|The Victorian stage|
For better or for worse, Henry James is hard. His novels aren’t the kind of books you can doze off while reading and still have a pretty accurate awareness of what’s going on. That’s fine – improving, character building - but coupled with the fact that all I had heard about his 1889-1890 The Tragic Muse was that a) it was one of his least acclaimed works, b) the novel was linked to his disastrous attempt to succeed in the theatre, and c) the plot revolved around two artists’ creative struggles, I have to admit that I wasn’t overly hopeful about the level of enjoyment I was going to derive from this one.
I was very wrong. Okay, I still didn’t fly through this at the pace at which I can devour Braddon, Dickens and Collins but The Tragic Muse was well-constructed, engaging and eminently enjoyable – here’s why.
For general readers: Nick Dormer (one of the aforementioned artists) is a character who faces the Victorian equivalent of a First World Problem. His family expects and assumes he will be an eminent politician (like his late father), while he wants to devote his life to art, specifically portrait painting. The novel deals with some of the fallout from this clash – and from Nick’s ‘double nature’, which sees him responding to elements of each potential lifestyle and career path. This fallout isn’t dramatic – this isn’t the stuff of divorce courts, murder attempts and bigamy trials – but it’s exquisitely realised from multiple perspectives. There is Nick himself, burdened with responsibility but with an agency not granted to his female relations. There is his long-suffering mother, reduced to living largely off others and begging her son to appease her. And there are his sisters – one totally unlike Nick and unable to understand his position, the other akin to him in spirit, but limited by her gender.
And that’s just one strand of the plot. In a novel with over 50 named characters, James allows you to appreciate, even fleetingly, almost everyone’s point of view. This comes out most impressively in his complex multi-speaker dialogues, which feel real, and in his pivotal duologues, which also pack an emotional punch. Nick’s proposal to his rich widowed cousin Julia is one of the most finely balanced chapters I’ve encountered in nineteenth-century literature and demonstrates an understanding of humans as thinking, feeling and social animals which any reader will respond to.
For students: Some critics have called The Tragic Muse un-Jamesian. I don’t agree that it is, as it shares the same social concerns and the same methods of inspection that you come to expect from James’s most popular novels, but it certainly has points of difference from James’s other novels, which are worthy of comment. For a start, James strays away here from one of his favourite themes – the differences between the English and Americans. The novel is entirely European, as it begins in Paris and is largely set in London (with one character enjoying a jaunt to the colonies). Miriam Rooth – the actress who is the tragic muse herself – has Jewish heritage, but this is not explored in detail.
The interest with the theatre is also idiosyncratic and is, no doubt, one of the biggest reasons students may choose to read the novel. As well as casting light on James’s personal experiences with the art form, the novel is interesting because Miriam joins a raft of other fictional actresses and performers in the period (e.g. I’ve writtenpreviously on Bianca in Geraldine Jewsbury’s The Half Sisters and Miriam, as active artist, may be a neat point of comparison with George du Maurier’s passive and eponymous Trilby). Nick’s cousin Peter is an important character whose views on whether or not Miriam is marriageable while she remains on the stage, could well inform historical studies on the respectability of actresses (who often retired upon marriage) in the period.