In the second half of the 19th and the first quarter of the 20th century there was a surge in creative writing and most of the master-pieces in American and European literature came out during this period as they did during the Renaissance. The novel became the most dominant form and received the most excruciating concern regarding its form, technique, theme, people and style and other aspects of novel-writing. It was a period full of literary giants such as George Eliot, Dickens, Thackeray, Emily Brontë , Conrad, Lawrence, Joyce and many others in England. Flaubert, Proust, Balzac, Zola in France, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky in Russia, Mann, Herman Hesse in Germany, Kafka in Prague and Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Melville in America, all in a span of three quarters of a century. Among these luminaries we have Henry James coming out novel after novel and his criticism of the Art of the Novel. Over the years, he has emerged as an iconic figure in American literature, some of his novels according to Walter Allen are novels of a classic perfection, never before achieved in English, in which practice and theory are consummately matched. Again in the same vain Allen says,” We know James as a novelist better than any other, apart from Flaubert, and in the history of the English novel, James holds a position analogous to Flaubert’s in the French: both strove to give the novel the aesthetic intensity of a great poem or a great painting.”
Indian response to James has been lukewarm. This may be because many readers lose the thread in his long-winded style. Moreover they cannot grant his premise. However, a little patience can unfold before them a world that is full of rare beauty, dignity and restrained sadness. James fictional world is full of heirs and heiresses of large fortune. They have their own culture and morality. They are extraordinarily gifted with intelligence, poise, sophistication and suave manners. But notwithstanding their large fortune and sophistication they are not happy and pine away. It is a world in which heroines end up as sacrificial lambs and heroes in unfulfilled love and frustration. Henry also deals with social causes of his time. James fictional world is the world of impressions and reflections. There is not enough action and whatever action there is takes hundreds of pages of wavering, dithering, vacillating on the part of his heroes and heroines.
In his much appreciated novel The Portrait of a lady we have a young beautiful girl called Isabella living alone in not so bright a place. Her parents have died without leaving her what might be called a handsome legacy. She has two sisters who live away from her. She has an aunt in England who visits her and takes her to England. Her uncle Mr Touchett is an old man and spends his time sipping tea in his garden. Her cousin Ralph Touchett is sick and keeps moving to warmer places during English winter. He is very kind to Isabel and wants her to be happy. Mr Touchett, a banker and a man of huge property, realizes that he may not survive for long, and wants to make some changes in his will. He consults Ralph who prevails upon him to transfer major portion of his share to Isabel without letting her know her benefactor and Isabel becomes a heiress of a large fortune after her uncle’s death. But in her innocence of the way of the world, Isabel is hardly overwhelmed. She spends her time thinking of beauty and bravery and magnanimity. She is stubbornly taken up with the idea that she should and would not do anything wrong. It is in this spirit that she rejected the ardent advances of Casper Goodwood, an American prosperous businessman, and in England she rejected the proposal of Lord Warburton, an amiable gentleman of vast estates and resources.
In Florence she meets Mme Merle, a friend of the Touchett family who insists on her meeting Gilbert Osmand, an American expatriate in pursuit of the beautiful. Isabel is impressed by him and eventually decides to marry him. Soon she is disillusioned because Osmand was already married and had a daughter by Mme Merle and had an eye on Isabel’s money to marry her off. Much against her nature she lives in a dark cheerless place. When she comes to know that her cousin Ralph’s health was critical, she wants to be by his side but her husband brusquely side tracks her request. However, Isabel leaves for England. Her unhappiness is noticed by her cousin and he feels sad for her. After his death Isabel lives for some more time in England where she meets her American lover Casper. Casper urges her to take divorce so that they can get married. He assures her that he would make her happy. Isabel bluntly refuses to entertain his pleas but Casper becomes desperate and inexorable. Therefore Isabel leaves for Florence without informing him or anybody. In other words she returns to her doom. Probably she returns to her doom because she realises that she had freedom to choose and she had chosen Osmand and now she must face the consequences. Any other decision would mean demeaning her whole being and she would not let it happen, come what may. It is this aspect of her character that gives her a tragic stature.
In The Bostonians Jame’s deals with the tug of war that goes on between Miss Olive Chancellor, a feminist and Basil Ransom, a conservative over Miss Verena Tarrant, a charming young woman with a gift of expression. Miss Chancellor wants Miss Tarrant to devote herself to the cause of women’s emancipation and Basil wants her to play her natural role of making a home and making him happy. It all starts when Miss Chancellor and Basil go to the salon of Miss Birdseye where a group of reformists believing in the cause of emancipation of women usually met and discussed the past history of women’s position in the society, their present condition and their future. In the gathering Miss Tarrant was also present with her parents. Miss Tarrant was already known to have impressed people with her fine gift of expression. Naturally she is urged to address the meeting. After a good deal of coaxing, she took the floor. She began slowly but soon picked up the steam. She waxed on the gentleness and goodness of women and how during the long ages of history they had been trampled under the iron heel of man. She talked about their equality and even superiority. Everybody present was immensely impressed by Miss Tarrant. However, Basil was disappointed. He thought Miss Tarrant as innocent as she was lovely. He regarded her as a vocalist of exquisite faculty condemned to sing bad music. Basil thought her arguments were trite and deserved little attention but all this didn’t matter. What disappointed him was the brazen personal exhibitionism to which she was subjected. He conveyed his thoughts to the votaries of the cause. Miss Chancellor rued her decision to bring him to the salon. She closes her doors on Basil and takes Miss Tarrant under her wings. Miss Tarrant enjoys the fame her lectures brought her. But Basil lost no opportunity to sap her confidence in her mission. The tug of war between Miss Chancellor and Basil culminates into a crisis when Miss Tarrant is to perform at the Music hall which was much advertised. A huge crowd assembled at the appointed hour and Basil was seated in the front row. Miss Tarrant had seen him and became jittery. She refuses to take the floor. When the lecture does not start even after an hour of the appointed time, there is baying and booing and whistling. Basil covers the face of Miss Tarrant with the hood of her long cloak and takes her away from the crowd and when they were safe, Basil uncovers her face and finds that there were tears in her eyes. It is feared that it was not the last she was destined to shed them. However, Basil succeeds in releasing Miss Tarrant from Miss Chancellor’s paws and also Miss Tarrant from becoming a beggar for public applause and be a woman in her own right, unmindful of the tears she may have to shed in the process.
The Wings Of Dove is about a true love affair sadly tainted and despoiled by greed. It is also about great fortune and great misfortune working cheek by jowl in the life of Milly Theale. Moral taint and an inscrutable act of fate run parallel in The Wings of Dove.
Kate, the heroine of the novel, is penniless but this does not cast a dark cloud over her spirits. She meets her shifty father in a dingy hotel and tells him blankly not to depend upon her. On her way to work she meets a young journalist and both fall in love with each other. A strong bond emerges between Kate and her lover Merton Densher in spite of their straitened conditions. Soon Kate is invited by her aunt Maud to stay with her on the condition that she would severe all her relations with her family. Kate accepts but her relations with Densher remain undisturbed. In the course of time Densher is required to spend some time in America. Before leaving for America, Kate and Densher meet and swear that they would remain constant in their love.
Milly Theale, heiress to a large fortune, stunningly beautiful, totally free to take her decisions but also smitten by a fatal disease, arrives in London where she meets Kate who introduces her to her lover Densher. Milly had met him in New York and during the course of their meetings, falls in love with him. Kate who comes to know that Milly was struck with a fatal disease and would not survive for long, encourages Densher to marry her. It becomes clear that this was not an act of sacrifice but a conspiracy to appropriate Milly’s wealth after her death. Milly comes to know about the conspiracy in Venice. She leaves her fortune to Densher, turns her face to the wall and dies. Kate says that the dove has spread her wings and forgiven them but Densher is filled by self-revulsion and tells Kate that he would marry her without money or give her money and remain single. Finally they get married but not before realising that that steady smokeless pure flame of love is no longer smokeless and pure.
The poignancy of it all leaves a deep impression on the readers’ mind.
In Ambassadors, Mrs Newsome, the owner of a large business house, sends Mr Slrether to Paris to fetch her son Chad who, she thinks, might be ensnared by one of those immoral French women. Strether, who hoped to marry her someday, accepts the mission. In Paris he is received by a Miss Maria Gostrey, a general guide. Strether finds her charming and very intelligent. In Paris he becomes acquainted with people Chad knew and socialised with. Madame de Vionnet is the most prominent among them. Strether finds Chad greatly improved and polished. He does not press Chad to return. Shortly he becomes enamoured of French culture. He becomes convince that Chad must not return. Sensing the delay in accomplishing the mission by Strether, Mrs Newsome sends another team of Chad’s sister, her husband and Chad’s prospective wife to Paris. It succeeds in its mission and decides to leave for America with Chad. The news shatters Strether. He lost Mrs Newsome’s favour and he also lost much of his attraction for France. However he decides to return to America because that was right.
James takes hundreds of pages to connect the dots of his story. This is because he is not in a hurry to tell his story. He takes his time to take in each one of his characters: its looks, the impression it makes, the impression it receives. He has a flair for presenting his characters in a heightened manner. He calls the process “dramatizing.”