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 his promising political career, the woman he loves, and the chance at a considerable fortune promised to him by Mr. Carteret if he shows himself a worthy political commodity. James is interested not only in the artistic drive that overrides all opposition but also in what happens to the aspirant who succeeds, as Miriam does, and the person who discovers that the sacrifice is in vain. The music of success is one thing; to face the music of failure is another, and that is Nick’s lot.
There is much talk in the novel about the value of art and of trying to be an artist. When one succeeds, as Miriam does, a further question arises in the form of how one maintains the discipline that will allow the artist to be more than a momentary phenomenon. Some of James’s ideas may seem to be out of date, but the question of how one makes the best of oneself, and how to continue at a high level of endeavor, leads to what may seem a surprisingly modern confrontation. When Peter, for all his supposed enthusiasm for the arts, suggests that...
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