24 September 2014

Henry James - two difficult novels

On a recent break I decided to set myself the task of reading one of Henry James longest novels - The Tragic Muse - and one of his most obscure - The Sacred Fount. The first I had once read almost fifty years ago whilst on holiday in Ireland, but could remember nothing about it. The second I had been saving for years like some dark-flavoured liqueur reserved for a special occasion. Both proved difficult - but for quite different reasons.

The Tragic Muse is James exploring his love affair with the theatre and what it means to be an artist by profession. Miriam Rooth is an ambitious actress who claws her way to success by hard work and a belief in her own possibilities. She is counterpoised by Nick Dormer, a successful member of Parliament, who gives up his glittering career to become a painter. The problem with the novel is that it's quite long at nearly 200,000 words.

The Sacred Fount is much shorter - but difficult because it's not quite clear what's going on in the story. The narrator is a guest at a Downton Abbey-like country mansion weekend party. He realises that some of his fellow guests are engaged in undercover sexual liaisons, and he sets out to discover who is involved. But he will only use methods of psychological interpretation. The results are equally baffling for him and the reader in this 'detective story without a crime - and without a detective'.

Full tutorial notes and study guides here:

The Tragic Muse

The Sacred Fount