Henry James is generally seen as an American novelist whose theme is innocent Americans confronting the formidable culture of Europe, sometimes to their advantage and sometimes not. James can, however, concentrate his attention on the European scene itself. This novel is an unusual study of British characters, although it commences in Paris. It does, however, return to themes that long interested James and has a particular piquancy in its concern with the theater, since James, at the time the novel was published, was making a concentrated attempt to become a successful playwright, an ambition that was to prove beyond him. James knew personally what it was like to fail in the theater, and more to the point of this novel, he knew what it felt like to want desperately to succeed in an art and to be forced to face the facts not only of success but also of failure.
One of the main ideas pursued in this novel is the need to persist as the first step in the artistic life. Both Miriam Rooth and Nicholas Dormer want to be artists, one on the stage, one as a painter. James is interested in that yearning that refuses to heed advice. Miriam seems to have no real talent when she first auditions for Peter Sherringham and the old French actor, but she refuses to give up and takes their seemingly cruel advice stoically, determined to work at her craft despite the lack of encouragement. Nick is, in some ways, even more courageous. Miriam has little to lose; Nick gives up...
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