RALPH PENDEREL, the hero of that tantalizingly unfinished fragment by Henry James, The Sense of the Past, had written -- it was his only literary achievement -- an unpretending work called An Essay in aid of the Reading of History. From all we ever hear of this work it sounds a not very original consideration of the magic of old places and old things, redeemed by the extraordinary intensity with which its author experienced a relatively commonplace romantic emotion. 'There are particular places,' Ralph Penderel is supposed to have written, 'where things have happened, places enclosed and ordered and subject to the continuity of life, mostly, that seem to put us into communication, and the spell is sometimes made to work by the imposition of hands, if it be patient enough, on an old object or an old surface.' There is nothing very remarkable in the sentiment, but we are asked to believe that Ralph Penderel's attachment to the past, or rather to surviving objects of the past, was a faith strong enough to work a miracle, and transfer him back a century in time.
Even in fiction such miracles are to be distrusted, although the surviving pages of The Sense of the Past suggest that Henry James would have explored the impossible situation with a rare subtlety. But I have pirated his title because it indicates the nature of a problem, part historical, part literary, which has in-