Friday, June 7, 2013

Out of England it’s but a garish world! - Henry James, travel writer

“A Passionate Pilgrim” is about eighty pages long in the Edel edition of The Complete Tales of Henry James, and most of them are about what I would call the story, the American sap who will win his fortune or die.  Not die trying, simply die of purposelessness once he fails to acquire someone else’s Worcestershire country house.  It is a peculiar story.  This idea James has that Europe is literally fatal to Americans, where does that come from?  I suppose it is symbolic.

I want to look a bit at the other pages, though, which in terms of the story are nothing but the narrator and the sap traveling around England as tourists.  They are written differently than the “story” sections.  They are written like this:

We went forth without loss of time for a long walk on the hills.  Reaching their summits, you find half England unrolled at your feet.  A dozen broad counties, within the vast range of your vision, commingle their green exhalations.  Closely beneath us lay the dark, rich flats of hedgy Worcestershire and the copse-checkered slopes of rolling Hereford, white with the blossom of apples.  At widely opposite points of the large expanse two great cathedral towers rise sharply, taking the light, from the settled shadow of their circling towns, - the light, the ineffable English light!  “Out of England,” cried Searle, “it’s but a garish world!”  (250)

Aside from that concluding exclamation, this sounds exactly like the kind of magazine travel writing James was doing around the same time (see the earliest entries in Italian Hours, his collection of pieces about Italy).

Rhetorically, the tipoff that James has changed modes are the second person address – “you find… at your feet” – and the inconsistent switch to present tense.  When the characters are in the sentence, the verb is in the past tense (“lay”), but when they are absent James the travel writer is pretending that I am there with him right now (“rise,” “commingle”).  That last one, the commingling of green exhalations, I will bet that the reader who does not find that amusing is going to be routinely exasperated by James.

The two characters actually first interact as tourists (they first encounter each other in a restaurant but do not really meet) while visiting the palace at Hampton Court where “rooms…  follow [note tense] each other in endless succession” and “[y]ou pass from green painted and panelled bedchambers” etc.  I think I have made that point.  It is an odd effect, and not what I would call artful, this piling of one kind of writing atop another.

Not that the travel writing does not have its own interest.  James has fallen in love with England.  The narrator “had imagined that Oxford was the best thing in England,” so the characters visit Oxford, where the story eventually ends.  “No other spot in Europe, I imagine, extorts from our barbarous hearts so passionate an admiration…  the swallows niche more lovingly in the tangled ivy [at Magdalen College], I fancied than elsewhere in Oxford” (290-1)

Someday I will visit Oxford and see those swallows for myself.


  1. Contra Searle, I was reading an Australian author's introduction to her own book yesterday, and the "verdure of Northern lands," she said, meaning Britain especially, was "almost metallic" -- and the colonial-British ability to appreciate leaves was unsubtle -- they need them "strong," she said --

    "Eyes accustomed to the strong -- almost metallic -- verdure of Northern lands, to the picturesquely rent, cleft, furrowed and scalloped leaves of deciduous trees, could not do justice to the smooth narrow [eucalyptus] leaf, evasive in its hues of green-grey and green-blue, ranging in shape from the faint crescent of a moon one night old to the round curve of a reaping hook. A leaf exquisite in its grave simplicity as the lotus bud on the shrine of Gotama."

    (Catherine Martin, The Incredible Journey, 1923)

  2. Yeah, I would not trust that Searle fellow's judgment too far. Although I have some doubts about the truth of your quotation, too.

    Some of the Australian books you have been writing about lately sound like dispatches from another planet.

    1. Do they need more context? I've been writing about Colonial novels but I haven't really said anything about colonialism, and all the migration from, mainly, the British Isles (which affects Martin's paragraph; the Australian bush kept being compared cruelly to the green gentle hillsides, worked fields, etc, of "home," and Australian authors put in a fair amount of time writing aesthetic defences of gullies and gum trees).

      "Metallic" is a weird word-choice for whatever Northern verdure she's thinking of, and I'm not sure about "strong," but "exquisite in its grave simplicity" for a gum leaf is good -- narrow curve, single line of veining down the middle, slightly raised rim around the edges, and a calm muted colour -- without fringes or multiple prongs or mottles or anything like that -- just a sort of Nike swoosh of a leaf.

    2. Maybe, I dunno. Not this one certainly: "a dead horse, a dead kangaroo, a dead wallaby."

      The leaf description reminds me of Ruskin's exemplary bay leaf.

    3. 'the Australian bush kept being compared cruelly to the green gentle hillsides, worked fields, etc, of "home," '

      How far did colonists have to learn to see Australia and its plants and animals? I read a book showing early paintings and drawings of Australia some years ago and many of the artists didn't seem to know or see what they were painting or drawing. They made their trees or animals look like deformed English trees or animals. True, many were amateurs, but perhaps amateur artists are even more trapped by preconceptions of what they see.

    4. It took a while. My grasp of Australian art is not wonderful but I think that the turning point came in the 1880s when the Heidelberg School set itself up in the bush north-east of Melbourne and took inspiration from the Impressionists. They stepped back from the effort of trying to paint set shapes, which was where the earlier artists had been struggling -- their habit-hands wanted to make all the trees Europe-shaped even when their minds were saying, "No" and "Wait" (this is my interpretation of that "deformed" look, it's the sight of expats not so much ignorant as torn in half, the art-mind and the seeing-mind parting company; and Ruskin, now that Tom's reminded me of Ruskin, complained that English landscape artists in general were too fixed on their rote mark-making) -- and they started to concentrate on the effects of the light.

      There was the idea of breaking away from old systems, which was vital, and this overall reinvention could be transferred from artistic rebellion into the general idea of patriotic Australian rebellion against a foreign untruth (not untrue in its homeland but it became untrue when it was imported), and then it allowed them to aesthetically wake up to the importance of light itself in the Australian bush, among the gum trees, where the sun often falls in a sort of blanched and shattered way among the trunks, or else exists in a dazzled haze, and then there was the Impressionistic attention to areas of colour, which helped them to find ways of dealing with the sparseness, the bushland spindly verticals, the uncanny glaring blue skies, and the grey-greens and green-blues that Catherine Martin wrote about: an extremely delicate and muted palette that didn't look healthy in the European sense of good health.

      You've had other innovations since then (John Olsen, old but still alive, who realised that hillsides of gum trees can look like volumes of exploratory splats) but the Heidelberg School was key.

    5. After reading the Ruskin beautiful bay leaf post: "Beautiful man-made form" wasn't imitating "beautiful natural form," that was the Australian problem.

    6. Geez, that's just going to be buried as a comment here. There is no such thing as self-plagiarism - I hope a version someday shows up somewhere else.

  3. I'm happy that James never abandoned his travel writing, though he did learn to better integrate it into his novels. Later James keeps at it: there are a couple of long sequences about 2/3 through The Ambassadors that are primarily descriptions of the country, of a boating expedition, of a riverside inn, etc that are absolutely wonderful. And the whole of New York Revisited, from '04-05, is great stuff.

    I've never read "A Passionate Pilgrim."

  4. I think that the romantic image of Oxford is somewhat common with many. I just saw an interview with the author Sonia Taitz. She recounted how that when she was accepted, she described the institutions in Biblical terms to her family.

  5. The funny thing is that the characters in the story decide that Oxford is the best thing in England without having visited it. They are just guessing, or hoping. This might color their perception once they get there.

    Nothing has made me want to visit Oxford more than the Javier Marías novel All Souls, but that is because the progtaonist spends most of his time scrounging in an extraordinary set of used bookstores.

  6. ...which inspires me to want to read All Souls.
    There were some extraordinary second-hand bookshops in Oxford but they closed some years ago.

  7. Perhaps the bookshops all moved to Sedbergh.

  8. The Sedbergh collection don't look anything like as extraordinary- or even as many- as the Oxford bookshops forty years ago. There was one which was said to have had to close half its rooms when a fire-and-safety officer got lost for half an hour inspecting it.

  9. Maybe they moved to Hay-on-Wye.

    That's the Welsh bookstore town, right? I am spoiling my joke.

    The Marías novel does give the impression that he was lucky enough to be at Oxford during a used bookshop Golden Age.