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  • Foreign Inflections and Infections:Language Clashes in Henry James's The Tragic Muse

Often shrugged off as an eccentricity, James's habit of inserting non-English verbal elements into English texts is central to his artistry. His novel The Tragic Muse (1890/1908) demonstrates how French interpolations reinforce key oppositions, like that between French devotion to the aesthetic realm and English preoccupation with public affairs. The development of Miriam Rooth's career hinges on her French apprenticeship, which she still cherishes on the less propitious English stage. Her allegiance is crucially confirmed by her continuing reliance on French phraseology, which empowers her to resist the solicitations of her English suitor, Peter Sherringham.

[T]he Englishman's habit of not being effusive still prevailed with him after his years of exposure to the foreign infection.

(TM 2: 119)

According to Eric Savoy, "In the world of Henry James, the surest sign of an expatriate's sophistication is the tendency—at once emphatic and off-hand—to sprinkle the conversational mix with French words and phrases" (196). James's own habit of sprinkling his texts with non-English words and phrases has long struck many readers as an affectation, even an infection.1 An inveterate polyglot, James regularly displays an impatience with the confines of a single language, no matter if it is his mother tongue. My aim in what follows is to challenge the assumption that the multilingual bent of James's fiction amounts merely to a parade of the characters' sophistication, much less the author's. I will argue that, instead, James's penchant for importing extramural verbal elements is functional, gauged to serve the rhetorical exigencies of his texts. Rather than peripheral, it is programmatic, enhancing James's treatment of character development in conjunction with his transnational themes.

James is, of course, hardly the first author to incorporate multilingualism in fictional texts. One thinks, to choose an obvious example, of Charlotte Brontë's Villette, where the Belgian milieu generates the frequent intermingling of English and French. James's treatment of such verbal motley is, however, distinct from Brontë's. In Villette, language clashes tend to focus sectarian antagonisms between Protestantism and Catholicism. French is the language not of Paris but of Rome. In James, such religious divisions are less salient; linguistic clashes tend rather to involve aesthetic and ethical concerns. [End Page 152]

By and large, James's critics have not lavished attention on this polyglot dimension of his art. An eminent exception is Edwin Fussell,2 whose 1990 study The French Side of Henry James convincingly documents James's lifelong (if fluctuating) enthusiasm for French culture, nation, and language. According to Fussell,

[T]he James text inscribes French so much and so well that it is no exaggeration to say that readings of James which scant the fact of language are no readings at all but the merest selective reduction. Attention to France and French further compels attention to questions of literary patriotism and internationalism, the relations of literature and world politics, as well as deliberately sought cultural alienation.


"No exaggeration" may itself be an exaggeration, but if so it is a pardonable one. I would subscribe to Fussell's dictum: "Whatever the topic, in James, the fact of language is the string to hang onto" (20). I would observe, however, that Fussell's own grip on the string tends to be variable. While he supplies an exhaustive account of the "French" content of James's texts, he only intermittently undertakes probing analysis of what linguistic imports, as situated, contribute to those texts' dramatic force. On occasion he does provide illuminating analysis of the sort I have in mind. His discussion of the impact of French in the later pages of What Maisie Knew is a striking example. More typically, though, Fussell gives precedence to tabulating the abundance of French elements while devoting less scrutiny to the work those elements perform. Although I do not mean to underestimate the usefulness of Fussell's landmark study, I propose to apply a more operative approach to the question of languages in James.

For the sake of empirical demonstration, I will focus on the middle-period novel The Tragic Muse (1890), an apt candidate for linguistic study partly because, as Fussell notes, it includes "more French than . . . any other novel by Henry James" (144). I would add that, despite its exceptionally ample French lexicon, The Tragic Muse typifies James's method throughout his oeuvre. In James, the presence of non-English locutions—not just French but, in smaller measure, Italian and German—derives (as Fussell suggests) from the author's lifelong concern with manifold national affiliations.

Although he does not directly address literary issues, the socio-linguistics specialist John Edwards has developed theories that shed light on the language encounters that stem from James's preoccupations. Edwards holds that "language is an important window into society" (206) because it provides a key to the interplay of conflicting social forces: "In all linguistic struggles, both within and between languages, in all situations of linguistic maintenance and decline, in all language-planning efforts we observe a competition which is not between languages themselves but, rather, between language communities or linguistic 'interest groups'" (205). Linguistic affiliations unite and separate people into competing "teams": "We are dealing . . . with matters of psychological import, in which linguistic specifics act as markers, badges, team jerseys" (146).

Edwards observes that "attitudes towards code-switching are often negative, particularly on the part of monolinguals who are sometimes inclined to dismiss it as gibberish" (78). Those possessing the ability to switch codes (like the Jamesian sophisticates mentioned by Savoy) are liable to experience "a strong tension . . . between the pull of parochialism—and the special perspective on the world which [End Page 153] is often seen to be uniquely associated with a first language—and the very obvious attractions and rewards of moving out of the shadow of le clocher" (204). As I hope to show, Edwards's concept of language teams and his analysis of the tensions these produce have considerable explanatory force when applied to James's fictional praxis. While the majority of James's characters are native English speakers, "team" divisions are often determined by whether or not they habitually tap into other languages. The opposing rosters pit polyglots against monolinguals, roving cosmopolitans against parochials who hug the shadow of the village bell-tower.

Because cultural values are mediated by language, in The Tragic Muse such oppositions intersect with a strongly demarcated array of national investments. In broad terms, France and French are persistently linked with artistic endeavor, England and English with dutiful dedication to politics and public service. The frequency of French, as spoken by both natives and visitors, cannot be discounted as a quaint idiosyncrasy. Rather, the language exerts an ideological torque, decentering the text from its expected Anglophone predominance.

This decentering impulse has roots reaching back to the dawn of James's career. Already in his 1865 review of Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism he singles out for praise the older writer's freedom from English parochialism, lauding his openness to German and above all French literature as an antidote to English philistinism, a term of opprobrium he cheerfully borrows from Arnold. Commending Arnold's breadth of vision, the youthful reviewer argues that English critical practice

has retarded the development and vulgarized the character of the English mind, as compared with the French and the German mind. This rational inference may be nothing but a poet's flight; but for ourselves, we assent to it. It reaches us too. The facts collected by Mr. Arnold on this point have long wanted a voice. It has long seemed to us that, as a nation, the English are singularly incapable of large, of high, of general views. They are indifferent to pure truth, to la verité vraie.

(EL 716)

The closing tag confirms that in extolling the primacy of Continental thought the young James already turns as if by default to the French language. In general, the review points to strong affinities between the conceptual framework of Arnold's criticism and the cognitive gestalt that James would later bring to his fiction, not only the Arnoldian preoccupation with philistinism or parochial conformity but also the older writer's concepts of Hebraist and Hellenist currents in society, the oscillating tension between severely ethical and aestheticist mind-sets. As Alwyn Berland has argued, "The opposition of Hebraism and Hellenism may be seen, in varying dramatic forms, over and over in James" (31).

James's attitude toward England and its champions, as toward much else, shifted over time. According to T. J. Lustig, James came to view Arnold ambivalently, deeming the older writer "both a critic and an instance of Englishness, simultaneously essential and exceptional" (189). Yet in his carefully considered 1884 piece on Arnold for the English Illustrated Magazine what James stresses is the exceptional side: Arnold "is, among the English writers of our day, the least of a matter-of-course Englishman—the pair of eyes to which the English world rounds itself most naturally as a fact among many facts" (EL 722–23). To James "the exasperating thing" about ordinary English [End Page 154] people was "their serenity, their indifference, their tacit assumption that their form of life is the normal one" (721). It seems natural to extend James's critique of English moral complacency to the linguistic variety: to the conviction that Anglophone modes of speech are normative, other modes aberrant. The freedom from the first type of complacency, which James admired in Arnold, he would strive to embody in his own work vis-à-vis the second, discursive type. The host of foreign expressions in his texts can be read as sovereign aides in his campaign against Anglophone normativity.

An early iteration of that campaign occurs in The Europeans (1878). Here the clash of discourses is configured by the chronic tension between the forces of Hellenism and those of Hebraism, a tension exploited largely for the sake of its comic potential. The comedy here tends to be broad and immediate rather than oblique and complex. Lynda Zwinger speaks of the "nicely paired dichotomies on offer" (26). The European visitors—the Baroness Eugenia and her brother Felix Young—are Hellenist cosmopolites perplexed by the insular New England Gothic world of their sturdily Hebraist relatives, the Wentworths. The clash replicates the terms of Edwards's paradigm of competing language teams, pitting polyglots against monolinguals. Eugenia, bemoaning the meagerness of their Boston hotel room fire, personifies the Jamesian cosmopolitan: "'Did you ever see anything so—so affreux as—as everything?' She spoke English with perfect purity; but she brought out this French epithet in a manner that indicated that she was accustomed to using French epithets" (EU 3). In the ensuing action the visitors repeatedly baffle their plainspoken hosts with their fondness for French, "that foreign tongue which they both appeared to feel a mysterious prompting occasionally to use" (9). The "foreign" element, unsettling to provincial Boston ears, reaches beyond the linguistic to the cultural and conceptual. The "epithets" serve as markers of the broader spectrum of foreignness that Felix and Eugenia embody—as Zwinger notes, French becomes "a virtual synonym for 'foreign' in the narrative" (27). Even an English term like the "morganatic marriage" in which the Baroness is embroiled can strike the Boston cousins as eerily alien: "'Morganatic?' These were new names and new words to poor Gertrude" (23). (As Zwinger again observes, "morganatic" is "a word that retains a power throughout the novel to fluster and fascinate the rest of the family" [32].) In The Europeans the jostle of new names and words with old ones gestures toward dissonances of imprinted attitude. "Outlandish" speech is melded with outlandishness of demeanor, as when Eugenia addresses the bemused Mr. Wentworth: "'You are a beau vieillard, dear uncle,' said Madame Münster, smiling with her foreign eyes" (EU 53).

The humor of verbal and behavioral incongruity culminates in the late scene in which Felix asks Mr. Wentworth for Gertrude's hand in marriage. Stalwartly Hebraist, the beau vieillard informs his daughter that he leaves the question of her future "in the last resort, to a greater wisdom than ours." Felix tells the girl, with an irreverent swerve into pragmatic French, "But en attendant the last resort, your father lacks confidence" (143). To Wentworth's glum pronouncement on his daughter, "She has not profited as we hoped," Felix responds with a quizzical Gallic glance at the mercantile trope: "Profited? Ah, voilà!" (144). Whether or not he understands Felix's French, it is not the literal linguistic otherness that puzzles Mr. Wentworth so much as the uncanny sense of a conceptual universe toward which the foreign language points and which is barred to him and his fellow Bostonians. Confronted with his niece Eugenia, Mr. Wentworth "was paralyzed and bewildered by her foreignness. She spoke, somehow, [End Page 155] a different language" (51). The "difference" of course includes literal French idioms, but it encompasses a wide range of further, mysterious intimations.

The Europeans could double as a curtain-raiser for The Tragic Muse, where linguistic questions (along with other related ones) become more vexed. True, the later work features not latter-day Bostonian Puritans but affluent English bourgeois. Still, by this point James had taken to visualizing the two transoceanic Anglo-Saxon tribes as forming a unified "race." In what Sara Blair calls a "breathless prospectus" of 1888, "he articulated [a] . . . version of internationalist cultural politics . . . : the construction of an 'Anglo-Saxon total,' whose 'general subject' would comprise shared racial, linguistic, and cultural formations" (127–28). For James, this promising formation was regrettably compromised by its alarming and increasingly philistine leanings. These spots of philistinism emerge in characters in both The Europeans and The Tragic Muse.

Although hardly interchangeable, central figures in the two works display a suggestive cousinship. The Tragic Muse's Nick Dormer, who takes up the métier of portrait-painting, recalls the aspiring portraitist Felix Young. The urbane but risk-averse Peter Sherringham, who clings to "the Englishman's habit of not being effusive," looks back to Eugenia's self-shielding Bostonian suitor Robert Acton. Although not a professional actress, the ever-theatrical Baroness has affinities with Miriam Rooth, the "Tragic Muse" herself. (Before returning to Europe, contemplating her amassed "gimcracks and curtains and cushions," Eugenia bursts out, "Bonté divine, what rubbish! I feel like a strolling actress; these are my 'properties'" [151].) In the later novel as in the earlier, French expressions underscore key motifs, playing off language "teams" against each other. In The Tragic Muse, the polyglot "side" comprises Gabriel Nash, Miriam Rooth, Miriam's mother, and Sherringham. The monolingual side includes the ladies of the Dormer family, Julia Dallow, and old Mr. Carteret. These teams, however, are loosely configured; within each, one encounters pronounced disparities.

In the later work, as in the earlier, James's caustic treatment of insularity is inseparable from his rendering of language performance. The French elements generously scattered throughout are talismans subserving a determined cultural agenda, operating as reminders that alternatives to the Anglophone sterling standard exist and have their own peremptory claims. As Fussell observes, "[I]t is a main textural message of The Tragic Muse that willful ignorance of French properly defines an indolent mindless uncultivated barbarian provincial Philistine Briton or American" (148). Although in what follows I will examine specific occurrences of French in The Tragic Muse, I should first acknowledge that the overall fact of who is—and who is not—given to using French can count as tellingly as what a character may say in that language. And most of the French "infiltration" of the text is (leaving aside a Frenchwoman like the venerable actress Honorine Carré) performed by English subjects. Their periodic French utterances keep the spotlight on that particular language league, the oddly assembled team campaigning under the tricolor banner of the creative arts and against the opposed ranks of workaday Union Jack orthodoxy. Many of these Gallic intrusions are exclamatory and entail a boosting of the temperature of discourse above the lukewarm Anglophone mean. At the same time, each interpolation shows James's judicious calculation of timing for the sake of optimum rhetorical impact.

The novel's opening sentence paves the way: "The people of France have made it no secret that those of England, as a general thing, are to their perception an inexpressive [End Page 156] and speechless race, perpendicular and unsociable, unaddicted to enriching any bareness of contact with verbal or other embroidery" (1: 3). While the tone is facetious, the sentiment draws support from James's risible tableau of the English Dormer family huddled dumbly in the garden of the Paris Palais de l'Industrie. It gains added piquancy from the dismissive shrug of a fancied French onlooker: "En v'la des abrutis!" (4). The remark is positioned so as to alert readers to besetting Anglophone sluggishness. It is no accident that the family name Dormer chimes with the French verb dormir.

Not all the Dormers are dormant, averse to "verbal or other embroidery." That said, the family member first highlighted, the majestic Lady Agnes Dormer, has little room for festoons, whether linguistic or artistic. With her eyes on a marble group of "a man with the skin of a beast round his loins, tussling with a naked woman in some primitive effort of courtship or capture," she laments, "Everything seems very dreadful" (8). Art of the sort cultivated in Paris she can only deem a species of depravity. Her conception of art in principle, as reported by her son Nick, places it as a morbid disorder of alien provenance. She holds "a general conviction that the 'aesthetic'—a horrible insidious foreign disease—is eating the healthy core out of English life" (2: 212). To verbal foreignness she is (like Mr. Wentworth) equally unreceptive. When she enters a café with her like-minded daughter Grace and is asked "Mesdames sont seules?" she replies in curt, fractured French, "Non; nous sommes beaucoup!" (1: 37). Overhearing chat about French authors between the erudite Sherringham and the aesthete Nash, capped by Peter's scrap of French (he calls a play by the French author Émile Augier "the cheval de bataille of you fellows"),3 Lady Agnes bursts out: "What an extraordinary discussion! What dreadful authors" (68). Much of the dreadfulness doubtless stems from the fact of the authors in question being French and writing in their lurid native argot.

In her resistance to foreign infections Lady Agnes is not alone. Her more urbane fellow-travelers, too, can be unresponsive to things both French and aesthetic. Even before her first appearance we hear that Sherringham's imperious sister Julia Dallow "doesn't care a rap about art" (8). Julia appears to be more at ease than Lady Agnes in the local language, but her first utterance in it conveys scant enthusiasm for its cultural offerings. "Merci, pas de vin," she tells a waiter (96), using the idiom of France to reject one of that country's most prized products.

Against such philistine subjects James early on positions his troupe of cosmopolitans. Gabriel Nash, the first to emerge, presents himself in double guise as the avatar of Continental aestheticism and French discourse, stirring nervous tremors among the saturnine Anglophone ranks. Even to his old college friend Nick Dormer he strikes the discomfiting pose of an alien estranged in both time and place. Answering Nick's innocent rhetorical question, "Don't we both live in London, after all, and in the nineteenth century?," he issues a solemn, French-inflected disclaimer: "I don't live in the nineteenth century. Jamais de la vie!" (24). On the lips of this voluble dilettante, French takes on the status of metonymy, becoming emblematic of a rejection of the humdrum and a commitment to art as the supreme good. It is thereby placed flatly in opposition to competing, English-specific discourses of political and diplomatic agency. Informed that Nick plans to stand for the House of Commons, Nash cannot confine his dismay within Anglophone bounds: "To do that sort of thing without a bribe—c'est trop fort!" (54). [End Page 157]

Yet despite his vivid presence, Nash is not James's premier advocate of coupled French and aesthetic values. That role belongs to the (initially) unpromising young actress Miriam Rooth, whose special intimacy with the French language sets her apart from Nash. Where Nash's resorting to French phrases tends to be ostentatious, even supercilious, Miriam's linguistic insertions are mostly earnest. Where Nash remains basically static, Miriam evolves as a character, as does her linguistic aplomb. In fact, as I hope to demonstrate in what follows, Miriam's reliance on French language elements in her speech accompanies and enhances the larger, central narrative of her growth into an autonomous and eloquent subject.

It has become something of a critical commonplace to regard Miriam abstractly, as an ambiguous or vacant signifier in vain search of a determinate signified. Karen Scherzinger, in her Derridean account of The Tragic Muse, goes so far as to call the girl paradoxically "absence personified" (185). Such views channel Sherringham's perception

that a woman whose only being was to "make believe," to make believe she had any and every being you might like and that would serve a purpose and produce a certain effect . . . such a woman was a kind of monster in whom of necessity there would be nothing to "be fond" of, because there would be nothing to take hold of.

(TM 2: 198)

But to accept Peter's judgment uncritically is to disregard the nuances of the fictional context. As the novel proceeds, one obtains a growing sense that Miriam is no mere absence, let alone a monster. If anything, it is Peter's determination to "take hold" of her—to thwart her independence by clamping onto her his own self-serving definition of who she is—that might more properly be called monstrous.

Absence is, to be sure, conspicuous in James's introduction of his heroine. Both she and her importunate mother are singled out for their lack of any fixed national affiliation. Nick's sister Biddy reflects (duly recalling Doctor Johnson) "that they were people whom in any country, from China to Peru, you would immediately have taken for natives" (1: 23). For Blair, this justifies calling Miriam a "[w]oman without a country" (136), but it would be fairer to say that Miriam adopts a country—France—as her artistic homeland, or better still, France adopts her. What is central to the issue of Miriam's national filiation is, in fact, the authoritative role of language. Despite the tinge of literary "exoticism" stemming from her partly Jewish background, her effective identity is dual; it is that of "the jeune Anglaise" (e.g., 1: 58). While the literal translation is merely "young Englishwoman," the French designation imposes a doubled valence, reminding one of Miriam's unique polyglot endowment. Sherringham marvels at her "equal mastery of two languages"; "Say of half a dozen" the girl airily counters (202). "Jeune Anglaise" or not, she is assured by Peter that "your French is better than your English—it's more conventional." (A curious way of ranking language skills, but then Peter himself is at bottom a devotee of convention.) It is Miriam's exemplary verbal versatility that will make of her an exemplary cultural agent, qualified to bestow her mastery of French artistic tradition upon philistine England in the role of aesthetic missionary. Before embarking on that public project, however, she is first obliged to undertake a more personal journey: an exacting apprenticeship in France, and in French, which James memorably evokes in several pivotal chapters. [End Page 158]

These trace Miriam's initiation into French canons of artistic excellence under the tutelage of an apostle of that tradition, Madame Carré. It is an apprenticeship that enacts the girl's transformation from stage-struck pupa to resplendent monarch butterfly. Here especially, interpolated French phrases are vital in bringing home to the reader the resonance of this professional magic. The irrepressible Nash introduces Carré with a Gallic flourish: "Ah, la voix de Célimène!" (117). His words at once place her as more than a superannuated stage relic; they establish her as the reincarnation of Molière's immortal heroine and thus as the custodian of that author's supreme dramatic legacy. As Gabriel well knows, to have its due gravity such a tribute demands the language of Célimène and of the great French playwright who created her.

Nonetheless, since this is after all an English novel, the scenes in which Carré figures must be inscribed not in her own (and Molière's) language but in that of its primary readership. Even so, the French presence is never allowed to fade from view or from audition. It seems needless to suppose that the interspersed French words and phrases, as Pierre Walker has claimed, "[seduce] James's English language readers into the belief that they are reading French" (Review 105). Rather, here again the function of these elements is metonymic: they serve as semiotic prompts signaling that the enveloping English dialogue is to be received as a surrogate for the "original" French the characters are "really" speaking. At the same time, Carré's intermittent, often excitable, bursts of literal French are cannily positioned to underscore the older actress's flashes of heightened engagement. The whole linguistic ensemble operates not to create an illusion of "faux" French but to simulate at least a sensation of exposure to an alternate cultural surround.

A fervent advocate of her own theater and its august history, Madame Carré is an acerbic challenger of that English (and Anglophone) normativity that James, in the spirit of Arnold, had long disavowed. She has her own truculent insularity, but because it springs from an incontestable tradition it is more a charming foible than a token of philistinism. "Je ne connais qu'une scènela nôtre (1: 122), she proclaims, James aptly granting her words from her one readily available language. As a Parisian and a woman of the world she has no use for Hebraist strictures: "Bad women? Je n'ai joué que ça" (124), she roundly declares, the idiom pointedly pivoting from censorious English to genial French. When Miriam's mother, thirsting for respectability, complains of lacking a proper home, once again only French words suffice to convey the actress's Parisian scorn: "Oh you English, you're d'une légèreté à faire frémir" (128).4 Oblivious to the reader's likely assumption of the "normality" of English, she amusingly traces the légèreté or shallowness to the rival nation's unpolished speech: "[I]t [English] was a language of which one expected so little" (130). Addressing Miriam in her native French, the old actress marshals its reserves of finesse. When Miriam asks anxiously if she is "pretty bad," the veteran actress's exasperation is filtered through her own courteous idiom: "Mon Dieu, que vous dirai-je?" (135). She urges upon Miriam, in English "translation," an unstinting regimen of work, but drives home the point with a terse French maxim: "Il n'y a que ça."

Obliged to conduct delicate negotiations between two nationalities and two languages, Miriam from the start asserts her autonomy through her penchant for ad hoc linguistic medley, a tactic that will culminate in the disputatious proposal scene of chapter 46. Earlier, reacting to Sherringham's condescending "You're a strange girl," she takes ownership of her imputed strangeness by exclaiming in a "strange" [End Page 159] idiom, "Je crois bien!" (162).5 Later, when Peter makes a gauche attempt to stereotype her as a Jewess, she boldly claims an alternate heritage, one not connected with bloodlines: "I'm of the family of the artists—je me fiche of any other!" she exclaims, with a robust code-switch into the mother tongue of art itself (205). After an arduous course of study with Madame Carré, her stern mentor rewards her with a lavish bouquet of praise: "Elle est superbe" (344). It signals Miriam's de facto welcome into the confraternity of true artists, offered in that guild's time-honored idiom.

The summit of that welcome is reached when, as Peter's guest, Miriam breathlessly attends the Théâtre Français, where she meets several of the principals. (Fussell aptly calls this episode the novel's pièce de résistance [140].) The excursion soon reveals itself as a consecration. Miriam's special status as a "young lady sur le point d'entrer au théâtre (356) turns this physical "entrance" into a veritable rite of passage. Again the scatter of French phrases clinches the uniqueness of the experience, reaffirming Miriam's penetration of a forbidding linguistic sanctuary. Her admission into the private space of the dressing room of the star Mademoiselle Voisin (who is indeed to occupy the role of sustaining "neighbor" in Miriam's imagination) transfigures a personal courtesy into an indelible gesture of welcome. Voisin's self-deprecating words, "Voilà, c'est tout" (368), ratify the privilege even while seeming to dismiss it with Gallic nonchalance.

In his preface to The Tragic Muse James declares that he does not "go behind" Miriam by representing her private consciousness (xvi), and in the novel itself the narrator observes that, as regards his heroine, "We have chosen . . . for some of the great advantages it carries with it, the indirect vision" (2: 43). Critical commentary has uniformly followed James's lead. Curiously, both the author and his critics have overlooked a fleeting but crucial exception to James's "indirect" principle. In the scene at the Théâtre Français we do gain a glimpse of Miriam's inward reflections, couched predictably in a poignant medley of languages. The profound impression Voisin makes glows through the girl's self-colloquy, beginning in English but crowned by a passionate French outburst: "No wonder she acts well when she has that tact—feels, perceives, is so remarkable, mon Dieu, mon Dieu!" (1: 367). Her thoughts provide a vital insight into Miriam's evolving feelings about her chosen profession. They show that what so deeply moves her hinges not just on Voisin's technical skill but on more intimate qualities that surpass technique, paramount among them her finer filaments of human sensibility. If in Carré Miriam found her Parisian mentor and taskmaster, in Voisin she discovers her luminous French role model. As she confides to Sherringham, "Everything's done—I feel it tonight" (373). In tandem the pair of actresses personify the precious French lore: la jeune Anglaise, thus initiated, will strive to embody in her subsequent career on the English scene.

As William Storm has argued, in The Tragic Muse James "contrast[s] an older tradition with modern practice. . . . At one extreme stands the Comédie-Française, at the other the London booking house" (141). In fact, Miriam's move to London entails, together with a change of linguistic mode, a painful compromise of the classical standards she has absorbed from Carré. Still, her civilizing mission commits her to rehabilitating musty English potboilers by lavishing on them her French trove of histrionic acumen. As Storm claims, "In spite of Miriam's theatrical dress and comportment, her authenticity and sincerity in defense of her art are, by now [in her climactic dispute with Sherringham], unquestionable; her commitment to it is complete and [End Page 160] absolute" (147). Blair argues that after crossing the Channel Miriam loses her aura of Jewishness and "becomes a thoroughly English subject and genteel bourgeoise" (153),6 but what seems worth more notice is that the French component of her identity undergoes no such elision. While her artistic triumphs are restricted to insular venues, and while she makes a marriage of professional convenience to the lackluster English thespian Basil Dashwood, in fact Miriam never becomes thoroughly naturalized. Far from evolving (or dwindling) into a standard British (or brutish) performer and wife, she clings tenaciously to her precious French heritage. The persistence in her speech of French expressions has all the weight of confirmatory evidence, providing an ongoing guarantee of her cross-Channel fidelity.

By contrast, the chapters recounting Nick Dormer's political entanglements contain a relative scarcity of French elements. In The Tragic Muse it is the absence of foreign speech that calls for remark.7 Most of Nick's interlocutors here are, of course, habitually monolingual, but their avoidance of the foreign derives less from lack of fluency than from faintness of enthusiasm. To flaunt French phrases before the likes of old Mr. Carteret, let alone Lord Bottomley, would be to risk indecent exposure as an unpatriotic cad. The implied homology between foreign speech and artistic leanings operates in reverse here. Both tendencies are perceived by confirmed English philistines as unsound. Art, for Carteret, offers an affront to caste and sect: "The pencil? The brush? Not the weapons of a gentleman" (2: 171). They are rather, we infer, the weapons of a man capable of addressing one impudently in a sinister foreign tongue.

Nick's politically minded intended Julia Dallow, if not outraged, is still unnerved by his artistic bent: "It seems so odd your having a studio" (12). Defending his painterly efforts to Julia, Nick inopportunely hazards a French allusion: "Guenille si l'on veut, ma guenille m'est chère" (12). ("Rags and tatters, maybe, but I am fond of my rags and tatters" [NO 1294], a reference to Molière's Les Femmes Savantes.) Like several of Nick's French interpolations, this one evokes Miriam's cherished domain of French theater, subtly working to weave together the precariously interlinked "halves" of the narrative. Even if Julia grasps the reference, though, it is unlikely to reconcile her to her friend's painterly ambitions. Pondering their relationship, Nick later "become[s] more and more aware of their speaking a different language" (2: 187). As in The Europeans, the overt figurative signification encompasses literal divergences of national speech.

Gabriel Nash, not Julia's favorite among Nick's friends, is also in more than one sense a speaker of a different language. Like his earlier sojourn in Paris, Nash's reemergence in London clears an avenue for both French idioms and aesthetic chatter. His rapturous French pronouncement on Nick's artwork—"C'est de l'exquis, du pur exquis" (23)—jolts the artist himself away from "English" political concerns and toward "French" creative commitments. Prompted by his polyglot companion, Nick is readied for a life-altering deviation from the expected matrimony and public service toward free-lance portraiture, from tight little English island to expansive and inventive Continent.

Yet it is not Gabriel but Miriam, newly ordained emissary of French stagecraft and overnight London stage sensation, who provides the determining thrust for Nick's convulsive canter toward a new career. Miriam is a brilliant visitant from a world alien to Julia's British isle of parliamentary affairs and political tracts. Her foreignness manifests itself in her haziness with regard to standard English usage. Searching for [End Page 161] the proper epithet to designate Nick's intended, she falters between languages: "Ah then do bring your—what do they call her in English? I'm always afraid of saying something improper—your future" (39). From a straight-laced English perspective the actress's very presence in Nick's quarters looks improper, and her impulse to revert to French exacerbates the whiff of impropriety. She tells Nick that to paint her portrait he would need to see her often on stage "to profit by the optique de la scène—what did they call that in English?" The French term, which in fact lacks any easy English equivalent, again links Miriam's theatrical vocation with Nick's "optical" avocation of portraiture. Nick here is confronted once more with a choice not just between two languages but between two antithetical modes of being: between Hebraist Anglo-Saxon reticence and unblushing Hellenist-Gallic spectacle.

Miriam, seldom prone to reticence, gravitates to French when artistic matters are at issue. Her enthusiasm for Dormer's portrait-in-progress of herself needs to be expressed in that language: "Ah bien, c'est tapé" ("Oh good, it's first-rate"; 55). Sensitized by her Parisian exposure to artistic excellence, she responds to it even in a medium remote from her own, voicing her admiration in the parlance of her training. By contrast Julia, irrupting into this scene, confronts a tableau she can only register as scandal: the flaunting young actress sitting for a daub by Julia's woefully skittish "futur." Her response is wonderfully true to form: she blurts the sepulchral Saxon monosyllable "Home!" and flees to less "foreign" environs (60). This puts paid to the brief skirmish of languages, though not to its lingering repercussions.

The marriage-plot becomes in this novel a focus of contention, with James's linguistic strategies foregrounding national animosities. (Fussell calls The Tragic Muse "a literary war between the two nations" [124].) Although for the New York Edition James made few changes to interpolated French content, those he did make subtly intensify Miriam's "Frenchness." When Peter, jealous of Nick, asks whether Miriam would marry his friend, she counters with a scornful diagnosis of the Anglo-philistine fixation on matrimony: "C'est la maladie anglaise—you've all got it on the brain" (TM 2: 253). Compare the 1890 edition: "'Mercy, how you chatter about marrying!' the girl laughed. 'You've all got it on the brain'" (NO 1130). The revised version gives Miriam the added, pointed phrase in French, identifying the "malady" as a specifically English affliction while allowing her linguistically to distance herself from it.

What Miriam has on her own brain is the obverse "French" fixation on artistic splendor, one that renders her numb to Peter's scheme to press her into a conventionally "distinguished" marriage to a rising young diplomat—himself. Challenging her suitor's callow dismissiveness of her artistic ambitions, she reverts to the language of her Parisian apprenticeship: "What do you do with that element of my nature? Où le fourrez-vous?" (2: 254). As Miriam observes later to her mother, "The gift of tongues is in general the sign of your true adventurer" (308). Miriam, that linguistic pathfinder, is too true an adventurer for Sherringham, who though himself amply gifted with tongues has embedded in his make-up a stony residue of English stolidity. Where Miriam's deepest impulse pushes her toward linguistic and cultural (though not sexual) promiscuousness, Peter's, for all his cosmopolitan gloss, drives him toward abstinence and exclusion.

As in The Europeans, the climactic scene of The Tragic Muse hinges on an offer of marriage, but one of a radically different type and outcome: Sherringham's literally eleventh-hour proposal (chapter 46). Miriam's French interventions in these pages, [End Page 162] though not plentiful, are decisive in marking her final, spirited liberation from Peter's overweening clutch. French figures here as her defense mechanism against emotional and professional bullying. To Peter's passionate "I loathe you!" (the whole class of theater people) Miriam returns with caustic French brio: "Je le vois parbleu bien!" (338). In his exasperation Peter adopts the devious stratagem of trespassing on Miriam's linguistic terrain even while himself disclaiming it, becoming, in effect, a temporizing renegade from the French "team." Charged plausibly with betraying his former allegiance to the theater for his own selfish purpose, he answers, "'Selfish purpose' is, in your own convenient idiom, bientôt dit" (344). As if he had earlier been himself quite innocent of the convenient idiom, he now makes a shift of transferring ownership of it to her. A language so saturated with the spirit of Miriam's artistry has lost its convenience for the obsessed English diplomat. But it is Peter's own Anglo-Saxon idiom that is, throughout the exchange, all too convenient, a dodge for evading the nub of the issue dividing them.

Miriam's French interpolations, by contrast, enable her refusal, foregrounding disparities rather than eliding them: "What you propose to me then is to accompany you tout bonnement to your new post" (345). The vein of sarcasm in tout bonnement is palpable—no such estrangement could be bon for the dedicated Miriam—as it is in the derisive scrap of French with which she disavows her promised luster as ambassadorial consort: "Surely it's vulgar to think only of the noise one's going to make—especially when one remembers how utterly bêtes most of the people will be among whom one makes it" (347). In the 1890 version Miriam says, "Surely it's vulgar to consider only the noise one's going to make; especially when one remembers how unintelligent nine-tenths of it will be" (NO 1194). Here again, James's revision, with its added, explosive epithet—bêtes—dramatizes Miriam's "French" disdain for Peter's all too "English" fantasy of the young actress's prospective, preening triumph.

Peter's next move in this duel of languages is to deplore the supposed vulgarity of Miriam's chosen profession, electing to read theatrical display as the unseemly "exhibition" of her "person." She responds to this pomposity with a hybrid phrase reaffirming her resolute artistic commitment: "Je vous attendais with the famous 'person'" (2: 352). Her words once again recall the legacy of the "young Englishwoman's" French baptism of fire, a legacy that she will not abjure and to which Peter himself has, ironically, contributed much. The whole scene enacts the triumph of Continental breadth of vision over English insularity. "If the pointless groan in which Peter exhaled a part of his humiliation had been translated into words, these words would have been as heavily charged with a genuine British mistrust of the uncanny principle [i.e., art] as if the poor fellow speaking them had never quitted his island" (355). The imagined words would, needless to say, not be French. According to Emily Rosenbaum, "Perhaps the best example of a failed attempt to control emotion is the man who also fails to go all the way and enter the theater, Peter" (209). Miriam's reliance on French as an auxiliary mode, by contrast, abets her control of her own emotions, a control bolstered by her ready fluency of movement between alternate linguistic registers.

But Miriam (why always Miriam?) has no monopoly on either artistic commitment or French vocabulary. Nick Dormer, though with less assurance, valiantly pursues his own unBritish amour with the uncanny principle. He visits the National Gallery to contemplate old masterpieces: "As he stood before them the perfection [End Page 163] of their survival often struck him as the supreme eloquence, the virtue that included all others, thanks to the language of art, the richest and most universal" (390–91). Since James's text has unfailingly cast the French tongue as the language of art, it is ironic that Gabriel Nash, whom Nick wants for a model, puts his friend off with a wry French disclaimer: "Mrs. Dallow will send for you—vous allez voir ça" (406). She will send, Gabriel explains, to have her portrait painted. The further, cheerless insinuation is that Nick will be (re)absorbed into a stifling, drably Anglophone sociocultural milieu. Reversing the vector of Miriam's progress, here the Anglosphere looks poised to assert primacy over the Francosphere.

The scuffle for Nick's allegiance between Gabriel and Julia may have other, less overt resonances. Several critics have detected homoerotic undercurrents in The Tragic Muse, stemming principally from the closeness between Nick and Nash. J. Hillis Miller reads the novel's key polarities as belonging to a system of sexual codes: "In this novel heterosexuality is coded as the respectable vocations of politics and diplomacy, while homosexuality is, to some degree covertly, coded as a devotion to art" (33). Scott St. Pierre elaborates on the same constellations:

Blue-books and art don't go together. In the social economy of the novel, as in the social economy of the bourgeois West more generally, to be married, practical, and plainspoken are all of one piece. To be enamored of art and under the suspect influence of frivolous, immature, fancy-speaking company from one's college days is something else altogether.


St. Pierre goes on to observe that "[t]he staid speaking style of Nick's family and the English public at large . . . is regularly contrasted with the urbane exuberance of the narrator's commentary" (118). The opposition between the "staid speaking style" of "the English public" and the "fancy speaking" of the narrator, along with the major votaries of art, meshes with the split in The Tragic Muse between polyglots and monolinguals—between users and shunners of French.

Could it follow that a confinement to English is branded as straight by James's text and frequent recourse to French as queer? The idea is not altogether far-fetched. French has long been categorized (of course by Anglophones) as an "effeminate" language.

As early as 1602, Richard Carew included in a list of stereotyped descriptions of European languages the statement that French is "delicate, but even nice as a Woman, scarce daring to open her Lippes, for fear of marring her Countenance." . . . This view of French as a "feminine" language has persisted to the present day.

(Beal 143)

The notion of French or any other language as having an inherent gender coloration seems fanciful, but what counts here is popular perception. The abundance of French in The Tragic Muse thus might with some plausibility be regarded as "feminizing" the text, queering its predominant sexual bias. In his 2010 study Henry James and the Queerness of Style, Kevin Ohi "seeks . . . to find in James's style a queerness that, not circumscribed by whatever sexualities or identities might be represented by the texts, makes for what is most challenging about recent queer accounts of culture . . . [End Page 164] the corrosive effects of queerness, in short, on received forms of meaning, representation, and identity" (1). According to Ohi, James engineers such disruption in his late period by writing in a "nonpreexistent foreign language," a convoluted, elliptical style that thwarts any quest for totalizing resolution. While French, the real "preexistent" foreign language conspicuous in The Tragic Muse, may have no such radically destabilizing impact, it, too, has associations with queerness, and it too calls into question the English or American philistine's entrenched pieties.

Finally, however, more than queerness is at issue in James's treatment of French. The language infiltrates major sectors of the narrative, inflecting its dominant themes, setting at odds its characters and helping to define the terms of the grand Jamesian/ Arnoldian duel between Hebraism and Hellenism. The friendship enjoyed by Nick Dormer and Gabriel Nash, however suggestive, necessarily occupies a subordinate position in this evolving dynamic. James's preeminent apostle of French speech and art—the Tragic Muse herself—happens, after all, to be a heterosexual female. That of course does not obviate the presence of "queer" currents, but it does suggest that other thematic elements have pressing claims on our attention, directing us to the conflicting tendencies in European and transatlantic society that engrossed James at this time. In The Tragic Muse, the arena in which those tendencies get played out is broader than any of the circumscribed fields on which the more or less egocentric dramatis personae pursue their manifold aims.

Michael Ross
McMaster University


. I would like to thank Lorraine York and Sarah Brophy for their acute criticisms of earlier versions of this essay. Thanks as well to the anonymous readers for the Henry James Review, whose thoughtful criticisms and suggestions have contributed appreciably to strengthening the essay. This essay is dedicated to the memory of Alwyn Berland.

1. In a letter of 24 November 1872 James's own brother William feels impelled to "protest against [Henry's] constant use of French phrases. There is an order of taste—and certainly a respectable one—to which they are simply maddening" (James 86).

2. Another exception that deserves mention is Bender's "The Question of His Own French." Broadly speaking, Bender's approach to the issue of James's use of non-English language elements dovetails with my own. The finesse and attentiveness of her analysis make of this essay an especially valuable aid to the understanding of the late James novel in question.

3. Émile Augier (1820–1889) was a fashionable author of domestic dramas. For his relevance to James see Fussell, (140 ff). For a discussion of the relevance of Augier's play Les lionnes pauvres to the theme of representation in The Tragic Muse, see Walker (Reading 37–39).

4. The 1890 version has blushing instead of "trembling": d'une légèreté à faire rougir (788).

5. See Zwinger (e.g., 27) on the overlap in The Europeans between the words "foreign" and "strange." The French étrange includes both senses.

6. I would argue that Miriam's "aura of Jewishness" has, from earlier still, been insisted on by Sherringham and Nash rather than by the narrative itself. It may be worth citing, from The Ambassadors, Maria Gostrey's reminiscences of her childhood chum Madame de Vionnet (who bears some resemblance to Miriam) when both were at a Swiss school: "[de Vionnet] had been . . . dazzlingly, though quite booklessly, clever; as polyglot as a little Jewess (which she wasn't, oh no!) and chattering French, English, German, Italian, anything one would . . ." (139). While there is no reason to doubt the general factual veracity of Maria's account, she can hardly be deemed an unbiased judge of her old friend's character, let alone of matters of racial identity. The bearing of her testimony on James's treatment of Miriam Rooth's Jewishness in the antecedent The Tragic Muse seems therefore uncertain.

7. By Fussell's count, "poor Nick Dormer" is given only thirteen French passages, compared with Miriam's fifty-four (149).


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———. Review of Fussell. The French Side of Henry James. Henry James Review 13.1 (1992): 104–06. Print.
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