James for the General Reader
The point upon which people differ is the artistic one, and the fact that such differences of opinion exist makes it possible that two writers as widely separated as Mr. Henry James and Mr. Rider Haggard, for instance, find appreciative readers in the same year of the same century—a fact which the literary history of the future will find it hard to explain.
—F. MARION CRAWFORD, THE NOVEL: WHAT IT IS (1893)
By the time he was writing his “major phase” masterpieces in the early 1900s, Henry James had perfected his pose of nonchalance about the mass audience’s rejection of his work. His much-cited 1890 letter to his brother, William, after the failure of The Tragic Muse epitomizes this attitude as it bravely resolves to embrace self-reliance:
One must go one’s way and know what one’s about and have a general plan and a private religion—in short have made up one’s mind as to ce qui en est with a public the draggling after which simply leads one in the gutter. One has always a ‘public’ enough if one has an audible vibration—even if it should only come from one’s self. I shall never make my fortune—nor anything like it; but—I know what I shall do, and it won’t be bad.1
By now, it has become a critical commonplace to note that this stance was “mere bravado” and that this was the same Henry James who, in pursuit of literary fame and fortune, was willing to publish his works widely in periodicals considerably less burnished than the Atlantic.2 Despite his self-fashioning as the indifferent “Master,” James had an intense and very human interest in the popularity of his works—not least because he depended on his royalties for his sustenance.
James was actually quite active in pursuing more popular venues for his work, venues whose payments would keep the wolves away from the door, but he was equally interested in reaching a mass audience, even when the remuneration was less than lucrative. While discussing James’s little-acknowledged but significant involvement with syndication, Charles Johanningsmeier cites a telling letter James wrote to William Dean Howells after publication of The Turn of the Screw. James called the novella an “abject, down-on-all-fours potboiler,” but confessed that he would “do it again & again, too, even for the same scant fee.”3 Johanningsmeier estimates that James “published over 600 pieces of fiction and nonfiction in periodicals during his lifetime” and notes that he chose to publish a number of his works in newspapers before any other medium.4 Such a significant exposure in the most mass-accessible periodicals of the day means James was very much a known quantity for the larger mass of the reading public. These publications presented him as a “celebrated author” and a “famous” and “noted novelist,” promoting his notoriety more than his aesthetics when advertising his stories.5
James was, in short, well known for being well known; he was a “name” in the literary world and would have been recognized as such by even the least-literary of audiences. His name would surely have been missed if he were left off any lists purporting to recommend the “best books” to novice or aspirational readers. The readers of Hamilton Wright Mabie’s reading advice columns in the Ladies’ Home Journal would certainly have expected to be told to read James, and Mabie would have known that they were waiting for James. Herein lay a dilemma: Mabie liked to recommend the most “current” books by living literary legends, but the Master was at the time writing works in his experimental, highly wrought, late-phase style. He was generally considered a “difficult” writer to read. If James, the least accessible of all authors at the time for general readership, was nevertheless necessary for cultural capital, what then were the imperatives for creating a readable James? Though Mabie’s mission was ostensibly to direct his readers towards the best books of the day, he could hardly recommend James’s contemporaneous works to an audience that was still inclined towards more “popular” fiction like Kate Douglas Wiggin’s. The solution for Mabie when it came to James, even more so than in the case of Howells, was to direct his readership towards the books of yesterday—most frequently Roderick Hudson, The Princess Casamassima, and The Portrait of a Lady. Mabie’s readers could thereby tick James off their list of “important authors to read” without having to bully their way through The Golden Bowl.
Having spent nine years contributing ninety-seven columns to the Journal, Mabie penned three final columns that were published in February, March, and April 1912. This triptych functions as a closing argument, the final thoughts with which he wishes to leave his readers as he moves on to his career as cultural attaché. The titles—“Living Novelists Best Worth Reading” (February); “Are the Later Poets Worth Reading?” (March); and “Which Way Is Literature Going?” (April)—signal his intent to end his time at the Journal with a commencement address of sorts, consisting of predictions that will serve his readers after he no longer appears monthly at their doorstep. By 1912, James’s career was also nearing its close; after the unsuccessful publication of the New York Edition in 1907–9, he completed only one more novel, The Outcry, in 1911, and he had become the recipient of honorary degrees from Harvard and Oxford—the sure sign of an aging lion. The declining James did not fare poorly in the parting columns of the departing Mabie—he was generally acknowledged as important, but primarily as a relic of the past, certainly not as a harbinger of the future. James is the first author Mabie mentions in his column “Living Novelists Best Worth Reading,” and he comes in for considerable praise as “one of the very small group of living writers to whom the word ‘distinction’ can be applied” (February 1912, 42). Mabie follows this immediately with a caveat, articulated first seriously and then with a suggestion of ridicule, about James’s late works: “There are many readers who find his later stories fatiguing in their demands on attention, and this is a serious fault in a work of literature, just as the failure to explain itself is a serious defect in a painting. There was a substantial grain of truth in the statement of a witty woman that ‘The Wings of the Dove’ got its title because it has neither head nor tail.” This said, Mabie does hold out hope for the reader who does not want to trudge through Milly Theale’s career—“one has to go back only a few years to find Mr. James writing stories of the rare quality of observation and style of ‘The American’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady.’”
James clearly posed a problem for the reading advisor who like Mabie needed to steer his readership towards some sophisticated literature, but who found The Golden Bowl “a subtle study of American and Italian temperaments” saddled nonetheless with a “very disagreeable plot” (March 1905, 21). Mabie’s compromise, to praise the later James’s “technical skill” but to downplay the “interest” of James’s late works, allowed his readers to self-select; the highbrow benefits of James would accrue just as readily to the reader of Portrait as to the reader of The Ambassadors. One important step was to decouple James from a continental realist, or naturalist, lineage that might associate him with Émile Zola, who Mabie says “took in many cases the most revolting, gross and repulsive aspects of life and pictured them with very little shading” (September 1905, 18). Instead, Mabie associated James with a more genteel notion of literariness. On numerous occasions, Mabie responds to reader requests for “a course of fiction reading” with lists that present early James (Portrait, Roderick Hudson) on a continuum with Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Scott, and Austen (October 1908; October 1905; September 1909). In his March 1904 column, Mabie answers a question about the “three best American novels” by asserting that The Scarlet Letter is certainly one of them, but that the other two spaces could be filled by a number of novels: The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Marble Faun, The Portrait of a Lady, The Rise of Silas Lapham, The Choir Invisible, Pembroke, The Grandissimes, Deephaven, The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While Howells, and certainly James, might have felt themselves outliers in this group (and Mark Twain certainly would have taken umbrage at his inclusion on a list with James Fenimore Cooper), the texts Mabie chooses are apparently easy to conceptualize in a continuum with transcendentalist romance, with regionalism, and with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mabie consistently overlooked the aesthetic and methodological distinctions made by James and Howells at their most critical, allowing his readers to blur the line between James and James Lane Allen.
This elision was the key strategy by which Mabie rendered James “general reading.” By representing James’s fiction as of a piece with more genteel works, Mabie in fact makes it possible for his readership to approach James with a wholly different set of expectations, and he facilitates a range of possible reader responses that might seem unintuitive, even philistine, to orthodox James readers. This is of course not to say that such reactions were entirely inconsistent with James’s novels even without the critical intervention of a Mabie, and Mabie is hardly forthcoming in his interpretations of James—much of our work here is speculative, based on contextual cues and the general scope of Mabie’s recommendations and his stated preferences by way of plots and themes. Mabie is, in fact, atypically reticent when it comes to James—he lists him frequently as someone to read but does not offer protracted meditations on the significance of individual works. However, in recommending only certain early James novels, and through the company they keep in his columns, he renders more likely a number of strong misreadings that emphasize James’s continuity with romance and popular literature, and de-emphasize his innovations in form. This is why, nearly twenty years after the initial appearance of Portrait, Isabel Archer’s story regularly came to Mabie’s aid as he attempted to prescribe James to the general reader.
Portrait and Mabie’s other favored James novels, Roderick Hudson and The Princess Casamassima, lent themselves fairly easily to readings more in line with a romantic sensibility. The central figure of each of these novels is someone striving for upward mobility, be it financial, social, or both. While the protagonist in each fails in some profound sense, there is always a more conventional foil, someone whose flame does not burn as brightly as the protagonist’s, but who is the last character standing at the end, and who renders commentary on the destroyed protagonist. These are the figures who James, in his New York Edition preface to Portrait, dismissed as the “fishwives who helped to bring back to Paris from Versailles, on that most ominous day of the first half of the French Revolution, the carriage of the royal family.”6 James’s protestations aside, it is these figures with whom a Mabie reader was most likely to connect. Indeed, such protest evinces James’s uneasiness about too many people paying too much of the wrong kind of attention—identificatory attention—to these characters. In his New York Edition prefaces, James bemoaned the misreadings wrought on all these novels by critics and nonprofessional readers alike, particularly their attraction to these “diligent” minor characters, who were mediocre counterpoints to the striking, if tragic, protagonists of the novels. Tellingly, Mabie paid no attention to the New York Edition, though he was writing his columns, and recommending James, concurrently with the Edition’s publication. In his November 1904 column, there is no question that the Portrait Mabie recommends is James’s 1881 edition, not the heavily revised New York Edition. But which Portrait was he commending in 1912, or in 1909, for that matter, when he recommends his readers study Portrait as part of a program of reading that contrasts “novels of character study” to “novels of incident”? James’s revisions of Portrait were, of course, extensive and, he hoped, would “have hugely improved the book—& I mean not only for myself, but for the public.”7 But the adviser who reached one of the most extensive mass audiences of the time, Mabie, never mentioned James’s edition, though he mentions the publication of “editions de luxe,” of other authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe (January 1909, 30), and even suggests giving such editions as gifts (December 1902, 19). Though Charles Scribner’s Sons did not advertise the New York Edition widely, Mabie would surely have known about it from the substantial literary gossip surrounding the project; at the very least, he would have seen notices of its publication and early reviews. We may assume, therefore, that the radio silence on the substantial revisions of two of Mabie’s most favored James works, Portrait and Roderick Hudson, is intentional, signaling Mabie’s own attachment to the original pieces, and even more, his presumption that his audience would neither care about nor care for the changes.8
An early column goes a long way towards substantiating this suspicion about Mabie’s rejection of the New York Edition. In November 1904, Mabie reproduces a reader query regarding James’s reputation as “the psychologist in fiction.”9 Asking whether “there [is] not an element of psychology in all fiction,” the reader goes on to ask, “which do you regard as Mr. James’s more important stories?” The reader’s query suggests that James was a familiar name, recognized as an important author, but perhaps a daunting one—all this talk of the “psychologist” made his work sound obscure. Yet if James’s “psychologizing” could be brought into relation with any other fiction (“is there not an element of psychology in all fiction?”), he might be recuperated as an accessible author, perhaps even on a par with other perennial favorites of Mabie’s columns and readers, like F. Marion Crawford and George Washington Cable. Mabie’s response essentially reiterates the critical stance against which James was struggling in “The Art of Fiction.” He explains that “there is an element of psychology in all fiction which deals with character. In novels of adventure this element is very slight because the interest turns almost wholly on incident. There is very little psychology in novels of action; in such stories character is disclosed by what men do, not what is said about them.” Juxtaposing Thackeray to James, Mabie finally comes around to his point: “[James’s] later work has shown an excess of the analytical over the dramatic or narrative interest, and while much of his work has high value as an intellectual feat or achievement it has comparatively slight value as fiction, and therefore, as literature.” There is little subtlety to unpack here—Mabie is clearly marking the “intellectual feats” of James’s late phase as violations of the rules of readerliness, and therefore unworthy of the designations “fiction” or “literature.” He goes on further to say that the people who appreciate The Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors do so because they are “most deeply interested in James as a type of mind”—reading these books is apparently akin to reading psychological case studies of the author—and he recommends that his readers “who are most deeply interested in him as a writer of novels” spend time with The Passionate Pilgrim, Roderick Hudson, The American, and Portrait, and even lists some short fiction, “Lesson of the Master” and “The Real Thing” (November 1904, 20).
It is therefore little wonder that Mabie never recommends the New York Edition. James’s revisions for the Edition rendered these earlier, more amenable, novels more like other late-phase James, and thereby rendered them less “literary,” in the Mabiean definition, and therefore necessarily unattractive to the Mabie audience. The failure of the New York Edition, despite James’s reputation and his desirability as cultural capital, can be understood as at least in part a function of the following: by altering his original texts, James made it more difficult to identify hopeful alternatives to his failed romantic protagonists and thereby made his fiction less accessible to a general reader. Mabie’s silent treatment was of a piece with, and perhaps in some way even an instrument of, the Edition’s eventual failure. But whatever his opinion of the James of the 1900s, Mabie persisted in recommending the James of the 1870s and 1880s to his self-improving audience.
Sympathy for Whom? Roderick Hudson
Mabie mentions Roderick Hudson more frequently than he does any James work aside from The Portrait of a Lady, and he typically does so when he wants to suggest an entry-level James novel. Hudson is the representative James novel in Mabie’s “Best American Novels” list (June 1905) and in “A Beginning in the Best Fiction” (October 1905); it is listed in “Some Standard Novels,” a column directed towards young readers (September 1907); in addition, it is listed as a positive alternative to “psychological James” in the November 1904 column—in all cases, Mabie’s target is a beginning reader, a reader for whom Hudson may be the very first James novel ever attempted. Roderick Hudson works well as a beginner’s James novel, as it turns out, because it lends itself to a variety of identification practices; in recommending it, Mabie casts a wide net for the multiply motivated Ladies’ Home Journal reader.
Roderick Hudson originally appeared serially in the Atlantic Monthly from January through December 1875 and was published in book form in America before the end of the serial run by J. R. Osgood in November of that year. James revised the text significantly in preparation for the first publication in book form in England by Macmillan in 1879, and the next American edition of the novel, bound under the Houghton Mifflin imprint in 1882, consisted of sheets imported from this 1879 edition. The American reader of Mabie’s columns thus would have had access to two different editions of the novel; the purchaser would most likely buy the 1882 Houghton edition, and the library patron might encounter either. The temptation is great to speculate about the edition Mabie most likely had in mind, as James’s primary concern in the 1879 revision was to tone down the sentimentally inflected prose stylings of 1875, and a Mabie preference in either direction would therefore mark his predilections more precisely. In the absence of any evidence in this realm, however, we must content ourselves with knowing that he was drawn to one of the earlier texts of the novel, while he was apparently not driven to recommend the revision (if he even read it) when it appeared in 1907.10
Contemporary reviewers in 1875 hailed the novel as the first offering of a promising young novelist, though they did not hesitate to find fault with the characterizations: the reviewer for the Chicago Tribune found Mary Garland and Rowland Mallet “uninteresting in their undeviating goodness,” and the New York Herald contended that “Mrs. Hudson is the only real person in this last book of Mr. James’, and consequently she is the least interesting.”11 There were problems with the ending, too; though the Herald writer initially contends that this matter is just a tic of James’s—“none of his books end in a conventional way”—he or she is not able to sustain that philosophical tone, complaining by the end of the review that Roderick “behaved like a lunatic. In fact, he was little better than insane at the best of times”; in short, he “is the most exasperating character.12 The Tribune’s reviewer imagines a more satisfying alternate ending in which “Rowland should have recognized the exacted worth of Christina’s native character, and by marrying and lifting her out of an evil atmosphere give her the opportunity that she helplessly strove for, of salvation.” This coupling, the reviewer contends, would be “far more artistic” because it would be in line with the “law of counterparts,” but it is a suggestion strikingly at odds with all of James’s depictions of their interactions.13
The element of the earlier text that James found most lacking is in fact the condition for Roderick Hudson’s suitability to the Mabie audience. James’s preface to the significantly revised 1907 text, the first offering of the New York Edition, sees the author distressed that he had failed in the earlier iteration to make his eponymous protagonist more “sympathetic”: “My mistake on Roderick’s behalf—and not in the least of conception, but of composition and expression—is that, at the rate at which he falls to pieces, he seems to place himself beyond our understanding and our sympathy.”14 But it is not at all apparent from Mabie’s recommendations that Roderick was unsympathetic, or even that he was the character with whom the audience might be supposed to sympathize. While Roderick is the “genius” of the piece, his hardworking doppelganger, Sam Singleton, might be said to more closely resemble the diligent, dutiful reader Mabie worked to cultivate in his advisory columns, and Roderick’s fiancée, Mary, closely resembles the young women Mabie frequently addresses in his columns.
As we have already seen, Mabie continuously constructs his readers as eager seekers of self-culture and social cultivation. But he does so while frequently cautioning that reading properly is something that must be worked at, not something that can be expected to come naturally: “There is no easy way to that kind of knowledge of the classics which makes them supremely interesting. One must be educated before one can really comprehend a profound or valuable work of art” (November 1902, 17). While Roderick initially travels to Italy to undertake this manner of diligent study, he ultimately relies much more heavily on his innate talents, waiting for the elusive muse to strike rather than pursuing a steady course of work. This cavalier attitude is of course part of his folly, and James’s indictment of this approach is perfectly consistent with the attitude Mabie wants to foster in his readers that patient and dutiful application is the only path to real achievement. While cautioning his readers against succumbing to the “pedantic” study of detail typical of some scholarly work—“The end of art is to deepen and intensify the sense of life, and that end is missed when one becomes absorbed in the study of language, form, conditions and circumstances” (April 1902, 17)—encouraging them instead to cultivate “a cooperative imagination,” as the only avenue for proper appreciation of art, Mabie always offers a caveat. “Nevertheless,” he continues, “there ought to be method in reading, and reading ought to be study in the truest sense” (September 1903, 15). An ideal Mabie reader combines the cooperative imagination with application, and thereby tends to diverge from the increasingly dissolute ways of the mercurial Hudson. Mabie even uses the figure of the diligent painter to underscore his contention that working on reading is the only way to become someone at ease with reading:
It is folly for a painter to talk about spontaneity until he knows his brushes, his pigments, and his methods. He must undergo a searching education of many years before he can begin to be spontaneous. [ . . . ] Artists know that to keep themselves prolific and inventive they must keep all the time at work; in other words, in an attitude which keeps all their thoughts and skills together. (May 1905, 18)
This attitude of continual education, of diligent application to craft, is a Sam Singleton attitude. A devoted and sympathetic Mabie reader would, one imagines, be profoundly disinclined to entertain any implications of pedantry or plodding in James’s depiction of the dutiful landscape watercolorist. His dedication to work, and his discipline, mark him as one poised for true, sustained success.
Roderick, on the other hand, is a cautionary tale for the Mabie reader who has paid attention to the importance of application and the dangers of relying too much on uncultivated, “innate” talents. In a particularly telling column in this regard, the November 1906 “Mr. Mabie on the Home as a School,” Mabie expiates at length on the importance of inculcating discipline and obedience in small children. The alternative seems close to the portrait James paints of his wayward sculptor. “The training of education which makes boys keen and ‘smart’ makes them superficially successful, and, for the most part, the most lamentable failures in the end. What is needed in America is fewer ‘smart’ men and more able ones; and the beginning of real ability, like the beginning of real success, lies in the will, not in the intellect.” The “smart” student is too frequently left to his own devices, and at best this leads to an incomplete realization of talents, at worse, to dissipation and failure. Discipline is the key to avoiding such bad ends, but an alarming number of young people (boys in particular, though Mabie does apply his precepts to girls as well) have been treated too indulgently: “Through carelessness, easy-going ways, mistaken notions of good-fellowship, too many boys go to school without having learned to obey any one, to deny themselves any pleasure, or to submit to any authority; they do not know how to study, to speak their own language, to meet people with courtesy, or to make themselves and others happy” (November 1906, 22). These are all faults of the Roderick Hudson we meet in the opening chapters of James’s novel; when he first meets Rowland Mallet, he has arrived in a peevish mood at the house of their mutual friend, complaining “of the heat, of the dust, of a shoe that hurt him, of having gone on an errand a mile to the other side of town and found the person he was in search of had left Northampton an hour before.”15 He continues by responding rather impertinently to a compliment, turning it into what Mabie would certainly classify as a “smart” rejoinder: “‘A connoisseur?’ he cried, laughing. ‘He is the first I have ever seen! Let me see what they look like’; and he drew Rowland nearer to the light” (RH, 63). His talk is less conversation than soliloquy; “Hudson rattled away for an hour with a volubility in which boyish unconsciousness and manly shrewdness were singularly combined. He gave his opinion on twenty topics, he opened up an endless budget of local gossip, he described his repulsive routine at the office of Messrs. Striker and Spooner, counselors at law, and he gave with great felicity and gusto an account of the annual boat-race between Harvard and Yale, which he had lately witnessed at Worcester” (RH, 65). Hudson is, of course, indulged in his “youthful grandiloquence” by both Mallet and his cousin Cecilia; the latter exclaims that Roderick is “too delicious” and the former excuses Hudson’s impertinence as “a sign of the natural self-sufficiency of genius.” But these are precisely the kinds of indulgence that Mabie diagnoses as the precursors to pampered failure.
Roderick’s early home training comes in for much of the blame at the beginning of the novel; though his hapless and indulgent mother did manage to get him into a position in a law firm, we learn from Cecilia that “he grew up á la grâce de Dieu; he was horribly spoiled” (RH, 67). And indeed, this early permissiveness wrecked havoc with his schoolwork: “Three or four years ago he graduated at a small college in this neighbourhood, where I am afraid he had given a good deal more attention to novels and billiards than to mathematics and Greek. Since then he has been reading law at the rate of a page a day.” Roderick never formed the habit of application, and he never feels the urgency of careful study, and yet Cecilia and Rowland read his behavior not as a serious character flaw that will likely reemerge in any context but as a sign that “[g]ood, bad, or indifferent, the boy is an artist—an artist to his finger’s ends.” To be a “true artist” is apparently to be absentminded, dilettantish, and mercurial. These assumptions lead throughout the novel to characters continually excusing the “genius” for a lack of application; after he reaches young manhood, Roderick’s friends simply continue the kind of coddling that his widowed mother began. Even Rowland, who initially takes Roderick to Europe precisely to institute a program of rigorous study, cannot stop himself from indulging his charge because he trusts so much to the primacy of artistic inspiration. As Mabie would have predicted, the absence of discipline leads ultimately to Roderick’s dissipation and ruin.
James’s Hudson suffers because his artistic impulses are not tempered by discipline, but James certainly does not mean to suggest that discipline should subsume artistic inspiration—and neither does Mabie, either in the case of the artist or in the case of the “average” reader (or his or her children). In fact, when Mabie wants to describe home training that can combine proper discipline with “an atmosphere of poetry,” he turns to the example of Goethe, the uber-romanticist, noting that he “spoke of his mother as the inspirer of his poetic life”:
Her love of story-telling, the vivacity of her nature, the freedom of her imagination, a certain generosity and spontaneity which pervaded her, did more, probably, to give the boy a key to the world than any other power or influence. Every home ought to teach children definitely, and persistently how to obey, how to do their work, how to concentrate their attention; but it ought also to surround them with an atmosphere of poetry. This is a working world, and getting to be a very rich world; but if we are to be taught how to work rather than how to live it is going to be a more unhappy world than it has ever been before. In every home there ought to be the books, and, above all, parents ought to open Nature, art, literature, religion to the children, and make them understand at the start that while the world has many workrooms it is not a workshop. (November 1906, 22)
Following Mabie, then, we can read Hudson’s mother as failing on two counts, first by indulging his tendency to dissipation, and then by her attitude towards sculpture, which Cecilia describes as a “holy horror” of “an insidious form of immorality” (RH, 68). Roderick, while pitiable on this score, is not likely to be “sympathetic,” strictly speaking, to the Mabie reader—nor does he need to be for the novel to serve well the Mabie reading public. As the protagonist easily becomes a textbook example of the perils of imprudent upbringing and improper adult behavior, James’s novel becomes a cautionary tale that offers instead a alternate hero, one whose industry and talent combine to leave him standing—and, while not emotionally unscathed, functioning—at the end of the book. This hero is Sam Singleton, a diligent and quietly inspired American landscape watercolorist who has, like Hudson, come to Italy to perfect his art. Singleton’s steadiness at the discovery of Roderick’s lifeless body is admirable—he is not unfeeling, exclaiming that “he was a beautiful fellow,” but he is also undaunted by the task of returning to face Hudson’s mother and fiancée with the news. “‘I remember [whom I will have to face],’ the excellent fellow answered. ‘There was nothing I could ever do for him in life; I will do what I can now’” (RH, 387). Singleton could, of course, have done a good bit for Hudson in life, particularly by way of example; while he had “painted worthless daubs and gave no promise of talent” on initially arriving in Rome, “[i]mprovement had come . . . hand in hand with patient industry, and [Singleton’s] talent, though of a slender and delicate order, was now incontestable” (RH, 118). Singleton’s comportment throughout the novel is equally admirable, both modest and pleasant, though of course it comes in for ridicule from Hudson on numerous occasions. When they meet after a long separation in the Swiss Alps, just before Roderick’s death, we learn that Sam had been using in “economic” industry the period over which Roderick had been dissipating and declining. Even Hudson is now inclined to see the convergence, even the interdependence, of industry and skill that characterizes Singleton. “Roderick had said to Rowland at first that Singleton reminded him of some curious little insect with a remarkable mechanical instinct in its antennae; but as the days went by it was apparent that the modest landscapist’s unflagging industry grew to have an oppressive meaning for him. It pointed a moral, and Roderick used to sit and con the moral as he saw it figured in Singleton’s bent back, on the hot hill-sides, protruding from beneath his white umbrella” (RH, 360). While the jaundiced James reader, and indeed James himself, might be expected to share Roderick’s cynicism regarding Singleton, whom he likens to “a watch that never runs down,” it is impossible to deny that Singleton’s method, and his “equability,” is infinitely preferable in the end to Roderick’s volatility, or even to Rowland’s enabling dependence on Roderick. James portrays Singleton as having a “quickened sense of his indebtedness to a Providence that had endowed him with intrinsic facilities,” a characterization that belies admiration, or at the very least authorial wistfulness, more than cynicism. A Mabie reader would certainly be more inclined to err on the side of Singleton than on the side of his critic.
Roderick Hudson offers another avenue for identification in the character of Hudson’s fiancée, Mary Garland. While few critics, either contemporaneous or modern, focus on Mary, preferring instead to read the central relationship of the novel as that between Rowland and Roderick, Mary is the heroine of the novel’s love triangle, and thereby inhabits a standard position for sympathetic identification. Her likeness to a significant subset of the Mabie audience would certainly intensify this tendency. As an eager-to-learn but relatively unschooled young American woman in Europe for the first time, Mary approximates the Journal readers who might eagerly follow Mabie’s numerous reading suggestions regarding European history and society or who wrote in with frequent requests for “some recent interesting books about Italy, especially books which will give an impression of the character of the people and their artistic sense” (May 1905, 18). When Roderick fails to meet her on arrival, Mary is able to negotiate cabs and charwomen with “the assistance of such acquaintance with the Italian tongue as she had culled from a phrase-book during the calm hours of the [transatlantic] voyage” (RH, 257). Roderick’s mother, on describing her feeling that she is ill equipped to have entered Italian territory, laments that “[w]e are told that you must know so much, that you must have read so many books. Our taste has not been cultivated. When I was a young lady at school I remember I had a medal with a pink ribbon for ‘proficiency in ancient history’ . . . but I have forgotten about all the kings” (RH, 259). We learn that Mary has worked independently to make up for this lack of “cultivation,” following a course of reading not unlike that prescribed by Mabie in some of his columns directed to armchair travelers. While at home, she has read Madame de Staël’s Corinne aloud to her future mother-in-law in the evenings and spent her mornings working her way through a fifteen-volume history, J.-C.-L. Simonde de Sismondi’s History of Italian Republics, and “a shorter one—Roscoe’s Leo the Tenth.” While she dutifully studies the drier histories that a rigorous dedication to realism would require, she also selects the uber-romantic Corinne, presumably to appeal to Mrs. Hudson’s tastes, but surely not without absorbing herself in the tale of the Byronic heroine. This kind of mix is germane to Mabie’s readers, whom Mabie has pointed towards both the Byronic canon and historical works such as Sismondi’s both in preparation for Italian travels and as a means of vicariously experiencing other lands even when a passage cannot be achieved. “Traveling is one of the most enjoyable and fruitful means of education,” Mabie writes, “but in order to travel it is not necessary to go outside the walls of one’s home . . . if the opportunity to visit Europe does not come travel by the aid of books” (January 1904, 17). He comforts the homebound that, in fact, “[s]ome of the most graphic descriptions of countries have been written by men who have never crossed their boundaries.” To approximate the travel experience, Mabie appends reading lists that will imaginatively locate his readers “on the canals of Venice” through eight titles—including Sismondi’s Italian Republics—or help them approximate “a few weeks in Rome” via Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Eleanor and Hawthorne’s Marble Faun. He likewise insists that the traveler who is in fact making the journey must do some research ahead of time: “Those who travel wisely know that really to see the world one must take the history of the world with him. [ . . . ] No man can cross the ‘Place de la Concorde’ in Paris and really see that ‘brilliant immensity,’ as Mr. James has called it, unless he can recall through his memory and imagination the historic tragedies that have taken place on that magnificent stage” (June 1910, 34). Mrs. Hudson’s sense of the pressure to be prepared would surely resonate with a Mabie reader, whom Mabie has urged to be prepared—and Mary’s reading program, at which Rowland Mallet “could not help laughing,” would hardly seem mockable.
Mary continues to study while in Europe, again, like a good Mabie reader. She approaches her tourism with an industry that both amuses and charms Mallet, perusing conscientiously the books of “artistic or antiquarian reference” to which he directs her. When he takes her out to see the artistic sights of Rome, Mallet marvels at her potential for “development”: “Her enjoyment was not especially demonstrative, but it was curiously diligent. Rowland felt that it was not amusement and sensation that she coveted, but knowledge—facts that she might noiselessly lay away piece by piece in the fragrant darkness of her serious mind. . . . There was something exquisite in her pious desire to improve herself, and Rowland encouraged it none the less that its fruits were not for him” (RH, 269). Mary is both the attentive reader of her Guide to Rome, by John Murray, and an eager student to Mallet; when he tells her that she has “an insatiable avidity for facts,” she responds that she “must lay up a store of learning against dark days,” anticipating the possible return of her armchair traveler days: “After all, I can’t believe that I shall always be in Rome” (RH, 272). The Murray guide, while it would have been eclipsed in popularity by Baedeker’s by the early twentieth century, was the standard guidebook for American and British travelers in the nineteenth century, and it offered its readers a mix of practical and historical information alongside a generous amount of Byron, selected to “guide the finer feelings of the tourist” through atmospheric prompts.16 For example, Murray excerpts act 3, scene 4, of “Manfred,” popularly known as “The Coliseum by Moonlight,” at length in the 1875 Handbook entry on the Coliseum, noting that “the scene from the summit [of a particular staircase] is one of the most impressive, and there are few travellers who do not visit the spots by moonlight in order to realize the magnificent description in ‘Manfred,’ the only description which has ever done justice to the wonders of the Coliseum.”17 As James Buzard notes, Murray’s Byronization of the tourist experience became a commonplace of nineteenth-century travel literature, and his influence accounts perhaps in part for Mabie’s liberal recommendations of Byron to the traveler about to embark for Europe in June 1910—recommendations which include, of course, “The Coliseum at Moonlight.”
Mary’s guidebook and readings exist on a continuum with Mabie’s reader recommendations, and her attitudes echo the attitudes already existing in, carefully cultivated by, or aspirationally pursued by the Mabie reader; it would hardly be surprising that such a reader would sympathetically identify with her plight as Roderick’s spurned fiancée or would root for her to transfer her affections to the sympathetic guide, Mallet, who is always so glad when she pays more attention to his conversation than to her guidebook.
He had been waiting once while they talked—they were differing and arguing a little—to see whether she would take her forefinger out of her Murray, into which she had inserted it to keep her place. It would have been hard to say why this point had interested him, for he had not the slightest real apprehension that she was dry or pedantic. The simple human truth was that the poor fellow was jealous of science. In preaching science to her he had over-estimated his own powers of self-effacement. Suddenly, sinking science for a moment, she looked at him very frankly and began to frown. At the same time she let the Murray slide down to the ground, and he was so charmed with this circumstance that he made no movement to pick it up. (RH, 272–73)
To the romantically inclined Mabie reader, Mallet’s pleasure is fairly transparently—and wholly—a symptom of his affection for Mary, rather than a mixture of the affections and his disdain for prescriptive guidebooks. Indeed, when read with an eye to sympathetic identification with Mary, Roderick Hudson becomes a fairly standard, if not cheerfully resolved, romance plot with a love triangle. Such a reader might even go further, to uncritically agree with Mary that Mallet should really consider writing a book, “a history; something about art or antiquities” (RH, 275), even though this suggestion is presented cynically in the text.
In the Mary-focused reading, the reader sees Hudson’s faults not just as the destruction of an artistic genius but as the ruination of a selfless love. Mary’s final agonized cry at the sight of her fiancé’s body resonates in the reader’s mind as it resonates in Rowland’s mind, but there is a hope, held out at the end, for an end to her premature widowhood. Mallet visits Mary frequently in the home she shares with the woman who would have been her mother-in-law; he tells his cousin Cecilia that he is “the most patient” man. While a practiced James reader might see in this statement futility, or impotence, the romantically inclined might read promise, or the possibility that at some point in future, after she has dutifully seen Mrs. Hudson into a peaceful grave, Mary might turn for companionship to an enduring, patient Mallet.
The Question of Romance: The Princess Casamassima
In the March 1904 column mentioned above, Mabie can be found answering a second reader query with a James novel—this time around, the reader has asked whether “any really great, enduring work of fiction [has] been published in the last ten years.” Mabie first replies that “[i]f you mean by ‘great, enduring work of fiction,’ novel-writing of the very highest order, such as is found in ‘Vanity Fair,’ ‘Henry Esmond,’ ‘Quentin Durward,’ ‘The Mill on the Floss,’ ‘David Copperfield,’ and ‘Eugénie Grandet,’ it cannot be said that such work has appeared in the United States during the last ten years”; however, he concedes that “those years have been peculiarly fruitful in thoroughly sincere, well-constructed and vital pieces of fiction” (March 1904, 16). He lists foremost short fiction, but has also a long list of novels he claims qualify, which include the fourteen-year-old Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) alongside the eighteen-year-old Princess Casamassima (1886).
Perhaps Mabie simply neglected to check publication dates when he was composing his column, or perhaps he was influenced by the theme with which he opened the month’s reflections, “The American Romance.” This mini-essay functions primarily to reclaim working-class subject matter for romance, insisting that “the romance of the workshop is as pure in quality as, and is perhaps greater in mass than, the romance of the castle and the palace.” While he still celebrates the “old romance” of chivalry, Mabie wants to democratize nobility, to argue that “the profoundest interest in life is found in the struggles of the soul, and that pathos and grandeur are as often found in the experience of the peasant as in that of the king.” Though his language remains archaic, speaking of peasants rather than industrial laborers, Mabie also claims this shift as a hallmark of modernity and, most important, as a reader-driven transformation. “So far has this movement gone that the figures which most intensely interest modern readers are those of men and women who are struggling against adverse external fortunes, or who, by reason of isolation or detachment from the larger movements, the main currents, of society, have a marked and homely individuality.” I take up later the ways that this passage explicitly indicates the superiority of regionalism, but for now one can see how it begins to point directly to The Princess Casamassima, particularly as Mabie goes on to trumpet the storyline of “the escape of [the spirit of man] from narrow into large conditions”—in other words, the story of a protagonist’s desire for upward mobility (March 1904, 16). Hyacinth Robinson, with his humble (even ignominious) beginnings but inherent nobility, is at first glance a perfect candidate for the “escape” Mabie suggests is the most “interesting” for modern readers—his readers.
Certainly, Mabie is here careful to couch his discussion in the pure language of spirit rather than in the filthy language of lucre, but a directly preceding discussion of the biographies of Abraham Lincoln and William Gladstone has paved the way for his readers to interpret his words in either register. And a reader who has been directed towards The Princess Casamassima just after digesting such a discussion will also be likely to read with such a trajectory in mind, rooting eagerly for, and probably expecting, Hyacinth Robinson’s elevation from Lomax Place to a spot beside the titularly promised princess. In other words, through the power of proximity, such a reader might be inclined to view The Princess Casamassima as an exemplar of Mabie’s “American romance” despite its English setting and James’s refusal to follow the Horatio Alger storyline for which he lays the groundwork in the opening pages. Indeed, many of the critics who supported the romantic revival in the 1880s and 1890s targeted this novel as a particularly antiromantic abomination, perhaps because of the frustration of that readerly expectation.18 Lippincott’s 1887 review, for example, complains that “there is hardly any story,” as James “carefully eschews the ideal characters, the romantic incidents, which the finer art of the modern novelist has taught him to abandon.”19 And yet, to return to Mabie, we can see that it makes sense that he would point his readers towards the most recent James novel to suggest “American romance” possibilities. In other words, if he were laboring under the expectation that he recommend something by James in response to a query about the best of recent American fiction, better The Princess Casamassima than The Spoils of Poynton or What Maisie Knew (the first eligible James novels of his post–Guy Domville  period). One imagines him feeling compelled to do so, damning the consequences of readerly frustration with the eventual outcome.
Admittedly, this reading also runs counter to many current critical takes on the novel that, following particularly Michael Davitt Bell, see Princess Casamassima as an attempted “realist” offering from a James negotiating “competing versions of realism, impression, and naturalism.”20 At the same time, and in an argument by no means mutually exclusive with Bell’s, Marcia Jacobson has convincingly demonstrated that Princess Casamassima saw James in intense dialogue with the popular genre of the working-class novel. Jacobson sees James recapitulating stock plots from contemporaries George Gissing and Walter Besant while rejecting their simplistically optimistic conclusions.21 James rejected the ways that others worked out the formulae, but he retained the architecture—this extant echo, combined with Mabie’s penchant for recommending novels in generic groupings, makes it all the more likely that a Mabie reader would take Princess Casamassima as another of these types of novels with which he or she was already familiar. Once again, this reader would naturally become aligned with the struggling working-class hero.
Princess Casamassima makes only one other appearance in Mabie’s columns, this time as one of a long list of books under the heading “A Beginning in the Best Fiction,” accompanied by James’s Roderick Hudson. In this case, Mabie seems to be treating Princess as a later step in progressive weight training, the process to which he likens a reading program earlier in the column:
Begin by reading the kind of books that interest you, but be sure that they are the best of that kind. If you have never disciplined your mind don’t begin by trying to read Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” or Spencer’s “First Principles”; read something that aids you by the simplicity of its style. In physical training you begin by lifting light weights; the heavy weights come later, when the muscles have been strengthened by practice. If you like fiction don’t be afraid of that irrational and ignorant condemnation of novels simply because they are novels. There are hosts of trashy stories, but there is also a host of novels which rank with the best literature. Don’t hesitate to begin with novels, but be sure you read only the best. When you have reached the point where you can enjoy the finest fiction you will pass easily to history, to essays, to narrative poetry. (October 1905, 20)
After such a construction of the self-culture process, it makes sense that Mabie would recommend one of his proven favorite James novels first and then the closest thing to a “sequel” that James ever penned. The rest of the “Beginning in the Best Fiction” list follows a similar pattern. Mabie often suggests two works by an author, but they are not always listed in order of publication; rather, the first listed seems to be the title more commonly considered a “standard,” and the second is either less well known or reputed to be more “difficult.” For example, Scott appears first on the list, his Ivanhoe to be followed by Waverly. For George Eliot, Adam Bede prepares readers for The Mill on the Floss. Having read Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, one would apparently be more likely to appreciate (or follow!) Under the Greenwood Tree. All of these literary heavyweights share space on Mabie’s list with Thomas Nelson Page, George Washington Cable, James Lane Allen, and Mary Noailles Murfree; the list is heavily weighted towards “romance” and regionalist works. The list also seems to be structured as a progressive program of reading; readers would start with Scott and arrive at Eliot via Jane Austen and Maria Edgworth; Mrs. Humphry Ward and Harriet Beecher Stowe directly precede Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James, and Howells; a cluster of local color writers eventually make way for the last, and edgiest, writer on the list: Frank Norris.
Hyacinth Robinson is an autodidact in the Mabie mold, and he does finally refuse to commit a murder that would upend the balance of society, for he appreciates the cultural products that social and economic hierarchies have produced. He discovers that he values the “splendid accumulations of the happier few, to which doubtless the miserable many have also in their degree contributed.”22 He reflects that these cultural works, though they have been “based if you will upon all the despotisms, the cruelties, the exclusions, the monopolies and the rapacities of the past,” still render “the world . . . less of a ‘bloody sell’ and life more of a lark,” and despite his relative lack of funds, he still has access to them through books. “I smoke cigarettes and in the pauses of this composition recline on a faded magenta divan in the corner. Convenient to my hand in that attitude are the works of Leopardi and a second-hand dictionary. I’m very happy—happier than I have ever been in my life save at Medley—and I don’t care for anything but the present hour.”23 Such is the ideal attitude of the Mabie reader, in blissful, concentrated study, and it is this attitude that ultimately saves Hyacinth from criminality.
An alternate reading, of course, is that Hyacinth kills himself out of grief over having been rejected by his princess in favor of Paul Muniment, coupled with the knowledge that he has lost his working-class childhood sweetheart, Millicent, to the false Captain Sholto. If this love quadrangle is read as the central focus of the novel, it is relatively easy to overlook the anarchist content, and the class commentary appears primarily in service of this romance plot. In other words, The Princess Casamassima can look like any number of traditional plots, and none of them need be troubling to a reader who is in search of a particular reading experience. It is a romance; it is a story valorizing self-culture; it is a tragedy; it makes itself available to a number of different Mabie readers with relative ease.
Romance Realized: The Portrait of a Lady
Roderick Hudson and The Princess Casamassima were both acceptable James novels, but Mabie recommended neither of them as frequently as he mentioned The Portrait of a Lady. Among professional critics, he was not exceptional in his appreciation of Portrait; in the early 1900s, the novel was already generally considered to be James’s masterpiece, the hallmark against which all his other works were judged. To a certain extent this revisionary appreciation of Portrait could be attributed to the 1901 publication of the controversial The Wings of the Dove. Professional reviewers were divided about Wings and frequently tried to redeem James by recourse to Portrait—as did the reviewer for the Chicago Evening Post, whose article is worth quoting at length for its thorough detailing of the elements of Portrait that held primary appeal:
The world moves and of course the growing artist must move with it; but that twenty-two years should have led us on from ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ to ‘The Wings of the Dove’ is a matter more for amazement than for pleasure. [ . . . ] Isabel Archer is just as attractive in her tender young dignity as Milly Theale, and rather easier to get at; and Lord Warburton is worth a dozen Lord Marks; and old Mrs. Touchett has much more definition and brio than Aunt Maud Lowder; and Henrietta Stackpole is just as staunch a friend as Susan Shepherd Stringham, and much better fun; and quaint, blessed Ralph Touchett is worth all the Merton Denshers that ever could be invented; and Gardencourt is vastly more of this world than is the vague Venetian palace wherein Milly Theale wore her ropes of pearls and held her pathetic little court.24
The Post reviewer goes on to lament that “Mr. James has gone along refining on his own refinements until the delicate has become the impalpable, and the elusive intangible, and the exquisite the all but imperceptible,” and predicts that “[a]ll these characteristics . . . make it unlikely that, with the best will in the world, he will produce a book that the general reading public, even in its upper grades, can greatly care for.” Books like Portrait, though, remain so important that “no fairly discriminating reader would wish to lose” them. James’s adoption of a more rarefied style throws earlier works, like Portrait, into relief, and they are even more essential because James, now a captive to this new style, will probably never be able to produce a sequel.
In 1881, the reviews of Portrait had not been unanimously glowing, but even reviewers like the writer for the New York Times, who found the novel “unsatisfactory in its beginning and in its end,” thought that the novel, if accepted on its own terms, probably marked James’s “highest-water mark in fiction.”25 Even though there were many who, along with John Hay in the New York Tribune, would predict that the novel would “certainly remain one of the notable books of the time,” both the resolution of the plot and the amount of text James had produced to reach that resolution came in for considerable critique in 1881 from reviewers inclined to celebrate James and those whose patience had clearly worn thin.26 The reviewer for the New York Herald conceded that “Mr. James is always at a level of brilliancy in writing which defies a loss of interest, though it seems at time that he should have produced his effects with half the expenditure of force.”27 A more cynical reviewer for the Chicago Tribune complained that “Mr. James thinks that he is writing for a class to whom the simplest statements are enigmas, and he deems it necessary to explain at great length the most natural traits in human nature”; the review closes predicting that “to the general reader the volume will be found entertaining, and will be classed as the best, as it is the longest, Mr. James has yet written.”28
Despite the relative absence of a “plot” in the novel, then, it was supposed that it would have appeal for a general readership and that readers would stick with the story to the (unsatisfactory) conclusion. “In spite of a certain amount of irritation which it will be likely to excite,” wrote the Times reviewer, “in spite of not a little thinness and unnaturalness which belong to the characters . . . one is never quite content to lay aside the volume without knowing what has become of them so far as Mr. James is willing to let his reader know.”29 Even more, a reader bent on collecting James as a part of his or her mental furniture would figure out some way to maintain interest, even if this meant neglecting to read every word of the text. The Chicago Tribune review points to a dynamic of James fetishization that was already in place by 1881; the “general reader” so cynically evoked presumably makes his or her determinations based on a text’s length, or perceived importance, and will embrace the novel on those points, if not on any substantive response to the text itself. And, indeed, a reader of Portrait could very easily skim over some of the slower portions of the text, could blur through long passages of reflection and description to arrive at dialogue, or action, or some key moment that would signal movement. Such a reader might well ignore the frustrating ending in favor of a more salutary possibility that sees Isabel somehow, sometime, finding romantic happiness away from Osmond—despite any Jamesian indications to the contrary—or might choose to console him- or herself with the one happy marriage plot in the novel, that between Henrietta Stackpole and Mr. Bantling.
The beginning of Portrait offers no signal that a romantically inclined reader would need to look elsewhere than to Isabel for interest. Isabel arrives, in the first scene, at a picturesque English country house and is immediately set upon by an eligible lord who is enamored of her American verve and freshness. She is Daisy Miller with better luck, but she also has something Daisy lacked: she has ideals, which have been fostered by her desultory youthful reading. By describing her aunt’s library as “full of books with frontispieces,” James pithily indicates the genteel romantic offerings from which Isabel draws her knowledge of history, politics, psychology, and philosophy.30 It may in fact be going too far to say that Isabel derives “knowledge” of these topics from these books; Isabel is not a deep reader, but she does receive impressions from her books. She enjoys having the “reputation of reading a great deal” (PL, 41), a characteristic that would be attractive to and resonant for the Journal reader who aspires to a similar graceful reputation. But James short-circuits this admiration when he illustrates Isabel’s inability to distinguish between the imagined world of the romance and the reality that surrounds her through her attitudes towards the American Civil War. “[S]he passed months of this long period,” James writes, “in a state of almost passionate excitement, in which she felt at times (to her extreme confusion) stirred almost indiscriminately by the valour of either army” (PL, 41). Isabel has not formulated a politically nuanced opinion of the competing claims of North and South, but she thinks of the war in abstracted romantic terms. She is not unlike the feuding Shepardson and Grangerford families in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, who act as if they are living in a Scott novel and have little apparent awareness of the life-or-death consequences of doing so. For the young Isabel, war is noble, because it is the occasion for nobility in Scott. James leaves little room, with such a portrait, for uncritical identification; at the very least, a reader as young and inexperienced as the Civil War–era Isabel should intimate from the narrative’s tone a critique of such attitudes; older readers should easily acknowledge the youthful silliness and potential danger of Isabel’s uncritical romanticism.
At the moment of her arrival in England, however, Isabel is not sufficiently aware of her naïve idealism, and she behaves in many respects like the heroines of her novels. She is a cheeky American girl, telling her lordly suitor Warburton: “In a revolution—after it was well begun—I think I should be a high, proud loyalist. One sympathizes more with them, and they’ve a chance to behave so exquisitely. I mean so picturesquely” (PL, 71). James has overdetermined his text in such a way that his reader should receive such a statement with bemusement, just as Warburton does; he sets up the reaction even more solidly in the New York Edition than in the original, in which Isabel declares her sympathy with a “conservative” (PL 1881, 502) instead of a “high, proud loyalist.” In the revised version, Isabel is so clearly ventriloquizing stock romantic formulae that we can regard her statement as nothing but that of an inexperienced, but widely read, young girl from the provinces. But Isabel refuses to play the script as written; she rejects Warburton’s proposal of marriage, preferring to gain the experience she knows she lacks. This turn of the screw is designed to paradoxically reengage the romantic impulses of even the most cynical of readers. Presented with a character who knows enough to know that she doesn’t know enough, the unwitting reader, like Ralph Touchett, is supposed to be intrigued, and, like Ralph, the reader should eagerly anticipate the attractive and unpredictable Isabel’s next move. James has set up a bildungsroman founded on an initial rejection of the romantic ideology of a bildungsroman, and he works to disarm his more realistically inclined readers to the point that they become willing to engage in the archetypal romantic form. The remainder of the novel functions to chasten the reader who has presumably conceded so easily to the romance, even under the guise of rejecting romance; the final rejection would come in Isabel’s selfless, noble, but outwardly “conventional” return to her legal husband at the end of the novel.
At least, this is how the novel’s complex engagement with the romance would ideally function; however, some indications exist to suggest that not a few readers would be likely to recast the novel’s ending to conform with readerly desires for a happier, more hopeful, and more dramatic ending. The reviewer for the Times, for example, asserts that Caspar will have “the perilous and unlikely task of consoling the heroine for her first mistake in matrimony,” and while that is not a particularly satisfactory post-Gilbert option for Isabel, he does at least envision a future for Isabel beyond this unhappy marriage.31 The minor problem of how precisely that is to come about is easily dealt with—“by death or divorce, as the reader may elect”—and either possibility seems to comfort the reviewer, not to scandalize him or her. “The novel ends with Isabel refusing to run away with Caspar Goodwood and returning to her worthless husband in a manner suggestive of a sequel,” writes the reviewer for the New York Herald, in a manner suggestive of wish-fulfilling revisionism.32 One might contrast these efforts with Margaret Oliphant’s review of the novel in the March 1882 number of Blackwood’s; she is likewise sure that Isabel and Caspar will find their way back to each other, but she describes this likelihood as a “future stain” and finds this suggestion too similar to a sensation novel and beneath the dignity of James. “Let smaller workmen avail themselves of these easy means of startling the reader; from him we have a right to expect better things.” For the Journal reader, who has not been a fan of James’s tendency to leave his reader, as Oliphant puts it, “usually tantalized, half angry with an end which is left to our imagination,” this more sensational approach may well be a welcome change.33
One imagines the assurance that the Isabel-Caspar reunion will come to pass is largely a result of Henrietta Stackpole’s benediction to Caspar, which is presented in the original with much less editorializing than in the revised New York Edition. In the 1881 edition, Henrietta’s “Look here, Mr. Goodwood . . . just you wait!” is followed simply by Caspar’s reaction, “On which he looked up at her” (PL 1881, 575). In 1908, the reader would receive a bit more direction away from hoping for a Caspar-Isabel reunion; he still looks up at Henrietta, but now “only to guess, from her face, with a revulsion, that she simply meant he was young. She stood shining at him with that cheap comfort, and it added, on the spot, thirty years to his life. She walked him away with her, however, as if she had given him now the key to patience” (PL, 490). In this iteration, Henrietta is not only wrong about the possibility that Isabel will return to Caspar, she is self-deluded, and more than a bit silly in that delusion. It seems quite likely that James felt he needed to add this commentary because of readings like those of Oliphant and the Times reviewer; if a professional reader jumped to such conclusions, and entertained a variety of creative options that would bring about the more-desired conclusion, surely other readers would have done the same. We should not be surprised, in fact, to find readers of Portrait hoping throughout that Isabel might find her way clear to marrying her English lord or her American industrialist while setting aside James’s engagement with the worldviews of aestheticism and the fineness of Isabel’s final sacrifice. And just as surely, James’s attempts to prevent readers from doing so would have made the resulting revision much less satisfactory to those who wanted a happier ending.
James was not looking to frustrate his readers when he revised Portrait. He actually predicted in a letter to his publisher that the revisions “shall have hugely improved the book—& I mean not only for myself, but for the public; this is beyond question.”34 Indeed, the preface to Portrait is the most reader-centric in the New York Edition, signaling that James cared a good deal about the reader reception of this novel in particular. When he talks about the Portrait reader, an anxiety over Henrietta Stackpole follows closely behind. His concern about the reader losing interest in the story segues quickly into a discussion of his “flawed” treatment of Henrietta, whose characterization he claims is a result of an “anxiety” over providing for “the reader’s amusement.” Henrietta haunts James’s discussion of the novel; she reappears like the repressed immediately after he compliments himself on the part of the novel that he feels was most successful and most innovative. Almost before he can finish discussing the chapter in which Isabel’s midnight meditation on the situation with Osmond and Merle “throws the action further forward than twenty ‘incidents’ might have done,” James needs to finish “apologizing” for Henrietta:
[S]he exemplifies, I fear, in her superabundance, not an element of my plan, but only an excess of my zeal. So early was to begin my tendency to overtreat, rather than undertreat (when there was choice or danger) my subject. (Many members of my craft, I gather, are far from agreeing with me, but I have always held overtreating the minor disservice.) “Treating” that of “The Portrait” amounted to never forgetting, by any lapse, that the thing was under a special obligation to be amusing. There was the danger of the noted “thinness”—which was to be averted, tooth and nail, by cultivation of the lively. That is at least how I see it to-day. Henrietta must have been at that time a part of my wonderful notion of the lively.35
James’s prefaces are as concerned with creating a commanding authorial persona as they are about guiding the readerly experience, and in this case he does so at the expense of his younger self. The now older, wiser James represents a youthful self who is not entirely in control of his text, or of his textual effects. The desire to please a particular segment of an audience—the desire to appease an audience notion of “amusement”—drove the younger James to commit a sin against his own better aesthetic judgment, a sin to which the older James would apparently never fall prey. Even though his transgression was minor—an error in the direction of “overtreating” rather than “undertreating”—he still paid more attention to his reception, to his feelings of obligation towards the audience, than to his obligations to the material and to his project. Insofar as the preface offers a narrative in which he promises to correct the error of those ways, James reinforces the persona of the “Master,” and he assures his audience that the text they are about to read in the corrected version has greater integrity than the former version.
James is of course also guiding readerly opinion in this passage about Henrietta by indicating, however subtly, the category to which readers should belong if they were to find themselves attracted to Henrietta’s character. By suggesting that she was produced with a mass taste in mind, and to the end of offering a “lively” figure to entertain the less sophisticated of his readers, James inoculated his conscientious reader against too much affection for Henrietta. Who, after all, would want to be accused of seeking out the “lively” in a work by the Master? This would be, at best, evidence of an aesthetic understanding not fully formed—would evince a similarity to the inexpert young James’s “wonderful notion of the lively.” At worst, an attraction to Henrietta would reveal the reader as a philistine, the kind of reader who could not be expected to understand James’s experiments in psychological narrative and who would need a crutch to get through chapter 42. The reader enters the text predisposed to see Henrietta as a silly character, a light “ficelle,” as James terms her in the preface, rather than a figure who has something significant to offer the piece or something important to say about the central action. Her commentary in the novel becomes, for a reader thus prepared, little more than comic relief, and any comparisons with Isabel Archer would necessarily redound to Isabel’s favor and Henrietta’s detriment.
The fact that James spent so much time trying to steer his readers away from Henrietta suggests that he felt that the original audiences of the novel—whether this was a part of his intent or not—were far too attentive to Henrietta, too interested in her career and her commentary, perhaps even to Isabel’s disadvantage. Perhaps readers were finding in Henrietta too much sensible critique of Isabel’s actions, too many prescient warnings that the romantic Isabel should not have ignored. It is Henrietta, for example, who critiques Isabel for sounding “like the heroine of an immoral novel” and warns her that she is “drifting to some great mistake,” long before Isabel has inherited money or met Gilbert Osmond (PL, 146). It is Henrietta who observes to a newly wealthy Isabel that “the peril for you is that you live too much in the world of your own dreams” and who cautions her that her “newly-acquired thousands will shut you up more and more to the society of a few selfish and heartless people who will be interested in keeping up those illusions” (PL, 188). By the time the reader witnesses Henrietta’s latter offering, she has already been privy to Madame Merle’s inchoate envy over Isabel’s inheritance and has been told in that connection that Merle had “desires which had never been satisfied” (PL, 180). Henrietta is the voice of reason throughout the novel, and she is the one character who a reader can feel is always, uncategorically, on Isabel’s side, who has no ulterior motives for helping her, whether invidious (like Merle or Osmond), romantic (like Warburton or Goodwood), or naïve and clumsy (like the two Touchetts, Ralph and his father).
In the New York Edition, while James does not evacuate the accuracy of Henrietta’s observations, he does tweak the descriptors he uses for her in these key scenes in ways that subtly undermine her as an alternate exemplar in the text. In the scene cited above, in which Henrietta warns Isabel against “drifting towards some great mistake,” the reader of the 1908 version sees Henrietta “glittering for an instant in dismay” (PL, 146) rather than simply “standing there with expanded eyes” (PL 1881, 516). Such changes do great violence to the Henrietta so attractive to readers like the Chicago Evening Post reviewer of The Wings of the Dove, who praises her as “as staunch a friend as Susan Shepherd Stringham, and much better fun.”36 The Boston Literary World reviewer found the 1881 Henrietta and Bantling “two of the most wholesome characters in the book” and would surely have been dismayed to find them, as Nina Baym has characterized it, the victims of a “systematic vulgarization.”37 Baym argues that the new dynamic between Henrietta and Isabel bolsters James’s project of making self-awareness the success Isabel achieves at the end of the novel; after the revisions to Isabel and the attendant changes in Henrietta, the former is “no longer perceived as having failed.”38 This change is all the more reason for Mabie to avoid mention of the New York Edition altogether; such a “success” would hardly have been seen as one by his readership. The unromantic failure to imagine a way out of such a return—even in death, which would be tragic, and romantic, rather than quotidian—smacks of pessimism, and Mabie thought pessimism only justifiable in “the case of Roman satirists of the decadence, and the Russian novelists; but current pessimism is largely a pose or fashion, an affectation or a pretension” (March 1907, 22). Such are sentiments that could easily have been expressed by the no-nonsense Henrietta Stackpole, who utters the final, stubbornly optimistic words of the text: “Look here, Mr. Goodwood . . . just you wait!” (PL, 490). In the 1881 edition, these words are followed simply with the line, “On which he looked up at her” (PL 1881, 575), and the curtain closes on an ambiguous scene that could indeed promise a sequel chronicling Caspar’s final success. In 1908, James adds a long qualification paragraph that seems intended to undercut Goodwood’s hopes by characterizing Henrietta’s phrase as formulaic, empty, “cheap comfort” (PL, 490). Such pessimism has no place in the Mabie universe; it is unproductive, unnecessary, and ultimately shortsighted. It is a telling coincidence that the 1881 Literary World reviewer wrote that “we hear in this book a semi-wail, as it were, of the latter Roman empire.”39 Without the 1881 Henrietta, that “semi-wail” would surely have been a shriek.
Portrait’s success, in the words of one earlier reviewer, was a result of the novel’s “combining a scientific value with romantic interest and artistic merit.”40 Some of the work of the revision was to distance the novel from the “romantic,” and to this we may attribute the lack of interest in the New York Edition from critics like Mabie. Unfortunately for James, such critics had by 1908 established themselves as gatekeepers, if not for all fiction, certainly for “quality” fiction and the high-middlebrow market. Mabie never mentioned the exciting new versions of James’s greatest novels, primarily because the features that made Portrait, Roderick Hudson, and The Princess Casamassima suitable for the general reader were weakened by the New York Edition changes. A more romantic Henry James, one who offered characters consistent with the culture of success promulgated by Mabie and the Ladies’ Home Journal, was to be had in the original versions.
The Unrepentant Romance of F. Marion Crawford
After some selective rereading, James’s oeuvre can indeed offer some of the same satisfactions as the work of another one of Mabie’s perennial favorites, who Mabie frequently set alongside James in reading lists and reviews: F. Marion Crawford. Crawford enjoyed tremendous popular success in the 1880s through the 1910s, publishing forty-four novels over a thirty-year period, alongside numerous nonfiction pamphlets and monographs. As Crawford’s biographer writes, “In open competition, Americans preferred Crawford’s novels to the fiction of Howells, James, and even Mark Twain. Americans liked Crawford’s stories well enough to purchase each of his forty-four volumes by the tens of thousands and to support three collected editions of his work during his lifetime.”41 Contra James, whose collected editions failed miserably in the marketplace, Crawford celebrated the entertaining in literature and wrote frequent critical essays combating the realist manifestos of Norris, Hamlin Garland, and Howells. He saw himself as a content provider whose primary duty was to give the public what it wanted. What it apparently wanted, and what it might have found through effort in James, was the swashbuckling romance of a novel like Crawford’s 1885 Saracinesca.
The reader looking for advice from Mabie’s columns as to what reading was most valuable or pleasurable would be able to discern only the slightest, and most indirect, judgment of relative merit between James and Crawford. Mabie occasionally classifies Crawford’s work as “entertaining,” as fiction “of today,” rather than “enduring” fiction. But he just as regularly includes representative works of Crawford in lists of the “best fiction” or of works of “lasting value.” It might even be said that Mabie favors Crawford over James; he mentions Crawford more—twenty-two times to James’s eighteen mentions—and mentions Saracinesca eight times to Portrait’s six mentions. In the lists that provide the outlines of the Mabie canon, Crawford appears just as frequently as, and in easy proximity with, James (March 1903; June 1905; October 1905; September 1909). It is of course one of the novels listed in a series of “fiction based on the history of Italy” in the June 1910 column “Books about Europe for Home Reading and Travel.” Unlike James, Crawford is a regular feature of Mabie’s lists of books for younger readers; Crawford’s fiction helps Mabie answer in the affirmative the question he asks in “Should the Young Read Novels?” (September 1907) and provides good options for girls fifteen to twenty years old (October 1907). Crawford is more broadly appealing than James, and his less-successful pieces are still “wholesome,” if not classics. This assessment is in marked contrast with James, whose late pieces Mabie dismisses as “disagreeable” (March 1905, 21).
By 1902, when Mabie’s tenure at the Journal began, Crawford had already written most of his most notable works—the Saracinesca trilogy (1887, 1889, 1892); The Cigarette-Maker’s Romance (1890); Corleone (1896); and Via Crucis (1899)—but Mabie dutifully marked the publication of each new Crawford novel with a review and a recommendation. He usually also made reference to Saracinesca in these latter-day notices. In January 1903, in a column flanked by a photograph with the caption “Mr. F. Marion Crawford’s Italian Home,” he celebrates the publication of Cecilia under the heading “A Bunch of Good Stories.” He qualifies his remarks with the acknowledgment that “the season has not been rich in novels which will be read by the next generation, but it has produced a number of well-written stories of wholesome tone and well-worth reading for refreshment and entertainment.” Cecilia “has a novel plot with a suggestion of the Oriental doctrine of reincarnation, contains some very good character drawing,” and, perhaps most important, “takes the reader back to Rome, the scene of some of Mr. Crawford’s best novels; among which are ‘Saracinesca,’ ‘A Roman Singer,’ and ‘The Cigarette-Maker’s Romance.’” The last titles, one assumes, are novels “which will be read by the next generation,” whose members are up to eighteen years old themselves (January 1903, 15). Mabie is still referencing Saracinesca in December 1909, when he welcomes one of Crawford’s last novels, Stradella, as “one of the best of its kind.” Acknowledging that “it lacks the literary quality of the ‘Saracinesca’ series,” Mabie applauds the novel as an exemplary “stor[y] of incident and plot.” “[I]t moves with rapidity, the characters are not submerged in the current of the story, and the atmosphere of artistic feeling, of daring individuality in crime, and of a religious devotion which makes it possible for two vigorously-drawn villains to make provision for prayers for the soul of the man they are about to murder, invest the adventures of the brilliant young singer from the South and the beautiful Venetian girl who elopes with him with something of the splendor of the Renaissance period” (December 1909, 32). A wholesome tone, an accurately observed atmosphere, and an engaging story, are all qualities that recommend a novel for “refreshment,” and refreshment is just as important, and profitable, a goal for reading as “betterment.”
Saracinesca offers the Mabie reader the perfect combination of entertainment and cultural value. Like the “reading up” version of Roderick Hudson, Saracinesca reads in many spots like a travel guide, a narrative interpretive history, and a companion to self-education. From the opening lines introducing the reader of 1887 to the Rome of 1865, which is the story’s setting, Crawford takes an instructional tone, signaling that the previous generation’s attitudes towards dress, aesthetics, and manners, while sometimes quaint, were overall far preferable to current attitudinal trends. The 1865 traveler to Rome, in particular, had a superior approach to the latter-day traveler:
Old gentlemen then visited the sights in the morning, and quoted Horace to each other, and in the evening endeavoured by associating with Romans to understand something of Rome; young gentlemen now spend one or two mornings in finding fault with the architecture of Bramante, and “in the evening,” like David’s enemies, “they grin like a dog and run about the city”: young women were content to find much beauty in the galleries and in the museums, and were simple enough to admire what they liked; young ladies of the present day can find nothing to admire except their own perspicacity in detecting faults in Raphael’s drawing or Michael Angelo’s colouring.42
The problem with contemporary Roman vacationers, it seems, is an unwarranted sense of entitlement to opinions—and half-baked ones at that—about an ancient civilization and complex culture that requires more respectful study than “handy text-books and shallow treatises concerning the Renaissance” (S, 3) can provide. The interested reader, however, may well turn towards some of those “handy text-books” to understand more perfectly what Raphael’s drawing looks like or consult “treatises concerning the Renaissance” for further enlightenment on any extant debates over Michelangelo’s palette. In a move that seems predictive of Mabie’s own tendency to evoke, and then assuage, his reader’s intellectual insecurities, Crawford solidifies his position as an observer of Italian life and culture by denigrating the critical practice of his philistine contemporaries:
This is the age of incompetent criticism in matters artistic, and no one is too ignorant to volunteer an opinion. It is sufficient to have visited half-a-dozen Italian towns, and to have read a few pages of fashionable aesthetic literature—no other education is needed to fit the intelligent young critic to his easy task. The art of paradox can be learned in five minutes, and practised by any child; it consists chiefly in taking two expressions of opinion from different authors, halving them, and uniting the first half of the one with the second half of the other. (S, 4)
The chastening that Crawford’s proleptic narrator offers in the opening pages of the novel would have hit very close to home for the reader of Mabie’s columns who, perhaps, had arrived at Saracinesca through the helpful list of works offered in Mabie’s January 1904 column under the heading “Travels at Home.” Recalling their reading advisor’s assurance that “in order to travel it is not necessary to go outside the walls of one’s home” (January 1904, 17), the Mabiean reader of Crawford might easily disregard the comment on shallow, callow young critics as irrelevant to his position; he is, after all, following expert advice, subordinating personal judgment in the choice of texts to someone who has (presumably) more immediate experience. Or, perhaps, the reader reads Crawford’s critique as directed towards his literary rivals, rather than his readership; this preamble would thereby function to legitimate the novel that follows as accurate, and properly observed, despite its more sensational passages.
Having gestured towards the necessity of intimate, immediate experience of a culture, Crawford proceeds to offer his readers—who perhaps put their trust in Crawford as a well-known expatriate and longtime inhabitant of Italy—an armchair traveler’s romanticized version of prelapsarian (pre-“modern”) Italy, replete with duels, political intrigue, and lovely aristocratic women who retreat to convents to avoid other women’s diabolical schemes. Saracinesca tells the story of Duke Giovanni Saracinesca’s courtship of Corona d’Astradente, who we first meet as the unhappy but faithful and dutiful child bride of an elderly fop. Aside from this marriage, Saracinesca’s affection for Corona is complicated by the attentions of Donna Tullia, a wealthy young widow who has set her sights on the noble title of duchess. Her desire to snare Giovanni, once met with frustration, turns to contempt and a desire for revenge, in which she is joined by the malevolent Ugo del Ferice, a social climber who loathes Giovanni and who attempts to better his social status through deception and manipulation. Though the novel includes some minor complications that ostensibly threaten to imperil the happy match between Corona and Giovanni (the aforementioned elderly husband, a duel with a malevolent nemesis, and a trumped-up polygamy charge based on a case of mistaken identity), the reader knows intuitively that none of these will present any permanent barrier to their happy match. Corona’s elderly husband is dispatched in the first third of the novel, leaving her open to marry after a year of modest retirement; the malevolent nemesis cheats during the duel, but Giovanni is the superior fighter and triumphs at the end (mercifully stopping short of killing his opponent); and the accusation of bigamy is easily disproven. Crawford’s novel is, in short, orchestrated throughout to achieve the maximum of romantic readerly pleasure; drama and complications add just enough angst to make the sigh of resolution thoroughly satisfying.
Crawford is an unabashed meritocrat, and one of the central lessons of the text is the surety that aesthetic beauty is inseparable from moral superiority and that such well-matched inner and outer perfection will always triumph over the poseurs who connive against it. There is never really any doubt that things will turn out fine for our hero and heroine, because their nemeses are internally inconsistent from the very start of the novel. While moral and aesthetic superiority are mapped most clearly onto the most aristocratic characters in the novel, there are also bad aristocratic characters, just as there are bad social climbers. We are told, for example, that Donna Tullia’s “indescribable air of good breeding, the strange inimitable stamp of social superiority which cannot be acquired by any known process of education,” cohabits uneasily with her “distinctly vulgar” dress, voice, and manner. Likewise, the social climbing del Ferice, whose outward appearance is subtle refinement itself, must “perform the daily miracle of creating everything for himself out of nothing” (S, 14–15). Both of these villains dabble in revolutionary politics, but again, what seems to bother Crawford is not revolutionary impulses in themselves but the lack of sincerity behind this particular revolutionary moment, both as a whole and as manifested in Donna Tullia and del Ferice.
When [del Ferice] had begun talking of revolutions to Madame Mayer and to half-a-dozen hare-brained youths, of whom Gouache the painter was one, he had not really the slightest idea of accomplishing anything. He took advantage of the prevailing excitement in order to draw Donna Tullia into a closer confidence than he could otherwise have aspired to obtain. [ . . . ] Del Ferice had hopes that, by means of the knot of malcontents he was gradually drawing together, he might ruin Giovanni Saracinesca, and get the hand of Donna Tullia in marriage. (S, 85)
Donna Tullia plays at revolution because she enjoys the intrigue; she has no real ideological agenda, and her sympathies are easily swayed. Crawford himself seems to have felt some compunction about placing his villains, however superficially, in the revolutionary camp, and he offers a retraction of sorts in his epilogue, where he explains that he was not painting all revolutionaries with the same brush through del Ferice, who he says “represented the scum which remained after the revolution of 1848 had subsided” (S, 450). Like the false revolutionaries in The Princess Casamassima, the revolutionaries of Saracinesca are driven by personal, not world-historical, motives.
Between the Corona/Giovanni and Tullia / del Ferice extremes, a fifth character with an independent storyline offers an interesting, and not immediately explicable, counterpoint. This figure is the expatriate French painter named Anastase Gouache, who initially caucuses with del Ferice and Donna Tullia but who comes to see the error of his ways and joins the Papal Zouaves to fight against the revolutionaries. Gouache is an aristocrat of a sort, a revolutionary aristocrat, with a long pedigree: “His grandfather had helped to storm the Bastille, his father had been among the men of 1848; there was revolutionary blood in his veins, and he distinguished between real and imaginary conspiracy with the unerring certainty of instinct, as the bloodhound knows the track of man from the slot of meaner game” (S, 237–38). He thinks revolutions are aesthetically useful—good subject matter—but he does not really subscribe to a political viewpoint, despite long hours spent in the confidence of the purported conspirators. “It was a good thing for him to paint a portrait of Donna Tullia, for it made him the fashion, and he had small scruple in agreeing with her views so long as he had no fixed convictions of his own” (S, 236). What separates Gouache from his associates is his combination of innate talent and dedication to craft; Donna Tullia observes, in a moment of self-awareness, that “the part she fancied herself playing was contemptible enough when compared with the hard work, the earnest purpose, and the remarkable talent of the young artist” (S, 92). Gouache is the genuine article, but he has fallen into a bad set—probably just because he is from out of town.
When he finally enters into prolonged conversation with a truly principled man, the Cardinal, Gouache readily understands that a “true republic” is not socialist—America and the Netherlands, for example, qualify (as does the ancient Roman Empire)—and that the church is consistent with that kind of republicanism. A “hierarchy existed within the democracy, by common consent and for the public good, and formed a second democracy of smaller extent but greater power” in the early church, insists the Cardinal (S, 242), an explanation that satisfies Gouache and leads him to the conclusion that “if the attack upon the Church were suddenly abandoned, your Eminence would immediately abandon your reactionary policy . . . and adopt progressive ways” (S, 244). Whether Crawford’s political gymnastics here are valid is beside the point; the turn that Gouache makes brings him in line with his true nature, makes his talent and his ethics consistent with each other, and aligns him, finally, with the natural aristocrats of the novel. He appears in the closing scene of the novel, in pursuit of a fugitive del Ferice. After riding for a bit with Giovanni and Corona, he stops to admire their beauty, and then the beauty of the landscape:
Gouache dropped behind, watching the pair and admiring them with true artistic appreciation. He had a Parisian’s love of luxury and perfect appointments as well as an artist’s love of beauty, and his eyes rested with unmitigated pleasure on the riders and their horses, losing no detail of their dress, their simple English accoutrements, their firm seats and graceful carriage. But at a turn of the grade the two riders suddenly slipped from his field of vision, and his attention was attracted to the marvellous beauty of the landscape, as looking down the valley towards Astrardente he saw range on range of purple hills rising in a deep perspective, crowned with jagged rocks or sharply defined brown villages, ruddy in the lowering sun. He stopped his horse and sat motionless, drinking in the loveliness before him. So it is that accidents in nature make accidents in the lives of men. (S, 444–45)
Gouache’s aesthetic reveries cause him to miss del Ferice when Corona and Giovanni meet him around the bend. Corona begs Giovanni to have mercy on the villain, and del Ferice escapes to wreak havoc in the sequel. Gouache’s artistic preoccupations are the reader’s own; his reveries on the fine aristocratic couple and on the landscape are part of the romance that might attract a reader to the novel in the first place. It is fitting, then, that they facilitate continued romance.
While Gouache is like James’s Sam Singleton, admirable because of his dedication to craft and standing in the reader’s position as an observer of the fascinating personages around him, he is not an alternative hero; indeed, his career turns more markedly unheroic in the sequels. Gouache does not need to fill that role because, frankly, the central characters already do so admirably. What female reader would not want it said about her, as it is said about Corona, that she “wielded magnificent weapons, and wielded them nobly, as she did all things” (S, 18)? What man, or boy, would not want to imagine himself, like Giovanni, to be “honest and constant in nature, courteous by disposition, and considerate by habit and experience” (S, 17)? The production of exemplary characters is Crawford’s stated, explicit aim in writing, as he very plainly explains in his 1893 treatise The Novel: What It Is. Written in direct response to the publication of William Dean Howells’s 1891 Criticism and Fiction, Crawford’s manifesto holds as a central tenet that “the first object of the novel is to amuse and interest the reader,” in opposition to what he saw as the practice of literary realism.43 To do so, the author is to present his readers with “characters whom they might really like to resemble, acting in scenes in which they themselves would like to take a part” (NWI, 23). Readers, Crawford contends, use the resemblance between themselves and the characters in a book as a principle of selection: “The reader knows one side of life, his own, better than the writer possibly can, and he reads with the greatest interest those books which treat of lives like his own” (NWI, 81). With circular logic, Crawford explains that the novel also offers its readers exemplary figures, whose resemblance to “real” people apparently makes them available as models: “[The novel’s] object is to make one see men and women who might really live, talk, and act as they do in the book, and some of whom one would perhaps like to imitate” (NWI, 82).
Crawford’s primary contention against realism is that it presents a dull version of life; the novel, he insists, should “represent the real, but in such a way as to make it seem more agreeable and interesting than it actually is” (NWI, 46). The benefit of a novel is that it can present to its readers life lived to the extreme, with extraordinary circumstances and events: “The great emotions are not every-day phenomena, and it is the desire to experience them vicariously which creates the demand for fiction and thereby and at the same time a demand for emotion” (NWI, 98). And so, Crawford questions the distinction between “realism” and “romance”: “Why must a novel-writer be either a ‘realist’ or a ‘romantist’? And, if the latter, why ‘romanticist’ any more than ‘realisticist’? Why should a good novel not combine romance and reality in just proportions? Is there any reason to suppose that the one element must necessarily shut out the other?” (NWI, 45). Crawford hits here, unintentionally, on the crux of the matter: the ideologies of genre are irrelevant, after all, to the broad audience, and the semantics seem petty and ridiculous when one begins playing with the words. Crawford appears similarly radical in his unstinting embrace of the novel’s status as at base a “marketable commodity, of the class collectively termed ‘luxuries,’ as not contributing directly to the support of life or the maintenance of health” (NWI, 8). Authors are “fiction-makers [ . . . ] heavily backed, as a body, by the capital of the publisher, of which we desire to obtain for ourselves as much as possible” (NWI, 7–8). He rails against the authors and publishers of what he calls “purpose-novels” and speculates that someone who finds he has unwittingly purchased “somebody’s views on socialism, religion, or the divorce laws” masquerading themselves as a novel should be able to seek restitution and damages (NWI, 14). But he moves, quietly, away from this rhetorical focus on financial capital as he turns his gaze to the promises of a true novel.
What we call a novel may educate the taste and cultivate the intelligence; under the hand of genius it may purify the heart and fortify the mind; it should never under any circumstances be suffered to deprave the one nor to weaken the other; it may stand for scores of years—and a score of years is a long time in our day—as the exposition of all that is noble, heroic, honest, and true in the life of woman or man; but it has no right to tell us what its writer thinks about the relations of labour and capital, nor to set up what the author conceives to be a nice, original, easy scheme of salvation. [ . . . ] Lessons, lectures, discussions, sermons, and didactics generally belong to institutions set apart for especial purposes and carefully avoided, after a certain age, by the majority of those who wish to be amused. (NWI, 17)
The true novel belongs to the realm of leisure, outside the scrabbling of capital, and above ideological debates about capital; readers do not want to be reminded of that world when they are cultivating themselves through reading. Such rhetoric, of course, obscures the material conditions for such readers’ leisure time, just as it works to mystify the cultural object and elevate the author, who stands to profit directly from the notion of the novel as a luxury object.
In the end, Crawford would certainly have been just as uneasy with certain segments of his Mabiean audience as James was; his argument against utilitarian reading of fiction, like James’s against those who would be attracted to Henrietta Stackpole, seems a reaction against witnessed phenomena. While Mabie frequently insists on the recreational element of literature—“To rest and to refresh the reader, to stimulate and to enrich him, to enable him to look out over a wide field of life—these are the services which books should render to men; and if a book does not do one of these things for the person who reads it, the reader wastes the time he gives to it” (September 1902, 17)—he also explicitly argues on several occasions that reading teaches one transferable skills that will lead to “success” in no uncertain terms: “Very few people have learned to think, and yet a writer and thinker of high importance has said that success is measured by the power of applying ideas to life. [ . . . ] The best way to learn to think—that is, to concentrate the mind on a subject and hold it steadily there—is to read books” (1 November 1910, 36). Reading, presumably even novel-reading, teaches one “ideas” that can be “applied,” and it works like mental calisthenics to sharpen the mind for other tasks. Such assertions of fiction’s utility to the world of work are what markedly differentiate Mabie from the genteel literary idiom that Crawford represents, as much as they separate him from the realists who would reserve a less utilitarian role for the novel. Crawford comments in his treatise that “the point upon which people differ is the artistic one, and the fact that such differences of opinion exist makes it possible that two writers as widely separated as Mr. Henry James and Mr. Rider Haggard, for instance, find appreciative readers in the same year of the same century—a fact which the literary history of the future will find it hard to explain” (NWI, 10). The simultaneous popularity of James, Haggard, and Crawford is less difficult to fathom once one considers not the aesthetics of all three but the readerly orientation that renders all the ostensible aesthetic differences irrelevant.