Henry James spent his life avoiding sex and contriving in his fictions strategies of reluctance and shyness in its regard. But the age of Daisy Miller has yielded to that of Diana Spencer, and the Jamesian repressed has returned with a vengeance. A recent biography of James, Henry James: The Young Master by Sheldon M. Novick, presents itself as a chronicle of the writer's erotic life, and a new film of his great 1881 novel, The Portrait of a Lady, by filmmaker Jane Campion thrusts into visibility the story's sexual subtext.
Novick, the author of a biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, is clear enough in his preface about what he is up to: He is going to imagine James's emotional life. "I have taken it for granted that Henry James underwent the ordinary experiences of life: that he separated himself from his enveloping family, that he fell in love with wrong people, that his first sexual encounters were intense but not entirely happy." And these sexual encounters were with "young men. . . . James's sexual orientation, as we now say, has been an open secret for a hundred years." Novick also frankly announces his intention to strip-mine the novels for sexual/emotional autobiography: "When James described some experience with apparent firsthand knowledge, when he evoked with stunning sensuality the experience of being kissed by a man or the memory of a successful seduction, his raw materials -- as he always insisted [did he?] -- most likely were his own memories." Fair warning.
Biography reflects the biographer's culture as much as that of its subject, and there is a feeling abroad that the time may be right for a new consideration of James's life. Leon Edel's five-volume life, which appeared from 1953 to 1972, was an attempt -- noble, solemn, stiff, ponderous -- to understand James according to the lights of a dogmatic Freudianism. If too eager to read this or that in the fiction as a function of James's unconscious (visible to Edel), the work was a great accomplishment and deserves more than Novick's sneers about homophobia and "giggling" (if anything, it was Edel's book that made clear the depth of James's later attachments to younger men). The 1990s being what they are, it was inevitable that we should see a biography fixated on James the gay. But the bulldozing crudeness and clumsiness of Novick's enterprise are staggering nevertheless. He recently told the New York Times, "Henry James writes primarily about, and for, women and gay men, which means he wrote about the majority." If Edel spoke from the Eisenhower-Stevenson age, this vision of novel-writing as canny, Dick Morris-like coalition building marks out Novick as the Clinton of James biographers.
James's early life was wonderfully interesting. He was born in New York in 1843 to an eccentric and nomadic rich family that roamed about Europe before it settled in Newport. His odd father scribbled articles and gave public lectures about a home-brewed religion that combined the crackpot utopianisms of Fourier and Swedenborg. Henry spent the Civil War years in Cambridge, Mass. , at first as a student at Harvard Law School and then as a budding writer for journals in Boston and New York. He spent the rest of his twenties and his thirties learning to know and love three of Europe's sweetest cities: Rome, Paris, and London. He got to know everyone there, everyone in the creative line anyway, and not just Americans. And he read everything. With rigorous industry, he began to produce what is still arguably the richest oeuvre achieved by any American writer
Novick tells this story -- and much more of his own flamboyant invention -- in the excited key of a Harlequin romance or an old twilight-love-that-dare- not-speak-its-name paperback. At 18, James was reading Balzac; in Novickese, this becomes: "Alone in his room, Harry wandered in Balzac's landscape. He observed the pure strong force of which marital love and the most dissolute and abandoned sexual passion were only different aspects. . . Most fascinating of the men and women of Balzac's Paris was the squat, powerful, perversely attractive Vautrin: lover of boys, seducer, . . ."
Dissolve to three years later, to 1865: "In that epochal spring in a rooming house in Cambridge and in his own shuttered bedroom in Ashburton Place, Harry performed his first acts of love." Sex was just what the doctor ordered to juice up Harry's writing: "The element that had been missing from his work was the strong force that binds people together, that confers on the imagination the power to give meaning to experience." So much for the old notion of sublimation; the new People-style bio insists that the pen must be lubricated by sex. And Harry wrote a lot. QED.
And his sex partner? None other than Oliver Wendell Holmes, then a young Civil War vet and womanizing pal of Henry's brother William. The evidence for this unlikely dalliance? A passage from a 1905 journal entry by James that speaks opaquely of his "initiation premiere" in 1865. As Millicent Bell has shown in the Times Literary Supplement, James in 1905 was talking of his long-ago literary initiation, of getting his first articles published. And the fact that Holmes, too, never made the faintest allusion to a mad springtime of taboo passion with Harry, Novick blithely brushes aside by saying that "the encounters with Henry James . . . evidently were not of great importance to Holmes." Don't bother Novick with evidence; he's hellbent on romance. His way with truth comes out in another reference to "that spring of 1865" when "an actor, John Wilkes Booth, during the performance of a play in a Washington theater, leaped from the stage into the boxes and fired a revolver at the president, killing him." Of course, this acrobatic absurdity is the reverse of what actually happened. Here too, Mr. Novick gets his facts ass-backwards.
Novick chases his simplistic theory of literary creation -- Character A = Real-life Person B -- through all the early novels. Cruisy James, it seems, had an active and constant sex life but, because of the cruel "Victorian strictures" of the day, couldn't write about it directly and so pretended he was a series of girls. The Europeans is a little comedy about a pair of European sophisticates visiting a Puritanical Concord (not Cambridge, as Novick thinks). According to Novick, James "took Longfellow's house, and clapped Lowell into it; and turned Howells into a plump, handsome blond parson. James himself peeped out from the grey eyes of his heroine, Gertrude, with disconcerting intelligence." Washington Square is the story of a cruel father, a mousy daughter, and a handsome fortune-hunter; for Novick, it is somehow about Henry James, Sr., and Alice James, the gifted but ailing daughter. There are problems with this reading: The imagined heroine, Catherine Sloper, was the "opposite" of Alice, while the fictional father was "the reverse" of Henry James, St. But never fear. The objections themselves become, with Alice-in-Wonderland logic, proof: "Perhaps even for this reason . . . it became a parable of a daughter's unhappy disappointment and her father's selfishness that might have been Alice's tale as well as Catherine Sloper's." Then there's a Novick tactic to which Millicent Bell has called attention: He weaves into his supposedly nonfiction prose phrases from James's fiction. Thus, some twenty pages before discussing Washington Square, Novick says that Alice's illness was "somehow" directed at her father and that "something in the mainspring of her affections had been injured." This, as readers of Washington Square will recognize, is a vulgarization of James's words about his Catherine: "The great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend [the suitor] had trifled with her affection, and that her father had broken its spring." Thus, in a circular and sly manner, Novick first abuses a phrase from a novel to analyze James's family and later uses his own analysis to interpret the novel.
In Paris in 1877, James began an intense friendship with a curious Russian artist, Paul Zhukovsky (who later became part of Richard Wagner's entourage near Naples). James, in the fashion of the time, employed warm language in writing to his family about his new friend. Novick scents blood and is soon in full cry. Some time after meeting Zhukovsky, James took a brief, solitary vacation at a Normandy beach. Here is Novick's embroidery: "James took long walks on the seashore and along the downs. . . . He felt himself happier than he had been in a long time. The feeling of happiness came upon him somewhat to his surprise, and for a while he savored it and examined it without quite understanding why he should be so happy. One evening, he stood on the beach looking at the sea outside the casino. The sea looked huge and black and simple; everything was vague in the unassisted darkness. An immense conviction came over him, abruptly. It was like a word spoken in the darkness: He was in love." To confect this purple passage, Novick cannibalizes a description of a character in James's novel Confidence. But the icky language -- as if Death in Venice were being adapted for Melrose Place -- is prime Novick.
It should come as no surprise that James's greatest early novel, The Portrait of a Lady, gets similar treatment. Every place and person in the book is declared to have been bodily lifted from life: James's friend Mary Temple was "transmuted into" heroine Isabel Archer. Gilbert Osmond, a cold aesthete, "might have been" Paul Zhukovsky. And James, although in a sense every character, was especially villainess Madame Merle: "Deeply attractive . . . she was Juno, a goddess -- old, old indeed. . . . Costumed as Madame Merle, James performed his greatest impersonation." And with this travesty (quite literally) of the creative imagination of a great writer, we may take leave of Sheldon Novick.
The Portrait of a Lady is the story of a young American woman in Europe -- James's great theme. Isabel Archer hesitates among romantic possibilities: the noble Lord Warburton, the fraternal Ralph Touchett, the importunate Caspar Goodwood, the exquisite Gilbert Osmond. She makes a disastrously wrong, imprisoning choice and then tries to regain a measure of autonomy within the prison of her choice. The novel is a consideration of such Emersonian topics as the infinite possibility of personality, the ecstasy and danger of life seen as omnivorous openness to experience. The story has, inevitably, a sexual/psychological subtext, but it is not clear how explicitly James wished readers to bound his tale in such terms. One of his subtlest critics, Richard Poirier, wrote that "The Portrait of a Lady would be a greater accomplishment if some of its psychological implications were made a firmer part of the whole design. James had a very tenuous and unorganized sense of the connection between sexual psychology, on the one hand, and, on the other, the desire for freedom and death. He had a very clear and conscious idea, however, about the relationship between freedom and death."
Jane Campion's brilliant film brings into the foreground the Jamesian subtext of Isabel's hesitancy before/pull toward/fear of sex. She opens with contemporary Australian girls talking about romance; cut to Isabel in an arbor refusing Warburton -- "because he is too perfect," as she tells the ailing Ralph, her tenderly platonic lover. "You don't at all delight me," she says to her insistently phallic suitor, Caspar. In a usual plot, these two, sparring and angry and sexually charged, would be the destined pair. It is just possible that they are so here. Alone in her bed, Isabel caresses her own face, runs her forehead against the canopy's fringe, and finds, in a hot dream, her three possible loves on the bed with her, kissing or watching.
But it is the subterranean demon of the id, Osmond, who -- in an underground Italian grotto, as pale light falls from an open cupola on high and a parasol nervously twirls -- does master her with a serpent's kiss. It is the triumph of the sensual over the affectionate, a sadistic, bold wiping out of scrupulous hesitation. Isabel takes a trip to the East to contemplate Osmond's eerie possessiveness; during this trip -- in an audacious image not in the book -- Campion has beans in a frying pan repeat Osmond's words, "I'm absolutely in love with you."
Madame Merle, the evil arranger of Isabel's fate, is seen here (in the unsentimental but sympathetic portrayal by Barbara Hershey) as an earlier Isabel, a tragic first sketch of an American girl in Europe. Isabel grows tougher and smarter -- more like Merle -- in the marriage-jail, as the chiaroscuro images make clear. Sculpture -- tombs of happy medieval couples succeeded by giant fragments in a scrap yard -- traces her downfall, too. Grainy black and white is reused, after the trip East, for a final journey to England. Once green with promise, the country house is now white with snow. Crawling into Ralph's bed of death and cuddling the dying man, Isabel finds a "happiness" and a "love." Back in the arbor where she began, she squirms away from Caspar's enveloping maleness, runs in slow motion toward a French window that she does not open but is frozen against in indecision in literal and metaphorical "freeze frame." Death and sex, stasis and motion are held in final equipoise.
The performances are fine where it matters: Nicole Kidman's vulnerable straightforwardness as Isabel; Martin Donovan's wise frailty as Ralph; Viggo Mortensen's unapologetic strength as Caspar. The Osmond problem that has always bedeviled Portrait -- How could she marry such a creep? -- is not solved but rather exacerbated by the casting of the audacious but creepy John Malkovich in the role.
I've not been a fan of Campion's and thought her last film, The Piano, a clumsy piece of sexual psychologizing vitiated by overwrought symbolism and heavy-breathing humorlessness. (The Saturday Night Live parody called The Washing Machine nailed much that was silly in The Piano.) She needed, perhaps, the encounter with James to find an objective correlative and so to manifest a careful, clever, delicate artistry. She has here crafted a visual language adequate to a darkly sexual reading of the book. Campion's is not the only possible approach to The Portrait of a Lady, but it is an invigorating plunge into a subtext left unswum by James.
Donald Lyons is theater critic of the Wall Street Journal.