Book Review

The Sacred Fount and Later James

Which of Henry James’s novels can you expect even admirers of the writer not to have read? In my experience The Sacred Fount (1901) best qualifies for this distinction: “A mere fantasticality” he called it in a letter soon after publication; “a profitless labyrinth . . . a dim and distracting limbo,” he wrote in another one. “Wait for The Ambassadors,” he counseled Morton Fullerton, alluding to what would be his next novel, “instead of troubling over the vapid little Sacred Fount.” Admittedly James liked to make light of some of his writings after they were published. More than one story, including “The Turn of the Screw,” is called a mere “potboiler.” That James excluded the Fount from the New York Edition of his works doesn’t in itself mean that James thought poorly of it, since he also excluded examples of his very best fiction: The Europeans, Washington Square and The Bostonians. But a post-publication judgment to a correspondent that he “mortally loathed” The Sacred Fount seems to hold it up as particularly unappealing to its creator. His most recent editor calls it the book of his that has been “disliked the most intensely and the most frequently.”

This charge is to be found in the latest addition to Cambridge’s publishing of James’s complete fiction, and there is nothing in T. J. Lustig’s commentary that will change anyone’s mind about the novel.[1] His relatively brief introduction contains no hint of just what he makes of the book but opts for impartiality (“a novel which for many is detached, difficult and other-worldly in the extreme is for others deeply engaged with society”) and contents himself with providing explanatory notes, most of them glossing expressions he thinks we may have trouble with such as “high jinks” (“In the early nineteenth century high jinks was a role-playing game”); or “pie” (“alluding to the huntsmen’s eating of the umbles [edible inward parts—OED] of the deer while the lord and the nobles ate venison”). Both these phrases were previously unknown to me in their historic dimension, but I was unbothered by James’s use of them. More germane are the editor’s declaration that the novel is “a key text for historicist studies of modernity,” which professionalizes the book rather than establishing it as an attractive narrative to be appreciated. More dubious is his view of the novel as a contribution to “country-house literature”; in fact the country house, “Newmarch,” where the action occurs is of absolutely no interest since James provides scarcely any authenticating details of this “place of a charm so special as to create rather a bond among its guests.” Newmarch as it figures in the book is nothing more than the merest backdrop for those guests as they chatter and smoke cigarettes. James’s interests are other than in any realistic details illustrating the “noble freedom” he accords the place.

Put in the crudest of terms, the plot of The Sacred Fount devolves on the discovery by an unnamed narrator, on his way for a weekend at Newmarch, that a hitherto rather obtuse acquaintance of his, Gilbert Long, now seems full of lively wit and intelligence. Where did this come from, how did it happen? Our narrator looks for the likely woman who may have been the source of Long’s change and who “pays” for it by a depletion in her life. He decides that the woman is May Server, a widow whose three children are dead and who heroically but pathetically tries to keep up the pretense that she is still vibrantly alive. (James is typically ruthless in clearing the decks of unwanted small fry.) Concurrently he notes, or it is suggested to him, that another guest, Grace Brissenden, a married woman in her thirties, now seems much younger. Looking about, by analogy with the change in Long, the narrator finds Grace’s husband (always referred to as “poor Briss”) to have been aged by his “paying.”

This is about as far as can confidently be gone in describing what happens in the book. In a fine introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel, John Lyon explains why it’s perilous to attempt further accounts of the story: “Hereafter the novel defeats any summary of its plot which would not leave the critic as seemingly partisan as its own narrator.” His fate at the end of the book—in the face of Grace Brissenden’s accusation that his suppositions are “crazy”—is to throw up his hands. “Even though it wasn’t really that I hadn’t three times her method. What I too fatally lacked was her tone.” And just what sort of “tone” is that, the similarly defeated reader may likely ask? An answer will not be forthcoming since the novel fails to unravel its own puzzle, leaving the critic, in Lyon’s words, with an impossibly large challenge in its presentation of “multiple and incompatible interpretations.”

A way out of this impasse, which both these recent editors and previous critics consider, is to call the novel a “modernist” or “post-modernist” text, admiring its undecidability as an instance of Jamesian anticipation, at the beginning of the last century, of exciting things to come in narratology (the very word itself sending shivers up my spine). This would be a way of affirming what Ezra Pound declared in his ramble through the fiction way back in 1918: “In The Sacred Fount [James] attains form, perfect form, his form.” Pound did not proceed to elucidate this “form,” which is appropriate inasmuch as the “perfect”-ness of the novel lies in its being uncontaminated by any nameable “content” that would muddy the waters. Pound has already conceded that James is certainly not a master for “narrative novelists, for young writers of fiction; perhaps not even a subject of study till they have attained some sublimity of the critical sense or are at least ready to be constantly alert, constantly on guard.” It may well be the case that being constantly alert and on guard as we read The Sacred Fount means no more and no less than the effort to realize, in the ear, the rhythm, the ring and tone of sentences as they fall in succession of one another. The effect is of poetry as close to unparaphrasable as it’s possible to get. John Lyon calls it “linguistic wit,” which he characterizes in the best paragraph about the book I’ve seen:

Linguistic wit involves a savouring of, and self-consciousness about, sayings, cliches and individual words. It includes self-advertising exaggeration and playful grandeur of phrasing. It involves a predilection for tentativeness, vagueness and the hoverings of pauses. It is the ability to sustain and to vary a single unremarkable metaphor—a hat-pin, a shop window, a screen—through lengthy dialogue the conversational equivalent of the epic simile. Intelligence in The Sacred Fount, is style: intellectual substance is altogether more elusive.

Of course this linguistic wit, sustained through 400-plus pages, is exactly what makes even the most well-disposed Jamesian reader of the novel that follows The Sacred Fount want to throw The Ambassadors across the room and reach for another Trollope.

For Edmund Wilson, The Sacred Fount was an example of what, titling his essay, he called “The Ambiguity of Henry James.” The essay published in 1938 in what is Wilson’s finest volume of literary criticism, The Triple Thinkers (it contains essays on Flaubert, A. E. Housman, John Jay Chapman, Bernard Shaw and others), is most remembered for its psychological analysis of “The Turn of the Screw,” which provoked a good deal of extended counter-commentary. What’s sometimes forgotten is how much in the long essay treats of other James books, especially the ones written in the late 1890s after the disastrous failure of his play, Guy Domville. Between 1895 and 190l, when The Sacred Fount appeared, James brought out the following novels: The Other House, The Spoils of Poynton, What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age and, along with “Turn of the Screw,” the novella “In the Cage.” (Of the longer stories, “The Beast in the Jungle,” published soon after The Sacred Fount, is perhaps the most notable.) This astonishingly creative period in James’s career came after what he deemed the “failures” of The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima, and only moderate success of The Tragic Muse. A letter to William Dean Howells in early 1895 reveals his intent to do “far better work than I have ever done before.” He is “bursting with ideas & subjects” and will “never again write a long novel but I hope to write 6 immortal short ones.” This prescient prediction he fulfilled, even though neither The Awkward Age nor What Maisie Knew is a short one. As usual what started out short ended up longer, and the Fount comes in at just under 200 pages in its latest edition.

Not to ignore Jamesian facetiousness in his claim to Howells that “6 immortal short ones” would issue from his newly energized hand, an attempt to place these products in a larger literary career is worth doing. I take it that his two great novels from the 1880s—The Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians—have lost none of their preeminence over the last century, while The Tragic Muse, his novel of 1890 that James in writing to Howells considered his final full-length one, is curiously dead for all its occasionally lively comedy. Then the interim of theatrical experiment and failure after which come the shorter novels to which he is now dedicated. Of those I take The Spoils of Poynton and What Maisie Knew to be successful experiments in a prevailingly comic mode, for all the looseness of definition in classifying them as comedies. (James referred to Maisie as an “ugly little comedy.”)The least read of these books is probably The Other House, though it was favorably reviewed, one of James’s plays rewritten as fiction and presenting itself as his earliest example of narrative obliquity; while the prose of both Spoils and Maisie, more difficult than that of the earlier masterworks, is still at the service of more traditional human, moral values. “The Turn of the Screw” is, for late James, very readable indeed and, beginning with Wilson’s essay, has provoked much critical argument not to be gone into here.

The most problematic of these books in my judgment is The Awkward Age, running to 400 pages and the prime example of James’s determination not to “go behind” his characters to comment on, in explanatory sentences, their natures, motives, tones of speech, behavior. He was proud of the way Awkward Age resisted any such temptations even as the novel received some dismissive responses, enough so that James referred to the book as “much battered.” The battering consisted of reviewers who were “excessively wearied” by Jamesian skill; one reviewer declared that “So much rarefied psychology, paralysis of will, and general bloodlessness has, after a time, a stultifying effect on the mind.” Even so in F. R. Leavis’ The Great Tradition, his stern winnowing of that tradition to include only George Eliot, Conrad, James and D. H. Lawrence, The Awkward Age received surprisingly high marks in contrast to poor ones awarded to the later Ambasssadors. But Leavis didn’t attempt to mount a defense of the novel’s etiolations of prose. For this reader, The Awkward Age is truly a “sport” and one that, having thoroughly tested me through several readings, will tempt me no further. Although in a letter to one of his readers, James was willing to go on at length about what this or that character was designed to illustrate, his very fluency may mask a doubt or uncertainty about just what he himself thought of this exceedingly strange piece of work. It feels like Samuel Johnson wondering at the woman preaching, surprised to see it done at all. And thus we come to The Sacred Fount, which James defended to Mrs. Humphrey Ward as his attempt to make “a consistent joke” that alas, he laments, has been by too many readers taken seriously. This attempt at a casual dismissal is similar to his calling “Turn of the Screw” just a potboiler.

Writing to his agent Pinker apropos the as yet unfinished Golden Bowl, James devised a rationalization for why this and others of his tales ended up much longer than originally planned. It would be, he predicted, the best book he had ever done: “I have really done it fast, for what it is, and for the way I do it—the way I seem condemned to which is to overtreat my subject by developments and amplifications that have, in large part, eventually to be greatly compressed, but to the prior operation of which the thing afterwards owes what is most durable in its quality.” For most writers this explanation for overtreatment might seem overtreated; for James it is a fairly comprehensible way of describing the way he “does” it. Parodies of late James style are of course numerous, Max Beerbohm’s “The Mote in the Middle Distance” the most famous of them. (The first, not the best, parody of the Fount was done by a poet and professor, Owen Seaman, the year after the novel appeared.) “Cerebral slapstick,” John Lyon calls it in a telling phrase. James would go on to outdo himself in his final stories that appeared as The Finer Grain (1910), from which I can’t resist sharing the following sentence in a little-read one, “The Velvet Glove” describing (if that’s the word) the handsome appearance of a “young Lord” to the protagonist, “poor John Berridge”:

He had seen him before, this splendid and sympathetic person—whose flattering appeal was by no means all that made him sympathetic; he had met him, had noted, had wondered about him, had in fact imaginatively, intellectually, so to speak, quite yearned over him, in some conjunction lately, though ever so fleetingly apprehended: which circumstance constituted precisely an association as tormenting, for the few minutes, as it was vague, and set him to sounding, intensely and vainly, the face that itself figured everything agreeable except recognition.

It all works out with a little patience and a willingness to reread it if one has world enough and time. Ezra Pound called this final book of James’s stories “a collection without a slip,” so either Pound had the time or cheated a bit. Ford Madox Ford, whose weird little appreciation of the writer in 1913, when James was still alive, praised the earlier style (up through The Spoils of Poynton) as “lucid, picturesque and as forcible as it can be, considering that he writes in English” (thanks for that, Fordie), then noted that with What Maisie Knew “it begins to become, as we should say in talking of pheasants, a little ‘high.’ And so it goes on until, with the Prefaces and with A Small Boy, it just simply soars. There is not any other word for it. . . .” Ford’s way out of the inexpressible was to resort to his favorite mark of punctuation, the ellipsis, but he recovered himself with advice no better than which would be given subsequently by any critic: “Simply colloquial,” he called the style. “Nothing more and nothing less. It is a matter of inflexions of the voice, much more than of commas or even of italics.” In other words, read the passage aloud, and it will become as Ford says “to myself at least, infinitely clear, though no less infinitely embroidered and decorative.” If Ford exaggerates, as he always does, it is appropriate to the great exaggerations of James’s late style. In the Master’s own words of which he was excessively fond, “There we are.”

[1] THE CAMBRIDGE EDITION OF THE COMPLETE FICTION OF HENRY JAMES: The Sacred Fount, ed. by T. J. Lustig. Cambridge University Press. $110.00.