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Fall 2000

The Other Henry James

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Lynne Sharon Schwartz
The Other House
by Henry James.
New York Review Books, 1999,
$12.95 paper.

In 1913, three years before his death, Henry James sat for a startling series of photographs. Probably because they were studies for a bust to be made by a young sculptor, they show no attempt at the usual suavity. James wears a collarless, limp shirt and vest; his huge dome of a head looks ready to burst with what he knows; his features are thick with resignation, his eyes pouched and darkly meditative; the broad cheeks sag, the neck is grooved. He seems not exactly defeated but nakedly worn out by his labors, a man who’s spent the best of himself and is no longer certain why. The photos are as different from the familiar magisterial ones as The Other House is unlike his familiar great novels.

Why have we never heard of The Other House? At least I had never heard of it even though, in my English major and graduate school days, I put in time and a half at the James shrine. Nor had all but one of the half-dozen literate friends I polled. Was it some indiscretion critics had conspired to hush up? Had it thudded into obscurity by its own weight, or drifted off by its weightlessness?

The germ of the story came to James in December of 1893, in the midst of his ill-starred playwriting phase. Typically, he seizes on it and starts shaping it in the Notebooks: a vow of fidelity made to a dying wife; a Good Heroine and Bad Heroine both in love with the widowed hero who’s sworn not to remarry (how James loves, in one way or another, to bar his characters from marrying); a poisoned child. Somehow all ends well: the “poison,” by a plot maneuver, turns out to be harmless; the child wakes up.

James was enthusiastic about his melodramatic nugget: “the 1st chapter of my story—by which I mean the 1st act of my play!” There’s the operative word—“play.” He sketched out a three-act scenario called The Promise, with the female lead probably intended for Elizabeth Robins, who had been playing Ibsen heroines on the London stage during the early Nineties. Like many of his contemporaries, James was much taken with Ibsen. Indeed, Leon Edel and other critics suggest that he conceived his passionate and complex bad heroine, Rose Armiger, as a kind of Hedda Gabler. When James abandoned the theater in horror, The Promise was put aside.

Genius can be perverse. Why else would James have stubbornly craved success as a playwright, when the stage was about as uncongenial a place for his ruminating talents as a football field or a gambling casino? From 1890, with over a score of tales and a dozen novels to his name, among them The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, and Washington Square, he devoted five years to writing plays. Two were produced. The first, an adaptation of his 1877 novel, The Americans, ran for a fairly respectable seventy performances. The second, Guy Domville, an eighteenth-century “costume play,” precipitated what James would call “the most horrible hours of my life.”

More than a century later, the famous fiasco loses none of its horror. James spent opening night, January 5th, 1895, seeing Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and repaired to the St. James Theatre in time for the closing curtain of his own play, unaware of the jeers that had interrupted the hero’s speeches. The producer and star, George Alexander, for reasons of his own, led James onstage, where he endured fifteen minutes of hoots and catcalls mingled with some valiant but unavailing applause. Imagine that hypersensitive, supremely worldly yet in some ways clueless soul facing such an uproar: it must have been like the massacre of innocents. And why did he stand there so long, anyway? Some rarefied notion of honor?

Less well known is that the eruption was later rumored to be the work of a claque with some grudge against Alexander. And that Guy Domville was politely if not lavishly praised by a number of critics, including George Bernard Shaw, and ran calmly for four more weeks. No matter, the damage was done.

James was crushed and renounced the theater for the time being. He pulled himself together, though: “I take up my own old pen again—the pen of all my old unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles. To myself—today—I need say no more. It is now indeed that I may do the work of my life. And I will.” And he did: over the next eight years he wrote seven novels, beginning with The Spoils of Poynton and ending with the great triad of The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl.

But before that efflorescence came The Other House. It might not have existed but for an 1896 invitation by the editor of the Illustrated London News to contribute a “love-story.” The temptation is easy to see: fresh from his humiliation, James wanted money; he wanted to feel wanted; he wanted the wide audience that read the illustrated papers. How about that old scenario? Why not fix it up and get it into print, never mind how or where? He dug out The Promise and began reworking it for serialization. But he found, to his grief, that a play can’t be transformed into a novel simply by rewriting the stage directions as narrative. “In an evil hour,” he writes to Edmund Gosse,

I began to pay the penalty of having arranged to let a current serial begin when I was too little ahead of it, and when it proved a much slower and more difficult job than I expected. The printers and illustrators overtook and denounced me, the fear of breaking down paralyzed me, the combination of rheumatism and fatigue rendered my hand and arm a torture…

But he came through, despite conflicts with the editor over the illustrations, which must have appalled him: the handsome hero with dark mustache; the bad heroine holding a cup of poison—even after James changed the poison to drowning; a shadowy Satan lurking behind her, whispering in her ear. The Other House, as it was now called, was finished in haste, with the British and American editions coming out the same year.

Two contrasting houses are emblematic of rigor and laxity. One is stately, reliable Eastmead, presided over by Mrs. Beever, a banker’s widow who, like her furniture, is “so ‘early Victori-an’ as to be prehistoric.” The mother of slow, ungainly, but good-hearted Paul, she has his future bride, the Good Heroine Jean Martle, all picked out. In the neighboring but very other house, Bounds (where the people are out of bounds), lives Tony Bream, a type James portrays with canny panache: while far from nouveau riche—Tony is Mrs. Beever’s friend and partner in the old, rock-solid bank—his furnishings are suspiciously new and fashionable; his nature is a touch too readily accommodating, his manners too smooth. Tony is honorable, but his endless charm makes him dangerous: women fall in love with him; he likes it, and lets them. In James’s world, this amounts to irresponsibility, with fatal results.

For the most significant change from his original idea is that the child victim does in fact die—offstage, which is just as well. Murders of the spirit and psychological terrorism abound in James, but a crime complete with corpse and villain makes The Other House unique. Leon Edel takes the “murder of innocence” to be purgative, “as if some remote little being within James himself had been ‘exterminated’ by the audience during that crucial night a year and a half earlier.” If so, James might have attempted to give the child some reality: more prop than character, the prettified, mute four-year-old passed from lap to lap is hardly a satisfying vehicle for catharsis.

The crime is committed out of rampant passion: a woman wants a man so badly that she’ll remove the impediment with her bare hands, hold the body underwater until it goes limp. This is far beyond what Kate Croy would be willing to do to Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove—though as it happens, Rose Armiger, James’s most wicked female conniver, is a precursor of the more circumspect Kate; for a really great novel, she had to be tempered and refined, like sugar.

True to its roots, The Other House reads like a play fleshed out with detailed stage directions: “Gradually, as she talked, he faced round again; she stood there supported by the high back of a chair, either side of which she held tight.” Books First, Second, and Third correspond to three acts, set in a drawing room, a garden, and another drawing room, with characters coming and going, mostly in twos and threes, twining and untwining their intricate relationships; the scenes, or chapters, are crowded with incident and end abruptly at cliffhanging moments, usually when a new character enters, as in French drama.

Book One, set in Bounds, opens with a shameless pretext to set the plot in motion. Tony’s wife, dying offstage after childbirth, insists that he vow not to remarry. Grief-stricken, he agrees, knowing her demand comes less from jealousy than from her miserable childhood at the hands of a stepmother. At the urging of the wife’s old friend, Rose Armiger, the promise is morbidly modified to last only for the lifetime of the newborn child. Enter Rose’s fiancé, Dennis Vidal, fresh from two years in China, with excellent financial pros-pects. But Rose, wagering on the wife’s death and her own chances with Tony, sends Dennis packing.

Book Two, set in Mrs. Beever’s garden four years later, offers one of the most delectable tangles James ever concocted. Young Paul Beever loves Rose (who loves Tony) but is under mother’s orders to propose to Jean, who turns him down because she too loves Tony. Tony returns Jean’s love but can’t marry anyone, which hasn’t prevented him from occasionally seeing Rose in London, maybe even sleeping with her—with James one never knows. To complicate matters, Rose’s jilted suitor returns. In a cold, controlled panic, Rose drowns Effie and tries to frame Jean for the crime, leaving the way clear for herself and Tony.

A lot of plot—and that’s the simplified version.

The denouement, in swift, fraught scenes, is a shocker. Soon enough, everyone figures out who the culprit is; with the help of the family doctor, they conspire to have Rose whisked away by Dennis. The crime goes unpunished. “Her doom,” Tony tells the outraged Jean, “will be to live.” Leon Edel was outraged too, and charged that the ending “defies the tradition of murder stories.”

Rose doesn’t regret her crime; like James, she doesn’t seem to grasp it as a physical fact. She regrets only having failed of her purpose. For in time, we’re given to understand, Tony and Jean will marry: the rather heavy irony is that Rose has successfully removed the child who was their obstacle.

James had high hopes. He wrote his brother William that the novel showed “symptoms of being the most successful thing I have put forth for a long time. If that’s what the idiots want, I can give them their bellyful.” He was mistaken. While the novel did go into a second edition, it wasn’t reprinted until 1947. Most later critics treated it with perfunctory dismissals: it gets three passing mentions in F.W. Dupee’s 1951 biography and two lines in Fred Kaplan’s 1992 study, The Imagination of Genius.

Those who did comment found it “distinctly unpleasant,” “inhuman,” even “the one altogether evil book that he ever wrote.” (Were the others only partially so?) Edmund Wilson was succinct: “Dreadful.” A few critics, following Edel, saw it as the projection of James’s own trauma, a kind of Slough of Despond on his artistic pilgrimage: “Without such a sojourn in the abyss as it represents he would never have attained to the full-bodied affirmation of the last and greatest period.” Thus the born-again theory of literary evolution.

And now The Other House turns up again. Should anyone bother to reprint it? To read it?

Yes, and definitely yes. Not for the anomaly of the murder, which plenty of lesser writers do far better. But for the devilishly tortuous situation, first of all. (Who would have thought we’d read James for plot?) For the ferocity of the heroine’s passion. Above all for the instructive spectacle of genius on a bad day.

Precisely because it is misguided and abstracted in parts, this peculiar novel about the potency of evil serves up James raw rather than cooked, so to speak. Just as the late photos reveal what youth and pride might have taken pains to conceal, The Other House shows his falterings and blind spots alongside the subtlety and convolution: for one thing, heady, analytic dialogues while a small soggy corpse lies in the next room are preposterous. More happily, it demonstrates what he could do so innately well that no bitterness or haste or desperate ambition could impede it. Genius may be perverse, but it’s also irrepressible.

The Other House contains some of the most harrowing, compressed, and ambiguous scenes James ever wrote. Take Rose’s tense predicament when Dennis first returns to claim her: she must delay her answer while she waits to learn whether Tony’s wife will die in the next room—that is, whether a better opportunity is about to open. She holds off the entreating Dennis with seductive agonies of teasing until he cries out,

“You’re not sincere—you’re not straight… You’re only gaining time, and you’ve only been doing so from the first. I don’t know what it’s for—you’re beyond me; but if it’s to back out I’ll be hanged if I’ll give you a moment.”

In the face of Rose’s obfuscations, this straight talk is enormously effective. What Dennis can’t know, but a clever reader of thrillers might, is that Rose already has a glimmer of the crime she’ll commit four years later, in hopes of winning Tony.

Their scene together after the murder is an even better mix of maddening duplicity and startling frankness, as sly Rose manipulates Dennis into shielding her with an alibi. James leaps from his wildly hermetic mode—“‘You like it [his loyalty, I think] so much on your side that you appear to have engaged in measures to create it even before the argument for it had acquired the force that you give such a fine account of’”—to exchanges like:

“If I count on you, it’s to support me. If I say things, it’s for you to say them.”

“Even when they’re black lies?” Dennis brought out. Her answer was immediate.

“What need should I have of you if they were white ones?”

The juxtaposition makes for fireworks—a bit showy, sure, but irresistible.

The climactic confrontation between Rose and Jean is a barely veiled cat fight, while Effie, with only minutes left to live, sits placidly imprisoned on Rose’s lap. Plotting to deflect suspicion, Rose confounds her rival with lies and insinuations that Jean herself might kill the child out of passion. Innocent and aghast, Jean swears she loves Effie and will never marry. That, Rose snaps, “has exactly as much and as little weight as your word for it. I leave it to your conscience to estimate that wonderful amount.” And she stalks off, carrying Effie toward the river dividing the two houses.

This can be great fun to read, once we accept we’re not going to get quite what we came for. Scene after scene offers a quick, lustrous dazzle showered on a subject James hasn’t the will to deepen with the rich resonance of meditation. Elsewhere, as he explains time and again in the Prefaces, his subject is the parade of impressions and perceptions through an individual consciousness, not the stagey events that generate them. Isabel Archer’s realization of what she has made of her life, Strether’s growing awareness of what he’s not made of his: these are the thrills that propel The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors. In The Other House, the refinements of character are minimal: Rose casts “a measureless white ray,” “a great cold luster.” The glories are sharp and snazzy, not profound. Because it was conceived as a play—and never thoroughly reimagined as a novel—we get no inner life, no nascent, intimate awareness, none of the shape and innuendo of emotion gathering and solidifying.

Instead of marking the motions of the mind, James blocks out his characters’ moves. Upon learning of the death of his child, Tony “dropped upon a bench with his wretched face in his hands, while Rose, with a passionate wail, threw herself, appalled, on the grass, and their companion, in a colder dismay, looked from one prostrate figure to the other.” The dramatic form also persists in pesky circumlocutions: “An observer of the scene would not have failed to divine…” Or, “Tony’s face, for an initiated observer, would have shown…” Those “observers,” or sometimes “auditors,” are the vestigial audience, silent witnesses in the theater of James’s mind.

All this is genius with a headache or a heartache, scattering itself with abandon: a performance worth watching. And one that exposes, more defiantly than anywhere else, a raw anarchic streak. That James violates the traditions of the murder novel by letting the crime go unpunished isn’t surprising. Since when did his moral agons take place in any ordinary world of judges or juries? One arresting virtue of The Other House is its insistence on making its own rules. Police or medical examiners would be out of place; James’s justice is a form of elite vigilantism. There is no polity, only the clutch of characters—and a few servants to be placated with lies. In its consistency of vision, its perverse refusal to honor the conventions, The Other House is beautifully whole, as its author might say. And deeply unsettling—not the master we thought we knew.

In 1909, at the age of sixty-six, his great work behind him, James was once more writing plays, which says something about blind tenacity. Two of them, both based on old stories, were staged. Then he turned again to The Other House. Was it the abiding good husbandry of the true professional? Why let the old scenario go to waste? He managed to get a producer interested, but practical difficulties arose, and besides, James was “sickened” by the cuts and changes made to his script. Clearly he hated to let it go. Perhaps its theme, the unbridled ruthlessness that passion can lead to, wouldn’t let him go. The play was never produced.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of many books, most recently In the Family Way (a novel) and Face to Face (a collection of essays). She lives in New York.

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