After Proust’s death, Jean Cocteau remarked that his notebooks ‘seemed alive, like a wrist-watch still ticking on a dead soldier’. Jack Kerouac advocated ‘scribbled secret notebooks’ as essential for his ‘belief and technique for modern prose’. Jason Rekulak, in a ‘block’ of a book ‘The Writer’s Block’, advises all writers to keep notebooks. Rekulak informs us that F. Scott Fitzgerald was ‘obsessive about keeping notebooks…[he] organized his notebooks in a unique alphabetical format: Section A was full of anecdotes, Section C recounted conversations overheard, Section G listed descriptions of girls, and so on; Fitzgerald also kept separate notebooks for titles, observations, even jingles and songs. He clearly understood what many writers learn the hard way: “flashes of inspiration” usually vanish if you don’t write them down’. Rekulak warns ‘Never trust a great observation to memory’.
‘Memories have huge staying power, but like dreams, they thrive in the dark, surviving for decades in the deep waters of our minds like shipwrecks on the sea bed.’ J.G Ballard.
…to be plundered, trawled through…where would a writer be without his notebook to jolt him, his memory to trick him? Henry James explains how Isabel Archer came to life in his imagination for his novel ‘The Portrait of a Lady’. He quotes Turgenev, who describes his characters and their circumstances as ‘wind-blown germs’ that are ‘floated into our minds by the current of life’. Isabel Archer is actually James’s monument to his beloved cousin Minny Temple, doomed to die young of consumption, aged 24. She is a vision to which James returns again and again, it is as though her unfinished life takes form in his novels. Colm Toíbín, in ‘The Master’, (a tour de force into the mind of Henry James) observes: ‘It was not true to say that Minny Temple haunted him in the years that followed; rather, he haunted her…He could control her destiny now that she was dead’.
After Minny Temple came Constance Fenimore Woolson, granddaughter of James Fenimore Cooper (author of ‘The Last of the Mohicans’) and a successful novelist in her own right. Lyndall Gordon (‘A Private Life of Henry James – two women and his art’) sees the deaths of Minny Temple and Constance Fenimore Woolson as transforming experiences for James: ‘The writer’s art removes the act of memory to a realm of its own…[they are] no longer women as we understand the word, more like the concentrated essence’. It is not surprising that Constance came to represent a figure of grief for James: her loneliness and despair echo in her prose: one of her characters, Miss ‘Jonah’, a lighthouse keeper who maintains solitary vigil through icebound winters on Ballast Island in Lake Erie remarks ‘It isn’t easy to be dead before you’ve died. If I were really dead I shouldn’t be hungering after what can’t be. At least I hope not. Else what’s the use of death?’ Constance made her own dramatic (and final) exit from a second floor window in Venice in 1894.
Noting the ensuing guilt suffered by James, Gordon makes the link between James and Nathaniel Hawthorne; she quotes from an entry made in James’s notebook a few weeks after Woolson’s fatal leap: James refers to ‘A man who has some secret sorrow, trouble, fault to tell and can’t find a recipient’. Gordon observes that ‘the secrecy, the impossibility of relief, recalls the secret sin of the saintly Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter’. For James, Woolson was his confidante, his perfect reader; like him, she was deeply secretive and a compulsive analyser of the human soul. Now, with her suicide, she had ‘inexplicably gone away’. Gordon notes that only after Woolson’s death did ‘James embark on portraits of mature women who love mutely and to the death’. Poor Constance! Poor Minnie! Like many a muse, dead before their time, but immortalised in print.
James indulged in a curious pattern of involvement and withdrawal in his relationships with women, and the renunciation theme in his novels enters his own life, as the art of fiction became more important than the reality of a consummate relationship. Nevertheless, women fascinated this master of the psychological novel. ‘My Bible…is the female mind’ declares a diarist in ‘A Landscape Painter’, an early James story. For James, the eliding of fact and fiction led to a blurring of reality and fantasy. In ‘The Master’, Toíbín examines this mysterious flow between life and art: ‘There were scenes he wrote in which, having imagined everything and set it down, he was, at moments, unsure whether it had genuinely happened or whether his imagined world had finally come to replace the real’. The James family were explorative thinkers. William James, Henry’s brother, a psychologist who studied psychic phenomena, coined the phrase ‘stream-of-consciousness’. In ‘Principles of Psychology’ (1890) he writes: ‘Every definite image of the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows around it – let us call [that water] the stream of thought of consciousness, or of subjective life’. In the future, Virginia Woolf would become the queen of the stream. Note, however, that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had already anticipated William James: in his Notebook of 1804 Coleridge refers to ‘the streamy nature of the associating faculty’ and anticipates the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique in the thought associations of his meditative ‘Conversation Poems’, such as ‘Frost at Midnight’, written in 1798.
Coleridge kept extensive notebooks, as did Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy. Since the feminists started uprooting the past, Dorothy’s journals have been reclaimed as literary endeavours in their own right and studied alongside her brother’s poems. Close reading reveals many verbal sketches that recur in both Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s poems. One late afternoon Dorothy set forth to walk the three miles from the house she shared at Alfoxden with her brother to Coleridge’s cottage in Nether Stowey. She got caught in a storm, which she describes in ‘The Alfoxden Journal’ of 1798: ‘A violent storm in the wood; sheltered under the hollies. When we left home the moon immensely large, the sky scattered over with clouds. These soon close in, contracting the dimensions of the moon without concealing her’. Coleridge, in his supernatural poem ‘Christabel’ evokes an eerie atmosphere surely gleaned from Dorothy’s description: ‘The thin gray cloud is spread on high, / It covers but not hides the sky. / The moon is behind, and at the full; / And yet she looks both small and dull’.
Wordsworth’s famous daffodil poem is inspired by an entry in Dorothy’s Grasmere Journals (1802): ‘When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing’. Two years later Wordsworth wrote his poem, inspired by Dorothy’s notebook. This is a demonstration of Wordsworth’s celebrated spots of time, noted, recalled in tranquillity at a later date, and, with a touch of the ‘inward eye’, reworked into art:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.