- Literary Lions and Laughing Love: Edna Kenton and Henry James, 1906
In her fascinating piece on the pseudonymous Bruce Elliot’s paperback Village, Adeline Tintner remarks that Village is “the first piece of fiction in which Henry James appears as a character” (71). She goes on to show that the piece, an example of “mass market fiction,” seriously falsifies and distorts biographical detail to incorporate James as a character, with special reference to the biographical details of James’s life in Edel’s Life. These two students of James know masses of details about James’s life and work between them. Yet, as to Bruce Elliot’s novel marking the first appearance of Henry James as a character in fiction, Tintner may be mistaken. In a lightly satirical story of 1906 called “‘Love Laughs at Lions,’” Edna Kenton creates a character called “The Subtle Master,” teasingly suggestive of Henry James. Moreover, along the way, she reinforces the reference by pairing the Master with a William Dean Howells figure referred to (but left uncharacterized) as “The Dean of American Realism.”
Edna Kenton has a distinguished place in James criticism, producing the essay “Henry James to the Ruminant Reader” (1924) that brought hallucinations into the critical tradition of The Turn of the Screw. When she published her first novel, What Manner of Man (1903), she was described as a Chicago journalist recently arrived in New York. The success of the novel appears to have relieved her from lean times. Her second novel Clem (1907) inspired a reviewer to compare the heroine to Daisy Miller. The subject of the first novel is the madness of art, the artist figure sacrificing the purity of his young bride on the altar of his quest for sensation in painting; the subject of the second (and only other) novel is a [End Page 77] young girl who outraged the purity of Newport class distinctions. There is thus a Jamesian flavor to her fiction, spiced with melodrama. Nonetheless, Kenton clearly prefers the comic to the melodramatic or tragic-comic and set out to cut with a satirical knife. The satiric edge is featured in “‘Love Laughs at Lions.’”
Kenton suggests the parallel between James and the Subtle Master when at the first mention she says that the Master “refused to dwell in unillusioned and disillusioning America” (“‘Love’” 334). Other matters more subtly buttress the equation. Kenton’s first sentence has a Jamesian cadence, and her narrator echoes the emphatic sound of some of James’s narrators: “It was nothing short of tragedy, her marriage, and that in spite of the almost perfect honeymoon just ended—nothing short of tragedy” (333). The title, too, is familiarly suggestive of James. Though James did not specialize in alliterative titles (there are a few, like “A Passionate Pilgrim,” , “Madame de Mauves,” , though none with three-part alliterations) and although James’s titles avoided complete sentences, the literary lion does appear in one of James’s titles (“The Death of the Lion” ) and recurs frequently as a theme of James’s work, especially in the 1890s. James’s own leonine status was powerfully attested just before his American tour by critical summaries of his work in the most prestigious British literary journals, H. F. P. Battersby’s Edinburgh Review piece (January 1903), and Oliver Elton’s Quarterly Review article (October 1903), both entitled “The Novels of Mr Henry James.” These were widely cited and reprinted in the United States after their British appearance and fostered American regard for James’s status. Kenton refers to the Subtle Master as “the lion of the evening” (342), quite possibly alluding to James’s recent return to America.
Kenton’s title points not only to Henry James, but also to James’s artist tales of the 1890s in which the literary lion is society’s victim. The plot of “‘Love Laughs at Lions’” is fairly simple and is conventional for the time. Kenton opens with an anagnorisis: Ellen Grattan the novelist-protagonist has come home from a blissful honeymoon with Jasper Holbrooke. Kenton’s Holbrooke reminds us of James’s Jasper Nettlepoint of “The Patagonia” (1888) who is attractive but dense...