Henry James Reads Walter Scott Again
The fiction James had most recently been attempting to locate in his time was The Ivory Tower, a novel set in the contemporary world of American finance which he had abandoned on the declaration of war in August. By the time of his letter to Wharton he had begun and then laid aside a volume of memoirs, The Middle Years, and was at work on The Sense of the Past, an unfinished story of time-travel which he had started to write as long ago as the autumn of 1899 and had abandoned after a couple of unavailing attempts; none of these books would ever be completed. The shift from contemporary to historical and historical-fantastical subjects reflects James’s new sense of the impossibility of “our time” as a setting for fiction; and this feeling is congruous with the lament that recurs in letters to other correspondents from these months, that in failing to foresee a global war James had misunderstood the historical meaning of his own lifetime. As he wrote to Edward Emerson on 4 August 1914: “It fills me with anguish & dismay & makes me ask myself if this then is what I have grown old for, if this is what all the ostensibly or comparatively serene, all the supposedly bettering past, of our century, has meant & led up to. It gives away everything one has believed in & lived for” (James 1999b, p. 542).1 In the context of all these developments and reactions, the question I propose in this essay is, simply, What does James mean when he tells Wharton, “It all makes Walter Scott, him only, readable again”? That is to say, what is it for James not just to re-read Walter Scott at this historical juncture but to find him “readable again,” and only him?It’s impossible to “locate anything in our time.” Our time has been this time for the last 50 years, & if it was ignorantly & fatuously so the only light in which to show it is now the light of that tragic delusion. And that’s too awful a subject. It all makes Walter Scott, him only, readable again.
James’s review of Nassau W. Senior, his first piece of published criticism, appeared in October 1864 towards the close of the American Civil War. To pursue the line of thought I have been sketching so far, one could argue that for James to revert to Scott in 1914 at another moment of world-historical crisis means, simply, escapism: into a childishly irresponsible, “credulous” style of reading, in which fiction assumes a counter-factual authority; or again, into memories of his own early life as a reader or audience for narrative “improvisation,” or as a younger brother.4 All those associations and impulses are undoubtedly at work in the re-reading James describes to Wharton, and yet to trace out their ramifications in James’s correspondence, criticism and textual practice is to find evidence of a more complex and engaged response to Scott’s example.Scott was a born story-teller: we can give him no higher praise. Surveying his works, his character, his method, as a whole, we can liken him to nothing better than to a strong and kindly elder brother, who gathers his juvenile public about him at eventide, and pours out a stream of wondrous improvisation. Who cannot remember an experience like this? On no occasion are the delights of fiction so intense. Fiction? These are the triumphs of fact. In the richness of his invention and memory, in the infinitude of his knowledge, in his improvidence for the future, in the skill with which he answers, or rather parries, sudden questions, in his low-voiced pathos and his resounding merriment, he is identical with the ideal fireside chronicler. And thoroughly to enjoy him, we must again become as credulous as children at twilight.
Scott’s autobiography and correspondence alike testify to the historical force of oral story-telling. In the passages I have quoted, the tales he listened to in childhood create an “impression” of romantic Stuart royalism that survives the age of “reason” and the critical work of independent “reading,” and outlasts as well the vanishing from cultural memory of the losing Jacobite cause and the Highland culture that supported it.I believe there never was a man who united the ardour of a soldier and tale-teller, or man of talk, as they call it in Gaelic, in such an excellent degree; and as he was as fond of telling as I was of hearing, I became a valiant Jacobite at the age of ten years old; and, even since reason & reading came to my assistance, I have never quite got rid of the impression which the gallantry of Prince Charles made on my imagination. Certainly I will not renounce the idea of doing something to preserve these stories, and the memory of times and manners, which, though existing as it were yesterday, have so strangely vanished from our eyes.
In this vision, serial fiction marks the time of its periodical appearances, punctuating and enriching a period for those living through it, and toning it for those, like James, looking (or listening) back.For these appearances, these strong time-marks in such stretches of production as that of Dickens, that of Thackeray, that of George Eliot, had in the first place simply a genial weight and force, a direct importance, and in the second a command of the permeable air and the collective sensibility, with which nothing since has begun to deserve comparison. They were enrichments of life, they were large arrivals, these particular renewals of supply […]. These various, let alone numerous, deeper-toned strokes of the great Victorian clock were so many steps in the march of our age […].
This scene of memory concludes the note: as in his letters and autobiographical fragment, here again Scott appears as a child being told a story of the past. The authenticity of the tale rests on the testimony of the teller, who was also “an eye-witness,” and by the material confirmations of the silver clasp and the grave. Like the “rank” grass that marks the continuing liveliness of this memory, the note itself distinguishes that grave “from the rest of the field”—marks it as part of the novel’s historical “ground-work” (Scott 2015, p. 383), but also establishes it as the site of narrative transmission, a seat for story-listening.I remember, when a child, sitting on his grave, where the grass long grew rank and green, distinguishing it from the rest of the field. A female of the family then residing at Saint Clement’s Wells used to tell me the tragedy of which she had been an eye-witness, and showed me in evidence one of the silver clasps of the unfortunate gentleman’s waistcoat.
Millgate finds James “eager to accept the licence afforded by the magnum both to comment and revise,” approaching “the Scott precedent not merely as a model but as a challenge”: as she argues, “Taking up Scott’s metaphor of the ‘last touches of the artist,’ James makes of the act of revarnishing a transforming process completely different from anything Scott had envisaged” (Millgate 1987, p. 115). She refers to a passage in the first New York Edition Preface, that to Roderick Hudson, which figures the revising novelist as a painter cleaning and newly varnishing an old picture, a process James characterizes as reaffirming the artist’s “creative intimacy” with the work under revision and making his “critical apprehension” of its qualities “essentially active” (James 1984c, p. 1046). That activity is manifest too in what James does with the painterly figure: what had occupied half a sentence in Scott expands in the Roderick Hudson Preface to fill the better part of two long paragraphs (James 1984c, pp. 1045–6). Scott also speaks in the Advertisement to the Magnum Opus Edition of the authority he was reclaiming in the act of revising and republishing, now that the formal cover of his anonymity had been blown by the bankruptcies of his publisher and printer: “the course of events which occasioned the disclosure of the Author’s name, having, in a great measure, restored to him a sort of parental control over these Works, he is naturally induced to give them to the press in a corrected, and, he hopes, an improved form” (Scott 2015, p. 382). James draws an imaginative connection between this figure of “parental control” and another, equally conventional, that occurs later in the Advertisement when Scott hopes that the Waverley Novels, “in their new dress [the Magnum Opus volumes], will not be found to have lost any part of their attractions in consequence of receiving illustrations [introductions and notes] by the Author, and undergoing his careful revision” (Scott 2015, p. 384).The Author has also ventured to make some emendations of a different character, which, without being such apparent deviations from the original stories as to disturb the reader’s old associations, will, he thinks, add something to the spirit of the dialogue, narrative, or description. These consist in occasional pruning where the language is redundant, compression where the style is loose, infusion of vigour where it is languid, the exchange of less forcible for more appropriate epithets—slight alterations in short, like the last touches of an Artist, which contribute to heighten and finish the picture, though an inexperienced eye can hardly detect in what they consist.
This passage of the Preface is about James’s fears—amply realized in the event—that once he had begun to revise he would find it difficult to leave off, and the consciously absurd elaboration and concretization of his metaphor is itself a part of that process: this is the Prefaces’ characteristic mode of expansiveness, their equivalent to the unchecked “antiquarian zeal” (Millgate 1987, p. 86) that led Scott to multiply historical sources and witnesses in the Magnum Opus apparatus. James upholds the nursery figure as he continues to wonder “what discrimination against the needle and the sponge would be able to describe itself as not arbitrary”: how could one feel sure that a given amount of revision was enough, and that having done just so much one might honourably stop? And yet the arbitrary decision not to revise—imagined as a cry of “‘Hands off altogether on the nurse’s part!’”—is simply unthinkable for him as part of “any fair and stately, […] any not vulgarly irresponsible re-issue of anything” (James 1984c, p. 1331). James’s figuration of the revising impulse differs from Scott’s in that it imagines the author as a mother or maternal delegate (a nursery nurse), and he is less concerned with “parental control” and correction of offspring than with the uncontrollable anxiety that attends the business of caring for them—an anxiety comically imaged in the promiscuity and expansiveness of metaphor. James also sees a link between this nursery group of figures and the earlier figure of re-varnishing that coordinates different ways of thinking about revisionary process, or different aspects of that process: the “wet sponge” that the painter “passes over his old sunk canvas” in the Roderick Hudson Preface to see “what may still come out again” does similar work to the nurse’s “sponge” that accompanies, or produces, the “audible splash of soap-and-water” in the Preface to The Golden Bowl (James 1984c, pp. 1046, 1331), but not exactly the same work; so that to think about the adequacy of James’s figures is to begin a theoretical investigation into the technical variety, emotional tone and cultural status of the work of revision. James does not just extend Scott’s revisionary figures individually, that is to say, but draws out and fosters their implicit convergences.[…] I had rather viewed the reappearance of the first-born of my progeny—a reappearance unimaginable save to some inheritance of brighter and more congruous material form, of stored-up braveries of type and margin and ample page, of general dignity and attitude, than had mostly waited on their respective casual cradles—as a descent of awkward infants from the nursery to the drawing-room under the kind appeal of enquiring, of possibly interested, visitors. I had accordingly taken for granted the common decencies of such a case—the responsible glance of some power above from one nursling to another, the rapid flash of an anxious needle, the not imperceptible effect of a certain audible splash of soap-and-water; all in consideration of the searching radiance of drawing-room lamps as compared with nursery candles. But it had been all the while present to me that from the moment a stitch should be taken or a hair-brush applied the principle of my making my brood more presentable under the nobler illumination would be accepted and established, and it was there complications might await me.
It is a commonplace that children set the standard for narrative conservatism. Although James does not say this himself of the New York Edition, we find the same thought in a journalist’s objection to the publishers’ announcement of authorial revision as a selling-point: “There are those who would resent the re-clothing of ‘Daisy Miller’ in more studied and elaborate dress very much as the young folk of all Christendom would cry out against any recasting of the tale of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’” (Anon 1908a, p. 10). James had long associated Scott with childhood story-listening, however, and his most significant use of the trope of children rejecting a familiar tale told with a difference comes in a context that repeats the wartime circumstances of his first critical engagement with Scott.In the most improbable fiction, the reader still desires some air of vraisemblance, and does not relish that the incidents of a tale familiar to him should be altered to suit the taste of critics, or the caprice of the author himself. This process of feeling is so natural, that it may be observed even in children, who cannot endure that a nursery story should be repeated to them differently from the manner in which it was first told.
When once the question fairly hung there of the possibility […] of a world without use for the tradition so embodied, an order substituting for this, by an unmannerly thrust, quite another and really, it would seem, quite a ridiculous, a crudely and clumsily improvised story, we might all have resembled together a group of children at their nurse’s knee disconcerted by some tale that it isn’t their habit to hear. We loved the old tale, or at least I did, exactly because I knew it; […]
America was a neutral country in November 1914, to James’s dismay. He knew that he cared more about the fate of Britain than as an American he perhaps ought—certainly more than he could expect Berry to care, and apparently more even than some of his British acquaintances cared. And yet his upset at Berry’s impartiality is registered in an audibly American style: “well, it kind of makes me want to cry.” Divisions of loyalty and national-political consciousness at moments of historical crisis are amongst Scott’s great subjects. James would ultimately respond to his age’s version of the question that Scott had reissued in the Shakespearean epigraph to Waverley—“Under which King, Bezonian? speak, or die!” (Scott 2015, p. 1)17—by renouncing his American nationality and becoming a British subject. Even the remote bearing of Scott on any of these acts and writings must remain a matter of speculation; it is difficult in any case to conclude about James’s wartime attitudes, since there was so little time left for him to organise and register his thoughts before the onset of his last illness in December 1915. But if there could have been a “Lesson of Scott” for him, to match the lesson of that other great conservative, assembler of editions and romantic chronicler of lives in history, Honoré de Balzac, these might have been some of its dimensions.It is very “sporting” & very wonderful his going, & I grasp in a measure the curiosity & the quest of impressions that prompt the enterprise; but the exhibition of such “detachment,” such judicial & impartial ease, costs me, I confess, a sort of pang of anguish. I am infinitely redder-hot than I have any right to expect him to be—that I recognize; but when I think that he wants to go where he will hear this country foully vituperated & vilified without being able (save under great complications) to so much as attenuate perhaps—well, it kind of makes me want to cry. But I am doubtless a ridiculous old fanatic—& I find indeed I am more fanatical than many persons I have encountered here.
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Of course, to say “It all makes Walter Scott, him only, readable again” is not quite the same thing as saying I am reading Walter Scott again. That James was or had lately been re-reading Scott in November 1914 is, strictly speaking, an implication of that sentence, not a fact directly stated; for the purposes of my argument I shall assume nevertheless that he does refer to an actual process of re-reading. Nor does he specify any works by Scott in this letter to Wharton, though he does name two modern novels he has found disappointingly unreadable: H. G. Wells’s The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman (1914) and the second volume of Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street (1914).
The view James voices here was conventional for critical readers of the period. Ann Rigney quotes this passage, alongside comments by Walter Bagehot, Ralph Waldo Emerson and others, to show that by the mid-late nineteenth century “appreciation for Scott [was] linked to ‘youthfulness’, either in the sense that he belonged to the childhood pleasures of those who were now middle-aged or that he offered ‘cheerful’ pleasures to people who were now young. […] Enjoyment of Scott and adulthood were apparently incompatible” (Rigney 2012, pp. 207–8). Richard Maxwell notes a comparable feeling about Scott’s suitability for readers of limited capacities: for nineteenth-century figures as various as Nietzsche, Ruskin and Marx, Scott was “a sickbed author,” “the classic entertainment of the convalescent, the slowly recovering patient separated from the grind of the outside world but struggling to recover contact with it” (Maxwell 2001, pp. 464 n.5, 420–21).
I assume that the copy of Redgauntlet mentioned in these letters belonged to James, and was not one Peggy had brought with her: the reference to “re-establish[ing her] with the second volume” of the novel suggests that in the interval between tea and dinner she had finished and returned to him the first volume and had received the second in exchange. Redgauntlet was originally published in three octavo volumes, a bibliographical format that Scott’s success had made standard for nineteenth-century novels (Duncan 2012, p. 105); the revised and annotated text of the novel that Scott brought out in 1832 occupied two volumes of his Magnum Opus Edition. We cannot know what edition Peggy was reading, as no copies of novels by Scott are recorded in Leon Edel and Adeline R. Tintner’s published listing of the contents of James’s library. As they point out, volumes were dispersed from Lamb House at various moments after James’s death, sometimes untraceably, and their list is thus “by no means complete; but it comprises in all probability the largest part of the library” (Edel and Tintner 1987, pp. 15, 56).
James owned a copy of the 1839 second edition of Lockhart’s Memoirs (Edel and Tintner 1987, p. 56).
Ian Duncan gives an exemplary outline of the working of that critique in Waverley (Duncan 2012, p. 110).
For James’s Commencement-day reading of “The Question of Our Speech” see the notes to Pierre A. Walker’s edition of the lecture (James 1999a, p. 198), and O’Donnell (2003, pp. 140–43). James refers to this occasion when he tells Peggy that “by a blest good fortune, I happen to know your scholastic shades and so am able, in imagination, to cling to you and follow you round. I seem to make out that you are very physically comfortable, all round, and I have indeed a very charming image of Bryn Mawr, though I dare say these months adorn it less than my June-time” (James 1920, vol. 2, pp. 54–55).
For the genesis of James’s memoirs in this commemorative project, see the “Note on the Texts” in Philip Horne’s edition of Autobiographies (James 2016, pp. 767–69).
Explaining the origin of his story “The Altar of the Dead” (1895) in the Preface to the relevant volume of the New York Edition, James recounts two anecdotes of encounters in London society where his instinct to refer fondly and commemoratively to dead acquaintances met with shock or indifference; he describes the “prime idea” of the story as that of “a restorative reaction against certain general brutalities” of this type (James 1984c, p. 1249).
McGann speculates that Scott is the “real target” of a passage in “The Art of Fiction” deploring Trollope’s habit of admitting the fictional status of his novels in asides to the reader: “Scott’s name seems written in invisible ink, that favored Jamesian medium, across this passage” (McGann 2004, p. 113).
James wrote to W. D. Howells on 14 August 1900 that The Sense of the Past had “broken down for the present. I am laying it away on the shelf for the sake of something that is in it, but that I am now too embarrassed and preoccupied to devote more time to pulling out” (James 1999b, p. 343).
For interpretations of The Sense of the Past as an allegory of its own compositional processes, or of fictional invention as such, see Jolly (1993, pp. 214–18), Miller (2005, pp. 291–326), and Herford (2016, pp. 58–69). Philip Horne reads The Sense of the Past as “a critical, philosophical, and moral commentary on the vogue of the historical novel” in America at the turn of the century; it is “less a historical than a metahistorical novel,” a demonstration of the “anachronism” that James felt to be an insuperable obstacle to the genre (Horne 2008, p. 25).
The source is Pistol’s exchange with Justice Shallow in Henry IV Part 2 (5.3.114) on the succession of the crown from the just-deceased Henry IV to his son Henry V (Shakespeare 2005, p. 565).
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Herford, O. Henry James Reads Walter Scott Again. Humanities 2021, 10, 39. https://doi.org/10.3390/h10010039
Herford O. Henry James Reads Walter Scott Again. Humanities. 2021; 10(1):39. https://doi.org/10.3390/h10010039Chicago/Turabian Style
Herford, Oliver. 2021. "Henry James Reads Walter Scott Again" Humanities 10, no. 1: 39. https://doi.org/10.3390/h10010039