- "A Palpable Imaginable Visitable Past":Henry James and the Eighteenth Century
James's idea of history, as my title suggests, is highly sensory, indeed, often tactile, and, as one might expect, primarily that of a novelist. In his 1908 preface to The Aspern Papers, he evokes the kind of history he likes best, the kind that works in fiction:
I delight in a palpable imaginable visitable past—in the nearer distances and the clearer mysteries, the marks and signs of a world we may reach over to as by making a long arm we grasp an object at the other end of our own table.
The table is the one, the common expanse, and where we lean so stretching, we find it firm and continuous. That, to my imagination, is the past fragrant of all, or of almost all, the poetry of the thing outlived and lost and gone, and yet in which the precious element of closeness, telling so of connexions but tasting so of differences, remains appreciable. With more moves back the element of the appreciable shrinks—just as the charm of looking over a garden-wall into another garden breaks down when successions of walls appear.1
There is not, for James, a single past, but shadings, distinctions, nearer and further distances in a receding perspective: his imagination responds most vividly to more recent history, to a past, including, as he gets older, his own [End Page 14] past, that can be "grasped" like "an object," still rich in relations to the present. He continues, again I think concentrating on the requirements of the fictional imagination:
We are divided of course between liking to feel the past strange and liking to feel it familiar; the difficulty is, for intensity, to catch it at the moment when the scales of the balance hang with the right evenness. . . . It would take me too far, however, to tell why the particular afternoon light that I thus call intense rests clearer to my sense on the Byronic age, as I conveniently name it, than on periods more protected by the dignity of history. With the times beyond, intrinsically more "strange", the tender grace, for the backward vision, has faded, the afternoon darkened; for any time nearer to us the special effect hasn't begun.(LC, 2:1178)
For James, "The poetry of the thing outlived and lost and gone" attaches to "the Byronic age"—and the poetry involved is specifically that of the English literary canon. "The tender grace" is Tennyson's "tender grace of a day that is dead" from "Break, break, break," and given the pattern of James's other allusions to the same passage in The Tempest, "the backward vision" probably recalls Prospero questioning Miranda about the surprising reach of her memory:
But how is it
That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?2
Shakespeare's "abysm" here lies behind James's recurrent image of the "gulf " of time, to suggest what lies beyond the edge of living memory.
James was born in 1843, only as long after the long eighteenth century ended, for example, as I was born after World War II. For James, then, the "visitable" in a visitable past has a real social meaning; he sees this past as embodied in the form of an old person who can be visited and talked to, usually an old lady—like the fabulously antique Juliana Bordereau of his 1888 novella The Aspern Papers, once the beloved of his fictitious American Byronic poet Jeffrey Aspern in about 1820, but still living in the Venice of the 1880s, there to be visited—indeed, besieged—by the story's narrator, an unscrupulous editor (James based his story on the farcical discomfiture of the Bostonian Shelley fanatic, Captain Silsbee, upon visiting Byron's mistress, "Claire" Clairmont, in Florence, in quest of letters). [End Page 15]
James was drawn to old ladies with colorful pasts for this sense of nearness and distance. One was Mme Mohl in Paris (1790–1883), who in her youth had charmed Chateaubriand by her beauty, though by the 1870s she was "a little old...