It would be unfair, however, to suggest that the literature of Henry James can be finally summed up as a game. He is unquestionably a virtuoso: he uses his genius as an instrument upon which he loves to reveal his dexterity, even when he is shy of revealing his immortal soul. But he is not so inhuman in his art as some of his admirers have held him to be. Mr. Hueffer, I think, has described him as pitiless, and even cruel. But can one call Daisy Miller pitiless? Or What Maisie Knew? Certainly, those autobiographical volumes, A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother, which may be counted among the most wonderful of the author’s novels, are pervaded by exquisite affections which to a pitiless nature would have been impossible.
Henry James is even sufficiently human to take sides with his characters. He never does this to the point of lying about them. But he is in his own still way passionately on the side of the finer types. In The Turn of the Screw, which seems to me to be the greatest ghost-story in the English language, he has dramatized the duel between good and evil; and the effect of it, at the end of all its horrors, is that of a hymn in praise of courage. One feels—though a more perverse theory of the story has been put forward—that the governess, who fights against the evil in the big house, has the author also fighting as her ally and the children’s. Similarly, Maisie has a friend in the author.
He is never more human, perhaps, than when he is writing, not about human beings, but about books. It is not inconceivable that he will live as a critic long after he is forgotten as a novelist. No book of criticism to compare with his Notes on Novelists has been published in the present century. He brought his imagination to bear upon books as he brought his critical and analytical faculty to bear upon human beings. Here there was room for real heroes. He idolized his authors as he idolized none of his characters. There is something of moral passion in the reverence with which he writes of the labours of Flaubert and Balzac and Stevenson and even of Zola.
He lied none of them into perfection, it is true. He accepted, and even advertised their limitations. But in each of them he found an example of the hero as artist. His characterization of Flaubert as the “operative conscience or vicarious sacrifice” of a styleless literary age is the pure gold of criticism. “The piety most real to her,” Fleda says in The Spoils of Poynton, “was to be on one’s knees before one’s high standard.” Henry James himself had that kind of piety. Above all recent men of letters, he was on his knees to his high standard.