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Number 8
March 6, 2004

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Henry James and a 'Sense' of Place: The Modalities of Perception

by John D. Ballam
University of Bristol and Open University (United Kingdom)
In an article entitled, "Social Geometries: Taking Place in Henry James" (1999), Mark McGurl poses this amusing conundrum:
Where does fiction take place? ... [It] could, one supposes, be said to take place anywhere an author says it does and , yet, since it is fiction, could as easily be said to take place nowhere at all. (59)
Either way, the apprehension of fictional realities by readers demands the existence of a framework of real time, within which sequences of perceptions may be said to occur. The management of those sequences devolves into a tripartite arrangement involving the interaction of three "senses" of perspective, belonging to the reader, the narrator and the characters themselves. For each, the possibility of ascertaining information about the existence of a "place" depends upon locating a temporal order through which contact, however limited or imagined, might occur. There are thus, three streams of time descriptive of fictional places. They are that belonging to the real time experience of the reader (holding a book as she sits in a chair); that of the narrator (who "holds" the entire story simultaneously in suspension and revelation); and that of the characters (who hold narrative events in a sequence of past-present-and-future which is, although concurrent with the narrator's, possessed of a sequence that is altogether different in kind, insofar as many aspects conforming to the narrator's perspective are either hidden, denied or simply latent. But the manner in which an author's narrative strategy allows or fosters insight into these diverse perspectives remains an interlocking one. In reading fiction, as in reading Life, we may ask, "What could he do?" "How should she have acted?" Or, with the voice of an assumed narrator, we may suggest that, "They ought to have known." Or, again, suspending disbelief, we may share the burden of choice with characters who ask, "How will I be able to survive?"

The strategy I am referring to here is one of the subtlest ones -- and hence probably least consciously employed -- that we possess. It is the manner in which we enable ourselves to recognize the multifarious dimensions of reality -- concrete existence -- through the momentary intellection of alternatives with which they compare. Thus we know a dog from a cat with virtually no pause for analysis of probabilities, yet faced with the spectacle of differentiating between a young kangaroo and a full-grown wallaby, most of us would require some time to arrive at an answer. "It could be a kangaroo..." And the vital factor I wish to isolate is that moment of suspension which occurs in narrative time when figures (character or narrator) enforce a pause to embrace the essential indeterminacy of perception. I have called this vital, because what happens in that interval is a conditioning of expectation that encourages a limiting of fictional realities, while simultaneously confessing that such limits are arbitrary. The key to understanding this process lies in the author's use of modal verbs.

There aren't actually many modal verbs in English: can, could, dare, may, might, must, need, shall, should, will, would and the modal constructions, be able to, ought to and be allowed to. And my focus upon Henry James is taken in the belief that James is peculiarly alert to the range of options available to the sensitive mind as it comes into the proximity of experiences with which it has little to condition its expectations. For this reason, James is singularly cautious in offering single, or definitive options for his characters' reading of their circumstances. To highlight some of the differences in James's approach, I have chosen two texts wherein the expository style can be seen to be contrasting, not least through the different stances to authenticity proposed by their different genres. These texts are English Hours (published in a revised form and as a collection in 1905, although largely written in the 1870s), and What Maisie Knew (1897).

The fundamental difference between these two books is that What Maisie Knew is a novel, and English Hours is a collection of travel articles about England largely written for American magazines. Yet while one occupies that indeterminate place that McGurl has postulated, and the other the historical world of James and his contemporaries, in both the characters and narrators are disinclined to trust the veracity of the sensory data they are presented with. In English Hours James finds many impressions that hover about him, refusing either to be fixed or to admit the possibility of distinct recognition. In "Wells and Salisbury" he writes, "the place seems always to savour of a Sunday afternoon" (65), "it seems densely embroidered by the chisel"(66), "the general atmosphere ... seemed peculiarly luminous and sweet" (66), "the mild grey seventeenth-century deanery and the other dwellings ... seem to reflect in their comfortable fronts the rich respectability of the church" (66-7); and in Glastonbury, he says "a savour of hooves and hide seemed to accompany me"(69); while in a very strange construction -- and my own favourite -- he says of Salisbury cathedral spire, "it grew to seem to me the least bit banal" (71). In every case, something seems to be "true," and yet, as James admits, may just as easily not be so. Probably central to James's method here is the emphasis he betrays in that last passage ("it grew to seem to me"), whereby he acknowledges the filtering process of recollection. That is, the making of realities in the mind is a gradual process, involving delay and re-structuring, while the worth of immediacy in sensory impression is something akin to Walter Pater's "transcendental materialism," which conceives of surfaces (vision, touch, sound, smell) as the meeting-place of spirit and matter. Within James's prose, this is figured as a perpetual re-embodiment of the narrator/character within the context of their own imagined sense of places, or the artist refashioning him/herself with every new work of art and its incorporation into consciousness. The metaphor James frequently uses to explain this process is the relative positions of audience and stage. Or, as he writes of Canterbury cathedral, "I can, in my fear to pretend to dabble in the esoteric constructional question ... speak only of the picture, the mere builded scene." (90) Thus, like Pater, and like his brother William James, it is not the facts of the situation which hold any interest for James, rather it is the uniquely gained truth of an individual perception, however much such a perception may resemble the flattened perspective of a post-Impressionist canvas. (This comparison is made by McGurl [61].) Or to extend this spatial metaphor, the quest for a truly individual perception represents the search for a Jamesian "centre of consciousness" where limitation will be understood in the modalities of perception; where modality represents the unknowableness at the centre of character even as it posits its own relation to either real or fictional externals.

Even beyond these considerations, modality can be seen to mediate between narrator and reader. In one of the earliest articles from English Hours, James writes of "the brave little walls of Chester":

There could be no better example of that phenomenon so delightfully frequent in England -- an ancient property or institution lovingly readopted and consecrated to some modern amenity. The good Cestrians may boast of their walls without a shadow of that mental reservation on grounds of modern ease which is so often the tax paid by the romantic; and I can easily imagine that, though most modern towns contrive to get on comfortably without this stony girdle, these people should have come to regard theirs as a primary necessity. For through it, surely they may know their city more intimately than their unbuckled neighbours -- survey it, feel it, rejoice in it as many times a day as they please. The civic consciousness, sunning itself thus on the city's rim and glancing on the little swarming towered and gabled town within, and then at the blue undulations of the near Welsh border, may easily deepen to delicious complacency. (37-8)
"The good Cestrians may boast" (that is, they ought and probably do); and "I can ... imagine" (and so ought you); although "these people should have come to regard theirs as a primary necessity" (but then, perhaps they haven't); "they may know their city more intimately" (or not); "the civic consciousness ... may deepen to delicious complacency" (but just as easily may not). In any case, the reality of the matter is an open question.

If this is beginning to seem a trifle pedantic, then consider the alternative. In his article, "Abbeys and Castles" James simultaneously emphasizes the volubility of the dominant narrative voice while demonstrating the permeability of perspectives as his description is re-centered within his reader:

This entertainment is inexhaustible; for every step you take in such a house confronts you in one way or another with the remote past. You devour the documentary, you inhale the historic. ... You may lie upon the grass at the base of the ivied fragment, ... You seem yourself to have hollowed the flags with your tread, to have polished the oak with your touch. ... The massive step by which you ascend to the threshold is a trifle crooked, as it should be; ... You look up and down the miniature cloister before you pass in; ... After dinner you are told that there is of course a ghost - ... Then, when you take your chamber candle and go wandering bedward by a short cut through empty rooms, you are conscious of an attitude toward the [ghost] which you hardly know whether to read as a fond hope or as a great fear. (144-46)
You may "devour," you may "inhale," you may "touch," you may "look," you may be "told" -- but although you will become "conscious of [your] attitude," you will not be able to "read" it with any certainty. In addition to McGurl's question, "Where does fiction take place?" in reading this passage, we might ask ourselves, "What space do we occupy within it?" We might ask, or we might not.

To summarize a bit, and to borrow a further metaphor from James, modality is a window between characters and their own sense of their surroundings, as well as being one between ourselves and those characters. Without modality, fictional action and/or sensation is dispossessed by its narrator and becomes merely so many "facts" without temporal relation. And more importantly, without temporal relation, there is no causation. We may have bread and we may have rain, but if we did not have rain, we could not have bread. If there is no narrator actively determining precedence among a balance of alternatives, causation would be ineluctable, and motivation implausible (that is, ALL options would remain equally preferable).

But it is at this point that the temporal hiatuses that modality suggests most clearly represent the struggle between the narrator and the author's sense of mastery (or of being an author in the Foucauldian sense). However we choose to describe a story in its pre-compositional state (or even pre-sentient, pre-conscious state) its being as a story necessitates a negotiation between supposed options, for which the narrative voice is ultimately persuasive. Seen in this way, modality is a species of rhetoric -- offering, as it were on oath, a single alternative as probable, while acknowledging opposites as co-existent. It is in order to address certain questions of how that rhetoric may be used that I now want to turn to What Maisie Knew.

It isn't uncommon to read What Maisie Knew as a species of bildungsroman -- the story of Maisie's emotional and intellectual development at the hands of her divorced parents, and the subsequent machinations of their various partners and surrogate-figures, is undoubtedly the core theme of the novel. Adrian Poole, in his recent introduction to What Maisie Knew (23-24), underlines this aspect of the story, but in addition he points out the evident insecurity felt by the narrator as Maisie's maturation advances. This is a position with which I concur -- that the narrator is not altogether certain of details which, in a different context, might be stated as objectively knowable -- but my reading of the problematical position of James's narrator (telling a story s/he doesn't altogether "know") is founded upon differing criteria. For example, I began by asking whether James's grammatical modality is being used predominantly to suggest a fragmentation of perceptions, ("It could be true.") or to enforce cohesion, possibly with a teleological aim ("So much ought to be true.") What I found undoubtedly supports the view that the story of Maisie's growing-up is completed, in a sense, by the narrator's tacitly acknowledging that her understanding of her role is superior to anyone else's; and this understanding is one that she gains through a series of penetrating insights into her surroundings. There is, in fact, something like confusion in the portrayal of simultaneity across an unspecified period, with the result that Maisie's interior development is given a pace wholly unlike that of "exterior" events. This is something that Maisie herself eventually becomes cognizant of:

So the sharpened sense of spectatorship was the child's main support, the long habit, from the first, of seeing herself in discussion and finding in the fury of it--she had had a glimpse of the game of football--a sort of compensation for the doom of a peculiar passivity. It gave her often an odd air of being present at her history in as separate a manner as if she could only get at experience by flattening her nose against a pane of glass. (107)
The phrase "she could only get at experience" suggests that agency for the things Maisie observes cannot be understood as subject to the same conditions of temporality that Maisie herself "experiences," and that she must construct a framework of time suited to reading her surroundings. This process takes up nearly a quarter of the intervening narrative, and the stages of its completion can be marked in the increasingly evident inability of the narrator to discuss those affairs of Maisie's inner thoughts in anything except the crudest spatial terms. Thus a few chapters later, "an idea at the back of her head shifted its place to her lips" (184), leaving, as it were, the small time-piece the narrator later calls the "more comfortable place [which] was Maisie's light little brain, [as] it hummed away hour after hour" (204). One result of this gradual bowing-out of the company of Maisie's thoughts by the narrator, this retreat into the narrative equivocation made possible by grammatical modality, is that besides demonstrating the apparent intractability of knowledge centered on space and time, the narrator questions almost inadvertently the actual worth of "knowing" as much as s/he "supposes." This lateral movement by the narrator -- a shrinking in authoritative stature even as Maisie grows in independence -- is the gradual projection by Maisie of her mental configurations onto the world around her; in effect, a colonizing of external spaces, and through the assignment of significant images, a re-making of those places in accordance with her reading of them. Even in a book as concerned with whereabouts and relocations as this one is (as well as what one learns from such movement), it is striking that one of the most notable locations for this activity is Maisie's schoolroom. The figure that comes to preside over this scene, transfixed in unchanging two-dimensionality, is Sir Claude:
Miss Overmore...drew from a table-drawer the photograph of Sir Claude and, standing there before Maisie, studied it at some length.
"Isn't he beautiful?" the child ingenuously asked.
Her companion hesitated. "No--he's horrid," she, to Maisie's surprise, sharply returned. But she debated another minute, after which she handed back the picture. It appeared to Maisie herself to exhibit a fresh attraction, and she was troubled, having never before had occasion to differ from her lovely friend. So she only could ask what, such being the case, she should do with it: should she put it quite away--where it wouldn't be there to offend? On this Miss Overmore again cast about; after which she said unexpectedly: "Put it on the schoolroom mantelpiece." (52)
A few pages later and, "This pleasing object found a conspicuous place in the schoolroom" (54). In this instance, James's narrator intrudes upon the conversation, replacing direct speech with narration, and offering modality as a means of gauging worth: what should Maisie do with the photograph? The question hangs momentarily before the reader as much as it does before Miss Overmore. Some might sense in this a type of materialism, or concretizing of things held dear in the mind, so that their worth can be made public. That is, What IS the photo worth? And there is a brief acknowledgement by the narrator that this could be part of the motive here:
Mrs. Wix had put up a Japanese fan and two rather grim texts; she had wished they were gayer, but they were all she happened to have. Without Sir Claude's photograph, however, the place would have been, as he said, as dull as a cold dinner. He had said as well that there were all sorts of things they ought to have; yet governess and pupil, it had to be admitted, were still divided between discussing the places where any sort of thing would look best if any sort of thing should ever come and acknowledging that mutability in the child's career which was naturally unfavourable to accumulation. (77)

But it is noticeable that the narrator takes no credit for this position -- it is as "he" (Sir Claude) said, it is "governess and pupil" who are divided. Yet as tempting as it is to read this delight in the imagining of material changes as a consumerist exchange of new ideals for old, I think a more adequate reading is to see Maisie's re-figuring of her external world in terms very similar to those I used earlier to describe the travel narrator of English Hours. Maisie's makeover of her surroundings is accomplished because of her need to gain possession of them spatially. Given the instability of her existence, it is altogether psychologically plausible that she should wish to do so. But it is curious, and sometimes amusing, to see how Maisie projects her series of schematics on to the people and scenes that make up her world:

Here indeed was a slight ambiguity, as papa's being on Mrs. Beale's [side] didn't somehow seem to place him quite on his daughter's. It sounded, as this young lady thought it over, very much like puss-in-the-corner, and she could only wonder if the distribution of parties would lead to a rushing to and fro and a changing of places. She was in the presence, she felt, of restless change: wasn't it restless enough that her mother and her stepfather should already be on different sides? (95)
But as well-observed as James's description here seems -- a child's mind re-arranging the adults surrounding her very much as counters in a board game -- it is fitting that Maisie's growth to confidence and insight should be accompanied by a real measure of anxiety on her part. As quaint as it seems, or more cynically as manipulative as it might appear, Maisie has a real need to arrange the figures in her world, as well as her place among them, with something like a measure of certainty. Without this she is conscious, as the narrator acknowledges, of being adrift; a feeling that comes to the fore as she travels (literally) to France:
It was singular, but from this time she understood and she followed, followed with the sense of an ample filling-out of any void created by symptoms of avoidance and of flight. ... Maisie had known all along a great deal, but never so much as she was to know from this moment on and as she learned in particular during the couple of days that she was to hang in the air, as it were, over the sea which represented in breezy blueness and with a summer charm a crossing of more spaces than the Channel. (202)
As a traveler, Maisie exhibits many of the characteristics observable in James's travel narrators, particularly in her management of visual impressions. But what is significant for the story of Maisie's development is her discovery that such impressions of places can be fixed in time in the same manner that Sir Claude's photograph fixes him in her apprehension, allowing her to view the wider surroundings in terms of the relation thus created. Movement, or the range of temporal options more generally, is shrunken by selectivity to establish a personal nexus of meanings describable, to the observer at least, as "true." The proprieties of the senses thus establish dominance upon their environment, outside the demands of linear time. As Brigette Bailey describes it, "Pictorializing a scene and exercising the connoisseur's play of aesthetic and sentimental responses across its surface turns the scene into a temporal possession" (203). With this power over the present, comes a consequent power over the future, and a concomitant abandonment of modality in narrative structure:
The place and the people were all a picture together, a picture that, when they went down to the wide sands, shimmered, in a thousand tints, with the pretty organisation of the plage, with the gaiety of spectators and bathers, with that of the language and the weather, and above all with that of our young lady's unprecedented situation. (232)

For Maisie, there is a period of heightened mental activity combined with a sense of increasing clarity in her perceptions: "There was literally an instant in which Maisie fully saw -- saw madness and desolation, saw ruin and darkness and death." (my emphasis) (225) As this competence develops on Maisie's part, the narrator's own urgency increases in a manner I've noted occurring frequently in James's fiction. That is, there is a repetition of a particular word or phrase over a short space, on each occasion giving the words a slightly different emphasis, as if, on the one hand, to give evidence that a variety of contexts have been considered -- from the trivial to momentous -- and on the other, to demonstrate that a particular turn of mind is dominating a character's thinking. On this occasion, James's narrator gives particular prominence to Maisie's thoughts about the exact placement of things. For example, in the short space of six pages (in the New York edition) he repeats this idea seven times: "it seemed to give a reason for papa's behaviour and place it in a more favourable light" (274); "she bounded in her place" (277); "shaking a feather into place" (279); "the coachman ... turning in his place" (279-80); [she finds] "another of the places on her list" (280); [among the wet places] "there were dry places as well" (280); [while] "Nothing more remarkable had taken place" (280). Trifling as these examples are, they give a clear indication of the fact that, barred from her motivations, the narrator's gaze has turned in the direction of Maisie's own observation of her world and its small details. But given her early ascertaining of the circumstances of her own predicament based on visual clues -- and her continual refinement of her perceptive abilities -- it is not surprising that Maisie comes to regard her eyes as ultimately capable of penetrating surface appearances. Seeing is not simply believing, it is the irresistible key that opens all secrets. For example, late in the novel, in the midst of her doubts about Sir Claude:

Maisie felt that however they talked she must see him, but she said nothing more for a time, a time during which she conscientiously finished dressing and Mrs. Wix also kept silence. It was as if they each had almost too much to think of, and even as if the child had the sense that her friend was watching her and seeing if she herself were watched. At last Mrs. Wix turned to the window and stood--sightlessly, as Maisie could guess--looking away. Then our young lady, before the glass, gave the supreme shake. "Well, I'm ready. And now to SEE him!" (316-17)

The conclusion suggested by this emerging pattern is that a growth in maturity -- a growth in perception -- includes a commensurate loss in speculative reasoning. More specifically, as Maisie comes to know the adults who inhabit her world, and the texture of those surfaces masking their actions -- a growth in apprehension made possible by her literal movement from place to place and group to group -- her knowledge of the variables affecting both human behavior and perception becomes such that her reading of her surroundings is noticeably less cautious. At the same time, as if check-mated by this rising independence on Maisie's part, the narrator's becomes more so. Several passages underline this. When Maisie has her longed-for interview with Sir Claude, he attempts to paint an imaginary portrait of the future for her, but the timidity of his description, and the rather frail mood he seeks to establish, show that such thinking is juvenile, and no longer suited to the person Maisie has become:

My idea would be a nice little place--somewhere in the South--where she and you would be together and as good as any one else. And I should be as good too, don't you see? for I shouldn't live with you, but I should be close to you--just round the corner, and it would be just the same. My idea would be that it should all be perfectly open and frank. (334)
Well may Sir Claude ask her, "Don't you see?" as it is vital to Maisie's matured understanding to have this firmly verifiable existence in her mind's eye. A few pages later and it becomes evident that Maisie is no longer willing to indulge her senses in an imagined future, preferring the solidity of the present:
She saw nothing that she had seen hitherto--no touch in the foreign picture that had at first been always before her. The only touch was that of Sir Claude's hand, and to feel her own in it was her mute resistance to time. She went about as sightlessly as if he had been leading her blindfold. (341)
She "saw nothing" and there was "no touch" in this future; but mutely and "sightlessly" she would seek, briefly, to resist time. It was a strategy that, changed as she was, she soon abandoned.

Ultimately I am left with attempting a summary that is capable of illustrating how perceptions of the geographies of these two books compare -- geographies that are both non-fiction and imagined, that exist to project, construct or repair aspects of several independent senses of place -- yet which is also able to demonstrate that tripartite division of time I spoke of at the outset. In both English Hours and What Maisie Knew there is the possibility that James is employing grammatical modality to construct a fantasy of "otherness" where none is in fact possible or, at least, probable. As readers, we find ourselves crossing the temporal gulf between our worlds and those of fiction (or re-imagined non-fiction) without ever being entirely certain of how we came to set foot on the bridge. We are, in common with the narrator, perpetually aware of a fictional "future" that is simultaneously "present" -- the narrator "knows" the story, and we embrace its ending between the covers of the book. Where we, as readers, differ from the narrator in most cases, is in the extent to which we, like the other characters, must wait for future events to occur, with the narrator holding ultimate authority over that information. Thus the five minutes it takes to read of the passage of twenty years are different in relative durations, but not in kind. However, what distinguishes these two books, and James's writing more generally, from much of his contemporaries' Realist fiction -- is that James's narrators lack omniscience in certain clearly observable areas. The voice of English Hours wants, hopes, believes, imagines, deduces and so forth, but is generally reluctant to offer certainties even about the sensory data that underwrite the observations gathered there. The narrator of What Maisie Knew initiates an alliance with the reader, possibly over-emphasizing certain features to mask uncertainty, yet clearly framing Maisie's experiences within a landscape where choices and variables exist, and over which relationships the narrator exercises some competence. But as Maisie's own reading of these surroundings grows, her perceptions come to marginalize, if not altogether exclude, those of the narrator. The immediacy of Maisie's intellection (seeing, hearing, touching) supersedes the narrator's time-keeping (could see, would hear, should touch). One is left to wonder, given that this is a primary factor in Maisie's progress to adulthood, whether this recession of the narrator is a shirking of adult responsibility for what has occurred in the real time of the reader. Certainly, we are left like the other characters and like the narrator to wonder exactly what Maisie knew.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brigette Bailey, "Travel-writing and the Metropolis: James, London, and English Hours," American Literature 67 (1995), 201-32.

Janet Wolf Bowen, "Architectural Envy: 'A Figure is Nothing without a Setting' in Henry James's The Bostonians," The New England Quarterly, 65 (1992), 3-23.

Ellen Brown, "Revising Henry James: Reading the Spaces of The Aspern Papers," American Literature, 63 (1991), 263-78.

Scott Byrd, "The Spoils of Venice: Henry James's 'Two Old Houses and Three Young Women' and The Golden Bowl," American Literature, 43 (1971), 371-84.

Michael T. Gilmore, "The Commodity World of The Portrait of a Lady," The New England Quarterly, 59 (1986), 51-74.

Henry James, English Hours, ed. by Alma Louise Rowe (London: Mercury Books, 1963).

Henry James, What Maisie Knew (New York: Scribners, 1908).

Henry James, What Maisie Knew, ed. by Adrian Poole (Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, 1995).

Mark McGurl, "Social Geometries: Taking Place in Henry James," Representations, 68 (1999), 59-83.

Meir Stermberg, "Spatiotemporal Art and the Other Henry James: the Case of The Tragic Muse," Poetics Today, 5 (1984), 775-830.


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