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Introduction to this issue of E-rea
Dennis TREDY

Texte intégral

I have alluded indeed to certain lapses of that munificence—or at least to certain connexions in which I found myself declining to receive again on any terms; but for the rest the sense of receiving has borne me company without a break; a luxury making for its sole condition that I should intelligently attend. The blest good stuff, sitting up, in its myriad forms, so touchingly responsive to new care of any sort whatever, seemed to pass with me a delightful bargain, and in the fewest possible words. "Actively believe in us and then you'll see!"—it wasn't more complicated than that, and yet was to become as thrilling as if conditioned on depth within depth. (Henry James, Preface to The Golden Bowl, New York Edition, 1909)

1The above quotation is taken from the tail end of the very last of James’s prefaces for the New York Edition and is part of a long passage in which the author discusses the surprising “renewal of vision” that came with rereading so many of his works in preparation for their “re-issue” in the now famous collection. Basically, James is discussing here the difficulties he experienced when faced with the ‘reception’ of his own works. Oft times, the “blest good stuff” appeared in “myriad forms”, both familiar and strange, expected and unexpected, and seemed, it appears, to come to life and to strike “a delightful bargain” with the author.  At other times, as James indicates, his “sense of receiving” did not provide such good “company”, and there were “lapses” of such “munificence”, as well as impressions and “connexions” he refused “to receive on any terms”.

2It is perhaps fitting that one of James’s last paratextual comments on his own works should concern their ‘reception’ and his own “sense of receiving”. Indeed, reception study is an ever-widening field of research today, particularly when it comes to research on the works of Henry James, and it too can be said to have “myriad forms”—from critical reception of works to public reaction or readership both at home and abroad, from the reaction of editors to changes and interpretations made by translators of James, from the use of James as a reference or building-block for new schools of literature or literary theory to adaptations made of the works of Henry James for the stage, the opera, the cinema or the fine arts—and the list goes on.  In addition, as this collection shows, the notion of ‘reception’ can even be seen as working in two directions at once, for it is possible to juxtapose and compare, as one of the papers in this collections sets out to do, both critical reception of Henry James in France and Henry James’s own critical reception of French realists and naturalists.

3It was with full knowledge of this ever-broadening notion of ‘reception’ and of its pertinence to studies of Henry James that an international colloquium, at which the papers included in this collection were given, was organized in July of 2004 at the Université de Provence in the South of France. The conference was entitled “The Reception of Henry James in Text and Image” (in French, Esthétique de la réception: l’exemple de Henry James) and was organized jointly by The Reception of British and Irish Authors in Europe (R.B.I.A.E.) research group in London and the research laboratory of the Université de Provence (L.E.R.M.A.). The three-day, brain-filling conference was chaired by both Dr. Elinor Shaffer (Project Director of the R.B.I.A.E. Research Project and professor at the School of Advanced Studies at the University of London) and Dr. Annick Duperray (Overseas Coordinator for the R.B.I.A.E. Network Group and professor at the Université de Provence), who was assisted in the organization of the project by myself and by Dr. Adrian Harding (Université de Provence).

4The speakers presenting papers during those three days in early July can be seen as falling roughly into two categories. There were those who had been commissioned by Dr. Shaffer and the R.B.I.A.E. before the organization of the colloquium to write papers on the international reception of Henry James, papers to be published in the research project’s upcoming volume on the author, and who were presenting their finished products at the conference. Among these papers were in-depth studies on the reception of James by critics and the general public in Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Russia; on the work of translators in Spain, Italy, Finland and Sweden; and on adaptations of James’s fiction for the Italian stage and for European cinema. There were also those presenters who had responded to a call for papers or who had been invited to the conference as keynote speakers, and whose works are being published in this collection. To facilitate the reading of this collection, we have organized the presentation of the papers around the work of the three keynoters (T. J. Lustig, Jean Pavans, and Jean Bessière), so that each of their papers serves to usher in contributions made by other speakers on related subjects. In the end, the subject-matter of the papers given by the two groups at the conference was indeed so complementary as to allow them to blend together nearly imperceptibly in the same three-day program, the overall content of which proved that the notion of ‘reception’ does indeed have “myriad forms”, all of which bring particular insight to the Jamesian scholar.

5T. J. Lustig, of Keele University, starts off our collection with an intriguing interpretation of The Europeans that helps us understand the work’s modernity and its place in the development of James’s own representational techniques. The first half of his paper, “Sunspots and Blindspots in The Europeans”, puts the novel in its original context and includes a discussion of how the work was ‘received’ at the time, how it fit in with leading literary trends favoring a ‘pictorial’ approach to representation, and how it was influenced by James’s own attitudes towards French realists and naturalists. In the second half of Dr. Lustig’s article, he takes a closer look at the work itself. This includes a discussion of the interplay between two keywords used in the title of his paper: “blindspots”, a term borrowed from Terry Eagleton to describe James’s notorious ‘blanks’, and the dazzling “sunspots” that James had promised his editor he would include in the work. Dr. Lustig also explores the possible meanings of the novel’s subtitle, “A Sketch”, and how it relates to James’s attempt to accommodate the counter­currents of ‘Romance’ and ‘Realism’. Hence the dynamic of the work is shown to be based on both forward and backward movement, which occurs on the macro-level, concerning, for example, James’s overall approach to representing the ‘real’, as well as on the micro-level, from James’s verbal irony right down to his unusual use of punctuation.

6Anne-Claire Le Reste’s paper provides an impressively thorough analysis of one of James’s novels of the 1880’s, The Princess Casamassima, the work reputed to have been written when the influence of French realists and naturalists on James was at its height. In “Intertextualizing The Princess Casamassima: Realism and Reference(s)”, Ms. Le Reste begins by giving an overview of the numerous intertextual references to be found in the novel and explains why so many critics call it James’s “library book”. She shows us how the subtexts James uses are more often realist authors’ paratexts or discours d’escort on literary theory than their actual works of fiction, and takes into account some of James’s main influences, such as Turgenev (plot), Zola (theory), Dickens (characterization and setting), and of course Balzac (everything from plot to characterization and setting). Ms. Le Reste also provides a very helpful overview of more recent criticism. She convincingly shows how there are rival plots and references at play within the work and how James set in motion not specific interpretations or references but instead a complex interplay of elusive meanings and cross-references. This helps explain why so many critics have stressed the novel’s ‘enigmatic’ nature and have tried to elucidate it. Ms. Le Reste’s in-depth analysis takes us one step closer to a possible solution to the enigma.

7We were also honored to have the renowned dramatist, author and translator, Jean Pavans, as one of our keynoters. The title of his paper was “Henry James, théâtre et narration: “le divin principe du scénario”, referring to James’s declaration in his notebook entry of February 14, 1895, that one of the ‘lessons’ learned from his failed five-year stint as a writer for the London stage and from the humiliating premiere of his play Guy Domville, was that of the “divine principle of the Scenario” (Note that it is this very page of James’s notebooks that can be seen lurking below the water in the cover photograph of this collection). One of the most remarkable aspects of Jean Pavans’s paper is the way the presentation of his personal experience in translating and adapting James’s works intertwines with a discussion of James’s own art of fiction. He begins with a tribute to Leon Edel’s collective works, which helped post-war French writers discover Henry James and which provided so much material for French critics of the 1970s and 1980s to sink their teeth into. The key to Jean Pavans’s success in adapting and interpreting James seems to stem back to the years he spent translating the ‘Master’s’ stories. Translation, according to Pavans, is a way of finding both some certainty as to the author’s original intentions and new interpretations of classic works of fiction. Thus, when asked to adapt “The Aspern Papers” to the stage for Alfredo Arias and later for Jacques Lassalle, Jean Pavans did not look back to Michael Redgrave’s famous stage adaptation but to his own translations of the dialogues of the original short story. He did the same for “The Beast in the Jungle,” thereby foregoing Marguerite Duras’s stage version in favor of his own reading of the work. The key, he says, is finding a way to somehow apply what he considers James’s “divine principle of narration”, his rigorous narrative method, to stage adaptations. Jamesian scholars are sure to be impressed by Pavans’s insight. For example, his discussion of James’s own adaptation of “Daisy Miller” helps us to understand how the author’s perception of what the public wanted may have led his theatrical experiment astray. He also brings to light one of the key paradoxes concerning James and the theatre: the fact that he failed so miserably when trying to adapt his own art to drama, and yet his works adapt so well to the theatre when in the hands of modern dramatists.

8Jean Pavans’s paper leads us to three other articles dealing with various adaptations of James’s fiction to another medium or genre. The first is the remarkable contribution made by Hubert Teyssandier, entitled “Voices of the Unseen: Benjamin Britten’s Reading of The Turn of the Screw”. As Dr. Teyssandier shows, changing the narrative form of the 1898 novella into one that is both dramatic and musical is a monumental undertaking. Indeed, he takes the reader deep within the workings of the operatic piece itself, providing details on everything from musical notes and pitches used, to the opera’s ‘theme’ and its variations, to its interludes and echoes. He pays particular attention to the musical representation of the conflict staged between the characters (including tonal shifts and staged confrontations between treble, soprano and tenor voices or between the various instruments used in the score), and at the same time shows how Britten also used symmetry and parallel in tone and in voice to show a certain similarity between characters otherwise in opposition. Also discussed at length are changes made to the narrative structure of the original work and Britten’s ingenious ways of finding new and indirect narrative methods. In addition, Dr. Teyssandier shows us how references originally made by James to the children’s “musical sense” are acknowledged and given substance through Britten’s use of a hodgepodge of original as well as traditional children’s songs within the opera. In the end, Dr. Teyssandier’s expert musical acumen allows the reader to explore the depths of Britten’s narrative and operatic structure, thereby gaining remarkable insight into the pitfalls and artful solutions inherent to this type of adaptation of a work of fiction.

9Nelly Valtat-Comet, of the Université de Tours, then provides us with an in-depth analysis of another operatic adaptation of a work by James: Dominick Argento’s The Aspern Papers. She too outlines many of the obstacles inherent to transforming Jamesian fiction into a stage-opera, notably those dealing with narrative mode and with the dramatization of silence, darkness and the ‘unsaid’. As she demonstrates, Argento’s three major changes seem to go against the novella’s notoriously guarded ambiguity and deal with time representation, with details on Aspern himself, and on the status of the papers. In addition, Dr. Valtat-Comet discusses the way in which the female characters, Juliana and Tina, are modified and developed in the musical retelling, as well as the importance Dargento has given to cultural and intertextual references, including those to Shakespearean tragedies and to the myth of Medea. In the end, Dr. Valtat-Comet demonstrates how well Dargento balanced James’s priorities with his own, and how he built “a system of mise en abyme allowing him to comment on James while creating a remarkably beautiful work of his own.”

10In this group of articles dealing with dramatic and operatic adaptations of James we also find my own article on film adaptations of James’s sinister “trap for those not easily caught,” his 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw.” The article is entitled “Shadows of Shadows” and deals primarily with what I consider the three landmark adaptations: Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), Dan Curtis’s The Turn of the Screw (TV, 1974) and Antonio Aloy’s Presence of Mind (1999). However, I try to give a more complete view of this long legacy of adaptations of James’s tale by touching on nearly all English-language adaptations of the work, including all three feature films and all seven teleplays. My presentation of these adaptations proceeds chronologically—not out of convenience, but because I hope to show how the film heritage has developed over time, how each adaptation has built upon previous ones, and how nearly all retellings have relied as heavily on Jack Clayton’s initial film version as on James’s tale itself. When Truman Capote was asked to rework William Archibald’s stage dialogues for the 1961 screenplay, he added original motifs, made modifications to the story-line and chose at least two remarkable subtexts (i.e., his own first novel and Francesco Colonna’s 1499 work of Renaissance iconography, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili)—all of which would be in turn reused and reworked by later film-makers.  We thus follow the development of this series of retellings through the adaptations made for television and video-tape during the 1970’s and 1980’s and even into the 1990’s, when adaptations for the big and small screen grew more and more numerous as the centennial of the tale’s publication approached. It is here, on that anniversary, that one of the few retellings that could be said to rival Clayton’s masterpiece was produced: Antonio Aloy’s Presence of Mind. Analysis of this and subsequent adaptations show that the legacy seems now to be in the hands of filmmakers of Spanish origin, who have successfully “Catholicized” the governess and have shown that film adaptation is indeed a form of reception and interpretation.

11The third group of articles in this collection deals more specifically with critical reception of James in France and begins with the keynote address that was delivered by Jean Bessière, professor at the Université de Paris III and former President of the International Comparative Literature Association. His paper focuses on the “enigmatic nature” of Henry James’s works as seen through the double prism of both the reception of James’s works by French critics and James’s own essays and reviews of French authors and theorists. In his first part, Jean Bessière gives an overview of late twentieth-century French reception of Henry James, from early comparisons to Proust, Balzac and Flaubert in the 1950’s, to deeper discussion of his ‘realism’ and representational strategies, to analysis of the presence of the author in his own works, to a later preponderance of semiological and psychoanalytical readings of his fiction. A common thread in all of these approaches seems to have been discussion of James’s narrative games of indeterminacy and blanks, of his attempts to break from history and from the ‘real’, and of the question of ‘authority’ in a work of Jamesian fiction. In addition, Jean Bessière insists, many deal in one way or another with James’s ‘enigmatic element’ (énigmaticité), which has a functional nature in his works and is far more than a simple effect: it is part and parcel of James’s system of fusion and of meticulously structured disorder. After this first argument— which is supported by references to Maurice Blanchot, André Green, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, among others—Jean Bessière then provides a necessarily brief overview of Henry James’s comments on certain French realists and naturalists, more specifically those on Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant and Zola. In the end, the play between presence and absence seems to be a key to the Jamesian enigma, although perhaps not a key to its solution as much as a key to insolvability.

12Richard Anker’s article, “‘Figures trop réelles pour durer’: Blanchot avec James”, then concentrates more specifically on Maurice Blanchot’s reception of James, a connection that Jean Bessière had pointed to in his essay. Richard Anker announces a double objective: to discuss Blanchot’s ‘reception’ of James and to provide an approach to reading James based on that reception. The article draws on examples from several of Blanchot’s key works of the 1950’s, such as Au moment voulu, “Le Regard d’Orphée”, and his famous essay on “The Turn of the Screw”. For example, Anker makes an extended comparison between a ghostly female figure that appears in Au moment voulu and the appearances of Miss Jessel in “The Turn of the Screw.” He discovers striking similarities that lead him to several key points on James’s notion of the ghostly, such as its link to figurative language and the manner in which ghostly events blend the notions of presence and absence as well as those of repetition and loss. He also discusses Blanchot’s take on the “enigma” in James, in which the ‘turn of the screw’ analogy points to James’s “sacred pressure”, that of a secret that is both revealed and kept hidden. Anker also draws key parallels between what Blanchot called “the neutral” and James’s famous “blanks” and “hideous obscure”.

13Micéala Symington, in her essay entitled “From Realist to ‘Avant-garde’: Henry James in France”, develops the parallel, pointed out by H. A. Bouraoui and other critics, between James’s aesthetic and narrative strategies and the tenets of the nouveau roman in France. She begins by dealing with Marguerite Duras’s stage adaptation of “The Beast in the Jungle” in order to discuss the importance of the deceptive nature of appearances in both the original text and its French adaptation. The link between Natalie Sarraute’s Portrait d’un inconnu and Henry James’s The Sacred Fount is then developed, and the parallel between James’s works and the French experimental school is further reinforced by bringing in comments made by Jean Bessière on the notion of immediacy in James’s work and its ties to French drama. Similarly, James’s suspension of action for a more pictorial presentation is tied in to Duras’s adaptations of his works. Micéala Symington ends her study by bringing the reader into the equation and by showing us how in both cases, whether a work Jamesian fiction or a French nouveau roman, the subjectivity called upon to go beyond the surface of the text is more that of the reader than that of the author.

14Finally, the last paper of our study stands apart as an excellent example of ‘reception’ in its more traditional sense, although here it is applied to James’s epistolary art rather than to his fiction. Andreea Ionescu, in her paper entitled “The Reception of Henry James’s Letters throughout the 20th Century”, discusses two key aspects to public reception of James’s correspondences. In her first part, she presents the three stages of the history of the publication of James letters: the first, from James’s death to the 1950’s, which featured Percy Lubbock’s collection; the second, from the 1950’s to the 1980’s, the most prominent work of which was Leon Edel’s four volume collection; and the third, from the 1980’s to the present, the key collection of which seems to be one that is forthcoming from Pierre Walker and Greg Zacharias. In her second part, Andreea Ionescu discusses more specifically the readers’ reception and expectations when perusing collections of James’s correspondences. For example, readers of the letters often did so out of an interest in either obtaining biographical information that might be divulged therein, or in finding clues to understanding James’s technique and to thus discovering at long last the ‘figure in the carpet.’ As Andreea Ionescu shows, studying James’s letters reveals most of all his love for the epistolary art itself and shows how a well-written correspondence was as dear to James as a well-written story. Indeed, we could say that Henry James was a great “man of letters” in all senses of the term.

15Again, this collection goes a long way to showing how many connotations can be given to the notion of ‘reception studies’ and how this ever-widening field of research can open new doors and provide new insight to the Jamesian scholar. Perhaps it would be appropriate to end with a brief presentation of the cover art provided for this collection, for even the composite photograph that I have put together for the cover could be considered a form of ‘reception’, as it is my personal reception of one of the sightings of Miss Jessel on the lake at Bly in “The Turn of the Screw”. The choice of making such a “layered” composite image in itself seemed to me an appropriate expression of the layers of images and subtexts that form the Jamesian palimpsest. Many aspects of the composition of the image reflect the manner in which I ‘received’ the short story and its numerous adaptations—from the faceless Victorian women caught in the wild overgrowth, to the towering tree in the center and its ghostly and suggestive reflection in the lake, to the hovering presence of Miss Jessel as she appeared in Antonio Aloy’s film, dressed in black and in the pose of a dark Madonna, to the writing that can be seen both through Jessel and below the surface of the lake. This writing is in James’s own hand, and is in fact a page of his notebook entry of February 14, 1895, in which James wrote of the “divine principle of the Scenario” and of other lessons learned from his failed experiment with the London theater, which was, of course, instrumental in the writing of this and other stories by James in the last half-decade of the nineteenth century. Perhaps this is less reception than reader-response, but, then again, it is just my own “sense of receiving”…

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Dennis TREDY, « Preface »E-rea [En ligne], 3.2 | 2005, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2005, consulté le 30 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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