At a certain point I couldn’t help wondering if Henry James hadn’t used the two main characters in this novel to have a detailed and protracted argument with himself. Rowland might be seen as HJ in his social guise and Roderick a mischievous projection of his precocious genius. You could describe both characters as half baked. Roderick, somewhat of a romantic cliché, has the talent but no money; Rowland has the money but no talent. An alliance is formed. Rowland offers to become the young provincial sculptor’s patron and take him to Rome. Before leaving Rowland meets Roderick’s fiancé and falls in love with her. Roderick has the girl but doesn’t really want her; Rowland doesn’t have the girl but wants her. This isn’t going to end up well!
At another point the character of Roderick appeared like an eerily prophetic portrait of Scott Fitzgerald, the man who has been gifted with genius but isn’t responsible or strong enough to marshal it and who falls in love with a somewhat self-centred beauty queen who will inevitably provide further obstacles to his artistic ambition.
At times I felt there were things in this novel James probably wasn’t conscious of putting in there. Emotionally Rowland lays down relentless laws for himself and strictly abides by them; James, as author, appears to sanction many of these laws. Rowland doesn’t allow himself to feel anything that isn’t self-effacingly chivalrous, that doesn’t conform with social propriety. I couldn’t help wondering to what extent James was aware of the darker illicit currents in Rowland’s nature. He could have been a fantastic villain. Perhaps he was a fantastic villain. HJ never alludes to any such currents; he clearly admires Rowland more than he does Roderick. Rowland is a type that barely any longer exists in our century. The sixties probably put an end to his ilk. Someone who limits himself to nothing but rationally judicious thoughts and feelings; who never raises his voice. Probably the notion that HJ was a kind of celibate gay finds a lot of ammunition in his portrait of Rowland. His admiration for Roderick is a lot more convincing than his admiration for Roderick’s girlfriend. His self-denial in relation to the girl perhaps more of a smokescreen than a noble rectitude of character.
At the same time it’s a huge shame authors of modern romance fiction don’t have an inner Rowland to curb the saccharine nonsense they write about romantic love.
For a first novel this is a hugely impressive achievement. It can be a bit long-winded with the sense of the same scene being played out several times but James’ facility with stunning sentence writing gets him off the hook time and time again. He can make even a rather banal observation or idea sound the height of wisdom and eloquence with the beautiful highly mannered craftsmanship of his prose. It’s been a treat to reacquaint myself with HJ and I’m looking forward to the next date.