Henry James was an aesthete, or so I think of him. How interesting to read his stories that attack aestheticism. “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” (1884), “The Aspern Papers,” and even The Spoils of Poynton (1897), the novel about furniture, are humanist critiques of the tendency to turn art into a belief system. This is not a welcome message at Wuthering Expectations, but a critic must take the texts as they are, and these texts are warnings against the dangers of what the narrator of “Beltraffio” calls “the gospel of art.”
The clue in “Beltraffio” is that the narrator aestheticizes everything he encounters, going far beyond the author he is visiting. The Ambients live in an entirely ordinary suburban cottage, but the narrator distorts it into something else:
There was genius in his house too I thought when we got there; there was imagination in the carpets and curtains, in the pictures and books, in the garden behind it, where certain old brown walls were muffled in creepers that appeared to me to have been copied from a masterpiece of one of the pre-Raphaelites. That was the way many things struck me at that time, in England – as reproductions of something that existed primarily in art or literature. It was not the picture, the poem, the fictive page, that seemed to me a copy; these things were the originals, and the life of happy and distinguished people was fashioned in their image.
The curious transformation I mentioned yesterday of the sister-in-law into a serpentine Sibyl also has a suspiciously pre-Raphaelite sound to it. Reality is just a reproduction of art.
The best trick of “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” is that the radically anti-aesthetic position held by Mrs. Ambient turns out to be so destructive that the narrator can imperfectly conceal the damage done by his equally radical ideas.
The narrator of “The Aspern Papers,” the biographer, is a narrower, colder, older fellow, less obviously drowned in Paterian ideology. Even amidst the obvious temptations of Venice he does not reduce everything to art, perhaps because he has become obsessive about one specific category, the poetry and life of Jeffrey Aspern. He merely contorts everything touching his poet, especially the old woman who he once loved:
They come back to me now almost with the palpitation they caused, the successive states marking my consciousness that as the door of the room closed behind me I was really face to face with the Juliana of some of Aspern's most exquisite and most renowned lyrics… Her presence seemed somehow to contain his own, and I felt nearer to him at that first moment of seeing her than I ever had been before or ever have been since. (Ch. II)
Aspern becomes more real, Juliana less, and Juliana’s unworldly niece Tina* barely qualifies as a person, untouched as she is by the great Aspern.** The great trick of “The Aspern Papers” is that Juliana has her own ideas and schemes, and so, possibly, does Tina, who may be a quite different kind of idealist. Rub the clashing interests and beliefs together and a story pops out.
James has a whole series of stories about writers stretching over most of his career: “The Figure in the Carpet,” which I read long ago, “The Coxon Fund, “The Lesson of the Master,” too name a few. Perhaps this would be a good Jamesian theme to pursue as I continue my exploration of James while avoiding his greatest masterpieces.
* Or Tita. I read James’s 1908 revised version, so Tina.
** Unless she is Aspern’s daughter, a wonderful bit of irony with no support in the text, something I found discussed in the footnotes (p. 225) of The Tales of Henry James by Edward Wagenknecht (1984).