A Francophile, steeped in French literature since childhood, Henry James treasured the friendships he formed in French literary circles as a young man. The 900 pages of critical commentary he devoted to French writers show him fascinated above all with the flesh-and-blood personalities of his favorite authors: Balzac (121 pp.), George Sand, Flaubert, Alphonse Daudet, and in fifth place, quantitatively, Théophile Gautier. In his writing on English and American authors one rarely finds this intensity of personal engagement. Hawthorne is the exception (168 pp.) along with George Eliot (104 pp.): both are strong precursors of James, second only to Balzac in that role.
James’s five critical notices on Gautier date from January 1872, April 1873, October and November 1874, and July 1875. The first review illustrates Gautier’s gift for ‘light descriptive prose,’ ‘light analytical description’ (FW 353) by translating several passages from Tableaux de Siège, and finds charming ‘the imperturbable levity of a mind utterly unhaunted by the metaphysics of things’ (354). James injects a note of severity as he registers that Gautier’s ‘power of thought has declined’ and notes the contrast between his ‘descriptive brio and grace and the feeble note of reflection which from time to time crops through it,’ finding in his final chapter ‘a moral levity so transcendent and immeasurable as to amount really to a psychological curiosity. It is a strange spectacle to see exquisite genius conditioned, as it were, upon such moral aridity’ (355).
One recalls T. S. Eliot’s famous comment on James (in The Little Review, August, 1918): ‘He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.’ As Eliot well understood, James’s mind was haunted by ‘the metaphysics of things,’ which he approached with a subtlety that lay beyond the manipulation of ‘ideas.’ Even Flaubert did not meet James’ ideal of intellectual depth. ‘Flaubert might have a “big intellectual temperament,” but Henry distinctly felt that he himself could “easily – more than easily – see all round him intellectually.”’ Appreciating Flaubert as ‘painter of aspects and sensations’ James thought that ‘as a painter of ideas and of moral states he was “insignificant”’ (Edel, 226).
The second article contains James’s warmest praise of Gautier, prompted by the need to respond to his death and also to champion a figure to whom justice had not been done. He wrote to William James from Rome on Jan 8, 1873: ‘I thank you for the trouble of writing to sustain T. S. Perry’s request to do something for the North American Review about Gautier. I immediately wrote to him that I wouldn’t undertake anything on the large scale you recommend, having just now neither the inclination nor the opportunity (lacking his volumes) to re-read him all, plume en main; but I shall do something shorter which I hope he may make serve’ (Letters I, 323).
In the article, repressing ‘a vague consciousness of lurking objections,’ and making the ‘large allowances’ the occasion encouraged, he declares: ‘The beauty and variety of our present earth and the insatiability of our earthly temperament were his theme, and we doubt whether these things have ever been placed in a more flattering light… His style certainly is one of the latest fruits of time; but his mental attitude before the universe had an almost Homeric simplicity’ (356-7). James seems slightly conflicted between celebrating Gautier as an innocent pagan and deploring his confinement of vision to ‘our present earth’ – a religious stricture that would be untypical of James in maturer years.
He again wonders at Gautier’s ability to handle descriptive prose so lightly: ‘the image, the object, the scene, stands arrested by his phrase with the wholesome glow of truth overtaken’ (358). The lightness and brightness of James’s own prose may owe something to Gautier; he certainly would not have acquired it from Balzac. But in James, apart from his travel writing, purely descriptive prose has little place; everything is functional to concerns of character and plot. Yet James does sustain a keen, often delighted attention to the surfaces of things: dress, houses, furniture.
Gautier tells us that Balzac, conscious of his exclusion from the Romantic pantheon because of the prosaic nature of his subjects and the apparent banality of his style, ‘took horrible pains to arrive at style, and, in his concern for correctness, consulted people who were a hundred times his inferiors’ (Souvenirs romantiques, 110). James would never know such a complex. If he became the greatest prose stylist of his day, it was not the result of laboring for effect. He followed instead the basic ideal of prose writing: to express clearly and fully what one wishes to say. His capacious, always cogitating mind, or continuus motus animi, imprinted its rhythm in the recesses of his prose, giving it a vibrancy that is far removed from Gautier’s graceful assemblages of picturesque detail.
Again the reviewer underlines Gautier’s intellectual limitations. Gautier’s relish for exotic words (something James never emulated) and his Rabelaisian lists ‘are not the tokens of a man of thought, and Gautier was none… In his various records of travel, we remember, he never takes his seat in a railway train without making a neat little speech on the marvels of steam and the diffusion of civilization… These genial commonplaces are Gautier’s only tributes to philosophy’ (358). Clearly the young James thinks of himself as a philosophical novelist, capable of vying with his elder brother William in a different medium.
Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) is ‘a painful exhibition of the prurience of the human mind’ and ‘how it came to be written it is of small profit at this time to inquire. In certain lights the book is almost ludicrously innocent, and we are at a loss what to think of those critics who either hailed or denounced it as a serious profession of faith. With faith of any sort Gautier strikes us as slenderly furnished’ (359). James goes on to quote all fourteen stanzas of the poem ‘L’art’ from Émaux et Camées as ‘the only very distinct statement of intellectual belief that we remember in his pages’ (359), ‘admirable verses… tinged with intellectual passion’ (361). The conclusion of this poem could have been embraced by the young James as his own profession of faith:
Tout passe. -- L'art robuste
Seul a l’éternité.
Survit a la cité.
Et la médaille austère
Que trouve un laboureur
Révèle un empereur.
Les dieux mêmes meurent,
Mais les vers souverains
Plus forts que les airains.
Sculpte, lime, ciselle;
Que ton rêve flottant
Dans le bloc résistant.
All passes. – Robust art
Alone has eternity.
Survives the city.
And the austere medal
That a plowman finds
Reveals an emperor.
The gods themselves die,
But the sovereign verses
Stronger than brass.
Sculpt, file, chisel;
Let your floating dream
In the resistant block.
James finds a model in Gautier, someone whose lucidity he can learn from: ‘you have only to turn his pages long enough to find the perfect presentment of our own comparatively dim and unshaped vision’ (FW, 363). More than any of his poetic or fictional works, ‘his “Voyage en Espagne,” his “Constantinople,” his “Italia,” and his “Voyage en Russie,” seem to us his most substantial literary titles’ (363). James enthuses on the stylistic variety of these works, and the author’s capacity to handle the ugly with the same brio as the attractive. Gautier’s descriptions of bullfights ‘show to what lengths l’art pour l’art can carry the kindliest tempered of men’ (365). Gautier’s novels are limited, because ‘he cared for nothing and knew nothing in men and women but the epidermis’ (366). An exception is Le Capitaine Fracasse (1863): ‘In this case, by a special extension of power, the author has made the dramatic interest as lively as the pictorial, and lodged good human hearts beneath the wonderfully-painted rusty doublets and tarnished satins of his maskers’ (370). Gautier’s frankness about the body is shocking to English taste, but James acquits it of sordidness: ‘For any one who has glanced into the dusky background of Parisian life, with its sallow tones and close odours…, there is something almost touchingly heroic in Gautier’s fixed conception of sublime good looks’ (367).
The last publication on Gautier is a devastating review of the English translation of Constantinople: ‘It is to be hoped that if it is intended to offer a translation of the “Voyage en Espagne,” the services of some other literary artist than Mr. Gould will be obtained. A good translation might be made by a person who would give care, and taste, and imagination to it; but to subject the work to the process which has spoilt his unfortunate “Constantinople” would be simply cruel’ (FW 389).
In 1888, James returns to Gautier as he appears in the Goncourt diaries. Gautier ‘was a charming genius, he was an admirable, a delightful writer. His vision was all his own and his brush was worthy of his vision. He knew the French color-box as well as if he had ground the pigments, and it may really be said of him that he did grind a great many of them’ (FW 421). James thought of his own art, too, in painterly terms, and his praise could equally apply to it. James’s cherished ‘scenic principle’ also included an element of pictorial composition, in which the model of Gautier’s light, bright and lucid descriptions stood him in good stead. One aspect to this is keen attention to the details of female dress and fashion (see Hughes), a quality he shares with Gautier, though he probably did not know Gautier’s recently rediscovered 1858 essay on fashion (Gautier 1993).
James goes on, once again, to lament Gautier’s lack of ideas: ‘Flaubert sat, intellectually, in the same everlasting twilight, and the misfortune is even greater for him, for his was the greater spirit’ (FW 421). James is bemused by the salaciousness of Gautier’s reported conversation and somewhat envious of a censorship regime that allows it to be published: ‘An attempt to reproduce Gautier’s conversation in English encounters obstacles on the threshold. In this case we must burn pastilles even to read the rest of the sketch [of Louis XIV], and we cannot translate it at all’ (FW 422). Gautier himself took pains to keep from public view his flagrant erotica, circulated in the milieu presided over by the witty Madame Sabatier. Having three daughters, by two women, to support, he could not afford to run foul of the French censorship, as Flaubert and Baudelaire had done for works now counted as supreme classics. The bold amoralism of the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, imitated by Oscar Wilde in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), doomed his quest for one of the forty armchairs of the Académie Française later in life.
In essays of 1893 and 1902 we again hear of Gautier as seen by Flaubert (FW 303-4, 320). James’s later silence about Gautier may indicate that he had become unimportant for him; he had fully absorbed ‘the lesson of Gautier,’ and had nothing to add; whereas he could still find motivation to lecture on ‘the lesson of Balzac, all over the United States in 1905. Gautier’s reputation no longer needed to be defended insofar as his reception by Swinburne and Wilde had made him a patron saint of the esthetic movement. James probably found their cult of Gautier irritating. In 1875 he had accused Swinburne of ‘flagrant levity and perversity of taste… in alluding jauntily and en passant to Gautier’s “Mademoiselle de Maupin” as “the most perfect and exquisite book of modern times”’ (American Writers, 1280). Swinburne went further in his sonnet on that novel: ‘This is the golden book of spirit and sense,/The holy book of beauty’ (Swinburne, 97).
James first met Flaubert in December 1875, and though he had reviewed La Tentation de Saint Antoine in 1874 as ‘a ponderous failure,’ one of several ‘unmistakably still-born’ works marked by a ‘fatal charmlessness,’ by a writer who had ‘outliv[ed] his genius,’(FW 289-90), the figure of Flaubert gripped James’s imagination and nourished two substantial essays in 1893 and 1902. Just as Flaubert peppers L’Éducation sentimentale with references to time and its passing, so that every postponement and even harmless phrases like ‘a week later’ or ‘the following Thursday’ convey the terror of time sapping the protagonist’s being, so does James in The Ambassadors (1903), his novel about time (which has been seen as having the structure of an hour-glass), from the opening paragraph (‘not to arrive till evening,’ ‘postpone for a few hours,’ ‘feel he could still wait’); there are similar effects in ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ (1903). But James’s handling of time is in the key of retrospect and regret, whereas Flaubert more terrifyingly tracks its insidious action in the quick of forward-moving existence. Otherwise Flaubert, too, was of little use to James as a model.
If there is an influence of Gautier on James’s own writing, it should be sought first in the earliest stories and travel writing, culminating in Roderick Hudson in 1875. When James portrays cold-hearted esthetes, one may expect echoes of Gautier’s l’art pour l’art and its English reception to occur. Gilbert Osmond is the most chilling character of this type. His grim Roman palace, where he incarcerates his wife and daughter, may owe something the Egyptian tomb evoked so powerfully in the ‘prologue’ to Gautier’s Le Roman de la momie (1857). Geneviève van den Bogaert notes that this novel ‘in appearance a simple historical evocation, an impersonal work of art, is in reality an avowal, the confidence of a sensibility, and thus a romantic work’ (Gautier 1966:22). The monumental sublimity of Gautier’s Egypt has at its heart a deep ennui, such as emanates from Osmond.
In The Tragic Muse (1890) there is an echo of ‘L’art,’ as quoted above, when Nick Dormer reflects on portraits in the National Gallery (see Berland, 179):
These were the things most inspiring, in the sense that while generations, while worlds had come and gone, they seemed far most to prevail and survive and testify… Empires and systems and conquests had rolled over the globe and every kind of greatness had passed away, but the beauty of the great pictures had known nothing of death or change.
The name of the sculptor Gloriani, who appears both in Roderick Hudson and The Ambassadors, may recall that of the illustrator Paul Gavarni (1804-1866), admired by the Goncourt brothers. In his circle, as in Gautier’s there is no talk of politics. ‘That’s half the battle here – that you can never hear politics. We don’t talk them’ (Ambassadors V 1). He has ‘a medal-like Italian face… in which time told only as tone and consecration’ (V 1). Madame de Vionnet’s head recalls ‘an old precious medal’ (VI 3).
James’s preternatural tales may owe something to Gautier, who was ‘profoundly dominated by the obsession of the fantastic’ (van den Bogaert, Gautier 1966:20).
Another poem of Gautier’s that struck James was the one read to him by Flaubert so memorably:
Flaubert’s own voice is clearest to me from the uneffaced sense of a winter week-day afternoon when I found him by exception alone and when something led to his reading me aloud, in support of some judgment he had thrown off, a poem of Théophile Gautier’s. He cited it as an example of verse intensely and distinctively French, and French in its melancholy, which neither Goethe nor Heine nor Leopardi, neither Pushkin nor Tennyson nor, as he said, Byron, could at all have matched in kind. He converted me at the moment to this perception, alike by the sense of the thing and by his large utterance of it; after which it is dreadful to have to confess not only that the poem was then new to me, but that, hunt as I will in every volume of its author, I am never able to recover it. This is perhaps after all happy, causing Flaubert’s own full tone, which was the note of the occasion, to linger the more unquenched. But for the rhyme in fact I could have believed him to be spouting to me something strange and sonorous of his own. (FW 320)
Curiously, the poem in question, ‘Pastels,’ is echoed in the two novels James had just written: The Sacred Fount (1901) and The Ambassadors, where Mademoiselle Vionnet’s face is described as ‘a faint pastel in an oval frame’ (as noted by Edel).
Souvenirs romantiques. Paris: Garnier, 1929.
Le Roman de la momie. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1966.
De la mode. Paris: Actes Sud, 1993.
Romans, contes et nouvelles. Paris: Gallimard, ‘Bibliothèque de la Pléiade,’ 2002.
FW = Literary Criticism: French Writers, Other European Writers, The Prefaces to the New York Edition. New York: Library of America, 1984.
Letters, ed. Leon Edel. London: Macmillan; Harvard University Press, 1974-1984.
Alwyn Berland, Culture and Conduct in the Novels of Henry James. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Leon Edel, Henry James: The Conquest of London 1870–1881. New York: Lippincott, 1962.
Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Journal des Goncourt, ed. Jean-Louis Cabanès. Paris: Champion, 2005.
Clair Hughes, Henry James and the Art of Dress. London: Palgrave, 2001.
Algernon Swinburne, Poems and Ballads: Second Series. London: Chatto & Windus, 1878.
Oscar Wilde, Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.