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Teaching the “Grandsons of Balzac” a Lesson: Henry James in the 1890’s

Dennis F. TREDY

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1Lyall H. Powers, in Henry James and the Naturalist Movement, dubs the period spanning from “The Art of Fiction” in 1884 to The Tragic Muse in 1890 Henry James’s “Naturalist Experiment”, and rightfully so (Powers 3). There is much evidence, in James’s own notebooks, that The Bostonians was influenced by Daudet’s L’Évangeliste, The Princess Casamassima by Turgeneff’s Virgin Soil, and The Tragic Muse by the narrative techniques of Maupassant (NB 47, Powers 91, NB 92), and Powers effectively shows how James adopted many of the main tenets of Zola and Goncourt’s doctrine throughout the period. Powers concludes with a line from Ezra Pound, who in 1935 pointed out that “all James would seem to be a corollary to one passage” in Goncourt’s 1879 preface to Les Frères Zemganno, which predicted that “a painter of talent” would one day apply “the cruel analyses” he and Zola “brought to the painting of the lowest of society” to “settings of education and distinction“ (Powers 179-180, Pound 269-270, Goncourt 55). However, if the epithet fits, it certainly does not apply to “all James”, as Pound put it. There is a world of difference between le roman expérimental à la Emile Zolaof the 1880’s and the Jamesian experimental novel of the 1890’s, and analysis of James’s critical works on the “grandsons of Balzac” show an author critical of their teachings, striving in the late 1880’s and the 1890’s to distance himself from the movement, which is made apparent by his changing appellations for the young French school in reviews and letters: from “la jeune école sérieuse” to the “propagators” of ”the Parisian contagion“ (LC2 403, HJL3 33), from the “new votaries of realism“ to the “finished, besotted mandarins” of the Parisian “Empire” (LC2 1012, HJL3 265). Our emphasis will then be more on James’s break from the French Naturalist School than on his adherence to it, and we will discuss how the experimental novels of the late 1890’s are in many ways the conjoint product of a refutation of the main precepts of Naturalism, an affinity to the deviant methods of Maupassant in particular, and the hard-learned lessons of the London theater.

2It is of course difficult to separate stricture from laudation in James’s ambivalent comments on the Naturalist School during this period. James had far greater respect for the group’s dedication to the “serious” application of a “heroic system” (LC1 122) than for the doctrine itself. When commenting on their theoreticdiscours d’escorte, James asserts that the saving grace of the French Naturalist is that his doctrine, “so jejune if taken literally, is fruitful as in practice he romantically departs from it,” that Zola “reasons less powerfully than he represents” and that Maupassant and even Flaubert were far better “story-tellers” than “philosophers” (LC2 1248, LC1 58, LC2 522). James had particular appreciation for those who deviated from the doctrine, who were card-carrying members but dissidents in practice, who were both inside and outside the circle. Hence his appreciation, though qualified, of Maupassant’s “illusionism”, Turgenev’s “surnaturalism” and what James saw as Daudet’s “poetic realism” (LC2 230). Contributing to this ambivalence is the non-negligible fact that during this period of Jamesian transition the sons and grandsons of Balzac were dying off (Turgenev in 1883, Taine and Maupassant in 1893, Goncourt and Daudet in 1896 and 1897), creating Jamesian reviews that carefully counterpoised harsh criticism with eulogistic praise, and that left Zola alone to bear the full brunt of James’s critical pen.

3Perhaps the best way to get a sense of how James himself deviated from the Naturalist group is to piece together comments made on their work and method in his reviews of the period, in order to see just how different from his own James felt their standards of literary construction to be, as a basis of comparison with what Sara Blair has called James’s “master trope”, the oft-cited Jamesian “house of fiction” (Blair 59). One of the most frequent and most disdainful remarks concerning the French constructions was of course the lack of taste, “the most human faculty we possess” (LC2 868), that went into the choice of materials and the overall uncleanliness of the finished product, its “need for disinfectants and deodorizers” (LC2 862). If, as James says in an 1883 article on Daudet, the term modernity is a “barbarous substantive” (LC2 229), he seems to feel that the “modern effort” of the Naturalists was by and large the promotion of “substantive barbarism”, in which the French “house of fiction” was too often an overblown but run-down tenement and “nature” too exclusively “a combination of a cesspool and the house of prostitution” (LC2 866). For James, their building plans did not call for a “sense of beauty,” revealing instead their penchant for the sense of “the strange and the grotesque” (Flaubert), of the “warped and perverted” (Goncourt) and of “the ugly and the unclean” (Zola) (LC2 231). As vehement as these reproaches were, James himself would have had to admit that these are more differences in aesthetic preference and choice of building site than actual defects of construction. They are however related to a main design flaw that James refers to quite frequently, that of a lack of windows in their house of fiction. In 1888, James reminded the Naturalists that the question is always “how many windows are opened, how many little holes are pierced, into the consciousness of the artist” (LC2 414). For James, all but Daudet lacked a window on “humor” and “wit” (LC2 869-870), all lacked a window on “the private soul” (LC2 255), and only Turgeneff consistently left a door open to the “great back yard” of the imagination (LC1 1012). Even Maupassant, despite his pervasive command of the human senses, was said to forego an aperture on “the reflexive part” of the his characters” consciousness (LC2 547), and he too had a window towards morality and “higher motives” that presented “a perfectly dead wall” (LC2 531). James gives us the result of such oversights in 1888: “We end with the sensation of a closed room, of a want of ventilation; we long to open a window or two and let in the air of the world.” (LC2 413).

4There were of course other “defects” that James noted during his assessments. Zola especially, and others when they emulated him, was guilty of a “defect” in his “sense of proportion” (LC2 881). The “heavy completeness” of his attempts to mirror what he saw as “Nature” in its entirety resulted in “strong, complicated scaffolding” for a “house whose foundations refuse to bear it” and which, unlike la cathédrale balzacienne that so inspired it, “topples over” under its own weight (LC2 876). However, the most damning of James’s “constructive criticism”, as it were, was that the “grandsons of Balzac” all endeavored to build their houses of fiction from the outside. Thus, Zola set up his massive subject “wholly from the outside, proposing [...] to get into [...] its depths as he went” (LC2 876). He describes Flaubert as a “sentinel” or “statue” listening to the world from “the outer court” of his château-fort but never pressing his ear to “the chamber of the soul” (LC2 313), and at such a distance from his depicted world that he seemed to paint it with a “brush twenty feet long” (LC2 256). In terms of characterization, James makes similar comments on Daudet, on Turgenev, and on Maupassant, who he claims displays a “bird’s-eye-view contempt” for the ugliness of his characters” world (LC2 248, LC1 1022, LC2 527). James’s literary construction of course calls for the building of a house of fiction from the inside out, around a human subject and an artistic consciousness, with innumerable windows looking out on the human scene (LC2 1075).

5This Naturalist tendency can be traced back to the movement’s origins in the 1860’s, when Taine put forth his famous theory on the trinity of la race, le milieu et le moment, which even then James noted as being inadequate for the “various complications” of the “human organism” (LC2 829). Taine went on to preach for the complete study of the “external man” as the avenue by which one reaches the true essence of the “internal man” (Taine ix), which was picked up by Zola in his call to analyze the “physiological man” and leave the obsolete “metaphysical man” behind (Œuvres X 1203). What James realized was that the long-standing French “scientific method”—from Balzac’s equating the human kingdom to the animal kingdom so as to sort it into phyla, to Zola’s call to be “anatomists” studying the “human cadaver” in literature as Claude Bernard had done in medicine (Œuvres XI 99), as well as his call to “classify” the vast world of “human documents” (Œuvres X 1316)—inevitably meant the dehumanization and the de facto reification of the human element in fiction. Hence James in his reviews refers to Naturalist characterization as the presentation of creatures that “can’t for an instant stand on their legs”, of “mechanical dolls” tossed away once they have been used, of “puppets” on strings and as “contemptible” human “furniture” cluttering their houses of fiction (LC2 870, 224, 531, 536).

6Their decidedly outside approach and the distance from which they forged their depiction of life resulted in James’s repeated references to the two-dimensional quality of their representations, to their “purely pictorial plane of demonstration” (LC2 425): Zola is said to have “breadth and energy” but no “penetration” (LC2 878), Goncourt “form and subject” but no “substance” (LC2 411), Flaubert “pigments and sauces” but no sustenance “for healthy appetites” (LC2 294), and Daudet too often “clever water-colour” but no “humanity” (LC2 225). Hence James’s calling Flaubert’s representations, with the exception of Madame Bovary, mere “photographs” that deal only with the “visible” world (LC2 291, 312), and his harsh remark to Goncourt, asking him why they persisted in doing with the novel what the plastic artist does better, why they had forsaken that third dimension that only the novel can provide (LC2 411). For James, the Naturalists gave us a great deal of “nature” but no “human nature”, “the harp of most numerous strings” (LC2 879), a “great deal of life” but no “consciousness” or “subjective saturation” (LC2 122). Only Bourget, with his psychological novel, says James, “inhabits a consciousness” (LC2 123), whereas the grandsons of Balzac nearly invariably “inhibit the consciousness”.

7If the main tenet of Naturalism, provided by Zola in 1866, was that a work of art was “a corner of Creation seen through a temperament” (Œuvres XII 810), it is clear that James’s experimental novel was a more complete application of the precept than the work of the Naturalists themselves, who to James consistently seemed to forsake the use of a sentient human “temperament” as a filter. The mirrors they held up to nature were too often their own, a flat surface reflecting their fictive world from without rather than from within, a dominance of what Seymour Chatman called slant (an outside, authorial point of view) over filter (the untainted focalization of the reflector character) (Chatman 144). James, by making his mirror a true “center of consciousness”, provides “reflection” in both senses of the term, both of the fictive world and on the fictive world, both inside and outside. The Naturalists used this precept as a call for the disappearance of the authorial presence from the representation, and it is true that, in this respect, nearly all of James’s experiments of the 1890’s were attempts to more completely cover the author’s tracks. In the three novels of the late 1880’s, we see James manipulating multiple and constantly shifting focalizers, the mainstay of the Naturalists” technique, often having recourse to showing us what a “hypothetical observer” would have seen when no character is immediately available—techniques that he would call on a decade later for The Awkward Age, in which he attempted to allow the dialogue scenes to speak for themselves. His five-year stint as a dramatist obviously involved his staying completely hidden behind the curtain of his written text, but the paradox of this métier was of course that performances left him vulnerably at center stage, face to face with his public, with the disastrous results we are aware of. In 1888, he began working with the use of an unnamed and unreliable narrator in short stories such as “The Patagonia” and “The Solution”, which developed into his extensive work on the ghostly tale throughout the 1890’s: ten of his sixteen fantastic tales were written in the 1890’s, most of which had an unnamed intradiegetic narrator and a narrative frame to somehow keep the account tethered to more realistic ground. This of course resulted in James betraying his own rules by using the first-person technique in a long work, The Sacred Fount. With “The Pupil” in 1891 he would reemploy the “superposition of effects” (LC2 1168) used in Daisy Miller, the consciousness of the young innocent being presented consistently by the impressions of another consciousness, although both Winterbourne and Pemberton suffer greatly from a nearly Naturalist bent on analysis and classification of type. Finally, for Jame’s experimental novels toward the end of the decade, he would make the young innocent the central consciousness, allowing Fleda, Maisie and the telegraphist to slowly but surely eclipse the initial authorial presence and rule the scene.

8We could say that James wholeheartedly answered Zola’s call in 1881 for the novelist to “feign total disappearance behind the action presented” and to be a “metteur en scène” hidden in the wings of his novel (Oeuvres XI 99), the difference is of course what James chose to put center stage.

9This leads us to a discussion of James’s choice of reflector for his experimental period, which shows an author both exploiting what he saw as the best of the Naturalist techniques and harshly countering the worst. In an 1888 article on Maupassant, James claims that the Naturalists provided the most “substance” when they dealt with characters from that “vast, dim section of society” that lies between the “luxurious walks of the upper classes and the “darkest misery” of the lower strata (LC2 547). Perhaps the greatest common denominator of the reflectors of the late 1890’s is the liminal position the characters occupy in the depicted world. We have Fleda, the starving young impressionist taken into Mrs. Gereth’s glittering world of precious objets d’art; the “sheltered” governess, whose education makes her a surrogate for the bourgeois mother with none of the rights that would go with it; the impoverished telegraphist, whose observatory of the cage allows her, she feels, to hobnob with the rich; Maisie, the daughter of a bourgeois family who is in effect a poor homeless waif raised by domestics; and even Nanda and Longdon, whose affinities are amplified by the fact that they are both, at once, inside and outside Mrs. Brook’s circle. This position on the threshold was for James the best possible vantage point from which to present a picture of English society. And James did wish to present us with such a “picture”: in his notes of 1895, he outlines the three aspects of English life he would like to represent in his experimental works, all of which are best adapted to an observer in such a liminal position: “the degradation of the aristocracy”, “the masculinization of women”, and the presence of a “caste system” that provides nearly any member of society with someone of lower rank to look down upon and despise. (NB 191-192, 220).

10However, other characteristics of his chosen reflector can be seen as James’s attempt to counter Naturalist tendencies, for the picture would be provided through the “romantic mind” of an innocent young woman, the mirror would be the “young feminine nature” (NB 220, LC2 1076). For James, the Naturalists did not know how to represent innocence, and he points to Zola’s Une Page d’amour as a striking example of this lacuna (LC2 861). Even worse, they did not realize what great potential an innocent young woman had as a center of consciousness in a novel. “Balzacian innocents”, according to James, were inevitably “tragic dupes and victims” used to deepen the effect of the protagonists’ “venality” (LC2 57), and it is true that James had often had recourse to the sacrifice of an innocent. However, the Naturalists’ representation of the young girl was to James not only “thin and conventional” (LC2 225), but an abomination of nature: the “figure of a brutal fille, without a consciousness or a soul,” James tells us, “is the stalest of stock property of French fiction” (LC2 870)—they give us only “little high-heeled reprobates”, they do not “do” innocence (LC2 240).

11To counter this, James turned his experimental period into the theater of the innocent feminine nature. “Jamesian innocence” is a far cry from ignorance; it represents a purity of vision. Twelve years after the appearance of Isabel Archer, James would reiterate his use of the “frail young vessel” à la George Eliot, but in his texts and paratexts, he insisted that as “vessels of consciousness”, innocent young girls were anything but “frail”—claiming that they are more resistant than little boys and can be filled with “biting acids” without cracking (LC2 1170; WMK 6), as well as filled to overflow with imagination and sensibility (WMK 281, LC21159). The Jamesian dialectic of an “innocence saturated with knowledge” (WMK 183) ensured indeed “the most polished of possible mirrors of the subject” (LC2 1095).

12In addition, these yawning vessels were consistently representations of the jeune femme romanesque, all of them avid readers of romantic literature—even Maisie, who hears their wondrous plots second-hand from Mrs. Wix, her “governess of fiction” (WMK 27). This was of course a blatant infringement of the Naturalist code proffered by Zola, who, as James pointed out, severely reprimanded Daudet for the “painful pollution” of his Numa Roumestan, the innocent young girl’s romantic musings being a “violation of nature” intended “for the ladies” (LC2 226). In “De la moralité dans la littérature” (1881), Zola claimed that the reading of romantic literature, “la littérature imbécile”, turned young girls into “mechanical dolls” unfit to function in society (Œuvres XII 510). James gives no specific “germ” for The Awkward Age besides that relating to his technique, but we could read into Nanda’s story an answer to Zola’s claim, for it is Nanda, the reader of both romance and racy French novels, who is level-headed and self-sufficient, and Aggie, raised by the most restrictive European standards, who is an inept mechanical doll. There is good cause to suppose that the unnamed French novel Nanda is caught with is Zola’s Nana, or even Le Docteur Pascal, whose presentation of the strange “loves of a sexagenarian and his niece“ had shocked James in 1893 (HJL3 419).

  • 1  Reference is made here to Millicent Bell’s discussion of James’s refusal of the traditional ‘marri (...)

13James’s rebuke of the French School’s treatment of women goes beyond the shortcomings of their depiction of young girls. Balzac’s “métier de femme”, as defined by James, was the “old-fashioned view” in which all branches of their service could be summed up as “the art of titillating [...] the senses“ of male protagonists and readers (LC2 61-62). James of course turns this on its ear by making women his reflectors, putting “the heaviest weight into that scale” (LC2 1079) and reducing male characters to “ficelles” and “satellites” perceived by “the young feminine nature” and hence reified by her Gaze. The Naturalists’ treatment of women was far more demeaning, and in 1888 James defines their “theory of gallantry” as only having two modes: “Make love to her” and “Tue-la !”—that is, kill her off (LC2 420). If women were consistently “thin and conventional” objects in the Naturalists' hands, James claims it was because they were provided with no relations besides that of “mother, wife, daughter” and “lover” (LC2 544, 120). In his experimental period, James effectively shows the Naturalists that other relations do exist, and he repeatedly spares them the reifying repercussions of the “marriage plot”, as developed by Millicent Bell,1 in order to ensure their escape from the French school’s conventions.

14This brings us to our last section, for as James felt that the Naturalists “too limited the field” in terms of their representation of the “young feminine nature”, he felt that they did not limit the field enough in terms of their overall representation of the real in their fictive worlds. And James’s efforts to “clear the stage” of his experimental fiction can be seen as the joint result of the “lesson of Maupassant” and the hard-learned lesson of the theater. As Powers points out, 1888 was a key year in James’s movement away from mainstream Naturalist influences: it was in that year that he was asked to dramatize The American for Edward Compton, that he reviewed Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean, and that he called on Maupassant, in his notebooks, to be his muse for the coming years (Powers 125, NB 92). The 1888 article, which appeared in the Fortnightly Review, does contain a good deal of harsh criticism, with James taking Maupassant to task for too often giving in to the French “tradition of indecency” and base instincts (LC2 535), for his forsaking the “reflexive part” of his characters under the claim that “psychology should be hidden in a book, as it is hidden in existence” (LC2 530), and for the naïveté of much of his literary theory. However, despite James’s qualification of Maupassant as more of a story-teller than a philosopher, he must have recognized that a good number of the theories presented in the preface to Pierre et Jean were strikingly similar to those he himself had put forth in “The Art of Fiction” three years earlier. Maupassant called for presenting the “illusion of reality”, James for “the illusion of life” and “the air of reality”; Maupassant claimed that it was childish to believe there was only one reality to represent, James that “reality has a myriad forms” (Pierre et Jean 22, LC1 52-53). In addition, Maupassant’s affirmation that “le vrai peut parfois n’être pas vraisemblable” would be reiterated by James five years later, when he asserted that one day the Naturalists would realize “that the facts themselves are often falsifying” (Pierre et Jean 21, LC2 297).

15Other negative comments of James’s seem nevertheless to show that Maupassant was “on to something”, for in this review he harshly criticizes certain works of the Frenchman that would neverthemess greatly influence his experimental works, particularly “In the Cage” and “The Turn of the Screw”. For example, James was intrigued by Maupassant’s numerous stories about the “petit employé and the small shopkeeper” (LC2 536), noting how acute the senses of his characters were but adding that the “sexual sense” was so overpowering that we had the impression of watching a “monkey’s cage” (LC2 526). From the very opening of the “In the Cage”, James also emphasizes how all five of the young woman’s senses are open to impressions, but James has replaced Maupassant’s “sexual sense” with the all-powerful sixth sense of the imagination. When, in this same article, James discusses Maupassant’s “Le Horla”, he simply writes it off as a cheap imitation of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe (LC2 536). However, a closer look at “Le Horla”—which means “both inside and outside”, a recurring theme in our discussion—shows it was most certainly a conscious subtext for “The Turn of the Screw”. There are several tell-tale similarities: we are presented with a recovered diary, much like that of the governess, which covers roughly the same time frame, from May to September. The unnamed narrator is plagued by a ghost that is a projection of himself. He too claims to suffer from inexplicable flights and drops of imagination and understanding (Horla 3), he too constantly wonders if he is mad and searches for proof that he is not, and he is also greatly disturbed by his inability, and then his ability, to see himself whole in the mirror “from head to foot” (Horla 50-52). Perhaps the most striking similarity concerns the scene that ushers in his final confrontation with the manifestation: he discovers the ghostly presence seated at his own desk, and when he approaches it, it flees from him and he decides to remain at the country house to take on the ghost, whatever the cost (Horla 42), and this is exactly what transpires between the governess and Miss Jessel in the schoolroom.

16The article does, however, contain substantial praise for Maupassant’s method, and James’s most laudatory comments concern the Frenchman’s mastery of the short story form, his “selective eye” and his “artful brevity” (LC2 526). Maupassant built nearly exclusively “compact mansions” of fiction (LC2 531), and his perfected form would inspire James to experiment with the use of the unreliable narrator in the short story that very year, to rekindle an avid interest in the ghostly tale that would last a decade, and to work intensely in 1895 and 1896 to perfect the “small circular frame” of the “beautiful and blest nouvelle” through his contributions to the short-lived Yellow Book. In the preface to “The Lesson of the Master” James recalls how their goal was in fact to achieve in English what Maupassant, among others, had so masterfully and “economically arrived at” in French (LC2 1227).

17Of course, this effort towards “artful brevity” would have a profound effect on the works of James’s experimental period, and it is here that Maupassant’s teachings fuse with lessons James learned as a dramatist. James particularly appreciated the way that Maupassant, and Daudet as well, had moved away from the example of Balzac in terms of the description of material objects. James did not often berate Balzac, but he did criticize him for the overindulgence of his “rubrique des objets,” for he felt that Balzac’s full catalogue of minutely described objects left his novels with a “want of elbow-room” that prevented the “divine air” of fiction from freely circulating (LC2 92-97). For James, Zola too closely followed Balzac’s example, for he notes in his works a “terrible abuse of description” of objects “meanly and ignorantly chosen,” creating a work so cluttered that one does not read it, one has “to push one’s way through it” (LC2 864). Zola’s chosen vessel, overladen with its heavy cargo and driven too far inland toward the shore of the real, inevitably ran aground. Flaubert had taken a first step away from Balzac’s “rubrique” by more carefully selecting objects from the “story-teller’s great property shop of aids to illusion” (LC2 1131). However, his “minute, incisive, exhaustive” description and his bent on finding just “the right words in which the look of the object resides” (LC2 290) made his novel an iron-clad vessel that “sinks rather than sails” (LC2 1024)—no more seaworthy than Zola’s massive slave ship. Flaubert’s obsession with fully reproducing the “look” of the chosen object negated the benefits of his careful selection and the object’s value as a “prop”, as Genette points out in Figures I, when he discusses Flaubert’s “enivrement de l’accessoire” (Genette 240-241). Maupassant and Daudet did not follow Balzac’s example as Zola did; they instead took Flaubert’s penchant a step further, providing “energetic selection” as well as “vivid concision” and “bolder foreshortenings” that indeed made “brevity full” (LC2 526, 254).

18When we compare James’s works of the late 1880’s to those written a decade later, we realize that he had decided to use all the tricks of the dramatist’s trade that he had so painfully learned during the interim to forge his own brand of “full brevity”. James would forego all detailed description of material objects and give them the full symbolic power of the stage prop, making them true “objective correlatives” à la T.S. Eliot rather than a transcription of the real. James claimed that the “things” themselves were to be the subject of The Spoils of Poynton, yet not one of the precious bibelots is described in any detail at all. Throughout the period he gives us instead true stage props adapted to fiction—from the Maltese cross that Fleda Vetch is to receive to the Golden Virgin that so affects Maisie Farange, from the straighteners that Mrs. Wix puts on to the nippers that Longdon takes off whenever they are overwhelmed by what they see, from Nanda’s mysterious French novel with the blue cover that so condemns her in the eyes of those in her mother’s circle, to the most frequently used prop of the period, “the letter that won’t tell”, not only a recurrent device on all narrative levels of “The Turn of the Screw”, but also a very important prop in the play and the three experimental works that directly preceded the nouvelle.

19In the 1880’s, James would also completely abandon his attempts to provide extended descriptions of setting with which to enhance characterization, a technique he had repeatedly used in The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima and The Tragic Muse. He would also reduce his cast of characters to a number so small it would not even fill a page of a playbill. He would no longer give in to Naturalist tendencies concerning “research”, which had prompted his visit to Millbank prison in 1884 and his collection of “phrases of the people” in his notebooks of 1885 (HJL3 61, NB 69). Instead, in his notebooks of the experimental period, he briefly jotted down “germs” he wished to “dramatize, dramatize” and wrote extensive preliminary scenarios for The Spoils of Poynton and What Maisie Knew, the intention of which was to ensure that the finished product would be as brief as it was full. And finally, this “divine principle of the Scenario” (NB 188) would be a corollary to what James saw as the greatest lesson of his five years with the London stage, that of the “sacred mystery of structure“ and of “fundamental statement” (NB 208), which pushed James to try to adapt his novels to the three-act structure he had devised for Guy Domville, to create a dense network of cross-relations between scenes and to effectively let dialogue speak for itself, for dialogue, as he said repeatedly, could often be itself both description and narrative. All of these dramatic devices allowed James to pursue the honorable initiative taken by Maupassant and effectively “clear the stage” of his fiction.

20There is and has always been much talk of “the lesson of Balzac” and its effect on James, and our discussion has brought in certain key teachings of Maupassant. However, James’s own experimental period, which came after five years spent adapting his art to that of the French Naturalists and another five years adapting it to the French archetype of the “well-made play”, shows an author who set out in many ways to teach the “grandsons of Balzac” a valuable lesson.

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Works by Henry James

HJL3 Henry James Letters: 1883-1895. Ed. Leon Edel. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1981. 4 vols.

LC1 Literary Criticism, Volume I: Essays On Literature, American Writers, English Writers. The Library of America Collection. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984. 2 vols.

LC2 Literary Criticism, Volume II: European Writers, Prefaces to the NewYork Edition. The Library of America Collection. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984. 2 vols.

NBThe Notebooks of Henry James. Ed. F.O. Matthiessen & Kenneth B. Murdock. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1955.

WMK What Maisie Knew. The Novels and Tales of Henry James. Vol. XI. New York: Scribner’s, 1908.

Other Works Cited

Blair, Sara. “In the House of Fiction: Henry James and the Engendering of Literary Mastery.” Henry James’s New York Edition: The Construction of Authorship. Ed. David McWhirter. Stanford, California: Stanford UP, 1995. 58-73.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. 1978. Berkeley: U. of California P., 1990.

Genette, Gérard. Figures I. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1966.

Goncourt, Edmund de. Préfaces et manifestes littéraires. Paris: Charpentier, 1888.

Maupassant, Guy de. Le Horla. 1887. Paris: Ollendorf, 1903.

––. Pierre et Jean. 1887. Paris: Flammarion, 1992.

Pound, Ezra. Make It New. New Haven: Yale U.P., 1935.

Powers, Lyall H. Henry James and the Naturalist Movement. Michigan: Michigan State U.P., 1971.

Taine, Hippolyte. Histoire de la littérature anglaise. 4th ed. Vol. 1. Paris, 1877.

Zola, Emile. Emile Zola: Œuvres Complètes, tome X. Ed. Henri Mitterand. Paris: Cercle du Livre Précieux, 1968.

––. Emile Zola: Œuvres Complètes, tome XI. Ed. Henri Mitterand. Paris: Cercle du Livre Précieux, 1968.

––. Emile Zola: Œuvres Complètes, tome XII. Ed. Henri Mitterand. Paris: Cercle du Livre Précieux, 1968.

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1  Reference is made here to Millicent Bell’s discussion of James’s refusal of the traditional ‘marriage plot’, particularly in “The Turn of the Screw,” in her presentation on “Woman in the Jamesian Eye,” given at the Henry James Sesquicentennial Conference at New York University in 1993, and in her article “Class, Sex and the Victorian Governess,” published in New Essays on Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, Vivian R .Pollack, ed. (NY: Cambridge UP, 1993) 91-93.

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Dennis F. TREDY, « Teaching the “Grandsons of Balzac” a Lesson: Henry James in the 1890’s »E-rea [En ligne], 2.1 | 2004, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2004, consulté le 08 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Dennis F. TREDY

University of Provence

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