The past decade has seen a number of efforts to historicize Henry James’s corpus and career and to insist on the continuities between the novelist’s aesthetic commitment and the ideological currents and historical trends surrounding him. Roslyn Jolley’s Henry James: History, Narrative, Fiction tries to do something a little different. It is less about the history in James’s writings and the historical work done by his texts than it is about what James himself thought history was and how he understood the difference between writing fiction and doing—or making—history. In the end, the story Jolley comes to tell about the novelist’s career is a familiar one in which, sometime around the turn of the century, James undergoes an epistemological conversion that distinguishes his later manner from the realist work of his early years. For Jolley, this conversion is best understood as a rethinking of the relations between fiction and history. If the early James had believed that fiction could only be taken seriously when it imitated the style and the epistemology of “scientific” history, the later James understood fiction or narration as a way of mastering or ordering facts that are never either neutral or objective.
Ironically, Jolley’s book is weakest where one would expect it to be most original. Her account of 19th century historiography is extremely sketchy. She doesn’t look closely enough at the practices of any given historian to establish a model of historical narrative; consequently her claim that the early James’s narrative voice imitates those of the historians around him remains provocative but unsubstantiated. At the same time, she fails to discuss whether or not history writing itself underwent the same shift from positivism to relativism. The effect is to make James’s conversion seem unique and ahistorical.
What does engage Jolley’s interest is the Victorian debate over fiction’s [End Page 831] value, and she does a very good job of arguing that James’s early criticism “shows itself to be produced by and complicit with the culture of censorship” as it defends fiction by insisting on the analogy with history. But, while she argues that the novelist’s first major works are all structured around a tension between the narrator’s historiographic voice and the imaginative consciousnesses of the central characters, Jolley calls attention to the ways in which the texts undercut the opposition between history and fantasy. She notes, for example, that there is no compelling reason why Isabel Archer—or her reader—should let the “facts” disclosed by Countess Gemini shatter her own narrative construction of her life. The “facts” in this case may be nothing more than the fictions of another mind. The novels of the Major Phase are explicit in their rejection of the Puritan opposition between facts and fictions and more emphatic about the value of narrative as a means of mastering and interpreting history. Jolley does not present the late style as a pluralist mode however; rather, she insists that the central message of James’s form is that “different versions of the ‘right’ cannot coexist.” Thus The Golden Bowl closes with Maggie’s tragic recognition that, because she cannot appeal to facts independent of any interested narration, she must violently and arbitrarily impose a fiction on others.
The dark truth of The Golden Bowl became even more real for James as he witnessed the First World War. Jolley’s account of his reaction to the war stands as her book’s real contribution to James studies. In letters written to friends in his last years the novelist took Maggie Verver’s insight one step farther, insisting that “the relation between war and civilization is not one of opposition but of complicity.” But in the public essays collected in Within The Rim, James described the war in jingoistic, melodramatic terms as a struggle between civilization and its barbarous other. The fantasy he indulges in these essays is more excessive than those of any of his characters, from Christopher Newman to Lambert Strether, and far less tolerant...