Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

From Impressionist Paris to Post-Impressionist London: Henry James's and Virginia Woolf's "Painting-in-Writing"

Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

From Impressionist Paris to Post-Impressionist London: Henry James's and Virginia Woolf's "Painting-in-Writing"

Article excerpt

In The Ambassadors (1903), Henry James illustrates a way of depicting visual impressions of a character, corresponding to his brother William James's concept of stream of consciousness. The observation of visual and sensational "atoms" constitutes his narrative form, creating fictional writing as a work of art. Henry James transforms narrative from a depiction of objective events to a portrayal of perception and interpretation of the external visible world through a character's consciousness. His use of visual impressions does not simply express the stream of thought but also explores its complexity in the very process of its formation. The James brothers' writings mark a phenomenon in which the outer visible world and the inner stream of thought are presented as one pure experience in one's own impression. In Henry James's novels, the reader will not realize what has happened until he reaches the very last page. Henry James shows the plot not through events but through the character's complex response to the external world.

In 1905 Virginia Woolf commented that Henry James's way of depicting a simple plot "needs skill of the very highest to make novels out of such everyday material" (E I 22). The Ambassadors illustrates James's "art" of fictional writing. I argue that this novel portrays an Impressionist Paris, because the city is bright, and bathed in sunlight, as in Impressionist paintings. The Impressionist way of depicting sunlight and visual impressions fulfills Henry James's aesthetic theory in "The Art of Fiction" (1884), making fictional writing a form of "fine arts" (James, "Art" 6). In the essay, he highlights the Impressionist view of using visual sensations in writing. This artistic faith backs his theory of fictional writing. Fictional writing is not a "business," which after all only makes a novel a production of "make-believe" plots (James, "Art" 4) to entertain the readers. Rather, the "art" of fiction is "to represent life" (James, "Art" 4-5). In this respect, James's fiction represents the inner life of a character--his or her impression of the external world as filtered through consciousness.

Like Henry James, Virginia Woolf also thinks that "character" is the key element of fictional writing. Indeed, Woolf believes that '[t]he foundation of good fiction is character creating and nothing else' (E III 421). Woolf's "experimental character" (Guiguet 19) has attracted considerable critical attention. Woolf's characters are "experimental," because they are on a quest for the meaning of love and life. Indeed, Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford) saw Night and Day (1919) as a novel which reminded in him very much of the late Henry James (CH 73). Also, in 1982, Eric Warner, in a panel discussion of the Virginia Woolf Centenary Conference at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, said that he himself sees Woolf "very much in the tradition of Henry James, [...], in the sense that she is clearly concerned with a drama of consciousness, a drama of perception, and [...] a quest" (Warner 154). "Character" is equally important in Henry James's and Virginia Woolf's fictional writings.

For James, the process of fictional writing is to select "a myriad forms" of experience (James, "Art" 10). James depicts one's own "impression," as the external world is "perceived" by one's own consciousness. He sees the same attempt on the canvas of the Impressionists. The external visible world is internalized as one's "inner life," which can be objectified through "impressions" in painting and writing. Henry James sees the profound relation between the visual and verbal arts, and their ways of depicting "life":

The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life. When it relinquishes this attempt, the same attempt that we see on the canvas of the painter, it will have arrived at a very strange pass. It is not expected of the picture that it will make itself humble in order to be forgiven; and the analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. …

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