The jewel in James II’s crown

Max Beerbohm cheekily divided Henry James’s development as a writer into three dynastic periods: James the First, James the Second and the Old Pretender. Containing nine stories written and published after James had achieved success with Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Ladythis new volume in the Cambridge Edition of the Complete Fictions of Henry James falls squarely in the reign of James II – arguably the golden age of his style. Although the baroque psychological ambiguities of “The Turn of the Screw” and The Golden Bowl still lay ahead, James was already elaborating the “international theme” of his first phase, complicating his study of the clash between American and European ethics – and the sexual hypocrisies of the age – with increasingly provocative twists. The jewel in the crown here, magnificently offset by a full textual history and the most complete notes you will find anywhere, is undoubtedly “The Aspern Papers”; but there are less well-known tales in the collection that anticipate its refined ironic inversions and claustrophobic cruelties.

Two stories, “Pandora” and “Georgina’s Reasons”, were produced for the popular New York newspaper market. Recently settled in England and still far from flushing, James was embarrassed at having to write for money, but even while doing so he was acutely aware that we often perceive reality through the lens of literature. The heroine of the first story, Pandora Day, is one of James’s “types”: like the ill-fated Daisy Miller in the tale that helped to make his name, she is an American ingenue who has been traveling abroad, confronting a corrupt Old World with stubborn Yankee sunniness. We first see her through the eyes of a German count who has been watching her on board the steamer conveying them both to Jersey City – and he sees and dismisses her, in turn, while under the sway of the paperback he’s reading, which happens, in a bold intertextual move, to be Daisy Miller.

The joke is on him: Pandora is no Daisy. She is not a victim, but a supremely competent social player, smoothing the path of everyone before her, from her elderly parents – whom she whisks through customs with the right letter of introduction – to her passive fiancé, on whose behalf she successfully petitions the president of the United States for a job as a foreign attaché. Where Daisy wilts in the hothouse of high society, associating too freely with dubious Roman men and contracting a fatal bout of malaria during a late-night tryst, the more resilient Miss Day not only makes it back to home soil, but positively shines. The editors note that James’s choice of Pandora’s first name “is particularly elusive and has puzzled critics”, but the reason for it isn’t hard to spot: in the Greek myth, Pandora (“all gifts”) was the first woman, fashioned by the gods at the dawn of creation. It’s the perfect appellation for the “new” type she represents: the “self-made girl”.

Apply a different literary filter, however, and the adaptability of the fine de siècle self-made girl assumes a terrifying aspect. “Georgina’s Reasons”, James’s nod to the Victorian sensation story, is the disquieting tale of a master manipulator who manages to hide her impulsive marriage and resulting pregnancy from her family, before abandoning both husband and child, and climbing her way up the social ladder via a bigamous second match. We never do discover Georgina’s reasons for acting as she does, though James hints that she is motivated by sexual desire and is quite ready to move on when passion fades. Her legal husband, meanwhile, wants to marry a woman he met in Naples, but is unable to get her to agree to a shaming divorce. She simply can’t see the problem. (As she coolly observes, “They don’t mind what they do over there.”)

The putative contrast between American sincerity and European falsity – and between female innocence and male worldliness – is again turned on its head in “Louisa Pallant”. The narrator, a New York bachelor vacationing in Germany with his nephew Archie, heir to a fortune, is discouraged to meet up again with the woman who jilted him years before for a wealthy man. Louisa Pallant is now a cash-strapped widow. Her beautiful daughter, Linda, appears to be everything that is desirable and accomplished, and soon Archie is smitten. The narrator is astonished when his former lover warns him off: Linda, Louisa explains, is an even more corrupt version of herself when young, mercenary and wholly calculating. That polished demeanor is a façade: she’s the self-made girl with a vengeance, a triumph of art over nature. Louisa sacrifices her daughter to atone for her own past bad behaviour, but it costs her something too: we understand that she is still in love with the narrator and is giving him up for the second time – this time reluctantly.

If “Louisa Pallant” is a mise en abyme, then the gloriously equivocal “The Liar” presents us with a dead end. As a contemporary review in the New York Times pointed out, this is “rather a story of art than anything else”. Oliver Lyon is a successful portrait painter who is piqued to discover that the woman he once loved is now married to an incorrigible mythomaniac. Colonel Capadose lies for the sake of it: “it is art for art”, Lyon muses: “He paints, as it were, and so do I!” Lyon decides to paint him, in such a way as to expose his essential mendacity. Is it possible for an artist to render his subject so truthfully that every touch of the brush reveals that it is the portrait of a liar? Yes, it turns out. On seeing the portrait Mrs Capadose is distraught, and her husband slashes it to bits – but then can’t resist spinning a yarn about how it was attacked by a stalker. Faced with this lie, his wife stands by her man and backs up his story. To Lyon this is proof of how badly Capadose has corrupted her, but to the reader it’s the most natural thing in the world. Mrs Capadose is in love with her husband. The predatory Lyon has won – but he has also lost. Let’s hope that his art can console him.

Which brings us to the “labyrinthine psychology”, as the editors put it, of “The Aspern Papers”. Everything is pulled together here: art and its impact; the right to privacy of the subject; sex and concealment; truth and lies. What a power struggle it is. The narrator, a litterateur and admirer of the great American poet of a previous generation, Jeffrey Aspern, has come to Venice in pursuit of some love letters and other papers that he believes to be in the possession of Aspern’s former mistress, the once celebrated beauty. Juliana Bordereau. Juliana now lives in seclusion with her middle-aged niece, the “ridiculous pathetic provincial” Miss Tita, in a crumbling palazzo with (a USP in Venice) a garden. Before you can say carnation, the narrator – feigning a passion for horticulture – has installed himself there as a lodger and is wooing Miss Tita with cut flowers and midnight trysts in the arbour, while getting up his nerve to have a good snoop for the papers . When Juliana surprises the narrator rummaging through her escritoire, she denounces him as a “publishing scoundrel”. But there are further shocks.

“The Aspern Papers” poses many questions that still resonate: do we have a right to know everything about our cultural idols? Does featuring in a famous writer’s oeuvre mean that you no longer own your story? Is it ever forgivable to destroy details of the life that may shed light on the work? Oh, and what matters more in the end: love or art? The variants to the text reveal the agonies James went through to ensure that its ambiguities remained live, even changing Miss Tita’s name to Miss Tina in the New York Edition. The alteration seems trivial, except for the poignant fact that poor, defeated Miss Tita/Tina is tall. Which name is better? Tita, with its pitiful allusion to a bygone imperial power, to titanic size, or the equally savage Tina, with its implicit play on “tiny”? This exemplary edition of Henry James’s writing reminds us how modern he was – how alive to paradox and uncertainty, how awake to nuance and, for someone so committed to the art of fiction, how skeptical, finally, of his own processes.

Elizabeth Lowryhis latest novel, The Chosenwas published earlier this year

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