- An Impossible Woman:Henry James and the Mysterious Case of Anne Moncure Crane
“Isn’t there a theory that women forgive injuries, but never ignomininies?”
“That’s what the novelists teach, and we bachelors get most of our doctrine about women from them. . . . We don’t go to nature for our impressions; but neither do the novelists, for that matter.”—W. D. Howells, A Modern Instance (1882)1
On January 30, 1873, the Nation ran a modest, one-paragraph obituary marking the death of Mrs. A. M. C. Seemuller, “better known by her maiden name, Anne Moncure Crane,” and still better as the “Author of ‘Emily Chester.’” But the entry, though it was written on the occasion of Crane’s death at the age of thirty-four, says very little about the author. Instead, it offers a series of strange and indecorous castigations of Emily Chester, a novel by Crane that was by this point almost a decade old. Statements referring to the “crudity of [Crane’s] book,” demeaned as an “ephemeral success” and, in reality, a matter of “no significance,” suggest that the author of the obituary may have seized the moment of Crane’s death for the kind of public remonstrance that can, in truth, only stem from personal complaint.2 And though it is unsigned, it is in the larger profile of its author—Henry James, assuredly—that such indecorum may perhaps be best understood.
Three pieces of evidence help us to ascertain James’ culpability here: first, he was, during this time a regular contributor to the Nation, having had one of his first short stories featured in that magazine’s 1865 inaugural issue; second, he was in 1873 one of its chief literary reviewers, thanks in part to his close relationship with editor E. L. Godkin; third, he had eight years earlier written a scathing review of Crane’s Emily Chester for the North American Review, later excerpted in the Nation, the theme and vehemence [End Page 95] of which palpably match the anonymous 1873 obituary. James, it must be understood, was still years away from destined literary prominence; his first “major” novel, Roderick Hudson, would not appear until 1875, though he had by this point written enough stories, essays, and articles to garner a critical, if not creative, reputation. Yet in correspondence with Crane’s death, James’ comments—and Alfred Habegger additionally supports this attribution3—smack not just of complaint, but also of bitterness. Rather than commenting on the broader scope of Crane’s writing career and mentioning her two additional novels, and rather than surveying the many short stories and essays she published over the years in the likes of the Galaxy and Atlantic Monthly, James chooses to attack her popular first novel, Emily Chester, seemingly for the sake of its popularity. The obituary notes that “Miss Crane’s book was . . . widely read” but then dismisses its readership in contending that “It will not now be recollected very well by many people, as its success was in reality an ephemeral success, and the reputation it procured for its author fleeting.”4 Henry James’ assertions here are correct from a contemporary viewpoint, now that time and critical intervention have all but wiped Crane from the canonical map. But they were emphatically wrong when he wrote them in 1873 and he of all people must have known it.
Anne Moncure Crane’s Emily Chester was first published in 1864. It sold extremely well: it was printed in ten subsequent editions before 1880, translated into several languages, and additionally distributed in Europe through agreements with its publisher.5 Sheldon Novick in fact somewhat grandly refers to Emily Chester as “one of the first widely popular novels by an American author,”6 a charge that is perhaps evident from its imprint alone, since “the Ticknor & Fields imprint appeared on the title page of every book of importance written by an American” during this period, according to James.7 Stage versions of Emily Chester appeared throughout the 1860s and 1870s. James’ comments, far from reminding readers of this “ephemeral” text and its “fleeting[ly]” famous author, appear intent upon dismantling Crane’s popularity. The question, though...