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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 806-816
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Liberating Henry James
Andrew Taylor. Henry James and the Father Question. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. x + 234 pp.
Donatella Izzo. Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2001. viii + 312 pp.
Tessa Hadley. Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. viii + 205 pp.
If Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer, Henrietta Stackpole, and Kate Croy sat down to a brunchtime discussion after a week spent at their jobs in public relations, an art gallery, law, and journalism, would they sound like the characters in Sex and the City? Would Daisy flaunt her latest flirtation, Isabel wonder whether she should stay in a moribund relationship, Henrietta resolve that she doesn't really need a man, and Kate listen, bemused, to the rest? Would they sound like "liberated" women, entangled in and extricating themselves from a mix of sexual escapades and domestic experiments, breezily self-conscious about their shopping addictions, and forever quizzical about the tough choices facing the independent girl? Or would their conversation sound like a setback to feminism? Glancing at their table from across the restaurant, feminist critic Rita Felski might see HBO's freewheeling women as mobile subjects in a cosmopolitan and exhibitionistic milieu, situated in an intersection of uneven temporalities [End Page 806] whose contradictions she has analyzed in the "money, sex, and power" novel: they are characters of a modernist narrative of self-development and social mobility whose identities (as consumers, as image-makers) are shaped by the postmodern society of the spectacle (129). The three studies under consideration here see James's stories about women's opportunities as narratives of self-development and emergent postmodern sensibilities, and I begin by evoking HBO and Sex and the City in order to put pressure on the terms in which the current critical stances on James appreciatively emphasize freedom, especially women's. Careful not to promote James as a protoliberal feminist, these studies nonetheless tend to find James in sympathy with the cause of women's freedom to reject the idealizations that bind them and to embrace sensual pleasures. Finding James's fiction supremely self-aware and of consciousness-raising value, the studies champion cosmopolitan mobility, a freedom-enhancing (rather than victimizing) marginality, and a fairly straightforward hedonism.
What freedoms, and whose, does James's fiction reflect and imagine? How does it express, if it does, a desire for women's freedom? And are women to be freed to experience sensual pleasures, or (as Virginia Woolf would have demanded) to speak about their experiences? Finally, at which historical junctures are such freedoms necessary or desirable? One might ask about Sex and the City whether viewers are as interested in the sex and shopping as they are in how the female characters talk about sex and shopping; are viewers more interested in sexual freedom or the freedom of these characters to speak in a distinctive female idiom? The same question might be asked of James's fiction: are readers as interested in the characters' experiences—of travel, urban spaces, sexual frisson—as they are in the imagination of an idiom that negotiates the contradictory experiences and desires of being subject to tradition and modernity, of wanting both to conform to social expectations (a conformity that brings with it certain liberties) and at the same time to flout convention? To the extent that readers and viewers take interest in the way characters muddle their way through their opportunities, the appeal of stories about women caught up in uneven temporalities may be that their situations sharply throw into relief the tension between the apparent twin desires for freedom and conformity, and that their baffled talk, in its search for clarity, is artistic, in the sense, as James declared in "The Art of Fiction," that "Art lives upon discussion, upon experiment, upon curiosity, upon variety of attempt, upon the exchange of views and the comparison of standpoints" (165-66). The key terms of "The Art of Fiction" are freedom, experience, and enjoyment, and...