Reading a couple of novels by Henry James recently – The Golden Bowl and The Ambassadors – I’ve been trying to work out exactly what I think about his books. They are fascinating, often beautiful, but massive and hard work to read. They must have been hard work to write. What exactly drove him to do it? A better question might be – why did Henry James write in the way he did, using that ornate, layered style, which obscures as much as it reveals? Was it affectation? Was something else going on?
I did some background reading. Some biographers, like Lyndall Gordon, prevaricate, but others, Kosofsky Sedgwick for example, suggest that James was almost certainly gay, which during his lifetime in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was a serious crime. Sedgwick wonders if this contributed to the obscurity in James’s writing. It certainly makes sense of the focus, in his most famous books, on hidden relationships. There’s the affair in The Golden Bowl between Prince Amerigo and Charlotte Stant, and the secret liaison between Chad and Madame de Vionnet in The Ambassadors.
And then there’s The Wings of the Dove, which I found myself thinking about in terms of hidden relationships. Writing it, James was probably in the position of having to hide part of himself. The risks were frightening and no one was safe. Not long before The Wings of the Dove was published in 1902, Oscar Wilde’s status as a massively successful playwright, could not protect him from prison, from which he emerged with his health ruined, his wealth gone, fit enough only to sit around in Parisian pavement cafes.
Ironically, given all this, the first part of The Wings of the Dove seems to present a surprisingly positive picture of people united wherever and whoever they are. This hopeful first section begins in early twentieth century London, Kate Croy has lost her parents. Her mother is dead, and her father has been lost to drink. Kate finds herself in the guardianship of wealthy Aunt Maud, who makes it her mission to marry off her charge to the most eligible bachelor she knows, Lord Mark. Unhelpfully, Kate has secretly fallen in love with Merton Densher, a clever chap – a writer of all things – who works on a newspaper and has none of Lord Mark’s cachet. He gets posted to America soon after he and Kate declare their inconvenient, and concealed, love for each other. Meanwhile, in America, a young woman called Milly Theale, has inherited great wealth, various maladies having carried away all the other members of her rich family. Not knowing what to do with herself, she decides to take a trip to Europe with an older companion, a widow called Susan Shepherd. And who should Milly meet and befriend before she travels to Europe, but Merton Densher. This sets the scene for travels in a world sometimes portrayed as a vast place in which it’s easy to get lost, on other occasions appearing as that kind of ‘small world’ where you might unexpectedly bump into someone you know. One minute we might see Milly sitting on an Alpine cliff edge staring into an endless abyss, the next she’s in London, discovering that Aunt Maud and Susan Shepherd were at school together. Milly and Kate become close friends, the young American quickly accepted as ‘one of us’. Milly even discovers that she has a spooky likeness to a portrait of a long lost girl in the family of Lord Mark, which hangs in his ancestral home. You might say the first half of the book is about the hidden closeness of the human family.
Then we get to the second part, set in a dramatically depicted Venice, where Milly becomes mortally ill. The feeling changes. Kate cooks up a scheme for Densher to get close to Milly, partly to console her during her illness, partly in the hope that some inheritance might come Densher’s way, allowing the secretly engaged couple to marry. Kate is forced into this deception by a society that values a feckless lord far above a clever, down-to-earth, working writer. Kate pretends to be distant from Densher in a ruse to be close to him. Densher is close to Milly, while he is secretly engaged to Kate. It’s very dark and twisty. If the first half of the book was about the hidden closeness of the human family, the second half is about the deceptions that hide beneath the surface of relationships.
Henry James describes all this in his ornate style of long sentences, with sub and sub-sub clauses. Ironically the writer depicted in the book is someone who you don’t feel would write in this way. Merton Densher is uncomfortable with stuffy tradition. There is a kind of dark humour in watching a straightforward chap caught up in both labyrinthine paragraphs and the lies they describe. Caught in these toils, Densher struggles to work out if he has behaved well or badly. Henry James is considered a modern, forward-looking writer in the sense that values are unstable in his books, rather than tending to the religiously-centred certainties of previous centuries. Perhaps he was helped to this position by seeing people he admired, by seeing himself, judged by society, as criminal. Henry James wrote in a style of heightened respectability, when ironically, his writing expressed a sense that respectability is precarious and fragile. Judgements of value have no firm basis, like a golden bowl that might appear expensive, only to turn out, on closer examination, to be a piece of glitzy junk.
The way people treat each other is a tragedy really, but despite the dark second part of The Wings of the Dove, the hopeful first part is still there, depicting a human family linking the most far-flung of people. Reading Henry James’s books is a bit like being part of that family, sitting down to Christmas dinner with a posh uncle who might talk too much, but is fascinating nevertheless. I, for one, am very glad he was invited.