The Magazine

The American Woman

What Henry James Knew

Nov 13, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 09 • By LAUREN WEINER
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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.