Dec/Jan 2008

The Jolly Corner

Sheldon M. Novick's portrait casts the older james as happier and less detached than previous biographies.

Colm Toíbín


On January 23, 1895, after the withdrawal of his Guy Domville to make way for a new play by Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Henry James seemed to be determined that his failure in public would result in the creation of immortal work. He confided to his notebook: "I take up my old pen again––the pen of all my old unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles. To myself––today––I need say no more. Large & full & high the future still opens. It is now indeed that I may do the work of my life. And I will."

In The Mature Master, the second volume of his biography of James––the first, The Young Master, appeared in 1996––Sheldon M. Novick notes what happened next in James's notebooks. After a gap marked by a set of x's, James wrote: "I have only to face my problems." Then, after more x's, he added: "But all that is of the ineffable—too deep and pure for any utterance. Shrouded in sacred silence let it rest." Then more x's. What could James possibly have meant here? According to Novick, he is "using language that he reserved for personal relations too intimate to record even in his journal." This is certainly one way of reading the journal entry. For anyone who reads, or reads into, James's later fiction and his letters after the mid-1890s, the idea that he had a secret and highly charged erotic life, real or even imaginary, is one of the lessons we might learn about the Master, one of the figures in the highly complex carpet of his personality.

Henry James and his brother William, ca. 1899–1901.

Novick, famously or notoriously, comes to the subject of James's secret sexuality with a history. In his first volume, he looked carefully at the following passage in James's autobiography and drew an interesting conclusion. The passage reads: "The point for me (for fatal, for impossible expansion) is that I knew there, had there, in the ghostly old C[ambridge] . . . l'initiation première (the divine, the unique), there and in Ashburton Place. . . . Ah, the 'epoch-making' weeks of the spring of 1865! . . . Something––some fine, superfine, supersubtle mystic breath of that may come in perhaps. . . . Ah, that pathetic, heroic little personal prime of my own . . . of unforgettable gropings & findings & sufferings & strivings and play of sensibility & of inward passion there. The hours, the moments, the days, come back to me . . . particular little thrills & throbs & daydreams there."

What could James be talking about? It seems to me that he is talking about writing, about discovering a style and its attendant pleasures and remembering this discovery almost forty years later as pure sensuality, in the same way as someone not a writer might remember first love, or sexual initiation. But I am not sure. James may indeed be writing about getting his rocks off for the first time in the only way he knew how to describe such things––obliquely, ambiguously, beautifully, and rather grandiloquently. And his partner may indeed, as Novick has asserted, have been Oliver Wendell Holmes, late of the United States Supreme Court. It is a marvelous idea and one for which Novick has taken his place as a controversial biographer of James.

Arthur Benson (center) with two of his brothers, ca. 1883.

In his 1999 introduction to a book of essays, Henry James and Homo-erotic Desire, Novick wrote: "As I have noted elsewhere, James left a series of hints in late remembrances that the epochal bite of forbidden fruit was taken in company with the young Oliver Wendell Holmes. There is a good deal of indirect evidence . . . more [of which] will be included in the second volume of my biography, that this first bite of the apple was not an isolated incident, but was repeated with some regularity throughout his life; as I say, however, we don't have many details. Nor do we need them. The central point is the emotional reality of James's life, which is adequately on display in his letters and published works."

What he is suggesting here is that James was not greatly troubled or puzzled by his own sexuality; its terms and conditions were clear. He was homosexual. The problem that arises for biographers, and it will not go away, is how this manifested itself. Did James or did he not make love with some of his friends from early manhood, or with some other blokes he met along the way, including servants and gondoliers, or with the younger men to whom he wrote with such affection in his later years? The answer is that he covered his tracks magnificently. And that, despite our best efforts to pretend that it doesn't matter, it matters enormously when we think about James's life and even his art whether he died a virgin or whether he took his pleasures when they offered themselves. He is a great mystery. As an artist, he played with ideas of secrecy, with the possibility always of dramatic discovery. He may have really known as much about this as he seems to have imagined, and that was a great deal. Our interest in his private life thus is both prurient and pure.

Novick in his new volume takes James from 1881 and the publication of The Portrait of a Lady to his death in 1916, through the writing of his two quasi-political novels, The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima, through his friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson, through his work in the theater, through his abandonment in the 1890s of the long novel for the short story and the short novel and the novella, through his abandonment of London for Rye, through his creation in the early years of the twentieth century of his three late masterpieces (The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl), through his friendships with several young men and a few women, through his shifting relationship with his brother William and the death of their three other siblings, through his ill health, through his deep feelings of patriotism toward his adopted country as the First World War broke out.

In his preface and acknowledgments, Novick refers to the years between his own two volumes, when "scholars have unearthed and made accessible a great mass of new material concerning the years of James's maturity, when he wrote the books for which he is now mainly remembered, that was not available to earlier biographers and from which I have greatly benefited." It should be said also that the appearance of Fred Kaplan's biography in 1992 and of Novick's own first volume in 1996 were also important and groundbreaking, full of fresh thinking and new insights. This, I think, meant that the brilliance of Lyndall Gordon's A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art (1998) and the significance of Dearly Beloved Friends: Henry James's Letters to Younger Men (2001), edited by Susan E. Gunter and Steven H. Jobe, could be more fully understood. The years between 1992 and 2001 changed how we saw James. For myself and for, I imagine, my colleague David Lodge––we both wrote novels about James––this meant that his personality became more complex and interesting, more open to dramatization and interpretation.

Oliver Wendell Holmes during a visit to the United Kingdom, ca. 1890.

Gordon, who is, with Leon Edel, probably the most intelligent and perceptive interpreter James has ever had, if the most unforgiving, did not read him as a gay man in search of his destiny but as a selfish and determined artist feeding on the very experiences from which he was in flight. The value of her reading of his life lies in the sheer intelligence of her close analysis of his relationship with two women––his cousin Minny Temple and his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson––and the nourishment he found in not only their lives but their deaths. It is disappointing that Novick does not deal much with the second of these relationships, with Woolson, which happens within the years of this volume of biography. It is strange that he does not stitch the insights that Gordon has so stunningly made into his narrative, and indeed does not argue with them or reinterpret them.

Novick is concerned, however, to reinterpret James as a less detached and less unhappy figure, less passive, less fearful and haunted and lonely than previous versions have suggested. Here, James is an artist who takes life and friendship and artistic endeavor more in his stride than in other accounts of the story.

Novick's James is, in certain ways, as with most subjects of a biographer, a strange reflection of the biographer himself. James as presented here is, however, not quite as literal-minded as Novick, but, at times, it is a close-run race. When Novick says in his prologue that James wrote "frank love letters" to Hendrik Andersen and adds soon afterward that James's "only indisputable love letters were written to men," the reader who knows these letters is entitled to feel that Novick's reading skills are not subtle. These letters can indeed be interpreted as love letters, but they can also be examples of an affectionate late style that gives more away that it intends. It might be best, in any case, to describe the letters carefully and judiciously in all their mixture of rotund ambiguity and flowery affection tinged with pure madness. They are many things, but they are not "frank" and they are not "indisputable." James was not given to frankness or indisputability. It is why we read him.

Novick, however, is capable of making distinctions of real interest. James's conquest of London, he makes clear, caused James more grief than pleasure, not only because he had to go out every night in the season, which was a waste of his time, but because, as a mere writer, he was, in that world, nobody much. "In America," Novick writes, "he went in to dinner with the hostess or the most beautiful woman on his arm, but in London he came in at the tail end of the party and was seated with no one in particular." This meant that living in the tallest house in Rye, for a man so interested in status and power, was a rich reward for his labors rather than an effort to be quiet and retired and away from the noise of London. I wish I had thought of that when I was writing my novel.

Novick also convincingly and emphatically places James in a milieu with which we do not normally associate him––bachelors who were either obviously or opaquely homosexual––and makes clear how relaxed James was in this world and how much he was capable of cavorting with the best of them.

Novick, like many biographers who are good and decent people, would like his subject to be good and decent, too, thus causing this reader to laugh out loud. He seems to feel that it might have been better had James taken part in some contemporary version of the Stonewall riots or the March on Washington. He writes, for example: "In 'The Tragic Muse' he gave what now seems an all-but-explicit and negative portrayal of an openly gay man. This latter has been particularly puzzling, because James's own loves were, so far as is known, exclusively male. . . . Here and elsewhere, James seems to accept the conventional view that homosexual love is essentially immature and irresponsible. There is certainly a problem here. . . . James's acceptance of conventional roles and stereotypes of race and gender, his belief in their essential truth, is distasteful." On James's refusal to sign a petition for Oscar Wilde, Novick writes: "Surely there would have been some intrinsic value in a protest?" When Arthur Benson did not, at one point, join James in Rye, Novick writes: "Once again James had missed the chance for settled intimacy." It is hard not to feel that Novick, who is clearly a very nice man, is out of his depth in writing about James and should write his next book about someone good and holy.

Sometimes it is also hard to know what Novick means but easy to see what he is hinting at. He seems to be suggesting, for example, that James and his one-time agent Wolcott Balestier were lovers by writing, "The few summer days they now spent on the Isle of Wight marked a deepening of their intimate friendship. Alice wrote in her diary, after that summer, that she hoped Balestier would be a lifelong companion, as well as a business friend, for James." There is something odd and coy about the word intimate here, and the reference to Alice's diary is not quite straightforward. Alice wrote in her diary just after she had heard the news of Balestier's early death and not "after that summer" (although it was also, of course, after that summer), and what she wrote should be read in that context. In the final sentence of a chapter on James and Andersen, Novick writes: "Visit would follow visit, and Andersen would be a most intimate friend." Does he mean here what I think he means?

In his introductory essay to Henry James and Homo-erotic Desire, Novick states of Benson's diaries and his relationship to James: "The diary entries and the letters suggest that this was most likely a chaste if romantic friendship." But in his biography, Novick is more coy on the subject of Benson, who was a teacher and whose father was the Archbishop of Canterbury: "Arthur did come to dinner one Saturday during his school holidays, and although he had Lambeth Palace at his disposal during his visits to London, he stayed overnight and remained until Monday at De Vere Gardens [where James lived], where, as James assured him would be the case, no one else was in the house but the servants and Tosca [the dog]. It was the first of many overnight visits and marked a new stage of intimacy in their relations."

(Come on, Sheldon, you can spell it out! There is only one direction here in which we are being nudged, and its final destination is that the intimacy you are writing about is sexual intimacy. You can say it, come on, don't be afraid!)

Three pages later, Novick is at it again as he writes about the circle of young men to whom James wrote letters, the guys whom he saw generally: "In the midst of his struggle to establish himself on a new footing, professionally and financially, the only affection he seemed to return vigorously and passionately was Arthur Benson's." Vigorously and passionately? I think I get the point.

Every writer on James since 1920, when some of his letters to younger men were first published, has had to deal with how to read them. Novick quotes from a letter where James is "panting" to see Benson and thus was "taken up with living in the future and in the idea of answering you with impassioned lips." Novick goes on to quote him writing to Benson after their holiday visits: "If I can pick your bones before the last scrap of you––and of me––is gobbled up, I suppose I shall be entitled to say that I have known friendship and intimacy in what they have of most intense and abandoned. Pazienza. . . . Consign to no deadlier limbo than you can help, the pale phantom of our intercourse."

Novick then writes: "Although the conventions of the day allowed what later would seem to be startling expressions of affection between men, James's references to 'impassioned lips,' to 'intense and abandoned intimacy,' his later invitation to make an overnight visit in which he promised to embrace and enfold his visitor were well out of the ordinary. A minimum of discretion was observed, he wrote in double entendres, but he was reassuring Benson of his love and his language could hardly be misunderstood."

It seems to me, on the other hand, that his language could easily be misunderstood. And if James were actually having sex with Benson—and Novick never states this as fact but is clearly leading us to think it— then James would be unlikely in an age of blackmail, with Wilde still serving his sentence, to write to Benson at all or in any way except the most chaste and careful. The language of these letters, in fact, seems to point to James's effusive innocence. The fact that he did not take greater care in the terms he used suggests that there was no reason why he should have. He delighted in metaphoric and ambiguous language, and he had as much fun writing these letters as the recipients must have been amazed and, at times, embarrassed by them. But James was not a fool; the letters were, it seems to me, evidence of nothing concrete that could have been used as evidence against him.

Nonetheless, it has to be said, some of them are absolutely extraordinary, all the more so when we read the ones dictated to Miss Bosanquet, James's secretary, which Novick quotes. To Walter Berry, for example: "You are victor, winner, master. Oh Irresistible One—you've done it, you've brought it off and got me down forever and I must just feel your weight and bear your might." Perhaps the most interesting piece of information in this entire book is the news that James added a postscript in his own handwriting to this letter that Berry, who kept all James's letters, tore off and destroyed.

It would be possible to argue with Novick forever over his strenuous efforts to make sense of this strange and brilliant life. It also has to be said, however, that, while he is not a literary critic or a stylist himself, this second volume of his biography is a serious and respectful contribution to our understanding of James. Novick admires the late novels and adds to our understanding of James's work in the theater. It may be a sign of my age and provincial background that I still love and trust Leon Edel's five-volume biography of James, but this book, despite my problems with its detail, seeks with integrity and insight to interpret the Master as less long-suffering and much stronger and happier than we might previously have imagined. James in Novick's version slept easy in his bed, at least most of the time, and we can sleep easier, too, consoled by this opinion, even if we do not agree with it.

Colm Tóibín is the author, most recently, of the collection Mothers and Sons (Scribner, 2007).

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