Why is the novel frightened of ideas? When did the dominant literary form of Western society turn away from dealing with large issues? Mary McCarthy's 1980 Northcliffe Lectures begin by asking such questions with verve and elegance. Perhaps, she thinks, it is all the fault of the old maestro Henry James. As a critic, and even more as a practitioner, he got the public used to the doctrine of the novel as fine art, 'a creation beyond paraphrase or reduction'. In James's novels, the characters are typically made to talk of one another, and not of the issues that in real life are exercising the author's fellow citizens. 'What were Adam Verver's views on the great Free Trade debate, on woman suffrage, on child labour? We do not know.' But if the number of concepts allowed into James's fiction is drastically restricted, compared with the ideas that are kicked around in, say, Little Dorrit or Middlemarch, so too are the specific things. What are the 'spoils of Poynton', the exquisite treasures for which Mrs Gereth and Fleda Vetch care so much? Furniture? Objets d'art? Have they the consistency of a collection, or are they heterogeneous treasures, linked only by their beauty and by their commercial value? The hints James gives are scarce and confusing. 'It was a resolve, very American, to scrape his sacred texts clean of the material factor ... He etherealised the novel beyond its wildest dreams.'
LRB 16 April 1981 | PDF Download