At Home with Henry James: David Lodge’s Author, Author

By Helena Gurfinkel

2004 was the year of Henry James. Unlike the sudden, sporadic, and short-lived late-nineties’ obsession with Oscar Wilde, the Henry James revival did not produce a lavish, popular, star-studded biopic or high-profile off-Broadway and Broadway plays. Instead, three quietly accomplished and stylistically sophisticated novels, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, Colm Toibin’s The Master, and David Lodge’s Author, Author paid tribute to, or acknowledged the influence of, James’s life and art. But while Hollinghurst received last year’s Booker Prize, and Colm Toibin a fair amount of readerly and critical recognition for his often controversial depiction of his subject, Lodge’s fictional biography remains in relative, and certainly undeserved, obscurity. Unfortunately, it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that, James scholars notwithstanding, some readers know no more about Author, Author than they do about Mrs. Jasper’s Way, one of James’s failed theatrical efforts. Even long after their death, the difference between the public reception of the two famous literary rivals, Wilde and James, reflects the difference in their personal and artistic temperaments. Unlike Oscar Wilde’s, James’s style did not translate into the stage, and, also unlike Wilde’s, his sexual life, or, as Lodge would suggest, his conscious abstinence from one, did not become the stuff of tragedy, or even farce.

David Lodge, known for his witty satire of the academic life in novels, such as Changing Places and Small World, has written a painstakingly researched, nuanced portrait of the Master in his “middle years,” using Leon Edel’s seminal biography as its main source.

The plot centers, both chronologically and psychologically, primarily on James’s desire to conquer the medium of the theatre and his consistent and anguished failure to do so. This frustrated ambition culminates in the eloquently described humiliating first night of James’s play Guy Domville. Produced by George Alexander, the play premiered, to the loud booing from the gallery and the pit, at St. James’s Theatre on January 5th 1895, just as Wilde’s An Ideal Husband delighted the audiences next door, at the Haymarket. Another important plot line is James’s long involvement with Constance Fenimore Woolson, a fellow expatriate American writer who, having suffered from severe depression all her life, committed suicide in Venice in 1894. For Woolson, the sadness of their relationship was in her frustrated romantic expectations, of which James was apparently quite aware, and which he cautiously and knowingly dodged. Some years after Woolson’s death, James reflected on their friendship in his novella "The Beast in the Jungle"; its principal characters, John Marcher and May Bartram, take tortured, tentative, and, ultimately, abortive steps toward intimacy.

Another one of the novel’s “abandoned” women is Theodora Bosanquet, James’s secretary. Like Constance Woolson, she is the quintessential New Woman, a graduate of University College London, who chooses career over marriage, and like Henry James, she is “celibate by nature” (14). Her character appears at the beginning, seductive in its potential complexity, but, beyond several pages, receives no development or meaningful narrative function. But perhaps Theodora Bosanquet deserves to become the protagonist of a different novel altogether.

When it comes to women, romance and sexual passion, Lodge’s Henry is not a participant; he is, rather, a detached, albeit avid, observer, always poised to translate his observations into language. Such, for example, is his encounter with Beatrix Du Maurier, the daughter of his friend the author George Du Maurier: “Beatrix, the eldest, was a real beauty, who had only just ‘come out’ when Henry met her, and being squeezed into a broom cupboard with her during some boisterous game of Hide and Seek, pressed up against her sweet-smelling, gently yielding form in the dark, had been one of the more remarkable sensations in his experience, and one which helped him to understand the ecstasy that lovers apparently derived from embracing” (56). While suggesting, with rather effective irony, that, for James, being stuck in a closet with a young woman is only novelistic fodder, Lodge also rummages cautiously in the Master’s own closet:

“Admittedly (though he would only admit it to himself, in his most secret self-communings) he found it easier to picture himself [thus] engaged with a beautiful youth than with a beautiful maiden, but that only strengthened his resistance to any possible temptation to act out such disturbing fantasies” (172).

According to Lodge, Henry James, whose leanings were primarily homoerotic, was, at the end of the day, what we would now call asexual:

“He knew of course of the mechanics of procreative intercourse, and from illustrated works of erotica--Lord Houghton’s collection at his country house had been particularly informative—he was acquainted with the variations and perversions which human ingenuity and depravity had added. But he found it impossible to imagine himself performing any of these acts, even the most elementary, with anyone…” (57).

While acknowledging James’s sexual orientation, in the concluding pages of the novel, Lodge nonetheless recoils, half-humorously, half-apprehensively, from “a branch of academic criticism known as Queer Theory, whose exponents claim, for instance, to find metaphors of anal fisting in the Prefaces to the New York Edition” (375). Attempting to reclaim James from queer theory is a regrettable choice: the author’s fear of his subject’s sexuality and the interpretations it may elicit is too much like Henry’s own.

What distinguishes Lodge’s James from, say, Toibin’s is the decidedly un-theatrical, un-heroic, prosaic, practical, and, at once, morally squeamish and flawed quality of his character. Unlike Toibin’s self-consciously queer, Irish James, outside of the realm of art, Lodge’s Henry is daringly commonplace, politically uninvolved, sexually un-radical, and snobby. The grandson of William James, an immigrant and peculiarly American success story, he is driven, in part, by the desire to attain both renown and monetary independence: “He had always secretly hoped that he might become wealthy as well as famous by his writing. It was not because he lusted for gold as such, or for the luxuries that it might buy…It was because to make significant amounts of money and to advance the art of fiction—to transfix the double target with a single arrow—was the only way for a novelist to impress the materialistic nineteenth century” (95).

As a pay off for his unique work ethic, Lodge’s James enjoys a good meal, vacations in Italy, and the friendship and adoration of his high society friends in London and Venice. Unlike his now-famous sister Alice, Henry has no stake in the Irish cause. He envies bitterly the theatrical triumph of the rebellious Irishman Oscar Wilde and the commercial successes of his friends and colleagues: Robert Louis Stevenson, George Du Maurier, Mrs. Humphrey Ward, Rider Haggard, and even Constance Woolson, most of whom, ironically, are barely known or read outside of the academia today. What is Henry James’s saving grace? Perhaps predictably, it is his obsession to get a sentence right, his anxiety-driven devotion to his craft, “the difficult aesthetic path he carved and scrupulously followed” (375), and the brilliant, innovative, and copious literary legacy. As a reader of both James and Lodge, I welcome such predictability.

Lodge’s imperfect James works. The success of the novel in general and its representation of James in particular is, in many ways, paradoxical. Lodge does not idealize James’s personality, emulate his style, make meta-fictional references to James’s texts, or appropriate James for various political causes: after all, such choices would have been all too obvious. Instead, Lodge opts for an engagingly straightforward biographical piece which nonetheless manages to express the psychological depths of his subject and his artistic achievements. David Lodge’s Author, Author lodges Henry James firmly in our minds.

Sobriquet Magazine Vol 11, No. 7

Helena Gurfinkel is a doctoral candidate in the English Department of Tufts University where she also teaches. Her interests include Victorian and twentieth-/twenty-first-century British literature, literary theory, film, and gender and sexuality studies.