Friday, June 10, 2016

You were so full of signification! - more James, "The Patagonia" and "The Real Thing"

“I thought you thought everything signified.  You were so full,” she cried, “of signification!”

Yes, exactly, just what that character from “The Patagonia” (1888) said!  Each Henry James story fits into a bigger story about the creativity of Henry James.  In a sense they all do but in another there are plenty of dead ends, misfires, and curves.

“The Patagonia” is the name of a ship in this story, not a region, which features a shipboard romance that ends in tragedy.  The tragedy itself is thin stuff and James knows it. 

It will doubtless appear to the critical reader that my expenditure of interest had been out of proportion to the vulgar appearances of which my story gives an account, but to this I can only reply that the event was to justify me.

That is very close to what I had been thinking, aside from the “vulgar appearances.”  The story is told obliquely, through the James-like narrator and what he picks up from people aboard the ship as they cross from America to England.  The picture of life on the passenger ship – the lack of privacy, the gossip, and the general lowering of social standards in the name of dining – is pretty amusing.  The representative character is the odious Mrs. Peck, a vulgar gossip – perhaps James was admitting there was too much of her – no, I say, hardly enough!

Mrs. Peck stared at me a moment, moving some valued morsel in her mouth; then she exclaimed familiarly “Pshaw!”

I love “valued morsel.”  The ending is quite good, too, with another peripheral character supplying the interest the center of the story lacks.  “It was a dire moment.”  That is daring for a final sentence.

Perhaps I should have included “The Real Thing” (1892) among the stories about writers, but it is about a painter, one who is also an illustrator for novels and magazine fiction, perhaps even for Henry James stories.  He normally uses a Cockney woman and an Italian servant as his models for almost everything, but a married couple, a gentleman and his wife whose lives as sponges on the upper class – dinners and excursions to country houses and so on – are fading with their good looks.

They hesitated – they looked at each other.  “We’ve been photographed immensely,” said Mrs. Monarch.

“She means the fellows have asked us,” added the Major.

“I see – because you’re so good-looking.”

“I don’t know what they thought, but they were always after us.”

As models, though, they are too much themselves, always themselves no matter what the artist tries to do with them.

“Now the drawings you made from us, they look exactly like us,” she reminded me, smiling in triumph; and I recognized that this was indeed just their defect.

The art lies in what the artist does.  James is taking a swipe at any worry about who a character might be “based on.”  Yet for the artist, curiously, even though the couple “did me a permanent harm, got me into a second-rate trick,” he is happy to have met them, thus the story, by the artist, I mean, not Henry James.  His story, his characters, I suppose all of that he just made up.


  1. I have just caught up on, and have greatly enjoyed, your series of posts on James. If I don’t say too much about these posts, it’s because I don’t really have much to add. The contrasts you point out between “Portrait of a Lady” and “The Bostonians” seem particularly interesting (these two are usually regarded as the major works of his “middle period” – when he was still, according to Leavis, James II, and before he turned into the “Old Pretender”). In “Portrait”, the major characters stand out distinctly from the less important characters, but in “The Bostonians”, from what you say, these less important characters are given a life and vitality of their own through wonderful satirical jibes: one wouldn’t have guessed from “A Portrait” that James was so accomplished a humourist. These satirical jibes remind me of Veneerings’ circle in Dickens’ “Our Mutual Friend” – a novel which James claimed to loathe, but which, I think, left its mark. (Georgina Podsnap, particularly, the young innocent who becomes a pawn in the adults’ power games, could easily have come out of a James novel: she is, indeed, a forerunner of Gilbert Osmond’s daughter Pansy.)

    I can never quite work out to what extent James was a visual writer. In “A Portrait”, he would, rather dutifully, it seemed to me, describe a setting before going on to narrate a scene; but once that scene had started, I often lost track of whether it was set in a room in a villa, or on the terrace, or out in the countryside somewhere. The interactions of the characters were more important, and took precedence. From the passages you quote from “The Bostonians” (it’s been too long since my last reading for me to remember the details), the visual elements are given greater weight. But in the last novels, they seem virtually to disappear altogether. James’ interest in the visuals, in the settings, seems to come and go throughout his work. And yet, as is apparent from, say, “The Aspern Papers” or the Venice chapters of “The Wings of the Dove”, he could project strongly a sense of place as an when he felt he needed to.

    A curious writer, whom I admire greatly (there’s no novelist I admire more), but whom I have never quite come to love.

    1. TAOG, big fan of your blog here. Thank you for the joy and insight your posts have given me over the years.

  2. The visual side of James now looks to me like part of his periodization. He got more interested in it in the mid-1880s but it did not do what he wanted or he got more interested in psychology or whatever. So you get the floating consciousnesses who could be anywhere.