Henry James’s Europe: Heritage and Transfer
Edited by Dennis Tredy, Annick Duperray and Adrian Harding
Open Book Publishers, Paperback, 318 pages
In half an hour I can climb to the top of a breezy mountain and see a dozen fine old British Counties, mapped out beneath me in a beautiful characteristic confusion of brownness and greenness and mistiness, and that the air has a clearness and lightness which actually reminds me of our own transparent clime.
So it was that, in a letter to his brother William, American Henry James described the landscape around Malvern on 4th April 1869 during the first part of his solo-trip around Europe. The letter is characteristic of James’ early attitude to Europe – admiring every landscape, church, palazzo and work of art, but always looking back across the Atlantic, looking for points of comparison. His love affair with Europe continued throughout his life; shortly after his year-long trip, he moved to Europe permanently, settling first in London then eventually at Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, where he lived for the last 17 years of his life. Despite this, America and American characters were always a part of his writing and as a result there have been both critics who view him as an American through-and-through and those who think of him more as an honorary European writer.
Exactly 140 years later after James wrote the above words to his brother, between the 3rd and 5th of April 2009, the European Society of Jamesian Studies held their first conference in Paris entitled ‘Henry James’s Europe: Cultural Reappropriations, Transtextual Relations’. The Society is a more specifically European one than the largely American-run Henry James Society, and although it has not been set up as a rival society the emphasis is placed strongly on James’ relationship with Europe; ‘a European entity exploring what is also such a carefully American oeuvre with its specific ironies of knowledge’, as Denis Tredy, one of the editors of the volume of essays under review, has described it. As evidenced by the title the conference focussed mainly on James’ usage of European ‘material’, be it social, economical, artistic, or literary, and how the writer came to employ these elements in his writing. Henry James’s Europe: Heritage and Transfer has stemmed from this conference, and centres upon James’ ‘cross-cultural’ approach to fiction.
The essays within the book are grouped thematically, dealing with subjects such as James and ethics, his French and Italian writings, self-representation, performance, his appropriation of European culture and his use of allusion. These are all dealt with variously and look at many different texts from James’ extensive oeuvre – although it must be said that for an author with a body of work as large as James’ own there is a remarkable weight placed on one novel in particular – his 1903 novel The Ambassadors. For the reader, this editorial choice presents something of a double-edged sword: there are at least seven essays that deal with The Ambassadors, which allows the book to demonstrate the variety of ways in which James’ works can be approached, but also permits direct comparisons to be made between those essays to be made, with the best articles occasionally illuminated at the expense of less convincingly argued ones. For example, Kathleen Lawrence explores the significance of the relationship between Lambert Strether and his namesake, Balzac’s Lewis Lambert, using a number of suggestive parallels between Balzac’s novel and James’ own biography to reassert the importance of exploring intertextual relationships; a task that has been previously regarded as a ‘wasted’ effort. This is a far more successful reading of the novel than Esther Sanchez-Pardo’s reading of the novel as a critique of the leisure classes in the manner of Thorstein Veblen which relies too heavily on placing two texts alongside each other and arguing that there is a correlation without actually exploring James’ relationship with or reaction to Veblen; as far as one can tell, James doesn’t seem to have ever mentioned the latter in his notebooks, letters, or reviews. Pardo seems to want to apply Marxist theory to James, despite acknowledging his ‘deviation from materialism makes it difficult’, so uses Veblen as a substitute, in an unconvincing way, and taking more time to explain the theoretical aspect than exploring the text itself.
The preoccupation with applying economic theory and principles to James is present in a few of the essays, a fact perhaps symptomatic of the current economic climate. Eric Savoy’s treatment of ‘bad investments’ in ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ directly draws such parallels in a manner that does not ring quite true. Using aphorisms by Warren Buffett and drawing directly comparisons between the financial crisis of 2008 and a novella from 1903, the essay seems slightly far-fetched in its analysis. Essays such as this and Pardo’s highlight not only the folly of applying theories to an author who resists such readings but also the importance of considering the historical context of fiction when one chooses to analyse it; something, one is relieved to find, the majority of essays in the collection do successfully. In particular, the contributions on James’ French and Italian writings engage strongly with ideas or material that James either directly refers to in his texts and letters or alludes to, be it as per the writer’s attitude to ‘civilisation’ in the context of his essays on France (as tackled by Hazel Hutchison) or Rosella Mamoli Zorzi’s exploration of the significance of James’ use of Venice as the setting for The Aspern Papers. Zorzi’s study of the literary significance of Venice, and James’ engagement with texts both familiar and unfamiliar to a modern readership, provides an excellent insight into the cultural background with which James engages, and highlights the importance of intertextual readings to Jamesian scholars.
James’ role as a critic for many different literary magazines is testament to his participation with writers contemporary to him, as evidenced by the two-volume Library of America edition of his literary criticism. Accordingly, there are innumerable ways in which one might analyse his fiction in terms of the allusions to other texts he makes, a subject that is given centre stage in perhaps the most satisfying and cohesive section of the book. Angus Wrenn, Rebekah Scott, and Oliver Herford all provide rich readings of James’ use of textual allusion, taking examples from the whole range of his over fifty-year-long career. Wrenn’s essay focuses on James’ early tales and – although slightly pedantic in his distinction between allusion and a direct reference – provides some useful examples of James’ engagement with French writers in particular. Scott and Herford’s essays are more focussed; Scott limits herself to one text, Confidence, whilst Herford traces James’ use of a single allusion to Hamlet, one he used throughout his career. Scott emphasises the use of allusion by characters in the text itself, before broadening out to consider James’ own use of allusion, asking ‘can one ever determine the extent to which the buried or glancing allusion is intentional or unintentional?’. Herford poses a similar question when he discusses the repeated allusion to Hamlet’s line about his father’s ghost – ‘My father, in his habit as he lived!’ – and highlights James’ inclination to make allusions in varied ways. The essays all work together to show how rich a field of study James’ intertextual engagements provides.
There are a number of contributions that stand out as particularly engaging. Max Duperray provides an interesting analysis of the links between Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw, likening the similarities to the idea of déjà vu as opposed to viewing James’ novella as a direct model of Brontë’s novel. Similarly, Hubert Teyssandier looks in the other direction, exploring Benjamin Britten’s appropriation of James’ ‘Owen Wingrave’. Meanwhile, Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen’s essay explores the aesthetic significance of the face, looking at James’ photographic portrait for the New York edition of The Ambassadors as the basis for exploring the novel’s, and James’ other uses of the face, questioning ideas of authorship and artistic creation.
On a final note, usually when a book is sent to us for review, the standard practice is for it to arrive in a jiffy bag. This book arrived in much the same manner, but additionally we were provided with a link to where we could read it for free online; a service that the publisher Open Books has provided in order to open up accessibility to their academic publications. ‘Open Access,’ they explain, ‘helps spread educational materials to everyone, globally, not just to those who can afford it’: whilst still publishing the book in physical form, which gives both universities, libraries, and individual scholars the best of both worlds – digital and physical copies of texts. It is a model one hopes that other academic publishers will follow.