Frank McLynn

Worth Investigation

Travelling in Italy with Henry James


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Edith Wharton tells a story about Henry James, who once managed to get lost on the Kings Road, Chelsea. In desperation he accosted a local and proceeded to treat him to the usual orotundity and prolixity of the Jamesian period, replete with many an ‘in short’ – the inevitable prelude with James to a fresh series of circumlocutions and periphrases. Having eventually fathomed that James was enquiring where the Kings Road was, the local pulled him up short with a curt: ‘Ye’re in it.’

With this sort of track record, James was clearly no pathfinding Stanley or ground-breaking Younghusband. Yet when he could rely on others to see to the details of his travel arrangements, he was an enthusiastic rover of the art trails of Europe. Fred Kaplan, who is beginning to establish himself as the present-day Leon Edel when it comes to Jamesian studies, has edited a useful compilation of the Master’s compendious writings on Italy. He divides the work into sections: Rome, Florence, Venice, other Italian cities, and impressions of countries on the way to Italy. He begins each section with the letters James wrote from that locality and ends with the relevant essays. On the whole Kaplan has done a thorough and scrupulous job, though it must be stressed that this is not a complete collection of the James writings on Italy. One of his letters, which has always amused me as being so utterly at odds with the usual image of James as consumed with fastidious snobbery, expresses his dislike of Naples: ‘I conceived at Naples a tenfold deeper loathing than ever of the hideous heritage of the past – and felt for a moment as if I should like to devote my life to laying rail-roads and erecting blocks of stores on the most classic and romantic sites. The age has a long row to hoe.’ This, from the twenty-six-year-old James to his brother William, does not appear in this collection, and it set me wondering what else the editor has excised.

James first visited Italy in 1869, when Rome was still a papal state, and he was still revisiting the country forty years later. He found Italy feminine, luxuriant and sensual, and an effective antidote to puritanical Boston. The snags he discovered seem to be hardy perennials: Italy was too beautiful and sensuous for a writer to do good work in (for this cold and dank London was preferred); and everywhere he went was infested with tourists, so that he was obliged to visit ancient sites at odd hours like 1 pm, when the Cook’s parties had retired for lunch. The one advantage he and the other Victorians enjoyed was that the pound and the dollar went about ten times further in Italy a hundred years ago than they do today.

Philip Guedalla famously remarked that James’s literary output followed a simple dynastic arrangement: James the First, James the Second and James the Old Pretender. Consequently, some of the travel pieces in this book are written in the accessible style of The Bostonians while others appear in the impenetrable prose thickets of The Golden Bowl. The older James got, the less useful his travel impressions were as a guide to Italy and the more so as clues to his own psyche. This proposition, verifiable from this collection, is reinforced by a look at the fiction. The real landscape of Italy is present in Roderick Hudson (1875), but by the time of The Wings of the Dove (1902), the traveller’s Italy has been spirited away into the ether of the peculiar late Jamesian symbolism.

To an extent this reflects James’s growing feeling that the rate of change in late nineteenth-century Italy would convert the distinctive features of Rome, Venice and Florence into a bland twentieth-century Anywheresville. Certainly the jaded comments on Rome from the Edwardian period (James visited the Eternal City on six separate occasions) contrast strikingly with the visceral enthusiasm of his first experience in 1869, as related to his brother William:

‘At last, for the first time – I live! It beats everything: it leaves the Rome of your fancy – your education – nowhere. It makes Venice, Florence – Oxford – London – seem like little cities of pasteboard. I went reeling and moaning through the streets in a fever of enjoyment. In the course of four or five hours I traversed almost the whole of Rome and got a glimpse of everything.’

Although James lacks the wit of Mark Twain – who observed of Venice that it was a paradise for cripples because one could not walk anywhere but had to go by gondola, and said of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence that it was superfluous, since one could wade across the picayune Arno – he is a better observer of the physical than his reputation might seem to suggest. He pinned down the twisting, anfractuous nature of Genoa very well: ‘Genoa is the crookedest and most incoherent of cities, tossed about on the sides and crests of a dozen hills.’ And he can sometimes find effective answers to the iconoclasts. Pisa was described by Sir Richard Burton, who could barely write a sentence of English without introducing a word from a foreign language, as ‘vituperio delle genti, in point of laxativeness and deadly weariness.’ But James found it had charm of a high order and declared that the drowsy air of which Burton complained had a calming and sedative quality: ‘Pisa may be a dull place to live in, but it’s an ideal place to wait for death.’ He also remarked of Milan, which he found prosaic and winterish, that it seemed to be on the wrong side of the Alps, though he went on to cap the observation with a typically Jamesian gnomic utterance: ‘Milan speaks to us of a burden of felt life of which Turin is innocent.’

The one consistent literary fault in James’s writing on Italy, understandable given his prolific output, is a tendency to reach for the same or similar phrases, especially when in a disdainful mood. He loathed Switzerland and took a perverse pleasure in seeing it overrun by tourists. The whole country seemed to him a gigantic theme park, where the lakes and mountains had been set up artificially by innkeepers to boost the tourist trade, and in Lucerne hotels you half expected to see the great nearby peaks of Pilatus and Rigi itemised on your bill. ‘If Switzerland … is so furiously a showplace, Lucerne is certainly one of the biggest booths at the fair.’ It is disconcerting, then, to find this comment on St Mark’s in Venice: ‘If Venice, as I say, has become a great bazaar, this exquisite edifice is now the biggest booth.’

For those who like an immediacy of response, of perception in the here and now, James is not the guide to Italy to whom one should turn. But he is invaluable at ‘layering’ the experience of Italy so that we perceive the imperial past of ancient Rome, the medieval splendours of Florence, the sinister eighteenth-century spy capital of Europe that was Venice, and so on. There is also a literary pleasure to be got from the ‘mediate’ impressions James distils from his reading of Middlemarch, Little Dorrit and Browning’s The Ring and the Book. Browning is a particular influence and if Ruskin is James’s guiding spirit in Venice, in Florence, Browning is the lodestar. James’s art criticism is competent though pedestrian, but it is interesting that in Florence he came round to the work of Fra Filippo Lippi and Andrea del Sarto, both subjects of outstanding Browning poetic monologues. James’s travel writing on Italy does not reach the heights of, for example, Lawrence’s Etruscan Places, but it has its own charms and is well worth investigating.

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