Sunday 4 August 2019

Forgotten James

We have a fairly clear idea what Henry James thought about his own novels. He revised many and wrote illuminating Prefaces for the summative New York Edition, released near the end of his life. And he left several out*. One to be excommunicated was Confidence of 1879 - an early work, but not that early. Either side of it sit The Europeans and Washington Square, both favourites and always in print. But Confidence is forgotten. I'd never read it - and I'm at the stage where I'm reduced to mere rereading. I decided this summer to give Confidence a try.

Who was it who first described Confidence as a light and awkward comedy? It's something that comes up often in relation to the novel. My money's on Leon Edel. Otherwise there's almost nothing anywhere. And yet it's a short to medium-sized work, written when James was close to entering his middle phase and the decade of The Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians. How could Confidence have been all but lost?

So is it any good? Is it James-lite? And what's it about?

Bernard Longueville, leisured, itinerant, is loafing around Italy when a beautiful stranger strolls into a scene he's idly painting. He sketches her in, she objects, then accepts, and the encounter ends there. Some time later Longueville is summoned to Baden-Baden** by his friend Gordon Wright. Wright is to be married, and he wants his old pal to give an opinion on his intended. Few readers will be surprised to learn the identity of Wright's fiancée. Re-enter the mysterious girl Longueville painted in Siena: Angela Vivian. Longueville, on deeper acquaintance with Miss Vivian, expresses scant confidence in her, and this seems to motivate Wright in his breaking off the engagement. Years pass, Gordon Wright marries elsewhere, and Longueville announces his own intention to marry... to marry Angela Vivian...

It's a tantalising and inspired set-up, but the book's weakness lies in its characterisation. Miss Vivian is the most interesting personage. She elicits 'intellectual excitement. He had a sense of having received carte blanche for the expenditure of his wits'. But she's undeveloped, and largely hidden from the reader. Both Longueville and Wright are off-the-peg young men. James seems to realise this. He gamely tries to engage with the novel, but Longueville is his centre of consciousness, and there's really nothing doing there, and the novel ends in scenes of bare melodrama. But there's a better novel somewhere underneath, and Angela Vivian lets us know it, with a metafictional cri de cœur that might come from the lips of many a greater heroine:
'You certainly made a study of me - and I was determined you should get your lesson wrong. I determined to embarrass, to mislead, to defeat you. Or rather, I didn't determine; I simply obeyed a natural impulse of self-defence - the impulse to evade the fierce light of criticism. I wished to put you in the wrong.'

* I had always thought the exclusions were voluntary. But I find James was limited by his publisher as to the number of volumes allowable in the New York Edition. Of The Bostonians, surely one of the finest novels in English, James later wrote, 'I should have liked to review it for the Edition - it would have come out a much truer and more curious thing.'

** Baden-Baden has several Brooknerian resonances. For more on this charming German spa town, click on the 'Baden-Baden' label below.

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