Study Guide

The Tragic Muse

by Henry James

The Tragic Muse Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Nicholas Dormer, a handsome young bachelor politician and amateur portrait painter, is vacationing in Paris with his formidable mother, Lady Agnes, the impoverished widow of a Liberal politician, and his two younger sisters, “spinsterish” Grace and lively, lovable Biddy. At an art exhibition, Nick meets an old Oxford friend, Gabriel Nash, an aesthete and dilettante but sufficiently a gentleman to be introduced to the ladies. Another visitor in Paris is the Dormers’ cousin, Julia Dallow, a rich and politically minded young widow, whose brother, Peter Sherringham, is at the British Embassy there. Nick’s fondness for Julia, her devotion to his political career, Biddy’s friendship with Julia and unrequited affection for Peter, and Peter and Nick’s congeniality unite the family group with particularly close ties. While they are together in Paris, they hear that the member of Parliament for the constituency where Julia’s estate and influence lies died suddenly. Guaranteeing her financial as well as political support, Julia wants Nick to stand for election.

This moment of great promise and family solidarity is threatened unobtrusively by Nash’s introduction of Mrs. Rooth and Miriam. They are, respectively, a widow of limited means and vague claims to aristocratic connections in England, and her beautiful daughter, who was brought up in a succession of continental pensions where living is cheap, superficially cultivated, and multilingual. To promote Miriam’s aspirations toward the stage, Nash arranges an audition with a notable retired French actor whom Peter knows through his passionate interest in the theater. Peter, also invited to the audition, persuades Nick to join him and suggests that Nick should paint Miriam as the Tragic Muse. Although the audition is a fiasco, Peter is sufficiently intrigued to invite the Rooths to a party at his house. There Miriam recites again, meets the ladies of the family, and makes a bad impression on all but Biddy. Julia, disgusted both with Miriam and with what she considers the frivolousness of Nash, returns to England to organize the election campaign, and the Dormers follow soon after. Peter finds himself increasingly involved with Miriam, to the extent of offering to pay for private lessons with the old French actor. At first, he assumes that his interest is in Miriam’s potential as an actor, but he eventually realizes that he was in love with her all along.

At Harsh, Julia’s principal estate, where Nick wins the election, he proposes to Julia and is accepted. To their mutual happiness there is added an undercurrent of brewing trouble in his assurance that he will give up his painting, her incomprehension of what this will mean to him, and her refusal to set their wedding date. When Nick next goes to see his father’s old friend and political ally, Mr. Carteret, he learns that his prospects of being the rich old bachelor’s heir depends on his marriage to Julia.

Peter, meanwhile, returning to Paris after leaving London, finds that Miriam has acquired another patron, an English actor named Basil Dashwood. Peter urges her to give up her theatrical ambition for a greater role as wife of a rising diplomat, but she says that she will accept him only as the husband of an actor. In London, Nick and Julia face similar difficulties as Julia plans to spend the Parliamentary recess on a round of strategic country-house visits, while Nick prefers to use his leisure time painting in his studio. With the wedding date set at last, they separate and Nick retires to his studio, where his first visitor is Nash, whom Nick has not seen since their meeting in Paris. Nash tells Nick that Miriam arrived in...

(The entire section is 1502 words.)