The Trope of Passage in English Hours

Marie-Odile SALATI

Résumé : Cet article aborde les essais des années 1870 publiés dans English Hours comme le creuset dans lequel s’est élaborée la technique de représentation jamesienne. En analysant le parcours spatial et les lieux liminaux, il fait ressortir la mise en place, dès 1872, du scénario de vision spectrale figurant le passage de l’observation à la réflexion par le langage dans l’œuvre fictionnelle de l’auteur, et dans les récits de 1877, l’ouverture d’une voie permettant de concilier le prosaïsme de la réalité urbaine moderne et les exigences éthiques de l’art.

Abstract: This article suggests that the English Hours travel essays written in the 1870s were the crucible in which James perfected his technique of literary representation. Focusing on progress across space and tropes of liminality, the study highlights the presence, as of 1872, of the scenario of ghostly vision which dramatizes the shift from observation to reflection in the author’s fiction. It also shows how the 1877 essays mirror the novelist’s ethical concerns as he was working his way towards a poetical rendering of prosaic urban modernity.



1In May 1872, approaching the age of thirty, Henry James set off to Europe for the avowed purpose of escorting his sister Alice and her chaperone, their aunt Kate, but with a view to outstaying his companions in order to make a name for himself as a writer (Edel, 1978 62-63; Horne 49-50). His intention was to produce travel essays, and he promptly wrote his first sketches as he toured the English countryside from Liverpool to London before moving on to France and Italy. He did not broach the subject of the capital city until after he had taken permanent abode there, turning out a new batch of essays in 1877, at a time when he was launching his career as a novelist. It is these two series of English travel writings of the 1870s, later published in English Hours (1905), that I will be mainly interested in here, because they were produced prior to or simultaneously with the author’s first engagement with novelistic fiction.1

2Although James makes light of his observations in his prefatory note, because they “had sprung from an early stage of acquaintance with their general subject-matter,” being therefore “outlived” for all their “fine freshness,” the work is not to be dismissed as a minor scriptorial venture (1993 3). As the novelist-to-be attempted to consign his travel impressions, he was at the same time grappling with issues of literary representation which would be at the heart of his concerns throughout his career, having so far applied his perceptive abilities mostly to critical reviews. He was now engaging with the material world of daily experience and with the task of imparting what he saw in aesthetic terms, of transforming observation into the reflective process that informs representation in his fiction. Building on Richard Anker’s anatomy of James’s mimetic process in Le Principe spectral de la représentation, I would like to show that the essays from the 1870s recording the author’s English excursions served as a crucible for perfecting his approach to representation, offering metafictional insight into the problematic translation of scene into narrative and its attending anxieties.

3Travel may be read metaphorically as providing evidence of the mimetic process, understood in the sense of representation (Anker 20-21), since the accounts of James’s walks around the visited sites record both the referential person’s physical exploration of places and the reflecting subject’s endeavours to render an absent scene present. I propose to focus more specifically on the notion of passage and its different interpretative possibilities as a trope,2 since the act of representation as it will be studied here involves a passage from the material world under observation to the abstract world of meaning, which is figured in the text by elements of liminal space.

4Passage is also related to the idea of making connections, which was a major concern of James as a novelist, as he explained in retrospect in the preface to Roderick Hudson.3 If the task of the writer was to bring out relations conducive to meaning, besides translating scene into language as mentioned above, there were other connections that the young American visitor was anxious to make. He also needed to build bridges between his homeland and his adopted country after his Atlantic crossing, between himself and his English roots, which comprised both his Irish ancestors and the language he relied on for his artistic achievement, therefore between the alien observer and the Anglo-Saxon writer. Leon Edel has traced the complex evolution of this negotiation over time in his article “The Three Travellers in English Hours.” Finally, it was necessary for the author to relate satisfactorily to the sooty industrial city which he had elected to reside in because of the unprecedented social material it afforded him as a painter of manners. Driven to London after a disappointing one-year stay in Paris amidst the aesthetically uncongenial Naturalist circle of his French fellow-writers, he was confronted with the challenge of finding a passage in order to rise from the prosaic world of the modern city to the poetry of art.

5Taking the trope of passage as my main thread, I propose to highlight the narrative anxieties which Henry James wrestled with as he tried to unravel his travel impressions of England, anxieties which were intimately related to the question of literary representation. I shall first examine English Hours as the crucible in which the novelist’s scenario for dramatizing the process of representation was elaborated, focusing on the multiple occurrences of what Richard Anker has identified as a kind of “primal scene” in James, a recognizable structure that established itself in the 1872 essays. Reflecting on the scenes encountered on his English trips also led the writer to think up his own specific answers to the issue of the realist representation of the world, towards which he was working his way at the beginning of his fictional career. One of the passages I shall be dealing with therefore is the transmutation of the prosaic modern world into the poetical vision of art, which appeared as a major concern in the 1877 writings and which will be studied in the light of James’s critical assessments of the French Naturalists at the same period, relying for that purpose on an analytical reading of the river trip to Greenwich in “London at Midsummer.” Finally I shall examine the later 1888 essay “London,” which James significantly chose to place at the onset of the 1905 collection, so as to bring out its highly emblematic character as it conflates the imaginative patterns discussed in this paper and thus encapsulates the representational issues tackled by the author.

The Crucible

6In his book Henry James. Le Principe spectral de la représentation, Richard Anker isolates a recurrent scenario throughout the novelist’s writings, which he reads as the key to an understanding of that author’s logic of representation. What these scenarios dramatize is the process of what Anker calls a “specular turn” by means of which an observed place or situation presents itself in a visible, albeit often ghostly, form as a reflection of its idea. Initially haunted by an uncontrollable play of tropes, which underwrite this presentative or, better perhaps, representative process, vision ultimately occurs in James as a mimetic supplement to the linguistic faculty of the subject. This is why voice is so often curiously lost or suppressed in intensely visual experience, the presentation of the idea occurring at the very moment when the linguistic faculty breaks down, a failure which, Anker argues, is evidence of a radical discontinuity between language and representation in the Jamesian creative process. Taking as a starting point the narrator’s encounter with May Server in The Sacred Fount, Anker further explores the spectral scenario in other fictional works like “The Turn of the Screw” and “A Jolly Corner,” tracing it back to the second of the author’s English travel essays, the description of Haddon Hall in “Lichfield and Warwick,” dated 1872 (Anker 376-381). What he refers to as the “primal scene” of representation in James displays the same elements again and again: typically a secluded spot at dusk; an inscription or a verbal statement that figures the presence of the traveller’s linguistic faculty; the sound and the circular motion of birds, more often than not in sight of a tower and other suggestions of spiraling movements, signaling the tropological structure of the speech process; the apparition of a human figure, which provides the specular basis of reflective consciousness, enabling the “reflector” to gain a degree of mastery over the uncontrollable tropological effects.4 Incidentally, as noted by critics, Jamesian landscapes in the travel writing are singularly devoid of the human figures which, in the fiction, serve as the basis of the specular turn. In a number of instances however, a local character, generally in charge of the discursive activity in the scene, is introduced for that particular purpose, such as a Canon in Chester Cathedral (64), a young girl at Haddon Hall (74) or a sexton at Porlock, Somerset (93). In natural settings, the Jamesian imagination supplies characters or lines from the admired works of British literary predecessors, like Tennyson at the top of Lynton cliffs.

7In fact, the Haddon Hall scenario, which appears archetypal in a certain manner, is already to be found as early as in “Chester,” the very first essay published during the English tour, replete with all the constitutive elements of the specular turn and figural or mimetic supplementation: “the great tower” along with the sound of bells and the circling birds (the “air that vibrates with the chimes and the swallows); the ghostliness of the dawning idea (“the air which seems to haunt these places”) felt as a “presence”; the “inscriptions of mural marbles” heralding the writing process that will result from the vision (James 1993 63-64; Anker 18-19, 378-380). The experience dramatized here is singled out by James as being emblematic of its kind and of special significance: “to an American it expresses and answers for the type, producing thereby the proper vibrations”5 (62). The site which serves as the basis of the idea triggering the speech act in which that idea is rhetorically grounded is the cathedral of the medieval town, the interior of which presents the young transatlantic visitor with the beautiful notion of spiritual elevation, much in the way St Peter’s of Rome was later on to impress the fictional character Isabel Archer in the 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady. The immaterial principle, or idea, hinted at by the empty space within “the tallness of columns and the hollowness of arches,” suddenly looms into existence (“may still affirm a presence”), when the “magnificent” singing of the choir rises to “the dizzier reach of the columns” (63, 64). With the “white-winged surplices,” the overall “great spectacular beauty” and the upward thrust of the architecture enhanced by that of the melodious voices, the occasion provides the imaginative framework of a scene like Milly Theale’s triumph during the party held at her Venetian palace in The Wings of the Dove (James, 1978 301-302).

8Whether limited to a few key items linked with specularity and language or featuring the whole array of the identified figural components, the characteristic scenario of the Jamesian mimetic process appears no less than fifteen times in the travel essays from the 1870s, triggered by the sight of castles, ruins, cathedrals and abbeys.6 It can be surmised that the scene, undeniably part of a repeated tourist experience of special picturesque attraction to the aspiring American writer, was at the same time the site of a founding linguistic experience, which would henceforth be embodied for the author by the very setting that had inspired it. It furnished the novelist-to-be with the exterior stage, or scene, on which the drama of tropological activity at the source of his creativity could be enacted. What is striking about these early essays is the emphasis put on the dramatic character of the visited places, enhanced in theatrical phrases, often underscored by italics and/or the use of the French language, like “coup de théâtre, mise en scene,” “builded scene” (98, 56, 126). Beyond the picturesque argument of pleasurable aesthetic composition, the fake nature of which has been exposed by Peter Rawlings,7 the actual significance of the theatre trope is the necessary presence of a real stage that can serve as the specular double of the inner theatre. It is no wonder then that James should deplore the disappointing lack of inspiration in Canon Kingsley’s discourse, which failed to match up with its magnificent environment, Chester Cathedral, arguing that “[t]he sermon, beneath that triply consecrated vault, should have had a builded majesty.” (65) The deficient mirroring character of the Canon dramatizes the momentary failure of the reflector’s rhetorical faculty ascribed to his crippling sense of being a product of the barren American soil, evoked a few lines earlier by the metaphor of the national “dead-blank wall.”8 However, the architectural grandeur before his eyes simultaneously holds promises of lofty expression for the “poor sentimental tourist,” who is suddenly filled with the confident thought that he will know how to “rise” to the “opportunity” offered by “the beautiful scenic properties of English life” (65-66).

9A large number of the American visitor’s excursions recorded in English Hours register the crucial point when observation turns into reflection, translated into spatial terms as a moment of passage. I would like to emphasize the meaningful recurrence of two elements in this respect, the blurred medium through which the shift is effected and the trope of liminal space, such as thresholds and gateways. If, in the early essays, dusk is favoured as the most propitious condition apt to represent the moment of the specular turn when the linguistic faculty is suspended and the subject apprehends the ghostly apparition of the figure on the exterior material stage, as pointed out by Richard Anker, this congenial quality mostly inherent in rural landscapes gives way to other factors of dim vision connected with the colour grey in later writings. Rain comes to perform the same function in “Abbeys and Castles,” when the tourist “looked away over the river to the blurred and blotted hills, where the rain was drizzling and drifting.” (187) Its being instrumental in the passage from the material world of observation to the disembodied world of representation is reflected in the syntactic pattern of duplication, underscored by the two sets of alliterations, the index of a stammer in the narrative discourse, which Gilles Deleuze in Critique et clinique ascribes to the outlandish nature of language as the writer experiences it (Deleuze 135, 138).

10In industrial urban settings, belatedly handled at the end of the 1870s, the subject’s momentary surrender of his hold over language is dramatically suggested by the presence of fog or smoke. Building on Elizabeth Hutchinson’s view of fog in Muybridge’s photographs as being no picturesque strategy but the index of lost mastery and of “a struggle and negotiation” with the nonhuman environment, I propose to read this typical London feature as the figurative mark of the novelist’s own wrestling with his uncongenial material (Hutchinson 120-121). Using an element of landscape for metaphorical purposes of meaning is a usual practice in James. However, fog or smoke stands out and possesses an identifiable function in its own right; it proves to be the appropriately opaque medium conveying that transitional phase of the specular turn when consciousness lets go of the empirical world in order to welcome the haunting idea calling for its representation. Significantly, the mention of indistinct atmospheric conditions is followed shortly thereafter by the description of an emerging identifiable figure and the dreary weather surprisingly ends up being represented as a pleasant experience: “these things loom patiently through atmospheric layers which instead of making them dreary impart to them something of a cheer of red lights in a storm.” (36) In contrast to the Dickensian hypotext (37), the fog conjures up the promise of the awaiting glowing fire—understood by Richard Anker, in his reading of “The Turn of the Screw,” as the reflection of a burning desire to speak (Anker 322-324)—with marked emphasis on the stroller’s passing from the street outside to the sheltered room or home inside. This pattern is endowed with a paradigmatic value owing to the generalizing mode of the depiction lumping together the British Museum and the Pall Mall clubs whose “interior glow” is intensified by the presence of “monumental staircases,” the Jamesian index of tropological activity. It is to be noted however that this rosy view of the London fog is dominant in the later 1888 essay on the capital, when the city had unquestionably become the propitious centre of the novelist’s literary career, as further evidenced by the recurrence of the pattern in relation to “W.H. Smith’s bookstalls” (39). Yet when he was still uncertain of his own voice, of his personal relationship with the industrial urban monster and still under the influence of awesome predecessors like Dickens, as in “An English Easter” dated 1877, the murky medium of fog, although endowed with the same specular properties, produced nothing but a grotesque Dickensian figure: “London, in December, was livid with sleet and fog, and against this dismal background was offered me the vision of a horrible old woman in a smoky bonnet, lying prone in a puddle of whisky! She seemed to assume a kind of symbolic significance and almost frightened me away.” (112)

11Another key element in the ghostly scenes registering the mimetic process at work is the motif of liminal space. The visited sites abound in gateways, portals, passageways and the like, whose omnipresence cannot be solely imputed to documentary accuracy or to a taste for picturesque architecture, and their frequent recurrence in Joseph Pennell’s drawings points out a profound significance in the illustrated text overriding the painter’s own artistic leanings. Archways are a threshold that the stroller needs to cross in order to leave the prosaic everyday world behind and to have access to an enclosed, framed space inside which his imagination takes over from the dimmed vision of that inner stage. Among the objects from the referential world that appear in travelogues, archways best define the liminality which T.J. Lustig highlights in his study of the ghostly in James (Lustig 7). The excursion to the episcopal Palace at Wells is highly emblematic in this respect (98-99):

[…] you pass out of the Green by another ancient gateway into the market-place, and thence back again through its own peculiar portal. My own first glimpse of it had all the felicity of a coup de théâtre. I saw within the dark archway an enclosure bedimmed at once with the shadows of the trees and heightened with the glitter of water. The picture was worthy of this agreeable promise. Its main feature is the little gray-walled island on which the Palace stands, rising in feudal fashion out of a broad, clear moat, flanked with round towers […]; swans and ducks disport themselves in the current and ripple the bright shadows […] and the sweet perfume of the tumbled grass in the dusky air seemed all that was wanting to fix the scene for ever in the memory.

12The idea of threshold is given a triple emphasis here within three lines, instantly leading to dramatization (“a coup de théâtre”) felt as an “agreeable promise.” The specular turn is heralded by the usual motifs of dusk (“bedimmed,” “shadows,” “dusky air”); the sense of apparition (“rising in feudal fashion out of a broad, clear moat”); a tropological activity that is mimed or figured by the joint presence of “round towers” and the motion of the birds as it appears to inscribe itself on the water; finally the attendant sense of smell, at once evidence of hypersensitive physical perception and an additional factor in the clear presentation and memorizing of the idea of place.

13Cloisters and corridors play much the same role in other scenes dramatizing the spectral process of representation in James. In “Abbeys and Castles,” the cloister duplicates the function performed by the “old Norman portal” covered with sculptural inscriptions (“quaintly sculptured”), in a paragraph dominated by the lexical field of liminality, which gains emphasis through the repeated allusions to size (“massively arched,” “whose hollow threshold,” “this aperture admits you to a beautiful ambulatory,” “huge round-arched doorways opening from its inner side into great rooms roofed like cathedrals” 187). The vaulted space gradually transforms itself into the narrator’s chamber of consciousness as we are afforded a glimpse of James the visitor absorbed in a scriptorial activity (“while you look up in the intervals of inspiration from your letter-writing”) which prefigures the writing of the travel sketches themselves. Passing through the archway symbolically sets imagination in motion and triggers the process of surrender, by which the subject releases his hold over the empirical world, the hard ground of stone fading out (“its flags worn away”), and submits to the haunting of returning figures from the past (“across whose hollow threshold the eye of fancy might see the ghosts of monks and the shadows of abbots pass noiselessly to and fro.” 187) The account of this visit to a former English abbey is remarkably close in inspiration and symbolic structure to the famous Louvre scene of the birth of the artist narrated in the 1913 autobiography A Small Boy and Others. The “huge round-arched doorways” and “great rooms roofed like cathedrals,” the “long, low, charming vista,” the “flags worn away” and the “traceries now glazed” reappear ghost-like in the later description of the Galerie d’Apollon, with its vaults of “endless golden riot and relief, figured and flourished in perpetual revolution” and its perspective “seeming to form with its supreme coved ceiling and inordinately shining parquet a prodigious tube or tunnel” (James, 1914 346). The English archway and cloister thus take on an obstetric connotation which Richard Anker reads into the founding Paris episode, thereby further contributing to the primal character of the ghostly scene (Anker 46).9

14The imaginative suggestions of dark corridors are brought out most clearly in the 1899 essay “Old Suffolk,” with which James chose to close English Hours and which he belatedly wrote for the collected edition. He had by then become sufficiently familiar with his adopted country to feel more confident in his capacity to provide an adequate representation of it, as evidenced by the profusion of terms related to clear perception and eloquence in the last pages.10 The village of Dunwich, set up as a metaphor for the characteristic survival of the ghostly past into the present-day nation, is depicted as teeming with figures, which the visitor descries at the other end of a dark passage or after passing through park gates. The first account stages the typical Jamesian scenario: “the sight of a dim, draped, sphynx-like figure that loomed, at the end of a polished passage, out of a dusky back parlour which had a windowful of the choked light of a small garden—a figure proving to be an old woman desirous to dilate on all the years she had sat there” (260). The process of representation is triggered as the corridor brings about the passage from outside to inside, from twilight to shaded light not yet turned on to full intensity, from undecipherable Egyptian hieroglyphics to a gradually emerging figure containing the promise of speech, presumably a mirror image of the novelist himself about to publish the extended account of his English experience after over two decades of residence. In a similar vein, the second occurrence a few lines below conflates the two meanings of the word “figure,” relying on the financial trope which Sheila Teahan has analyzed as “the representational cost of metaphor itself” in The Rhetorical Logic of Henry James (4).11 The encounter with an ancient Dunwich native further enlightens the visitor, supplying him with the missing figures, in both senses, that finally enable him to have a complete picture of his subject: “a very ancient man who will count for you on his fingers”; “He likes to figure that he ploughed of old,” thus tracing his own inscription on the surface of the land. The narrative finally climaxes in the triumph of “composition” after listing various scriptorial items conducive to meaning (“to repeat my hint,” “may yet be drawn here,” “these prudent lines,” “into how many meanings a few elements can compose” 260).

From the Prosaic Material World to the Poetry of Art

15If the accounts of James’s English travels mirror the young writer’s wrestling with representational issues, they also provide insight into specific artistic concerns related to novelistic practice in the 1870s, a time when he was groping for his own approach to a realistic rendering of the world. Once he had worked out the process of representation for himself, he further needed to determine what fell within the province of that activity and what did not. Having spent a year in Paris mixing with the French Naturalists, he could not be reconciled to the idea that beauty of style could redeem just any subject, however disgraceful, and he still had to think this representational question through in accordance with his rapidly maturing conception of reflective consciousness. Whereas rural landscapes gratified his pictorial taste and romantic expectations, for instance the “poetic, historic, romantic sheep” in Shakespeare’s country, he still felt uncomfortable about industrial scenes, increasingly so when he finally decided to grapple with London (178). He was careful to eschew them in the 1872 essays, focusing mostly on the architectural treasures of cities, but his embarrassment was noticeable when he realized that he could not simply bypass the blatant signs of rampant modernity, the intrusion of what he called the “prosaic” world into the poetical sphere of literary representation. In “North Devon,” the narrator wryly declares the English to be “masters of the art of not losing sight of ease and convenience in the pursuit of the pastoral life” as they have marred one of “a couple of magnificent headlands” with signboards and benches marking out the ascent against a modest fee (87, 86). The comment which the arrangement elicits may be read as reflecting the writer’s representational concerns just as much as the American visitor’s aesthetic vexation, if we follow the suggestion of the economic trope: “All this is prosaic, and you have to subtract it in a lump from the total impression before the sense of the beguilement of nature becomes distinct.” (88) Unlike metaphor, linked with addition and propagation as seen earlier with reference to Sheila Teahan’s study of the Jamesian narrative, the prosaic element as metonymic contiguity can only be conceived of in terms of unwelcome facts to be suppressed from the overall picture in order to convey the “vividly poetical tinge” impressed by the experience (91).

16That is why terms of praise are heaped on Ludlow in the 1877 essay “Abbeys and Castles”: “Ludlow is an excellent example of a small English provincial town that has not been soiled and disfigured by industry; it exhibits no tall chimneys and smoke-streamers, no attendant purlieus and slums.” (194) Saving the writer from the indignity of lowly prose and of failing specular activity (“disfigured”), the “charming old town” may still foster for him the hope of rising to the level of a modern-day Frances Burney or Jane Austen, as it affords him a negotiable space “after the poetry of domestic architecture had begun to wane and before the vulgarity had come—a fine familiar classic prose.” (196) The dash opens up a middle ground, on which the realist novelist of modern times can establish himself while preserving his “classic” aesthetic standards as well as room for creative imagination (“the mental operation in this matter reduces itself to our imagining some of the things” 196).

17The author needs to come to terms with the most squalid details of urban life, such as grime and poverty, to negotiate a passage from the unsavoury material environment of his travelling experience to his lofty conception of art. Thus, it is significant that he should welcome the idea of “how poetic a creature a washerwoman may be,” which once occurred to him in France and which is more congenial to him than the Dickensian vision conjured up by the reported drunken habits of the London populace, further on referred to as “the hard prose of misery” (112). The dilemma is clearly set out in the opening paragraphs of “In Warwickshire.” Posing as a reporter fortunate enough to have “been interviewing the genius of pastoral Britain,” the narrator is at a loss how to proceed, how to cover the ground from the “soft-hued” picture of Kenilworth Castle in Claude’s style glimpsed some way off to a close view of the premises invaded by hordes of tourists and of beggars, the “walk over to the castle” serving as a metaphor for his narrative approach (164-165). In an emphatically rhetorical paragraph designed to keep the produced picture at a distance, the distasteful prosaic world is portrayed by means of a conspicuous use of anaphora stressing such unavoidable taints as pedlars and public-houses (“of course,” “there were”), reinforced by the repetition of the adjective “usual” (165). The aesthetic sacrifice imposed on the artist by the “cockneyfication” which the description climaxes into is suggested by the economic term of “account” at odds with the romantic vision: “I had learned that, with regard to most romantic sites in England, there is a constant cockneyfication with which you must make your account.” Thanks to anamorphosis however, and the shift in point of view thus effected (“wandering about in search of a quiet point of view”), the picture is redeemed and may find its way into the essay, as the author has found his way out of the unsettling situation, unpleasant both sensibly and in terms of narrative intent, musing that “in spite of the hawkers, the paupers and the beer-shops, there was still a good deal of old England in the scene.” (166)

18The challenge faced by James may be understood better through a close reading of an extract from “London at Midsummer,” which relates precisely an occurrence of passage, aboard a river steamer bound for Richmond. In the pages preceding the episode, under the avowed pretext of reporting on the odd English custom of deserting the capital in the summer months, there is a sensible undercurrent of shame, which the narrator seems to be trying to atone for by flaunting his identity as a “stranger,” four occurrences of the word appearing within two pages besides the adjective “alien” (134-135). The lexical field of shame or guilt is strikingly profuse, beginning with the expressed wish to “plead guilty” in the opening sentence. Staying on against the current is then represented as a conspicuous act of social indignity: “the departure of everything genteel,” “witnesses of my shame” (134). The uncomfortable feeling turns out to stem from the type of subject which the foreign writer has to fall back on for want of decent human material, namely “studies of low life”; uneasiness is bred by what the traveller sees as “the comparatively sordid side of things” and “rough characters” (137), otherwise referred to as “the under side, the wrong side, of the London world” in the preceding essay “An English Easter,” which was devoted to similar concerns (120). The issue then for the fledgling novelist is how to handle the inescapably material and economic facts of the London scene without being guilty of the damning lack of taste that he so violently inveighed against in his reviews of the French Naturalists. The point is raised through metaphorical displacement in the account of the river trip to Richmond.

19The moment itself is delayed, as usual in James’s peregrinations, by the reminiscence of a genial occasion in a Greenwich restaurant, which had given the American a memorable taste of “British conviviality” and which serves as a foil to the distasteful episode about to be narrated (139). The inverted mirror effect is further produced by the different point of view of the observer who, instead of being caught in the current of experience aboard the steamer, was then taking pleasure in gazing from a fixed standpoint on the riverbank at the neatly framed spectacle of ships sailing past: “I would try to express how pleasant it may be to sit in a company of clever and distinguished men before the large windows that look out upon the broad brown Thames. The ships swim by confidently, as if they were part of the entertainment” (138).

20The metafictional nature of the related story is suggested by the polysemy of several words of the introductory sentence: “To do the thing completely you must take passage upon one of the little grimy sixpenny steamers that ply upon the Thames” (140).12 The first segment (“to do the thing”) explicitly refers to the intended visit to Greenwich park yet it cannot fail to take on a scriptorial meaning, since it was a favourite phrase of the author’s, used to describe both pictorial and literary representation. The slightly contrived predicate “take passage” conjures up a literary meaning too, as does the modifier “sixpenny,” which brings to mind the popular “sixpenny novel” despised by James. Hence the sentence reads as a metafictional comment on the figurative status of travel. The aesthetic sore point is broached immediately, that is the “grimy” state of the conveyor of passengers, which inevitably affects the linguistic conveyance of meaning and consequently causes the narrator to grope for adequate expression: “I scarce know how to speak of the little voyage from Westminster Bridge to Greenwich. It is in truth the most prosaic possible form of being afloat.” The issue, as revealed by the polysemy of the adjective “prosaic,” is therefore how to produce a decent prose narrative about a vulgar, unromantic subject, whose unpalatable nature in the eyes of the writer has been foreshadowed by the theme of dirt. The plunge into “the underside” of the capital, which, interestingly, is connected with the commercial activities of London harbour, that is the money-oriented trend of the modern city,13 is presented as an ordeal, with initiatory value for the visitor: “It initiates you into the duskiness, the blackness, the crowdedness, the intensely commercial character of London.” From then on the discourse bristles, to borrow a Jamesian word, with a remarkable concentration of lexemes denoting squalor that betrays profound anxiety:

For miles and miles you see nothing but the sooty backs of warehouses, or perhaps they are the sooty faces: in buildings so utterly expressionless it is impossible to distinguish. They stand massed together on the banks of the wide turbid stream, which is fortunately of too opaque a quality to reflect the dismal image. A damp-looking, dirty blackness is the universal tone. The river is almost black, and is covered with black barges; above the black housetops, from among the far-stretching docks and basins, rises a dusky wilderness of masts. The little puffing steamer is dingy and gritty—it belches a sable cloud that keeps you company as you go. (my emphasis)

21The climax is reached when the offensive element moves closer to the observer, extending to his travelling “companions, who belong chiefly, indeed to the classes bereft of lustre.” The lexical shift from “puffing” to “belches,” a verb alluding to an indecorous bodily excess banned from the Jamesian code of manners, adds to the felt repulsion.

22One cannot but think of Émile Zola, whom James had rubbed shoulders with two years earlier when he attended the meetings of the Flaubert circle in Paris, and who, much to his distaste, seemed to be implicitly acknowledged as the leader of the literary group. Lashing out at Zola in reviews, the genteel New England patrician could not get over the shock of what he saw as the Frenchman’s misapplied artistic skills since they were lavished on the basest of human characters, as in L’Assommoir or Nana. The lack of discrimination blamed upon the city of London could very well apply to the seat of French culture and to Zola in particular: “Few European cities have a finer river than the Thames, but none certainly have expended more ingenuity in producing a sordid river-front” or, for that matter, a sordid literary production. All the essays dispatched across the Atlantic by the budding American novelist to Nation or The New York Tribune in the years 1875-1877 harped on the “unclean” character of the books churned out by the French Naturalists of the time.14 The adjective “turbid,” which deprecates the Thames, also served to brand Zola’s imagination a year later.15 The uncongenial material everywhere meeting James’s eye on his way to the gratifying pastoral landscape of Greenwich fails to kindle his imagination because the thick layer of grime uniformly covering the scene erases the differences which make perception possible and produce the figures convertible into language. The baffled observer keeps noting how he searches in vain for signs to get hold of and how his perceptive abilities are defeated, confronted as they are by repeated forms of opacity and darkness (“you see nothing but the sooty backs of warehouses,” “in buildings so expressionless it is impossible to distinguish”). The trip across space is a transparent metaphor for the cognitive process.16 The undifferentiated appearances of backs and fronts turn buildings into characters devoid of facial features possessing an identity, devoid, in other words, of reflective capacity for the traveller. The specular turn required by Jamesian consciousness to reflect the world in its naming, to figure it linguistically, fails to take place (“of too opaque a quality to reflect the dismal image”). The relief with which the failure of reflection is greeted sets the author apart from those, like Zola, who will not shrink from aesthetically reproducing or representing such an unworthy scene.

23However, James’s imagination finally comes to the rescue, redeeming the picture by raising it from the prosaic to the poetical sphere. The shift is epitomized by the particular moment when the steamer passes under a massive bridge, the suggestive potentialities of which could have been kindled by James Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold–Old Battersea Bridge, painted in the years 1872-1875, as a certain kinship may be noted in the vision: “I don’t exactly understand the association, but I know that when I look off to the left at the East India Docks, or pass under the dark hugely piled bridges, where the railway and the human processions are for ever moving, I feel a kind of imaginative thrill.” This “imaginative thrill” transmutes the inexpressive environment and “supplies what may be literally wanting,” what is precisely wanting in Zola’s literal, “unclean” novels on account of their author’s “turbid” imagination. The specular turn takes place after all, triggered by James’s linguistic imagination, which produces the ghost of the idea needed to make the scene intelligible (“a kind of metaphysical magnificence hovers over the scene”) and finally worth representing:

Like so many of the aspects of English civilization that are untouched by elegance or grace, it has the merit of expressing something very serious. Viewed in this intellectual light the polluted river, the sprawling barges, the dead-faced warehouses, the frowsy people, the atmospheric impurities become richly suggestive. (141, my emphasis)

24Once perceived as the historical mark of the British Empire, in other words the material presentation of an idea, the desolate scene at last exhibits itself as an image of the past, turns into a typical Jamesian picture and accedes to representation.

25The reader then understands the unexpected reversal that has occurred within the space of one sentence earlier on in the narrative account, the transmogrification of the repulsive environment described above into a pleasing picturesque sight: “In this carboniferous shower your companions, who belong chiefly, indeed, to the classes bereft of lustre, assume an harmonious grayness; and the whole picture, glazed over with the glutinous London mist, becomes a masterly composition.” The blurred medium of the mist effects the shift from observation to reflection, the “classes bereft of lustre” slough off their black sooty layer and “assume an harmonious grayness,” which turns into a reflecting surface (“glazed over”). By summoning his creative imagination to transmute the “ugly” city, James thus found a way out of his unhappy relationship with his contemporary French fellow-writers and succeeded in achieving what he indicted Charles Baudelaire, another flâneur like himself, for failing to do in a 1876 review. Whereas the French poet, who claimed to transform the “impurities” of Paris into gold,17 had only concerned himself with “appearances” to the detriment of meaning, thus imparting to his subject “an intensification of its repulsiveness,” the American novelist managed to restore morality to the work of art and thereby to open a passage between the prosaic urban world and poetry (James, 1984 154, 156, 157).18

Jamesian Loomings

26To round off this study, a close examination of the opening essay “London” will provide further insight into the representational challenge his English travels posed to the author. It seems appropriate to enquire into the reasons why he chose to place this later piece at the outset of the 1905 collection, hence the Melvillian suggestions of the heading coming on top of the more specifically Jamesian spectral and textual ones. As a matter of fact the essay reads like an introduction, offering a meditation in retrospect on the narrative stakes of the scriptorial venture. From the first, the novelist marks out the space of travel writing, which he removes from the sphere of geography to the mental sphere of the reflecting consciousness. In so doing he provides a perfect illustration of the scale enlargement or “macro,” which Wai Chee Dimock has identified in his narratives, an approach that “has less to do with geographical vastness than with a dimension of the world that has yet to be fathomed or that has yet to emerge,” that consists in “taking long walks, back and forth across the fine line between what is real and what is not, a recursive process that goes on indefinitely.” (Dimock 3)

27There is ample evidence of this strategy in the temporal structure of the first pages, which produces “a zig-zagging path of time” (Dimock 5).19 The narrative account keeps doubling back upon itself, going back and forth between different Transatlantic journeys superimposed upon one another to the point that it becomes difficult to unravel them. Written in 1888 and placed for publication before the reports on the 1872 trip taken with Alice and Aunt Kate, it looks back on the visit he had made on his own in 1869, singled out as “virtually a first impression” in the opening sentence. Yet, as adumbrated in the adverb “virtually,” a paralipsis restores the truth, delving into the distant past of the 1855 family European tour conjured up by the pluperfect (Dimock 3): “There had been an earlier vision, but it had turned gray, like faded ink.” The dim childhood memory is a briefly opened parenthesis, immediately closed, as the second half of the sentence swings back to the 1869 experience delivered in the simple past. However, the initial impression left by the first adult view of London gives way to a reminiscence of the landing at Liverpool the day before, which itself bounces backward to the first glimpse of the Irish coast “at an early hour—or rather, indeed twenty-four hours before,” the paralipsis and the dashes summoning the ghost of the author’s distant family origin besides the prospect of renewal in the midst of the overall gloomy picture (“the strange, dark, lonely freshness of the coast of Ireland”). The narrative then follows the course of the ship sailing up the Mersey in Liverpool and returns to the Adelphi hotel mentioned before the analepsis devoted to the end of the voyage. The spectral scene which occurs in that establishment paves the way for a similar one at Morley’s Hotel in London the following day, the womb, so to speak, in which the birth of the writing project takes place, as will be seen later. In this way the loop is looped, we are back to the outstanding moment mentioned in the opening sentence of the essay. It seems that, like the shell of a snail, the narrative spirals down to the central chamber where the point of origin lies.

28The metafictional purpose of the first essay is further pointed out by the implicit parallel drawn between spatial approach and writing process. Arrival in London is set up as “a fresh beginning” which, combined with the scriptorial connotation of the reminiscence likened to “faded ink” and the prolepsis confirming the author’s lasting relationship with the city (“No doubt I had mystic prescience of how fond of the murky modern Babylon I was one day to become,” the oracle delivered by the guest of the Adelphi Hotel, my emphasis), takes on the meaning of the literary career which he was aspiring to on leaving America and which was well under way in 1888. The converging gaze of the younger tourist and the older narrator in the act of reflecting the past turns “those hours of approach” into both the referential fact of travelling and the act of representation, so that “the solemnity of an opening era” also brings to mind the opening of the discourse in progress. The moment, recalled as “a supreme success,” is reconstructed as a downright opening to the infinity of possible prospects for the creative imagination, as suggested by the conflation of the three aspects of time in the tortuous sentence closing the first paragraph—the past of the remembered occasion in Liverpool, the present of the narrator in the act of reflection (“that smoky Saturday returns to me”) and the future of expectation (“the kind of emotion in the hope of which, for the most part, we betake ourselves to far countries”). Figural meaning gathers force when the spectral scene about to be reported is intimated in the statement: “The sense of approach was already almost intolerably strong at Liverpool, where, as I remember, the perception of the English character of everything was as acute as a surprise.” The “intolerably strong” impression suggests the start of the uncontrollable tropological activity leading to the ghostly apparition, the idea of Englishness, and the suspension of the process, which precedes the vision, is figured by the stammering discourse stumbling on the three successive adverbs, two of which, “almost” and “already,” drive in opposite directions, cancelling each other out.

29The Adelphi Hotel is the site of an archetypal Jamesian scene of visitation. The specular turn is indicated by the irruption of a ghostly self facing the American visitor across the reflecting surface of the breakfast table synonymous with the writer’s desk, close to another mirroring element, the window out of which consciousness looks at the outside world: “It seems to sit there again like a visiting presence, as it sat opposite to me at breakfast at a small table in a window of the old coffee-room of the Adelphi Hotel.” After the interrupting glimpse of the Irish coast, the account includes a description of the Liverpool sky, which plays a definite role in the economy of the spectral scene, since it provides the blurred medium figuring the suspension of the subject’s linguistic faculties, the absent sun perceived as “the big white splotch in the heavens” against a background of “gray mildness.” The ghostly apparition stands between the reflecting surface and the inner fire of creativity (“This was how it hung about me, between the window and the fire”), promising successful control of the tropes conducive to representation, already foreshadowed by the capacity of the sky to transform the grey blur into inky figures: “the gray mildness, shading away into black at every pretext, appeared in itself a promise.” The vision fills the observer with a sense of mastery, conveyed by the characteristic theme of possession: “I had the place to myself, and I felt as if I had an exclusive property in the impression.” As a result, he is suddenly gifted with preternaturally acute perceptive abilities, anticipating Marcel Proust’s process of capture and involving several bodily senses in the operation: “it is perfectly recoverable now, with the very taste of the national muffin, the creak of the waiter’s shoes as he came and went […], and the rustle of the newspaper.”

30This Liverpool scene is duplicated, and further insight into its mechanics supplied, in the next two pages focused on the signal “first impression” of London at Morley’s Hotel with which the essay opens. Again the progress across space before reaching destination has a metaphorical function, being “dusky” and “tortuous,” as does the conveyance transporting the visitor: “the greasy four-wheeler to which my luggage had compelled me to commit myself.” The experience is presented as an ordeal to which he submits in dread, “the first step in an initiation” that will ultimately prove to be “pleasant.” The scene harks back to the river trip past Richmond warehouses in “London at Midsummer” as it is brought to a head by the element of filth. Inconvenience is compounded with immensity, evoked in terms less related to referential space than to the novelist’s conception of representation expounded in the preface to Roderick Hudson: “The immensity was the great fact,” the urban fabric “had already given me the scale.” The complexity of the cityscape is grasped as an endless succession of narrative connections and figures: “the complications of junctions and signals.” Plunging into the deepening darkness of the unknown, the “imagination” clings to the “vague ruddy spot in the general immensity” supplied by Morley’s Hotel as if it were a buoy, the reflected light of inner fire.

31The hotel lounge is then duplicated in the private space of the bedroom, which is set up as the stage of James’s inner theatre, framed by the wooden structure of the “four-poster” bed. The pattern of embeddedness, figuring the vessel of the reflective consciousness, is once more noticeable in the “candle, set in its deep basin,” thanks to whose light the inner play is enacted outside in ghostly form, as it “caused this monument” (the monument harbouring the artistic masterpiece to come) “to project a huge shadow.” The writer’s imagination is thus set in motion, reminded of “The Ingoldsby Legends” through irrational association (“I scarce knew why”). From then on the transmutation of grime into poetical prose is effected, as a romantically-hued picture of the capital lies before the eyes of the visitor at the very moment when he crosses the symbolic threshold of the Temple Bar: “But what I mainly recall is the romantic consciousness of passing under the Temple Bar, and the way two lines of ‘Henry Esmond’ repeated themselves in my mind as I drew near the masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren.” The city immediately starts speaking to him in the voice of an eminent British predecessor which, combined with the shadow of architect Christopher Wren, offers the American tourist the vision of “the masterpiece” he will produce in his turn. The crucial importance of the founding experience set in Morley’s Hotel is underscored by the personal pilgrimage it later gave occasion to: “To this hour, as I pass along the Strand, I take again the walk I took there that afternoon.” We therefore come to understand better why James chose to open English Hours with the essay recording this primal scene. Towards the end of his career in 1905, he had reached a sharper awareness of how instrumental to the shaping of his art of representation his English travels had been.


Bibliographie

ANKER Richard. Henry James. Le Principe spectral de la représentation. Paris: Hermann, “Savoir Lettres,” 2012.

BAUDELAIRE, Charles. Œuvres complètes. Vol. 1. Paris: Pléiade, 1975.

DELEUZE, Gilles. Critique et clinique. Paris: Minuit, 1993.

DIMOCK, Wai Chee. “Three Wars: Henry James and Others.” The Henry James Review vol. 30, no. 1, Winter 2009, p. 2-9.

EDEL, Leon. Henry James. Vol. 1. The Untried Years: 1843-1870. 1953. Vol. 2. The Conquest of London: 1870-1881. 1962. New York: Avon Books, 1978.

---. “The Three Travellers in English Hours.The Henry James Review vol. 2, no. 3, 1981, p 167-171.

HORNE, Philip, ed. Henry James. A Life in Letters. London: Penguin Books, 1999.

HUTCHINSON, Elizabeth W. “Conjuring in Fog: Eadweard Muybridge at Point Reyes.” Picturing. Ed. Rachael Z. DeLue. Chicago: Terra Foundation for American Art, 2016.

JAMES, Henry. Collected Travel Writings. Great Britain and America. English Hours, The American Scene, Other Travels. New York: Library of America, 1993.

---. Literary Criticism. Vol. 2: French Writers; Other Europeans Writers; The Prefaces to the New York Edition. New York: Library of America, 1984.

---. A Small Boy and Others (1913). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914.

---. Transatlantic Sketches. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1875.

---. The Wings of the Dove (1902). New York: Norton, 1978.

LUSTIG, T.J. Henry James and the Ghostly. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

RAWLINGS, Peter. “Grotesque Encounters in the Travel Writing of Henry James.” The Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 34, 2004, p 171-185.

SAVOY, Eric. “Jamesian Hauntology: On the Poetics of Condensation” The Henry James Review, vol. 38, no. 3, Fall 2017, p. 238-244.

TEAHAN, Sheila. The Rhetorical Logic of Henry James. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1995.

Notes

1 James viewed his 1875 novel Roderick Hudson as the beginning of his novelistic career yet his first venture was Watch and Ward published serially in 1871. Besides, he had already produced a score of short stories by 1872, the first one, the unsigned “A Tragedy of Error,” dating back to 1864.

2 Webster’s Dictionary lists nine different definitions, many of which are relevant to my purpose, such as: 1. “the act of passing; specif., a) movement from one place to another; b) change or progress from one process or condition to another; transition” 3. “a journey, esp. by water, voyage” 5. “a way or means of passing; specif. a) a road or path b) a channel, duct etc. c) a hall or corridor […]; passageway” 7. a) a noted sentence, paragraph, etc. of a written word or speech” (2nd ed. 1984).

3 For more on the subject, see the essays by Cornelius Crowley and Adam Lowenstein in this issue.

4 I wish to thank Richard Anker for his advice and enlightening remarks in this discussion.

5 Eric Savoy emphasizes the role of vibrations, which he calls “the ‘vibrations’ of recognition” in the symptom of repetition compulsion characteristic of James’s figurations as “mise-en-scène of haunting” (240).

6 Here is the list of the occurrences: Chester Cathedral (“Chester” 63-64), Haddon Hall (“Lichfield and Warwick” 74-75), Exeter Cathedral, the rocky pinnacles called the “Castle” at Lynton and the village of Porlock in Somerset (“North Devon” 84-86, 91-92, 92-93), Vicars’ Close and the episcopal Palace at Wells (“Wells and Salisbury” 98-100), Rochester and Canterbury Cathedrals (“An English Easter” 124-126, 126-128), the rectory at Stratford, duality and the specular motif on the banks of the Avon, Compton Wyniates (“In Warwickshire” 167-170, 176-178, 182), Stokesay (“Abbeys and Castles” 193-194), a feudal old house at Abergavenny and Chichester Cathedral (“English Vignettes” 199-200, 210).

7 In his article “Grotesque Encounters in the Travel Writing of Henry James,” Peter Rawlings points out the oddity lying in the novelist’s use of the long outmoded aesthetic genre of the picturesque and suggests that it was for him “an apparently innocuous code for the oblique expression of furtive desires” (171).

8 In this first account of his English travels, James already lamented the cultural barrenness of his native country, which he was to hold responsible for the lack of scope in Hawthorne’s novels in his 1879 essay on the romancer. Whereas America is deprecated as an expressionless blank wall reminiscent of the blank page, Britain with its rich historical heritage supplies the writer with a stage on which the drama of representation can be enacted and therefore come to life: “His [the American] constant sense of the beautiful scenic properties of English life is apt to beget a habit of melancholy reference to the dead-blank wall which forms the background of our own life-drama.” (65)

9 I thank Richard Anker for drawing my attention to the similarity between the two occurrences.

10 With all due reservations on account of the author’s diffidence about essentialism, which fails to take a subject’s adjustments to shifting reality into account, one cannot fail to note expressions of achieved understanding like “the very essence of England has a way of presenting itself with completeness,” supported by the notions of generalization (“their quiet vividness of type”) and simplification (“you get, reduced and simplified, the whole of the scale”). The stress is then on the clear picture revealed by the orderly arrangement of the parts (“when ‘composition’ really rules”) and turned into eloquence (“I scarce know what murmur has been for weeks in my ears if it be not that of the constant word,” “nothing more eloquent than”) on the subject of “manners and customs” (258-261).

11 Sheila Teahan’s interpretation of the economic meaning of figure and of the novelist’s “indebtedness” to them is also relevant to the previous example, since the old woman “desirous to dilate on all the years she had sat there” can be read in the light of the critic’s following statement : “Each attempt by the central consciousness to account for itself, in either economic or narrative terms, only generates more narrative, more indirect discourse, and therefore more figures for which he or she is indebted in the first place.”(5)

12 The excerpt examined here is situated on pages 140 and 141. All subsequent references to it are drawn from those pages.

13 See Greg Zacharias’s study of dirty money in this issue.

14 From “Charles de Mazade,” December 30, 1875: “the successful books were apt to resemble little vases, skilfully moulded and chiselled, into which unclean thgs have been dropped.” From “Edmond de Goncourt,” May 10, 1877: “M. de Goncourt’s fault is not that he is serious or historical or scientific or instructive, but that he is intolerably unclean.” From “Émile Zola,” May 13, 1876: “Émile Zola, a ‘pupil’ of Gustave Flaubert, is, as a novelist, the most thorough-going of the little band of the out-and-out realists. Unfortunately the real, for him, means exclusively the unclean, and he utters his crudities with an air of bravado which makes them doubly intolerable.” (James, 1984 556, 861, 404)

15 In his 1878 review of Une Page d’amour for Nation, James wrote: “The author of ‘L’Assommoir’ has not an agreeable imagination; and let him select from life what objects he will, the light it projects upon them is, in the nature of the case, a turbid one.” (James, 1984 863)

16 Interestingly, James likens L’Assommoir to “a crossing of the Channel in a November gale” in his 1880 review of Nana, thus confirming the imaginative suggestions which the trope of crossing held for him (James, 1984 866).

17 Baudelaire closed the epilogue of the 1861 edition of The Flowers of Evil with the words: “Tu m’as donné ta boue et j’en ai fait de l’or.” (192) Besides, in the preface to his prose poems, Le Spleen de Paris (1869), he claimed to have devised a new way of describing modern life, using the cadences of a poetical prose: “Quel est celui de nous qui n’a pas, dans ses jours d’ambition, rêvé le miracle d’une prose poétique” (275).

18 In his essay “Charles Baudelaire” published in Nation on April 27, 1876, James hails the Frenchman’s picturesque imagination by means of which the latter “endeavours to impart that touch of strangeness and mystery which is the very raison d’être of poetry.” However, he pronounces him “the victim of a grotesque illusion,” finding “the beauty perverted by the ugliness” and exposing as “ineffably puerile” his determination “to deny the relevance of subject-matter and the importance of the moral quality of a work of art” (James, 1984 156, 158, 157). Consequently, the poet “flounders” in “the very turbid element” in which Zola is bogged down and from which James successfully rises as he extracts meaning out of the London grime (James, 1984 154).

19 All subsequent references to the extract under analysis are taken from James, 1984 13-16.


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Marie-Odile SALATI, «The Trope of Passage in English Hours», Viatica [En ligne], n°HS3, mis à jour le : 14/02/2020, URL : http://revues-msh.uca.fr/viatica/index.php?id=1213.

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LLSETI (EA 3706), Université Savoie Mont Blanc