Henry James, Student of Nature

“Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” Henry James
I recently finished The Princess Casamassima by Henry James and wanted to write a post about his style of writing but soon realized it would take at least two – one on his powers of observation and the other on his unique insights into the human condition.
Henry James was never married or in any serious relationship that was publicly recognized and although he enjoyed socializing he seemed to be a bit of an outside observer of society. It is said that he would listen to and transcribe the conversations of strangers. You can hear those voices in this scene in a pub:
There was plenty of palaver at the ‘Sun and Moon’; there were nights when a blast of imbecility seemed to blow over the place, and one felt ashamed to be associated with so much insistent ignorance and flat-faced vanity. Then every one, with two or three exceptions, made an ass of himself, thumping the table and repeating over some inane phrase which appeared for the hour to constitute the whole furniture of his mind. There were men who kept saying, ‘Them was my words in the month of February last, and what I say I stick to – what I say I stick to’; and others who perpetually inquired of the company, ‘And what the plague am I to do with seventeen shillings – with seventeen shillings? What am I to do with them – will you tell me that?’
An appreciation of James’ style is a cure for any phobia relating to the use of parenthesis, commas, or semi-colons. Kurt Vonnegut famously said of semicolons: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. The first rule: do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Henry James has no such qualms and is not shy about his transvestite hermaphrodites, as in this passage:
I am past killing. I am as hard as a stone. I went through my miseries long ago; I suffered what you have not had to suffer; I wished for death many times, and I survived it all. Our troubles don’t kill us, Prince; it is we who must try to kill them. I have buried not a few.

Observation is a skill that develops with time and practice and it is obvious that Henry James was able to observe and reproduce subtleties beyond the scope of most writers, as in this scene where the Princess Casamassima plays piano for the book’s protagonist, Hyacinth Robinson:
‘Put yourself there and listen to me.’ Hyacinth obeyed, and she played a long time without glancing at him. This left him the more free to rest his eyes on her own face and person, while she looked about the room, vaguely, absently, but with an expression of quiet happiness, as if she were lost in her music, soothed and pacified by it. A window near her was half open, and the soft clearness of the day and all the odour of spring diffused themselves, and made the place cheerful and pure. The Princess struck him as extraordinarily young and fair, and she seemed so slim and simple, and friendly too, in spite of having neither abandoned her occupation nor offered him her hand, that he sank back in his seat at last, with the sense that all his uneasiness, his nervous tension, was leaving him, and that he was safe in her kindness, in the free, original way with which she evidently would always treat him. This peculiar manner – half consideration, half fellowship – seemed to him already to have the sweetness of familiarity. She played so movingly, with different pieces succeeding each other; he had never listened to music, nor to a talent, of that order. Two or three times she turned her eyes upon him, and then they shone with the wonderful expression which was the essence of her beauty; that profuse, mingled light which seemed to belong to some everlasting summer, and yet to suggest seasons that were past and gone, some experience that was only an exquisite memory.
Or in this description of the same couple taking a carriage ride:
If Hyacinth was exalted, during these delightful hours, he at least measured his exaltation, and it kept him almost solemnly still, as if with the fear that a wrong movement of any sort would break the charm, cause the curtain to fall upon the play. This was especially the case when his senses oscillated back from the objects that sprang up by the way, every one of which was a rich image of something he had longed for, to the most beautiful woman in England, who sat there, close to him, as completely for his benefit as if he had been a painter engaged to make her portrait. More than once he saw everything through a mist; his eyes were full of tears.
And this passage from a letter written by Hyacinth from a trip to Venice:
I bend a genial eye on the women and girls I just spoke of, as they glide, with a small clatter and with their old copper water-jars, to the fountain. The Venetian girl-face is wonderfully sweet and the effect is charming when its pale, sad oval (they all look underfed), is framed in the old faded shawl. They also have very fascinating hair, which never has done curling, and they slip along together, in couples or threes, interlinked by the arms and never meeting one’s eye (so that its geniality doesn’t matter), dressed in thin, cheap cotton gowns, whose limp folds make the same delightful line that everything else in Italy makes.
I do a lot of my reading on th
e train to work. In that strange transitional time between home and office, as the train snakes along the Harlem River before crossing it and plunging under Park Avenue, fiction serves as useful translator between the worlds of dream and work.
If at moments he was a little ashamed of having accepted this world he could reflect that at all events he continued to repudiate every other. The idea of great changes, however, took its place among the dreams of his youth; for what was any possible change in the relations of men and women but a new combination of the same elements? If the elements could be made different the thing would be worth thinking of; but it was not only impossible to introduce any new ones – no means had yet been discovered for getting rid of the old. The figures on the chessboard were still the passions and jealousies and superstitions and stupidities of man, and their position with regard to each other, at any given moment, could be of interest only to the grim, invisible fates who played the game – who sat, through the ages, bow-backed over the table.

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