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The Cosmopolitan and the Colonial

‘Our precious quand même’: French in the Letters of Henry James

Our precious quand même’: le français dans les lettres de Henry James
Daniel Karlin


Henry James a beaucoup voyagé en France où il a longuement vécu, notamment à Paris. Il connaissait plusieurs écrivains célèbres de l’époque; il aimait et admirait le roman, le théâtre, la critique française, et ce qu’il appelait ‘le génie de la langue française’. En outre, il connaissait à fond le français et il pouvait rédiger des lettres entièrement dans cette langue. Ses lettres anglaises abondent également de mots et d’expressions en français. Le choix de ces derniers est pénétré de son esprit créateur et critique, et il a une importance particulière dans sa correspondance, puisque dans son œuvre littéraire l’usage du français a presque toujours une fonction dramatique appartenant aux personnages. Dans ses lettres, en revanche, c’est le personnage de l’écrivain qui se met en jeu. L’emploi du français semble parfois inconscient ou involontaire, déterminé par certaines ‘situations épistolaires’, mais l’on trouve aussi des traits d’art fins et perçants. C’est surtout le cas quand James parle de son propre métier. L’article étudie quelques exemples de ces traits plus profonds et plus voulus en guise de conclusion.

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1Here is a young American writer, in 1867, passing judgment on the great French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve:

  • 1 Letter of 20 Sept. 1867, in Philip Horne (ed.), Henry James: A Life in Letters (London: Penguin Boo (...)

One feels—I feel at least, that he is a man of the past, of a dead generation; and that we young Americans are (without cant) men of the future. I feel that my only chance for success as a critic is to let all the breezes of the west blow through me at their will.1

2This attitude—the attitude of boastful condescension from the New World to the Old—is wearisomely familiar in nineteenth-century American writing. The parenthetical disavowal ‘without cant’ serves only to draw attention to the fact that it is cant: ‘young Americans’, ‘men of the future’, the metaphor of the ‘breezes of the west’, all these can be found in dozens, hundreds of claims to every kind of social and cultural superiority made by Americans in this period—in politics, religion, economic and industrial progress, domestic life, as well as intellectual or artistic prowess. Such claims reached their literary apotheosis in Whitman, but it is very surprising to find Henry James endorsing them. For this is indeed James, aged 24, writing to his friend Thomas Sergeant Perry from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Perry himself was in Paris, where James had spent some of his formative years as a child and adolescent, and where he was to live again for a crucial period in the 1870s. We think of James as the most cosmopolitan of American writers, the least susceptible to the national disease of boosterism. So what is going on?

3What is going on is partly my own use of selective quotation. Here is the beginning of the letter to Perry I have just quoted:

  • 2 The spelling ‘attrapper’ is sic in Horne’s edition.

Mon cher vieux Thomas:—
J’ai là sous les yeux depuis hier ta gentille lettre du 4 7bre. Je fus bien aise de te savoir de retour à Paris, que tu n’as sans doute pas quitté. Je crois que tu ne regretteras jamais d’y avoir passé une grosse partie de ton temps; car enfin, quoiqu’on en dise, c’est une des merveilles de l’univers. On y apprend à connaître les hommes et les choses, et pour peu qu’on soit parvenu à y attrapper le sentiment de chez soi, quelque genre de vie que l’on mène plus tard, on ne sera jamais un ignorant, un ermite—enfin un provincial. (James 1999, 13)2

  • 3 See, for example, the letters to Alphonse Daudet of 19 June 1884 and 10 Nov. 1895, in Horne, pp. 15 (...)

4This is an early example of James writing letters in French, as he did on many occasions, and not always to French correspondents.3 After a comment on Perry’s ‘humeur Rabelaisiaque’, James writes: ‘Décidément, je plante là mon français: ou plutôt c’est lui qui me plante’ (James 1999, 13). He then switches to English, but he has not really abandoned French: the rest of the letter is sown with French words and phrases, and at one point, after using two such phrases in quick succession, James remarks ‘Tiens! mon français qui me retrouve!’ (James 1999, 17).

5James’s praise of Paris as a place where one can lose one’s ignorance and one’s provincialism is much more what we expect from him, the more so as it is qualified by the insistence on ‘le sentiment de chez soi’, the feeling of being a resident rather than a visitor. James feels at home in Paris, and in the French language, even though he is writing from America, and this feeling in turn affects the judgment he passes on Sainte-Beuve. Here is a fuller context for the passage with which I began:

When I say that I should like to do as Ste. Beuve has done, I don’t mean that I should like to imitate him, or reproduce him in English: but only that I should like to acquire something of his intelligence & his patience and vigour. One feels—I feel at least, that he is a man of the past, of a dead generation; and that we young Americans are (without cant) men of the future. I feel that my only chance for success as a critic is to let all the breezes of the west blow through me at their will. We are Americans born—il faut en prendre son parti. I look upon it as a great blessing; and I think that to be an American is a great preparation for culture. (James 1999, 16-17)

  • 4 J. E. Mansion (ed.), Harrap’s Standard French and English Dictionary, rev. ed. 1940, based on an or (...)

6What an astonishing moment that is—the moment at which the sentence which states that Americans have to make the best of their condition resorts to French in order to say so. My dictionary defines ‘en prendre son parti’ as ‘to resign oneself to the inevitable, to one’s fate; to make the best of a bad job’.4 The ‘men of the future’ are therefore men whose fate, to be ‘Americans born’, may be thought a handicap. The affirmation ‘I look upon it as a great blessing’ now looks less like a boast and more like a consolation. At any rate, taken as a whole James’s attitude is more complex, more subtle, more self-aware—more Jamesian, in short. In this essay I want to explore one aspect of this complexity, that which relates to James’s use of the French language.

7My eye is drawn not to the part of the letter written in French, but to the scattered words and phrases which spring up like poppies in the field of English. James’s French sentences are perfectly correct, but they are not the sentences of a native speaker of French. There is something stilted in James’s deployment of colloquial idiom—at one point, referring to Perry’s account of the Exposition Universelle, he writes: ‘Que le diable l’emporte, cette maudite baraque!’ (James 1999, 13) and there is something slightly wrong with this, as though it had been generated by a very good computer programme from a large database of historical French slang. The use of ‘il faut en prendre son parti’, on the other hand, is extraordinarily sharp and apt. Another example from the English portion of the letter will suggest the direction of my interest. The subject is again the effect of Paris: ‘When a man has seen Paris somewhat attentively, he has seen (I suppose) the biggest achievement of civilization in a certain direction & he will always carry with him a certain little reflet of its splendour’ (James 1999, 14). Why should the French ‘reflet’ be used here instead of an English word such as ‘reflection’ or ‘gleam’? The syntax takes you from ‘the biggest achievement of civilization in a certain direction’ to ‘a certain little reflet of its splendour’, and this diminution of scale is emphasised by the modest word ‘reflet’, a brief gleam of French, a reminder, in its small foreign shape and sound, of the larger ‘splendour’ it evokes.

  • 5 All references to The Bostonians are to the first English edition (London: Macmillan, 1886).

8I think James’s creative and critical intelligence was profoundly at work in such word-choices, and I think they are of particular interest in his letters, as opposed to his fiction, where the use of French either by the narrator or characters within a story is determined by other considerations. Such usage almost always has a dramatic function, and is part of a local context. The following examples are all from The Bostonians: in chapter 8, as the heroine Verena Tarrant prepares to give one of her ‘inspired’ performances, her father is overheard saying ‘“She’s just arranging her ideas, and trying to get in report”’. (James 1886, 59-60)5 ‘“[I]n report”’, the narrator tells us, ‘was apparently Tarrant’s version of en rapport’ (James 1886, 60). Here the misuse of a French phrase is a mark of the character’s ignorance, and the narrator’s knowledge. Elsewhere the occurrence of a French word sends a social signal, as in chapter 18 when Verena and the strait-laced Olive Chancellor visit the rooms of a young dilettante Harvard student, and Verena notes ‘the bibelots that emerged into the firelight’ (James 1886, 153). In chapter 22, Olive’s fatuous and deluded sister comprehensively misjudges the hero, Basil Ransom, who comes from Mississippi, by aligning the ‘fallen aristocracy’ of the South with the French ancien régime: ‘was not Basil Ransom an example of it? was he not like a French gentilhomme de province after the Revolution? or an old monarchical émigré from the Languedoc?’ (James 1886, 207) One more example, which brings us back to James’s letter: in chapter 32, the mother of the Harvard student and collector of bibelots, Mrs Burrage, explains her acceptance of the unpalatable fact that her son really is in earnest in his desire to marry Verena:

‘In short, my poor boy flamed up again; and now I see that he will never again care for any girl as he cares for that one. My dear Miss Chancellor, j’en ai pris mon parti, and perhaps you know my way of doing that sort of thing. I am not at all good at resigning myself, but I am excellent at taking up a craze. . . .’ (James 1886, 307)

9The use of the French idiom at this precise moment is wholly in character—it is just what this wealthy New York socialite would say to her Bostonian antagonist, it allows Mrs Burrage to remain in control even as she pretends gracefully to acknowledge defeat, and it condescends to ‘my dear Miss Chancellor’ whether Olive understands it or not.

10These examples show James’s keen eye for detail but they are all ‘composed’, like the details in a painting, and it is the composition which gives them their significance. James’s use of French in his letters is not always free from this element of design, of course, but patterns of usage are generally discernible not in a single letter, or in letters to the same correspondent, or from the same period, but across a broader range. With due caution I would suggest that some of these patterns are unconscious—that is, James switches to French in certain recurring epistolary ‘situations’, in which habit has become second nature. But there are also cases where his use of French constitutes a stroke of art as trenchant and finely-judged as anything in his fiction. Nowhere is this more so than when the subject is his own art. My essay will conclude with some examples of this more intense and deliberate practice.

  • 6 ‘À propos’ (in the form ‘A propos’ and ‘àpropos’) one of James’s favourite French phrases, with a d (...)
  • 7 ‘Ébauche’ (p. 250), ‘mise en scène’ (p. 33, twice, once without the accent), ‘partage’ (p. 399), ‘p (...)
  • 8 ‘Au besoin’ (p. 201), ‘compagnon de voyage’ (p. 41), ‘convive’ (p. 207), ‘de confiance’ (p. 330), ‘ (...)

11I will be concentrating on French words and phrases that were not naturalized in English in the nineteenth century. Sometimes the line is hard to draw, but we can exclude occurrences of, for example, à propos, bon voyage, coterie, cul de sac, début, dénoûement, en route, enfant terrible, malaise, nonchalance, panache, tête à tête, tour de force.6 All these are sufficiently current in English not to count as intrusive; they are not quite ‘unmarked’, but they would pass without much comment in educated English speech or writing, and, crucially, can be used by people who do not speak French. There is an intermediate class of words and phrases which, though attested in the Oxford English Dictionary, are either reserved for technical use or imply a greater degree of education in the French language: ébauche, partage, pis aller, point d’appui seem to me to belong to this category.7 They join more overtly marked examples, where the word or phrase is not recorded in the OED, remains unassimilated and requires a working knowledge of French to decode: au besoin, compagnon de voyage, convive, de confiance, entre temps, n’en parlons plus, réchauffées, refroidissement, Tout à vous, vie champêtre.8 Such occurrences stand out not just because they are foreign, but because they are gratuitous. The literal sense does not require a French word; often a perfectly good English equivalent exists, yet the French term is chosen. Moreover, one of the striking features of James’s use of French is that he rarely draws attention to it as such. Only occasionally will he use a formula such as the one he applies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom he heard lecture in Cambridge in 1872, and who would, he predicted to Charles Eliot Norton, ‘percer, as the French say, & become eminent’ (4 Feb. 1872, James 1999, 48). That ‘as the French say’ is the exception; almost all James’s French words are unaccompanied by authorial comment, translation or paraphrase. Perhaps he thought such comment an affectation; the French word is there simply because it is the mot juste, so there is no need to point out its foreignness. The only concession James will make is to underline it, and even here he is not consistent: many of the examples that follow appear in the manuscripts or typescripts of his letters without added emphasis (see note 9).

12We know that James travelled extensively in France, and lived there for months at a time (his longest period of residence was in 1875-6, in Paris); that he knew Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet, Paul Bourget, among many others; that he loved and admired the French novel, the French theatre, and the French critical faculty, not to mention ‘the genius of the French language’ to which, he claimed, he had ‘always found [himself] irresistibly sacrificing’ (to Auguste Monod, 17 Dec. 1905, James 1999, 430). No wonder, then, that his letters should be infiltrated by that genius, especially when he is writing to friends and acquaintances who are themselves living in France, some of them Americans who had become naturalized French citizens. All this is true, and we have to make allowances for the greater likelihood that French words will appear in letters written about French subjects. Writing from Paris in 1873, he tells Charles Eliot Norton: ‘I like my life here & shall probably endure it for some weeks more—unless indeed M. Thiers & the assembly between them treat us to another revolution & make an exodus prudent. We are en pleine crise & I suppose you will have got the news of yesterday’s session (19 Nov. 1873, James 1999, 50). The use of en pleine crise here is no more than a touch of local colour, I would agree, as is his remark to his mother in a letter of 1876: ‘I passed the festive season in solitary recueillement’ (11 Jan. 1876, James 1999, 62). Or again, giving a gossipy view of the Parisian literary set:

Yes, I have seen Daudet several times. He is a little fellow (very little) with a refined & picturesque head, of a Jewish type. Former private secretary of the Duc de Morny. A brilliant talker & raconteur. A Bohemian. An extreme imitator of Dickens—but à froid, without D.’s real exuberance. Jack has had immense success here—ça se vend comme du pain. Mme Sand en raffole. The stepfather is a portrait—Pierre Véron, editor of the Charivari. The book to me was dreary & disagreeable, & in spite of cleverness intrinsically weak. I prefer an inch of Gustave Droz to a mile of Daudet. Why the Flaubert circle don’t like him is their own affair—I don’t care. I heard M. Zola characterize his manner sometime since as merde à la vanille. I send you by post Zola’s own last.—merde au naturel. Simply hideous. (2 May 1876, James 1999, 70‑1)

13You might say of James’s French here that it, too, is ‘in spite of cleverness intrinsically weak’. It’s a sign of his immersion, but it’s also a bit forced, a display or performance of ‘le sentiment de chez soi’; even the brilliant joke on ‘merde’ feels as though it has been too carefully set up. It is fair to say that the performance is still that of a young man; later examples are more poised, as in this comment on Daudet from a letter to Frederic Myers of 1888, in which James defends his praise of Daudet in an earlier essay:

It was fairly complete as an account of the Daudet of several years ago, when it was published—allowing for a certain voulu, & I think legitimate, or at any rate generous & responsive insistence (on my part) on the agreeable side. . . . The poor man is a strange mixture—a surface of charm which he presented 1st, making it chatoyer in the sun[,] and an underside of foulness & poverty which he has now turned completely uppermost. (20 Oct. 1888, James 1999, 210)

14The use of voulu instead of ‘deliberate’ or ‘intentional’, and chatoyer instead of ‘glisten’ or ‘sparkle’, is striking because it doesn’t set out to strike—it’s not, so to speak, voulu, and it derives its legitimacy from its restraint.

15All these instances belong to a category in which the use of French can be linked to James’s being in France, or writing about it, so that the occurrence of French words seems natural, even where these words are not necessitated by the context. But what are we to make of the following example, in which James is writing from America to Charles Eliot Norton, who happens to be in Germany? ‘It is not that I have any thing very new & strange to relate. In fact, when one sits down to sum up Cambridge life plume en main, the strange thing seems its aridity (4 Feb. 1872, James 1999, 46). James here represents his own predicament; a little further on in the same letter he imagines that of his friend: ‘To the formation of what tastes does a winter in Dresden conduce? A few distastes, possibly, come into shape. Tell me of them too, for I want to be assured that in the interest of “general culture” a winter in Germany is not de rigueur’ (James 1999, 46). Neither of these examples is directly related to France, but in both cases French serves James as an instrument of irony. To see oneself as plume en main in Cambridge is to register one’s disdain for its impoverished social scene, implicitly contrasted with that of Paris, against which Dresden, too, can’t compete.

  • 9 James underlines the second phrase but not the first, though there is no ostensible reason why one (...)

16This letter dates from relatively early in James’s career, but it forms a pattern which persists throughout his life, in which French appears not when James is writing about France, but about some other country. A whole cluster of examples relates to Italy. To Grace Norton, in 1869: ‘I do wish I could put into my poor pale words some faint reflection of the color & beauty of this glorious old world. But you have it all in memory; & then—que dis-je?—you have in fact something very nearly as good’ (11 Nov. 1869, James 1999, 31). James is in Rome, and we might imagine that Grace Norton is back home in America, where she has the ‘glorious old world’ in her memory. But in fact Grace was in Florence—the comparison is between two Italian cities, mediated by the little French idiom que dis-je? To Grace’s older brother, Charles Eliot Norton, who was also living in Florence at the time, James wrote a few months later, this time from England: ‘Seriously, dear Charles, for your own continued indisposition, je n’en reviens pas. . . . At any rate I rejoice most warmly in your uninterrupted enjoyment of the good things about you. With Italy in the present & your children in the future you have de quoi vivre’ (25 Mar. 1870, James 1999, 35).9 Here is another example, from a letter written over thirty-five years later, from Venice: ‘Never has the whole place seemed to me sweeter, dearer, diviner. It leaves everything else out in the cold. I wish I could dream of coming to me mettre dans mes meubles (except that my meubles would look so awful here!) beside you’ (to Laura Wagnière, 23 June 1907, James 1920, vol. 2, 79). And another, from the same period, describing a motor tour from Rome to Naples, ‘going by the mountains . . . and returning by the sea’:

This brought home to me with an intimacy and a penetration unprecedented how incomparably the old coquine of an Italy is the most beautiful country in the world—of a beauty (and an interest and complexity of beauty) so far beyond any other that none other is worth talking about. (To Edith Wharton, 11 Aug, 1907, James 1920, vol. 2, 82)

17In each of these cases a French word or phrase—me mettre dans mes meubles, coquine—presents itself to James, with what looks like tactless incongruity, just when he is evoking Italy as incomparably beautiful. Wouldn’t an Italian word have been more appropriate? But James doesn’t use Italian in this way, or German, or any other foreign language. And what goes for Italy goes of course for Britain. In 1879 he wrote to his brother William about his residence in London:

I have certainly become a hopeless, helpless, shameless (and you will add, a bloated,) cockney. No, I am not bloated—morally; I am philosophic to lean-ness—to stringiness. Physically, it’s another affair, & I am bloated tant que vous voudrez. I am as broad as I am long, as fat as a butter-tub & as red as a British materfamilias. (15 June 1879, James 1999, 107-8)

18Anxious about the delivery of presentation copies of The Portrait of a Lady, James wrote to his publisher Frederick Macmillan in December 1881: ‘I was notified a few days since that the copy to be addressed—“Countess of Roseberry, Mentmore, Leighton Buzzard,” had not, up to Dec. 1st, reached the destinataire’ (27 Dec. 1881, James 1999, 132-3). He concluded this letter, by the way, by sending mille tendresses to Mrs. Macmillan (James 1999, 134). In 1882 he wrote to Sir John Clark, a Scottish laird:

I think that what has most attendri myself is hearing from Mrs. Hay . . . that you are coming to Folkestone for the winter. This is a most lovely fact. I gather that you don’t care at all for that classic refuge of the seasick; but this fact is perfectly indifferent to me. It is enough that Folkestone is but two or three hours from London & that I shall be able—si vous le voulez bien—to go & see you there. (13 Nov. 1882, James 1999, 141)

19Of the same Sir John, and his wife, he wrote three years later: ‘The laird & lady of Tillypronie were in town for a couple of months in a lame & languid condition . . . I feel more than ever the curse & blight of their solitary home being in that remote mountain fastness: a ridiculous perch for two infirm & impecunious vieillards’ (13 May 1885, James 1999, 176). There is no reason that I can find why terms such as destinataire, attendri, or vieillards should be substituted for ‘addressee’, ‘touched’, or ‘old people’. Indeed the significance of such examples—and there are many more—seems to lie in their having no particular motive. They form a neutral backdrop of usage against which more artful and pointed instances stand out. Writing to his brother from England in 1909, James contrasts ‘what is sweetest and most attaching in the dear old American, or particularly New England, scenery’ with the English countryside: ‘It comes back to me as with such a magnificent beckoning looseness—in relieving contrast to the consummate tightness (a part, too, oddly, of the very wealth of effect) du pays d’ici’ (to William James, 17 August 1909, James 1920, Vol. 2, 139). What a wonderful stroke that is, the use of French to designate England: the little word ici has an extraordinary pathos, acknowledging both exile and presence. In 1909 James was not going anywhere else.

20Another group of examples concerns people, not places. Writing to William James in 1888, James offers a scathing portrait of the English politician Arthur Balfour, and he does so very much plume en main:

He is extremely witty, & a master of persiflage & badinage &, at the same time is of the cold, ascetic & unfleshly type, not liking English sports & brutalities . . . Aussi, he today is the darling, the adored of London—they have never before had such a pure brain, & such a flexible wit (in talk at least—less so in the H. of Commons) at their service & ils ne se connaissent plus. (20 Feb. 1888, James 1999, 199)

21Both ‘persiflage’ and ‘badinage’ had been naturalized in English since the eighteenth century but they still designate Balfour as a kind of inauthentic Englishman; James exploits the traditional British criticism of the French as shallow and frivolous, yet his own use of French implies scorn for the London public: ‘ils ne se connaissent plus’ is a much sharper put-down than the English equivalent, ‘their heads have been turned’. The complexity of this example is matched by the brutal directness of James’s attack on Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892:

  • 10 The spelling ‘râtés’ is sic in Horne’s edition.

As a drama it is of a candid & primitive simplicity, with a perfectly reminiscential air about it—as of things qui ont traîné, that one has always seen in plays. . . . there is so much drollery—that is “cheeky” paradoxical wit of dialogue, & the pit & gallery are so pleased at finding themselves clever enough to “catch on” to four or five of the ingenious—too—ingenious mots in the dozen, that it makes them feel quite “décadent” & raffiné & they enjoy the sensation as a change from the stodgy. Moreover they think they are hearing the talk of the grand monde (poor old grand monde,) & altogether feel privileged & modern. There is a perpetual attempt at mots & many of them râtés: but those that hit are very good indeed. (To Florence Bell, 23 Feb. 1892, James 1999, 245-6)10

22Here the proliferation of French terms articulates James’s scorn both for Wilde’s technique and for the London theatre audience: it asserts his ability to detect a theatrical cliché, his competence to judge between a successful and unsuccessful witticism, his scorn for the ‘pit & gallery’ with their puerile thrill at feeling ‘quite “décadent” & raffiné’, and, of course, his actual knowledge of the authentic grand monde, as opposed to Wilde’s simulacrum.

23James detested Wilde, and he had a great fondness for that mostly mediocre man of letters Edmund Gosse, whose memoir Father and Son he recognized as a masterpiece: but when Gosse turned his hand to historical fiction, in the shape of a ‘medieval romance’ called The Secret of Narcisse, James wouldn’t let him off:

  • 11 The spelling ‘Baltasar’ is sic in Horne’s edition, for ‘Balthasar’.

. . . the old-fashioned, the vieux jeu, in your subject and treatment, constitute, for me, a bar to the last rapture; assuming, that is, that I am justified in applying these opprobrious epithets. What I am really struggling thus ungraciously to say is that I think it is a defect in the execution of the little problem to which you addressed yourself that it is not, as we say, more personal. There would have been—there were—two ways, I think, of dealing with it—the facile, the usual, and, as I have called it, vieux jeu way, the old-fashioned English “historical-tale” way (which for me, as a form, has ceased to have any interest—it is too cheap!) or the way of Gustave Flaubert in the Trois Contes, for instance, or of A. France in Thaïs or in Baltasar—the way of verbal magic and surface perfection and ciselure and infinite particularity—the way, in short, of renovation by style. One asks one’s self whether the former way is worth going in for at this time of day—I mean for battered raffinés and mature children of light like you and me. I doubt it! (30 Aug. 1892, James 1999, 252)11

24Unlike the deluded spectators of Wilde’s play, James really is a raffiné—even if a ‘battered’ one—unable to take the vieux jeu of historical fiction seriously. The phrase vieux jeu, like Wilde’s ‘things qui ont traîné’, uses French to define the standpoint of modernity, reinforced here by the allusions to Flaubert and Anatole France, and by the masterful interpolation of ciselure, untranslatably exact, in the list of aesthetic qualities. By a kind of visual/aural pun, whether intended or not, James then underlines the word style, allowing it to be pronounced ‘steel’ as though it were the French word.

  • 12 I have confined myself in this essay to letters, but James makes continual use of French in his not (...)

25These examples deploy French as a critical tool in relation to other writers of English; but there is, of course, one special writer of English on whose work it is employed, and that is James himself.12 Here are some examples from early and later periods: ‘It is the portrait of the character & recital of the adventures of a woman—a great swell, psychologically; a grande nature—accompanied with many “developments”’ (To W. D. Howells, 2 Feb. 1877, James 1999, 77). That’s Isabel Archer, in embryo. A month later, in a letter written to the same correspondent, James defends his decision not to allow a happy ending for The American by allowing Newman and Mme de Cintré to marry: ‘Voyons; it would have been impossible: they would have been an impossible couple, with an impossible problem before them. . . . It was cruelly hard for poor N. to lose, certainly: but que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?’ (30 Mar. 1877, James 1999, 83). He gives an equally spirited response to criticism of his portrayal of English characters in ‘An International Episode’: ‘I make a couple of English ladies doing a disagreeable thing—cela s’est vu; excuse me!—& forthwith I find myself responsible for a representation of English manners!’ (To Mrs Hill [Jane Dalzell Finlay], 21 Mar. 1879, James 1999, 104). In refusing to perform his patriotic duty by rebutting English criticism of America, James chose an untranslatable French epithet to indicate his dissent: ‘Let the English discuss America among themselves; meanwhile it does well enough; & I limit my ambition to producing from time to time a soigné work of art!’ (To Edwin Lawrence Godkin, 5 June 1882, James 1999, 140). For James to produce a ‘soigné work of art’ would be a more effective rebuttal of English attacks on America than anything he could do by way of public polemic; but such a work would also constitute a criticism of English indifference to the aesthetic values that the word soigné enshrines. It is not really a limited ambition—taken seriously, as James does undoubtedly take it, it makes the case for a ‘renovation by style’ of the whole art of fiction. Thinking of this art in French is a way of going deeper into English, of getting more out of it, of not resting content with its vieux jeu. It also strengthens and sharpens James’s rejection of the public taste:

Certainly I must, as a peintre de mœurs & de caractères, be exasperating in my poor way—but it isn’t—I think—in trying to give what the main public and the gros reader want that I shall seek the right remedy. They “want” simply bottomless niaiserie—look at Mr. Smith’s bookstalls & you’ll see. Give them what one wants oneself—it’s the only way: follow them & they lead one by a straight grand highway to abysses of vulgarity. (To Florence Bell, 7 Feb. 1890, James 1999, 219)

26It is true that these abysses of vulgarity were also mountains of money, and it was exasperating to James that his ‘poor way’ was also the way that kept him poor; it marked his failure in the theatre, too, as in these bitter reflections on the disaster of Guy Domville in 1895:

Of course however the play has du plomb dans l’aile, & it remains to be seen what will become of it. . . . You can take my word for it that the piece is extremely charming & skilful—je ne suis pas une bête, either to write a silly play, or not to know it if I had. But when I stood in the presence of that yelling crew . . . I saw, in one sickened moment, (it wasn’t pleasant,) the effondrement of my labour & my hope. . . . the theatre is verily a black abyss—& one feels stained with vulgarity rien que d’y avoir passé. Thank heaven there is another art. I embrace you, dear Etta Reubell, for your prompt participation in my little ennui . . . (To Henrietta Reubell, 10 Jan. 1895, James 1999, 275-6).

27Another such outburst, in a letter to the same correspondent about The Awkward Age, concerns the apparently wilful stupidity of even ‘clever people’:

  • 13 The omission of the accent in ‘parait’ is sic in Horne’s edition.
  • 14 The addition of the dash in ‘très-considérables’ is sic in Horne’s edition.

I suppose I must at any rate mention that I had in view a certain special social (highly “modern” & actual) London group & type & tone, which seemed to me to se prêter à merveille to an ironic—lightly & simply ironic!—treatment, & that clever people at least would know who, in general, & what, one meant. But here, at least, it appears, there are very few clever people. One must point with finger-posts—one must label with pancartes—one must explain with conférences! The form, doubtless, of my picture is against it—a form all dramatic & scenic . . . Mais il parait13 qu’il ne faut pas faire comme ça : personne n’y comprend rien: j’en suis pour mes frais—qui avaient été considérables, très—considérables! (12 Nov. 1899, James 1999, 329)14

28The sarcasm packed into ‘pancartes’ and ‘conférences’ is increased by their not being ‘placards’ and ‘lectures’: the London public need to be instructed in French in order to appreciate James’s English. Anger drives James from the isolated word or phrase—se prêter à merveille, pancartes, conférences—to the connected French sentence—as though the pressure were too great to contain.

29It might seem that French came into James’s mind more often as a means of expressing negative than positive ideas about his craft; but that would be a wrong impression. I mentioned earlier his admiration for Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, an account of Gosse’s upbringing among the Plymouth Brethren, the extreme and eccentric Protestant sect to which his father belonged. James’s delight was conveyed by means of French terms which speak of technique, but also of something more than technique:

It has immense & unfailing life, an extraordinary sort & degree, quite, of vivacity & intensity, & it holds & entertains from beginning to end—its parti-pris of absolute & utter frankness & objectivity being, it strikes me, brilliantly maintained—carried through with rare audacity. You have thus been in a position to write a book that must remain a document of the 1st importance—à consulter—about the pietistic passion & the religious rage . . . Suffice it for the present that you have had, immensely, the advantage of a living, intimate subject, & that cela vous a porté bonheur & caused you to produce a real work of art . . . (10 Nov. 1907, James 1999, 453)

30Parti-pris compliments Gosse on his technique, à consulter denotes the documentary value of his work, but ‘cela vous a porté bonheur’ is of a different order. The ‘living, intimate subject’ has ‘brought luck’ to Gosse in the sense that we speak vulgarly of someone ‘getting lucky’: it is a sexual, a procreative transaction. English often makes use of French for this kind of erotic suggestion: here the intimate encounter between Gosse and his subject is mediated by the French phrase, and the result is ‘a real work of art’. Another example of this erotic vocabulary comes from a letter to A. C. Benson in praise of his study of Walter Pater: ‘how happily & tenderly & eloquently you have rendered & expressed the most difficult & elusive parts of the subject—pressing it so intelligently hard, le serrant de si près, & playing all over it such fine penetrating restless finger-tips!’ (31 May 1906, James 1999, 434). I said earlier that James rarely accompanied a French phrase with an English translation or paraphrase, but if this is an exceptional case it is also a deliberate one, since le serrant de si près brings to the fore an erotic meaning which ‘pressing it so intelligently hard’ on its own might not quite achieve. In James’s poetic prose the French phrase also takes its place in a chain of sounds: ‘expressed . . . parts . . . pressing . . . intelligently . . . serrant . . . près . . . playing’, culminating in  ‘penetrating restless finger-tips’, a feu-de-joie of erotic suggestion.

31I will end on a more sober, but also a deeper note. We possess a fragment of a letter which probably dates from August 1911, and which was addressed to Lady Victoria Welby, author of a number of treatises on language and meaning, including a volume called Significs and Language: The Articulate Form of our Expressive and Interpretative Resources. She had sent the book to James; it carried an epigraph from his lecture The Question of Our Speech on its title page. James declared that he had read the volume ‘with earnest attention and rich profit’, but he dissented from Lady Welby’s attempt to construct a theory of expression which aimed at anything like totality, which purported to make things clear. ‘The universe so seems to me to strain its expression itself to breaking that I ask myself how such a cockle-boat of a compromise as art can pretend to live in such a sea.’ In the passage that follows he produces the most remarkable of all the French phrases I have come across in his letters—remarkable not in itself, for it is only an unpretending little idiom, but remarkable for the power and poignancy of suggestion with which he invests it.

For there is the hitch—that one somehow feels (at least I in my feebleness do) that expression is, at the most insurmountably, a compromise. Has it not, in the interest of finite form, to keep compromising, ever; for the sake of certain effects that our precious quand même—our poor, human, limping, fallacious associational quand même—values? (James 1999, 502)

32How to translate, or even adequately paraphrase, quand même in this context? ‘Even so’, ‘come what may’, ‘notwithstanding’: none of these will do; indeed no English phrase could substitute for it, for its point is precisely to suggest the limits of what English, and by analogy any language, can do for itself. The glory of James’s art is founded on this unstable ground: ‘our precious quand même—our poor, human, limping, fallacious associational quand même’. It speaks of his modesty, and in the face of defeat his continuing courage. And that, too, is a French word.

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James, Henry. The Bostonians. London: Macmillan, 1886.

James, Henry. The Letters of Henry James. 2 vols. Ed. Percy Lubbock. London: Macmillan and Co., 1920.

James, Henry. The Complete Notebooks of Henry James. Ed. Leon Edel and Lyall H. Powers. Oxford: OUP, 1987.

James, Henry. Henry James: A Life in Letters. Ed. Philip Horne. London: Penguin Books, 1999.

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1 Letter of 20 Sept. 1867, in Philip Horne (ed.), Henry James: A Life in Letters (London: Penguin Books, 1999), pp. 16-17. All quotations from James’s letters, with three exceptions (which come from Percy Lubbock’s 1920 edition of the Letters of Henry James), are taken from this selection. According to Horne, ‘Estimates of the total number of letters surviving vary considerably, but 12,000 to 15,000 seems a likely range’ (p. xvi).

2 The spelling ‘attrapper’ is sic in Horne’s edition.

3 See, for example, the letters to Alphonse Daudet of 19 June 1884 and 10 Nov. 1895, in Horne, pp. 158-9 and 285-7.

4 J. E. Mansion (ed.), Harrap’s Standard French and English Dictionary, rev. ed. 1940, based on an original edition of 1934; I have found this more helpful for usage up to the end of the First World War than more modern dictionaries.

5 All references to The Bostonians are to the first English edition (London: Macmillan, 1886).

6 ‘À propos’ (in the form ‘A propos’ and ‘àpropos’) one of James’s favourite French phrases, with a dozen occurrences in Horne’s selection (pp. 3, 6, 33, 76, 108, 181, 212, 233, 250, 267, 324, 357), ‘bon voyage’ (p. 94), ‘coterie’ (p. 66), ‘cul de sac’ (p. 485), ‘début’ (p. 427), ‘dénoûement’ (pp. 73 [twice], 82, 91), ‘enfant terrible’ (p. 151), ‘en route’ p. 27), ‘malaise’ (p. 340), ‘nonchalance’ (p. 66), ‘panache’ (p. 421), ‘tête à tête’ (pp. 29, 33), and ‘tour de force’ (p. 360) are all attested in the OED, most of them before 1800; the latest entry is ‘enfant terrible’ (1851).

7 ‘Ébauche’ (p. 250), ‘mise en scène’ (p. 33, twice, once without the accent), ‘partage’ (p. 399), ‘pis aller’ (p. 483). ‘Partage’ was formerly a naturalized word pronounced ‘partidge’, and was in use from 1598, but was re-branded as a French word, with French pronunciation, in the eighteenth century.

8 ‘Au besoin’ (p. 201), ‘compagnon de voyage’ (p. 41), ‘convive’ (p. 207), ‘de confiance’ (p. 330), ‘n’en parlons plus’ (p. 281), ‘point d’appui’ (p. 381), ‘réchauffées’ (p. 344), ‘refroidissement’ [weather] (p. 56), ‘Tout à vous’ (p. 154), ‘vie champêtre’ (p. 214). None of these is attested in the OED.

9 James underlines the second phrase but not the first, though there is no ostensible reason why one should need to be ‘marked’ as French more than the other.

10 The spelling ‘râtés’ is sic in Horne’s edition.

11 The spelling ‘Baltasar’ is sic in Horne’s edition, for ‘Balthasar’.

12 I have confined myself in this essay to letters, but James makes continual use of French in his notebooks, where the artist is, so to speak, his own addressee or correspondent. As with the letters, James uses French gratuitously (i.e. where an English equivalent was readily available), but there are also instances where the French word expresses something outside the competence of English. The following representative examples, picked virtually at random, both come from an entry of 15 Feb. 1899. In the first, referring to his story ‘Fordham Castle’, James wishes he could get the length down to 5,000 words: ‘Oh, if I could only arrive at a definite fixed form of that exact dimension. How it would help to make the pot boil! Well, cela ne tient qu’à moi—qu’à ma volonté. Tâchons, tâchons.’ The second refers to another story, ‘Mrs. Medwin’: ‘Look also a little, mon bon, into what may come out, further, of the little queer confidence made you by the late Miss B. (B . . . h) on the subject of what she had undertaken to for the tarée Lady G.—her baffled, defeated undertaking’ (Leon Edel and Lyall H. Powers [eds.], The Complete Notebooks of Henry James [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987], pp. 175-6, 177). Of these words and phrases, only ‘tarée’ has a connotation which it would be difficult to render with the same precision in English. ‘Mon bon’ is the familiar idiom which James habitually uses in addressing (reminding, warning, exhorting) himself.

13 The omission of the accent in ‘parait’ is sic in Horne’s edition.

14 The addition of the dash in ‘très-considérables’ is sic in Horne’s edition.

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Daniel Karlin, « ‘Our precious quand même’: French in the Letters of Henry James »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 78 Automne | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2013, consulté le 17 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Daniel Karlin

Daniel Karlin is Winterstoke Professor of English Literature at the University of Bristol. He has held appointments at University College London, Boston University, and the University of Sheffield. Professor Karlin’s research interests lie in Victorian literature, especially the poetry of Robert Browning, on whom he has published extensively. Other major research interests include the work of Rudyard Kipling, of Marcel Proust, and of Henry James. His most recent book, The Figure of the Singer, was published by Oxford University Press in July 2013. He is currently working on an edition of James’s novel The Bostonians.

Daniel Karlin occupe la chaire Winterstoke de littérature britannique à l’Université de Bristol. Il a auparavant été Professeur de littérature britannique à l’Université de Boston, à l’Université de Sheffield et à University College, Londres. Le Professeur Karlin est spécialiste de littérature victorienne, notamment de la poésie de Robert Browning, auteur auquel il a consacré de nombreuses publications. Il a également travaillé sur les œuvres de Rudyard Kipling, Marcel Proust et Henry James. Sa monographie la plus récente, The Figure of the Singer, est parue aux Presses Universitaires d’Oxford en juillet 2013. Il travaille actuellement sur une édition critique du roman The Bostonians de Henry James.

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