Edith Wharton once asked Henry James why it was that his novels so curiously lacked real life. James's private name for her was the 'Angel of Devastation', and the fact that she not only perpetrated this remark but went on to record it expressionlessly in her memoirs shows just what he meant. It might be said that by then James had got used to the situation anyway, since for the previous thirty years much the same question had been asked by that large majority of the late-Victorian reading public who simply refused to read his books: after the last mild success of The Portrait of a Lady in 1881, James experienced half a lifetime of small and dwindling sales, which culminated, in the case of the New York Collected Edition, in total failure. Edith made thousands. But of course both she and the contemporary reading public had a point. There is, after all, only a limited range of actuality in Henry James's novels: the two great driving forces of human existence, financial pressure and physical need, are hardly more than alluded to in them. If the business of novels was only to reflect 'real life', what James could offer would be severely limited. But as it happens, this is not what novels do: like every other form of art, they exist to express reality. It remains a permanent marvel of James's fiction that the writer seems to know so much about reality, while always leaving us wondering just how much he knows about real life.
LRB 18 June 1981 | PDF Download