Saturday, April 15, 2023

Hammer out a little idea

Today marks the 180th anniversary of the birth of Henry James, one of the US’s finest writers, and a major figure in 19th century literary realism. He was not a diarist as such, but jotted regularly in diary-like notebooks, developing ideas for stories he was hoping to write. As such, the notebooks, held by the Houghton Library at Harvard, are considered an important resource not only for understanding Henry James but for insights into the creative process.

James was born in New York City on 15 April 1843 into a wealthy family which travelled often to Europe where he was taught by tutors. His father was a Swedenborgian theologian, and his brother became a philosopher. Although briefly enrolled at Harvard Law School, James soon decided to be a writer, publishing short stories and contributing to magazines such as Nation and Atlantic Monthly. He continued to journey to Europe, where he met Ruskin, Darwin and Rossetti as well as literary figures including Turgenev and Flaubert.

In 1876, James settled permanently in London, and devoted himself to literature and travel. In his early novels - including Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady - as well as in some of his later work, James contrasts the sophisticated, traditional Europeans with innocent brash Americans. After unsuccessfully trying to become a playwright he wrote some of his greatest novels, such as The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw and The Ambassadors.

Later in his life, James lived in Rye, on the Sussex coast. He became a British citizen in 1915 and received the Order of Merit from King George V in 1916. He died the same year. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or the Poetry Foundation. James’s sister, Alice, is remembered largely because of a diary she kept which was published posthumously - see The Diary Review: Geyser of emotions, and The Diary Junction.

Henry James did not so much keep a diary as notebooks, and there are 16 volumes (1878 to 1916) held by the Houghton Library, Harvard University. According to the Library, James used the diaries largely to work out plots, problems of narration and point of view, as well to record addresses, appointments, and days, good and bad. The diaries were edited by F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock and published by Oxford University Press in 1947 as The Notebooks of Henry James. The full text can be read online at Internet Archive. A more comprehensive (and less annotated) edition, put together by Leon Edel and Lyall Powers, came out in 1987 as The Complete Notebooks of Henry James (also Oxford University Press).

Generally speaking, James’s biographers have found the diaries of his sister, Alice, and his secretary, Theodora Bosanquet more useful than his own notebooks - see for example Henry James, a Life by Leon Edel, and Henry James at Work by Theodora Bosanquet. Here, though, are a couple of extracts.

8 May 1892 [about what would become Owen Wingrave]
‘Can’t I hammer out a little the idea - for a short tale - of the young soldier? - the young fellow who, though predestined, by every tradition of his race, to the profession of arms, has an insurmountable hatred of it - of the bloody side of it, the suffering, the ugliness, the cruelty; so that he determines to reject it for himself - to break with it and cast it off, and this in the face of every sort of coercion of opinion (on the part of others), of such pressure not to let the family honour, etc. (always gloriously connected with the army), break down, that there is a kind of degradation, an exposure to ridicule, and ignominy in his apostasy. The idea should be that he fights, after all, exposes himself to possibilities of danger and death for his own view - acts the soldier, is the soldier, and of indefeasible soldierly race - proves to have been so - even in this very effort of abjuration. The thing is to invent the particular heroic situation in which he may have found himself - show just how he has been a hero even while throwing away his arms. It is a question of a little subject for the Graphic - so I mustn’t make it ‘psychological’ - they understand that no more than a donkey understands a violin. The particular form of opposition, of coercion, that he has to face, and the way his ‘heroism’ is constatée. It must, for prettiness’s sake, be constatée in the eyes of some woman, some girl, whom he loves but who has taken the line of despising him for his renunciation - some fille de soldat, who is very montée about the whole thing, very hard on him, etc. But what the subject wants is to be distanced, relegated into some picturesque little past when the army occupied more place in life - poetized by some slightly romantic setting. Even if one could introduce a supernatural element in it - make it, I mean, a little ghost-story; place it, the scene, in some old country-house, in England at the beginning of the present century - the time of the Napoleonic wars. - It seems to me one might make some haunting business that would give it a colour without being ridiculous, and get in that way the sort of pressure to which the young man is subjected. I see it - it comes to me a little, He must die, of course, be slain, as it were on his own battle-field, the night spent in the haunted room in which the ghost of some grim grandfather - some bloody warrior of the race - or some father slain in the Peninsular or at Waterloo - is supposed to make himself visible.’

12 January 1895 [about what would become The Turn of the Screw]
‘Note here the ghost-story told me at Addington (evening of Thursday 10th), by the Archbishop of Canterbury: a mere vague, undetailed faint sketch of it – being all he had been told (very badly and imperfectly) by a lady who had no art of relation, and no clearness: the story of the young children (indefinite number and age) left to the care of servants in an old country-house, through the death, presumably, of parents. The servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and deprave the children; the children are bad, full of evil, to a sinister degree. The servants die (the story vague about the way of it) and their apparitions, figures, return to haunt the house and children, to whom they seem to beckon, whom they invite and solicit, from across dangerous places, the deep ditch of a sunk fence, etc. – so that the children may destroy themselves, lose themselves by responding, by getting into their power. So long as the children are kept from them, they are not lost: but they try and try and try, these evil presences, to get hold of them. It is a question of the children ‘coming over to where they are’. It is all obscure and imperfect, the picture, the story, but there is a suggestion of strangely gruesome effect to it. The story to be told – tolerably obviously – by an outside spectator, observer.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 15 April 2013.

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