The fifties saw a swell in feminist literary theory, and James, who at the turn of the 20th century created some of the most memorable female characters in literature, was grist for the ‘decoding’ mill. There is a Svengali theme to many of his plots, often between two women. In ‘The Bostonians’, Olive Chancellor, wealthy intellectual and feminist spinster, develops an influential and obsessive love for Verena Tarrant, brilliant young orator, ultra-feminine, passive and suggestible. Without being specific, James’s description of Olive implies an unhealthy sensibility: as well as having ‘absolutely no figure’ (a characteristic trait of the lesbian in literature), she ‘presented a certain appearance of feeling cold’; she is ‘refined’ and her features, although ‘delicate’ have a ‘perverse’ line. Olive masks her passion behind her dedication to the women’s movement, and inspires Verena to join her. James’s phrasing is subtly ambiguous: ‘Her [Verena’s] share in the union…was no longer passive, purely appreciative; it was passionate too, and it put forth a beautiful energy.’ Jeanette Foster, a ‘variant’ spotter from the fifties, notes:
that he [James] was careful not to speak in the role of author, not to venture recording any comparable fragment of the strongly variant Olive’s stream of consciousness…no more is specified than a good deal of quiet kissing and holding of hands, more symbolic than passionate except for a general ‘tremulousness.’ 2
Brian Lee, writing about ‘The Bostonians’ in the seventies, avoids specific ‘variant’ interpretation, going as far as to say ‘that more than any other novel it allows James to be quite explicit in his analysis of a very important section of American society.’3 James condenses the image of the New England reformer into the ‘battered immemorial monument’ of Miss Birdseye: ‘the whole moral history of Boston was reflected in her displaced spectacles.’ Through the thoughts of Olive Chancellor James expresses nostalgia for a moral consciousness that traces back to the Puritan settlers:
It struck Miss Chancellor that this frumpy little missionary was the last link in a tradition, and that when she should be called away – the heroic age of New England life – the age of plain living and high thinking, of pure ideals and earnest effort, of moral passion and noble experiment – would effectually be closed.
Lee argues that Olive Chancellor is a study of puritanism, a character who enjoys the thought of dying for something, if not for the feminist cause, then for Verena Tarrant. Verena remarks to Olive: ‘You have such a fearful power of suffering.’ Lee writes that James’s ‘treatment of Olive Chancellor…constitutes a penetrating study of renunciation and self-immolation – traits which are deeply rooted in the New England consciousness.’4 The theme of renunciation is evident in James’s own life; in considering the artist and his relation to society, he observes how it seemed necessary for a writer to withdraw from the claims of life, in a sense to die in order to become a creator. In his Notebooks he often urges himself ‘to live in the world of creation – to get into it and stay in it – to frequent it and haunt it.’5
It remains for the male character, the third figure in the eternal triangle, to redress the balance in ‘The Bostonians’. This is Basil Ransom, Olive’s cousin from the recently reconstructed South, who argues that the women’s movement is a menace to society. In the struggle for the possession of Verena, it is Verena herself who makes the choice to be Basil’s wife rather than pursue the potentially brilliant career as a feminist orator that Olive offers her. Whether it is Basil’s rhetoric that sways Verena, or the fact that she desires him, the result is the same: the status quo has been preserved. Basil tells Verena that he wants to ‘save’ his own sex from feminisation:
The whole generation is womanised; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, nervous, hysterical chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities, which, if we don’t soon look out, will usher in the reign of mediocrity…The masculine character, the ability to dare and endure, to know and yet not fear reality…is what I want to preserve.
Most 19th century writers who used lesbianism as a major theme felt constrained to condemn it to various degrees. Foster’s reading of James makes clear the social and moral conditions in which James operated; ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898) was written only three years after the scandalous Wilde trial. It is, Foster writes, ‘conceivable that a desire to deny unequivocally any sympathy with that phenomenon [homosexuality] helped to motivate The Turn of the Screw.’ Foster quotes from one of James’s letters that his intention in writing this supernatural/psychological riddle was to give ‘the impression of…the most infernal imaginable evil and danger.’6
The ‘variant’ as psychic vampire is represented by both sexes in ‘The Turn of the Screw.’ Camille Paglia, critical sensationalist from the nineties, describes Quint and Jessel as ‘Harpies…[who] entice their victims into a world of sexual aniti-matter.’ Paglia argues that ‘in their icy composure, Quint and Jessell both descend from Coleridge’s Geraldine,’ the devil woman in his supernatural poem ‘Christabel.’
Paglia, who maintains that ‘sex is a far darker power than feminism has admitted,’ sees sex reversals going on in James’s narratives that are ‘symptoms of his covert Romanticism.’ Paglia argues that James is ‘a Decadent Late Romantic’ in thrall to heroines who have ‘innate authority.’ She agues that James is ‘the transmitter of Coleridge’s demonic psychology of sex and power.’ The Jamesian male, according to Paglia, ‘puts himself under the influence of female power, like a patient submitting to a hypnotist. He glows only in reflection, the male moon to a female sun’.7 Coleridge’s poem ‘Christabel’ serves also for Paglia to draw a parallel in the characterisation with the main female protagonists in James’s ‘The Portrait of a Lady’. The mesmeric Geraldine is recast as the manipulative Madame Merle, and Isabel Archer, in spite of her apparent masterful nature, is herself mastered by Merle, thus adopting the role of the victimised Christabel. A word here about James’s own vampiric tendencies; as T.S. Eliot observes, James ‘preyed…upon living beings’, whom he engulfed, as James himself describes it, in ‘the great white light’ of his art.
Paglia maintains that ‘James criticism is too adulatory. The result…is the academic censoring of a fantastically perverse imagination.’8 However, this ‘perverse imagination’ and the link Paglia makes between James and Coleridge, whose original concept of the androgynous imagination Virgina Woolf found so interesting, puts James amongst the transcendental elite. Added to this is the mysterious nature of James’s own sexuality. Lyndall Gordon represents it thus:
James, who was conspicuously demonstrative, never thought of himself as deviant, for the simple reason that Edwardians drew a sharper line between sexual activity and tender friendship. James felt free to express an alternative manhood: he liked a fond embrace, an arm on the shoulder, a kiss; but said “I can’t” to the young novelist Hugh Walpole.9
The art of writing was James’s ultimate passion. In the short story ‘The Middle Years’ the writer Dencombe, knowing that death is at hand, voices one of James’s strongest convictions: ‘We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.’10 As Henry James lay dying, his hand, as though holding an imaginary pencil, moved across the white bed-sheet in a continual writing motion, driven by his passion to the last.
1 Matthiessen and Murdock, eds., 1961. The Notebooks of Henry James, Galaxy, OUP.
2 Foster, Jeannette, 1958. Sex Variant Women in Literature, Frederick Muller Ltd.
3 Lee, Brian, 1978. The Novels of Henry James: a study of culture and consciousness, Edward Arnold
4 ibid (Lee)
5 ibid (Matthiessen and Murdock)
6 ibid (Foster)
7 Paglia, Camille, 1991. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Vintage.
8 ibid (Paglia)
9 Gordon, Lyndall, 1999. A Private Life of Henry James – two women and his art, Norton.
10 James, Henry, 1986. The Figure in the Carpet and other stories, Penguin.