The Magazine

James in Spirit

Just how Catholic was the Master? Not very.

May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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The Catholic Side of Henry James

by Edwin Sill Fussell

Cambridge, 192 pp., $29.99

Among the usual pitfalls in critical writing about Henry James, two are all too familiar: One is the temptation to contest the Master in subtlety, his being "a mind too fine to be violated by ideas" in the famous formulation of T. S. Eliot. Another is to patronize unwashed readers who fail to rise to the strenuousness of James's more difficult prose. Edwin Sill Fussell's intermittently valuable study falls afoul of both temptations, and often.

But what, to begin with, might one mean by the "Catholic side" of a writer who was not a Roman Catholic--or even, necessarily, a conventional believer? Perhaps the tales and novels in which an Old World religiosity is invoked, as in The American or "The Altar of the Dead." Or the transformation of Anglican ritual and practice after the Oxford Movement of the 1830s. That movement fostered famous "conversation narratives," as Fussell
calls them, most famously that of John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman. And incontestably, as the author contends, there was in the English-speaking world of James's day a complacent "Protestant" bias, much of which has faded since Vatican II and the ecumenical attitudes flowing from it.

For the most part, however, Fussell scants these obvious critical strategies in favor of an assiduous, often minute, inspection of James's tales for evanescent overtones of Roman Catholic preoccupations and what he calls "Catholic language." He grants that James himself was never of the faith nor even, despite an occasional "wobble," tempted by it. Yet a teller of tales whose father suffered a transforming spiritual "vastation," and became a major exponent of Swedenborgian mysticism, and whose brother dabbled in psychic experiment and wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, is perhaps a natural target.

He might at least be suspected of a religious sensibility. But that isn't to say that Fussell's probe, however intriguing in detail, is persuasive. In fact, The Catholic Side of Henry James calls to mind a classic satire--purportedly a review of Lady Chatterley's Lover in a professional gamekeeper's magazine, professing dismay at the sacrifice of gamekeeping information to irrelevant chatter about sex. Here, Fussell's obsessive tracking of minute, and to other eyes sometimes invisible, signals of Roman Catholicity ultimately overwhelms his interpretive focus. And occasionally, good sense as well.

It is always useful, in encounters with polemical works of this sort, to know something of the author's own spiritual life and history. But the only clue here is a passing reference to his youthful experience in a "Presbyterian conventicle." The patronizing noun says it all. Indeed, this brief autobiographical fragment raises a suspicion that we are dealing with the familiar convert's zeal; and that the patronizing tone is compensation for the deprivations and shallows to which the author was subjected in such a "conventicle" in younger years.

But that is speculation. What is far from speculative is the constant distortion to which Fussell's readings of Henry James often lead--the eye of the gamekeeper, so to say. Fussell fails throughout to acknowledge that what he calls "Catholic" language--for instance, "remission" of sins, "lift up your hearts," or "gathered with thy saints in glory"--doesn't necessarily signal borrowing, or theft, from the Latin Mass. Along with Greek myth, the English Bible and its precursors and the Book of Common Prayer have, for centuries, provided an armory of metaphor for English fiction. James's echoes of it are not at all uncommon. Nor need they telegraph the messages and implications that Fussell assumes they do.

Of course, the acid test of Fussell's theme, whatever it may be, is his reading of James's tales and phrases in such novels as The Portrait of a Lady, The Golden Bowl, and The Ambassadors and in such novellas as The Turn of the Screw. Of Fussell's peculiar critical method there is no better example than his flat insistence that the American millionaire Adam Verver, one of four principal figures in The Golden Bowl, is a Roman Catholic. Since this is a tale of disloyalty, deviousness, and adultery and its redemptive resolution by Adam Verver's ethereally charitable daughter Maggie, it is unclear why Verver's affiliation is of importance.

Fussell's argument hangs on an intricate Jamesian sentence: "Mr. Verver himself had been loosely willing always to let [the Roman faith] be taken for his--without the solid ease of which .  .  . the drama of [his daughter's] marriage [to a highborn Italian] mightn't have been acted out." But what does Verver's willingness to let an assumption be "taken for" a fact mean (especially in a drama being "acted out") if not that the assumption isn't strictly a fact? This example serves for many other strained readings, and Henry James was not a clumsy writer of English.

Then there is Fussell's interpretation of The Turn of the Screw, a "mad tale" (might he mean a tale of madness?) as he calls it. This famous story is wrought with exquisite ambiguity and commonly viewed as a ghost story of the haunted house variety. The ghosts are two miscreant former servants, both now dead, who in the view of a governess are bent on corrupting two children under her charge. By all but universal consensus, the issue is whether the governess's detection of evil is delusional--whether the menacing ghosts are or are not real presences. (And I use such a liturgical metaphor at great risk, for notwithstanding its post-Reformation resonance, Fussell would certainly pounce on it as proof of a cryptic allusion to Catholicism.)

The author gives us an allegorical reading of the tale--and yes, he uses the word "allegory" explicitly: "The threat to the children," he writes, "suggests .  .  . the historical threat of return by the presumptively rejected and destroyed .  .  . pre-Reformation Roman Catholic English past, or even, more dreadful yet, recognition that that horrific past .  .  . had deviously managed to survive."

So far as more literal-minded readers can see, Fussell's dragging in of 16th-century English history, even as "suggestion," is gratuitous. It is tempting to dismiss such unconventional readings, which abound here, as absurd. But dogmatic dismissal would commit the endemic fault of this interesting book. It would merely echo the warped readings of Henry James and his literary ambiance that mark its pages from first to last.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. wrote about Henry James in his recent novel Lions at Lamb House.