Thursday, December 22, 2016

`Curious Mixture of Poetry and Sordid Prose'

After The American Scene (1907), my favorite among the travel books of Henry James is English Hours: A Portrait of a Country (1905), a collection of essays about his adopted home, where James became a citizen in 1915, six months before his death. In “An English New Year,” he describes a visit to the industrial North of England in the days before Christmas, in which he seems possessed by the ghost of Charles Dickens past, a writer he once called “the greatest of superficial novelists.” In the same review of Our Mutual Friend, James continues:

“We are aware that this definition confines him to an inferior rank in the department of letters which he adorns; but we accept this consequence of our proposition. It were, in our opinion, an offence against humanity to place Mr. Dickens among the greatest novelists. For, to repeat what we have already intimated, he has created nothing but figure. He has added nothing to our understanding of human character.”

In English Hours, a lady has presented the children in a workhouse with a Christmas tree, and asks James to help her distribute presents on Christmas Eve. They arrive at the “grim-looking charitable institution,” and James sets the scene:

“I had never been in an English workhouse before, and this one transported me, with the aid of memory, to the early pages of Oliver Twist. We passed through cold-bleak passages, to which an odour of suet-pudding, the aroma of Christmas cheer, failed to impart an air of hospitality; and then, after waiting a while in a little parlour appertaining to the superintendent, where the remainder of a dinner of by no means eleemosynary simplicity and the attitude of a gentleman asleep with a flushed face on the sofa seemed to effect a tacit exchange of references, we were ushered into a large frigid refectory, chiefly illumined by the twinkling tapers of the Christmas-tree.”

James is having great fun playing with Dickensian ironies as heavy as suet-pudding. Yes, I had to look up “eleemosynary”: “of or pertaining to alms or almsgiving; charitable,” according to the OED. He goes on:

“Here entered to us some hundred and fifty little children of charity, who had been making a copious dinner and who brought with them an atmosphere of hunger memorably satisfied – together with other traces of the occasion upon their pinafores and their small red faces. I have said that the place reminded me of Oliver Twist, and I glanced through this little herd for an infant figure that should look as if it were cut out for romantic adventures. But they were all very prosaic little mortals. They were made of very common clay indeed, and a certain number of them were idiotic.”

Harsh by our enlightened standards, but credit James with avoiding the taint of Dickensian sentimentality. For him, this was alien turf. We glimpse the lower depths in James only fleetingly, as in The Princess Casamassima (1886), “In the Cage” (1898) and The American Scene. The final passage is written by a man who, fortunately, would never have children:

“They filed up and received their little offerings, and then they compressed themselves into a tight infantile bunch and, lifting up their small hoarse voices, directed a melancholy hymn toward their benefactress. The scene was a picture I shall not forget, with its curious mixture of poetry and sordid prose – the dying wintry light in the big bare, stale room; the beautiful Lady Bountiful, standing in the twinkling glory of the Christmas-tree; the little multitude of staring and wondering, yet perfectly expressionless, faces.”


Tim Guirl said...

James's pithy assessment of Dickens hits the nail on the head with surgical precision, but does not diminish my immense enjoyment of his novels.

parochus said...

Am I right in assuming you know Max Beerbohm's eerily perfect parody of Henry James in A Christmas Garland?

parochus said...

Here's a link: