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Meaning in Henry James.

IN reading novels for the first time the reader often has a sense of where the plot might go, and this anticipation is often commonplace and even banal. Extensive reading gives us expected paradigms, and we expect novels, and sometimes even life, to follow them. Sometimes novels fulfil the expected pattern, at other times they do not; but once the initial reading is completed these unfulfilled plots get forgotten and usually they form no part of the critical accounts. Millicent Bell works with the principle of recording the tensions in James's novels between the determinacies and indeterminacies of plot and form, which relate to the similar oscillations felt by the characters. She is also interested in the contrary pulls of critical interpretation, between on the one hand, the desire to read all details in a symbolical and meaningful way and, on the other, to allow some of the material to be as contingent, unintegrated, and irrelevant as it would be in real life. The kinds of readings she is interested in are necessarily |close' and |slow'. Bell reiterates what other critics of James have noticed (James Ward in The Search for Form (1967) for instance), that although James had a respect for tight, economic, and elegant novelistic forms, and consciously strove to achieve them, there was a quite opposite creative instinct at work in him for the expansive, the disruptive, and the riotous. He was prepared to admit its necessity in his essay |The Art of Fiction' (1884), where he expresses the view that |catching the very note and trick, the strange irregular rhythm of life ... keeps Fiction upon her feet'. Regarding novels as ingenious artificial forms |leads us straight up to a dead wall'. In the preface to Daisy Miller and other works he writes of |the explosive principle':

Any real art of representation is, I make out, a

controlled and guarded acceptance, in fact a

perfect economic mastery, of that conflict; the

general sense of the expansive, the explosive

principle in one's material thoroughly noted,

adroitly allowed to flush and colour and

animate the disputed value, but with its other

appetites and treacheries, its characteristic

space-hunger and space-cunning kept down.

We see |the explosive principle' at work in the Notebooks -- when the writing as it develops breaks the prefigured restrictions and shapes. In the preface to The Portrait of a Lady James speaks of the truth of the novel related to a tendency to |burst, with a latent extravagance, its mould'. It follows that he is sympathetic to characters who resist both plot and established social conventions in the interest of some kind of freedom. Bell explains that although James at first resisted the products of the Impressionist painters, in the end his aesthetic had much in common with theirs -- based as it was on open, highly responsive individual perceptions.

Meaning in Henry James is a sensitive reading of ten novels and two short stories (|The Beast in the Jungle' and |The Jolly Corner') in the light of the foregoing observations. Bell is a sound and perceptive interpreter of James. She is very adroit with intertextuality -- a phenomenon which necessarily follows on from any self-conscious considerations of narrative method within novels. I would recommend as typical of her method the concluding three paragraphs of her analysis of The Bostonians, which demonstrate the oblique relationship the novel has with the European realist tradition, and in particular the connection between Basil Ransom and Balzac's Eugene Rastignac. Another exemplary passage is the conclusion of her chapter on The Spoils of Poynton, charting the way in which the form itself echoes the theme of renunciation. I should not wish to make anything much of the reference in The Ambassadors to the way in which Maria Gostrey pigeon-holes |her fellow mortals with a hand as free as that of a compositor scattering type', but Bell rather fancifully wants it to also refer to novelistic |types'.

There are very few mistakes or infelicities in this study. but on page 208 a lapse of attention has taken place. Bell asserts, apropos of chapter VII of The Aspern Papers, that the |Venetian lamp' is |in the form of Atlas hunching his back under his globe', but there is no evidence in the text that this is so. The likelihood is that Atlas is a bronze statuette, resembling Mrs Gereth, who has carried off the spoils, but it is possible that the narrator has merely selected a conventional mythological figure for illustrative purposes. We can assume that the figure reaches the narrator as an emblematical, concrete representation, rather than as a textual entity, so that it is appropriate for the museum world of the novel. On page 284 there is a not implausible suggestion that Sargent's portrait of the Civil War soldier Henry Lee Higginson could have been in James's mind when he compared the ghost in |The Jolly Corner' to a |portrait by a great modern master'. But one should not build too much on this: it tells us more about how James came to create than how we should be reading him. As is so often the case these are two quite different things, and we should resist thinking that meaningful allusion is present.
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Author:Richards, Bernard
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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