What strikes one about the garden at Lamb House, as redesigned by Henry James, is that it possesses all the ingredients of an old-English garden, yet the impression it makes is American. It seems on principle to want to do without mystery, even the mild mysteries beloved of English gardening-folk. In some indefinable way it is a public garden. There was, and perhaps still is, a difference between British and American attitudes towards the 'public', the British nursing an ambivalence towards publicity that Americans, with their Augustan inheritance, find perverse. That James took to dictating his novels, and even (though with infinite apologies) his letters, seems somehow appropriate. He was in a certain sense a naturally public man. He achieved for himself in his own lifetime an incomparable public position, as the acknowledged 'Master' - a position more unassailable than Kipling's or Bernard Shaw's - yet he frankly also longed for a popular following and declared only half-jokingly in a letter to W.Morton Fullerton in 1902: 'I would have written, if I could, like Anthony Hope and Marion Crawford.' Public position, and an intense preoccupation with public opinion, are also the key to the one incident, in the life of this affectionate and (on the whole) generous man, that sticks in the gullet and seems definitely ugly: I mean his pharasaic forbidding his friend Violet Hunt his house when it appeared she might figure in divorce proceedings. His explanation was quite frank: it was a matter of her 'position', and by implication of his.
LRB 19 July 1984 | PDF Download