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Henry James reviews Charles Dickens


Dickens has receded, for me, as a writer. When I was a teen, I loved Dickens. I felt that Dickens and Shakespeare were the kings. Now I don't. That doesn't mean that Dickens isn't the king, for who am I to give out the crowns? The change is in me.
That change in the novel was forecast by Henry James' review of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend. The review is a too little noticed manifesto for what I'd call modernism. It is the young Henry James here - striking a note of condemnation that sounds eerily like Wyndham Lewis in the 1920s.
"Only a short time ago it might have been supposed that the English novel was not what the French call discutable. It had no air of having a theory, a conviction, a consciousness of itself behind it-of being the expression of an artistic faith, the result of choice and comparison. I do not say it was necessarily the worse for that; it would take much more courage than I possess to intimate that the form of the novel, as Dickens and Thackeray (for instance) saw it had any taint of incompleteness. It was, however, naif (if I may help myself out with another French word)... -- Henry James, The art of fiction.
To me, the first chapter of Our Mutual Friend could be put up against Dickens great first chapters -- that of Bleak House, of David Copperfield, and of Great Expectations. Of these, OMF is most like Bleak House in its blending together of nature -- in the case of Bleak House, London fog; in the case of OMF, the Thames River -- and the polis. The London fog in which the bodies of the dispossessed rather bob, and become alternately trackless and to be tracked -- become, that is, objects upon which there is an interest in tracking -- makes of the first chapter of Bleak House something on the order of the musical overture to an opera, rehearsing a set of motifs that will assume greater import later, as these motifs structure the dramatic situation of the songs. That sense of tracking and tracklessness, and the implication of texture in which the trace is supported, or erased, is even more marked in OMF. The first chapter begins on the Thames, with some unnamed thing, which by numerous hints assumes, eventually, a form of some horror to the reader, is being towed behind a boat that is powered by a girl. The unexpected conjunction of the girl, the boat, and her scavenger father gives us, who have read Dickens before, the idea that sentiment, here, will be wound by Dickens art of exaggeration, juxtaposition, and comparison into the sort of grotesque that makes Dickens novels, sometimes, seem to lurch, rather than to progress.
This was not Henry James's view. review of the book in the Nation (21 December 1865) is a startling shot across the bows, from its first condemnatory sentence to its last. James does not chose, at this point, to clutter his judgement with the tone of retraction and balance that becomes, later, his signature style. In this review, James' sentences are definitely more in the way of bullets or cannon balls, those most unretractable of the things, which one might shoot across the bow of a boat carrying illicit merchandise. This is not the tone in his latter essays and fictions, which sometimes seem composed of the murmurs of a foggy judge on a winter night in the uncertain light of a dying fire. Here's how the review pops off -- really, in the manner of some punk on the streets of Boston bringing the sauce:
"Our Mutual Friend is, to our perception, the poorest of Mr. Dickens's works. And it is poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion."
After such a death sentence, James reads out a bill of particulars that alternates between the insinuation of senility and the insinuation of pandering. This is from the second graf:
"To say that the conduct of the story, with all its complications, betrays a long-practised hand, is to pay no compliment worthy the author. If this were, indeed, a compliment, we should be inclined to carry it further, and congratulate him on his success in what we should call the manufacture of fiction; for in so doing we should express a feeling that has attended us throughout the book. Seldom, we reflected, had we read a book so intensely written, so little seen, known, or felt."
There is one aspect of OMF that seems, in particular, to have stirred up the acids in James' soul -- it is the treatment of Miss Jenny Wren. Here's James' inimitable prosecutory description:
"What do we get in return for accepting Miss Jenny Wren as a possible person? This young lady is the type of a certain class of characters of which Mr. Dickens has made a speciality, and with which he has been accustomed to draw alternate smiles and tears, according as he pressed one spring or another. But this is very cheap merriment and very cheap pathos. Miss Jenny Wren is a poor little dwarf, afflicted, as she constantly reiterates, with a "bad back" and "queer legs," who makes dolls' dresses, and is for ever pricking at those with whom she converses, in the air, with her needle, and assuring them that she knows their "tricks and their manners." Like all Mr. Dickens's pathetic characters, she is a little monster; she is deformed, unhealthy, unnatural; she belongs to the troop of hunchbacks, imbeciles, and precocious children who have carried on the sentimental business in all Mr. Dickens's novels; the little Nells, the Smikes, the Paul Dombeys."
This is the most striking passage in James' review, at least if we read it in the light of James' future work. Interestingly, when James came to write a novel on the scale of one of Dickens -- namely, Portrait of a Lady, in 1881 -- he chooses, in Ralph Touchwood, the benefactor of Isabella Archer in the novel, to present us with just such an unhealthy and deformed creature, all the way down to the queer legs. In fact, James chooses to carry out all the sentimental business quite as much as Dickens, but with a more decorous train of precocities. LI can't, at the moment, recall a definite Jamesian hunchbacks, but the mysteriously sick abound -- the supreme instance being Milly Theale, in Wings of the Dove. In the preface to that novel, written in 1902, James might almost have been thinking of his review of OMF almost forty years before, speaking of the crystal of inspiration in these terms:
"It [the idea of the story] was formed, I judged, to make the wary adventurer walk round and round it--it had in fact a charm that invited and mystified alike that attention; not being somehow what one thought of as a "frank" subject, after the fashion of some, with its elements well in view and its whole character in its face. It stood there with secrets and compartments, with possible treacheries and traps; it might have a great deal to give, but would probably ask for equal services in return, and would collect this debt to the last shilling. It involved, to begin with, the placing in the strongest light a person infirm and ill--a case sure to prove difficult and to require (vi) much handling; though giving perhaps, with other matters, one of those chances for good taste, possibly even for the play of the very best in the world, that are not only always to be invoked and cultivated, but that are absolutely to be jumped at from the moment they make a sign."
I like to think of James starting out like this, and ending up telling tales to Ezra Pound - or so Pound claimed.

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