Monday, December 27, 2010

Henry James: Burned Before Reading

I was required to read Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw in school.  I didn't like the former and didn't understand the latter.  But over the last few years I've discovered that writers whom I enjoy reading have said good things about Henry James.

Granted, these were more likely to be good things about him as a person than good things about his elephantine verbal style.  E.F. Benson has a great story, told by James, about how he went out to run some errands and when he came home and opened his front door, something advanced towards him down the hallway.  He said it was "something black, something canine."  As Benson points out, anyone else would have just called it a black dog.  (A friend of James' housekeeper had come to visit and brought her dog.)

Be that as it may, I finally braced myself and plunged into Henry James.  And I'm glad I did.  Of course, the real reason I wanted to read him is that I found out he was queer.  When I referred to "writers whom I enjoy reading," the two I mainly had in mind are Benson and Gore Vidal, who presents Henry James as a character in his novel Empire and makes him seem charming, if long-winded.  Benson knew James personally and bought his house sometime after he died.  And of course, Vidal is openly gay and Benson and James  . . . give off very strong signals, shall we say.

In fact, I don't understand how anyone could enjoy James' writing, or even comprehend what he's on about, without interpreting it as coded homosexual content.  Why is he so allusive, so elusive, so reluctant to come right out and call a black dog a black dog?  What is the unspoken thing, buried under tons of words?  Thomas Hardy once said that James had "a ponderously warm way of saying nothing in infinite sentences."  But the truth is that nobody says "nothing," especially not someone who wrote at such length and with such care.  There is meaning in those infinite sentences: so what was it?

The James story that most struck me is "The Jolly Corner."  It was written close to the end of his life.  It's about a man named Spencer Brydon, who returns to his childhood home in New York City after spending thirty-three years abroad.  Everyone else in his family has died, and he inherits the big old house.  Although he refers to this house as "the jolly corner," he also believes that it's haunted, and one of the ghosts is his own: the ghost of the person he could have been, if things had been different.  (What things?  Here James is elusive again.)

The passage in "The Jolly Corner" that really caught my attention occurs when Brydon is wondering what he could have been:
Only I can’t make out what, and the worry of it, the small rage of curiosity never to be satisfied, brings back what I remember to have felt, once or twice, after judging best, for reasons, to burn some important letter unopened.  I’ve been sorry, I’ve hated it—I’ve never known what was in the letter.
I want to know:  who destroys important letters without reading them?  How often does that happen in real life?  Moreover, how would you know it's important without reading it?  The only clue you might have is knowing who it was from.  And so we have the image of a man receiving messages from some significant person - messages which he knows are important although he refuses to read them, messages which he has some knowledge of even without reading them - messages which must be deleted.  Messages about himself, which he regrets not reading.  These letters burned unopened are the quintessential symbol of life in the closet.

Brydon starts going back to his old house at night.  But he doesn't want anyone to know what he's doing.  When he leaves his hotel, he says he's going out to dinner:  but he goes to his house.  Other nights, he leaves the restaurant, saying he's going to his hotel:  but he goes to his house.  And even though he has a key, he's afraid of the cop on the beat seeing him enter or leave his own house.  He spends the dark, lonely hours hoping and fearing to encounter the ghost of himself.

James wrote another short story, "The Beast in the Jungle," which many people have interpreted as being about a closeted gay man.  In that story, the main character believes that someday something special will happen to him, or he'll do something extraordinary.  He doesn't know what, or if it will be good or bad, but he spends his life waiting for it.  I find it interesting that a story about what someone might do is more likely to be classified as "homosexual" than a story about what someone might be.

But these two stories have something else in common:  the presence of a sympathetic female character.  In "The Jolly Corner" she is so attuned to the male protagonist that she dreams about his ghost before he has ever seen it (and this despite the fact that they have been separated for thirty years; she stayed in New York while he went to Europe.)  Her affection for him is almost maternal; she seems to represent a refuge from the frightening, fascinating male figure that haunts him.

Critics of "The Beast in the Jungle" have theorized that she stands in for a close female friend of James' in real life.  But I have a different theory.  One of James' close male friends was a young sculptor named Hendrik Andersen.  James wrote the following words to him, as part of a letter of condolence on the death of his brother:
Let yourself go and live, even as a lacerated, mutilated lover, with your grief, your loss, your sore, unforgettable consciousness.  Possess them and let them possess you, and life, so, will still hold you in her arms, and press you to her breast, and keep you, like the great merciless but still most enfolding and never disowning mighty Mother, on and on for things to come.
The woman in "The Jolly Corner" saw Brydon's alter ego in her dream. She pitied him and didn't hate him, even though Brydon himself is sure that he is a "wretch" and a "horror."  "'[To] me,' she said, 'he was no horror.  I had accepted him.'"  Those are the words of the Great Mother.

Recommended Reading

The Henry James collection I've been reading is The Portable Henry James, published by Penguin.  It contains a wide assortment of his work:  fiction, travel writings, literary criticism, letters, memoir.  Also for some reason a list of character names which we are supposed to find amusing.  I could not stay focused on the travel writing at all (although it was interesting to observe his different writing styles,) but I really liked his essay on "The Art of Fiction."  It was a bit of a shock to discover that he apparently thought of himself as a realist writer. What is realistic about The Turn of the Screw?  That one still baffles me.

E.F. Benson's story about Henry James and the black dog is found in his book As We Were: A Victorian Peep-Show.

Henry James on Project Gutenberg

Friday, December 10, 2010

An Unusual Family

(Or, how many eccentric people can I fit into one blog post?)

I own a book, a sort of Who's Who, which lists a large number of movie stars and their spouses and children.  (It lives in my bathroom.)  I was flipping through it one day and came across the entry for Dame Margaret Rutherford.  It said that she and her husband adopted several adult children, one of whom later turned out to be transsexual.  This naturally interested me and I wanted to know more.

According to Wikipedia, Rutherford's father was mentally ill.  He spent a number of years in an insane asylum.  While on vacation from the asylum, he killed his father and was recommitted.  Later he was released and started a family, with the woman he got married to before his first mental breakdown.  When Rutherford was only three, her mother committed suicide.  About ten years later her father went back into an asylum and seemingly remained there for the rest of his life.

With this background of violence and tragedy, it is not entirely surprising that Rutherford became a comedienne, playing such parts as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest.  She married a fellow actor whom Wikipedia describes as "openly bisexual" and as mentioned above, they adopted four adults.  Why, I do not know.  One of them was the writer and transwoman Dawn Langley Hall.

Dawn was born to an unmarried teenager in England in 1922.  Later her mother married and her parents became servants at Sissinghurst Castle, owned by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson.  Thereby hangs a tale.  The Sackville-Wests were scandalous aristocrats.  Vita's mother was the illegitimate child of the second Lord Sackville and a Spanish dancer called Pepita.  Somebody on the Internet claims that Dawn and Vita bear a strong resemblance to each other and speculates that Dawn was Vita's child.  This is implausible.  Vita had no reason to conceal a pregnancy and more importantly, aside from her husband she preferred women.  But there were other Sackville-Wests around and Dawn did feel a connection to the family.

In 1968 Dawn changed her name to Dawn Pepita Langley Hall, got sex reassignment surgery and began presenting herself as female.  "Pepita" obviously harks back to the Sackville-Wests.  Either Dawn believed herself to be related to them or she wanted to invoke their history of illegitimacy.  (Pepita herself was once believed to be illegitimate but apparently this was not the case.)  The fact that Vita's mother and her four siblings were illegitimate was widely known, for reasons which I won't go into here.  But if you haven't read Portrait of a Marriage, Vita's memoir which was edited by her son, Nigel Nicolson, then you really should.

In 1928, Virginia Woolf fell in love with Vita Sackville-West and wrote a book for her called Orlando, about a boy who turns into a woman.  We are told that Dawn later saw herself in the story of Orlando, but I have to mention that Vita was well aware of her own androgyny (as was Woolf) and she was the original Orlando.

Well.  Dawn roamed around England, Canada and America and had various adventures.  She spent a year teaching on a Canadian Ojibwe Indian reservation and wrote a book about it with the completely politically incorrect title of Me Papoose Sitter.  In 1969 she was living in South Carolina and married a black man, John-Paul Simmons.  This was the first interracial marriage ever performed in that state and naturally it caused a lot of uproar.

In 1971 she gave birth to a daughter.  Or at least, she said she did.  In reality, no transwoman has ever been able to conceive and bear a child.  (Medical science hasn't advanced that far.)  In her first autobiography Dawn said she was intersexed and had both male and female genitalia.  I don't know if someone with that condition can conceive a child or not. It does seem more likely that the baby was her husband's child by another woman.

It was not a happy marriage, unfortunately.  Simmons was physically abusive and was eventually committed to a mental institution (like Margaret Rutherford's father.)  Dawn died in 2000.  She wrote three autobiographies, none of which I have read.

Illegitimacy.  Mental illness.  Sexual transgression.  Gender transgression.  Dawn was doubly illegitimate:  once for the circumstances of her birth and once for her transsexuality.  One gathers that she told a lot of stories about herself which were not true.  She had to create her own reality, because the "reality" society had assigned her to was unacceptable.

Illegitimacy has lost much of its stigma these days.  "Bastard" is now a minor insult.  It's okay to use the word on television.  And if I call someone a bastard I don't literally mean that their parents were not married to each other.  (I wonder how many people are unaware of what "bastard" really means?)  Maybe someday the stigma of transgender will be diminished as well.  And what we now think of as "reality" will be gone.

References:  This post here about Dawn Langley Simmons.  I'll let you look her up on Wikipedia yourself.