Roderick Hudson, James's first major achievement, though it is a fine novel in itself, gains in interest from its place in James's oeuvre and from the way themes announced in it are variously elaborated later on. Uniquely for James, two of its characters recur in later novels -- Christina Light in The Princess Casamassima and Gloriani in The Ambassadors -- a sign perhaps that the novel represented for him a golden hour of youth and promise. James has made it difficult to enjoy his novels, particularly the early ones, just as they stand, for he has inserted them in the grandiose metanarrative of his own quest for the Grail of perfect form, something like Mallarmé's search for the Book. So we read the early works with his later eyes, saying to ourselves -- 'Yes, all very fine, but not quite the ultimate distinguished Jamesian thing'. Lovers of James often have no favourite among his novels, for it is not any individual work but the oeuvre as a whole that fascinates, or rather not so much the oeuvre as the creative ebullition which produced it.
In the New York Edition Preface to Roderick Hudson James himself encourages this absorption of his writings into something bigger, not a Comédie humaine in the manner of Balzac nor a Goethean 'great confession' of which they would be fragments, but an unrolling of the process of artistic creation over the lifetime of one of its privileged instruments: 'Addicted to "stories" and inclined to retrospect, he fondly takes, under this backward view, his whole unfolding, his process of production, for a thrilling tale, almost for a wondrous adventure...' This is the hermeneutic key not only to the Prefaces but to the entire enterprise of the New York Edition. James's insertion of his novels in his autobiography (as when he recalls the occasions of the initial inspiration, the problems faced in composition, and the feelings he has looking back) and his insistence on literary analogues (be it only through having his characters drop such names as Cherbuliez, Stendhal, Corinne) prompt us to view the works as switchboards within the infinite network of sources, influences, models and 'relations', which as the Preface tells us 'stop nowhere'. Indeed, he tempts us to think that all novels of any merit are novels about other novels. Roderick Hudson has a variety lacking in James's later work for the simple reason that he often speaks in the voices of his masters. At several points the youthful author seems to be saying to himself, 'Now it's time to so a set-piece in the manner of Balzac'. He tries his hand at Dickensian comedy with Mr Leavenworth: 'I myself touch liquor in no shape whatever. I have travelled through Europe on cold water. The most varied and attractive wines are offered me, but I brush them aside. No cork has ever been drawn at my command' (ch. XV). I wonder had James read the artist-novels in the wake of Wilhelm Meister (which he admired). Keller's Der Grüne Heinrich is about a failed painter who in the first edition (1853) destroys himself, but in the second (1880)settles down to bourgeois mediocrity -- a contrast similar to that between the tragic fate of Roderick Hudson and the rather comic one Chad Newsome in The Ambassadors, another adventurous American pursued by a worrying mother.
One theme launched in the novel that will percolate through the Jamesian corpus is a subtle and oblique handling of homoerotic desire. This runs athwart the nominal plot, in which the two male principals are rivals for the affection of Mary Garland. With what may be an ironic insinuation, James signals in the preface the failure of Mary Garland to fill the role assigned to her. Her character, described by one critic as 'inhibited and inhibiting', is skilfully revealed in her letter (ch. VII). There is little plausibility in either Roderick's or Rowland's alleged love for her. James must have wanted her to be convincing as an attractive alternative to the adventuress Christina Light. Christina and Mary are the archetypical dark and fair girls of American fiction, and Mary is the first in James's series of M--y heroines that culminates in Milly Theale and Maggie Verver; on the 'dark' side Christina's greatest successors are their antagonists Kate Croy and Charlotte Stant. The dark-fair opposition is stupendously achieved in the two later works, though the danger of the dark girl stealing the show and the reader's sympathies is avoided only by suppressing her point of view in the second half of the work in each case. In the present case the dark girl walks away with the story.
Now we are so attuned to the 'epistemology of the closet' that it is hard not to suspect that the Mary Garland strand in the plot serves basically to throw into higher dramatic relief Rowland's frustrated longing for Roderick. Epistemology is a notoriously tricky branch of philosophy, and curiosity about what makes fictional characters tick faces obstacles of a different sort from those of real life. James projects suggestions, virtualities, penumbrae -- but ironclad confirmation is not on the cards. When Wendy Graham (Graham 1999) offers a full-dress Freudian analysis of Rowland Mallet (sometimes a Mallet is just a Mallet!), her reading is brilliant, persuasive, plausible, but one has misgivings. She talks of Mallet as if he were a real human being, and in a judgmental manner that suggests she's 'got his number' (just the kind of thing James thwarts by his constant complication of motive). Even trained psychoanalysts summarizing their experiences of real-life patients do not get beyond open-ended tentative conclusions, I imagine. But in the world of literary criticism we can all be instant Freuds and Lacans, proclaiming 'Elementary, my dear Watson!' at every turn.
The homoerotic notes in this novel are veiled only by the surface plot. It is difficult to assess whether James is using Victorian conventions for indicating such sentiments, conventions that may now be poorly understood. Stilted Foucaultians sometimes talk as if identification of homoerotic feeling didn't exist before some medico created the word 'homosexual' -- or as if it must have been very murky and confused because homosexuality had not yet been 'invented' or 'socially constructed'. Surely Sam Singleton is as clear a portrait of a 'man's man' as one would wish, offering a simplifying sidelight on the more complex homoerotic notes in the portrayal of Rowland. If there is little doubt about Rowland's sexuality -- so that Roderick seems to be rushing through an open door when he meanly remarks in their last quarrel, 'Women for you, by what I can make out, scarce have an existence' (ch. XXV) -- there can be none about Sam's. When Roderick's dead body is described in Shelleyan tones -- 'It was as if violence, having wrought her ravage, had stolen away in shame' (cf. Adonais: 'Oblivion as they rose shrank like a thing reproved') --, Sam is there to intone in the manner of the centurion in Luke 23.47: 'He was the most beautiful of men!' (1878: 'He was a beautiful fellow!').
The effect of the discovery of the novel's gay subtext resembles that of Edmund Wilson's revelation of the histrionic neuroticism that marks the discourse of the Governess in 'The Turn of the Screw'; once pointed out it becomes so obvious that one wonders how it could ever have been missed. In both cases an ironic twist is given to the plot itself; the status of the ghosts at Bly is relativized as is the status of Rowland's courtship of Mary. There is nothing to stop James from telling two contradictory stories at once: the nominal story of Rowland's desire for Mary and the suggested hidden story of his desire for Roderick, a contradiction that it would be difficult to straighten out by seeing Rowland as in denial of, or as unconscious of, his true feelings. It may be a case of 'trust the tale, not the teller'. Recall the opening of 'The Turn of the Screw':
'The story will tell', I took upon myself to reply...
'The story won't tell', said Douglas, 'not in any literal vulgar way'.
James is a super-subtle novelist, and the kind of speculations his presentation of Rowland arouse, and that thicken the air of the story, do not need any literal vulgar confirmation to produce their effect.
It is hard to know how consciously James planted his suggestive ambiguities in the early texts of the novel, but the New York text deliberately enhances them, as when Rowland's 'sentimental perplexities' become his 'accepted obsession' (ch. IV). When Roderick tells Rowland 'I'm in love and the loved object is five thousand miles away', Rowland feels that 'fortune had played him an elaborately devised trick. It had lured him out into mid-ocean and smoothed the sea and stilled the winds and given him a singularly sympathetic comrade, and then it had turned and delivered him a thumping blow in mid-chest' (ch. IV). The scene is more powerful if taken as Rowland's realization that his devotion to Roderick meets with complete indifference. But James says in the Preface: 'When, on the ship, under the stars, Roderick suddenly takes his friend into the confidence of his engagement, we instinctively disallow the friend's title to discomfiture... The damage to verisimilitude is deep'. Could it be that he is hinting to the reader: 'Don't take the Mary Garland affair seriously; look for the real story'? The shock Rowland feels is due less to his being cheated of Mary than to his being cheated of Roderick, though Rowland perhaps mistakes his own feelings, imagining it is Mary he is chagrined about when in reality it is Roderick. James seems deliberately to leave open the possibility of reading the scene either way.
Rowland's fateful interventions in Roderick's relationship with Christina are motivated less by busybody moralism (which would lack verisimilitude) than by possessive jealousy. His quarrel with Roderick after he has told Christina of Roderick's engagement to Mary resembles a lovers' tiff. Rowland says: 'I don't at all like your telling me I'm meddlesome [1878: "too zealous"]. If I hadn't been meddlesome I should never have cared a fig for you' (ch. XI). 'Rowland Mallet survives the psychological slaughter the plot enacts precisely because he idealizes (and accordingly sublimates to achieve this), rather than idolizes' (Marcia Ian). But one may suspect that Rowland's idealism is a mask for an insistent imprisoning passion like Olive Chancellor's for Verena Tarrant in The Bostonians (a parallel that it might be rewarding to pursue). It is perhaps above all his indecision and ambiguity that makes Rowland a destructive figure: '"Your love -- your suffering -- your silence -- your friendship!" cried Roderick. "I declare I don't understand"' (ch. XXV). Roderick's simplicity is baffled by Rowland's complications, as Mrs Grose is by the Governess in 'The Turn of the Screw'.
Could it be that Roderick's goading of Rowland in this last quarrel sparks off Rowland's fateful harshness to Roderick? His love for Mary is so much a willed invention, a narcissistic piece of role-playing, that Roderick's taunt stings him to the quick. Casey Abell finds Roderick's feeling for Mary quite convincing: 'Mary Garland, with her never-failing devotion to duty, would appeal to the conscientious Rowland Mallet... They appear to be emotional soulmates regardless of the reader's judgment. I can readily believe the closing lines of the book about Rowland's undimmed affection for Mary'. I agree that James carries this plot-line through with considerable efficacity; nonetheless, the most interesting affections of Rowland's and the only ones that lead him to act impulsively are those he has for Roderick. His boast to Roderick that he held back from Mary and kept silent about his feelings for her out of respect for Roderick's engagement is dismissed by the latter with the telling remark: 'It's like something in a bad novel' (ch. XXV)(1878: 'It's like something in a novel'). Listen to the tones of Rowland's pique:
He had tried to be wise, he had tried to be kind, he had engaged in an estimable enterprise; but his wisdom, his kindness, his labour had all been thrown back in his face... The sense of wasted time, of wasted hope and faith, kept him constant company. There were times when the beautiful things about him only exasperated his pain... He felt himself, in a word, a man cruelly defrauded and naturally bent on revenge. Life owed him, he thought, a compensation... The idea, in fine, of compensation in concrete form found itself remarkably resembling a certain young woman in America, shaped itself sooner of later into the image of Mary Garland. Very odd, you may say, that at this time of day Rowland should still be brooding over a girl of no brillancy, of whom he had had a bare glimpse two years before; very odd that an impression should have fixed itself so sharply under so few applications of the die. (ch. XVI).
Rowland, we suspect. reverts to Mary on the rebound from Roderick and does so partly to have revenge on Roderick. Christina's alleged unreciprocated feelings for Rowland ('she was dying of love for you', Roderick says, ch. XXV) and Rowland's non-feelings for Miss Blanchard (ch. XIX) could be dismissed as ineffective byplay, but maybe they are intended to fill out the portrait of Rowland as one who is a stranger to heterosexual passion.
Richard Poirier's paean to the selflessness of Christina and Rowland in a 1967 essay makes me wonder if literary critics of that time (when Leavis and Eliot still loomed so large) were not frustrated preachers: 'His selflessness is apparent in his desire to help others, and he is clearly self-sacrificing in his attempts to preserve the engagement between Roderick and Mary, even though he is himself in love with her. Like all the admirable people in James, he is interested more in the quality of what he does than in its practical results. This, in James's view of conduct, is the ideally reasonable attitude towards experience. Those of his characters who have it are distinguished from those who do not by their indifference to the often painful consequences of an obedience to personal ideals' (in Gargano 1987a). Oddly, this makes Rowland a source of the novel's comedy, 'the comedy being a matter of our acceptance, through Rowland, of standards by which melodrama is judged as a vulgar expression of insufficient sensibility'. The novel has lots of comedy, but I don't see that it qualifies the melodrama or that Rowland is the source of it. Rowland himself is presented with a play of irony, but is not a comic character. The ironies are sensed by Poirier:
The sort of calm reasonableness and good sense which his continuous presence brings to every scene [I do not think Rowland is motivated fundamentally by reason and good sense] provides, to repeat, a comic contrast to the pervasive melodramatic action. But his rationality and tolerance are in part suggestive of those 'powerless-feeling young men', in Mr Dupee's phrase, who preoccupy James in some of the stories written before Roderick Hudson: John Ford of 'The Story of a Year' (1865), who relinquishes claim to his fiancée because he might be killed in the war, the wealthy young artist of 'A Landscape Painter' (1866), whose wife understandably tells him at the end of the story 'I am a woman, sir! Come you be a man!' and, most notably, Roger Lawrence of Watch and Ward (1871) who, like Rowland, is introduced at the very beginning of the novel with the information that one romantic disappointment has made him take a vow of celibacy, and who exhibits throughout the story an integrity which is obscurely associated with a fear of sexual and romantic involvement. It is not at all certain in these earlier efforts that James is aware of the psychological peculiarities of his heroes. (in Gargano 1987a, 74-5).
In Roderick Hudson it is precisely the psychological peculiarities of Rowland that are the topic of ongoing ironic reflection; they put him in stark contrast to the impulsive Roderick and create a certain understanding between him and the equally self-conscious (and also rather cold) Christina.
Kenneth Graham offers a solemn and in both senses straight reading. He vamps up his response to the thwarted grand passion between Roderick and Christina: 'we are made to feel that they belong together... we are made to desire it by the book's whole tendency of feeling and idea' (43). He seems to want to write the great love story that James did not write. Seeing the novel as concerned with a 'tragedy of the will', he projects onto it a grandiose allegory of the Fall of Man. Of Roderick's death he writes: 'And then there is the greater loss: a fall, a descent, and a death that implicates us all' (55). Graham quotes T. S. Eliot's view that James 'too much identifies himself with Rowland, does not see through the solemnity he has created in that character, commits the cardinal sin of failing to "detect" one of his own characters' (53). This seems to me quite wrong; James is in fact 'exposing' Rowland, not unsympathetically. At the end of the novel (1878 text) we read: 'Now that all was over Rowland understood how exclusively, for two years, Roderick had filled his life. His occupation was gone'. The echo of 'Othello's occupation's gone' anticipates Densher's echo of Othello's final speech as he broods on his loss of Milly at the end of The Wings of the Dove. Rewriting the passage for the New York edition, James drops the Othello allusion, perhaps because that note had been struck with greater force in the more recent novel. Instead he writes: '... how up to the brim, for two years, his personal world had been filled. It looked to him at present as void and blank and sinister as a theatre bankrupt and closed'. If Roderick filled his life exclusively, Mary cannot have been very important to him; she has at best the status of the older woman in Geneva who distracts Winterbourne from the priceless Daisy. His final posture as her patient suitor lacks any real emotional urgency. The New York text, giving up on the notes of conventional romance still retained in the early text, makes it clear that James is aware that the relationship between Rowland and Mary can only be a hollow and passionless one, at best a substitute of convenience for them both. Rowland's personal life is 'bankrupt and closed'; Mary's passionate grief for Roderick contrasts with her attitude to Rowland: 'when he sometimes -- very rarely -- sees her, she is inscrutably civil to him' (1878: 'unreservedly kind to him'); on their return journey 'she had used him, with the last rigour of consistency, as a character definitely appointed to her use' (1878: 'there was a great frankness in her gratitude, a great gratitude in her frankness').
Christina Light walks again in The Princess Casamassima, but sadly fails to live as a grand character comparable to Isabel Archer. This was a rather tragic setback in James's career, particularly as his next voluminous novel, The Tragic Muse, his only other Künstlerroman after Roderick Hudson, equally fails to come alive -- Miriam Rooth does not match Roderick in charm or poignancy. After that James sunk five years in the unrewarding world of the theatre, and did not come back to the international milieu and artistic Bohemia for more than a decade. Wendy Graham notes a rich gay subtext in The Princess Casamassima. Just as in the case of Rowland and Roderick, James projects gay overtones in the encounters between Hyacinth and Paul Muniment (chapters 14 and 35), which are enhanced in the later rewriting. Muniment (usually called Paul in the later text, which thereby acquires a warmer tone) 'cared nothing for women', 'wasn't easily touched by women' (later text: 'reached or rubbed up by women'). He calls Hyacinth 'my pretty lad'. Hyacinth 'had always dreamed of some grand friendship and this was the best opening he had yet encountered'. Hyacinth's jealousy of Paul and the Princess has the same ambiguity as Rowland's of Roderick and Mary. Paul says: 'It's a rum go, your wanting me to make up to her. I shouldn't think it would suit your book' (nominally because of his interest in Christina, more vitally because of his interest in Paul). He assures Hyacinth that Christina means no more to him than the dome of St Paul's. Hyacinth 'passed his hand into the arm that was so much stronger and longer than his own and said with an imperceptible tremor of voice..."I'd go by what you tell me anywhere"' (the 'stronger and longer' is added in the New York text). Like Rowland's, Hyacinth's love is thwarted: chapter 35 ends as follows: 'he merged himself, resting happy for the time, in the consciousness that Paul was a grand person, that friendship was a purer feeling than love, and that there was an immense deal of affection between them. He didn't even observe at that moment that it was preponderantly on his own side'. The feeling is callow, redolent of late Victorian sentimentalism, and perhaps reflective of a certain juvenility in James himself. The conversation between Hyacinth and Paul regularly shifts from the register of personal feelings to that of the political conspiracy -- and one gleans the impression that the conspiracy can be seen as an allegory of the gay underground of the time. In The Tragic Muse, the homoerotic note in the portrayal of Gabriel Nash (based on Wilde), in Nick Dormer's fascination with him, and in the distaste and suspicion he arouses in Brigid and Julia are rather overt. Where the ambiguity comes in is, again, in the love relationship with the nominal object of heterosexual desire; its substantiality is put in question, notably by Julia's persistent doubts about the reality of Nick's love for her, despite his pretty convincing embraces. James loves 'false positions' and what better example of a false position than that of the gay man persuading himself he is experiencing heterosexual passion and marrying on the strength of it? The Rowland-Mary strand in Roderick Hudson can be seen as James's first full-length study of this false position.
William Wetmore Story and His Friends (1903), a bulky memoir based on a boxful of old letters, revisits the world of Roderick Hudson. It is a very relaxed performance, less a book to be read than one to dip into dreamily, of which the guiding thread is the fascination with the 'visitable past' that allows James positively to drool over every hint of atmosphere -- especially of Roman atmosphere -- in the documents he presents. I find hints that James's fascination with Shelley (the farthest recess of the past he is visiting) goes deep: a stray quote from Adonais and an anecdote about the widowed Mary Shelley not being received in society. The book is as much a supplement to 'The Aspern Papers' as to Roderick Hudson. But the most important after-echo of Roderick Hudson is The Ambassadors. James's palimpsest method of composition, whereby his novels are creative and critical rewritings of previous ones, can sometimes take the form of a rewriting of a previous work of his own. Such a relation exists between The Wings of the Dove and The Portrait of a Lady and between The Ambassadors and Roderick Hudson. Chad is a more competent, successful equivalent of Roderick; Little Bilham plays the admiring part of Sam Singleton; the femme fatale in the case, Marie de Vionnet, one of James's most beautiful creations, is a success to compensate for the failure of Christina, though she ends up as Chad's victim whereas Roderick was Christina's, and she is more conscious than Christina of the implacable finger of time; she is flanked by two other M---y heroines, Maria Gostrey, who fails to grow beyond her role of ficelle, and Mamie Pocock, who is only a conventional jeune fille, as is Jeanne Vionnet. Strether corresponds to Rowland, and his fascination centers on Chad (whose entrée in III ii, in the box of the Comédie-Française, is a moment of high intensity) rather than on Maria or even Marie.
When I first read Roderick Hudson, Rowland and Roderick would have been my elders. James himself was a young author and foregrounds the young characters; the older ones are viewed with a touch of stereotyping pathos (Mrs Hudson) or caricature. What role do age relations between author, characters, and reader play in the interpretation of fiction? I don't know of any critical discussion of this issue. Perhaps today we are more age-conscious, with our endless narcissistic discussions of mid-life crises, crises of young adulthood, ages of consent (or of liability to life imprisonment...), and in fact more agist in that we are always positioning others in function of their date of birth. This obsession with age may yield a fruitful critical perspective on literature. Closer now to Strether, I can tune in to his grief about 'the great desert of the years' (II ii, Norton edition, 63), his sense that 'what one loses one loses' (V ii, 132). The constant references to time -- moments, minutes, hours, years -- seem to be a deliberate effect, modelled on Flaubert's L'Éducation sentimentale. James signals it when he quotes, in reference to Chad's missives to his anxious mother, the inscription noted by Théophile Gautier on a Spanish clock: 'Omnes vulnerant, ultima necat' -- 'Each wounds, the last kills' (II ii, 67). In the opening two pages we have 'not to arrive till evening', 'to postpone for a few hours', 'he could still wait', he had 'given his afternoon and evening to the immediate', 'so early', 'the interval', 'the hour', 'the duration of delay' and these notations are kept up with the same regularity throughout. In Flaubert similar references conveyed a fearful sense of the clock ticking away as the protagonist squanders precious hours of youth, culminating in a devastating sentence admired by Marcel Proust: 'Des années passèrent' ('Years passed'). In an attempt to quantify this I checked the relative frequency of certain words in The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl, with inconclusive results、e.g. 'moment(ary)' -- Ambassadors 319; Bowl 348. The effect in James's novel is quieter; the movement of time is not now a threat to youthful promise but a sad confirmation of middle-aged loss. James and Proust both wrote critical commentary on Flaubert's masterpiece. À la recherche could be seen as Proust's rewriting of it and The Ambassadors could be James's version. Greatly to be desiderated is a comparative study of these two writers -- both so 'ferociously literary', both 'permanent adolescents' and closet epistemologists, both master-stylists, both vertiginous sounders of consciousness.
The title of The Ambassadors refers to Holbein's painting and its famous anamorphosis -- the blob at the foot of the splendidly dressed figures which when viewed laterally turns out to be a skull. Tempus edax is gnawing away all the time throughout the novel. E.M. Forster observed an hour-glass shape in its construction: just at mid-point Strether slips to the other side while it becomes clear that Chad is on his way to abandoning Madame de Vionnet. The last words of the first half of the novel indicate this shift: 'If he gives her up... he ought to be ashamed of himself' -- they are spoken by Strether. In the opening scene of the second half he observes Madame de Vionnet praying in Notre-Dame (praying not to lose Chad, no doubt) and joins her for lunch. They are allies throughout the second half -- and it is an alliance of two people similarly threatened -- the sands of time are running out for both of them.