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Section 7

Henry James, 1843–1916

Henry James.

The Spoils of Poynton. London: William Heinemann, 1897. Inscribed by James to Thomas F. Bayard.

Leon Edel reveals that the origins of The Spoils of Poynton lay at a London dinner party. There Henry James was bored by a too-lengthy anecdote told by the woman seated next to him, yet fascinated by its kernel, the story of a widow “suing her son over the rare furniture he had inherited and which she refused to yield.” In James’s hands, this figure became the complicated Mrs. Gereth—an absolute monster of selfishness, obsessed with a house and the things it contains, but also a Paterian Aesthete, who has devoted herself to Beauty and who quite understandably cannot bear to see a work of art fall into the clutches of Philistines. The novel appeared in 1897, a year when the transatlantic Henry James became more than ever a fixture in England, and when he wrote to his brother William to declare, “I find it perfectly simple and easy to stick to British soil. My love of travel grows smaller and smaller.” It was also the year in which he took up permanent residence at Lamb House in Rye. His presentation, however, of an inscribed copy of The Spoils of Poynton to Thomas Francis Bayard, the U. S. Ambassador to Britain, relates to his earlier years of travel and, in particular, to his 1882 visit to Washington, D. C., where James had been the frequent guest of the writer Henry Adams (1838–1918). Bayard, then U. S. Senator from Delaware, had been kind to James and, as Leon Edel reports, had even “offered him the use of a private room at the Capitol in which to entertain his friends.” James, in turn, found the family from Wilmington charming and, in a letter to his mother, described Bayard’s daughters as “such as one ought to marry, if one were marrying”—which, of course, he never was.

Henry James.

“Dear Friends All.” Printed letter, dated 21 April 1913. [London: Chiswick Press, 1913].

It was more than tempting to make fun of Henry James’s prose style; it was irresistible, especially for his British contemporaries. Max Beerbohm did it best, in “The Mote in the Middle Distance” from A Christmas Garland (1912). H. G. Wells tried his hand at it, but managed in the process to offend James and strain their bonds of friendship with the publication in 1915 of Boon, a work of literary criticism in (barely) fictionalized form. There, Wells likened James’s aestheticism, which was greatly shaped by the example of Walter Pater (1838–1894), to an empty church with a “high altar,” on which the objects placed for worship are detritus—“a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string.” He savaged James’s work even at the level of the individual sentence, saying, “He splits the infinitives and fills them up with adverbial stuffing.” Still, Wells had a point, as this marvelous example of James’s so-called “late style” shows. The occasion for this printed letter was a tribute paid to James in 1913, on his seventieth birthday: the collecting of subscription money to commission a portrait of him by John Singer Sargent and a commemorative “Golden Bowl” by the Regent Street silversmiths, Carrington & Co. Two-hundred-fifty names of contributors were represented on the accompanying sheets—everyone from Edith Wharton and the Pennells to G. B. Shaw and Ellen Terry (along with Beerbohm and Wells). But the real interest here is in seeing James produce an entire page of text, merely to say “Thank you,” while never once using such a plebian word as “thank.”

Sir Max Beerbohm, 1872–1956.

The Jolly Corner. Pencil, ink, and watercolor, [c. 1909].

Born on opposite sides of the Atlantic, Max Beerbohm and Henry James nonetheless had much in common. Both enjoyed lives of privilege and received elite educations; both were drawn to the London theatre (Beerbohm as a drama critic, James as a playwright); both admired Walter Pater and remained deeply connected to the Aesthetic movement; both were uncomfortable with open expressions of the erotic, whether in art or in life; and both eventually abandoned their native lands—James for Rye, Beerbohm for Rapallo. Yet they diverged most when it came to humor. It was not that James was incapable of laughter, merely that his comedy arrived in prose so allusive that it sometimes masked the joke. Beerbohm, however, had a pointed and often merciless wit, as well as a second, even more direct, medium of delivery: caricatures. When James published his psychological fantasy, “The Jolly Corner” (in the English Review of December 1908), about a man who returns from a lifetime abroad to visit his family home in New York and encounters the “ghost” of his American self, Beerbohm maliciously answered with this drawing. Making rude fun of the terrifying and uncanny moment when James’s protagonist, Spencer Brydon, confronts the figure that represents himself as he might have been, Beerbohm described his portrait of two equally unpleasant, unattractive versions of Henry James as “H. J. descending staircase meets ghost of himself as he would have been if he had never left America.”

Stephen Crane, 1871–1900

The Ghost, Written by Mr. Henry James, Mr. Robert Barr, Mr. George Gissing, Mr. Rider Haggard, Mr. Joseph Conrad, Mr. H. B. Marriott-Watson, Mr. H. G. Wells, Mr. Edwin Pugh, Mr. A. E. W. Mason, and Mr. Stephen Crane. Brede School House, December 28th 1899. [Rye, Sussex, 1899].

Oscar Wilde’s penchant for rent boys was an open secret in late-Victorian London society, but a secret nonetheless. Stephen Crane, from Newark, New Jersey, made no secret of his fascination with female prostitutes and caused a sensation in the U. S. with the 1893 publication of his Naturalist novella, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. When, however, he decided in 1897 to live with Cora Taylor, owner of a Florida brothel called the “Hotel de Dream” and a figure straight out of G. B. Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, it proved impossible for the pair to remain in America. In 1899, they relocated to England and made a home (cheaply) in the proverbial drafty, dank, haunted manor—Brede House outside of Rye, Sussex, not far from Henry James. Although James had decried the “larger latitude” in “The Death of the Lion,” his short story for the first number of the Yellow Book, he displayed surprising “latitude” himself in welcoming the pair and in joining in their elaborate holiday festivities at the end of December 1899. The centerpiece was Crane’s imitation Savoyard musical comedy, The Ghost, a tribute to the manor’s spirit-in-residence, but also a tribute to the new circle of British literary acquaintances who joined him there. Each of these writers—from George Gissing to H. Rider Haggard to H. G. Wells—was invited to contribute a few lines or even a mere few words to the short play, so that they could appear as authors in the program.

Sarah Jeanette Duncan, 1861–1922

Sara Jeannette Duncan.

Vernon’s Aunt: Being the Oriental Experiences of Miss Lavinia Moffat, by Sara Jeannette Duncan (Mrs. Everard Cotes), with Illustrations by Hal Hurst. London: Chatto & Windus, 1894. Inscribed by Duncan to Isobel O. Watt.

Her novel of 1891 may have been titled An American Girl in London, but Sara Jeannette Duncan—who was also known, after her marriage in that same year, as Mrs. Everard Cotes—had a better understanding of what it meant to be a Canadian abroad. She drew on personal experience for a later comic novel, Cousin Cinderella (1908). In it, the young narrator and her brother, Graham, settle in a flat in Kensington, where their landlady mistakes them for Americans: “‘Isn’t it very much the same thing?’ she asked. ‘No madam, it isn’t,’ replied Graham firmly.” Duncan, who was born in Brantford, Ontario, did spend time in the United States early in her career as a professional journalist, covering the New Orleans World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition of 1884, and then worked in Washington, DC, as a literary editor for the Washington Post. She returned to Canada for a fulltime position at the Toronto Globe—reportedly, the first woman to occupy such a post—and then for one at the Montreal Star. The transformative event of her life, however, was her world tour of 1888—what Florence Donaldson, writing in the June 1898 issue of the London-based magazine, the Bookman, called going “round the world under the British flag.” In Calcutta, Duncan met her future husband, a Colonial administrator and journalist. For the next decade, they lived in India, while also returning to London for visits, before settling finally in England. Vernon’s Aunt, her 1894 narrative of Colonial life in India, featured a decorative cover meant to suggest Indian paisley textile designs of the sort that inspired British artists and Arts and Crafts makers, such as William Morris. The connection was an appropriate one, for Faye Hammill has suggested that “discourses of aestheticism and decadence surface frequently” in Duncan’s writing, though especially in the work based on her world tour, A Social Departure (1890).

William James Stillman, 1828–1901

W. J. Stillman.

The Autobiography of a Journalist: In Two Vols. London: Grant Richards, 1901.

As a young art student originally from Schenectady, New York, W. J. Stillman was amazed to discover that the “hospitality of London, wherever I found access to it, was unmeasured.” He arrived there in the winter of 1850 and, as he recorded in the first volume of his autobiography, soon encountered John Ruskin—not surprisingly, at the gallery run by Thomas Griffiths, agent to J. M. W. Turner, whose paintings both Ruskin and Stillman fervently admired. Stillman, who supported himself through a variety of careers but excelled at photography and journalism, eventually moved into the very heart of the Pre-Raphaelite circle and became the American with the closest, most lasting links to its artists and writers. That bond was sanctified by marriage when, in 1871, he wed Marie Spartali (1844–1927), a highly gifted painter herself—especially of aestheticized women and gardens—who also sat as a model for everyone from D. G. Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown to, in later years, Edward Burne Jones and J. M. Whistler. At the time of their engagement, W. J. Stillman was in fact sharing a house with D. G. Rossetti. (In her biography of William Morris, Fiona MacCarthy holds Stillman responsible for introducing Rossetti to chloral hydrate, the drug that would lead to his death.) Later, Eliza Stillman (always known as “Lisa”), one of Stillman’s children from his first marriage, became an artist too, and with her often-reproduced portrait of Morris, she extended her family’s Pre-Raphaelite connections into the next generation.

Sir Charles G. D. (George Douglas) Roberts, 1860–1943

William Archer, 1856–1924.

Poets of the Younger Generation: With Thirty-three Full-page Portraits from Woodcuts by Robert Bryden. London: John Lane, 1902.

“Earth’s Complines” (the noun “complines” refers to a liturgical service), by the Canadian poet Charles G. D. Roberts, appeared in the July 1895 Yellow Book. This closely watched and policed number of the magazine followed in the wake of Wilde’s conviction for “gross indecency” with men, and the whole transatlantic literary world wondered whether the Bodley Head would or wouldn’t continue to be a home for Decadence. The publication of “Earth’s Complines” suggested that it would not. Roberts’s poem advocated not for artifice, theatricality, and urban adventure, but for a reverent attitude toward flowers and other natural phenomena, as reflections of the face of God. It was an early example of eco-literary work with a spiritual dimension, in which the speaker says, “I felt the soul of the trees” and recognizes the likeness between their “souls” and his own. In his appreciation of Roberts—later celebrated as the “father of Canadian literature”— for Poets of the Younger Generation, William Archer, the Scottish-born drama critic, praised him for “characteristically Canadian” verse that “begins to smack of the soil.” Certainly, it was true that Roberts, who came from New Brunswick and had held a professorship of English in Nova Scotia, included Canadian-themed poems such as “The Quelling of the Moose” in his In Divers Tones (1887). But that volume also contained “The Pipes of Pan,” with its obvious links to British Aesthetic style and subject matter. Roberts made his first visit to London in 1899 “to negotiate British book contracts,” especially with the Bodley Head firm of John Lane—as Gwendolyn Davies notes—using his contacts with Richard Le Gallienne, whom he had met in New York (where Roberts lived in the late 1890s). It was against the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge that the Scottish artist, Robert Bryden (1865–1939), depicted this peripatetic writer, who would later make London his home for more than a decade, beginning in 1912.

William Dean Howells, 1837–1920

W. D. Howells.

Certain Delightful English Towns; With Glimpses of the Pleasant Country Between, Illustrated. New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1906.

Oscar Wilde’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, reports William Dean Howells as having said admiringly, “Wilde would have invented literature if it had never existed.” Howells might as well have been describing himself. He did, in effect, end up inventing American literature—at least, one important facet of it—through his devotion to the “real,” both as a writer and as a critic. Certainly, he saw realism as the contribution that America could best make, and his attitude toward British work was a competitive one. Nonetheless, as Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson note, “his attraction to the country” of England and his “delight in its landscapes,” as well as his love of its visual arts, including Pre-Raphaelite painting, drew him across the ocean several times, beginning in 1861. On an 1882 visit, he met the painters William Holman Hunt and Edward Burne-Jones, along with Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris.  His political stance was surprisingly in sympathy with Morris’s, especially over the case of the Chicago anarchists who were executed as reputed bomb-throwers, following the Haymarket Strike of 1886, and he spoke out in their defense. Howells’s feelings about Britain in general may be surmised from the title of his 1906 travel narrative, which uses descriptive words such as “Delightful” and “Pleasant.” Among the places that he lauds is Oxford. Of course, he had good reason to feel attached to it, as Oxford University had bestowed on him, in 1904, the honor of a Doctor of Letters degree.

This exhibition is associated with the conference, "Useful & Beautiful: The Transatlantic Arts of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites," which will be held October 7–9, 2010, at the University of Delaware (Newark, DE) and at the Delaware Art Museum and the Winterthur Museum & Country Estate (Wilmington, DE).

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