January beginnings: Henry James & The Tragic Muse


Do you have any superstitions about the first book you begin in the new year?  I freely admit that I do, but then I’ve been known to go around the block to avoid a black cat.  I don’t usually make a big thing about selecting my first January book unless I finish one book on New Year’s Eve and I’m beginning a second book precisely on New Year’s Day.  This is a sort of “when Saturn returns to New York” kind of thing that doesn’t happen very often (every twenty-nine years, to be precise.  Sara Gran’s novel of that name, by the way, is a fun light read that’s perfect for an afternoon’s diversion). When it does I take it seriously!  By this point, I’m sure you can imagine what happened this year — at ten minutes to midnight on New Year’s Eve, I finished my first glass of champagne along with Elizabeth Savage’s Last Night at the Ritz (see my previous post, if you want a little info about the novel).  As a result, my first decision of the new year was “what do I read next?”  Since my choice could affect for good or ill my reading decisions for the next twelve months (I’m only half kidding), I really gave it some thought.

Fortunately, I had the Classics Challenge to help me out.  Realistically, I need to get started early on my challenge books to have any hope of success; once I resume classes near the end of the month (I’m doing a post-baccalaureate degree in art history, known less formally as “an old person’s program”) I’ll have much less time and energy for the more difficult reads on my list.  I’ve been a worshipper at the shrine of Henry James since my early 30s, when an undemanding job and a steady if small income gave me the leisure to explore his work.  Although I skipped all the essays and most of his short stories, I did manage several of the novellas and all of the novels, including this one. Over the many years since then, I’ve believed that period of immersion in James’ work automatically gave me the right to claim devoted fan status.  It was a bit of a shock when compiling my books for the Classics Challenge to realize that it has been a very, very long time since I’ve actually read any of James’ novels, which I have nicely arranged and prominently displayed on several bookshelves (you have to look pretty close to see the dust!)

Although most of my reading at one point was heavily tilted towards the 19th century, for several years now I’ve concentrated mostly on contemporary fiction.  Picking up James and settling in for an extended read has required an adjustment.  Am I the only one who feels a certain dislocation in turning from works of the present to those of the past?  I tend to read quickly and, quite honestly, I skim on a pretty frequent basis (especially if bloodshed is involved).  I wouldn’t dream of doing either, with a novel from James’ late period (say, Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl) but I had selected his Tragic Muse because I remembered it as being a fairly straightforward narrative from James’ mid-period, before his style developed into the baroque complexity of compound clause upon compound clause which makes his late novels such a challenge.  Well, my memory was correct but — while this may be relatively unadorned James it is nevertheless a serious 19th century novel, published in serial form over a period of months for an audience that expected to savor every word (and that wasn’t distracted by checking email every thirty seconds and who probably had “staff” to do the grocery shopping and feed the cats).  Several times I almost had to stop, slow down and take a deep breath; I did have to re-read the first few pages before my mind started the process of becoming accustomed to the pace of James’ writing and the ornate vocabulary and expressions he employs.  Although I haven’t seen any discussion of this phenomenon, I find that for me the mental agility required to switch gears, slow down and savor the reading process itself is a very valuable side benefit of reading 19th century works.

Although it’s early days yet, with The Tragic Muse, I’m already in Paris, where I’ve met Nick Dormer and his ambitious and conventional mother.  Nick is there to look at the art, Nick’s mother is there to pressure him into following the paternal footsteps by entering Parliament and forgetting his foolish desire to be a painter.  Julia Dallow, who’s going to immensely complicate Nick’s career choice, will shortly enter the scene and Miriam Rooth, whose aspirations to be a great actress equal Nick’s desire to paint, has just walked on and off the stage, so to speak.  In short, this novel is James’ meditation on the demands of art and how these do, or do not, accommodate themselves to the practicalities of “ordinary” life; Nick and Miriam are his case studies for the effect of family and society on the aspirations and accomplishments of the would-be artist.

In doing a little research for this post, I discovered the painting I inserted at the beginning.  It’s a portrait of the great Rachel, the French actress who was said to be the model for James’ Miriam.  The artist is Jean-Léon Gérôme, who has chosen to depict her as the Muse of Tragedy.  Although Gérôme exemplifies the type of painter the Impressionists loathed (the loathing was mutual.  Gerome was a vociferous critic of their work) he was extremely popular in his day if much less so in ours.  I personally find his paintings, in small doses, to be a lot of fun and I love, love, love this one.

If you happen to chance by, expect periodic reports about Nick, Julia and Miriam.  I suspect I’ll be following their progress for much of the coming year!





13 thoughts on “January beginnings: Henry James & The Tragic Muse

  1. Another lovely post. And YES, YES, and YES to your observations on XIX lit vs contemporary books. I am still camped in the XIX century or early XX. Then I read a few more recent books, and it was eerie the speed I took without my reading suffering from it.

    Can you believe that I have seriously wanting to read Henry James for 3 years. I am serious. I am starting to realize I won’t be able to make it, but your experience with HJ is mine with other authors. I will have to learn to wish for less, and to enjoy just reading about what fellow readers read, and maybe I get to HJ one day, who knows.

    (I love the art references)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Silvia — so nice to know that I’m not alone in experiencing this; I honestly thought I was having cognitive breakdown or something a couple of times! I have this sort of half formed theory that, at least in my case, if I go TOO long without reading an older, particularly 19th century, work, at some point I won’t be able to process it, the ability to concentrate just won’t be there after all my skimming! I had to read Benvenuto Cellini’s My Life for a course last fall and it took me three months as I could only read a few pages at a time. Back in the day, I would have finished it in a fraction of the time.
      I have no trouble understanding your reaction to Henry James, as mine was very similar. He’s just one of those writers that you come to when you’re ready for him. I read Portrait of a Lady when I was very young, mostly to show off, thought it was very boring and wasn’t tempted to read anything else by HJ. Fourteen years later I read a great literary biography of James by Leon Edell which sparked my interest (Edell discusses HJ’s work in detail) so I started reading the novels. I was fascinated to discover the sea change in my opinion — I thought Portrait one of the greatest (and saddest, in some ways) novels I had ever read. Even then, however, I never made it through The Ambassadors which I put aside after a couple of unsuccessful attempts. THIRTY-FIVE years after this, I read The Ambassadors in about a week and couldn’t believe it had taken me so long! (I also think it might be old HJ’s greatest). There’s just something very mysterious about the reading process, isn’t there? Some of the writers you discuss on your blog are barriers for me — one of my challenges, which I won’t met this year, is Gabriel Garcia Márquez, whom I’ve been meaning to read for years and years. Also Cervantes, although I tempted to try after reading your great essay on him. Another “Everest” for me to climb is James Joyce — I’ve had a copy of Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist around for longer than I care to think about and can’t bring myself to start either one! One day, perhaps ….
      On a more positive note, I’m so glad you like the art! I felt like I had found a gold mine with that portrait by Gérôme, who’s one of my guilty pleasures.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I have those same problems, to a T. There’s some months when life has pulled me out of the books, and when I can’t get into serious consistent reading at all. XIX (and some particular authors) require undivided attention, a mental focus that at the same time, sharpens our minds. I had to make a deliberate effort to slow my pace and unclutter my mind to tackle a typical XIX century book. I also have come to the conclusion that to me, reading slowly rips many more benefits. Though I know I will always pick something fast and easy at times, I won’t be surprised if my book count drops because I am injecting longer books which demand attention. And that’s fine with me.
        I am very glad you can tell me about HJ. I hope you get to climb the authors you have mentioned. And I hope and pray I can get to mine which are HJ, and I also would like to read Joyce’s Ulyses too.
        I believe you are ready for Marquez. His books hook you up instantly. Even as a young person I never found him dull or boring. His magic realism spices things up in an appealing way.
        Your experience with HJ is very similar to mine with Galdos. I read Marianela in high school because it was mandatory. It came across as sad, and boring too. When I picked Fortunata and Jacinta, his master piece, in my late thirties, I was moved by his descriptions, mentally invigorated by his philosophical and political commentary, and blown away by the characters, the story, and his amazing dialogues.
        Maybe because I have read them, but I believe Cervantes and Marquez will be very available to you. But I too think Joyce is an Everest. It will be interesting to see how it goes for us. I hope we get to find out when the time is right. 🤗

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have noticed that the category for this post is “uncategorized”. I know you are still learning this WordPress thing, but you may want to check the posts categories now that you have a few. (It helps with searches, and links, etc)


    1. Silvia: thank you so much for the technical tip! I am indeed still learning the “WordPress thing” so I appreciate the pointers. I knew I needed to check out the category thing but I’ve been having so much fun with the graphics I put it off — I’ve been looking around for an appropriate site icon. After that barrier is crossed (or abandoned) — on to category thing!!!


  3. I remember when I switched from contemporary fiction to classics and it was like reading in another language. At times I didn’t understand what I was reading, not necessary from the complexity of the ideas but the mere sentence structure. But now, after reading mainly classics for years, when I move to a contemporary novel I have the same momentary lack of understanding. It’s an interesting phenomenon. I’m so glad to hear of your love for James. I’ve struggled with him and now I know someone who can hopefully give me an enlightened appreciation for his works! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cleo: I had to laugh when I read your nice sentiment about my giving you an “enlightened appreciation” for James! Let’s just say that you’ll have somewhere to post a comment! In a reply to Silvia, I explained my own reaction to HJ, which was similar to my reaction to Melville: when you’re ready for a writer, you’ll read him. Even during my HJ binge I wasn’t able to handle The Ambassadors — I attempted it several times over many years with no success whatsoever; then, finally sat down a couple of years ago and read it in about ten days! It’s fabulous, by the way.
      I totally agree with you that some of the difficulty in switching from contemporary to classical novels is due to the complexity of the sentences, especially HJ’s, with those long, long, compound clauses. That’s one reason I picked The Tragic Muse as the vehicle for dipping my toe back in 19th century waters — the novel is considered a minor James work, but the style, very ornate by our standards, isn’t particularly by his, so I thought I could manage it. To the extent language structure reflects thought processes, it’s always made me wonder whether we can ever really understand how people from a different, pre-digital era understood their world (I’m sure some literature guru has done a dissertation on this!)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. A very ornate writer in my opinion would be Hawthorne. Funny how I’ve also thought about language and sentence structure being reflective of a different time, and I guess it’s also particular to the writer. Sometimes the writer deliberately alters or attempts a different writing for a purpose. Ishiguro did that with his The Buried Giant, he had been writing for a year many pages, when his wife who is also his editor, told him it wasn’t an English that she thought was right for the Middle Ages. (It’s not that he attempted to write in that English, but the pick of some words made it sound a bit modern. So he started all over. While the book has Ishiguro’s style, -how couldn’t it not be the case?-, it’s true that it doesn’t feel out of place, it has the quality of being a legend, nothing gives it away as a story told by a modern writer. This is difficult for me to express with clarity. I’m sure there’s dissertations on it. Another case is The Road by Cormac. I was insulted the first attempt by the stupid and simplistic language. I attempted a second time, and, voila, the language proved another means that added to the purpose of what was told. More ornate would have made it fake. The situation of the father and child in that post apocalyptic world was precarious. They had to move fast. So did language.

        I also realize that when I can latch to that ornate and lengthier sentence structure, there’s usually humor, or poetic beauty in the thought expressed. Knowing about what to expect helps. Fortunata and Jacinta was also published in installments, and in its whole, it has 4 parts. Galdós was very tuned, the four parts are almost identical in extension, and the four of them start with a more philosophical dissertation tied to the characters and the story, but more intellectual. Then there’s mental breaks devoted to describing the landscape or place, and after, he moves to the heart of the story full of dialogues, and we can expect a description of the characters as well, nothing tedious, a few sentences, very humorist too. Finally, I have more resilience for the ornate in Spanish. But if I’ve read an author extensively in English, my ‘reading muscles’ are more developed. (I used to read and translate the work of a XIXth century educator, Charlotte Mason, and for a whole year or longer, much of her paragraphs sounded like another language. Another mom wrote her full 6 volumes, Towards a Philosophy of Education, in a modern paraphrase, and that helped a lot when it came to finding meaning. It’s like the Bible. I read it in a lot different versions, but the King James has a lovely quality to it, it’s rewarding in many aspects.

        This is a very stimulating conversation.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I didn’t finish Moby Dick. I quit half way. But I can say there’s few books which pages have moved me so much as some of the chapters in MD. It was jarringly beautiful, I can’t express. Few authors and books do that. I only quit MD for lack of another person to keep me accountable. It’s another book I’ll go back to, no doubt.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Moby Dick is one of the strangest and most beautiful books I’ve ever read; “jarringly beautiful” is a great description of the language. It’s too bad we don’t have a couple of lifetimes, just to go back and read such wonderful stuff.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh Cleo — you ARE a tempter (temptress???). I’ve never done a read-along, so that would be fun. And you really made me start remembering parts of the book that I loved, mostly that “jarringly beautiful” language you referred to (I just looked up Ahab’s words to his crew “I’ll chase him round Good Hope and round the Horn and round the Norway Maelstrom”…). And that opening (“call me Ismael”) which says everything in that wonderfully symbolic name … Hmmm — I’ll definitely keep an eye on your read-along!


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