I’ve been reading ‘Georgian Literature’ by Frank Swinnerton.   I’m not entirely sure why he calls the book ‘Georgian Literature’, since it includes essays on some writers who are certainly not Georgian (eg D H Lawrence.)


Swinnerton is a good critic and a writer of clear and thoughtful prose.   (Also in his favour is that almost  without exception his learned opinions tally with my own conclusions!)   He wrote some fiction which I shall in due course sample, but the skills of weaving fiction, and of assessing other people’s work, are completely different arts.


It was Swinnerton’s remarks about Henry James that I found most thought provoking.


I feel I ought to begin by apologising for even beginning a critical assessment of the great Henry James.    His intellect was magisterial and vast.   His judgements on anything are usually extremely accurate and with a wide and subtle understanding.   He is acutely observant and well versed in the nuances of other people’s motives and actions.    His writing is superb, and he was entirely dedicated to his art.     And yet, and yet….  you know he is a virtuoso but there is something lacking.


Summerton asserts that the people James writes about are ‘common place’.   I am not sure about this.   Are we not all ‘common place’ in our inner chamber?   Is it indeed not desirable that we should indeed be common place?  After the battle, the siege, the great crises of one’s life, when one has gone out and acted as hero, as priest, healer, soldier, prince – whatever it is that you are when the inner trumpet sounds and you realise that however unwilling or unready you are, now is the moment when you must go out and BE whatever it is that you are – after these brief scenes, though they are the purpose and apotheosis of one’s whole life – you must, if you are to live, return to ordinary life, where you have to be ‘common place’.   You cannot be a hero (in an active sense) every day of your life.   Some days you just have to make soup.    Besides which, days need to be left for other people to be heroes!


I think however Swinnerton’s comments are insightful.   What I had thought (not so magisterially put) was that James had failed because he was too concerned about Art and not enough about Life.   As Swinnerton says, Henry James’ experience was of Life as Art, and not as Real Life.


It is as though Henry James were writing about a picnic.   Instead of recollecting picnics he had enjoyed, remembering the hard ground, the smell of the cut grass, the feel of the sun and wind upon his skin, how one’s back grew weary, how wonderful food tasted out of doors, the wasps, the coolness of the water – his recollections of a picnic are of Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe by Manet.


Henry James worshipped at the altar of Art, but it was the wrong altar.    In a sense, he lacked the robust and down to earth elements of the common place.   He was ALWAYS the great man of literature (and indeed he was.)   But it would have been better, he would have been greater, if he had on some days, just flung his paper, pen and books aside, and gone out to be a man.