“John Delavoy” is another Henry James tale from 1898 with a questionably reliable narrator, even though this one is a pure stand-in for Henry James. I do not think he is meant to be unreliable, although he is more reticent than usual, fitting the theme of this surprisingly angry, polemical story.
James Chester, reading it a couple of years ago, wrote that the characters “sound like mouth pieces for the author rather than people, even people in a Henry James story.” True. The reason to read it is to find out what James thinks, which maybe goes against the theme.
John Delavoy was a writer of exquisite but smutty fiction. Smutty, at least, in the view of Mr. Beston, a magazine editor, who will not publish even a summary of Delavoy’s work but is dying to publish something, because of Delavoy’s celebrity. The narrator and the writer’s sister, who possesses the only portrait of Delavoy, collude with and then resist the editor. Perhaps they marry at the end.
James had, in 1896, written a piece, at his death, on Alexandre Dumas fils, which was rejected by an editor as “shocking to their prudery”; thus James’s anger and thus the germ of the story, which is better described in James’s notebook than in the story itself:
They want to seem to deal with him because he is famous – and he is famous because he wrote certain things which they won’t for the world have intelligibly mentioned. So they desire the supreme though clap-trap tribute of an intimate picture, without even the courage of saying on what ground they desire any mention of him at all.
Doesn’t changing the writer from French to English stave in the effect? Who could be a possible equivalent in English? Thomas Hardy gave up novels in part because he was sick of the magazine censorship. I will just imagine that Delavoy is a Frenchified Hardy. Or a London Zola, whatever that would be like. Of course, James gives little idea about Delavoy’s work, not a line, not a book title. The editor says that he wrote about “’the relations of the sexes,’” which is a bit vague, but even a summary of the author’s best book “’would have cost me five thousand subscribers.’”
Even if the prudery has withered, James’s complaint about the preference for celebrity over art still stings.
“’[The editor] wants – what do they call the stuff? – anecdotes, glimpses, gossip, chat; a picture of [Dealvoy’s] ‘home life,’ domestic habits, diet, dress, arrangements – all his little ways and little secrets, and even, to better it still, all your own, your relations with him, your feelings about him, his feelings about you: both his and yours, in short, about anything else you can think of.”
The “else” being Delavoy’s work, his art. Anything but that.
James is engaged in a futile act of self-defense here.