So here we are, almost two weeks into our shiny new year! Is everyone busy reading their challenges? I’m in a lackadaisical kind of mood these days myself — not a bad mood but certainly not a high energy one. I always think of mid-January as a time to re-group, to conserve resources after the excitement of the holidays; those extra minutes of daylight aren’t registering yet and spring seems far, far away. Aside from an unwelcome bit of exercise this morning with a snow shovel, I’ve had a lovely day, wrapped up in a blanket, sipping the results of a new recipe for hot chocolate (it uses two different kinds of chocolate and real cream) and reading Henry James. Oh, I did have a bit of a reading mishap — Percy has hidden my print volume of The Tragic Muse and substituted other James novels, thinking I’d never notice! (Percy’s main interests are ornithological; as a literary philistine he thinks James’ novels are interchangeable. They aren’t). As a result, I’ve been following the adventures of Nick and Miriam by kindle clicking, rather than page turning. Even so, it’s a wonderful read, with those long 19th century sentences and subtle, Jamesian delineations of thought and emotion. It’s a slow read, very much suited to a slow time of year; it’s made even more leisurely by being punctuated every thirty minutes or so by dreamy interludes of staring into space (maybe I’ve been hanging with Percy too long). Somehow, the day has just vanished.
Fortunately in light of my mental lassitude, following the novel’s action is not too difficult. James’ plot is relatively straightforward (I defer to the experts on this point, but I wouldn’t read this novel for his plot, myself). He follows two protagonists, Nick Dormer, an aristocratic young Englishman with a bright political future, and Miriam Rooth, a beautiful penniless young woman from a dubious background. Nick is torn between painting and politics; although he’s elected as a member of the House of Commons in the early portions of the novel, he’s bored by the political life and only comes alive when he escapes to his “horrid” (his fiancée’s words, not mine) little studio to engage in his painting. Everything in Nick’s life compels him to choose conventional, worldly success: his heritage and training; a promise to his dead father; an adored and adoring mother who has no doubts her boy belongs in Parliament; a beautiful, wealthy lover who will only marry a successful political guy; and a wealthy benefactor who won’t leave his money to an artistic loser. James is interested in Nick’s choice between his passion for art and his world’s ideal of a successful life and of the personal sacrifices often required from those who persist in following a higher consciousness. Spoiler alert here for those who demand suspense in reading an 1889 novel: Nick rejects his political career to follow his art. The decision costs him him his fiancée, a magnificent bequest from his benefactor and the regard of his family and friends. Although James intimates that Nick has real talent, Nick also has little formal training and is beginning a career as a serious artist at a relatively late point in life. Despite every inducement to turn his back on art, Nick becomes totally committed to being a painter, although his worldly success as an artist is (at least at this point in the novel) very much in doubt.
Miriam’s situation could not be more unlike Nick’s. The daughter of a fantastical, ineffectual mother, Miriam’s businessman father is dead, and the modest income he provided his family is gone, leaving his daughter without worldly prospects or financial security. Miriam and her mother eke out a paltry existence, moving from one European city to another, living in a succession of cheap boarding houses and pensiones, lingering in cafes to save money on fuel and frequently going without. Miriam’s mother lives in the novels she reads (when she can get them. Sound familiar, anyone?); Miriam lives in her imagination. Surprisingly, she is neither dreamy nor indecisive. James makes clear that Miriam is simply a born actress, so thoroughly consumed by her need to express herself through her art that nothing, but nothing, will deter her. When we first meet Miriam in Paris in the opening pages of the novel she is an awkward, badly dressed (and remember, in James’ world manners and appearance matter) young girl. Gabriel Nash, a English aesthete who will play a pivotal role in the novel, takes her up as an amusing divertissement. Nash and Peter Sherringham, a young English diplomat who will also play an important part in James’ tale, enable Miriam to gain an audition with Madame Carre, a legendary French actress who serves as a type of acting coach/guide to a younger generation of thespians. Madame Carre’s verdict, shared by Nash? Miriam has no talent. Miriam’s reaction? She will be a great actress, opinions otherwise are irrelevant; she simply needs to learn her craft. Despite generally agreeing with Madame Carre’s assessment, Sherringham thinks that, possibly, there may just be something to Miriam and almost on a whim provides her with the financial backing that allows her to perfect her dramatic skills. As the novel progresses, so does Miriam’s talent and growing stature as an artist. By the time Nick decides to chuck it all away for art, Miriam is experiencing her first success on the London stage. Gabriel Nash is now a firm believer in her greatness (and, as an connoisseur and aesthete he’s well placed to spread the word) and Peter Sherringham? Well, the discrete wisdom of the diplomat is on holiday! Despite being the well-trained and rising young star of the Foreign Office, and knowing full well the career folly of his choice, Sherringham is hopelessly in love with Miriam; he’s even offered her marriage, providing she gives up the stage.
Well, that’s all for tonight folks. Despite certain soap opera aspects of the plot, James presents us with a serious meditation on what it is to be an artist, of the demands and sacrifices of practicing the arts and of the elements comprising the dramatic art (James was very interested in the theater and thought about this subject a great deal). In this novel he has given us two contrasting protagonists — golden boy and poor, beautiful and underrated girl — who must choose whether, and how, each will practice his/her art. Although there’s a certain commonality in the barriers each faces, there are also significant differences; while Nick is more constrained by expectations of family and society, Miriam’s primary obstacles are money and opportunity (I find it interesting, but unsurprising in view of the time in which he wrote that James doesn’t explicitly discuss the constraints of gender to any notable degree). Choices have been made and, because this is James, consequences must be faced …..