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Henry James’s Permanent Adolescence
John R. Bradley
Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave, 2000.
£47.50, $65.00, 172 pages, ISBN 0-333-91874-6.

James Friel
Liverpool John Moores University

When Graham Greene described Henry James as being "as solitary in the history of the novel as Shakespeare is in the history of poetry" it was not, I’m guessing, because he thought the pair of them lonely closet cases. Greene was admiring a predecessor, a writer who had developed his craft in such a way that Greene felt he could only trail in his inestimable wake. Greene was intent on nothing more than insisting on James’s central importance to the novel’s development.

This is not John R. Bradley’s James, a considerably more marginal figure. Bradley writes with admirable lucidity and a companionable briskness and, after an intemperate start, his book settles into being a judicious and, at times, illuminating study of James as a "gay" artist. He is often cogent and persuasive but I’m not greatly impressed by the James he offers up. For Bradley, Henry James is a writer who, in the late short story, "The Beast in the Jungle", finally creates "a more explicit presentation of the narcissistic, homo-erotic pattern of homosexuality that had been implicit in his gay fiction for decades." This, coming on the penultimate page, is Bradley’s summation of James’s achievement and, if that were all James managed to achieve, we have before us a minor artist who nervously transgressed social norms, a prosier A.E. Houseman.

Bradley’s Henry James seems the diminished figure of so much contemporary criticism, the pouring of pint pots into Ph. D. sized thimbles. This is not because Bradley insists on the centrality of James’s sexuality. This is not because I find such practices distasteful, misguided or irrelevant. I am happy, even eager, to believe that James was, at heart, a homosexual. James was evidently averse to homosexuality of the "Oscar Wilde kind" and, especially and significantly, to the way it manifested itself in Wilde’s work.

If James was homosexual, he was so in a way that, even today, many men are. It often strikes me that in his antipathy to a figure like Wilde and in his preference for J. Addington Symonds's notion of homosexuality as "natural manliness," James seems little different from a contemporary gay man who despises the "camp" and "effeminate" and describes himself as "straight-looking/straight acting," and even "non-scene." Indeed, James in later years quietly aligned himself with other male homosexual writers and artists. Because of this I am not altogether convinced that it was, as Bradley puts it simply, "James’s misfortune that he began to find contentment in a series of relationships with men precisely at the historical moment when English society moved, legally and socially, against homosexuality."

Misfortune, yes, but what looks like accident to the less than super-subtle might be covert intention—and James was nothing if not super-subtle—and James does find contentment in these relationships. Those letters most often cited to prove his evasiveness on the subject of homosexuality seem to me both more playful and more knowing than they are often given credit. If James was a homosexual, then it is this late period of his life that seems most to confirm it. Certainly it is this period which gives writers like Lyndall Gordon most difficulty and queer theorists most of their evidence. However (as noticed by Bradley, who presents the evidence), whether or not James was homosexual, there have always been a significant number who have read him and discussed him as if he were—although not necessarily in a positive fashion. His association with "The Yellow Book clique" meant that, to his contemporaries, James’s late work was tinged with lavender. Bradley even provides an example of this when he writes, that Miles in "The Turn of the Screw", is "expelled from school and the cause is said by the governess to have been 'revoltingly […] against nature' and this would have indicated to the average Victorian reader that Miles had been expelled for homosexuality."

James’s preference for female protagonists, his "sensitivity," his deep curiosity about "the situation of women," the relative lack of sexual regard in his creation of the female characters (cf. Dickens or Hardy, Flaubert or Tolstoy), his emotionally constricted male characters, and the more macho critics and rival writers’ dismissals of James as being a "spinsterish" writer, fussy and feminized in his style, subject matters and concerns; these have always allowed us to read Henry James as a homosexual writer. In his long life and after, it wasn’t just his brother who figured James for a "sissy."

Bradley, to his credit, and others with him, are rescuing James from such contempt, perhaps, but, even here, there is something deeply depressing—even demeaning—in the way James’s magisterial ambitions, his thoughtful and prolonged enquiry into how fiction can develop its range and techniques, perfect itself and become commensurate to the world it attempts to capture and understand, are ignored or narrowed down to a debate over his sexuality and his attempts to disguise it, excuse or come to terms with it. The complex truths to which he sought to give expression are either overlooked or, as here, only partially given their due.This is what too much of contemporary criticism ends up doing: considering the work as no more than a series of discourses to be unmasked and writers as self-deceiving fools led by their libidos, puppets only rarely able to escape the pull of social forces on their strings. They are, of course, easier to understand and discuss this way and it is easier to dismiss what they write—or not appraise it to the fullest extent. We are looking at how the difficult business of art is reduced to simplifications in the name of explicating it. The real business of James’s life—the work—slips by, lazily attended.

Bradley writes of James, as one reviewer puts it on the dust jacket of this attractively produced book, as a man who loved "boys sexually and sometimes physically but, like any Victorian gentleman, he believed it was not the kind of thing one talked about." To be fair, this is also a simplification: Bradley’s James is more subtle and more discreet than this but let it stand for the moment because it indicates one idea of Henry James and how sexual dissembling is at the root of his art. Contrary writers like Lyndall Gordon convey the impression that it was guilt over his parasitic relationships with women that powers his work—as if his expressions became more opaque, his sentences more labyrinthine and his observations more tentative because he did not dare to write more clearly and so reveal himself. Either version and its (not so many) permutations have it that James’s late style grows out of a personal evasiveness—that there was something he could not say, feared saying—and not as a result of a strenuous honesty, an intellectual pursuit, an artistic strategy, a deepening realization that there was something that could not be said but which, as a writer, he was compelled, nonetheless, to express.

Language is insufficient. It is allusive and unsatisfactory and yet language is all a novelist has—there is nothing else. James, with some justice, saw the English and American fiction that preceded him as, for the most part, crude, unwieldy, unlovely and even untrue. He was intent on correcting this. He worked, too, in a form that selects, discriminates, narrates, directs, evokes, and appears to do so—but only appears—with authority. Fiction, he knew, can only fail in its profounder ambitions. How then, the later novels and the prefaces to the New York Edition ask, to fail better? This is only part of James’s legacy and it is a legacy neglected in contemporary English language fiction and criticism. A. S. Byatt in The Whistling Woman, the conclusion of her quartet, is a rare recent example of a contemporary English writer interested in and capable of continuing it. Byatt has a seriousness and ambition with which James would identify and so, too, has Philip Roth. James makes the Roth of The Ghost Writer to The Human Stain possible and Roth in Writing and the Powers That Be writes for James and for all serious novelists when he observes: "What has most engaged me has had to do with expressiveness, rather than bringing about change or 'making a statement.' Over the years whatever serious acts of rebelliousness I may have engaged in as a novelist have been directed far more at my imagination’s own system of constraints and habits of expression than at the powers that vie for control of the world."
What if James’s sexuality was part of the constraints and determined his habits of expression? What engaged him most was testing and transcending those constraints, those habits—not out of shame but artistic necessity? There is something deeper in a writer’s life than biography. We should be curious about the details of a writer’s life and how it informs the work but, finally, having taken due cognizance of them, we should move beyond them. It is like being in a car and pondering how the petrol moves through the engine instead of concentrating on driving to our destination. Academics who start from the life, who do not discriminate between letters dashed off in minutes and works of highly wrought fiction, deliver us lesser truths. The biographical approach only works if art is considered mere self-expression. A great novel is never merely self-expression. Fiction is not a lyric form. What intrigues and inspires is otherness, characters and situations distinct (but not necessarily different) from one’s own. A novel is a product of a generous imagination, not selfish fantasy. It is essentially a self-less activity. It does not announce. It does not declare. It is not a mirror but a lake: it offers something deeper than one’s own reflection.

Biography must prove. It must assert. It must "give us the man" or else it fails. It must ponder mystery, contradiction, muddle and cross-purpose but it must also resolve them whereas fiction, like music, only requires a formal resolution and so can revel in such things, deepen them further, complicate and contradict them so that a great novel or short story (and James wrote a score of them), when re-read, is never the same. James had that same desire as Yeats for a form of utterance "carried beyond feeling into the aboriginal ice." Fiction is slippery and so are the minds that create it and James was pre-eminently a mind given wholly to fiction. He will always evade the biographer’s grasp because, no matter the limitations of his life, he was involved in transcending them through his fiction. Bradley is uninterested in this transcendent James and is happily intent on a more minor figure. His James is a man who is "particularly sensitive to the way male-friendship cultivated in late adolescence and early manhood can have homoerotic undertones that in later adult life remain as sources of emotional and psychological security."

This is what Bradley means by "permanent adolescence" and, while such a James and such a theme do exist, it is a fraction of the man and the theme is evident in only a fraction of his work. It is there in a very early story like "The Light Man" (which Bradley explicates well) and, beautifully, it is there in his last novel, The Ambassadors, but it is a theme that does not feature regularly, variously or predominantly in James’s fiction.

One only needs to refer to the index of Bradley’s book and one fails to see any mention of The Europeans, Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima, The Spoils of Poynton, "The Aspern Papers", What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age, The Sacred Fount, "The Jolly Corner", "The Middle Years" (a story—one of several—that contradicts the theme of "permanent adolescence": a story that features a plea not for a return to youth but an extension of life, and why—to work), The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the Dove. This is a significant amount of James output to ignore even in so short a book. Gay, straight or neuter, I am uninterested in an account of James that is capable of ignoring them. In these works, the "gay" James is less apparent but he is no less responsible for their creation and they are just as importantly connected to what James knew and experienced as a "gay" man. In these novels, novellas and stories we experience what Seamus Heaney discovers in the most original and illuminating poetry, "the mind’s capacity to conceive a new plane of regard from its own activity, [we are] forwarded within ourselves."

Bradley (and others before him) continue to concentrate on lesser works such as Confidence, Roderick Hudson, "Author of Beltraffio" and "The Pupil" to persuade us of James’s claims as a gay artist—and what might that imply about gay art? Bradley does do fine work on "Daisy Miller" and deepens and reinterprets the story in a manner that is almost Jamesian. He also made me reappraise a late story like "The Great Good Place". At such moments—and in the commendable felicity of his style—Bradley’s scrutiny of James’s fiction suggests he is capable of appreciating and conveying the Henry James Graham Greene so rapturously describes.

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