"A Sense of Something Lost": The Unlived Jamesian Life in Algernon Blackwood's "The Tryst"

By Thompson, Terry W. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

"A Sense of Something Lost": The Unlived Jamesian Life in Algernon Blackwood's "The Tryst"


Thompson, Terry W., Papers on Language & Literature


The last few decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth have often been described as "the golden age of the English ghost story" (Cox and Gilbert xiii). This was a rarified time "when authors excelled themselves at producing" highly literate and learned tales of the otherworldly and the uncanny (Lamb 10). Celebrated writers like Mary Elizabeth Braddon ("The Shadow in the Corner"), M. R. James ("Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad"), Oliver Onions ("The Beckoning Fair One"), Arthur Machen ("The Great God Pan"), and a host of other well dressed, upper-crust authors became household names on both sides of the Atlantic as they brought forth a seemingly endless supply of subtle, elegant, and understated--though still quite effective--little chillers, frightening enough to delight the reading masses while still layered and complex enough to satisfy, even challenge, the more demanding turn-of-the-century readers. In their heyday, claims Michael Ashley, these renowned authors of the apparitional "were the stars that brought light and life and fascination to the world" (xviii). Although not born an Englishman, the American writer Henry James certainly qualifies for membership in this elevated company of English ghost masters since his haunting and psychologically profound supernatural tales frequently find their way into thick British anthologies of this consistently popular and stubbornly resilient genre. One of James's most popular themes, one to which the prolific author returned time and again in his supernatural fiction as well as in his personal correspondence, is the tormenting specter of what the critic Millicent Bell refers to as "the rival reality of the unlived life," that is to say, the life that, due to a person's choices and decisions, can never actually be lived but can only be dreamt about, can only exist in warm, golden reveries of what might have been had different roads been taken, had other possibilities been explored (27). Indeed, some might argue that the vast majority of James's writings contain at least some elements of this poignant longing for--and dreaming of--the unlived, unrealized life.

Among Henry James's many forays into the supernatural genre, "The Jolly Corner," which first appeared in 1909, is one of the most widely anthologized. The concept of the unlived life has perhaps its finest and most memorable venue in this much-admired story, which, according to Richard A. Hocks, "probe[s] the caverns and weirs of abnormal psychology, especially the condition of obsession" (5). In this dark, shadowy work that "at once reinvents the very genre of 'double' literature and simultaneously condenses rich and multitudinous levels of meaning into an economy of form" (Hocks 5-6), the nineteenth century is just turning as an American expatriate returns to his native New York City from Europe after a self-imposed exile of thirty-three years. Upon his repatriation, the middle-aged protagonist, Spencer Brydon, becomes consumed, almost to the point of madness, with the life that he did not get to live. During his lengthy absence--unbroken by any visits back to his home country--Brydon lived a very comfortable, very luxurious European life. He enjoyed the best of the Old World's opulence and grace--plays and operas, symphonies and museums, soirees and cotillions. When he returns to America, however, to take possession of a pair of rambling Manhattan brownstones which, due to the death of his last relative, he now stands to inherit, he is stunned by all the bustle of New York City, all of its Gilded Age noise and industry. As a result, Brydon becomes obsessed with the man he might have become had he stayed in New York for those thirty-three years and lived an American life, filled with less culture perhaps, less sophistication and nuance, but incalculably richer with more opportunity and, hence, more possibilities, more avenues from which to select a proper destiny.

Wherever he wanders in the thriving, energetic city, Brydon is, as he phrases it, "assaulted" by "the differences, the newnesses, the queernesses, above all the bignesses" of this strange, unfamiliar, yet still compelling America (James 603). …

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"A Sense of Something Lost": The Unlived Jamesian Life in Algernon Blackwood's "The Tryst"
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