Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/122

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Henry James

years he would not have undertaken thus to tell two stories at the same time; and perhaps the artistic temperament itself would have seemed to him too ambitious a theme. In the earlier period, again, we find him sometimes treating subjects touching on political or the more practical social problems, though indeed his interest was never primarily in the problems. The Bostonians is a somewhat satirical study, at one and the same time, of the Boston character and of feminism; while in The Princess Casamassima the leading persons are revolutionary socialists, and political murder lurks in the background. Probably the best, as well as the best liked, of the earlier novels is The Portrait of a Lady (1881), which records at length the European initiation of a generous-souled American girl.

In the course of six years between the first and second periods no novel of James was published; but during that interim came the culmination of his long activity as a short-story writer. It was his tendency always to subordinate incident to character, to subordinate character as such to situation—or the relations among the characters; and in situation or character, to prefer something rather out of the ordinary, some aspect or type not too obviously interesting but calling for insight and subtlety in the interpretation. Good examples, in the short story, of this predilection are The Pupil, The Real Thing, and The Altar of the Dead, all appearing in the early nineties; and a little later, The Beldonald Holbein and A Turn of the Screw, most haunting of ghost stories. In The Beldonald Holbein the beautiful great lady has chosen for her companion a supposedly unattractive middle-aged American woman, who will admirably serve as a foil to her beauty. But certain painters of her acquaintance having discovered that the foil is herself remarkably " beautiful"—that is, distinguished, significant of feature, a subject worthy of Holbein—it becomes necessary to send her back home and get another companion with less character engraved upon her countenance. How one of the artists gets his revenge by painting Lady Beldonald in all the splendour of her mediocrity is not the point of interest; the point of interest is the fine discrimination shown by artist—and author, and reader—in evidence of their superior good taste.