Tuesday, May 17, 2016

`He Was His Own Rabbit'

Philip Horne, who in 1999 prepared the handiest, best annotated one-volume edition of the novelist’s correspondence, Henry James: A Life in Letters, has rendered readers another service by editing James’ Autobiographies for the Library of America. James never authored a book titled Autobiographies, but in 1956 Frederick W. Dupee published Henry James: Autobiography to mark the fortieth anniversary of the novelist’s death. In it, Dupee collected A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and Brother (1914) and the unfinished and posthumously published The Middle Years (1917), as does Horne. These volumes are not for James tyros. (A good place to start is the 1893 story that shares its title with the third autobiographical volume, “The Middle Years.”) All are written in James’ fearsome late manner. Even his beloved brother William, after reading The Golden Bowl (1904), urged Henry to “sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style.” What William proposed might read like a thriller but not like Henry.

Horne had the inspired idea of adding as an appendix Theodora Bosanquet’s Henry James at Work, her memoir originally published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press in 1924. Bosanquet served as James’ secretary and, as he called her, amanuensis, from 1907 until his death in 1916. Bosanquet was more than a glorified taker of dictation, and possessed a first-rate literary sensibility. Here is Bosanquet in Sec. VII of her memoir:

“Many men whose prime business is the art of writing find rest and refreshment in other occupations. They marry or they keep dogs, they play golf or bridge, they study Sanskrit or collect postage stamps. Except for a period of ownership of a dachshund [Max], Henry James did none of these things. He lived a life consecrated to the service of a jealous, insatiable, and supremely rewarding goddess, and all his activities had essential reference to that service.”

Bosanquet read the Master’s work with discernment, and not merely the volumes she transcribed. Her understanding of James’ essential theme, as explored in The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square and What Maisie Knew, is shrewd:    

“The essential fact is that wherever he looked Henry James saw fineness apparently sacrificed to grossness, beauty to avarice, truth to a bold front. He realized how constantly the tenderness of growing life is at the mercy of personal tyranny and he hated the tyranny of persons over each other. His novels are a repeated exposure of this wickedness, a reiterated and passionate plea for the fullest freedom of development, unimperilled by reckless and barbarous stupidity.”

Bosanquet went on to publish critical studies of Harriet Martineau and Paul Valéry. I have read the latter, published by the Hogarth Press in 1933. Valéry lived another twelve years and never stopped writing, but Bosanquet’s monograph is one of the best introductions I know to the poet’s life and work. This miniature portrait of the Frenchman is somewhat reminiscent of Henry James and Bosanquet’s description of his life without what we would recognize as hobbies, recreation or other ways to fill “down time”:

“His working leisure he gave to his chosen studies, particularly to research on the psychology of attention. Experimentally speaking, he was his own rabbit and he entered details of his observations in a series of note-books. Fascinated as he was by the recurrent image of Monsieur Teste gliding every night into Absence, he made a careful examination of states of semi-consciousness. He investigated dreams, he watched himself growing drowsy, or emerging from sleep to wakefulness. He meditated on the function and properties of time. 

“He saw very few people. He lived quite outside the world of literary movements. Neither editors nor an internal demon urged him to write for publication.”

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