restricted access Henry James and the Problem of Robert Browning, and: Heroic Commitment in Richardson, Eliot, and James, and: Henry James and the Darkest Abyss of Romance, and: Henry James: A Life (review)
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Reviewed by
Ross Posnock. Henry James and the Problem of Robert Browning. Athens: UP of Georgia, 1985. 231 pp. $24.00.
Patricia McKee. Heroic Commitment in Richardson, Eliot, and James. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986. 353 pp. $38.00; paperback, $9.95.
William R. Goetz. Henry James and the Darkest Abyss of Romance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1986. 215 pp. $25.00.
Leon Edel. Henry James: A Life. New York: Harper, 1985. 740 pp. $24.95.

What Posnock's well-written study of James's relation to Browning points up is the seemingly inexhaustible use that James made of other writers' works. A careful analysis of "The Private Life" presents a picture of James's uneasiness about Browning through his fantasy of the bipartite Vawdrey, the playwright of the tale. Vawdrey's ambiguous identity creates an unresolved tension that is at "the center of the narrator's uncanny experience and the source of his anxiety." For Posnock, anxiety seems to rule James and his puppets. For this reader, on the contrary, the discovery of the duality of Vawdrey seems to satisfy the narrator, [End Page 599] rather than to make him uneasy, because James has told us to take this tale as a "conceit," and not to confuse it with a real experience. As soon as one does that, the discovery is a reassurance that Vawdrey (like Browning) exists on two levels, and one helps the other. Also, Posnock's attribution of Browning's influence and personal appearance in James's work goes too far, especially in the case of Blanche's manipulation to cover her affair with Mellifont, an affair for which there is no legitimate evidence in the text. Browning may have been a "puzzle" to James in the relation of his frivolous social self to his productive self, but James was not the only one puzzled. Everyone was amazed at the paradoxical nature of the man. For this reader, rather than an expression of anxiety caused by Browning, the tale is James's excursion into paradox, based on the paradoxical character of both Browning and Lord Leighton, who shares the conceit. The interpretation that "The Lesson of the Master" is based on Browning's The Inn Album, also shared by George Monterio, has certain convincing elements, but again there are alternate possible interpretations, such as the legend of St. George as a literary source and Burne-Jones as a possible personal model for Henry St. George. This book would be a model source study in its form if it were not attached to Bloom's Freudian theory of "the anxiety of influence." In the light of James's life-time habit of using other literary texts, it does not seem reasonable to see James bothered by the figure of Browning. Therefore, the main problem with the "Problem" of Robert Browning is that it probably never existed. James may have had problems with other aspects of his life but not with the effect on him of other writers. He has given ample evidence in his letters that he blithely thought other written texts were at his disposal: "I take liberties with the greatest," he wrote in 1902 to Mrs. Cadwalader Jones. The notion of "unease" in relation to other authors seems an idea applied from Bloom's book which does not fit in with the cavalier attitude James took to published texts; he seemed to consider them plunder disengaged from their authors. If, as Posnock writes, Browning was a personal and professional problem to James which he handled by lifting some of his plot situations, then what problems Shakespeare, Milton, Poe, Dickens, Balzac and numerous other authors must have been since James has rewritten at least one if not many more of each of these authors' books!

A better way of defining the relation between Browning and James would be to call it "The Solution of Browning." James saw himself as attacking any work of fiction or poetry he found sufficiently interesting with "violence and mutilation," as he wrote to Mrs. Ward. As for her novel Eleanor "he has simply . . . stolen it." It was an obsession, even a tic with him. It worked with Browning...