Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lyndall Gordon's "A Private Life of Henry James"

The full title of this 1998 biography is A Private Life of Henry James: Two women and his art. It is not one biography, but three, and focuses on the intersections--social, emotional and imaginative--between the writer and the women. James met his cousin Mary (Minnie) Temple when he was still a young man, and was immediately taken by her bold, capacious approach towards life. Later, already an established writer, he met Constance Fenimore Woolsoon, or rather she met him, for she journeyed to Rome after reading his fiction, hoping to find a common spirit and a willing mentor.

In adopting this biographical approach, Gordon makes no bones about what she is doing. In the sphere of art, she aims to elevate the women, in particular Woolson, from mere muses or handmaidens to actual collaborators in James's fiction. She does not mean that Woolson helped write James's works. Rather, the stories that Woolson wrote elicited a conversation with James who replied in his own stories. In explaining so convincingly the exchange in fiction between the two writers, Gordon wishes to demolish the myth of the self-sufficient artist working in creative solitude, a myth of himself first started by James, and sustained by his destruction of letters and papers before he died.

In the sphere of life, or human relations, Gordon depicts James as a predator of souls, especially women's souls, which he took as his artistic material and kingdom. James in this portrait emerges as a ruthless artist who cared supremely for his art. He would draw close to usable women in order to extract their stories, only to withdraw from them when their human demands impinged on his art. Minnie Temple was dying, but thought that a visit to Rome might help her recover. James, along with other family members who claimed to love her, ignored her desperate pleas because such a visit was not on his agenda.

Even more damning was his behavior towards Woolson. The two were so close that they shared a house, Villa Brichieri, in Bellosguardo, for a time, risking exposure and scandal. But James did not provide the friendship or mentoring Woolson longed for. Given an opportunity to promote his friend, James wrote an essay that damned her with faint and limited praise. He did not come to her at her hour of need and she killed herself by jumping from the balcony of her house. Gordon shows that the suicide not only shocked James but angered him, for Woolson's action demonstrated that he did not understand women's souls the way he claimed he did. Bewildered, James put out the story that Woolson killed herself in a moment of insanity. In a thrilling section of the book, Gordon examined closely the reports of Woolson's last night, and concluded that, contrary to James's fantasy, Woolson took her own life with deliberate intention.

James was highly conscious of what he was doing. This awareness was dramatized, again and again, in his fiction. Gordon puts it this way, in the final paragraphs of her reparative biography:

In Jamesian dramas of contrition, a man uses a single woman, May, Maria, or Milly, for his own ends; then recoils from usage of this kind. And yet, James himself continued to use two women as the material of art. It is consistent with the Lesson of the Master that art, of necessity, preys on others. This is the questionable point where James the man meets James the writer. He drew women out as no other man, exposing needs that lurk unexpressed on the evolutionary frontier; and then swerved from responsibility. Fenimore took a calculated risk when she made a 'home' in his work. His involvements were for readers, for posterity, and only in passing for subjects whose need for reciprocity remained active. For this reason, he was in his element with those who died.
Jamesian heroes of the major phase often excoriate themselves more relentlessly than evidence against them might seem to justify. Their own sole detractors, they gape at their flaw: the oblivion of the sensitive gentleman. Of course, only a person of the calibre of James would have the moral courage to confront it.
Here is a fictional truth James offered in lieu of biography. He is right, of course, to urge the autonomy of art, were it not for one problem, a myth of solitary genius. That myth, it must now be apparent, is largely untrue. For James leant on the generosity of women who surrendered 'the Light of their Lives'. Feeling, breathing women who provided the original matter for Milly and Miss Gostrey were disappointed in untold ways not unconnected with their deaths. It is on behalf of these women that biography must redress the record James controlled.

Beware, beware, of falling for a writer.

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