Henry James’s The Tragic Muse

tragic-muse-james-d036726715d6465fd69dae933945c933Perhaps I’ve read the best of James. I’ve read his most famous books.  But he wrote many:  20 novels, as well as short stories, travel writing, and autobiography.

So I recently branched out from rereadings and read and very much enjoyed The Tragic Muse (1890). Is it great? Well, not his best, but it is gracefully written and very entertaining.

In James’s later books, baroque language and wondrously complicated structures predominate. His early and mid-career books are simple in comparison.  The Tragic Muse is not simple, but the narrative is straightforward.  This lively, often comical novel explores relationships in a complicated, close circle of family and friends, but it also a fictional study of art.  In many of his novels, characters go to The National Gallery, or buy antiques. But here he also explores the consciousness of artists.

Can you take the arts too seriously? Perhaps.  In The Tragic Muse, two cousins,  Nick Dormer, a politician who lost his seat in Parliament and has discovered he prefers painting to politics, and Peter Sherringham, an English diplomat in Paris who loves the theater, are unexpectedly creative for savvy political men.  Nick wants to drop out and paint, but his career is the hope of his impoverished family:  his father was in politics; he is expected to follow.  Peter’s gift for diplomacy helps an actress and brings him to the verge of flinging away his career when he falls in love with her.

Miriam Rooth, the exasperating muse of the title, is not the heroine–this is not a novel about women–but we follow her career as she struggles to make connections in the theater, escape poverty, and claw her way to the top. She is Nick’s muse, the subject of his first serious portrait, and of course Peter, who helps her make connections, almost gives up everything for love of her.

tragic-muse-james-penguin-81uutgckhlIn the opening chapter, almost all the characters meet in Paris. Their fates would have been different had they not.  Nick has taken his mother, Lady Agnes, and two sisters, Grace and Biddy, to see the annual exhibition of the Salon in the Palais d’Industrie in Paris. Nick meets an old friend, Gabriel Nash, a witty aesthete and novelist, strolling with Miriam and her mother, Mrs. Rooth. They all go to lunch with Peter, who has a job in Paris. And they talk about Julia, Peter’s rich sister, whom Nick is expected to marry.  Julia sends him a telegram saying the parliamentary seat is vacant in her county (or do I mean district?) and she wants Nick to be the candidate.  And thus their relationships are cemented.

Miriam and Mrs. Rooth are odd women out.  They are of a different, unidentifiable class, and no one can quite tell what country they’re from:  they’re international.  Lady Agnes is awfully worried that the Rooths and Gabriel Nash will be a bad influence on Nick (they are).  But this lunch boosts Miriam’s career.  Due to Peter’s kindness and contacts, Miriam meets a famous French actress who informally coaches her.  And he manages to bring out the likable side of stubborn, shy Miriam.  When he asks on a walk if she would mind stopping at a cafe, she laughs and tells an amusing story of their poverty, which gives us a sense of who she is.

“Objection? I’ve spent my life in cafés! They’re warm in winter and you get your lamplight for nothing,” she explained. “Mamma and I have sat in them for hours, many a time, with a consommation of three sous, to save fire and candles at home. We’ve lived in places we couldn’t sit in, if you want to know—where there was only really room if we were in bed. Mamma’s money’s sent out from England and sometimes it usedn’t to come. Once it didn’t come for months—for months and months. I don’t know how we lived. There wasn’t any to come; there wasn’t any to get home. That isn’t amusing when you’re away in a foreign town without any friends. Mamma used to borrow, but people wouldn’t always lend. You needn’t be afraid—she won’t borrow of you. We’re rather better now—something has been done in England; I don’t understand what. It’s only fivepence a year, but it has been settled; it comes regularly; it used to come only when we had written and begged and waited. But it made no difference—mamma was always up to her ears in books. They served her for food and drink. When she had nothing to eat she began a novel in ten volumes—the old-fashioned ones; they lasted longest. “

Most of the book is told from the third-person point of view of Nick or Peter.  Nick is elected to Parliament, but soon drops out to paint, at the urging of aesthete Gabriel Nash, and that destroys his relationship with Julia.  Peter falls in love with Miriam:  it’s inevitable.   Miriam becomes a huge success, is loud and self-centered, and sits for her portrait with Nick.  One keeps expecting a triangle, but that doesn’t develop–thank god!  If there is a heroine, I would pick Julia, the rich young woman who backs Nick in politics. Julia is bright and fascinating and clearly would have made a good politician if she weren’t a woman but is pushed offstage.  Usually James is better with women characters than men, but the women in The Tragic Muse seem undeveloped.

It does, oddly, ramble in parts, as if James couldn’t quite decide what he wanted to say and couldn’t bear to leave out any of his ideas about art.  But it is a character-driven novel–lots of fun to read.