The title gives something away: that The Ambassadors will be a novel about power, about relations of power, and about the language of diplomacy whose justifiable refinements and nuances are dismissible by the uninitiated as inconsequential nothings. A recent article in The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/17/climate/biniaz-climate-united-nations.html) profiled a lawyer whose genius in producing accords shows at times on the hinge of a comma properly placed; this is the diplomatic refinement that is the target of Proust’s satire in the person of M. de Norpois. Then there is the painting by Holbein, whose art is itself a feat of diplomatic negotiation amidst treacherous straits of power; as a painting, it marries elements of realism, the significance of objects knowable in the time and place of their fashioning, but also of Renaissance allegory, the significance of the objects shadowed by the time and place of painterly fashioning that could invest birds and flowers with religious meaning in the foreground of a holy family; and then it is cut through by what cannot be parsed visually, and that cannot be ignored, until one walks to look obliquely from the side to see the memento mori of the skull laid over and within the canvas, obtrusive but unrecognizable until seen from the side. There is not more here than meets the eye, but the eye is met with more than it can reconcile to a single account of meaning or action. Perspective, detection, violence, power, transformation, strategy, and code are the stuff of James’ novel, which is akin to the Holbein painting also in its representing a flowering forth of genres as something utterly new. The late James, I think, gives not only the invention of a new syntax and style, but the invention of a new relation of genres within the novel. Whether he draws on the genres, or sucks in the atmosphere that nourished so many distinct genres, the late novels come to be amidst the suddenly blossoming, in late Victorian and early Edwardian literature, of so many new types of narrative.
The Princess and the Goblin (1872); The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886); The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888); Treasure Island (1892); Dracula (1897); The Invisible Man (1898); The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900); Kim (1901); The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902); Five Children and It (1902); The Ambassadors (1903).
To lead students to The Ambassadors, I would ask them not only to read not Austen or Eliot or earlier James, but instead the emergence in Victorian literature of the genres of fantasy, horror, science fiction, fairy tale, spy thriller, and adventure story that take definition at the end of the nineteenth century; I would place James within a reading list that tracks with Franco Moretti’s Signs Taken For Wonders. Alternatively, I would ask students to read John Le Carre, the third or fourth in the Harry Potter series, and their choice of contemporary science fiction; then I would have them return to James. Of course, I might include, and would likely need to include in either list that consummate ghost story, never really surpassed, The Turn of the Screw, which itself turns neatly as the key to James’ fiction. But other ghost stories might be substituted if they can be found.
In Conrad, the adherence to, and deepening and complicating of, generic conventions is also evident, but in James the conventions of genre are not adhered to so much as suspended, mutually existing possibilities contained within his accounts of exchanges, understanding, perception, power, and action; the ambassadorial tact of the novel itself—and James would need to be counted among the title’s ambassadors—lies in finding words and phrases that say just enough, and no more, to fix them to the characters and situation of the novel in most concrete form, but also to open them to a range of understandings of what such characters and situations consist of, such that they seem at once to fit in any of these genres. They seem, that is, to work magic; to perform feats of deduction; to speak in the codes of spies; to embark on perilous adventures over dinner rolls; to see ghosts in the room and hear ghosts in the conversation; to oppose one another like dueling wizards, to confront one another like explorers confronting beasts in a jungle; and to do so within rules that cannot be fully appreciated from without but that are knowable only to those blessed with magical powers, in the spy service, with the experience of the supernatural, or within the mystery of inferential superpowers.
In the architecture of The Ambassadors, the necessary opening to a room of greater expanse and possibility comes when the Pococks arrive in Paris, and we see the full aligning of Parisian forces against the Americans, with Strether in between. The crux of the matter is Chad, who is, by necessity, the least fleshed, least whole, least realized of characters in the novel, and whose value in its narrative is akin to the buried treasure, the solution to the mystery, the magical stone, the cure to the experiment gone awry, the chemical solution that represents the miraculous breakthrough, the state secret preserved at all costs but never fully known, or whatever else it might be. He signifies in all of these ways, and we can recognize how so much of the work of making meaning in these late Victorian genres is similarly dependent on an undefinable power, value, significance, around which action orbits. With the arrival of the Pococks, Strether asks whether he has been wrong—realism, the old realism of Austen, Thackeray, and earlier James—asserts itself; it has never been absent from the novel, is the air in which the other elements are suspended—but it threatens Strether’s sense of things:
Ah how much, as it was, for all her bridling brightness—which was merely general and noticed nothing—would they work together? Strether knew he was unreasonable; he set it down to his being nervous: people couldn’t notice everything and speak of everything in a quarter of an hour. Possibly, no doubt, also, he made too much of Chad’s display. Yet, none the less, when, at the end of five minutes, in the cab, Jim Pocock had said nothing either—hadn’t said, that is, what Strether wanted, though he had said much else—it all suddenly bounced back to their being either stupid or wilful. It was more probably on the whole the former; so that that would be the drawback of the bridling brightness. Yes, they would bridle and be bright; they would make the best of what was before them, but their observation would fail; it would be beyond them; they simply wouldn’t understand. Of what use would it be then that they had come?—if they weren’t to be intelligent up to that point: unless indeed he himself were utterly deluded and extravagant? Was he, on this question of Chad’s improvement, fantastic and away from the truth? Did he live in a false world, a world that had grown simply to suit him, and was his present slight irritation—in the face now of Jim’s silence in particular—but the alarm of the vain thing menaced by the touch of the real? Was this contribution of the real possibly the mission of the Pococks?—had they come to make the work of observation, as he had practised observation, crack and crumble, and to reduce Chad to the plain terms in which honest minds could deal with him? Had they come in short to be sane where Strether was destined to feel that he himself had only been silly?
He glanced at such a contingency, but it failed to hold him long when once he had reflected that he would have been silly, in this case, with Maria Gostrey and little Bilham, with Madame de Vionnet and little Jeanne, with Lambert Strether, in fine, and above all with Chad Newsome himself. Wouldn’t it be found to have made more for reality to be silly with these persons than sane with Sarah and Jim? Jim in fact, he presently made up his mind, was individually out of it; Jim didn’t care; Jim hadn’t come out either for Chad or for him; Jim in short left the moral side to Sally and indeed simply availed himself now, for the sense of recreation, of the fact that he left almost everything to Sally.
What if there is no ghost to see? What if the genres were just silly schoolboy fantasies, for this mid-life schoolboy Strether? The interruption is occasioned by the arrival of Sarah and Jim because they represent the hard-headed American principle, Jim most of all, whereby the only empty signifier tolerated at the center of action is monetary, the dollar or what have you (not even, really, gold, though the standard hadn’t been abandoned; and that is where it is worth considering Oz in all of this, since it is a parable or allegory in part about what standard of value we ought to believe in, even if they are all fantasies; they are at least fantasies better than dreary Kansas, and Strether wants out of dreary canvas).
But either Strether refuses to succumb to doubt or else his doubts are mislaid. For even Jim Pocock is capable, in his folksy account of the Woollet women growing quiet at feeding time, to participate in the generic leavening, which the substance of reality would seem to demand:
It was as if a queer truth in his companion’s metaphor had rolled over him with a rush. She had been quiet at feeding time; she had fed, and Sarah had fed with her, out of the big bowl of all his recent free communication, his vividness and pleasantness, his ingenuity and even his eloquence, while the current of her response had steadily run thin.
And there is the duel of magic between Madame de Vionnet and Sarah:
It was clear enough, when they were there before him, how she had been received. He saw this, as Sarah got up to greet him, from something fairly hectic in Sarah’s face. He saw furthermore that they weren’t, as had first come to him, alone together; he was at no loss as to the identity of the broad high back presented to him in the embrasure of the window furthest from the door. Waymarsh, whom he had to-day not yet seen, whom he only knew to have left the hotel before him, and who had taken part, the night previous, on Mrs. Pocock’s kind invitation, conveyed by Chad, in the entertainment, informal but cordial, promptly offered by that lady—Waymarsh had anticipated him even as Madame de Vionnet had done, and, with his hands in his pockets and his attitude unaffected by Strether’s entrance, was looking out, in marked detachment, at the Rue de Rivoli. The latter felt it in the air—it was immense how Waymarsh could mark things—-that he had remained deeply dissociated from the overture to their hostess that we have recorded on Madame de Vionnet’s side. He had, conspicuously, tact, besides a stiff general view; and this was why he had left Mrs. Pocock to struggle alone. He would outstay the visitor; he would unmistakeably wait; to what had he been doomed for months past but waiting? Therefore she was to feel that she had him in reserve. What support she drew from this was still to be seen, for, although Sarah was vividly bright, she had given herself up for the moment to an ambiguous flushed formalism. She had had to reckon more quickly than she expected; but it concerned her first of all to signify that she was not to be taken unawares. Strether arrived precisely in time for her showing it. “Oh you’re too good; but I don’t think I feel quite helpless. I have my brother—and these American friends. And then you know I’ve been to Paris. I know Paris,” said Sally Pocock in a tone that breathed a certain chill on Strether’s heart.
And there is the treachery of spies with schemes unknown to one another:
She smiled in welcome at Strether; she greeted him more familiarly than Mrs Pocock; she put out her hand to him without moving from her place; and it came to him in the course of a minute and in the oddest way that—yes, positively—she was giving him over to ruin. She was all kindness and ease, but she couldn’t help so giving him; she was exquisite, and her being just as she was poured for Sarah a sudden rush of meaning into his own equivocations. How could she know how she was hurting him? She wanted to show as simple and humble—in the degree compatible with operative charm; but it was just this that seemed to put him on her side.
Reality, James would say in The Ambassadors, is this rich, and the novel progresses with Strether’s widening sense of how much might be at play in a given moment. It is not tragic, with the attendant depths of tragedy, like The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl, and it is not as firmly placed, as perfectly constructed, as What Maisie Knew. But its pathos of embarrassment (not humiliation), small regret (not self-accusation), and the vulnerability and necessity of friendship can somehow open it more readily to all genres:
The prime effect of her tone, however—and it was a truth which his own eyes gave back to her in sad ironic play—could only be to make him feel that, to say such things to a man in public, a woman must practically think of him as ninety years old. He had turned awkwardly, responsively red, he knew, at her mention of Maria Gostrey; Sarah Pocock’s presence—the particular quality of it—had made this inevitable; and then he had grown still redder in proportion as he hated to have shown anything at all. He felt indeed that he was showing much, as, uncomfortably and almost in pain, he offered up his redness to Waymarsh, who, strangely enough, seemed now to be looking at him with a certain explanatory yearning. Something deep—something built on their old old relation—passed, in this complexity, between them; he got the side-wind of a loyalty that stood behind all actual queer questions. Waymarsh’s dry bare humour—as it gave itself to be taken—gloomed out to demand justice. “Well, if you talk of Miss Barrace I’ve my chance too,” it appeared stiffly to nod, and it granted that it was giving him away, but struggled to add that it did so only to save him. The sombre glow stared it at him till it fairly sounded out—“to save you, poor old man, to save you; to save you in spite of yourself.” Yet it was somehow just this communication that showed him to himself as more than ever lost.
Maybe because it is a pathos-tinted comedy that it can be said to possess, in its overall design, and its style, the quality of wit of which T.S. Eliot wrote: “it involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible, which we find as clearly in the greatest as in poets like Marvell.” It is the essential diplomatic virtue.