- Some Chapter of Some Other Story: Henry James, Lucas Malet, and the Real Past of The Sense of the Past
Henry James’s The Sense of the Past is a novel about the allure and the danger of revisiting origins. It bears a curious relation to a slightly earlier novel by Lucas Malet (Mary St Leger Kingsley Harrison), The Gateless Barrier. In this article, I examine The Sense of the Past’s reliance upon Malet’s earlier novel, in order to analyze James’s novel’s vexed relation to the concept of the past and to explain, rather than ignore, the fact of the novel’s incompleteness. This comparison will also help us explore the gender politics of James’s revisions of Malet’s work and map out an important field of turn-of-the-century writing I call “female Aestheticism.” Finally, the comparison offers an apt example of why the story of Modernism evolved the way it did. My contention is that The Gateless Barrier and The Sense of the Past, both written in 1900, represent a kind of turning point for modern literary history—and that their cross-references, and their subsequent critical history, encode the possibility of a different sort of literary history than the one we have inherited.
Lucas Malet was one of the most famous writers at the turn of the century. “None of our later writers of fiction takes higher rank than that which has been won by Lucas Malet,” wrote the critic Justin McCarthy the year before she published The Gateless Barrier (236). The daughter of Charles Kingsley, Malet rebelled against her staid Victorian past by leaving her husband, converting to Catholicism, and moving to France. From 1878 to 1931, she produced daring novels which tested the boundaries of acceptable literature, exploring, among other themes, sadism, deformity, masochism, incestuous desire, extramarital relationships, lesbianism, and prostitution. [End Page 109]
Yet Lucas Malet was an Aesthete in the same way (and for the same reasons) that Henry James was. Their novels share an interest in symbolic artifacts and in characters who are artists or connoisseurs and also bear signs of the painstaking craftsmanship demanded by the “art for art’s sake” school. The dilettante collector who appears in so many Jamesian novels, from Gilbert Osmond and Ned Rosier in The Portrait of a Lady (1881) to Adam Verver in The Golden Bowl (1904), was a stock character in Maletian novels, appearing in A Counsel of Perfection (1888), The Wages of Sin (1890), The Carissima (1893), The Gateless Barrier (1900), The History of Sir Richard Calmady (1901), and The Score (1909). Like James, Malet positioned herself as a “serious” writer rather than a flamboyant, popular entertainer in the Wildean mode. Malet’s style has elements of James’s indirectness. The difficulty of late James novels resides in James’s insistence that in his characters’ endless conversations we read what is only implied or unwritten, the participants’ silences or circumlocutions. Such an insistence governs Malet’s novels too. In her texts, Aestheticism became a strategically deployed semiotic for depicting the forbidden, an oblique reference to the unrepresentable which it both revealed and concealed. Malet found a special value in Aestheticism’s “pretty” language. Women could use elaborate Aesthetic descriptions to satisfy the requirement that they write in a charming, pleasant, feminine way. Yet Aestheticism was also avant-garde enough to permit a new range of daring subjects. In her mastery of indirection and dissimulation, Malet must be seen as one of the leaders of a new use of Aestheticism, a genre we might call female Aestheticism.
Female Aesthetes differed from their male counterparts both in their strategic use of Aesthetic style and in their reasons for employing Aesthetic descriptions. By focusing on style, Aesthetic women rebelled against critics’ assumption that they ought to write realistic novels with transparent language and probable events. 1 They often used Aesthetic styles to mediate among the different models of feminine behavior available at the end of the nineteenth century. By the 1890s, all the Aesthetes were using epigrams and antiquarian language, but these discourses were actually first developed by Ouida (Louise de la Ramée) in the 1880s as...