The next Henry James novel I am going to read is What Maisie Knew (1897), spurred by Lakeside Musing and others, but since the last one I read was The Portrait of a Lady (1882), and I want to know what happens next. James used his short fiction, his “tales,” and some of his earlier novels to prepare himself for his big statement, his masterpiece. He worked on characters, ideas, and points of view.
James is the kind of writer who discovers what he wants to write by writing, but he has a strong enough conceptual sense that he does not want to risk improvising it all on the spot. He works towards something; what that is he learns along the way. That is the impression I have gathered.
How many writers are able to work their notes for a novel into polished commercial magazine fiction? That by itself is impressive.
I read five “tales” written between Portrait and The Bostonians (1885-6), which I take as a the next major James novel. The Princess Casamassima, even longer than The Bostonians, was serialized in a different magazine around the same time. Maybe that one is also a major novel. I have not read either. James was as inexhaustible as Trollope at this point. The “tales” are “The Point of View” (1882), “The Siege of London” (1883), “The Impressions of a Cousin” (1883), “Lady Barberina” (1884), and “Pandora” (1884). Next would be “The Author of ‘Beltraffio’” (1884) which I read a few years ago and which anyways does not fit the amusing pattern of Americans returning to America from Europe.
It is a good jokes, as if he sent his characters to Europe and now has to bring them home. In “Point of View,” this is almost literally the case, since it opens with a young woman from “The Pension Beaurepas,” published three years earlier and set in Switzerland, on an Atlantic ocean liner, “soon to enter the Bay of New York.”
The piece is barely a story but more of a collection of gags, a bundle of letters, all written by different people, back to Europe with impressions of America. For all I know all of the letter writers are characters from old James stories. That would be great.
Here is the Honourable Edward Antrobus, M.P., writing to his wife about the inconveniences of train travel:
I have sometimes thought it was a great mistake not to bring Plummeridge; he would have been useful on such occasions. On the other hand, the startling question would have presented itself – Who would have carried Plummeridge’s portmanteau?
Then he goes on about his tin tub, and who carry his valet’s tin tub, etc. The conceit is that this letter is written in the upper berth of a sleeping car, and that the M.P. is completely freaked out that the sleeping cars are mixed sex and that there is a woman in the berth directly below him – “behind the same curtains.”
It is the purest piece of comic writing I have ever seen from James, with just a hint of a story, about that woman from “The Pension Beaurepas” and her attempts to marry an American. Otherwise, mostly a humor piece. And it brings James back to America.