Monday, May 22, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“THE OUTCRY” by Henry James (first published in 1911)

Three or four years ago, I was trawling through a second-hand bookshop in Wellington, when my eye was caught by a novel of which I had never heard before. And yet the author was a canonical writer, the list of whose novels I thought I knew fairly well. Was this a newly-discovered treasure? I wondered. So I bought it. It was The Outcry, by Henry James (1843-1916), first published in 1911 and apparently the last novel James completed. (When he died, he left behind three or four uncompleted novels, as well as many unpublished essays.)

            How had this novel flown under my radar?

When I got home, I checked two or three critical studies of James on my shelves, and was none the wiser. I found no mention of The Outcry in their texts, though one of them did list The Outcry in its bibliography.

It was only recently, when I got around to reading the novel (in Penguin Classics, with an extensive introduction Toby Litt), that I found out why The Outcry is so little known. As I have said too often on this blog (look up my postings on Roderick Hudson, WashingtonSquare and The Portrait of a Lady), later James does not appeal to me, but here I was reading James’ very last novel out of sheer curiosity.

And my goodness it was bad.

Before I elucidate the mystery of the novel’s obscurity, let me offer you one of my notorious synopses.

The Outcry is an upper-class comedy.

Grumpy old Lord Theyne has a major problem. His elder daughter Kitty (who never appears in the novel) is addicted to gambling and has run up formidable debts. To pay her debts and keep her from scandal, Lord Theyne decides that he might try to sell off some of his more valuable paintings. The millionaire American art-collector Breckinridge Bender is in England. His main criterion is that a painting be worth a lot of money. He visits Lord Theyne’s stately home. He has his eye on an invaluable portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Fortuitously, Lord Theyne’s younger daughter Lady Grace introduces into the house an amiable middle-class chap, Hugh Crimble, who actually knows about art. Hugh Crimble persuades Bender, Lord Theyne and others that one of Lord Theyne’s Italian paintings might be even more valuable than the Sir Joshua Reynolds, although he will have to get it valued first by an expert. Of course Bender is interested.

But there are complications. One is that Lady Grace had been romantically attached to an inane upper-class twit called Sir John. As the story progresses, she drops Sir John and becomes more attached to Hugh Crimble, whom she seems inclined to marry. This is not at all to the liking of Lord Theyne who wonders if middle-class bounders are quite the thing. Then there is the fact that Lord Theyne doesn’t like people telling him what to do with his own property. If he chooses to sell a painting it’s his business and nobody else’s. He is even more confirmed in this view when an “outcry” is raised once Hugh Crimble does get the Italian painting valued and it proves to be priceless. The newspapers are saying that it is wrong for great works of art hanging in England to be sold out of the country. A subscription is begun to match anything that Breckinridge Bender may have to offer and to keep the painting in England.

Lord Theyne is furious that public pressure is being put on him, and he is furious that his daughter Lady Grace is on the side of the “outcry”.

Fear not. As a story it has a happy ending for all concerned, because it is a comedy after all. In fact, in conception, it has the makings of a jolly (if rather twee) upper-class farce. Lord Theyne the grumpy red-faced squire, and Bertie Wooster-ish Lord John could well be figures out of P. G. Wodehouse, while Beckinridge Bender is your British caricature of the fabulously wealthy American philistine. (My, how the American Henry James loved to suck up to English tastes in his mature years!)

But you forget that it was written by Late Period Henry (“pile on those redundant, prolix, subordinate clauses”) James, guaranteed to stultify comedy whenever it rears its head by over-explaining, over-rationalising and not allowing situations to speak for themselves. The Outcry is burdened in its opening stages by awful self-expository dialogue in which minor characters (Lady Sandgate and others) explain the premise of the lord, the paintings and the gambling debts. The Outcry develops as a series of conversations between two characters, who are regularly replaced in the same location by two other characters who have their own conversation, and so on and so on. The Outcry has really odd descriptions of place, where James is precise in telling us what is on the left-hand side and what is on the right-hand side. And The Outcry is divided into three “books”, each of which ends with a dramatic crisis.

So at last, we come to the mystery of what The Outcry really is. It is not a true novel. It is Henry James’ novelisation of the play The Outcry, which he had written two years earlier in 1909. All the phenomena I have given in the preceding paragraph are really surviving evidence of dramatic exposition, the stage convention of having two characters alone on stage discussing things, stage directions (what’s on stage left and stage right etc.) and a clear three-act structure. Henry James’ novelisation merely burdens a playscript with unnecessary authorial commentary on the characters.

Sometimes, in reading this pseudo-novel, I thought it sounded better to skip the authorial comments and just read the dialogue, and sometimes this dodge worked; although even in this ruin-of-a-play, Henry James can’t help having his characters talk allusively in a kind of code, as if they are avoiding saying essential (and obvious) things.

The Penguin Classics edition’s introduction tells me that Henry James himself came to have a low regard for this novel, saying that about it “hangs the inferiority, the comparative triviality, of its primal origin” in “the unutterable Theatre”. James had no luck as a dramatist. The failure of his play Guy Domville is the stuff of literary legend. But the failure of the play version of The Outcry was not really James’ fault. The play was just about to open in London when King Edward VII had the bad taste to die and all London theatres had to close down at a time of official (and imposed) mourning. So no theatre audience ever got to see The Outcry. Cutting his losses, Henry James decided to make some money by refashioning it as a novel.

Surprisingly, as a novel The Outcry at first sold quite well. But there was a topical reason for this. The novel’s first readers understood that the plot was based on a real case. In 1909, the Duke of Norfolk announced that he was going to sell to an American collector a valuable Hans Holbein portrait which he owned, but which hung in the National Gallery on long-term loan. There was a real outcry in the newspapers about English art treasures being sold abroad. Subscriptions raised almost enough to retain the painting, and finally it got to stay in the National Gallery when an anonymous benefactor outbid the American collector’s chequebook. So the first readers of The Outcry were (perhaps) chuckling over a recent news story.

But what happens once the topicality is gone? The Outcry is left as a poor, ineptly told, novel with artificial characters. After 1911, many decades went by before anybody bothered to republish it. In fact only in the 1990s was it reprinted for the first time. The mystery of its obscurity is thus solved.

Puerile and Gossipy Footnote: Toby Litt’s notes tell me that Henry James quite clearly based the character of the genial Hugh Crimble on the young popular novelist Hugh Walpole, thus nurturing the quaint fiction that Hugh Walpole was heterosexual. (See my post on Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, which was first published the same year that The Outcry was published). Walpole very much wanted to be identified with highbrow and culturally-esteemed writers like James. He spent much of his time paying court to James, who responded with kittenish letters to Walpole. Walpole also wrote a glowing newspaper review of The Outcry, for which James thanked him fulsomely. Thus do inward-turning literary cliques operate.

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