The Tragic Muse (and How I came to love Henry James)

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Rachel Félix as The Tragic Muse (Jean-Leon Jerome, 1859)
mrs_siddons_by_joshua_reynolds
Mrs. Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1784)

Which do you prefer as James’ model for Miriam?

I’ve recently finished reading Henry James’ The Tragic Muse, my first book of the new year and the 19th century novel I selected for the Back to the Classics Challenge.  I feel quite a sense of accomplishment;  if I haven’t summited Everest, I feel like I’ve at least reached base camp!  My choice of a mountain climbing metaphor is quite deliberate.  I’ve at least gotten started on the Challenge (we all know what tends to happen to those good intentions, don’t we?).  Even more importantly, however, I’ve reacquainted myself with one of those “classic” writers whom I suspect is more admired than actually read.  Although I tremendously enjoyed The Tragic Muse, it was a lengthy novel that demanded time and a fair amount of attention.  No skimming or multitasking while I parsed those subtle Jamesian sentences!

In the brief life of this blog, I’ve referred to Henry James at least twice, both times in terms of adoration.  Despite my current high regard for James, however, I did not begin my reading life as an HJ fan.  After an unpleasant teenage encounter with his Portrait of a Lady  (my “mature” judgment at the time was that Portrait was tied with Eliot’s Silas Marner for the title of the most boring book ever written!), I consigned HJ to the category of writers who had little to offer me personally.  My opinion changed drastically about fifteen years later.  The catalyst for this transformation came when I casually purchased a paperback sales copy of  Leon Edel’s multi-volume biography of James.  Unbeknownst to me, Edel was the 20th century specialist in James studies.  Although later scholars (perhaps most notably Sheldon Novick) have attacked certain aspects of Edel’s work, his James biography continues be an indispensable source of knowledge about the author’s life.  Edel was a tremendous scholar and a marvelous writer who used great sensitivity in evaluating many areas of James’ life about which little is known (James, who was no admirer of the biographer’s art, deliberately destroyed certain personal writings before his death to preserve his privacy).  Because his work was a literary biography, Edel combined a factual account of James’ life with very perceptive discussions of James’ novels and major fictional works.  At that particular time in my life I had the great gift of an undemanding job that allowed me the spare time and mental energy to plough through Edel’s biography.  As I learned the details of James’ life, which included financial problems, a tortured sexuality and some very difficult family relationships, I began to see him as a far more sympathetic figure than I had previously considered him to be; increased knowledge about his life also made his work more interesting and accessible.  Perhaps more importantly, however, Edel’s biography was a wonderful introduction to James’ literary output.  As I read about James’ novels, I became interested in James’ novels, particularly as I saw how his literary work related to his own life and reflected the culture of which he was a part.  Although I read a lot of other things during this time in my life, I primarily focused on James’ novels and, to a much lesser extent, his shorter fiction (James was also a gifted travel writer and perceptive literary critic; alas I’ve read next to nothing of his output in either field).  Nineteenth and early 20th century literature, however, requires time and attention, and as both became increasingly scarce over the years (eventually I had to get a real job) I’m afraid I gave James’ novels more shelf space than attention.  I was in fact quite startled when I realized some time ago that for all my prattle regarding my love for James’ fiction it had literally been years since I had actually read any of it.  I decided to participate in the Classics Challenge this year in large part because it increased the likelihood that I’d actually re-read at least one novel by a writer whom I hold in such high regard.

Because James was a prolific author (he turned out a lot of writing as he was heavily dependent on the income it produced), I had a wide array of novels to choose from in making my selection for the Classics Challenge.  I settled on The Tragic Muse (Muse) largely because this was one of the novels I had never re-read (unlike, say, Portrait of a Lady) and so remembered few details about the plot.  Another important factor in my selection was style.  Although James’ writing is synonymous in the minds of many with subtle complexity, this idea is rather inaccurate when applied to his output as a whole.  While it is certainly true that the sentence structure and syntax of  his “late” novels (The Golden Bowl, Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors) can be quite bewilderingly complex, his earlier novels (and even Muse, which dates from the  mid-period of his productivity) are often quite straightforward stylistically.  It’s also worth mentioning that Muse doesn’t fit a couple of other familiar tropes regarding James’ novels.  Rather than offering an intense psychological study of a few individuals (as in, for example, The Golden Bowl) it has a large, sprawling cast of characters.  Muse also doesn’t concern the theme, so prevalent in James’ early fiction (Portrait of a Lady; Daisy Miller) of naive American innocents forced to grapple with the sophisticated wiles of an older European culture.

Muse contains two separate but symmetrical narrative arcs, one centering on Nick Dormer, an upper class Englishman who rejects family and heritage to become a painter, and the other on Miriam Rooth, a penniless girl of partially Jewish ancestry (a point that matters to several of the other characters) who is determined to become a great actress.  James sets his novel in the Paris and London of his own day, i.e., the late 19th century, and depicts how the acts and attitudes of an interrelated group of English aristocrats affect the decisions, and fates, of Nick and Miriam.  His story begins in Paris, where we first meet the Dormer family.  The widowed Lady Agnes, attended by her daughters Grace and Biddy, has reluctantly accompanied her son Nick, who has insisted on attending the latest Paris exhibition of avant-garde art.  It’s easy to miss a certain dry humor that often turns up in James’ work; here, for example his description of the Dormer ladies’ reaction to the French avant-garde is quite funny (Lady Agnes observes that in London art is “much less unpleasant” than the Parisian “horrors” admired by her son).  Nick himself is a charming and devoted son, a quintessential golden boy, destined by birth and training to emulate his late father’s political career.  Although outwardly amenable to this plan for his future, Nick secretly cherishes an ambition to be a painter.

Also in Paris is Julia Dallow, a widowed cousin and friend of the Dormer family.  Rich, beautiful and talented,  Julia is indifferent to art and contemptuous of painting.  From the outset it is clear that Julia is not only in love with Nick but is also extremely eager to put her money and formidable talents behind his political career.  Her reasons for doing so are far from disinterested; unlike Nick, Julia is fascinated by politics and sees their marriage as a way for her to become a great political hostess.  As the novel progresses Nick becomes increasingly unable to hide his boredom and distaste for the political life in which he is engaged, while Julia increasingly reveals the full extent of  her antipathy and contempt for the life of an artist.  When Nick ultimately resigns from Parliament, he does so knowing that it will cost him his marriage to Julia as well as a large bequest from a family friend who is willing to back a political career but refuses to leave his money to a painter.  One constant in James’ novels is that choices have consequences and he never spares his characters the full weight of their decisions.

One of the most interesting and ambiguous characters in Muse is Gabriel Nash, whom James purportedly modeled on Oscar Wilde, an acquaintance and fellow writer.  Although Nash and Nick Dormer were friends at Oxford, they subsequently drifted apart and, when they meet by chance at that fateful art exhibition in Paris, have not seen each other for many years.  Nash, like his real-life counterpart Wilde, is a kind of 19th century performance artist.  After dabbling with literature in his Oxford days, Nash forswears any active engagement with the arts (or with anything else for that matter) in favor or simply enjoying beautiful sensations in whatever form they assume.  In Nash’s view, creating or producing a tangible work of art is a crude and imperfect expression of the ultimate art of simply living a “beautiful” life.  He and Nick quickly reestablish their old friendship, much to the dismay of Nick’s family.  In his subsequent struggle to balance the demands of his family and heritage against his urge to lead the life of an artist, Nick regards Gabriel Nash as a kind of “artistic conscience” or lodestone who constantly reminds him of the primacy of art over all other endeavors (while painting may be crude, it beats canvassing for votes!).  The other characters, however, view Nash as an irresponsible tempter or frivolous wastrel; essentially they see him as a Mephistopheles who leads Nick away from his duty to family and country.  Every reader of Muse will, of course, have his/her own interpretation of this equivocal character and the role he plays in Nick’s choice.  In addition to functioning as a symbol (good or bad) of the supreme value of a certain type of art, James uses Nash to advance the novel’s action and to link the symmetrical plots; it is Nash, for example, who effectively launches Miriam’s career by introducing her to Nick’s circle.

Miriam’s parallel narrative recounts her rise from an untrained “wannabe” to one of the great actresses on the English stage.  When the novel opens she is a penniless and awkward girl, who wanders Europe with her rather feckless mother, living hand to mouth in a series of cheap hotels and pensions.  Outwardly at least Miriam is distinguished by nothing except good looks and a fierce conviction that she is destined for theatrical greatness, an opinion unshared by those who view her informal “audition” before a retired great of the French stage.  Although she acknowledges her performance was bad, Miriam’s belief in herself as an artist remains unshaken.  She realizes, however, that she needs training and opportunities but lacks the financial means and social connections to secure them.  Her material situation changes when Gabriel Nash introduces her to Peter Sherringham, a relation of the Dormer family and a rising star in the British diplomatic service.  Extremely ambitious (he sees himself as a future ambassador), Sherringham’s one unprofessional passion is for the dramatic art of the classical theater.  He provides Miriam with the financial backing and emotional support she needs and becomes intensely involved with her expanding prospects.  Although Sherringham steers clear of a sexual entanglement, and prides himself on keeping his emotional distance, it is clear to his friends, to Miriam and to the reader that he is soon totally, hopelessly in love with her.  It is a measure of his passion that this cool, self-controlled man proposes marriage; because a diplomat of his stature can’t be married to an actress he conditions his proposal on Miriam’s leaving the stage.  The scene in which she refuses Sherringham’s proposal, and exposes his hypocrisy to himself and to the reader, is perhaps the most powerful in the novel.

As this brief (and, I hope, not too tedious) summary makes clear, there’s a lot going on, plot-wise, in this novel.  As was common in the 19th century, Muse was first published as an ongoing serial in The Atlantic Monthly, one of the fashionable magazines of his day; James was writing for a popular, albeit prosperous and literate, audience and knew what his readers expected for the $15 per printed page that he was ultimately paid.  In addition to the developments alluded to above, James also included at least two love triangles (one involving Nick’s young sister Biddy, who has nursed a passion for Peter Sherringham since she was a child; the other concerning Miriam’s incipient passion for Nick, which comes into play when he paints her portrait); an engaging and ironically humorous subplot involving the family friend who disinherited Nick and several very interesting supporting characters (for example, Basil Dashwood, the actor whom Miriam ultimately marries.  She does not leave the stage!).  The novel also includes some powerful and very emotionally gripping scenes and, as an extra bonus, has an ambiguous ending that leaves hope for Nick and Julia.  While I can’t speak for the reaction of James’ contemporaries, there was more than enough action and suspense to keep me turning the pages.

As with most great novels, moreover, Muse suggests a dimension extending beyond the quotidian actions of its characters.  Most obviously, James is offering his meditation on the demands that art places on its practitioners and the barriers, both tangible and psychological, that an artist must surmount to achieve his or her goal.  He also contrasts the visual and dramatic arts and the different demands, training and pitfalls that each places on the artist and actor.  Remember how, at the beginning of this far-too-long posting, I noted how the facts of James’ life often play into his fiction?  Muse was the last full length novel he wrote before turning to the stage; one could make a strong argument that the entire novel is James’ attempt to define the very nature of dramatic art, in all its tawdry glory (although Miriam is one of James’ great creations, HJ is tough on her at times).  As a sidenote for the historically inclined, James’ career as a playwright ended in public humiliation in 1895.  It’s a testament to his enormous talent and strength of will that he survived this ordeal and, in his 60s, went on to write what many regard as his greatest novels.

Finally — which of the two actresses whose likenesses are at the beginning of this post best fits your idea of Miriam?  French Rachel in red, so very classical, or English Sarah Siddons, so romantic and tasteful in Reynolds’ subdued palette?  Both women were the leading actresses of their day and both, I believe, have been suggested as models for Miriam.  My answer, a very Jamesian one, is both!  Miriam receives her earliest training in Paris, from a legendary French actress of the classical school; visits the Théâtre Français, where James places her in front of “Gêrome’s fine portrait of the pale Rachel, invested with the antique attributes of tragedy;” has her breakout performance in London as a romantic lead in a traditional English comedy and, as the novel closes, reaches the pinnacle of her art in the tragic role of Juliet.

 

4 thoughts on “The Tragic Muse (and How I came to love Henry James)

  1. I devoured this post! First, congratulations on finishing this novel. Second, I have to say that you’ve done to me what the biographer did to you, leave me wanting to read HJ. In truth, I already was committed before by your previous posts in which you transmitted me the worth you see in him, worth I do want to explore myself. But this post, it was amazing. You managed to make me want to know more about the characters, and I saw how what you speak about HJ’s life was transpiring in his novel. (I also thank you a lot for talking about the differences between the earlier titles and the latest, as well as how they were produced and published, and the mood and level of focus his work demands, -which it’s obvious comes with a huge reward-.

    Again, I share with you that same experience of reading about an author, and reading or hearing how and why others love that author, as the catalyst to approach some of the author’s books with new impetus, and more understanding.

    I’m forever grateful that you started your blog, and that I’m following it since its inception, -so I don’t feel overwhelmed trying to read loads of goodness buried in past posts, ha ha ha.

    Watch me, soon I’ll be writing about good old HJ myself, ha ha ha, -right now I’m knee deep into Don Quixote and Midnight’s Children, both wonderful, but they also need my reader’s time. DQ requires some focus, -since I’m reading it-, MC I’m listening to it, and while it’s not as intense as reading, it needs me to get inside it, -which takes a few minutes of listening-, to not lose the thread of the ornate but not hard to follow plot. He’s totally bombastic, Rushdie, and very jocose, I love his writing.

    What I love that you wrote the most, it’s how HJ makes clear that our choices have consequences. I find that exploration very honest and telling. It also looks like he’s great at placing the lens on people while they come to a crossroads in life, and they need to make a drastic change -which others will not like, of course-, or keep living a truncated or castrated life, -which to our American highly hedonistic and individualistic mentality, may sound as an aberration, but which it’s a recognition that we are part of a society, and as much as we can or can’t change many things in it, there’s times when ‘choosing joy’ is not an option. (I still know people and have known people who live with a higher standard, or moral code of conduct, who try to find joy in being at ease with their conscience, and not necessarily pursuing short term comfort). This tension is very interesting to explore in literature and real life, sure! And it is also evident that HJ lived at a time, and said things that still need to be heard. (Look at me, ha ha ha, and I haven’t read a sentence written by him yet, ha ha ha).

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    1. Silvia: you’re too, too nice about my post, but thank you so much! When you love an author, it’s always very gratifying to see another reader respond with enthusiasm. I think that, as is the case with a many great authors, liking HJ is a function of time, place & personality — if any of those factors are “off” when you read a novel, you may cast the author aside as not your thing. And then, when life changes, do one of those about face reevaluations, such as mine after reading the Edel biography. What’s that truism among readers — there are no bad books, just books that aren’t right for you at a particular moment in time?
      There are many things about James that some people generally don’t like. He can be really, really subtle and his very precise delineations of a situation or of a character’s consciousness can strike one as a bit precious (I thought about reading What Maisie Knew but didn’t feel I was up to the challenge right now, so to speak). His novels, additionally, involve a lot of social niceties & speech patterns that were very much a part of 19th century Anglo-American upper class culture; these, however, can also be a turnoff for us modern types (since you’re a reader of the classics, however, that probably won’t bother you). I won’t spoil it for you, but there’s one scene in Portrait of a Lady, for example, where Isabel Archer realizes that she’s been profoundly betrayed by her near & dear; what leads to her realization is a very minute (by our standards) violation of prevailing etiquette. God, it was wonderful! And then, old HJ doesn’t often go for a happy ending; Tragic Muse was a bit atypical in that respect (there were a couple of weddings at the end, which are happy occasions but — several of the characters didn’t get exactly who/what they wanted ….). Again, I think many of today’s readers prefer “joy” whether it’s realistically grounded in the art work or not. I also think, as you noted, there’s a tendency now to close our eyes to the fact that certain choices, made knowingly or not, bring certain consequences with them. And then, of course, HJ can be a difficult read (I also discarded the idea of re-reading The Golden Bowl. I love the novel, but just didn’t feel I could give it the attention it deserves right now).
      As I recall, aren’t you reading Washington Square for the TBR Challenge? I really liked that one and almost used it myself! The story’s great, although it’s been done before; it’s James’ depiction of the characters, however, that made the novel for me. James is just getting started with the psychological thing (he gets much more subtle in the later works) but he’s already a master. BTW I believe there was a movie version of this that way back — Maggie Smith (Miss Jean Brodie herself in THAT movie) played the aunt (forgot her name).

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      1. I am eager to tell you. If I don’t think I am getting HJ well, I will try in translation, believe me, that sometimes gets me deeper if the author proves too difficult for my English blind spots.
        Not happy endings when driven by the novel are a must. I read that famous Ove book last year, and I hated that the author lower it to best seller. I believe he drew back from writing the novel he could,(but don’t blame him, he has to eat and make a living. It’s a choice.)
        Wow, there’s a lot of movies based on classics I don’t know about. I am interested in both of the ones you mention with Maggie Smith.

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