The recent flurry of interest in homoerotic undercurrents in James’s writing has allowed many corners of his work to reveal a new meaning. (See especially Eric Haralson, Henry James and Queer Modernity, Cambridge UP, 2003.) In some cases the meaning lies close to the surface, and once pointed out is difficult to brush away again (‘The Author of Beltraffio’, 1884; ‘The Turn of the Screw’). In others the meaning is a virtuality hovering in the air; its presence eludes unambiguous confirmation (‘The Pupil’, 1891). In yet others there is no manifest homosexual content, yet the story offers analogies with similar situations experienced more typically by closeted homosexual men (‘In the Cage’, 1899). Deep studies of affective unfulfilment such as The Ambassadors, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’, and ‘The Jolly Corner’ cry out for a reading in the homoerotic key. It may be that in one case a gay interpretation emerges as the solution in an otherwise baffling tale of detection (The Sacred Fount, 1901; see Tintner).
The Art of the Hint in ‘The Author of Beltraffio’
‘The Author of Beltraffio’ marks a threshold in James’s career as a writer of tales. Its predecessors in the early 1880s are mostly about the ‘international theme,’ which James drops from this point, taking up instead a more psychological approach, especially in tales about writers. This tale is based on what Edmund Gosse told James about the unhappy domestic circumstances of John Addington Symonds (1840-93), whose wife regarded his writings as ‘immoral, pagan, hyper-aesthetic’ (Notebooks). The tale is one of high psychological tension and suspense, as the marital battle, set in an idyllic English cottage, inexorably mounts to its climax in the death of the child, Dolcino. Elaine Pigeon notes: ‘The subject of homosexuality is immediately raised by Ambient’s being an aesthete and based on J.A.S., however vaguely. His name, Mark Ambient, signals the not so sub subtext. Furthermore, the homosexual connection is introduced at the very beginning by the allusion to Walt Whitman. The model of Stevenson derives from the physical description and dress of Ambient. Recently I read how gay men seemed to flock around Stevenson, even though he was apparently “straight”. Symonds, who got to know RLS at Davos, identified with J&H [The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1886] and was amazed at how much insight the author had into his own dilemma’. This background enriches our enjoyment of the tale, adding a new level of tension and mystery and clarifying the dynamics of the conflict.
It might be objected that if James intended the subtext he would have been more explicit about it. But the story is just as explicit as one could reasonably expect, especially if the conditions of its composition and the principles of James’s art are taken into account. More explicit, it would have amounted to prurient tattle, especially given that it alludes to living originals (Whitman and Symonds). James can assume that readers aware of the homosexual connotations of aestheticism will read a maximum of significance into the discreet hints that dot the tale. James certainly did not wish to blow the cover on his own sexuality or have himself identified as a Paterian aesthete. On this point his account of Ambient’s policy reads as an apologia for his own: Ambient ‘had an extreme dread of scandal. There are critics who regret that having gone so far he didn’t go further; but I regret nothing... since he arrived at a noble rarity and I don’t see how you can go beyond that’ (James 1984, 78); nonetheless the newspapers ‘are always even abnormally vulgar about him’ (New York Edition xvi, 41). ‘Abnormal vulgarity’ here suggests homosexual innuendo. James himself narrowly escaped such pillorying, and reviews of his books in the nineties increasingly featured the code-word ‘decadent’. Even as he published, rather compromisingly, in The Yellow Book, he cautiously covered his traces and disclaimed any cognisance of homoerotic constructions that could be put on his tales. The legal situation also has weight. The only sexual activity of James of which we have any report is that he liked to hug and kiss his male friends. Given the vague wording of the 1885 Labouchere Amendment criminalizing ‘any act of gross indecency’ between males (rescinded only in 1967 in Britain and in 1993 in the Republic of Ireland), such activity could have drawn the attention of the police. Wilde’s conviction under this law in 1895 increased anxiety.
Furthermore, the conditions of Victorian censorship would have made a more overt statement of the gay theme impossible. Consider George Moore’s effort to portray a homosexual protagonist in A Mere Accident (1887) and Celibates (1895); he is clearly hampered by the constraints of decency imposed on Victorian writers. Later he came back to the topic in the story ‘Hugh Monfert’ in In Single Strictness (1922). Even here the homosexual theme is rather stifled, but it explodes in the American edition (1923) in which the gloomy conclusion was replaced at the last minute with a subversive happy ending (with the result that the pagination no longer corresponds to what is indicated in the table of contents). The new conclusion resorts to French as it evokes a seductive Arab boy in the style of Gide’s L’Immoraliste. The point is that English writers were not free to be as explicit as, say, Huysmans, Zola, or Jean Lorrain could be. The bizarre and uncanny quality of this story (and many others) indirectly testifies to James’s consciousness of queerer aspects of life, and he makes Ambient his mouthpiece for this consciousness: ‘When I see the kind of things Life herself, the brazen hussy, does, I despair of ever catching her peculiar trick. She has an impudence, Life! If one risked a fiftieth part of the effects she risks!... It isn’t until one has been watching her some forty years that one finds out half of what she’s up to!’ (42-3).
Finally, James’s aesthetic principles set a limit to explicitness. James never complained, unlike Moore, about the constraints imposed on English writers. He seems to have been quite happy to deal with sexual themes as indirectly as possible. There is a single sexual rendezvous at the heart of both The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, and James gets maximum mileage out of it by presenting it in the mode of anticipation and remembrance; nothing happens onstage. The most fleeting of allusions, likewise, is sufficient to set up the erotic dynamics of the present tale. One might almost argue that James’s sexuality, all evasions and feints, was tailored for the late Victorian era. There is little raw emotion or desire in his novels, but there is a taut obsessive highly-wrought passion centered on a desire to know, to be intimate with, another being, and this desire easily becomes invasive and manipulative. The narrator’s desire for Aspern, the Governess’s for Miles, Maggie’s for Amerigo, have this quality. But in each case this erotic desire launches a quest mediated by something else—the papers, the ghosts, and the elaborate secrets and lies, plots and performances, of The Golden Bowl, Book II. The narrator of The Sacred Fount is perhaps the ultimate Jamesian pervert: he has no visible object of desire and his lust to know (his lust for intimacy) has been entirely diverted to a futile quest for knowledge of other peoples’ doings. Curiosity, prying, gossip have replaced a real affective life. Wendy Graham talks of ‘James’s scoptophilia... He would rather observe than participate in sexual activity’ (28). More striking, though, is his love of detours and indirections. The baroque efflorescence of his writing thrives on this and carries a constant erotic charge.
Wendy Graham thinks that James was influenced by the medical discourses of his day, and that his sexual self-identification was in this sense a product of his time. However, it seems to me that literature is the primary source for James’s thinking on sexual matters. He would have been attuned to the homoerotic currents in authors such as Balzac and Gautier, and he also devoured more decadent literature. His attitude to homosexuality is more peaceful and humorous than Graham supposes, hence his ability to touch on the topic with a light ironic touch. Of Symonds he wrote: ‘I think one ought to wish him more humour—it is really the saving salt” (Letters III, 398). It is humourless people like Mrs Ambient or the Governess who are likely to be impressed, depressed, or oppressed by the medical literature, whereas James educates us to take it with a pinch of salt. This liberative dimension of James’s writing was muffled by the restraints of Victorian propriety and by his own subtlety, but even so it was felt by disapproving reviewers. A humane, anti-puritanical message is transmitted most clearly in the sunny pages of The Ambassadors. Authors of genius are normally immense forces for human liberation, but their success is in the hand of their readers, who are usually slow on the uptake.
Ambient is not only sexually double-faced, as his name indicates. There is also a Jekyll and Hyde contrast between the man and the author—the former a straight-laced husband and father (though ‘addicted to velvet jackets’ and with ‘a brush of the Bohemian in his fineness’ , and though he has ‘the eyes of a foreigner’ ), the latter a pioneer of the scandalous. Ellmann thinks that James does not broach the homosexual aspect in the story, since he ‘wanted to mock and anatomise aestheticism without extraneous concerns’ (Ellmann, 34). But innuendo about homosexuality was almost de rigueur in satire on aesthetes, as in the flamboyant portrayal of Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience (1881). When portraying aesthetes satirically James can indulge in this with no risk of self-revelation; there is some degree of satire against the narrator of the story but none against Ambient, so the homoerotic note is proportionately marked in the case of the former. Casey Abell claims that there is no hint of gayness in what is said of Ambient’s books. But what kind of books are we to suppose he has written? Beltraffio is a ‘fascinating work’ that produced ‘the commotion, I may even say the scandal’. It is ‘the most complete presentation that had yet been made of the gospel of art; it was a kind of aesthetic war-cry’, marked by ‘“intimate’ importance of theme’ (57). James probably had the just-published À Rebours in mind as he wrote the story (Ellmann, 34-5), but we cannot imagine Ambient to have written anything as sulphurous as that. A book published in England could not have contained the homosexual episodes and perverse anecdotes that Huysmans recounts (Swinburne’s Lesbia Brandon had to wait until 1952 for publication; the first unexpurgated translation of Huysmans may be Baldick’s in 1957). The hyper-aesthetic design of Ambient’s dress and house, ‘a palace of art’ (61), is innocently pre-Raphaelite, closer to Patience than to À Rebours; it is not easy to imagine the prim and proper Ambient drooling like Des Esseintes over images of Salome and wallowing in perfumes, silks, and jewels. Ambient’s book was in all probability as chaste as Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), which parodies Huysmans. Wilde’s novel is a cautionary tale about the evils of aestheticism, influenced by The Tragic Muse (Ellmann, 37-8), yet it emanates an aura of scandal, conveying a sympathy with unspeakable passions.
Nonetheless, there are hints that Ambient is a man of experience rich and strange. There are ‘strange oppositions and contradictions in his slightly faded and fatigued countenance’ (60). His sister says: ‘And then of course we mustn’t forget... that some of Mark’s ideas are -- well, really -- rather impossible, don’t you know?’ (84-5). The chief candidates for impossibility at the time were ideas about Greek love, ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, which were not so ‘impossible’ as not to exert a great fascination on literati of the 1880s (before the Wilde debacle made them more strictly impossible). Ambient declares: ‘my wife would tell you it’s the difference between Christian and Pagan. I may be a pagan, but I don’t like the name; it sounds sectarian’ (90). Here the bone of contention is corrupt religious and philosophical ideas, like the Epicureanism people found in Gide’s Les Nourritures terrestres (1897) even when they missed its gay subtext. But ‘she has a mortal dread of things as they are’ (91) suggests that it is not only the author’s ideas but sexual realities that shock her.
In contrast to his very English wife, who is repeatedly imagined as stepping out of a painting by Reynolds or Gainsborough, Ambient loves to travel, unaccompanied by her. Italy is his favourite haunt. Elaine Pigeon notes that the cognoscenti would be aware of the appeal of Italy for gay writers in this period (a tradition extending to ‘Baron Corvo’ and E. M. Forster). The narrator tells us: ‘My visit to Italy had opened my eyes to a good many things, but to nothing more than the beauty of certain pages in the works of Mark Ambient’ (4-5). One doesn’t need to be a very advanced cognoscente to suppose that descriptions of towns and landscapes might have been graced with references to Sicilian shepherds, ragazzi romani, Florentine ephebes, or lithe-limbed gondoliers, ubiquitous figures in Italian romances and travel writing, including James’s. ‘The scene of one of his earlier novels was laid in Rome, the scene of another in Florence, and I had moved through these cities in company with the figures he set so firmly on their feet’ (5); even if the figures may be historical ones, such as the great painters of the Renaissance, the phrase ‘firmly on their feet’ suggests they are male. The very name Beltraffio alludes to the painter Boltraffio who ‘idealised his male subjects to the point of causing minor scandals’ (Bradley 1999b, 55). Symonds wrote Sketches in Italy and Greece (1874), Sketches and Studies in Italy (1879), Italian By-Ways (1883), and especially The Renaissance in Italy (1875-6)—it would be interesting to see if these highly respectable titles conceal such ‘scandalous’ matter. Early in 1884, James had written to Symonds: ‘I nourish for the said Italy an unspeakably tender passion, and your pages always seemed to say to me that you were one of a small number of people who love it as much as I do’ (L 3.29-30).
More recently Ambient has made ‘a considerable tour in the East’ (4), and his new book, which horrifies his wife and causes her to kill her child, concerns ‘impressions of the East’ (5). The East is often imagined as a sexual Mecca, and especially in the case of the Middle East one with strong homoerotic associations. When Ambient talks of ‘his recent tour in the East and the extraordinary forms of life to be observed in that part of the world’ (28), one thinks of the forms of life observed there by Sir Richard Burton, translator of The Arabian Nights (1885-8), of which the most notorious were homosexual mores. One may suppose that in the East Ambient has developed aspects of his personality that go beyond the ‘Pagan’ and ‘Greek’ (45) qualities of which his wife so intensely disapproves. The narrator lends her Ambient’s new pages on the grounds that ‘she really ought to know of what her husband was capable’; ‘Elle ne s’en doute que trop’ remarks Ambient, resignedly (63). The irony here is enhanced if we attend to homoerotic reverberations, and rather falls flat otherwise.
The crux presented by the story concerns the credibility of Mrs Ambient’s Medean act. Its plausibility can hardly be defended, but it is very skilfully built up to, from the initial scene, already quite strange and disturbing, in which the mother keeps the child from his father’s hands (9-10, 13-14). The narrator intuits ‘the truth of his being too fair to live,’ noting ‘the particular infant charm that’s as good as a death-warrant’ (12). The early stages of the story are realistic enough. Mrs Ambient resents her husband’s gay or crypto-gay investments (which have won him notoriety and a band of young male adherents). She suffers in heroic patience: ‘“He has many worshippers”. “Oh yes, I’ve seen some of them,” she dropped, looking away, very far from me, rather as if such a vision were before her at the moment. It seemed to indicate, her tone, that the sight was scarcely edifying’ (15). Occasional tart ironies might suggest that she is sexually dissatisfied with him: ‘He’s very fond of plums’ (17). Her anxiety may be nourished on ideas of contagion and hereditary taints. As the sister remarks: ‘It’s as if it were a subtle poison or a contagion—something that would rub off on his tender sensibility when his father kisses him or holds him on his knee’ (38). Wendy Graham gives hair-raising accounts of this kind of thinking in the medical literature of the time and in the James family.
The category of ‘homosexual panic’ can begin to bridge the gap between the bizarre climax and real life. Critics who adopt an apotropaic attitude to the gay subtext can make very little sense of the mother’s action. Under-interpretation can dilute and distort a great story as much as over-interpretation. To ignore the theme of homosexual panic in this story, however, is to carry under-interpretation to the point of non-interpretation. Mrs Ambient’s fanatical, intransigent resentment of her husband’s work is laced with a phobia about (homo)sexuality; her reading of his most recent composition acerbates this phobia to hysterical panic. However it is doubtful if an attack of panic or hysteria can last as long as it takes to let the boy die; in any case one feels that psychological verisimilitude is an irrelevant consideration at this point. The murder of Dolcino is a melodramatic excess, but so are the deaths of Daisy Miller, Owen Wingrave, Morgan Moreen, and Master Miles of Bly. In each case the story suddenly veers off into the implausible, but the unexpected and unlikely event is an excess born of the murderous dynamics at work throughout the story. Wingrave is killed not by the ghost but by his family’s bullying militarism, Daisy by the coldness of her society and of Winterbourne, Miles by Victorian paranoia about sexual corruption.
Mrs Ambient’s murderous intervention has a similar motivation to the Governess’s, though its epiphanal meaning is more opaque because it is not presented from her point of view. Rather, we see the action through the watching eyes of Ambient’s sister, who plays the role of a chorus in a Greek tragedy, and exhibits a sibylline second sight. Her archaic appearance suits this role: ‘Her long thin face was inhabited by sad dark eyes and her black hair intertwined with golden fillets and curious clasps... She suggested a symbolic picture, something akin even to Dürer’s Melancholia, and was so perfect an image of a type which I, in my ignorance, supposed to be extinct, that while she rose before me I was almost as much startled as if I had seen a ghost’ (24). Her ‘weirdness’ (37) recalls the ‘weird sisters’ of Macbeth and the ‘serpentine folds’ (37) of her robe suggest a sibyl. She murmurs prophetically: ‘there are strange elements at work’ (51). Her ‘necromantic glances and strange intuitions’ (68) are scorned by the narrator, but they enhance the eeriness of the climax and facilitate the suspension of disbelief. Equally uncanny is Dolcino himself, the living embodiment of the idea of beauty, the designated scapegoat in the war about beauty that rages between his parents. His death is due not only to his mother’s religious and moral fanaticism, but to the aesthetic fanaticism that prompts the narrator to give her the pages he should have known would distress her. Even Ambient’s sister is implicated by ‘an air of triumph that struck me as the climax of perversity’ (63) as she announces Dolcino is very ill. Just as in ‘Daisy Miller’, ‘Owen Wingrave,’ and ‘The Pupil’, the young person’s sudden death sends waves of guilt and unease in every direction, sending the reader back to the beginning with a suspicious eye.
Elaine Pigeon argues somewhat as Shoshana Felman does with regard to the Governess in ‘The Turn of the Screw’: ‘If we condemn the child murdering mother, Beatrice Ambient—who allows her son to die precisely because she cannot control discourse—we’re no better than the self-righteous critics James, I think, was targeting. Either way we’re complicit, either with the moralists or aestheticism, which is the dichotomy at work in the tale. But as James sets it up, aestheticism is at least life affirming... At the end of the story James challenges us to figure out which side he’s on. Traditionally, critics have described the tale as James’ satire/attack on aestheticism. I think they’re missing the point. It’s very clever’. Whatever the case with ‘The Turn of the Screw’, I doubt if the present story places the reader in a double bind. James is on neither ‘side’ but exposes the evils of both. The satire on aestheticism carries over from the portraits of Roderick Hudson and Gilbert Osmond. The unnamed narrator is not a sympathetic aesthete like Strether, or even like Gabriel Nash, but a fanatical devotee of a kind who will be developed to full proportions in ‘The Aspern Papers’ three years later: ‘“Poor lady”, I pleaded, “She saw I’m a fanatic”’ (38). Compare ‘This ought doubtless to have made me more careful as to what I said next, but all I can plead is that it didn’t’ (59-60) with the following from ‘The Aspern Papers’: ‘my explanation ought to have led me to go out as I had come. I must repeat again that it did not’ (ch. 8). Note also: ‘I rummaged freely among his treasures’ (61). The narrator’s sexuality is suggested by his infatuated gushing over Ambient, which anticipates the Aspern narrator’s Schwärmerei about his adored poet. The appeal of the boy—‘It has remained a constant regret for me that on that strange Sunday afternoon I didn’t even for a moment hold Dolcino in my arms’ (56); ‘I never laid a longing hand on Dolcino’ (61)—could be seen as mediating his budding relationship with the master (Person, 112), like Ambient’s other offspring, Beltraffio, which he has read five times (and like the magical papers for the Aspern narrator). The fact that the mother does not let him touch the boy also suggests anxiety about pedophilia. Lines like the following: ‘In her agitation Miss Ambient was guilty of this vulgarism of speech, and I was so impressed by her narrative that only in recalling her words later did I notice the lapse’ (66-7), again anticipate the Aspern narrator in their betrayal of patronizing misogyny, insensitivity, and the pedantry of a man who lives too much in the world of literature.
Hints accumulate throughout the story until the air is charged with tension and suspense. James had problems with the novel form—he had difficulty giving it life, substance, rhythm. It’s from that difficulty that the perfect form and pacing of The Ambassadors and the eerie greatness of The Golden Bowl are born. But for the gripping, insinuating nouvelle, there is no more assured master. As he piles on the hints, he adds to their potency by leaving them in the realm of the hint. The rhetoric of the hint was supremely developed in discourse about homosexuality. In the first of his two clandestine volumes on Greek love (both reissued in Symonds 1984), Symonds begins by evoking an unnamed passion that pervades all human history: ‘It confronts us on the steppes of Asia, where hordes of nomads drink the milk of mares... We discern it among the palm-groves of the South Sea Islands, in the card-houses and temples of Japan... It throbs in our huge cities’. He goes on to say: ‘Those who read these lines will hardly doubt what passion it is that I am hinting at’. James and Proust learned much from the culture of hints that had grown up about the unnamed realities of gay and lesbian passion. The closet was a laboratory of style for them. Proust’s great novel abounds in hints at homoeroticism throughout its first half; and the second half makes all the hints explicit, while adding a constant flow of new innuendo. James scattered his hints with generous hand, and time has produced their exposure in luscious technicolor, enhancing the texture of his writing.
The Pupil's Blush
Casey Abell writes: ‘The homosexuality or lack thereof in “The Pupil”... comes down to the individual reader’. But as a master of the hint, James is surely fully in control of what he gives the individual reader to imagine. That there is intimate and intense affection and collusion between Pemberton and Morgan is central to the story. Morgan’s unsatisfactory family leaves him in desperate need of Pemberton’s affection. The erotic virtualities of this are lightly projected. That is the effect of locutions such as these: ‘quavered the boy in a little passionate voice that was very touching to Pemberton’ (NY text: ‘with a ring of passion like some high silver note from a small cathedral chorister’) or ‘taking his arm and drawing him tenderly on again’ (‘tenderly’ is added in the NY text); ‘drawing him closer’. Readers are invited to take the tale of Pemberton’s embarrassments as a kind of allegory of the social difficulties of the love between a man and a boy.
Embarrassment is a major theme in James’s fiction, and it is signalled on special occasions by the phenomenon of the blush. Physiologically and psychologically blushes have much in common with sexual arousal. The blushes in ‘The Pupil’ conjoin the two embarrassing ‘unmentionable subjects’ of the tale. One of these subjects is the humiliating financial situation shared by Pemberton and Morgan. The other is the love, or what Millicent Bell admits might be called the ‘erotic affiliation’, between them (147). This latter is on the same rather innocent level as the relation between Alyosha and Kolya in The Brothers Karamazov. Compare these two scenes:
‘Do you know, Karamazov, our talk has been like a declaration of love’, said Kolya, in a bashful and melting voice. ‘That’s not ridiculous, is it?’
‘Not at all ridiculous, and if it were ridiculous, it wouldn’t matter, because it’s been a good thing’, Alyosha smiled brightly.
‘But do you know, Karamazov, you must admit that you are a little ashamed yourself now... I see it by your eyes’, Kolya smiled with a sort of sly happiness.
‘Well, why are you blushing?’
‘It was you who made me blush’, laughed Alyosha, and he really did blush.
‘Oh, well, I am a little ashamed, goodness knows why, I don’t know...’ he muttered almost embarrassed.
‘Oh, how I love you and admire you at this moment just because you are rather ashamed! Because you are just like me’, cried Kolya, in positive ecstasy. His cheeks glowed, his eyes beamed.
‘You know, Kolya, you will be very unhappy in your life’, something made Alyosha say suddenly. (Bk 10, ch, 6, trans. Garnett, Norton edition, 527-8)
‘Do you like my father and mother very much?’
‘Dear me yes. They’re charming people’.
Morgan received this with another silence; then, unexpectedly, familiarly, but at the same time affectionately, he remarked: ‘You’re a jolly old humbug!’
For a particular reason the words made Pemberton change colour. The boy noticed in an instant that he had turned red, whereupon he turned red himself and the pupil and the master exchanged a longish glance in which there was a consciousness of many more things than are usually touched upon, even tacitly, in such a relation. It produced for Pemberton an embarrassment; it raised, in a shadowy form, a question (this was the first glimpse of it), which was destined to play a singular and as he imagined, owing to the altogether peculiar conditions, an unprecedented part in his intercourse with his little companion...
‘They love you better than anything in the world -- never forget that’, said Pemberton.
‘Is that why you like them so much?’
‘They’re very kind to me’, Pemberton replied, evasively.
‘You are a humbug!’ laughed Morgan, passed an arm into his tutor’s.
He leaned against him, looking off at the sea again, and swinging his long, thin legs...
‘There’s another reason, too’, Morgan went on... (ch. 3)
The blush is at the intersection of the social (the paid role of Pemberton) and the intimate (the friendship between Pemberton and his pupil). James is being deliberately poker-faced about the latter connotation. One could take it that the blushes are merely about financial embarrassments. But the language is designed to suggest other matters as well. However, readings that see Pemberton as having predatory sexual designs on the boy seem to be simple misreadings: the text offers no support.
In The Awkward Age, too, the grossness and naughtiness of the characters seems to concern more the ‘unmentionable’ but all too often mentioned subject of money than the ‘perverse and varied’ sexuality that Clair Hughes finds in it. There is a hint of some erotic to-do between Mitchy and Petherton in Nanda’s question to Mitchy: ‘What is it you like so in Lord Petherton?... He preys upon you’ (ch. xxv). Petherton ends up preying on Mitchy’s wife Aggie, who is swiftly corrupted by her marriage (one really suspects that sex in any form spells corruption for James). Mitchy should have married Nanda, and Vanderbank is now withheld from her by jealousy of her love for Mitchy (ch. xxxiii). Or are all the reasons for Vanderbank’s infinite reluctance to pop the question to Nanda, despite Mr Longdon’s financial bribe to him, merely screens to cover his own homosexual orientation? Mrs Brook’s remark that he ‘hates’ his ‘not liking her’ is suggestive (xxxii). But the erotic theme that prevails in the book is a chillingly unerotic one, namely, the question of how the respective marriage value of Nanda and Aggie is affected by their perceived innocence or loss thereof. Even as a revealer of the capitalist corruption of eros, this plot line is surpassed by the stronger situations in The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl. One senses that in The Awkward Age James’s attunement to the currents of contemporary decadence, including those on which Wilde’s theatrical wit thrived, is thwarted by the over-critical, mainly censorious attention he brings to bear on the flimsy fabric of society talk. The interplay of erotic and financial embarrassment produces neither comic exhilaration nor tragic gravity but only an effect of queasiness.
What the Telegraphist Saw
A great short story or nouvelle should be resonant with an endless range of meanings; its elements should connect vibrantly with the deepest currents of its time, and more widely with perennial features of the human condition. The stories of Joyce and Kafka have this potency of infinite suggestion, but critics have been less prompt to recognize it in those of James. Hugh Stevens offers a ‘queer reading’ of ‘In the Cage’ as a commentary on the anxieties that the Wilde scandal had aroused in English society. While a gay reading might see the story as an allegory (even personalizing it to reflect James’s own fears of being trapped in the cage of an aging and unattractive body and of social proprieties as he reaches out timidly to glamorous lions of society like Philip Everard), a queer reading is more polyvalent and thought-provoking. Repression and censorship spawn ‘queer performativity’, which enacts ‘ontologically charged moments when subjectivity is formed through negotiation with social stigmas, with the taboo’ -- Hester Prynne is given as an example. A writer can sustain such a performativity on a broad basis, as Proust does throughout À la recherche. A society in which nothing counts as queer would not stimulate such performances. Tanizaki’s The Key or Nabokov’s Lolita, though outrageous or carnivalesque, are perhaps not queer fiction in that the puritanical taboos are not negotiated but ignored. Dismissing Stevens’s effort to loosen the connection between ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ readings, Casey Abell sees his essay as just ‘a dance around the issue of homosexuality. The author seems to want to say that the story has a gay subtext, but he knows that this interpretation would be attacked as politically determined and unsupported by the actual text’. What Stevens says about reductive readings of James could apply to this reductive reading of Stevens: ‘Here James is formulated, sprawling on a pin’ (121).
A story written by a man sensitive to male erotic charm and in which the sole object of erotic interest is male could reasonably be read as having a gay subtext. Not many characters in James are erotically vivid. Everard is one of a small handful of erotically charged presences (along with Roderick Hudson, Miles, Amerigo and Charlotte, Chad and Madame de Vionnet). Sir Claude in What Maisie Knew is nice, but not sexually thrilling. Though Caspar Goodwood’s ‘kiss was like white lightning’ he is not a successfully realized erotic presence. Gilbert Long, the ‘Adonis’ in The Sacred Fount comes across as a stuffed shirt; but I don’t think James aimed at erotic atmosphere in this story. Stevens finds no homosexual element in ‘In the Cage’, but sees it as alluding to the paranoia in London society at the time: ‘In a number of tales published after 1895, the year of the Wilde trials, James explores issues of secrecy and publicity, blackmail, scandal, fear of exposure, and suicide, and these explorations may be related to the simultaneous repression and promotion of sexuality engendered by the trials’ (125). If it is objected that it was homosexuality, not ‘sexuality’, that was repressed and promoted, so that Stevens’s reading is narrower than it pretends to be, two points could be made: (a) James himself enlarges the issue to a wider ‘eroticization of the transgressive, of the forbidden’, just as Wilde did in his plays. An Ideal Husband for example no doubt drew inspiration from Wilde’s experience of a gay underworld, but its portrayal of a politician’s fear of scandal and exposure has a much wider bearing and is still highly relevant to non-gay politicians or anyone in public life today. ‘Queer performativity’ is not concerned with sexual tastes but with social conventions and how one transgresses them or negotiates them. The writings of ‘heretics’ in the time of the Inquisition would afford many instances of queer performativity -- for instance, Paolo Sarpi’s urbanely ironic History of the Council of Trent. (b) Social anxiety about homosexuality, like social anxiety about sexual abuse of children today, tends to ladder widely and have intimate reverberations throughout people’s lives. This climate of worry could have been sensed and exploited for literature even by non-homosexual writers. (It would be interesting to see if there are any reflections of it in Shaw or Conrad; Joyce’s men have a lot of anxiety about homosexuality, including the issues of blackmail, scandal, or exposure in Finnegans Wake.) The embarrassing relation between the telegraph girl and the clandestine upper-class lovers goes to the heart of anxieties about exposure that haunted English society at the time. Telegraph boys -- Charles Thomas Swinscow, George Alma Wright, Henry Horace Newlove, Charles Ernest Thickbroom -- were involved in the Cleveland Street Scandal (Stevens, 128). Captain Everard’s aliases and the fact that Lady Bradeen uses a male-sounding one, Dr Buzzard, add a touch of the carnivalesque. Androgyny is transgressive in most societies; when public it is carnivalesque and when clandestine it is definitely a form of queer performativity though it may have little to do with homosexuality, as in George Moore’s great story ‘Albert Nobbs’.
Abell claims that ‘The main issue in the story is knowledge, not sex of any kind, straight or gay’ and that the insignificant Captain and Lady only become interesting ‘when they are (non-physically) touched by the telegraphist’s imagination and intelligence’. If no one cares about the Captain and the Lady, then that might indicate that they are a screen formation, and that the real objective correlative would be homosexual scandal. It is obvious in any case that there is a strong erotic consciousness between the telegraph girl and the Captain. Unlike the narrator of The Sacred Fount, she is erotically connected with the object of her inquiry. Here knowledge is eroticized in a different manner than in The Sacred Fount. Every item of information about the Captain thrills the girl as ‘sacred’ whereas the many other scandalous things she learns about her other clients bore and repel her. She finally goes to her official fiancé, the reliable and tolerant, but humdrum Mudge. only when the Captain goes to the lady. We could even imagine the telegraphist and the Captain as star-crossed lovers, she impeded by class barriers and self-respect, he by his servitude to the lady, whom he no longer loves. That when the ‘possibility of an actual sexual encounter between the telegraphist and the Captain occurs, James hastens us off the scene’ (Abell) is exactly what one would expect; it is in line with the girl’s character -- not only self-respect, but an element of pride, even a desire to control -- and with Jamesian aesthetics of eros. Everything is sufficiently suggested in the atmosphere of temptation; a one-night stand with the Captain would serve no plot purpose, or would generate a different plot entirely. The Captain’s behaviour, moreover, is a revelation of his character: he is one of James’s hollow beaux, in the line of Roderick Hudson, Owen Gareth, Sir Claude, Vanderbank, Gilbert Long, Chad and Amerigo, who are disappointing on nearer approach, when they are shown up as manipulable, indecisive and of doubtful manliness.
The passion of the telegraphist is orchestrated by the unusually erotic quality of much of the writing, especially the scene in the park when the man puts his hand on hers and the suggestion of an invitation to his rooms hangs in the air. James lays it on quite thick: ‘the Park, all before them, was full of obscure and ambiguous life; there were other couples on other benches, whom it was impossible not to see, yet at whom it was impossible to look’ (ch. 15). Stevens’s reflections on the positively bawdy undertones of James’s characters’ names are more convincing than usual in this case. The telegraphist’s passion for Everard is marked by the wish to invade and control the inner life of another, a characteristic twist in Jamesian love. Her most ecstatic moment comes when she displays her knowledge of his private movements as a competent public official (on their last encounter, when in his panic about the compromising telegram he does not show her any tenderness): ‘No happiness she had ever known came within miles of it’. Mr Buckton”s ‘rude’ comment: ‘And what game is that, miss?’ signals the perversity of her passion.
Though the telegraphist is a virtuous heroine, James lets other possibilities come into play in the parts where she imagines what she would do if she were not a good girl:
She quite thrilled herself with thinking what, with such a lot of material, a bad girl would do. It would be a scene better than many in her ha’penny novels, this going to him in the dusk of evening at Park Chambers and letting him at last have it. ‘I know too much about a certain person now not to put it to you--excuse my being so lurid--that it’s quite worth your while to buy me off. Come therefore: buy me!’ There was a point indeed at which such flights had to drop again--the point of an unreadiness to name, when it came to that, the purchasing medium. It wouldn’t certainly be anything so gross as money, and the matter accordingly remained rather vague, all the more that she was not a bad girl. (ch. 11).
One thinks of James’s reaction to the Wilde trials: ‘What a nest of almost infant blackmailers!’ (Ellmann, 41). ‘The queer extension of her experience, the double life that, in the cage, she grew at last to lead’ (ch. 5) has a certain moral ambiguity in itself. This comes to the surface when she corrects Lady Bradeen’s telegram. Lady Bradeen, remember, is her rival in love -- this is how she is referred to in the park scene: ‘everything they had so definitely not named, the whole presence around which they had been circling became a part of their reference, settled solidly between them’ (ch. 17). When the girl suggests the correction that shows an intimate knowledge of her ladyship’s arrangements, the reaction is: ‘It was as if she had bodily leaped -- cleared the top of the cage and alighted on her interlocutress. “Cooper’s?” -- the stare was heightened by a blush. Yes, she had made Juno blush’ (ch. 13). This is a triumph for the girl, but there is a questionable element in her intrusion on the lady’s intimate life. Notice that as in ‘The Pupil’ the blush is situated at the intersection of the public and the intimate spheres. In older stories domestic servants were a cause of embarrassment, because they always knew the family secrets. But in James’s time the role of public servants was breaking down class barriers (as in the dependence of aristocratic motorists on mechanics) and putting intimate knowledge in the hands of complete strangers. The telegraphist is aware of the power this could give her if she were unscrupulous enough to use it. When she recalls the contents of the intercepted telegram for Everard she comes for the first time into vivid contact with the kind of thing that naughty telegraph girls or boys might trade in, namely scandal and the threat of scandal:
She felt she scarce knew what -- as if she might soon be pounced upon for some lurid connexion with a scandal. It was the queerest of all sensations, for she had heard, she had read, of these things, and the wealth of her intimacy with them at Cocker’s might be supposed to have schooled and seasoned her. This particular one that she had really quite lived with was, after all, an old story; yet what it had been before was dim and distant beside the touch under which she now winced. Scandal? -- it had never been but a silly word. Now it was a great palpable surface, and the surface was, somehow, Captain Everard’s wonderful face. (ch. 23)
James laces this with erotic excitement: ‘“Oh!” said the girl, knowing at this the deepest thrill she had ever felt. It came to her there, with her eyes on his face, that she held the whole thing in her hand, held it as she held her pencil, which might have broken at that instant in her tightened grip. This made her feel like the very fountain of fate, but the emotion was such a flood that she had to press it back with all her force’ (ch. 22). ‘She hesitated afresh; she quite dangled him. “It was brought by a lady?”... She couldn’t too much, for her joy, dangle him, yet she couldn’t either, for his dignity, warn or control or check him’ (ch. 23). James, like Dr Johnson, ‘must have his sport’. He puts across the most obvious erotic symbolism with a deadpan air of being completely unaware of it. Given so mischievous an author, we are less likely to go astray in embracing far-flung ‘queer’ connotations than in seeking scrupulously to restrain them.
Alternative Solutions in The Sacred Fount
Each time the reader returns to The Sacred Fount he or she runs into the same dead end. The language is beautiful and the country house atmosphere is enchanting. But what is it all about? The basic conceit of the sacred fount itself -- the idea that one partner in a sexual liaison will be rejuvenated by and deplete the other, who will correspondingly decline in vitality -- seems to lack a real life basis. However, James believed in it, and Tintner connects it with his own rejuvenation in the company of young friends. Every novelist has a limited stock of situations and themes (reading lesser Dostoyevsky pieces gives a chastening glance into the melodramatic properties he traded in rather shamelessly). James’s situations have a dangerous thinness at the best of times (in The Golden Bowl for example). In shorter exercises they become schematic, caricatural. In The Sacred Fount he appears to have worn the fabric so thin that it tears. Tom Sutpen asks if James ‘was rushing headlong into the wholly abstract, thereby anticipating 20th century literature’s adventures’. James may have been impressed by Flaubert’s ambition to write a novel about nothing (Madame Bovary as pastiche, a pure exercise of style). There is something Mallarmean about The Sacred Fount, which accounts for the odd fascination it exerts -- it’s an Indian rope trick. (Yet Flaubert’s two best novels pulsate with love and meaning, as indeed do James’s best. There’s a paradox here that needs to be sounded.)
Just as all readers of The Turn of the Screw catch the Governess’s obsession, so The Sacred Fount leaves us in the quandary of its narrator our whole lives long, unless some good fairy can dispel the enigma. Adeline Tintner offers to do so in a ‘speculative attempt to read the novel which James... called “a consistent joke” (his italics) filled with “nothing but screens”‘. In her reading, Briss is the central character of the novel (as symbolized by the portrait that resembles him) and the long final exchange between the narrator and Mrs Briss, culminating in her obvious, repeated lie is concerned with her shielding the gay relationship between Briss and Long from the narrator’s prying and indiscretion. She dreads him because she has seen that he talks too much; he protests that he hasn’t breathed a word about his suppositions to a living soul, but in reality he is sending out his brilliant gleams of suspicion on every side. That last conversation is a fine, tense piece of writing, far more engaging than the ‘talk’ in The Awkward Age. Here James is breaking ground for the superb tone of The Golden Bowl.
Tintner’s main evidence is: (1) ‘the presentation of Guy Brissenden as a painted image holding the mask of a lady, which shows his androgyny’; (2) the terrace scene in which Long ‘must have seen the narrator gaping at him and therefore sends a message to Briss warning him off’; (3) James’ s words in a letter to Mrs Humphrey Ward (Letters IV, 185-6): ‘The Ford Obert evidence all bears (indirectly) upon Brissenden, supplies the motive for Mrs B’.s terror and her re-nailing down of the coffin’. She nails the coffin on the truth three times: in her first claim that Lady John is the refining influence on Long; then in her identification of May Server as Long’s victim (in fact her own, according to Tintner); finally, in her stone-walling return to the Lady John story. Her ‘last interview with the narrator’ is ‘all an ironic exposure of her own false plausibility’ -- an exposure to the alert reader. But I find James’s remarks to Mrs Ward extremely cryptic, especially bearing in mind that he presumably didn’t convey to her the solution Tintner discovers. Can we not decipher the sense of the story from internal evidence, without recourse to such unsatisfactory, perhaps even misleading, documents?
Another clue Tintner points out is that Briss is in the bachelor quarters, though his wife is of the party. Tintner fills in the background: Lady Lovelace’s house is the model for Newmarch and it was hospitable to same-sex couples: ‘the same men and their friends were invited over and over again’ (232); James had a bedroom contiguous to Jocelyn Persse’s. In conversation with the narrator, Gilbert Long is uneasy in a way that suggests he fears that the narrator has discovered his secret connection with Briss: ‘“Do you see him often?” Long disengaged the ash from his cigarette, “No. Why should I?” Distinctly, he was uneasy -- though as yet perhaps but vaguely -- at what I might be coming to’ (ch. 2). The narrator supposes that Long is worried that the narrator has detected his connection with May, which runs parallel to that between Mrs Briss and her husband; but a likelier source of discomfort at questions about Briss would be a connection between Long and Briss himself. Long protests too much: ‘“Do you mean there’s nothing in him that strikes you?” “‘Strikes’ me -- in that boy? Nothing in him, that I know of, ever struck me in my life. He’s not an object of the smallest interest to me”‘. The tone of this suggests that Long is lying. The narrator’s conversation with Briss (ch. 7) occasionally suggests that Briss may think that the narrator is sympathetically aware of his connection with Long. Note that the only tactile element in The Sacred Fount is the series of attentions (pats, linked arms, etc.) that the narrator gives to Briss; one recalls James’s remark to Morton Fullerton that he was ‘magically tactile’ (Selected Letters, 227).
Some of Tintner’s arguments are weak: ‘May Server and Grace Brissenden are the only women at the party who have no conversation of any kind with each other. They conceal their relationship, as Long does with Briss, by not calling our attention to them’ (231). But in fact Grace goes in to dinner with May at the end of ch. 3: ‘Mrs Brissenden... managed to possess herself of the subject of her denunciation’ (= Mrs Server). Meanwhile, James W. Gargano’s defence of the narrator’s perceptions and of the reality of the sexual vampire theme (Gargano 1987) is quite convincing. It is at the antipodes of Tintner’s reading, which makes the narrator maximally deluded. The sexual exploitativeness of Mrs Briss and Gilbert Long, who team up against the too perceptive narrator, would then represent the brazen triumph of a capitalist attitude to relationships over the narrator’s finer sense of values (shown in his increasing sympathy with May Server). Or could it be that James allows the two stories, Gargano’s and Tintner’s, to coexist, in a tribute to the enigmatic character of human behaviour and its interpretation?