Wells in Boon had fun but lost a friend. Henry James was not amused. The chapter in which he ‘slags’ him has the Mallockian conceit of a number of literary gents foregathering in a country house for a state of literature congress. They do so under their own names. Orage of the New Age arrives too late and is locked out:
Mr. Orage, the gifted editor of the New Age, arriving last, is refused admission. The sounds of the conflict at the gates do but faintly perturb the conference within, which is now really getting to business, but afterwards Mr. Orage, slightly wounded in the face by a dexterously plied rake and incurably embittered, makes his existence felt by a number of unpleasant missiles discharged from over the wall in the direction of any audible voices. Ultimately Mr. Orage gets into a point of vantage in a small pine-tree overlooking the seaward corner of the premises, and from this he contributes a number of comments that are rarely helpful, always unamiable, and frequently in the worst possible taste.
Boon (the purported author of the Boon papers) has George Moore and Henry James go for a walk. Can you identify the butt of this pastiche?
“Owing it as we do,” he said, “very, very largely to our friend Gosse, to that peculiar, that honest but restless and, as it were, at times almost malignantly ambitious organizing energy of our friend, I cannot altogether—altogether, even if in any case I should have taken so extreme, so devastatingly isolating a step as, to put it violently, stand out; yet I must confess to a considerable anxiety, a kind of distress, an apprehension, the terror, so to speak, of the kerbstone, at all this stream of intellectual trafficking, of going to and fro, in a superb and towering manner enough no doubt, but still essentially going to and fro rather than in any of the completed senses of the word getting there, that does so largely constitute the aggregations and activities we are invited to traverse. My poor head, such as it is and as much as it can and upon such legs—save the mark!—as it can claim, must, I suppose, play its inconsiderable part among the wheels and the rearings and the toots and the whistles and all this uproar, this—Mm, Mm!—let us say, this infernal uproar, of the occasion; and if at times one has one’s doubts before plunging in, whether after all, after the plunging and the dodging and the close shaves and narrow squeaks, one does begin to feel that one is getting through, whether after all one will get through, and whether indeed there is any getting through, whether, to deepen and enlarge and display one’s doubt quite openly, there is in truth any sort of ostensible and recognizable other side attainable and definable at all, whether to put this thing with a lucidity that verges on the brutal, whether our amiable and in most respects our adorable Gosse isn’t indeed preparing here and now, not the gathering together of a conference but the assembling, the meet, so to speak, of a wild-goose chase of an entirely desperate and hopeless description.”
If that wasn’t enough to put a dent in his dickey, Boon in his own voice, and here he has the hearty support of many readers, declares:
“But James begins by taking it for granted that a novel is a work of art that must be judged by its oneness. Judged first by its oneness. Some one gave him that idea in the beginning of things and he has never found it out. He doesn’t find things out. He doesn’t even seem to want to find things out. You can see that in him; he is eager to accept things—elaborately. You can see from his books that he accepts etiquettes, precedences, associations, claims. That is his peculiarity. He accepts very readily and then—elaborates. He has, I am convinced, one of the strongest, most abundant minds alive in the whole world, and he has the smallest penetration. Indeed, he has no penetration. He is the culmination of the Superficial type. Or else he would have gone into philosophy and been greater even than his wonderful brother…. But here he is, spinning about, like the most tremendous of water-boatmen—you know those insects?—kept up by surface tension. As if, when once he pierced the surface, he would drown. It’s incredible. A water-boatman as big as an elephant. I was reading him only yesterday ‘The Golden Bowl’; it’s dazzling how never for a moment does he go through.”
The bridge being blown and their being no hope of a cockleshell pontoon, Wells/Boon finishes:
“The only living human motives left in the novels of Henry James are a certain avidity, and an entirely superficial curiosity. Even when relations are irregular or when sins are hinted at, you feel that these are merely attitudes taken up, gambits before the game of attainment and over-perception begins…. His people nose out suspicions, hint by hint, link by link. Have you ever known living human beings do that? The thing his novel is aboutis always there. It is like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string…. Like his ‘Altar of the Dead,’ with nothing to the dead at all…. For if there was they couldn’t all be candles and the effect would vanish…. And the elaborate, copious emptiness of the whole Henry James exploit is only redeemed and made endurable by the elaborate, copious wit. Upon the desert his selection has made Henry James erects palatial metaphors…. The chief fun, the only exercise, in reading Henry James is this clambering over vast metaphors….
One feels, how shall I put it a certain satisfaction that, what was probably James’s assessment of Wells as a common little man and a vulgar futurist, a rotter really, was borne out. Great fun, but.