Henry James’ critical perception of others didn’t depend on his seeing himself in their words; but he might have been stirred to self-reflection in articulating a discovery (or discovering an articulation) about Tennyson:
It is poised and stationary, like a bird whose wings have borne him high, but the beauty of whose movement is less in great ethereal sweeps and circles than in the way he hangs motionless in the blue air, with only a vague tremor of his pinions. Even if the idea with Tennyson were more largely dramatic than it usually is, the immobility, as we must call it, of his phrase would always defeat the dramatic intention. When he wishes to represent movement, the phrase always seems to me to pause and slowly pivot upon itself, or at most to move backward.
“The immobility of phrase” against “the dramatic intention.” Herein a chief tension in some Tennyson’s best verse: the syntax that immobilizes against the verb that intends. To accept and modify these casts light into James’ own late prose: the mobility of the phrase submitted to an intention resisting drama—or the immobility of phrase yielding drama in inaction–or the mobility of phrase finding drama in inaction—or the drama of inaction through the drama of phrase. Ad-libbing from various sides, without settling on any definite line of approach, has the advantage of testing prospective possibilities, much as the characters in the late novels do/
The paradoxical artistic task James set himself in Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl was to search out the drama in and between characters who were determined to ruffle no feathers, to stir no surfaces, to act imperceptibly to effect the desired changes, for the reason that the changes sought after could be had by no other means but super-subtle, subterranean, subcutaneous, subconscious actions. The vague exclamations–“beautiful,” “everything”–the heightened concern for propriety–is not James content to rest on the surface of things, but the surface of things being asked to do all it can without giving away the movements and maneuvers in operation simultaneous to the mannered exchanges.
The Golden Bowl is the climax of James’ art in this regard: not-acting had been central to Wings of the Dove (where Milly suffered passively, while Kate and Merton can only pounce in waiting) and The Ambassadors, but Maggie Verver’s not-acting in the second half of The Golden Bowl is set against and among three other characters likewise not acting, that it is like watching an avant-garde ballet: the dance is what is held in abeyance.
James revels, quietly, in the language of acting, because it is the language of performance and drama, present for spectators, friends, and acquaintances, as well as the language of private actions and mental events, to which the self alone is spectator, and to which others are privy only by the shaking of the curtain, as between acts of excruciating dullness; the others know that the best stuff is happening when the scenes are shifting. At times, James sets himself (and us, readers) in the place of the one; at times in the place of the other.
The most exceptional moments in the second half of The Golden Bowl come when the characters are in closest, most intent proximity both to one another and to the actions they would refuse. The first half of the novel is made to feel like the essential exposition, the slow gathering of an atmosphere of congested combustibility, until, in the second half, all of the four characters feel it, and we feel the Princess moving with all of the caution possessed by one anxious for explosion. There is that remarkable scene where Maggie waits at home, alone, for the Prince’s return; where each feels the other out, wordlessly. The scene between Casaubon and Dorothea in the garden at Lowick Manor in Middlemarch–a touchstone I turn to often–is dwarfed by what James does here; not because what he does is greater in the quality of feeling, but because he makes estranged intimacy into something monumental, vast around the characters, but also vast in the space of the novel. The second half of the novel is a sequence of silent scenes in which the characters transact by refusal to do more than truck in the complacencies of form; it’s remarkable that James could write a novel like this before film had flourished—but maybe he had to, since film may have blinded the imagination of novelists to what mutually reinforced, coercive and resisting silence can be like, behind the faces, behind the startled looks or dilation of the eyes that film can take for granted.
And it is not always dainty James, circumspect James, who achieves the effects. Here is James in terrible directness on how alien and violently calculating we can be against those who are nearest:
It had the air, she knew, of a kind of condition made, and she had asked herself while she spoke if it wouldn’t cause his arm to let go. The fact that it didn’t suggested to her that she had made him of a sudden still more intensely think, think with such concentration that he could do but one thing at once. And it was precisely as if the concentration had the next moment been proved in him. He took a turn inconsistent with the superficial impression–a jump that made light of their approach to gravity and represented for her the need in him to gain time. This she made out was his drawback–that the warning from her had come to him and had come to Charlotte after all too suddenly. That they were in face of it rearranging, that they had to rearrange, was all before her again; yet to do as they would like they must enjoy a snatch, longer or shorter, of recovered independence. Amerigo was for the instant but doing as he didn’t like, and it was as if she were watching his effort without disguise. ‘What’s your father’s idea this year then about Fawns? Will he go to Whitsuntide and will he then stay on?”
This is not the James-as-caricatured: this is, in James’ close nest of anxieties and preoccupations, the boy’s action plot of H.G. Wells, of Arthur Conan Doyle, of Robert Louis Stevenson, and even Rudyard Kipling. All of that cunning, plotting, and espionage in play between and within two married couples, each party of which is desperate to insist–as if to maintain the dignity of the genre, to pretend that it really is a tragedy of manners, rather than a boy’s adventure tale—that nothing of the sort is happening; and James complicit in their denial, because the denial of drama is of its essence, the object of his fascination.