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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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.