Henry James on the ‘Future of the Novel’

It arrived, in truth, the novel, late at self-consciousness; but it has done its utmost ever since to make up for lost opportunities.

So wrote Henry James on April 11, 1900, in an essay in The New York Times (PDF) on the future of the novel. He’d begun work on The Ambassadors the previous summer and, around the same time, sat for this portrait by his cousin Ellen Emmet.

The contemporary author David Lodge, in his own novel about James’s life, Author, Author, suggests that James’s prose is “designed to defeat paraphrase. It is like a fine-spun web, flexible and delicate, designed to catch meaning rather than to express it. You have to negotiate the web, spread yourself over it, experience it to get the meaning. Stand back from the web and you can hardly trace its structure, its threads are so fine; try to condense it and you risk destroying it. Still, we will try.”

And so will I – because the essay’s print is small and smudged, not to mention considerably cramped in its final paragraphs, perhaps the turn-of-the-century remedy for an overly long article…?

Regardless, James, like Kipling, must be read slowly. Gallop at the peril of your own understanding and reading pleasure!

On the rise of the novel:

The flood at present swells and swells, threatening the whole field of letters, as would often seem, with submersion. It plays, in what may be called the passive consciousness of many persons, a part that directly marches with the rapid increase of the multitude able to possess itself in one way and another of the book.

On the important role to be played by unmarried women:

Nothing is so striking in a survey of this field, and nothing to be so much borne in mind, as that the larger part of the great multitude that sustains the teller and the publisher of tales is constituted by boys and girls: by girls in especial, if we apply the term to the later stages of the life of the innumerable women who, under modern arrangements, increasingly fail to marry – fail, apparently, even largely to desire to. It is not too much to say of many of these that they live in a great measure by the immediate aid of the novel – confining the question for the moment to the fact of consumption alone.

On the seductive charms of fiction:

When we do respond to the appeal, when we are caught in the trap, we are held and played upon; so that how in the world can there not be a future, however late in the day, for a contrivance possessed of this precious secret? The more we think of it the more we feel that the prose picture can never be at the end of its tether until it looses its sense of what it can do. It can do simply everything and that is its strength and its life. Its plasticity, its elasticity, are infinite; there is no color, no extension it may not take from the nature of its subject or the temper of its craftsman. It has the extraordinary advantage – a piece of luck scarcely credible – that, while capable of giving an impression of the highest perfection and the rarest finish, it moves in a luxurious independence of rules and restrictions.

On sex in fiction:

I cannot so much as imagine Dickens and Scott without the “lovemaking” left, as the phrase is, out. They were, to my perception, absolutely right – from the moment their attention to it could absolutely be perfunctory – practically not to deal with it… The difficulty lies in the fact that two of the great conditions have changed. The novel is older and so are the young… It is certain that there is no real health for any art – I am not speaking, of course, of any mere industry – that does not move a step in advance of its furtherest follower…

It bears on this that as nothing is more salient in English life to-day, to fresh eyes, than the revolution taking place in the position and outlook of women – and taking place much more deeply in the quiet than even the noise on the surface demonstrates – so we may very well yet see the female elbow itself, kept in increasing activity by the play of the pen, smash with final resonance the window all this time most superstitiously closed… It is the opinion of some observers that when women do obtain a free hand they will not repay their long debt to the precautionary attitude of men by unlimited consideration for the natural delicacy of the latter.


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