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"THERE HAD TO BE SOME WAY TO SHOW THE DIFFERENCE": AUTHORIAL PRESENCE AND SUPPLEMENTARITY IN JAMES'S "THE PRIVATE LIFE" Prisctlla Walton Carleton University Henry James's "The Private Life" is a short story that self-reflexively revolves around the creation of texts. Although it has been virtually ignored in favour of tales like "The Figure in the Carpet," "The Lesson of die Master," and "The Real Thing," its subject matter is similar to tiieirs. This tale offers an interesting comment upon textuality and authorial presence, much like "The Figure in the Carpet," for it portrays an unnamed narrator's attempt to discern the figure behind a text. The tale revolves around die narrator, who, while holidaying at a mountain resort in Switzerland, spends his time observing his friends and companions. With him at the resort are Blanche Adney, an actress; Clare Vawdrey, a famous writer; and Lord Mellifont, a social lion. The narrator, an admirer of Vawdrey's writings, cannot reconcile the man with the texts he has written. When he encounters a figure in Vawdrey's room, while Vawdrey is known to be elsewhere, he decides that diere are two Vawdreys—the writer and the public figure. He shares his idea with Blanche, who informs him that she too has encountered a mystery. She believes that Lord Mellifont exists only in public, and disappears when left to himself. The narrator tries to surprise MelUfont in his room, to determine Mellifont's presence, but he is discovered by Lady Mellifont, and abandons his quest. The guests depart shortly after this, and the mysteries in the tale remain unsolved. "The Private Life" consists of die narrator's effort to explicate die mysteries he perceives in relation to Vawdrey, whose public appearance is a disappointment, and to Mellifont, whose public demeanour is a false-front. In a sense, he is attempting to go beyond the text to discern its source, for he is trying to find the "real" Vawdrey, the Vawdrey capable of writing the texts with which he is familiar, as well as the "real" Mellifont, who exists behind the public façade. Indeed, the narrator's effort to determine authorial presence is a textual duplication of James's effort to determine authorial Victorian Review 18.1 (Summer 1992) 14Victorian Review presence, since the author wrote his story for the same reasons the narrator creates his. In his Notebooks, James discusses die source of his story: The Private Life—the idea of rolling into one story the little conceit of the private identity of a personage suggested by F. L., and tiiat of a personage suggested by R. B., is of course a rank fantasy, but as such may it not be made amusing and pretty? It must be very brief—very light—very vivid. Lord Meilefont [sic] is the public performer—the man whose whole personality goes forth so in representation and aspect and sonority and phraseology and accomplishment and frontage tiiat there is absolutely—but I see it: begin it—begin it! Don't talk about it only, and around it. (60-61) The notebook entry concludes with a commencement; as the author completes the entry, he begins to write the tale. His musings about the characters, "R. B.," and "F. L.," lead him to produce a text. This text engenders the creation of a further text, for some nineteen years later, James writes the Preface to the New York edition of the tale. In this, he again discusses the textual production of the story, and returns to the mystery of the two presences that undermined themselves, and provided the impetus for his text. In relation to the Vawdrey figure, he notes that the light had at last to break under pressure of the whimsical theory of two distinct and alternate presences, me assertion of either of which on any occasion directly involved the entire extinction of the other. This explained to the imagination the mystery: our delightful inconceivable celebrity was double, constructed in two quite distinct and "water-tight" compartments. . . . (250) This passage is explicit in its assertion that the idea for the Vawdrey figure grew out of James's desire to reconcile the difference he perceived...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 13-23
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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