The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XII. Henry James
§ 10. Short Stories
In the course of six years between the first and second periods no novel of James was published; but during that interim came the culmination of his long activity as a short-story writer. It was his tendency always to subordinate incident to character, to subordinate character as such to situation—o the relations among the characters; and in situation or character, to prefer something rather out of the ordinary, some aspect or type not too obviously interesting but calling for insight and subtlety in the interpretation. Good examples, in the short story, of this predilection are The Pupil, The Real Thing, and The Altar of the Dead, all appearing in the early nineties; and a little later, The Beldonald Holbein and The Turn of the Screw, most haunting of ghost stories. In The Beldonald Holbein the beautiful great lady has chosen for her companion a supposedly unattractive middle-aged American woman, who will admirably serve as a foil to her beauty. But certain painters of her acquaintance having discovered that the foil is herself remarkably “beautiful”—that is, distinguished, significant of feature, a subject worthy of Holbein—it becomes necessary to send her back home and get another companion with less character engraved upon her countenance. How one of the artists gets his revenge by painting Lady Beldonald in all the splendour of her mediocrity is not the point of interest; the point of interest is the fine discrimination shown by artist—and author, and reader—in evidence of their superior good taste.
Each tale of James is thus an “initiation” into some social or artistic or spiritual value not obvious to the vulgar. And each tale is a quiet picture, a social study, rather than the smart anecdote prescribed by our doctors of the “short-story.” James is not rigorous in his limitation of the short story to the magazine length; so that his tales are as likely to take the form of the more leisurely nouvelle as of the brief and sketchy conte. And so it was not surprising to find a tale intended originally for a magazine short story enlarging itself by insensible degrees into what is practically a novel. Such was the case with The Spoils of Poynton, one of his finest stories, which has the length of a novel, together with the restricted subject-matter, the continuity, and economy of the short story.
But these traits, it is clear, had already grown to be James’s ideals for a narrative of whatever length. They were the ideals of many of the foreign novelists whose personal influence had swayed him in Paris; and to a considerable extent those of George Eliot, whose influence upon him must have been mediate, working through her French imitators, as well as emanating directly from her own work. More and more, serious novelists were denying themselves the breezy and picturesque variety of materials, the broad free stroke, of the old masters, in favour of a dramatic limitation, a dramatic closeness of weave, a scientific minuteness of detail, an intimate psychological notation, and a pictorial (as distinguished from picturesque) consistency of tone—all of which we find in their extremest development in the later novels of James. This is what makes the international character of his art. Note should be taken, of course, of a certain fussiness and long-windedness, as well as a certain tendency to the abstract, which are partly to be set down to the score of personal idiosyncrasy. But in general he is clearly following the ideals of George Eliot, of Flaubert, of Turgenev. Perhaps too we should admit the suggestion of F. M. Hueffer, who would trace back the lineage of James, through Stendhal and other French writers, ultimately to Richardson, the early master of the technique of manifold fine strokes, of the close and sentimental study of souls.