Sunday, February 07, 2016

Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Crane, and Christmas at Brede

There's so much I could share from Leon Edel's Henry James: A Life--and in fact, if you follow me on Twitter, you'll find plenty gleaned from it over the past ten days--but today I'll stick to two bits. The first is brief: a parody by Virginia Woolf of Henry James in conversation:
My dear Virginia, they tell me, they tell me, they tell me, that you--as indeed being your father's daughter, your grandfather's grandchild, the descendant, descendant of a century--of a century--of quill pen and ink, ink, in pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me ahmmmm, that you, that you, that you write in short.
Wonderful, isn't it? As my Twitter friend Marly Youmans points out, however, it would be interesting to see a similar parody by James of Woolf's conversation. Though we know her lively personal voice from her letters, journals, and even her essays, I don't have a great sense of what she was like in conversation, to say nothing of what her conversation with this representative of an older generation, a friend of her parents, would be like.

The second story is more extended, a tale of amateur theatricals and drafty, possibly haunted manors. It occurs in December of 1899, when Stephen Crane, deep into the process of dying of tuberculosis, had recently moved to Brede House with his paramour, Cora Taylor. The move was not a good idea:
At Brede, Crane too sat daily in the tower, trying to write tales in order to provide money for the improvident Cora. James was fascinated--and pained--by the spectacle of the Cranes. They were living out his tales--about old english houses in need of repair let to Americans; about ambitious American women with a "past"; about talented writers struggling to do the successful thing in order to dress their wives and pay for food and rent. The situation at Brede had also a touch of the eerie, as in James's ghostly tales. There was a legend that Brede had an ogre, a consumer of children; he had ultimately been done to death with a wooden saw. There were said to be underground passages which served generations of smugglers. But aside from its ghosts, its drafts, its creaking boards, its tree-consuming fireplaces, Brede was clearly the last place in the world for a malaria-ridden consumptive to spend a cold damp English winter. Wells remembered Crane as "profoundly weary and ill." Cora Crane did not notice--what everyone else saw--that he was destined to be very soon one of the ghostliest of Brede's ghosts.
That passage is worth sharing for its details (the ogre! secret passages!), but also for the sense it gives of Edel's approach to that sort of detail, and his ability to weave it into effective, even novelistic prose. I can imagine a less confident biographer hovering over that last line, considering removing the reference to ghosts; it stayed, and it makes the paragraph.

From there, Edel shares the story of the near-disastrous theatricals:
H. G. Wells has told the story of the great Christmas-week party Cora organized to welcome the year 1900. The guests were asked to bring their own bedding. There were few furnished bedrooms in Brede House and Cora created a dormitory for the ladies and another for the men. There was an acute shortage of toilets. Crane tried to organize American-style poker games which his English guests did not take seriously. On Christmas Eve a play was given in the local school house written in part by Crane, who asked James, Conrad, Wells, Gissing, and others to add a few words to the script, making it the most "authored" play of the century. It was about the Brede ghost--the child-eating ogre who was sawed in half. . . . The party had a painful finale at just about the hour when Henry James, in nearby Lamb House, was invoking the "gruesome" year of 1900 in his letter to Rhoda Broughton. [Ed.: "This dreadful gruesome new year, so monstrously numbered."] Eight miles away Cora was waking up Wells. Crane had just had a lung hemorrhage. Wells's final memory of the party was a ride into the drizzle at dawn on a bicycle in search of a doctor.
In his recent biography of Crane, Paul Sorrentino offers a bit more detail about the play and the party:
The principal, and only, performance of the play--titled The Ghost--took place [in the Brede schoolhouse] on December 28. Newspaper reviews suggesting it was an original musical comedy written by distinguished authors prompted Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, a leading actor-manager in English theater, to inquire whether it might be performed after A Midsummer Night's Dream at Her Majesty's Theatre in London. [A. E. W.] Mason quickly told him no.

On the evening of December 29, a three-day celebration climaxed with a gala ball replete with elegant waltzes, a "quadrille of the Lancers," a country barn dance, and a game devised by H. G. Wells that consisted of racing on broomsticks. The guests reveled late every night throughout their stay, then would feast the next morning on a brunch of bacon, eggs, sweet potatoes, and beer. The weather, unfortunately, was not cooperative. Snow, severe thunderstorms, and icy roads prevented many local residents from seeing The Ghost and made travel to Brede Place hazardous. The omnibus transporting guests often got stuck in the mud, forcing them to get out and push. Crane himself seemed out of sorts. When he tried to teach some of the men poker, they chatted idly instead of paying close attention to the rules. "In any decent saloon in America," he complained, "you'd be shot for talking like that at poker." Abruptly he left, sulking. During the ball, he sat silently in a corner of the huge fireplace in the hall, bewildered by the frenetic pace of his life. He knew he was dying. After everyone had gone to bed, he tried unsuccessfully to hide from Cora the fact that he had just had a severe lung hemorrhage. Distraught, she awakened Wells, who, having once been diagnosed with tuberculosis, understood the gravity of the situation and cycled seven miles in freezing rain to bring the local physician, Dr. Ernest B. Skinner.
What I'm not entirely clear on is how much sense the other guests had of Crane's condition. Surely at least those who were close to him knew he was tubercular, but did they realize more than Cora how far along he was? Either way, it's hard to escape a Masque of the Red Death sort of feel when you read about the party. Crane would be dead before six months were out.

And so is James, again, now that I've turned the last page and closed Edel's book. In a world where Colm Toibin has so brilliantly, empathetically imagined James's inner life, Edel's biography feels perhaps less revelatory than it should. The necessary opacity of the honest biographer's art can't quite match up to a brilliantly rendered fictional account, so we leave Edel's book feeling we know James less well than we expected. That, however, is an unfair critique, and one that will fade with time as my memories of Edel's facts and Toibin's fiction quietly meld. Edel did achieve the remarkable: he helped us to know a man who let very few people know him, let us get close to a man who preferred to keep us at a pen's distance.

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