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Reviewed by:
  • Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Aesthetic Culture
  • Talia Schaffer
Michèle Mendelssohn. Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Aesthetic Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2007. 328 pp. $130.00 (hardcover).

Michèle Mendelssohn's Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Aesthetic Culture studies the relation between James and Wilde intensively, parsing almost every mention of one man by the other, and using the resulting insights to define the strains and complexities of Aestheticism itself. The book is written with eloquent and fervent belief in its findings and in the significance of its account of the movement. It brings to light previously unknown or underread details about the men's relationship. And it is elegantly structured, pairing comparable texts by each man in each chapter and tracing a trajectory from their first meeting to their last interactions. [End Page 91]

Unfortunately, what Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Aesthetic Culture describes is an inaccurate and unpersuasive version of the movement. Too often the author tends to depict Wilde and James as if they were isolated giants grappling with each other in an epic lifelong battle for leadership of aestheticism. It is true that Wilde and James were rivals, peers, and sometime friends whose relation with one another occasionally became intensely charged. However, Mendelssohn gives short shrift to the cultural context of Wilde and James's encounters and exaggerates the significance of specific references. In this distorted reading of the fin de siècle, the most anodyne comments are taken to carry covert insults. While it is certainly possible that the Wilde-James relationship concealed heretofore unexplored depths of rancor, Mendelssohn pushes this reading too hard at the expense of more ordinary explanations for the events she documents.

Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and Aesthetic Culture gives the impression that essentially three people mattered, Wilde, James, and Whistler, and that they used other fin de siècle figures merely as cover stories to allow them to attack one another. Thus by showing that James's style is similar in some ways to Balzac's, Mendelssohn can read Wilde's critique of Balzac as a disguised attack on James himself. But when Wilde praises Balzac, it is also a disguised attack on James, since he is slighting James by not mentioning him. Similarly, she seems to read du Maurier as a stand-in for James, spending considerable time proving that when du Maurier illustrated Washington Square, he envisioned the characters as aesthetes. Since du Maurier was drawing such figures constantly in his anti-aesthetic cartoons for Punch, it would have been natural to carry the style over to book illustrations. However du Maurier may depict the characters, it doesn't necessarily mean that James intended them that way. Neither Balzac nor du Maurier enjoy much agency in themselves; instead they seem merely stand-ins for James.

In the epic warfare that Mendelssohn constructs between Wilde and James, there is no doubt whose side she is on. She considers Wilde fraudulent, a writer who got to the top "through misinterpretation, hostile criticism, plagiarism, and self-plagiarism" (135) and whose work "resist[s] the commonplaces of intellectual honesty and artistic attribution" (95). In fairness, we do get an intelligent analysis of how Wilde constantly reworked incorporated material, but animosity toward Wilde hobbles the readings. Evidently his worst crime (or "stab in the back") is a brief allusion to James in an installment of Wilde's literary column in The Woman's World (141). Since Wilde references James as the leader of a new school of fiction in this passage, it is hard to figure out why it seems so devastating to Mendelssohn. Apparently Wilde's fault is alluding to James instead of naming him directly and then going on to review a novel that isn't particularly Jamesian.

Mendelssohn criticizes Wilde's perpetual borrowing and refashioning of ideas but seems curiously unwilling to concede that James engaged in the same practices. When James reiterates someone else's lines, it is excused as "an echo" (143). She points out that The Tragic Muse resembles its predecessor Dorian Gray yet contends that "this is not a case of plagiarism but of mutual interest and coincidence" (119). Likewise, after demonstrating that...


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