- Henry James’s Fiction “Swallowed, Digested and Assimilated”: A Strong “Whiff” of Henry James in 1997’s Overflow
As Frank Sinatra has put it, 1997 “was a very good year” for appropriating James. No sooner had I sent off my book, Henry James’s Legacy, to the printer, than there appeared three more 1997 works of fiction which showed James’s presence. There are probably many others I have missed.
The first of the three is another treatment involving The Portrait of a Lady in a short story by Louis Auchincloss: “Geraldine: A Spiritual Biography” in his 1997 collection of stories, The Atonement. Auchincloss holds the record for incorporating James’s fiction in contemporary times. In one of his essays on Balzac, James wrote that the books which he had absorbed early in life
have been intellectually so swallowed, digested and assimilated that we . . . cease to be aware of them because they have passed out of sight. But they have passed out of sight simply by having passed into our lives. They have become part of our personal history, a part of ourselves.(NN 109–10)
One could say the same thing about what Henry James has meant to Louis Auchincloss, for in the story, “Geraldine: A Spiritual Biography,” not only does Geraldine discuss the plot of The Portrait of a Lady, but her own story recapitulates the main characters and many situations from James’s novel. Speaking of Washington, a character cues us directly to James’s presence in the novel: “‘Had the great Henry James not once described it as the “city of conversation?”’” (257). So much is Henry James part of himself that Auchincloss was unaware of The Portrait of a Lady references in his tale, although he admitted to me that he had [End Page 255] been teaching that James novel while he was writing his story. 1 As far as I know, Auchincloss has not made any sustained reference to The Portrait of a Lady in his fiction until this story. 2
The title of the tale is also a critical reflection and judgment on James’s novel, which is a spiritual biography of Isabel Archer, who has made a disastrous choice of husband but feels committed to that choice. Geraldine’s choices and the number of her husbands are appropriate to her transposition to 1997: they are two rather than Isabel’s one. Her first husband, Rex Boyle, the father of her child, humiliates her with the same kind of cruelty that Osmond displays. The story opens with Rex demeaning Geraldine before her dinner guests. Rex is encouraged in his cruelty by his job in the Central Intelligence Agency, that of persecuting radicals (Auchincloss 246). As an interior decorator, Geraldine has an artist’s flare for rearranging life and making it into art. This aesthetic activity corresponds to Isabel’s flare for life. Rex Boyle is a gift from her beautiful friend, Corinne (who could have any man she chooses), to Geraldine, who falls in love with him at sight for his physical beauty and his heroic role in World War II. The discussion at the dinner party involves the giving of money by parents to their children “‘to see what they do with the money’” (248). This reminds us of Ralph asking his father to give half of his inheritance to Isabel to see what she would do with money. “‘She wishes to be free and your bequest will make her free.’” He adds, “‘I should like to put a little wind in her sails’” (PL 160).
As Geraldine is the remake of Isabel and Rex is the remake of Osmond, so Leonard Holmes, a bachelor and New York lawyer, is the remake of Ralph Touchett. He is “the brother that she, an only child, had never had” (Auchincloss 248), which corresponds to Ralph’s relationship to Isabel, whom she calls, as he lies dying, “‘Oh my brother!’” (PL 479). Leonard also watches over Geraldine’s life, and he is willing to commit a fraud in order to secure for her half of a hundred million dollars from her second husband. Since Geraldine is not living in the late nineteenth...