no one's master
Lucy Biederman (Heidelberg University)
Henry James has appeared as a fictional character or abiding spiritual presence in more than a dozen novels and short stories since the millennium, including Colm Tóibín’s The Master and David Lodge’s Author, Author, which competed for critical and popular attention in 2004, which Lodge later called “The Year of Henry James.” Both novels imagine James’s consciousness in his final years. In Cynthia Ozick’s “Dictation” (2008), meanwhile, James plays second fiddle to his feisty typist, Theodora Bosanquet. In Joyce Carol Oates’s “The Master at St. Bartholomew Hospital, 1914-1916” (2008), James surprises even himself by serving as a wartime hospital volunteer. Even more recent, John Banville’s Mrs. Osmond (2017) jams James’s Isabel Archer, the “vivid individual” on which James built The Portrait of a Lady, back into “the house of fiction” (James, “Preface” 47, 46). But I am concerned here with the character of James himself, not Isabel. Given James’s many valences in so many recent works of fiction, it feels appropriate to repurpose the question that Captain Yule asks the butler, Chivers, in James’s 1907 play The High Bid—
I mean to whom do you beautifully belong? (567)
—a phrase is so distinctively Jamesian that Max Beerbohm incorporated it into his caricature of James’s late style “The Guerdon” (1916), written on the occasion of James’s Order of Merit. Beerbohm is a perfect mimic of what I think of as James’s soft peaks, the way he whips a flat puddle of almost-nothing into a substantial point, something you can almost hold onto. In “The Guerdon,” Beerbohm’s Lord Chamberlain, while bringing to the King a list of people to be commended, realizes there is a name missing. Beerbohm writes,
This omission so loomed for him that he was to be conscious, as he came to the end of the great moist avenue, of a felt doubt as to whether he could, in his bemusement, now “place” anybody at all; to which condition of his may have been due the impulse that, at the reached gates of the palace, caused him to pause and all vaguely, all peeringly inquire of one of the sentries: “To whom do you beautifully belong?” (qtd. in Felstiner 466)
Beerbohm’s parody is so spot-on because he knows that what is greatest about James stems from what can feel absurd about him. To a mind as obsessive as the Master’s, following a character’s consciousness to—and sometimes past—the edge of what language has the capacity to accomplish, it probably seemed perfectly reasonable to modify the word belong. In a line of dialogue. In a play. Anything but deprive his audience of the precision—with its sliver of hope for human connection—that he had the power to provide. Language was utterly insufficient, but it was what he had to work with, so James worked and sweated inside it—and changed it.
Who can know such a mind? Not Tóibín or Lodge or Ozick or Oates, though none of those writers are unacquainted with literary greatness on their own terms. Not T.S. Eliot, who spent a lot of time trying, and came up with what sounds like a withering dis, although it was intended as highest praise: “He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” Even Gore Vidal, whose ear is usually so well-tuned to the most esoteric of writerly communications, misread Eliot’s intentions and had to apologize in the New York Review of Books. If I didn’t know better, I might think Eliot’s phrasing was intentionally ambiguous. I don’t doubt Eliot’s belief in James’s greatness, but maybe he was unwilling to offer what could sound, to any ear, like a last word on the Master. Poke an enduring statement on James, it seems, and it suddenly it is a question. I mean, to whom do you beautifully belong?
Nick Guest, the protagonist of Alan Hollinghurst Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty (2004, another Year of Henry James alum), has a more sympathetic ear than does Beerbohm for that bit of James’s late phrasing. Holding forth to his friends about James, on whom he is abstractedly writing a graduate thesis, Nick says, “There’s a marvelous bit in his play The High Bid, when a man says to the butler in a country house, ‘I mean, to whom do you beautifully belong?’” (183). Nick’s pretentious admiration for James at his most rococo hints at the mismatch between the glamour of Nick’s life as he imagines it and Nick’s life as it is, reckless and boring at the same time.
But where does one place one’s feet, standing before the Master? Lodge and Tóibín cannily begin their novels at the lowest part of James’s life, after the reception of one of his terrible plays, when he seems least masterly. When The Master was published, critics celebrated its elaborate linkages between specific scenes that Tóibín’s James encounters in life, and the images, plots, and characters of James’s late novels. But such a neat “solution” to the mystery of James’s deep genius does not square with my James—the hazy but ever-present character I have inadvertently invented as I read and reread him, who speaks not only through but from behind his works. My Henry James was after the unknowable, the indiscernible, or the barely discernible.
In his masterliness, his resistance. He beautifully belongs to no one.
Banville, John. Mrs. Osmond. Knopf, 2017.
Eliot, T. S. “The Hawthorne Aspect.” The Little Review 5.4 (August 1918): 47-53.
Felstiner, John. “Max Beerbohm and the Wings of Henry James.” The Kenyon Review 29.4 (1967): 449–471.
Hollinghurst, Alan. The Line of Beauty. Picador, 2004.
James, Henry. The High Bid. The Complete Plays of Henry James. Ed. Leon Edel. J. B. Lippincott Company, 1949. 547-603.
---. The Portrait of a Lady. Vintage, 1992.
---. “Preface to The Portrait of a Lady.” The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces. U of Chicago P, 2011. 40-58.
Lodge, David. Author, Author. Penguin, 2004.
---. The Year of Henry James. Random, 2006.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Station, 1914-1916.” Wild Nights!: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway. HarperCollins, 2009. 138-187.
Ozick, Cynthia. “Dictation.” Dictation: A Quartet. Mariner, 2008. 3-50.
Tóibín, Colm. The Master. Simon and Schuster, 2004.
Vidal, Gore. "Lessons of the Master." Rev. of Literary Criticism, by Henry James. New York Review of Books, 33.17 Nov. 6, 1986: 7-10
Quarterly Horse 2.2 (Summer 2018), http://www.quarterlyhorse.org/summer18/biederman.