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The Henry James Review 24.1 (2003) 99-102

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Tessa Hadley. Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 205 pp. $55.00.

In Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, Tessa Hadley gives us a sensitive and beautifully crafted reading of what "pleasure" comes to mean in James's work. In her introduction, she announces that her subject is the "evolution of James's attitudes to sexuality—and to women's sexuality in particular" (2), and, anticipating concerns about the scope of such a project, she deftly situates her study in the context of what she calls a "quiet revolution," new readings in the last decade that have radically altered our understanding of the erotic in James (1). Hadley's argument is that James gradually but quite dramatically changes his mind about sexuality and the place of sexual intimacy in fiction, that the "conventional propriety" evident in his earlier works, and with it the moral framework he inherits from Victorian tradition, evolves into the "liberated rich imaginings of pleasure in the late novels" (2). [End Page 99]

With the ending of The Portrait of a Lady, Hadley argues, James confronts the "complicated double binds of a particular ideal of womanhood" (2) in which subjective individualism is at odds with the "cultural ideal of chaste, refusing femininity" (15). But if Isabel's resilience is an implicit rejection of the Victorian agenda ("Would not the delicate thing to do be to pale away and die?" Hadley muses [31]), the ending leaves the novel "poised on the brink of something, balanced over a choice it does not—with any finality—actually make" (32). Positioning himself between Victorian and French traditions, James gradually creates "a language for womanliness which is not anchored in goodness, or chastity, or unsexuality" (38).

In transitional novels/novellas of the 1890s, James opens "a space between seeing the world and moralizing it" (44). This "space" emerges, Hadley suggests, through James's intellectual dialogue with contemporary French writers and critics. But if James progressively sheds a "residue of moralism" (12), he continues to honor a salient feature of English novelistic tradition: "its female-centeredness," its "delicacy" (12). Within French tradition, Hadley situates James on the side of George Sand contreFlaubert, reading in James's sympathy for Sand, an affinity for her effort "not to moralise pleasure, or return it inside the bourgeois fold, but to write a feminised version of it, so that male pleasure is no longer contingent upon female suffering" (112). In The Awkward Age, for example, Hadley argues that Nanda's and Van's love story exposes "the crux of the transition in English mores from an era when an essential value was invested in an ideal of innocent femininity to an era when all the apparatus [. . .] protecting that essential value was breaking down under the weight of its own sheer improbability" (69).

Hadley's carefully constructed reading traces James's refusal of a reductive moralism. If the late novels are neither "moralised" nor "depoliticised" (20), it is because James consistently locates the struggle in the imagination of his characters, "a minutely differentiated, conflictual process imagined from inside" (20). Hadley's chapter on The Ambassadors delicately yet persuasively examines the way Strether "enacts James's conversion" (95) to the world of imagined pleasure, and she offers a fresh and subtle reading of the relationship between James and Strether: James's "ambivalent relationship with English literary proprieties reads very like the complex pained tenderness with which Strether feels the pressures, the claims of Woollett" (107). As James gradually achieves a separation from "that frame of plain middle-ground decency" that defines Anglo-Saxon novel tradition (101), this liberates him (through Strether) to explore and render the powerful effects of sexuality on the imagination: "The essential gesture of the novel" is "Strether's recognition—fired, envious, perturbed; and his submission [. . .] to the realities of sensual pleasure" (20).

In her reading of The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, Hadley stresses the dialogic nature of the late Jamesian text, arguing that James...


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