A private life of Henry James : two women and his art /
Lyndall Gordon.
1st American ed.
New York : W.W. Norton, 1999.
xi, 500 p. : ill.
More Details
New York : W.W. Norton, 1999.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

A Biographic Mystery

In April 1894, a middle-aged gentleman, bearing a load of dresses, was rowed to the deepest part of the Venetian lagoon. A strange scene followed: he began to drown the dresses, one by one. There were a good many, well-made, tasteful, and all dark, suggesting a lady of quiet habits and some reserve. The gondolier's pole would have been useful for pushing them under the still water. But the dresses refused to drown. One by one they rose to the surface, their busts and sleeves swelling like black balloons. Purposefully, the gentleman pushed them under, but silent, reproachful, they rose before his eyes.

    The dresses belonged to a writer, widely read at that time, called Constance Fenimore Woolson. She was a great-niece of James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and other frontier tales, and the first American writer to achieve worldwide fame. `Fenimore', as she was known to choice friends, had combined Western vigour with the quiet manner of a patrician family strongly rooted in the New World. In 1879 she had settled in Europe, and a few months later met a fellow-expatriate, the distinguished but less popular novelist Henry James. The course of their long friendship was rudely broken when, on the night of 24 January 1894, Fenimore, aged fifty-three, had fallen to her death from her bedroom window in Venice.

    A mystery has always surrounded this death, but James believed it was no accident. It was suicide. He, alone, was certain. What exactly it was that James knew of Fenimore which convinced him, remains obscure, blurred by his claims that Fenimore, contrary to appearance, had been mad -- beyond help. The very urgency of his repeated denials of responsibility calls attention to their tie. So does his attempt to drown her clothes. Henry James was a bachelor of fifty-one at this time, with a high forehead, accentuated by receding hair and a high nose with the faintest bend to it. He had a mobile, sensitive mouth, with a fuller lower lip, firm, not petulant. It was exceptionally wide; parallel to the edge of his eyes. In repose, it would have shown a long line, slicing through the lower half of his face, had it not been hidden by a brown beard -- a natural-looking growth, neither unruly nor too clipped. He dressed in English clothes with too much care to be an Englishman. Some thought he looked like a Russian count; others, a bishop. What friends noticed first were the eyes: light grey and extraordinarily keen (when they were not veiled by his lids), looking at them with complicit amusement or with scorching intensity as though he could see into their secret selves. He was known for explorations of the inward life: the unvoiced exchange and the drama of hidden motives. These were his skills, as well as a power, beyond that of any other man, to plumb the unknown potentialities of women. Two women, in particular, provoked his attention -- a creative attention which claimed them through their untimely deaths.

    Fenimore was the second of these two women. The first was his cousin Mary Temple, known as Minny, who had died in 1870 at the early age of twenty-four. Where Fenimore was part of his middle years in Europe, Minny had been the real-life `heroine' of his youth in Newport, Rhode Island. James saw her as a free spirit, `a plant of pure American growth', amongst the polished ladies of their time. The very air of Newport was `vocal with her accents, alive with her movements'. Fenimore was free in a different way: a solitary, mature woman who pursued her ambitions with an intentness that matched his own. In her, James encountered the kind of writer with whom he might share, now and then, the privacy of the artist.

    The freedoms of these two women went masked, as most nineteenth-century women were masked (whether they knew it or not) by the demands of social consensus: publicly, they fitted themselves to approved models of womanhood. Fenimore appeared to everyone as the needy gentlewoman she in fact was, and this helped to establish her in her career. Her need did her no harm with editors, who found they could combine profit with gallantry towards a lady with a widowed mother and broken-down brother. She disarmed editors and fellow-writers with modest, self-deprecating letters which go out of their way to stress how inferior was the fortune of a single woman who must write for her living to that of a cherished wife. It is uncertain to what extent she actually believed this in the loneliness she certainly endured, but her best stories subvert contemporary pieties about wifehood and womanly dependence. For herself, Fenimore was strong, serious, and determined to put her work first. She published fifty-eight stories (amongst them her best work), five novels, poems, and travel-writing.

    Where the freedoms of Fenimore passed scrutiny in the guise of retiring gentlewoman, the freedoms of Mary Temple were acceptable in the guise of vivacious young girl. Intelligent men, all destined for public distinction, surround her in the woods of New Hampshire or on Newport verandahs. Their eyes follow her advance in her buttoned, high-necked dress. She holds her slight form erect as she hugs her arms. Her eagerness for ideas, her directness, and wide laugh showing all her teeth, seemed to Henry James the embodiment of innocence and untried youth. Yet, with others -- his brother, the future psychologist William James, and a law graduate, John Chipman Gray -- she was different: less playful, more troubled. Overwhelming questions about human possibility in the face of fate disturb her letters to these men. Why was she less serious towards Henry James? Why did she make fewer demands on her favourite, her `dearest Harry', who was the fittest to gauge her depth?

    Mary Temple left behind the mystery of those with promise who die young. An unfinished life cries out for form: this challenge took hold of James with Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady (1881), Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove (1902), and in a memoir he published in 1914. There was something uncategorisable in Minny. Like his brother William and other gifted men, he saw an uncommon spirit behind the girlish vivacity; but the uncommon was, of course, unwelcome to guardians of gender. Henry's mother -- small-minded Mrs James, the ruling angel in the James house -- deplored the expanse of Minny's laugh, while Henry's sister, Alice, seething with correct repression, scorned her eager response to every idea. Given the obscurity and brevity of her existence, it is hard to find the woman behind the fictions. Barring access is the safe label of girlish charm or the unsafe label of `aggressive': one implies that Mary Temple knew her place as a woman; the other, that she did not. Yet her questions -- a dying plea to James or query about the purpose of living -- open up an order of existence not to be defined in reductive ways.

    Fenimore began to publish in 1870, the year of Minny's death. Though she differed in many ways from Minny, she provided a second model of independence. Her looks displeased her, or so she said, but photographs reveal delicate features, curly hair, and a classic profile, set off by a narrow velvet band about her throat. As a `local colorist' of the latter half of the nineteenth century, Constance Fenimore Woolson did participate in a genre going out of fashion at the time of her death, yet as a watcher of women's lives -- the single woman, the exile, the artist -- she now invites renewed attention. Her innovative fables of artists precede those of Henry James.

    This biography will draw out these two women in their own terms, marking the points at which they intersect with the shaping consciousness of Henry James. It is easy to see how he put his stamp on them, and made them `Jamesian'. The mystery is why he kept them under wraps: his reasons for doing so, and for the weird behaviour which the circumstances of Fenimore's death provoked, remain to be uncovered. He did not forget them; on the contrary, they return obsessively in his works.

    James is the most elusive and unwilling of subjects. He rejected the prospect of biography, not only to protect his privacy, but also, we might guess, because he was so much a biographer himself -- he well knew the excitements and dangers of biographic power. He drew out others with intent curiosity. In his attaching way, he `preyed ... upon living beings', as T. S. Eliot recognised. His experiments in human chemistry, `those curious precipitates and explosive gases which are suddenly formed by the contact of mind with mind', have in them `something terrible, as disconcerting as quicksand', which make the character he comes to know, `uneasily the victim of a merciless clairvoyance'. His awareness of buried possibilities, the gifts of the obscure, and gaps between the facts, invites the infinite challenge of his own life.

    To approach James at precisely the points he screened raises the issue of the biographer's right to know. Questionable as this is, it does grant access to a more compelling and dangerous character, as well as a new reading of the major novels and a host of puzzling tales. James was a man of secrets, sunk from sight a hundred years ago. Why did he lock away his photograph of Minny Temple? Why, when ten and a half thousand letters of Henry James were allowed to survive, did he make a pact with Fenimore to destroy their correspondence? No other such pact is known. And why, when Fenimore died, did he travel all the way to Venice to ensure secrecy in April 1894? Sinking her dresses at that time was not, I believe, a casual act, but sign of a strange bond which James guarded with discretion, and which suicide almost exposed. At the height of their relationship, in 1887, they shared a house on the hill of Bellosguardo near Florence. Few knew of this arrangement, and it didn't last -- one reason being the scope for scandal. Two other stays abroad were kept wholly secret, as were many short visits. And we might wonder, too, why James, as an old man, forty-four years after Mary Temple's death, destroyed a batch of her letters -- philosophic letters, written with undimmed spirit in the face of death -- after he had used what he wanted for his memoir.

    Researchers are increasingly aware `that interpretation has already been built into the documents allowed to survive'. Yet some residue of an alternative story does remain: amongst the leavings, four letters from Mary Temple to Henry James, and a large batch of her letters to John Chipman Gray, the ones James destroyed but Mrs William James had the forethought to copy before handing them over. Her copy is amongst the James papers at Harvard together with an unnoticed batch of letters from James to Minny's niece Bay Emmet, which bear on the closest fictional re-creation of Minny in The Wings of the Dove . In Ohio, there are two records of Fenimore's last days where facts fit with revealing clarity. Four letters from Fenimore to James in the early 1880s fell through the net, while many letters from Fenimore to others lie buried amongst the papers of various men of some importance in their day.

    James's own letters are, for the most part, too public, too busy, too fulsome to give much away. Now and then, he cast off this social being with raging impatience. The crowded engagements, the comedies of manners in his letters and their effusions of fondness, were a façade for the private action of this most private of lives. His fables of a writer's life instruct us to start with the work. `My dear sir, the best interviewer's the best reader' is the message of a literary lion for a pleading journalist. `This last book ... is full of revelations.'

    `Revelations?' pants the journalist.

    `The only kind that count. It tells you with a perfection that seems to me quite final all the author thinks ...'

    James tells us that he understood women almost better than we understood ourselves. `You see what I am,' says the Jamesian woman to the Jamesian man who befriends her in one of the novels. Minny and Fenimore, and in a sicker way his brilliant sister, Alice, allowed James to `see' their frustration, their fund of unused `life', their alertness to the unspoken, and unanswered, passions -- as though they had agreed to participate in the form he gave to the potent shadow in which women of the past lived; as though he understood, with them, that what is distinctive in women's lives is precisely what is hidden, not only from the glare of publicity, but from the daylight aspect which women present for their protection -- or, it may be, for the protection of those who can't face what they are. James was irresistible to women because he met authenticity without fear, possessed himself of it, and put it out to play on the stage of his imagination. His knowing, supremely intelligent, ageless, and -- yes -- irresistible, is what makes James increasingly pertinent.

    It was necessary to his purpose to engage certain women in ways which remain to be defined. The man who did so is not the socialite James who is exhaustively documented, nor the aesthete, nor the detached observer, nor the Anglicised expatriate -- all faces of the legendary Master. Instead, we shall follow an inchoate, troubled man who remained in the making to the end of his life. As such he had two rules: art must have passion, and it must be hard as nails, `hard as the heart of the writer'. This James is not passive; he is wilful, even ruthless, and stranger than he appeared respectably clothed under an umbrella of benevolence. The real James remained an American: a visionary moralist, he did not indulge in the European vogue for decadence. He was not a cynic. With him, virtue is seen to hold in a period when art-for-art's sake debunks Victorian morality, and Modernism with its array of ineffectual men -- Prufrock, Petroushka, Chaplin's little tramp -- takes the stage. The vision of James has outlived the disillusion of the twentieth century; as the Moderns move farther into the past, he is with us, more than ever our contemporary. Only now do we approach the kinds of manhood and womanhood he proposed, not viable in his own age, but possible -- essential -- in ours. A reinvention of manhood began with Civil War tales where wounded, dying men discover a higher form of manhood than may be found on the battlefield or in the drawing-room. He marked the capacity of men and women to transcend themselves in the face of mortality. The otherness of women made them a focus for an alternative to the pressure of wartime ideals of masculinity: this alternative manhood could take on qualities traditionally assigned to women.

    James looked beyond the Woman Question, as it was framed in his time, the question of the vote and education in the nineteenth century, the question of professional advance in the twentieth century. When Isabel Archer `affronts her destiny', she approaches the evolutionary frontier with the question of woman's nature, yet to be addressed. The depths of her nature are `a very out-of-the-way place, between which and the surface, communication was interrupted'. James wished to promote the power of innocence, a conscious innocence without ignorance or naivety. The twentieth century favoured The Turn of the Screw which toys with perversions of innocence, but his extraordinary women, Isabel Archer and Milly Theale, await a farther future -- Milly's wings bear her beyond her lifetime.

    The women who adored James and whom he came to know in his special way were not submissive, not the helpless muse. Minny and Fenimore had the strength not to relinquish their sense of being. Minny was freer, more familiar with James than anyone would be again. And Fenimore undertook a dialogue with him in stories that re-create him as a beguiling authority who proves a destroyer. Their friction fed on gender reinforced by the antagonisms of popular and high art.

    Alone, it seems, Mary Temple and Constance Fenimore Woolson were bold enough to cross the uncrossable boundary of that private life. Somewhere lies the clue to what they gave him. Henry James was not shielding some form of love; he was fading out the ghostly companions of his art. And this may have been necessary because he did not acknowledge them, openly and visibly, as they perhaps wished and certainly deserved. If there was love, it was not the usual love of men and women but an intuitive closeness that remained unspoken.

    We approach, here, ties more intimate than sex, closer than those of family and friends. Genius appears to soar above such ties, a lone phenomenon, but this is romantic myth, perpetuated by James himself in the rarefied solitude of a writer in `The Private Life'. Genius, though, cannot emerge in a void. Here is a starting point: to challenge the myth of the artist with a truer story of what we might call, for want of a better word, collaboration. To some extent, of course, James invented himself, but he could not have written as he did without partners -- female partners, posthumous partners -- in that unseen space in which life is transformed into art.

Copyright © 1998 Lyndall Gordon. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 1998-11-15:
Noted literary biographer Gordon (e.g., Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life) approaches James through two major women in his life: cousin Minny Temple and writer Constance Fenimore Woolson.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-03-01:
Sitting in a gondola in the Venice Lagoon, in a macabre gesture of mourning, Henry James attempts to drown a boatload of elegant, austere dresses; one by one, they obstinately float up to the surface. So begins Gordon's biography, which concerns the muselike influence of two women on the great American novelist. And the two women in questionÄJames's fetching and vivacious cousin Mary Temple and the brilliant, if mercurial, novelist and story writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, great-niece of James Fenimore CooperÄmake quite compelling characters. Gordon presents a strong case for the impact of Temple and Woolson (commonly called "Fenimore") on James's artistic development, effectively documenting how James translated his emotionally charged relationships with the women, both doomed to untimely deaths, into his fiction. Gordon identifies aspects of Temple in such James creations as Isabel Archer and Milly Thrale, and sees the odd Florentine m‚nage of James and Woolson as the stuff out of which his Italian tales (such as "The Aspern Papers") were made. In addition to detailed and intimate individual pictures, Gordon (Charlotte Bront‰: A Passionate Life), in her group portrait of "Harry, Minny and Connie," captures their milieu, which might be called the New England aristocracy of the last century. Her habit of trying to sound just like a late Victorian writer herselfÄwhether by reading into her subjects' physiognomies their exact personality traits, or in phrases like "the freedoms of Fenimore passed scrutiny in the guise of retiring gentlewoman"Äcan be taken too far and become distracting. In the end, though, her evocation of the period, like a good costume drama, suffuses this eccentric cast of characters with an appealing late Victorian ambience. Photos. (Apr.)
Appeared in Choice on 2000-01-01:
"I see ghosts everywhere," said James once to a friend. British biographer Gordon, whose T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life also appeared in 1999 (CH, Jan'00), focuses on two women who haunted James: his cousin Minny Temple--who died at 24, on whom James based the heroines of The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove--and Constance Fenimore Woolson, a best-selling novelist who shared a long friendship with James until she died from a fall from a window (Woolson figured as a basis for characters in The Ambassadors and "The Beast in the Jungle"). Both real-life women, as well as James's fictional re-creations of them, tested and found wanting "the American promise of infinite potential" described by Emerson and proved instead that life must be lived in a "social net, constraining, often corrupt." Necessarily, this is an asymmetrical book: Gordon devotes many more pages to Woolson, who was 53 when she killed herself (whereas other scholars are ambivalent on the issue, Gordon argues convincingly that Woolson's death was a suicide). But the author demonstrates effectively both how James used his sources and how he came to be tormented by them. Graduate and research collections. D. Kirby; Florida State University
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, November 1998
Kirkus Reviews, March 1999
Publishers Weekly, March 1999
New York Times Book Review, April 1999
Los Angeles Times, May 1999
New York Times Book Review, May 1999
Choice, January 2000
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