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Even Rebecca West Had Trouble Reading Henry James

February 27, 1915

The American-British writer Henry James was born on this day in 1843. In 1915, the writer Rebecca West wrote about taking comfort in James's literary passions amidst the terror of a German Zeppelin raid.

“WELL," said my companion, "shall we go down and have a look at the sea before bed?" "Let's look at the night first," I answered, "for it seems very black." We opened the hall door and stepped into such a still dark­ness as I have rarely felt before; save where the glamour of the sea trembled beyond the edge of the cliff, the night closed in on the land with the soft opacity of velvet. "No, it's certainly no time for a walk," said my companion. "Listen!"

We stared upwards, and then, perceiving that the gaslight from the hall was pouring out a shallow stream of radiance across the greasy garden path, ran back and shut the door. "Oh, I don't think it can be!" I exclaimed incredulously, as I fixed the bolts. "It's much more likely to be a heavy motor on the main road." "But I know," she persisted. "I saw one go up when I was at school in Germany, and it sounded just like this." I stood upright again and listened and was entirely convinced. So, smiling with a curious fixity, we returned to the fireside and discussed the proper attitude to assume to that death now circling above our heads.

The only instructions that had been issued by the authorities had advised us to descend into a cellar or basement, but there were none so far as we knew for a mile or more. There was really nothing to do except to reflect on the extreme du­biety of the advantages of belonging to the shel­tered sex. We have always been denied the vote because we do not take part in war; but now that the war arrives we find that this exemption applies only to the privilege of self-defense and that we enjoy to the full the right to be killed. We would have been rejected with jeers if we had tried to en­list in Kitchener's army, but indeed it would be much more satisfactory to come to an end after a fair fight in the trenches than to sit there, helpless as sheep in a slaughter house, while the protecting sex, safely out of reach, pours down death from the clouds. But that topic soon wore thin, and we each took a book and went to bed, keeping our clothes on in case the protecting sex should aim straight. I felt myself supremely fortunate in having Mr. Henry James's last volume, "Notes on Novelists," in the house, since one could hardly conceive of any author more capable of providing intellectual cover. And for a time I hid from fear quite effectually in the branching complexities of aesthetic theory, the intricate undergrowth of subtle perceptions of the earlier papers in the vol­ume.

It was not long before I came upon certain other essays of a later date which were sealed, as absolutely as though by strips of gummed paper, by Mr. Henry James's latest style. I approached them in different ways. I read them as if they were writ­­ten in a foreign language, treating obscurities as idioms and translating every word into my collo­quialism. More desperately, as the hours grew smaller, I pretended that it was all right, and tried to send my intelligence winging up beside his soar­ing phrases, as though their flight was to be fol­lowed with composure. But the more I did so the stronger became the conviction that these di­vagations were not the gambols of a winged intel­lect in an element over which it had full command, but rather the disordered earthward spirals of wings so overworked that free and happy flight had become an impossibility. Every paragraph made it more clear that this later prose was the altar of a bloody sacrifice, on which everything that had in the past made Mr. James's prose liv­ing and radiant, a glorious part of the organic world, had been ruthlessly offered up to an in­creasing fineness of meaning. Gone was the loving command of the color of language which was shown at its most precious, perhaps, in "The Spoils of Poynton," in which we saw the bright "art tint" with which the abominable Brigstocks varnished the corridors of Waterbath, with a distinctness that, contrasting with the not less distinct glories of the Spanish altar-cloths and Maltese crosses of Poynton, gave us the final conviction of the importance of the battle which formed the idea of the story. Gone was that rhythm which made "The Altar of the Dead" sound like a sol­emn and consoling mass, and its worshippers seem not sentimentalists hugging an affectation, but earnest mystics.

All these aids to the ultimate significance of his work he has sacrificed to a desire to hammer out the immediate significance of each sentence to as thin a radiance as gold-leaf. He splits hairs till there are no longer any hairs to split, and the men­tal gesture becomes merely the making of agitated passes over a complete and disconcerting baldness. One does not deny that these excesses are inci­dental and that the prose still has a loveliness of its own; but it is no longer the beauty of a living thing, but rather the "made" beauty which bases its claims to admiration chiefly on its ingenuity, like those crystal clocks with jeweled works and figures that moved as the hours chimed, which were the glory of medieval palaces, and which so unaccountably fail to kindle our enthusiasm when we go abroad to-day.

One perceives in the essay on "The New Novel" that this forgetfulness of free and lively move­ment impedes his matter as well as his manner. There he takes four young English novelists, and with a dreadful set deliberation treats them in a way from which, one would have imagined, the first reaction of his literary nerves from the stimuli of their marked though different personalities would have delivered him. Three of them are young men who are mentionable figures entirely by virtue of their ingenuous youthfulness: Mr. Hugh Walpole, engaging us chiefly by his naïve habit of trying over the formulae of older successful novelists, much as a boy rapturously prac­tices the peculiar throw of some famous bowler; Mr. Gilbert Cannan, being at that stage of artistic adolescence which understands the recipe for real­ism to consist in taking up the carpets and showing the bare boards; and Mr. Compton Mackenzie, attracting our attention by his spirited attempt to reconcile in the copiousness and preciosity of "Sinister Street" those two apparently irrecon­cilable enthusiasms of a still earlier stage of adol­escence, Balzac and the Yellow Book. Yet Mr. James treated them separately and conjointly with thousands of sentences which proliferated into less numerable parentheses, and even a few of those rare, precious italics, of delicate empha­sis and accumulated to an almost choral effect of admiration and respect. And when, in the midst of our amazement, we see that Mr. D. H. Lawrence, the only author of this youngest generation who has not only written but also created, and created with such power that he would be honor­able in any generation, receives nothing but a scorn­ful parenthesis which depicts him "hanging in the dusty rear" of Mr. Cannan and Mr. Mackenzie, we realize that we have witnessed a real failure of enlightenment. How is it possible, we ask, that Mr. James should not approve an author who has given us such beauty as brims over in "Sons and Lovers"?

Almost certainly we may ascribe both this misjudgment and the deterioration in style to the same cause, which is as fundamental a thing as Mr. James's conception of the duty of an author. He belongs to the school of Flaubert, the school which held that the author's first concern was with his style; and by that they did not mean merely the treatment of their themes in an appropriate man­ner. One can prove that by an examination of "Madame Bovary." Assuredly Flaubert did not embark upon the study of that poor vaporish little housemaid under any illusion as to the beauty and importance of her existence. He chose it simply that he might use it as a grindstone on which to whet his qualities; he sought full knowledge of Emma's being in order that he might by that frac­tion be nearer to omniscience; he transmuted that trivial life to important elegance in order that he might exercise his power of refinement.

The ultimate effect on the author was more important than the effect of the book. For it was the author's duty not to discover beauty but to at­tain to personal magnificence; to tower above life in tranquility, and look down upon it with infinite understanding; to be a god in one's brain. To that ambition Mr. James has—one almost wrote sacrificed himself, but it is not that. It is true that he has learned to hold the beauty of his sen­tences as nothing so long as he can manifest a superhuman comprehension of every aspect of his argument. It is true that he has learned to detest ­the ungodlike attributes of humanity so intensely that he qualifies a man of the genius of Mr. Law­rence because his youthful tongue occasionally falls into excited schoolboy stammerings about sex, while Mr. Cannan and Mr. Mackenzie gain his respect because, having nerves more stable (as they are less sensitive) than Mr. Lawrence, they attain to a greater dignity. But indeed he has succeeded as splendidly as poor Flaubert, with his museum of superb and tarnished treasures, failed. The presence of this marvelous brain, manifested in those innumerable volumes, brings such reinforcement to our faith in the intellect as the pious would find in the company of a saint.

I had once felt it as an alienating quality of Mr. James's genius that his work showed an inhuman incapacity for enthusiasm, that he disliked and refused causes coolly as other people dislike and refuse seed-cake. But as the throb of the Zeppe­lin returned and I knew again the helpless rage of the non-combatant, the sick fear of instant death, I realized that enthusiasm was not so necessarily divine as I had thought. For those murderers by intent who were circling above my head in an attempt to locate the lightless town for pur­poses of butchery were probably burning with as pure and exalted a passion as they could conceive. This war has shown that every warm passion—loyalty, patriotism, ambition—can be perverted to obscene uses. Nothing is innocent in man except the mind.