Between 1896 and 1899, Henry James published a series of remarkable novels and stories which are told primarily from the point of view of a girl or a young woman: The Other House, What Maisie Knew, The Turn of the Screw, The Spoils of Poynton, ‘In the Cage’ and The Awkward Age. According to Leon Edel, the series belongs to a period of experimentation in James’s career, between the humiliating collapse of his theatrical venture in 1895, and the triumphant inauguration of his ‘major phase’ in 1900, when he began work on The Ambassadors (Edel 1969, pp. 246-50). During this period, Edel suggests, James was preparing the ground for the achievement of the late novels, extending and refining his narrative technique, attempting the unusual.
Edel’s account is too confidently teleological. James was certainly experimenting, but his experiments didn’t always take him in the direction of The Ambassadors. The woman-centred stories are among his least mandarin. He put himself out, as he rarely did before or after, to write from the point of view of protagonists who did not resemble him. The heroine of ‘In the Cage’, for example, is his most convincing lower-middle-class character. These protagonists are not innocents abroad, like Daisy Miller and Isobel Archer. They are innocents at home, menaced by what is most familiar, by family itself. The woman-centred stories represent an interlude in James’s career.
They are preceded by one story about a male protagonist in obsessive pursuit of knowledge, ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ (1895), and followed by another, The Sacred Fount (1901). In these stories the desire for meaning becomes itself the only meaning of desire, its articulation the only possible activity. What is different about the woman-centred stories is that they suspend this obsession
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Publication information: Book title: The English Novel in History, 1895-1920. Contributors: David Trotter - Author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1993. Page number: 230.
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