- Reading Henry James: A Critical Perspective on Selected Works by George Monteiro
One of the finest adaptations of a James novel is James Cellan Jones’s The Golden Bowl (1972). Filmed in studio settings over six fifty-minute episodes, the story is narrated by Bob Assingham (Cyril Cusack), who not only participates in the drama but appears as an on-screen presence commenting directly on the action to the viewers. He aspires to be authoritative in his comments, but as the drama unfolds we understand the futility of his task. All he can offer are a series of speculations, which may or may not be true. It is up to us to try and make sense of them—or not, as the case might be.
Returning to the novel of The Golden Bowl recently, I soon understood that this was precisely what the narrator was trying to do. Through increasingly lengthy passages of comment on the characters’ behavior, he repeatedly tries and fails to work out the characters’ motives. The novel remains fascinatingly elusive, as it challenges [End Page E-25] us to believe in the narrator or just accept him as one of a plurality of voices in the narrative.
George Monteiro’s book has a similar effect on readers. Its stated aim is to offer a reading of his literary intentions throughout his lengthy career as a novelist. Monteiro claims that this is precisely what literary scholarship should do—to marshal the evidence and offer new insight for readers, not just Jamesian scholars but those hitherto unacquainted with his work. The range of scholarship on offer is impressive—quotations from the novels, the short stories, extracts from the notebooks as well as a vituperative exchange of correspondence between James and one of his editors over the rejection of the short story “The Pupil” (1891) (73–77). This is one of the highlights of the book, as James tries his best to sustain a veneer of politeness in his responses yet occasionally allows his resentment to emerge.
We are given fascinating insights into his character. Although James is a cosmopolitan personality spending much of his life outside the United States, there are occasions when he is almost racist in his views, especially while talking about the Portuguese (84). He sometimes envies his literary friends such as Browning, who has achieved such a pinnacle of success that he can write for the sake of writing. By comparison James views himself as something of a tradesperson whose prodigious output was determined by the need to survive. He owed debts of gratitude to earlier American novelists such as Hawthorne, especially in the portrayal of destructive personalities (as in The Wings of the Dove). On other occasions James found his own work particularly unsatisfying. In later life he judged that “Daisy Miller” was particularly flat in its characterization, despite its success as a novel and a play.
And yet there remains a strong sense throughout Monteiro’s work that James is somehow elusive. Like the narrator in The Golden Bowl we are encouraged to make assumptions about him, only to have them frustrated later on. He seems especially secretive—as in “The Aspern Papers,” he destroys personal letters to prevent them falling into scholarly hands. Sometimes in his letters he indulges in bouts of self-analysis (66), but we wonder whether these pieces are rhetorical performances designed to keep his readers entertained. He seems far happier dealing with material things and their consequences for humanity (a trait that lies at the heart of The Spoils of Poynton).
Monteiro relies heavily on older critics such as Matthiessen to set James within a tradition of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American literature and employs literary parallels to sustain his arguments. On a more personal level, this book contains an account of the complicated relationship between James, Marian (“Clover”) Adams, and her husband Henry (author of The Education of Henry Adams ). The association with the Adams family obviously had an impact on his life, but James remained secretive about it.
The experience of...