The Magazine

The American Woman

What Henry James Knew

Nov 13, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 09 • By LAUREN WEINER
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American women hold few surprises, if you've read your Henry James. His high political satire about the suffrage movement, The Bostonians, showed all the way back in 1886 that the most salient and least rational feature of feminism would be its radical egalitarianism. He knew what our own era's feminists would be theorizing about -- because he knew their sisters over a century ago. His nuanced but incisive generalizations about America's maidens and matrons could have been written today.

He even foresaw the difficulty of ever resolving the problem of American women. The Portrait of a Lady famously ends "up in the air" -- and James may well cut off his story where he did as an acknowledgment that he could not realistically portray the ideal of womanhood that his heroine Isabel promised: a woman who had the best of both Europe and America, a woman who had made herself highly civilized without losing "the value of the Puritan residuum." For James, this "glimpsed ideal" -- to use F. R. Leavis's term -- was just that: an ideal. Excessive and selfish autonomy was the danger he saw lying in wait for his real-life countrywomen.

The French writer Leon Daudet said that James had "an ironic gift, of a benevolent kind." James's favorite subject upon which to train both that irony and that benevolence was the American woman. In his novels and stories she reveals herself to be an undisciplined, lively, direct, brave, complacent, foolish sort of creature. From Daisy Miller to Isabel Archer to James's memorial of his cousin, Minny Temple, written not long before he died in 1916, the author's renown rested on his keen understanding of the "new woman" -- she who so "infinitely amused the nations."

That phrase is from James's 1907 The American Scene, in which he observed that the American woman "had been grown in an air in which a hundred of the 'European' complications and dangers didn't exist, and in which also she had to take upon herself a certain training for freedom. It was not that she had, in the vulgar sense, to 'look out' for herself, inasmuch as it was of the very essence of her position not to be threatened or waylaid."

That unwaylayability is something we ought to recognize. Look around and we can see what he's talking about. There she is -- sitting behind the principal's desk; reporting live from inside the men's locker room; needling her husband, in front of strangers, because his jacket and tie don't match. James's American women are not just who we were, but who we are.

Since the mid-twentieth century, when Cornelia Kelley, Leon Edel, and others dusted off what were, at that time, the largely forgotten works of James, interest in his writing has not flagged. New books of his correspondence and journalism continue to be published, and a complete edition of his fiction and criticism rolls off the presses of the Library of America in steady installments. The movie adaptations keep coming: The last decade alone has seen filmings of The Golden Bowl, The American, Washington Square, The Wings of the Dove, The Portrait of a Lady -- to say nothing of the six versions of James's horror story "The Turn of the Screw."

And all because of the free and constant way this writer was able to draw upon his "quick empathy for the female young," as Edel put it. The American woman was mistress of her situation in a country that recognized the right of self-government. She was left to develop herself according to her own lights -- and could pick her own husband, a liberty not allowed women elsewhere. James liked, in his fiction, to watch what happened when he uprooted this "most freely encouraged plant in our democratic garden" and placed her in Europe, where she met with the social restrictions of a more traditional way of life. By dramatizing this encounter from every angle, he showed his admiration for, as well as his misgivings about, the American woman.

The admiration and the misgivings describe a kind of moral arc. Or, better, two cross-cutting arcs, if what I call his "female juggernauts" -- American matrons -- are added to the mix. When it comes to young women, the reaction of the senses comes first. James is delighted with the animation and grace of a Bessie Alden in "An International Episode" (1878) or a Pandora Day in "Pandora" (1884) -- and so are the men in his stories, on both sides of the Atlantic. But then, through the scrapes their energetic natures get them into, he brings out the effect of their overreaching: sometimes humorous, but more frequently poignant and tragic.

While American maidens often begin with James's admiration and end in tragedy, the forceful middle-aged ladies often begin with James's aversion and end with something like his esteem. Faced with Mrs. Walker in "Daisy Miller" (1878) or Mrs. Newsome in The Ambassadors (1903), men often react with outrage. (As James once said of his American expatriate friend, Mrs. Jack Gardner: "She's not a woman, she's a locomotive, with a Pullman car attached.") The horrified male getting run over by a female juggernaut provides some of the best comedy in James. But then, playing out the matrons' independent-mindedness, James respects their willingness to intervene to fix mistakes and to right the wrongs around them. The American juggernauts -- the non-Continentalized, at least -- retain "the value of the Puritan residuum."

The newest Library of America volume, containing James's earliest fiction, offers in the 1870 "Travelling Companions" a kind of dry run of Daisy Miller's compromised situation -- and a preliminary version, too, of the unhappily married Isabel Archer (in the 1874 "Madame de Mauves"). Interestingly, two of the three early tales about non-Americans read like editorials against the oppressiveness of the European arranged marriage. In "Gabrielle de Bergerac" (1869), set in France, the title character loves a son of the peasantry and chafes against having to marry the weak nobleman selected for her by her intemperate elder brother. In "At Isella" (1871), an American tourist aids a young Italian wife's escape from the awful spouse foisted upon her.

James's understanding of the politics of the relation between men and women is clear from early on: The American woman might use her freedom unwisely by choosing a bad husband, but it is far worse never to have the choice. Christopher Newman learns this the hard way in The American (1877), James's first major novel. Newman goes to France in search of a refined wife but runs afoul of European deference to authority. He discovers -- and deplores -- primogeniture, which wastes the talents of Valentin de Bellegarde, a second son. He fails to pry Valentin's sister, Claire, from the clutches of the Bellegarde family. Claire shuts herself away in a convent because she can't marry Newman.

James continually worked toward the truth by means of contrast. A year after writing The American he came up with "Daisy Miller," the story that made him internationally famous. At its coarsest, the story asks whether a girl who is given her head, even to the point of being in charge of her family's foreign travels, is at all distinguishable from a shallow sex-pot. That we end up attributing moral weight to the story of the coltishly perverse Daisy is a great artistic feat on the part of the thirty-four-year-old James. He gets us to take Daisy seriously by having us see her through the eyes of Winterbourne, a deracinated American. Winterbourne is prim but powerfully attracted to the beautiful and forward girl; he only belatedly understands that her spiritedness is not licentiousness.

Chattering to Winterbourne about her inability to fit in with the hightoned ladies of the American colonies in Rome and Geneva, Daisy sounds, somehow, both ignorant and witty: "I like a lady to be exclusive; I'm dying to be exclusive myself. Well, we are exclusive, mother and I. We don't speak to everyone -- or they don't speak to us. I suppose it's about the same thing."

Snubbed by her compatriots, she lets a shady Italian befriend her. The ostracism she endures as a result wears her down. By the time Winterbourne discerns her distress signals, she's dead. Readers tend to find the portentously timed case of malaria hokey and take it as a judgment upon her for her improprieties. They're half right. It is hokey -- but necessary. Daisy's death puts her beyond rescue precisely so that Winterbourne can have his rueful realization on the last page: "I have lived too long in foreign parts." He is conscious of having "done her injustice" -- conscious, in other words, of having lost the combination of forthrightness and charity that prompts Americans to help one another in times of need.

As one of the expatriates in "Madame de Mauves" puts it: "The silliest American woman is too good for the best foreigner, and the poorest of us have moral needs that the cleverest Frenchman is quite unable to appreciate." James clearly did not think much of the international marriage as a way of improving American stock. Judging by the jilted and the also-rans in his fiction -- people like Newman, Caspar Goodwood, Ralph Touchett, young Mr. Wendover, Richard Clare -- he believed that American men, even if their manners were rough, were capable of more genuinely respecting women than were their polished European counterparts. What the American male had to cope with was the initiative-grabbing of the American female, which was apt to put him off his game.

There is an entire class of American wives in James who haven't chosen American spouses, and who therefore come to no good. These women -- dubbed "the fly-away wives" in one story -- are a rogue's gallery of schemers, flirts, and spongers. They tend to be already widowed or separated from their German, English, or Swiss husbands -- such as Baroness Muenster of The Europeans (1878), young Mrs. Berrington of "A London Life" (1889), or Isabel Archer's false friend, the self-defeating scamp Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady (1881). The femininity of the flyaway wife is of the insinuating sort. Only in a late work, with Maggie Verver and Prince Amerigo in The Golden Bowl (1904), does he present international marriage as redeemable.

One would think the process by which an American maiden becomes a matron would preoccupy Henry James. He created his Portrait of a Lady by applying to that process all the psychological acuity at his command. Yet this performance -- arguably his finest as a novelist -- is unique. It follows an egotistical but unformed girl all the way through courtship, engagement, and several years of marriage. James's task is to convince us that such a smart person could make such a stupid choice as Gilbert Osmond for her husband.

When one's wife boldly persists in forming her own opinions, there is, in Osmond's words, "nothing left but to hate her." Isabel's friend Henrietta Stackpole declares that separation is justified when the marital bond frays this badly. Yet the model of the separated wife that Isabel has before her is one she cannot bring herself to follow. Her aunt, Mrs. Touchett, has rebelled against her husband for no discernible cause. She is, as Isable comes to realize, so independent that she fails to provide wifely affection, or guidance to her niece, or aid to her sickly son. Although the novel ends ambiguously, its trajectory is plain: Isabel will remain with Gilbert Osmond to protect her step-daughter from being crushed by his domestic tyranny. So Europe can, paradoxically, improve an American -- not by raising her station in life, but by imposing a moral burden few could bear. Isabel Osmond, nee Archer, offers James his "glimpsed ideal."

But a glimpse is as near as he could get -- perhaps because it was as near as American women themselves could get. Whenever the international theme is in play, James's plots hinge on Americans saving one another or failing to do so. The biographer Lyndall Gordon contends that Henry James himself was not the dutiful friend he should, by his own standard, have been, and that his shortcomings were crucial to his development as a writer. Gordon's A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art is an erratic but worthwhile account of James's friendships with his cousin Minny Temple and with Constance Fenimore Woolson, the grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper, both of whom were sources for his fictional characters.

Gordon is overzealous in trying to hoist James by his own petard. Still, taking her cue from Leon Edel, she makes a good case that the man -- the elusive and selfish bachelor -- and the artist come together to produce what she calls "dramas of contrition." While in his late twenties, James neglected to heed the polite but clear appeals that reached him in Europe from Temple, a twenty-five-year-old dying of tuberculosis in wintry Albany, New York.

Pangs of guilt are worked and reworked, transfigured into high art. Winterbourne's failure to act on his desire for Daisy, Longmore's inability to mitigate Madame de Mauve's sorrow, the realization of John Marcher (in 1903's "The Beast in the Jungle") that in not marrying May Bartram he has wasted his life and hers, Merton Densher's manipulation of the fatally ill young heiress Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove (1902) -- all can be called dramas of contrition. So can other works not considered in depth by Gordon. But the fact that one can speak of Jamesian "types" does not mean his character-making is mechanical. This "historian of fine consciences," as Joseph Conrad dubbed James, combined and recombined his favored elements. He projected his own traits into many different characters, not just the hesitating men.

The activism of the American woman was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville well before James's female juggernaut, "hinting ominously at her powers of disapproval," came onto the scene. In a way, James was a Tocquevillian outsider in his native country, making several trips back to the United States after settling in England in the 1870s. His social criticism and journalism, some of which Pierre A. Walker has newly gathered in Henry fames on Culture, often tried to gauge the effects of the sexual division of labor that Tocqueville saw in America.

In the early years of the republic, the Frenchman noted, those in charge of manners and morals were women because the men -- all except the preachers, that is -- were busy clearing the forests. James found the American male's narrowness of interest to be a persistent defect. The men, James wrote, had left women "encamped on every inch of the social area that the stock-exchange and the football-field leave free." So while Europe stood for culture and America for morality, in the United States both culture and morality were, by reason of male abdication, under the "queenship" of females who had "a fostered sense of themselves . . . as creatures absolute."

On the cultural front, their stewardship was not going at all well. In "The Speech of American Women" and "The Manners of American Women" -- which Walker compiles from James's articles in Harper's Bazaar from 1907 and 1908 -- the novelist assails the meager attainments of the "ladies' culture-clubs" that dotted the "interior" of the country. On the moral front, his assessment becomes more mixed. It contains eye-rolling exasperation, affection, and grudging respect bordering on fear -- the charming combination that still marks the decent American male's attitude toward his mother, his older sister, his wife, and whoever organizes the bake sales at church.

Isabel's confidante, the bumptious Henrietta Stackpole, is the prime case. Henrietta bowls over the men around her. But she is used as a kind of moral index: Males who find their way to appreciating Henrietta as "an emanation of the great democracy" (as Isabel puts it) have the author's good opinion; a sign of Gilbert Osmond's villainy is that he "never . . . admitted that she is a woman." We sometimes need to be told the strict truth about ourselves, and a Henrietta Stackpole can be counted on to bluntly set us right.

But the Jamesian reverse side of the picture is that, in sexual terms, Gilbert Osmond does have a point: The forthright American woman trips up the approach and response of the male-female mating dance. What James's female characters, young and old, add up to is nothing less than a moral education of his readers. The point is twofold, indirectly but unmistakably conveyed to us. On the one hand, a modicum of frankness and female independence ought to be maintained. On the other hand, Americans also need tact and some degree of acquiescence to the conventions (though not too much, or they will soon be guilty of the sophisticated hypocrisy that a corrupt old European society uses to obscure its corruptions).

Perhaps Isabel's story in The Portrait of a Lady had to be cut off because -- with his clear-eyed understanding of the virtues and the vices of both his Daisy Millers and his female juggernauts -- James could only glimpse his ideal. But, as a nation, we have not made much progress toward the ideal in the years since he wrote. Both his maidens and his matrons are still with us.

To read Henry James is to make sense of that seemingly nonsensical young woman who "married a millionaire," sight unseen, on national television, then balked at the arrangement, then confidently expected the world to believe her virtue had been outraged because she was not "that" kind of girl.

And to read James is to understand as well that the Wellesley graduates who go out to "save the world," and who become lawyers and later first ladies, and who attempt to legislate from the distaff side, and who radiate self-right-eousness and restless dissatisfaction, are as American as anyone can be.