I love reading this novel and how Gabriel Nash challenges everyone he encounters, all those men and women who discount feelings and sensations and who take the world and life in other than purely aesthetic and artistically refined terms. So, rather than synopsizing the plot or making allusions to the many intricate relationships, for example, diplomat Peter Sherringham with Biddy Dormer or actress Miriam Rooth (many pages are dedicated to reflections on theater and the dramatic arts) or politician/painter Nick Dormer with his politically ambitious cousin, Julia Dallow, I will focus on the tensions established in the very first chapters between two contrary sets of values: on one side, adhering to the conventional and establishmentarian as represented by Lady Agnus and her friends and family, and on the other side, taking a stand for the beautiful and fine by developing aesthetic awareness and cultivated feelings as represented by Gabriel Nash. Meanwhile, Nicks mother, Lady Agnes, knows full well her son should be following in his dearly departed fathers footsteps, pursuing a political career and doing the sensible, honorable thing by marrying his beautiful, charming, rich cousin Julia. A couple of days later at a gathering arranged by Peter Sherringham, Nick introduces Gabriel Nash to his cousin, Julia Dallow. What I have noted regarding the tension between the above two sets of values is the tala of this Henry James novel, manifesting not only with Nick Dormer and his family but also in the story of Miriam Rooth and her rise to fame and fortune as an actress. Henry James had a keen and abiding interest in acting and the theater (at one point in his life he expended great energy attempting to become an Ibsen) and the dramatic arts take center stage (no pun intended) in this novel. Henry James also had an abiding interest in the visual arts and aesthetic theory, particularly the writing of John Ruskin and Walter Pater, and how aesthetic experience impacts character, so much so that, along with a number of his short stories, several of his novels feature men and women changed by aesthetic experience, for example, Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady and Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove. Certainly, in vintage Henry James style, a reader will be treated to the richness and complexity of intertwining relationships between characters, in this case Lady Agnus, sister Biddy, cousin Julia, Peter Sherringham, actress Miriam Rooth, Nick Dormer and his friend, but Gabriel Nash is the rare jewel, each and every one of his appearances in the novel displaying a different facet of the aesthetic experience and what it can mean as a possible life transformer.
James, however, observes his two artists--the actress Miriam Rooth and the painter Nick Dormer--from the outside, from a social distance. (Though James not afraid, here and there, to delve into some recondite questions of representation, Miriam's acting--her endless observation and modeling of the various people she meets, stories she hears--serving as an obvious surrogate for his own writing.) It's an interesting choice. There were sections which I was tempted to skim, especially the talky play-like confronations of Peter and Miriam, of Nick and Julia (James has a great ear for the confusion and awkwardness that attend the conversation of people who view the world differently...but confusion and awkwardness are not fun to read page upon page) and the stretches of thin, watery prose.
But it works as an extended observation of the attitudes and manners of the time.
From the title, one expects the young actress to be the leading character, but she is seen mainly from the perspective of her mentor/adorer, who thinks she has no true self - i.e., is always acting. (James gives her a role in the other plot as well, but it is not terribly convincing.) But her determination to ascend the artistic heights IS her main character trait, and she is refreshingly open and cheerful about it. While the conflict between her career and that of her mentor/suitor reaches a high emotional pitch toward the end of the book, he is too thin-blooded to be really tragic, and James keeps distracting us with the other main plot line. She and the actress are the two best characters in the novel, but they take a back seat to the three young men who are respectively indecisive, unbelievably lucky, and unpleasant. James's actress truly cares about the young man whose heart she breaks - their inability to marry is unfortunate, perhaps, but it is also predictable and does not rise to the level of tragedy.
The assistant says to the dentist "I had the weirdest dream last night, you quit your job to become a painter!" The dentist replies "Well, that wouldn't be a very smart financial move with my student loans." I couldn't tell them (that stuff in my mouth), hey, I once quit my career to become an artist. Instead, James dives into the psychological motivations of what makes an artist pursue his art, which is different than what a lot of people think, and I'm sure Henry based it quite a lot on his own career. The other main characters (and the novel is interesting in that there are three characters who could be termed "main") are his cousin Peter and his actress protege Miriam. Nick and Miriam are the heroes of the book because they end up doing what their art demands they do, while Peter stumbles in letting other considerations tame his desires (if he even knows them at times.) The "Tragic Muse" in the book is of course at one level Miriam in how she both inspires Nicks breakthrough painting and inspires Peter to launch her career. Henry James repressive life might be seen in terms of his personality, but it also might have been a strategic move to make room for his own Tragic Muse.
Art) is played out through the representation of two different (but linked) romantic relationships between rising artistic talents and people who are engaged in political or diplomatic work.
His method of writing from the point of view of a character within a tale allowed him to explore the phenomena of consciousness and perception, and his style in later works has been compared to impressionist painting.