Thursday, January 28, 2016

Henry James meets Thackeray, Trollope, Tennyson, and, best of all, Browning.

I'm midway through the one-volume condensation of Leon Edel's five-volume biography of Henry James, and it's everything I'd hoped it would be. Edel has a great eye for a quote, and the James family, copious writers of letters and notebooks and diaries, has so, so many to offer.

One of the passages I've enjoyed most thus far is this, from when Henry was a boy:
Henry remembered Mr. Emerson seated on the sofa in the rear parlor, "elegantly slim, benevolently aquiline." In the library one day he saw Mr. Thackeray who had come to America to lecture on the English humorists of the eighteenth century. Henry was dressed after the fashion of the time in a tight jacket adorned in front with a row of brass buttons; hovering near the door of the sun-filled room, he heard himself summoned by the enormous English gentleman. "Come here, little boy, and show me your extraordinary jacket." Thackeray peered through and over his spectacles alike at garment and boy. He then carefully explained to Henry that if he were to go to England he would be addressed as "Buttons."
The description of Emerson, if a bit unclear (the "benevolent" more sonorous than meaningful), is memorable, but it's of course Thackeray's gentle poking of fun at Henry that's the wonder. "Buttons"!

A few years later, in the fall of 1875, when James was thirty-three, he met Anthony Trollope during an Atlantic crossing. James was not impressed:
He was struck by his "plain persistence" in writing every day, no matter how much the ship rocked. Trollope had "a gross and repulsive face and manner, but appears bon enfant when you talk with him. But he is the dullest Briton of them all."
Not surprising that James took note of Trollope's dogged commitment to writing, given his own later ability to focus reliably on the task; still less surprising that Trollope himself cared not how much the boat rocked, if there was work to be done. I am surprised, however, to hear James describe Trollope's face as "repulsive." Not that you get a sense from photographs that Trollope was handsome, but James's adjective suggests something far worse than that.

Fortunately, James would encounter Trollope again two years later, a meeting that caused him to revise his impression:
A very good genial ordinary fellow--much better than he seemed on the steamer when I crossed with him.
That does make me want to leap to Trollope's defense: as romantic as the idea of taking a leisurely ten-day trip across the Atlantic seems any time I fold myself into an airline seat for the London flight, I do think the society--and the presumption that passengers would participate--would have driven me insane. Just when I would have been looking forward for a nice, long spell of deckside reading, suddenly I'd have to talk with the Smiths of Boston or the Joneses of Saratoga. If I were Trollope, that alone would be enough to make me a less than sparkling companion on the steamer.

James also offers an amusing portrait of Tennyson, whom he met around the same time in 1877. Edel writes, of the dinner party where the meeting took place:
James sat next but one to Tennyson, whom he described as swarthy and scraggy and less handsome than he appeared in his photograph. The Bard talked exclusively of port wine and tobacco; "he seems to know much about them, and can drink a whole bottle of port at a sitting with no incommodity."
Blimey. A few years later, James would write to his good friend Charles Eliot Norton about lunching with Tennyson,
who personally is less agreeable than his works--having a manner that is rather bad than good. But when I feel disposed to reflect that Tennyson is not personally Tennysonian, I summon up the image of Browning, and this has the effect of making me check my complaints.
Ah, Browning--that's where James is at his best in Edel's careful mosaic of his impressions. Browning, James wrote, was "loud, sound, normal, hearty," and "bustling with prompt responses and expected opinions and usual views." It's when he reads his work aloud, James explains, that he's really distinctive:
One of my latest sensations was going one day to Lady Airlie's to hear Browning read his own poems--with the comfort of finding that, at least, if you don't understand them, he himself apparently understands them even less. He read them as if he hated them and would like to bite them to pieces.
For all his circumlocution and endless hedging, when James cuts to the chase--as he does more often in his letters than elsewhere--he has an almost unparalleled ability to summon up a striking description. Can't you just see Browning reading now? It makes me wish James had been around to meet Byron . . .

1 comment:

  1. wonderful post! especially the reference to browning. it really tickled my curiousity bone. definitely have to get a copy of the book.