Friday, March 4, 2011

A Private Life of Henry James- Two Women and His Art

After reading Colm Toibin’s The Master, I was interested to look at his source material about Henry James. There is so much material on James (I’ve feel like I’ve read a lot, but I’ve barely scratched the surface), it’s difficult to know where to start. Toibin cited a book by Lyndall Gordon, A Private Life of Henry James- Two Women and His Art.

My friend Dorothea and I devoured Gordon’s two books about T.S. Eliot back in the 80s, the later of which followed hard on Michael Hasting’s play, Tom and Viv. Gordon gets inside of her subject’s head in a way that most biographers do not. So even though I’d finished reading The Master, I dove into A Private Life of Henry James- Two Women and His Art when it came from alibris. The two women of the title are James’ cousin Milly Temple, who died from tuberculosis in her 20s, and his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson (who I’d never heard of before Toibin’s book) a best-selling American novelist who committed suicide. James went back to his relationships with these two women over and over again, until the end of his life, plundering them for his work. His last book, A Small Boy Among Others, quotes extensively from Temple’s letters to a mutual friend, John Gray.

Woolson was related to James Fenimore Cooper, and born in upstate New York, though most of her childhood was spent on the east side of Cleveland. She was a tireless writer, producing travel pieces, short stories and novels. Like James, she was an American expatriate, though she spent more time in Italy than he did. Her close friendship with him mirrored Temple’s with James, and Gordon makes a compelling case for James’ influence on Woolson’s death. Gordon begins her book with the image of James out in the Venice lagoon in a gondola, trying to drown Woolson’s dresses, but they keep rising to the surface.

One thing that stood out for me in the book was Gordon’s quotation from James’ The Middle Years. My high school drama teacher had used the same quote on her year book page the year I graduated, and I swear I’ve thought of it every few months ever since: “We work in the dark- we do what we can- we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

Gordon nails down James both as a man and a writer: “a fictional truth James offered in lieu of biography. He is right, of course, to urge the autonomy of art, were it not for one problem: the myth of solitary genius. That myth … is largely untrue. For James leant on the generosity of women who surrendered the Light of their Lives.’ Feeling, breathing women who provided the original material for Milly and Miss Gostrey [characters] were disappointed in untold ways not unconnected with their deaths. It is on behalf of these women that biography must redress the record James controlled.” [pp. 327-328] Gordon ends with: “So he made a legend of the master; so he shed the partners of his private life. But see, they return, and bring him with them.” [p. 372]

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