usual, but her eyes were bent upon his. What struck Isabel first was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an anomaly in this that arrested her. Then she perceived that they had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas, and were musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing shocking in this; they were old friends in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative position, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected. But it was all over by the time she had fairly seen it.

  • From Chapter 40

It is a simple impression made in a split second, which contains nothing really to alarm, or even to disconcert, but which nonetheless strikes Isabel as somehow wrong, although what precisely is wrong she would not have been able to explain. It is a sudden glimpse into a previously unseen world, and, although what is glimpsed is vague and intangible, it sets off a “sudden flicker of light” in Isabel’s perceptions. She knows, she senses, that she is, somehow, the victim of these two. But Isabel is unarmed, because she lacks knowledge: she does not know enough to pinpoint even to herself the nature of that which she so powerfully senses.

Later in the novel, when she does have the knowledge, when Madame Merle’s secret is known to her, the balance of power shifts. Madame Merle now senses that Isabel knows something of her secret, but how much Isabel knows, she cannot tell:

The person who stood there was not the same one she had seen hitherto; it was a very different person—a person who knew her secret. This discovery was tremendous, and for the moment she made it the most accomplished of women faltered and lost her courage. But only for that moment. Then the conscious stream of her perfect manner gathered itself again and flowed on as smoothly as might be to the end. But it was only because she had the end in view that she was able to go on. She had been touched with a point that made her quiver, and she needed all the alertness of her will to repress her agitation. Her only safety was in not betraying herself. She did not betray herself; but the startled quality of her voice refused to improve—she couldn’t help it—while she heard herself say she hardly knew what. The tide of her confidence ebbed, and she was able only just to glide into port, faintly grazing the bottom.

  • From Chapter 52

In The Golden Bowl, when Maggie Verver faces the adulterous Charlotte Stant, she senses that she now has power over her: not only does she know of Charlotte’s affair with her husband, she knows also that Charlotte is aware of her knowledge; but what Charlotte isn’t aware of is how much she knows. And Maggie enjoys the power she now has over Charlotte by deliberately not telling her, and leaving her to the agony merely of conjecture and surmise. I think something similar happens at this point between Isabel and Madame Merle: Isabel senses that it is she who now has power over Madame Merle, and, like Maggie Verver, enjoys the enjoyment of this power by remaining silent:.

Isabel saw all this as distinctly as if it had been a picture on the wall. It might have been a great moment for her, for it might have been a moment of triumph. That Madame Merle had lost her pluck and saw before her the phantom of exposure—this in itself was a revenge, this in itself was almost a symptom of a brighter day. And for a moment while she stood apparently looking out of the window with her back half turned, Isabel enjoyed her knowledge.

  • From Chapter 52

Madame Merle is retires from the fray: Isabel has won. Like Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl, she returns to America: in Jamesian terms, she gives up the fight. Like Princes Eboli in Schiller’s Don Carlos (and in Verdi’s opera of the same name, based on Schiller’s play), Madame Merle is shamed into defeat. Isabel is triumphant.

But it is a strange sort of triumph. There remains still her deeply unhappy marriage. Gilbert Osmond had, on his last meeting with Isabel, taken the moral high ground: it is he who is, both in his own eyes and in the eyes of the world, in the right, and Isabel in the wrong for even thinking of defying her husband’s wishes. Isabel had lost in that particular confrontation: the balance of power had been all on Gilbert’s side. But she had defied him nonetheless: she had travelled to England on her own, to visit her dying cousin Ralph.

And it is in the magnificent scene at Ralph’s deathbed that we reach the culminating point of the novel. Here, as in the scene in Anna Karenina where Anna lies close to death, there is no room any more for dissimulation: in the presence of death, so solemn and so majestic, all involved seem to share a higher state of consciousness. The love between Isabel and Ralph is perhaps the only one in the entire novel that has been, and is, entirely sincere, and entirely mutual. Isabel had previously been careful not to reveal to Ralph that she was unhappy in her marriage, as the satisfaction Ralph would receive on being proven right would have been far outweighed by his unhappiness on the same score; but there is no room for untruths now, not even kind untruths: Ralph and Isabel speak to each other from the deepest recesses of their hearts. It is a scene I had not expected from James. It is almost as if he is daring the reader to feel embarrassed by so unadorned, so naked a depiction of the most deeply felt of human emotions.

“He married me for my money,” she said.

She wished to say everything; she was afraid he might die before she had done so.

He gazed at her a little, and for the first time his fixed eyes lowered their lids. But he raised them in a moment, and then—

“He was greatly in love with you,” he answered.

“Yes, he was in love with me. But he would not have married me if I had been poor. I don’t hurt you in saying that. How can I? I only want you to understand. I always tried to keep you from understanding; but that’s all over.”

“I always understood,” said Ralph.

“I thought you did, and I didn’t like it. But now I like it.”

“You don’t hurt me—you make me very happy.” And as Ralph said this there was an extraordinary gladness in his voice. She bent her head again, and pressed her lips to the back of his hand. “I always understood,” he continued, “though it was so strange—so pitiful. You wanted to look at life for yourself—but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional!”

“Oh yes, I have been punished,” Isabel sobbed.

  • From Chapter 54

I was caught up short at the point where Ralph declares himself to be happy: I was sure I had read another scene in another novel where a man, in the throes of the greatest of griefs, also declares himself happy, but I couldn’t remember at first which novel it was. Then, eventually, it came to me: it is in a novel written by that author James professed to dislike – Dickens; and it occurs when Bob Cratchit, grieving for his dead child, calls around him the rest of his family:

“… But however and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim — shall we — or this first parting that there was among us?”

“Never, father!” cried they all.

“And I know,” said Bob, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”

“No, never, father!” they all cried again.

“I am very happy,” said little Bob, “I am very happy!”

  • From Chapter 4 of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

We may say that Ralph is “happy” because he can speak to Isabel before he dies, and that Bob is “happy” because he still has the rest of his family, but in both cases, I think, the author is encouraging us to peer deeper: the “happiness” in both cases comes, I think, from their having been, and continuing to be, so close to another human being as to be able to experience emotions of such depth, even though that experience is so full of pain.

The death scene is the novel’s emotional high point: it doesn’t so much put human affairs in their context, but, rather, heightens them; the presence of death confirms the moral seriousness of human affairs, and of what humans do to each other. But the novel isn’t entirely finished yet: there is still some unfinished business to attend to. As at the end of the previous two movements, Caspar meets and speaks once again to Isabel; and this time, he offers a way out. Much has been written on why Isabel refuses. I think this ending is inevitable: one has only to imagine Isabel accepting Caspar Goodwood’s proposal to realise how unsatisfactory an ending this would have been. Isabel has to refuse because, despite all that has happened, she has still her pride, and her self-respect. In The Lady From the Sea, a play written by Ibsen some four years after the publication of this novel, the title character, Ellida Wangel, had chosen well: her husband is a decent and kindly man; but given that the choice had not been entirely free, Ellida finds herself questioning its validity. Now, it is unlikely that Ibsen would have read James’ novel, but, whether by design or by accident, Ibsen had presented in Ellida Wangel a corollary of Isabel Archer: where Ellida questions even a correct choice because it had not been free, Isabel accepts an incorrect choice because it was: wrong though that choice was, in every respect, it was made in absolute freedom, and Isabel known that she is honour-bound, to herself if no-one else, to accept the consequences of what she had chosen so freely.

And neither is she choosing, I think, to remain a victim: armed now with knowledge she had previously not possessed, she is now capable of resuming the struggle with Gilbert Osmond, this time on equal terms. And I do not think it is merely wishful thinking on my part that she will emerge triumphant – that she will vanquish Gilbert Osmond as surely as she had vanquished Madame Merle. The real struggle is still to come: we are only at the beginning.

“We have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson

Please note: It is not possible to discuss a novel such as this without referring to some of the plot details. I personally do not think that twists and turns of the plot are of primary interest except in mystery stories – i.e. stories where solution to a mystery is the whole point of the work – or adventure stories, where the question of “What happens next?” is paramount. In other types of fiction, spoilers don’t really bother me. But since they clearly bother others, it is only fair to preface this post with what is known as a “spoiler warning”.

Had Shirley Jackson been from the southern states, her works could safely have been labelled “Southern Gothic”, but since she wasn’t, no-one is quite sure how to classify her. And, as we all know, inability to classify a writer causes us literary bloggers and critics no end of headaches: we find ourselves having no option but to try to evaluate the writer on her own terms rather than refer to some handy pre-formulated labels, and that really doesn’t make for easy blogging.

This is the second novel of Shirley Jackson’s that I have read – the other being The Haunting of Hill House – and it seems fair to say she had a weird and macabre imagination. One hesitates to use the term “horror”, especially as the horror genre seems all too often to denote the explicitly gruesome; but her fiction does most certainly communicate a deep sense of unease. But in neither of the two novels of hers that I have read is this sense of unease an end in itself: they may make the flesh creep, but making the flesh creep is not – primarily, at least – what these novels are about. The Haunting of Hill House may be read as a traditional ghost story, but it is also a psychological study of the disintegration of a human mind, and it is this disintegrating mind, rather than the supernatural element, that seems to be at the centre of the work. Indeed, the supernatural manifestations, terrifying though they are, may quite legitimately seen as emanations from Eleanor’s disturbed and fragile mind rather than as ghostly hauntings. We Have Always Lived in the Castle does not contain any supernatural elements, but right from the opening sentences, we find ourselves in a very weird fictional world:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Quite clearly, the narrator, Mary Katherine – Merricat – Blackwood is mentally unbalanced, but hers is the only voice we hear, and her perspective the only one to which we are privy. The opening chapter depicts Merricat going into the village to buy groceries, and gives us a rather disturbing picture not only of the deep hostility of the villagers, but of Merricat’s own grotesquely violent fantasies:

… I wished they were dead. I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with pain and dying. I would help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over the bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, perhaps with a kick for Mrs Donell as she lay there.

Generally, a first person narrator, by the virtue of the fact that she is telling us the story and is taking us into her confidence, invites some measure of sympathy from the reader; this sympathy is even more strongly due to someone who, like Merricat, is reviled and taunted. But Jackson seems determined to alienate our sympathies from the start: we are interested, intrigued, fascinated – but we are not necessarily on her side: we are not rooting for her. Those readers who insist in their fiction on characters they can “relate to” may have a problem here.

Soon, the reason for the villagers’ hostility becomes apparent: some six years previously, the entire Blackwood family – Merricat’s mother, father, brother, and an aunt – had been poisoned: the sugar with which the sprinkled their blackberries had been heavily laced with poison. Merricat had escaped because she, a twelve-year-old at the time, had been sent to bed with no supper that evening; her uncle Julian had escaped because he hadn’t eaten enough blackberries; and Merricat’s older sister, Constance, did not take sugar. Constance had been charged with murder, but had been released due to lack of evidence. Now, the two surviving sisters, and their surviving Uncle Julian, his aged and battered mind in shreds, live together in their ancestral home, their castle, shunning and shunned by the hostile villagers.

Naturally, the reader cannot help but speculate whether Merricat’s precarious mental state was the cause or the consequence of the family tragedy. The answer is given some two thirds of the way through the novel, but since the possibility is already in the reader’s mind, it cannot really count as a “plot twist”. The key to the drama presented in the novel is not so much the question of “who done it?” but, rather, the curious network of relationships between the three characters still living in the castle, and, especially, between the two sisters, who, despite the quite bizarre circumstances in which they live, deeply love and are devoted to each other. Merricat, we know from the first, is unbalanced and disturbed – too off-centre, perhaps, to be understood by reasoned analysis, or, indeed, understood at all. More intriguing is her devoted sister Constance. Whatever may or may not have happened in the past, it is her unquestioning loyalty to and indulgence of her utterly mad sister that remains, perhaps, the greatest enigma in this deeply enigmatic novel. Certainly this is not a point Merricat herself ever pauses to consider, so we get no help from her on this.

Neither do we get much help on what the family relationships were like before the poisoning. From some of the fragments of memory that surfaces in Merricat’s mid, and from the equally fragmentary scraps spoken by Uncle Julius, we may guess at a family not at peace with itself, but the exact nature of their disturbed state remains tantalisingly elusive.

Into this weird set-up comes their cousin Charles. His branch of the family had been estranged from Constance and Merricat, and in his appearance, Merricat senses a danger: he is trying, as far as Merricat’ can see, to prise Constance away from her. And what develops is one of those struggles for individual power that we are so familiar with from the novels of Henry James – two characters struggling with each other, for motives not always clear, even to themselves, for the possession of a third. Charles appears a brash and bumptious young man, barely bothering to conceal his mercenary motives, and making no attempt at all to hide his impatience and contempt for Merricat. But the repressed and agoraphobic Constance, who does not leave the house even to go to the village, is clearly attracted: the danger Merricat senses is real, but, as with any insight filtered through Merricat’s consciousness, one should add the rider “perhaps”: we can never really be sure of anything Merricat tells us.

By the end of the drama, Constance remains constant: Cousin Charles, once his mercenary motives become apparent, is rejected – much as Morris Townsend is towards the end of Washington Square – and Constance, for reasons we can never quite be sure of, becomes drawn completely into Merricat’s mad world. The great battle Merricat had fought to win Constance for herself is unequivocally won: Merricat’s victory, by the end, is complete. It is the triumph of utter unreason – but it is a happy ending, of sorts.


This short novel leaves a very strange taste in the mouth, a taste which lingers long after one has finished reading. It is not entirely an unpleasant taste: in its way, it is actually rather seductive. We may not have been rooting for Merricat – Jackson is careful not to encourage the reader’s empathy, or even the reader’s sympathy, on her behalf – but her triumph, because it is so very hard won, and so much against the odds, seems somehow deserved. It is almost as if we, too, have been won over into Merricat’s macabre and lunatic world. The sense of unease that permeates this novel stays with us right to the end – and beyond.

On opening lines

In this post, I consider what makes for good opening lines.

That wasn’t really very good, was it? Not only does that opening line not impart much beyond what the title has already said, it establishes a tone of voice that is unlikely to engage the casual reader. Or even, for that matter, an interested one. It presents a picture of an author who is scrupulous and correct, but also bland and boring; and who – as Wilde said most unfairly about Henry James – sees writing as a “painful duty”. Perhaps it might work better if expressed as a rhetorical question:

What makes for a good opening line?

A bit better, perhaps: it opens the prospect of a discussion that could lead to some sort of answer. But it’s not much better than the first attempt, to be honest. Many of my earlier posts in this blog started in this manner, but once I made the effort to read through some of my older posts in a critical frame of mind – a salutary though frequently dispiriting thing to do – I realised quite soon how irritating a mannerism this is. I take care never to start any post like this nowadays.

For openings are difficult, and also important, especially in our attention-straitened times. If you haven’t captured the reader’s attention within the first few lines – sometimes within the very first line – then the prospective reader has gone: that extra “view” on your blog statistics does not translate to someone who has bothered to read what you’ve written.

This obviously puts at a disadvantage writers such as myself whose natural style tends towards the prolix rather than the snappy. But snappy opening lines are not without their problems either. All too often, they seem designed to capture the reader’s attention: it’s sometimes a sort of metaphorical throat-clearing – a call to attention which, once delivered, clears the way for the piece really to begin with the second sentence. This is not necessarily a shortcoming: one can sometimes find this sort of thing even in very fine works. Take, for instance, the opening of Joseph Heller’s brilliant Catch 22:

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

Instantly, the reader (well this reader at any rate) is hooked. But the paragraph that follows has nothing to do with the chaplain: it tells us that Yossarian was in hospital, and explains why. The writing is still brilliant, the reader is still hooked, but that first sentence does not lead to what immediately follows: there is a disjoin.

Of course, that isn’t a problem here – especially as this novel delights in comic artifice, and constantly, and quite deliberately, draws attention to itself. But if that opening line were to be omitted, there would be no hole in the narrative. Writers lesser than Joseph Heller (which is just about all of us, I guess) would, I think, be well-advised to be careful about using this sort of throat-clearing opening gambit. I try not to use it myself: I know my limits, and, badly done, it could become as irritating a mannerism as starting posts with rhetorical questions.

Of course, opening lines don’t have to be snappy to capture the reader’s attention: take for instance the famous openings sentence of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Sixty-three words, by my count, which could easily be cut down dramatically while still retaining its sense; but, as written, it captures the reader’s attention because it establishes a very distinctive tone of voice: the “David Copperfield kind of crap” is a particularly felicitous touch. The model for this sort of thing is, I suppose, the opening of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

Once again, it captures a very distinctive tone of voice. The “don’t” rather than the grammatically correct “won’t” helps capture the tone, but the real touch of brilliance here is, I think, the word “without”. Most of us would have written something along the lines of “You won’t know about me unless you have…”; or “You won’t know about me if you haven’t…”; but anything along those lines would have disrupted the distinctive rhythm of Huck’s manner of speaking. I don’t know how much time and thought Twain had given to that opening sentence, but I suspect it was the product of hard work rather than a spontaneous effusion. And how he must have rejoiced when he finally came up with “without”, and realised that the opening sentence was now absolutely perfect.

But one can also create arresting openings without being snappy, and without establishing an engaging and distinctive narrative voice: but such openings arrest the attention only of a certain kind of reader. Here, for instance, is the opening sentence of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove:

She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass above the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.

Of course, this is unlikely to attract readers who are not prepared to take their time and to engage closely, but James is not writing for such readers anyway. Here, all in one sentence, we are given a sense of the passage of time (Kate Croy is waiting “unconscionably”); the detail of the glass above the mantel gives us a sense of place; the irritation that brings Kate Croy to the point of leaving without seeing her father conveys a sense of her character, and also a sense of tension for reasons as yet unspecified; the face “postively pale” implies a sense of crisis either impending or apparent; and even the four opening words (“She waited, Kate Croy, …” rather than “Kate Croy waited …”) places the emphasis on the act of waiting rather than on the more mundane matter of the naming of the character; while the two commas punctuating these first four words make for a halting, stuttering rhythm that conveys admirably a sense of strain and of unease. All this in a single, harmoniously constructed sentence. Admittedly, this is unlikely to make the Flavorwire or Buzzfeed (or whatever) list of great opening lines, but if ever there were a finer opening to a novel than this, I don’t know it.

And only yesterday, on starting for the first time the essays of Francis Bacon, I came upon this opening line:

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.

The essay is entitled “On Truth”. In the gospels, Pilate does indeed ask the captured Jesus this most profound of questions, “What is truth?” (John 18:38); we do not know if Jesus had answered, for no answer is recorded. In Bacon’s version of this story, Pilate did not stay for an answer – either because he did not think there was an answer, or because he did not wish to hear what he thought (or feared) the answer may be. And Pilate, according to Bacon, was “jesting”. Not that he asked the question “in jest”, but that his entire person may be described as “jesting”; that he either refused, or pretended to refuse, to take life too seriously. The two possibilities put forward in this brief sentence are intriguing: either Pilate did not take life seriously, and had asked “What is truth?” fully convinced that no answer was possible; or that he pretended, for reasons we may only guess at, not to take life too seriously, and did not wish even to hear any possible answer to his question.

What wondrous vistas of thought, rich in possibilities, are brought to view by this seemingly simple opening line! It draws me into this meditation on the nature of truth as surely as if it were a thrilling adventure story. Now, that’s how to start an essay, and, to judge by the generally mundane opening lines of my posts here on my blog – the critical reading of which remains, as I said, a frequently dispiriting thing to do – I clearly have some considerable distance yet to go…

A somewhat rambling post, on failed metaphors, the woodcuts of Dürer, and the Mann-James spectrum

It all started over at the Wuthering Expectations blog. Its estimable writer, Tom, found himself somewhat unimpressed by Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, and, as I had rather liked the novel when I had read it some fifteen or so years ago, I felt I had to say a few words in its defence. But it is not easy to engage in discussion fn a novel one had last read so many years previously with someone who has read it only recently; and so, instead of engaging on specific points, I decided to make a broad-brush argument.

Oh dear, there I go again, introducing unwarranted imagery drawn from the world of visual arts: it should be a primary rule of writing that one should never draw a metaphor or a simile from an area one knows little about. And, not being by any stretch of the imagination an expert on the visual arts, I should never have claimed, as I did on Tom’s blog, that Buddenbrooks was drawn in firm, clear lines; and neither should I have drawn a parallel with the woodcuts of Dürer.

You may see for yourself how the conversation went. I ended up claiming after a while that woodcuts did not allow for shading, and that its effect had to come from the correctness of line. But Dürer’s woodcuts do have shading, Tom responded, citing as evidence the famous woodcut of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht  Dürer

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer

This was hard to argue against: there certainly was tonal variation in there. And yet, surely a woodcut is restricted only to black and to white, and to no shade in between. I brought down from my shelves a book containing reproductions of Dürer’s woodcuts, and yes, there was an extraordinary variety of tone throughout: while each of the lines was placed to absolute perfection, the effect did not depend on these lines alone. So I found myself looking closely at these areas that appeared to be shaded. The shading was not a consequence of applying shades of grey: black and white were indeed the only tones available. The apparent shades are achieved by the closeness of the lines, and by various types of cross-hatching.

Is this what I had meant when I had brought Dürer into the discussion? It’s hard to say. The human mind is adept at justifying itself in retrospect, and convincing itself that it had intended what, at the time, it hadn’t.

And I did what I should have done earlier – contacted a good friend of mine who just happened, rather conveniently, to be an art historian specialising in the Northern Renaissance. She confirmed to me that the woodcut is restricted to black and white only, but, when apprised of the background to my question, felt that there was indeed shading in Dürer’s woodcuts. Not through different shades that may be obtained through varying the pressure on the brush or on the pencil, but through varying the closeness of the lines, and their thickness. And so on: there were virtually an infinite number of tricks up the old boy’s sleeve. It depends on how one defines “shading”.

Well – that’s an easy get-out clause for me, isn’t it? “It’s a question of how you define it.” No – I decided not to go for that one. I’d stick to my guns: the tonal variation only looks like shading, I insisted, but it can’t really be called shading since there is no shade other than black and white; what tonal variation we see comes from an immensely skillful manipulation of the black and the white, rather than from any actual shading as such.

And that’s what I had meant in the first place. No, really. That’s what I had meant, and no mistake.

And I was hoping Tom wouldn’t ask “If that’s what you’d meant, then why didn’t you say so?”

Fortunately for me, he preferred to talk about literature rather than about art. The depiction with firm clear lines was something he attributed to Flaubert rather than to Mann, although he did agree with me that the smudging together of tones and doing away with anything resembling outlines are best exemplified by Henry James, especially in his later works. Nothing in these works is clear. The vague, ambiguous states of our mind shade with the finest subtlety from one tone into another, barely aware of the passage, and refusing resolutely ever to be pinned down or defined. It can be maddening for the reader, and yet no other author has captured with such painstaking delicacy the infinite fluidity of human consciousness.

So, although my comments on Dürer may have been ill conceived, I wondered if I could be on to something here: could it be reasonable to speak of a Mann-James spectrum? Of clarity and precision at one end of the scale, and of endless smudging and obfuscation on the other?

Sadly, as soon as one starts to consider where on this spectrum various other writers may stand – Austen, say, or Hardy, or Joyce – the metaphor breaks down rather quickly. I suppose it is in the very nature of similes and of metaphors to break down beyond a point, since if X were to be precisely like Y in all respects, then X would equal Y, and not be a mere representation of it. But this metaphor breaks down a bit too quickly to be of much critical use. But while the spectrum between the poles remains unclear, I don’t know that I’d wish to jettison my initial conceit (in all senses, perhaps, of that word): for there is a firmness and clarity of line in Mann’s Buddenbrooks that, rightly or wrongly, recalls to my mind Dürer, who in a single precisely drawn line could express more than most artists could in an entire canvas painted with oils; and there is in James’ The Golden Bowl the subtlest and most delicate of shading from one microtone to another, with never a hint of a containing outline. I find myself unable to go much further beyond this, but at least the whole exercise has made me return to the woodcuts of Dürer with a renewed wonder and awe. And that can’t be a bad thing.

So here, to finish with, is Dürer’s woodcut Melancolia. And yes, however he achieved it, however one defines it, there is shading in here. It’s a miracle booth of technique, and of artistic vision.

[Ps Please note, Melancolia is an engraving, and not a woodcut, as I was careless enough to have stated above. Please see comments below.]

Melancolia by Albrecht Dürer

Melancolia by Albrecht Dürer

The tone of voice

Literature in many of its branches is no other than the shadow of good talk; but the imitation falls far short of the original in life, freedom and effect.

–          From “Talk and Talkers” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Orwell, in his famous essay on Dickens, spoke of seeing in literature the face of the author, even when he did not know what he author looked like. Possibly my imagination is less visually oriented than Orwell’s, but when I read, it is not so much a face that I see, but a voice that I hear; or, rather, a tone of voice. I suppose it comes to the same thing: whether we imagine a face or a voice, an author’s personality is evident in what the author writes. It may be that the personality that emerges from the writing is quite different from the personality that is apparent to those who knew the author in real life; but since, as a reader, I have no access to the latter (even biographies can offer no more than the biographer’s interpretation), it is the former that I find of greater interest.

There are, of course, authors who attempted to efface their own personalities, but I can’t help wondering how seriously intended these attempts are. Flaubert’s personality, for instance, is very evident in his novels. At times, he even speaks to the reader directly – such as in that famous passage in Madame Bovary where he speaks of language being a cracked kettle on which he beats out tunes for bears to dance to, when, instead, he wants to move the stars with pity. I say Flaubert “speaks” of this, for, when I read it, I feel as if this line were spoken. And it is spoken to me in a tone of resigned heartbreak.

That is the tone of voice I get in much of Flaubert – resigned heartbreak: and the cause of the heartbreak is that there is no option but to be resigned. Austen, who is as deeply ironic as Flaubert and as aware of human stupidity, has, however, a very different tone of voice: although she could be deeply serious, and even at times, as in Mansfield Park, sombre, her tone of voice is amused, happy to batter the cracked kettle with a virtuosic verve and gaiety without any thought of moving the stars with pity; or, indeed, without any thought of pity at all. On a personal level, I like the sound of Flaubert’s voice, even through the services of an interpreter (since I do not know French well enough to read the originals); Austen I am a bit frightened to sit too close to, in case she chooses me as the next object of her pitiless wit: and if she does, she would veil it in such subtle shades of irony, that I might not even notice. In any case, there are far too many people as it is sitting around Austen, enjoying her wicked wit, so there’s no point my adding to the throng.

Milton is on a platform, orating. It is a grand and sonorous voice, with a wide tessitura; it has a depth to it, reverberating across the room even when he is speaking softly. He has many devotees, admirers in thrall to that voice which is by turns turbulent and serene; and for some time, I, too, am mesmerised. But after a while, my ears start hurting, and I wander off to listen instead to the blank verse of Wordsworth. He does not speak at me, but, rather, to me: far from orating from a platform, he sits next to me, conversing eloquently. And I realise why it is that I reach for The Prelude far more frequently than I reach for Paradise Lost, even though Mr Wordsworth, himself an admirer of Milton, professes himself shocked by my preference.

To hear Dickens, one must go to the theatre: there he is, holding the stage by himself, performing his one-man show. He loves playing to the gallery. One moment he will make ’em laugh, the next he’ll have ’em in tears, and then, for good measure, he’ll freeze their blood with terror. Many dismiss him as a ham, and, since modern taste does not care so much for tears, accuse him of sentimentality; but no-one doubts his charisma, or the flamboyance of his personality: and that in itself is enjoyable. And those listening closely soon find that putting on a performance need not exclude seriousness of intent, or depth of utterance. Indeed, as the curtain comes down and the lights come up in the auditorium, one finds even such revered practitioners as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy applauding enthusiastically. It’s a damn fine trick to pull off.

Most affable of all is the voice of Mark Twain. He is sitting in a saloon bar with a bottle of whiskey, and he offers me some as he regales me with jokes, reminiscences, anecdotes, tall stories. Of course, one can’t get a word in edgeways with him, but one doesn’t want to stem that marvellous flow. And yet, despite all his boisterous high spirits, one senses at times a man struggling to come to terms with what he knows humans are capable of; and who, by the end – by the time, in other words, he came round to writing Pudd’nhead Wilson – throws up his arms in despair and admits it is too hard a knot for him to untie.

Henry James, however, specialised not so much in attempting to untie knots, but in tying them: and what intricate knots they are! He sits by the window, polishing with meticulous care the circular lenses of his pince-nez ; he speaks very softly, and very slowly, and very precisely, pausing frequently in mid-sentence to ensure his listeners have taken in what he has said so far, and taking care to give every word its correct weighting and its correct intonation. For all that, he engages; indeed, once one accustoms oneself to that insidiously softly-spoken voice, he is compelling. But after a while, I do find myself  wandering off once again to Mark Twain’s table.

Nietzsche, I admit, I find myself avoiding: I do not doubt his extraordinary intellect, nor his visionary flashes of genius, but he seems continually to be screaming into my ear. Musil I avoid as well: it’s like being lectured to at great length by an extremely clever man who unfortunately has bad breath. Of the German writers, I prefer the refined, civilised charm of Thomas Mann, or even the bleak comedy of Kafka, who is forever expressing surprise that his nightmarish flights of fancy don’t make us laugh more often.

The presence of D. H. Lawrence can be wearing. He is angry, very angry, about something or other, and I keep getting the curious feeling that, for whatever reason, he is angry with me for, apparently, not living my life as he feels I should. But when I try to find out precisely what it is that angers him, either he rants incoherently, thumping the table with his fist; or he expresses some profound vision of what it is to be human that I don’t really understand: it has something, I believe, to do with our sexuality, but that’s about as much as I can take in. He does, though, have some ecstatic moments of poetic intensity, and if there were to be some award for seriousness of intent, old DH would win it hands down. But, I must admit, I do find it difficult staying with his outsize personality for long stretches.

Even dramatists, who speak for ever through other peoples’ voices, can make their presence felt: it would be difficult, for instance, to mistake The Master Builder for a Chekhov play, or Three Sisters for an Ibsen. Only Shakespeare remains inscrutable: he is whoever one may imagine him to be – even the Earl of Oxford, if one so wishes.


One of the main reasons why we read is, I think, the companionship of the author. And, just as there is no accounting for our instinctive likes and dislikes of people we know, so there seems no accounting for similar preferences amongst authorial personalities. I, for instance, take far more readily to Dickens’ personality than I do to Austen’s, whereas many friends of mine, whose tastes and judgement I respect, feel otherwise. In a recent post, I had suggested that one could, to a great extent, choose what one likes and what one doesn’t: does this apply also to our likes and dislikes of authorial personae? Or is this aspect of our taste more instinctive, and, thus, something over which we have less control? Or could it be that I am mistaken (it has been known to happen!) in placing so much weight on the reader’s reaction to the authorial personality? I know it is stylistically wrong to finish an essay with questions rather than with a conclusion – even a tentative conclusion – but since I do not have the first idea what the answers are to these questions, I don’t really see how I could end otherwise.