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  • Art and Life in James's "The Middle Years"
  • Christof Wegelin (bio)

"The Middle Years" has been called one of James's best short stories and one of his weakest. But critics generally agree that it has a good deal of autobiographical content, perhaps more than any other of James's many stories about writers and artists. Published in 1893,1 it belongs to a period of his career when, like his hero, James could look back on an impressive body of work already produced: novels, short stories, criticism, travel essays. But, as he was to write to William Dean Howells, he had fallen on evil days. Although his reputation among critics and fellow writers was more than respectable, he felt that few readers were willing or able to give his work the careful attention it required and that most failed to recognize his underlying intentions, just as Doctor Hugh in our story fails to guess those of Dencombe, the protagonist. James found it increasingly difficult to place his fiction in the magazines, and he chafed under their space limitations. Like Dencombe, he "aimed at a rare compression" (56); in other words, he regarded succinctness as a virtue to be striven for. But his usual focus on the subtle movements of the mind and the emotions did not naturally lead to brevity; his narratives as a rule turned out longer than he planned. "The Middle Years" is an example. It is one of his shortest tales, and in his pride at having achieved the difficult feat he actually underestimated its length: it is not 5,550 words long, as he says in the preface, but more nearly 8,000. Like Dencombe, too, James was a "passionate corrector, a fingerer of style" (63), and as Dencombe felt that he had achieved mastery only at the end, so James was to develop to the end of his career. One further autobiographical element has been noted in "The Middle [End Page 639] Years": perhaps Dencombe's friend and admirer, the young Doctor Hugh, reflects the younger men whose admiration and friendship James valued, some of them fellow artists like Ford Madox Ford, Stephen Crane, or Joseph Conrad, some of them figures less prominent in the annals of literary history. Almost two decades after he wrote "The Middle Years," James used the title for the third volume of his autobiography. The unfinished volume focuses on the scenes of his first explorations of England in the early years of his career; the story of Dencombe, on the other hand, focuses inward on the accomplished artist's sense of himself and his art. More than any other of James's stories of writers and artists, it reflects not only the facets of James's consciousness just touched on but above all his conviction that although fiction springs from an author's sense of reality the creative process has a core that is not accessible to rational analysis.

Although the story is told in the third person, the narrative point of view is consistently Dencombe's. He is never absent from the scene, and when his consciousness temporarily fails, the narrative too has a hiatus and resumes with his waking: "he lost his senses altogether. Later he knew that he had fainted . . ." (64). This focus on Dencombe's consciousness accounts for a certain sketchiness of the other three characters: the ailing Countess; her medical man, young Doctor Hugh; and her companion, Miss Vernham. In due course Doctor Hugh will tell Dencombe a few biographical facts: for example, that the Countess is a countess by virtue of having been married to a French nobleman now deceased; that she herself is English, the daughter of a celebrated baritone from whom she has inherited taste and fortune but not talent; and that Miss Vernham is an accomplished pianist. He will also add thumbnail characterizations: the Countess is generous, independent, eccentric, ignorant, passionate, and at times "almost irresistible" (62); Miss Vernham is "odd" (62) or even "mad" (66). But apart from these details, we know only how the trio strikes Dencombe. When he first sees them, he conceives about their relations a novelist's "clever theory" (54); the verbal context suggests...


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