To Have and Withhold

Henry James did not wish to be known by his readers. He remained oddly absent in his fiction. He did not dramatize his own opinions or offer aphorisms about life, as George Eliot, a novelist whom James followed closely, did. Instead, he worked intensely on his characters, offering their consciousness and motives a great deal of nuance and detail and ambiguity.

James was concerned with his privacy, burning many of the letters he received. Most of the time, he conducted his own correspondence with caution and care. But at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth, when James was in his late fifties and early sixties, he began to write letters to younger men whose tone had a mixture of open affection and something that is more difficult to define.

For example, on February 25, 1900, he wrote to the writer Howard Sturgis, then forty-five: “I repeat, almost to indiscretion, that I could live with you. Meanwhile I can only try to live without you.” On May 19, 1912, he ended a letter to the writer Hugh Walpole, twenty-eight at the time, with: “I don’t know how to tell you vividly enough how yearningly I pat you on the back or in fact take you to the heart. But feel it, know it, like it.”

These letters and some late stories, such as “The Beast in the Jungle” and “The Jolly Corner,” are the only clues we get from James about his secret desires. Many of his readers have tried to find clarity in James when there is obfuscation, a definite sexual identity for him when he sought, using artistry, to disguise himself, to conceal himself behind an elaborate prose style and an intricate architecture for his novels.

The cultivation of secrecy in James’s life and work was not merely a strategy he used during his time in England, a time when homosexuality, as we learn from the Wilde case, could be punished severely. It is not simply that he kept things to himself so that he would not be ruined by disclosure. Rather, sexual secrecy and disclosure became his great subject as an artist. His four best novels—The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904)—are animated by a story of a liaison that if revealed will be explosive. In the first of these four, he makes the two characters who know the secret, Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle, into sinister, treacherous figures, as he makes Isabel Archer into a woman who is innocent and preyed upon. The secret, for her, becomes dark knowledge.

By the time James wrote his last three great novels, he had seen the possibility of creating more intense drama from the idea that the treacherous ones are not, in fact, fully evil, but are operating as a result of constraints on their own freedom. They almost mean well, trapped in circumstances that they cannot control.

In all four books, having no money makes people act in ways that seem almost reprehensible. It is James’s task to take a word like “reprehensible” and treat it ironically or skeptically. By allowing the characters in these novels to have subtle motives as well as base ones, James seeks to blur the line between good and evil, between loyalty and treachery.

But in each of these books, James’s skill as a dramatist becomes apparent most seriously when the secret has to emerge—when Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove has to learn that Kate Croy is secretly engaged to Merton Densher, or when Strether in The Ambassadors sees Chad and Madame de Vionnet in unmistakable communion, or when Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl learns the truth about her husband and Charlotte Stant. While James concentrated on the style in these books and made the relationships between characters complex and densely textured, he moved with cunning and deliberation toward a plot that would shock as it unfolded. And each time, the shock came from the idea of a secret life or from sexual treachery.

These novels suggest a world where much is private and withheld, where secrecy, while vital for the survival of some, does damage to the souls of others. This was James’s particular subject; it was the undercurrent that gave energy to his novels. Underneath the style and the elaborate system of manners, there was a beast crouching. It was not merely the beast of secrecy but the beast of disclosure. Much would be at stake as this figure set to pounce.

Colm Tóibín’s most recent novel is House of Names (Scribner, 2017).