- Realism and the Drama of Reference. Strategies of Representation in Balzac, Flaubert, and James, and: Selected Letters of Henry James to Edmund Gosse, 1882-1915
Nearing the end of his life, James wrote to his old friend, Edmund Gosse, of Galsworthy and a new generation of writers, "How solemn indeed, also, are ces messieurs!—were we so solemn at their ages?" Reading these two books, these new additions to the library by and about James, one is struck by the contrast they exhibit. Both are serious, scholarly efforts, and both demonstrate a strong commitment to words. One is in a new school of criticism that sees the world as language; it has an earnest contentiousness and a sense of being in the vanguard of what important is happening. The other is in an older, more stable, genial tradition of looking at words on the page and finding satisfaction in doing the best job possible with those words without measuring itself against others.
In her book H. Meili Steele first establishes her critical position; she sees herself as among the poststructuralist critics but is chary of identifying closely with any school or group. Seeking a unity of subject, she concentrates on the central character of three novels she terms bildungsromanen: Les Illusions Perdues by Balzac, L'Education Sentimental by Flaubert, and The Golden Bowl by James. She uses the novels by Balzac and Flaubert as a preliminary to her more extended study of the novel by James. Although modern critics and James himself have found more affinity between Balzac and James, Steele reverses this assumption and, from her examination of the novel's language, finds an "ontological discontinuity" common to the novels of Flaubert and James. Thus she reverses the general critical view of the relationship of these three authors and presents a less favorable interpretation of this last of James's novels than is usually accorded.
Although language is Steele's entrée into the texts, the conclusions she draws are not limited to linguistic phenomena. Rather, they involve psychological traits of both the fictive characters and the authors and even more broadly based assumptions of philosophy and ideology. One effect on the reader is that he does not see character or author as unique, individual, but rather as an example of a general phenomenon.
Rayburn Moore's selection of letters Henry James wrote to Edmund Gosse presents a more varied, personal picture of James. In them we see James's convivial impulses at work. He found Gosse attractive both socially and professionally. Gosse led an active social life, and in his various governmental posts, including librarian of the House of Lords, he had entrée into some of the most exclusive British society. James was a frequent guest at the Gosses' Sunday night at home and occasionally at other of their festivities. Gosse was also the author of several studies of older British literature and personally knew many contemporary writers. The letters reflect their mutual interests and concerns. The reader may know of James's apprehension and sorrow when Robert Louis Stevenson sickened and died, but she or he would not be as aware of the reserved responses of James and Gosse to such different writers as Meredith and Kipling or of their guarded dismay over the fate of Wilde. James knew more of continental Europe and Europeans than did Gosse, and in the letters we can read his reaction to Gosse in Switzerland, [End Page 733] for example, or Gosse's first glimpse of Italy, and we see James maintaining active social connections with his continental friends. The most interesting aspect of the travels of James presented in these letters is his constant search for pleasant environments in which he could do his work without interruption. For him Torquay was such a place. It gave him solitude and still satisfied his desire for...