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The Tell-Tale Representation: James and The Sense of the Past by Susan S. Williams, Ohio State University When Henry James began writing The Sense of the Past in 1900, he planned first for it to be one of a pair of ' 'terror' ' stories to be published by Frank Doubleday, and then an "international ghost story" commissioned by William Dean Howells (NB 298-302). But James's idea for the work was larger than either of these commissions could accommodate, and he abandoned the manuscript until 1914, working on it intermittently thereafter until his death in 1916. Before resuming work on the novel, he dictated notes for it that were published, along with the incomplete manuscript, in 1917. These notes indicate that he envisioned Ralph Pendrel emerging from the world of 1820 in order to embrace the "modern" world of 1910, a world that his journey into the past has taught him to appreciate. But the incomplete novel leaves Ralph with the Midmores in 1820, and he has descended to us as a character imprisoned in the past, struggUng with what James termed a "double consciousness," in which he lives in 1820 but has some awareness of 1910. Despite the fact that James planned for Ralph to renounce the past for the present, Leon Edel and other critics have described The Sense of the Past as James's elegy for the past—an elegy made particularly poignant in the early days of World War I. "1914 made him want to escape from a terrible present into a remote past," Edel writes; the novel is a "fragment" of "James's ultimate discovery ... of how to complete his journey into himself and his personal past' ' (505). · If The Sense of the Past on one level represents James's retreat into his own past, however, it also marks a return to a recurrent theme in his work: that of the portrait as a revelatory force. In his notes for the novel, James refers to this repetition in his work and vows to transcend it: "I don't want to repeat what I have done at least a couple of times, I seem to remember, and notably in The Liar—the 'discovery ,' or the tell-tale representation of an element in the sitter written clear by the artist's projection of it on canvas"(SP 345). In this article I want to consider The Sense of the Past as the end point of The Henry James Review 14 (1993): 72-86 © by The Johns Hopkins University Press Teil-Tale Representation and The Sense of the Past 73 James's career-long interest in portraits. In the novel, James does not in fact transcend "the tell-tale representation" of character produced by the revelation of the portrait. Instead, he turns his interest to the dialectic between intimacy and distance that underlies this revelatory power. He attempts to stabilize this dialectic by imprisoning Ralph in the past, but that prison impedes James's construction of a new mode of representation. Nevertheless, his desire to find a new mode points to a shift in his conception of the portrait, a shift linked, in the end, with the emergence of modernism. I When Ralph exchanges places with the figure in his ancestral portrait, his "double consciousness" about the action keeps it from seeming particularly uncanny or magical. James had initially conceived The Sense of the Past as a ghost story along the lines of ' 'The Turn of the Screw,' ' a work he refers to often in his notes for the novel. But by the time he returned to the novel in 1914, he was more interested in the psychology of Ralph's own consciousness. In part, we might attribute this change to the fact that James had by then explored the uncanny doubling between a person and his alter ego in ' 'The Jolly Corner' ' (1908). As he admitted in his notes, "I might be a little handicapped ... by the fact of my having made use of a scrap of that fantasy in The Jolly Corner—distinctly do I remember saying to myself in writing that thing that I was filching in a small way this present put-away...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 72-86
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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