The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XII. Henry James
§ 11. Later Novels
Along with The Spoils of Poynton may be mentioned, among the later novels, The Sacred Fount (1901) and What Maisie Knew (1897) as partaking somewhat of the nature of long short stories. What Maisie Knew is, by the way, in a class by itself, not merely for reasons of technique too special to be considered here, but also by reason of the great charm of the little girl—so naïve, so earnest, so much a lady and so much a girl, whose experience of evil is the subject of the story.
For the full-fledged novels of the later period, it will suffice to state briefly the themes of The Awkward Age (1899) and The Golden Bowl (1904)—without prejudice, however, to the special claims of The Ambassadors, the novel considered by James himself to be his most perfect work of art. The Awkward Age is concerned with the adjustment called for in a certain London circle by the emergence of the jeune fille and the consideration due her innocence of the world. The adjustments prove to be very extensive, but almost wholly subjective, and leaving things very much where they were before so far as any outward signs go. The book is almost literally all talk,—the talk of people the most “civilized” and “modern,” people the most shy of “vulgarity,” who have ever been put in a book. It is a fascinating performance—for those who have the patience to read it. The Golden Bowl is a study of a theme not unlike that of The Portrait of a Lady. It is the story of an American girl who marries an Italian prince, and the strategy by which she wins his loyal affection. The time covered is much shorter than that in the Portrait, the important characters only about half as many, the amount of action much smaller: and there is little change of scene as compared with the earlier novel. The length of the book is about the same; and the space saved by these various economies is devoted to the leisurely development of a single situation as it shaped itself gradually in the minds of those participating, the steady deepening of a sense of mystery and misgiving, the tightening of emotional tension, to a degree that means great drama for all readers for whom it does not mean a very dull book.
For many readers it certainly means a very dull book. In this recipe for a story almost everything has been discarded which was the staple of the earlier English novel, even of George Eliot,—exciting incident, dramatic situation, highly coloured character and dialogue, humour, philosophy, social comment. Indeed, we may almost say the story itself has been thrown out with the rest. For in the later novels and tales of James there is not so much a story told as a situation revealed; revealed to the characters and so to us; and the process of gradual revelation, the calculated “release” of one item after another—that is the plot. It is as if we were present at the painting of a picture by a distinguished artist, as if we were invited to follow the successive strokes by which this or that detail of his conception was made to bloom upon the canvas; and when the last bit of oil had been applied, he should turn to us and say “Now you have heard Sordello’s story told.” Some of us would be satisfied with the excitement of having assisted at such a function, considering also the picture which had thus come into being. Others,—and it is human nature, no doubt,—would exclaim in vexed bewilderment “But I have heard no story told!”