As Henry James himself recounts in the preface to his 1903 novel, The Ambassadors, first serialized in twelve installments of the North American Review, “never can a composition of this sort have sprung straighter from a dropped grain of suggestion.”
A few years earlier, a young American, Jonathan Sturges had shared an anecdote with James: At a Paris garden party, he’d approached a downcast William Dean Howells (also a novelist and the former editor of the Atlantic Monthly), and, on attempting to raise his spirits, found himself the audience of a spontaneous and heartfelt declaration by Howells, who urged him to rejoice in his youth and “Live!”
In James’s novel, the matriarch of an American industrial concern in Woollet, Massachusetts, has dispatched a middle-aged, paid subordinate Lambert Strether to Europe to retrieve her son Chad, with the understanding that should he succeed, she will marry him. Even as Strether courts disaster in succumbing (spiritually, mind you) to the lavish temptations of turn-of-the-century Paris, he grasps that they are no longer his to claim and, at a similar party, he turns and confides in his companion, a young artist:
Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had? This place and these impressions – mild as you may find them to wind a man up so; all my impressions of Chad and of people I’ve seen at his place – well, have had their abundant message for me, have just dropped that into my mind. I see it now. I haven’t done so enough before – and now I’m old; too old at any rate for what I see. Oh, I do see, at least; and more than you’d believe or I can express. It’s too late. And it’s as if the train had fairly waited at the station for me without my having had the gumption to now it was there. Now I hear its faint receding whistle miles and miles down the line. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. The affair – I mean the affair of life – couldn’t, no doubt, have been different for me; for it’s at the best a tin mould, either fluted and embossed, with ornamental excrescences, or else smooth and dreadfully plain, into which, a helpless jelly, one’s consciousness is poured – so that one ‘takes’ the form, as the great cook says, and is more or less compactly held by it; one lives in fine as one can. Still, one has the illusion of freedom; therefore don’t be, like me, without the memory of that illusion.
Strether, it turns out, is prepared to sacrifice much in struggling to claim even the “memory of that illusion.” Initially charmed by the clever and lively American expatriate Maria Gostrey, he finds the irresistible allure of Paris itself embodied in the unattainable Madame de Vionnet, the very woman whose entanglement with Chad threatens to block Strether from completing his ‘diplomatic’ mission.