Monday, 24 March 2014

Secret-Sharers . . . Henry James and Joseph Conrad’s Junoesque Women

Since my last post, it has been pointed out to me by a Jamesian scholar that Henry James shared Joseph Conrad’s tendency to fixate on exceedingly tall heroines; certainly, the beautiful Julia of James’s The Tragic Muse must be of a height approaching that of Małgorzata Dydek, reportedly the tallest professional female basketball player in the world (7 ft 2 ins.). Appropriately, given Conrad’s own nation of origin, Małgorzata was born in Warsaw.

See my last post:

Joseph Conrad and Henry James by Max Beerbohm

My correspondent points out that, at a lunch in London in February 1897, James and Conrad probably discussed the theme of Conrad’s The Return, since Conrad began writing the text shortly after their meeting and its style is not only characteristically Jamesian but, in the emergence of a Junoesque woman, the textual patterning very closely resembles that of the ‘Master’ in The Tragic Muse.
. . . There, however, he [Nick] stayed her, bending over her while she
sobbed, unspeakably gentle with her.
   ‘. . . What do you accuse me of doing?’ Her tears were already over.
   ‘Of making me yours; of being so precious, Julia, so exactly what a man wants, as it seems to me. I didn’t know you could,’ he went on, smiling down at her. ‘I didn’t—no, I didn’t.’
   ‘It’s what I say—that you've always hated me.’
   ‘I’ll make it up to you!’
   She leaned on the doorway with her forehead against the lintel. ‘You don’t even deny it.’                                           [Henry James. The Tragic Muse 1889]

The Secret-Sharers

This text of James’s was published, then, nearly a decade before the publication of Conrad’s The Return in 1898. As Conrad wrote, in affirmation of his admiration for James (Henry James: An Appreciation), he was bowled over by ‘the magnitude of Mr Henry James’s work.’ Evidently, it was work studied by the younger man assiduously. 

So we can surmise that their secret obsession for giantesses was shared not only from their first meeting in the winter of 1897 but even earlier and, certainly, until James’s death in 1916.

The Beam in the Eye

Seriously, though, surely Conrad read James’s The Aspern Papers in 1888? And, no doubt, read the following, wholly Pateresque, passage in Chapter Five. Though Walter Pater and, more particularly, John Ruskin, would have known that in no known universe do the twin columns of the Piazza San Marco resemble lintels. Or had James downed too many cocktails at Florian’s?
The wonderful church, with its low domes and bristling embroideries, the mystery of its mosaic and sculpture, looking ghostly in the tempered gloom, and the sea breeze passed between the twin columns of the Piazzetta, the lintels of a door no longer guarded, as gently as if a rich curtain were swaying there.                                  [Henry James’s The Aspern Papers 1888]
Paterism is all very well as an aesthetic measure but it’s no use looking upon beauty if you considerest not the lintel-beam that is in thine own eye.  

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

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