Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure

Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure

Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure

Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure

Synopsis

Tessa Hadley examines how Henry James progressively disentangles himself from the moralizing frame through which English-language novels in the nineteenth century had visualized sexual passion. Hadley argues that his relationship with the European novel tradition was crucial, helping to leave behind the belief that only bad women could be sexual. She explores the emphasis James placed on the power of pleasure and play--themes central to his ambitious goal to represent the privileges and the pains of turn-of-the-century leisure class society.

Excerpt

Tone is everything in The Ambassadors (1903): it is the very subject of the novel. Strether has to mediate, like James in his letters from Paris to his family at home in the 1870s, Old World sophisticated moeurs for New World decencies. Is there a tone he can find — playful? ironic? appealing? — in which he can reconcile a Sarah Pocock or a Mrs Newsome with a Mme de Vionnet? Will he be able to make out a language in which the one can imagine the other? All those thick missives he dispatches across the Atlantic represent his sincere effort to translate the one tone-world into another; to bring about, by his own sheer efforts of imagination-inlanguage, their mutual transparency.

It is in the very nuances of his language, too, that he stands most accused by Sarah of defection (like the younger Henry accused by William James of 'French tricks' in his letters): the crimson spots burn brighter in her cheeks and she is — significantly — lost for words when he tries on her his little galanterie, his sample of 'how Parisians could talk':

'And yet, dear Sarah,' he freely broke in, 'I feel when I hear you say that, that you don't quite do justice to the important truth of the extent to which — as you're also mine — I'm your natural due. I should like much better,' he laughed, 'to see you fight for me.'

She met him, Mrs Pocock, on this, with an arrest of speech. (342)

The challenge, then, for a reading of The Ambassadors, is to find a tone in keeping with the spirit of the novel itself. And the danger that always hovers is that the critical mode will not be able to sustain the novel's lightness, its poise between New World earnestness and Old World elegance where both — however the balance finally tips — have their weight. Of its nature criticism tends towards earnestness. Although readings of the novel cannot but take its essential point, its essential tenderness towards the transgressive love affair, it is surprising how often there lurks submerged in the critical prose a Puritanical schoolmaster who sounds more like . . .

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