No upstate New York belles with fresh cheeks and fresher manners! No self-made Ohio bachelors in Europe questing for culture and perhaps an ornamental spouse! All of the major characters are English, though we first meet them in Paris. That's a welcome departure from Henry James's favorite theme of cultural bewilderment between Americans and Europeans. And it's virtually all I knew about "The Tragic Muse" before I read it. It isn't one of the novel normally assigned in college lit classes, and it happened to be the only full-length James novel I'd never read. Imagine my surprise! It's surely one of the best! One of the wittiest, stocked with the most convincing characters, about whose travails the reader might genuinely care! And yet the critics pay it scant attention! Well, so much for critics then!
I was lucky in my choice of editions, I'm happy to mention. The Tragic Muse was first published in 1890, four years after The Bostonians and just at the onset of James's futile attempt to prove himself as a playwright. Eighteen years later, James the Master -- sometimes referred to as "James the Old Pretender" -- revised the novel drastically, changing phrases in nearly every paragraph, assiduously qualifying and obfuscating its forthright vigor. Unfortunately, the 1908 revision has been included in the so-called "Definitive Edition", a decision that may account for the relative unpopularity of this very fine novel. Be sure you read the the original edition of 1890!
For one thing, the descriptive passages of The Tragic Muse -- the prose, you might say, that frames the dramatic dialogue -- are among the most vivid and pictorial to be found in James's writings. Appropriately so, since the novel begins with a scene in a gallery of the Paris Salon, and since one of the seven principal characters is a young Briton of the "political" class who yearns to devote himself to Art. But this is a novel dominated by dialogue, and the dialogue is so finely written that one has to wonder why James had so little luck with the stage. Each palaverer in the sometimes quite extended conversations has his/her own authentic speaking voice, even including the minor figures. Of course the dialogues are wittier and more lucid than real-time conversations could ever be, but they're therefore both more entertaining and more revelatory of the personalities of the speakers than any stammering verisimilitude could make them.
The dramatis personae:
*Lady Agnes Dormer, the widow of a revered Parliamentary lion
*Her daughter Grace, hopelessly plain and literal, making her name painfully ironic
*Her younger daughter Biddy, charming and impressionable
*Her son Nick, upon whom the family's aspirations for sustaining Public Greatness rest uncomfortably, whose uncertainty about his future as a politician or as an artist is the core of the novel
*Peter Sherringham, a cousin of the Dormers, an ambitious young diplomat, whom Biddy adores
*Julia Dallow, the beautiful widowed sister of Peter and thus also a cousin, who has inherited significant wealth from her dead husband, whose ambition to play a large role in society as a statesman's wife is one of the driving forces of the narrative
*Gabriel Nash, not a cousin, a college friend of Nick's, a dilettante of enigmatic habits, an 'influence' on Nick for good or ill, depending on one's expectations of propriety
*Miriam Rooth, definitely not a cousin, not even certainly of the respectable class, the daughter of a Jewish merchant and a fabulating mother who has raised her erratically all around the Continent, who aspires to be a great actress at any cost
Every one of these characters is memorable and utterly plausible. Henry James never exceeded the psychological insight of his portrayals of these very distinct 'antagonists' in the acts of Will that determine a Life; it's the agony of incompatible Wills that give this novel its passion. Encapsulated in the drama, however, there are also some profound reflections on the value of art and the merit of the artistic life, measured against the more pragmatic values of public service and production of Wealth. I wonder how pointedly Henry James addressed this novel to his pragmatic brother, the psychologist William.
Miriam Rooth is surely the most triumphant portrayal of a spirited woman in any of James's novels, a character I'm sure women readers of today will accept more happily than the heroines of The Bostonians or The Portrait of a Lady. Gabriel Nash is the prototype of everyone's least reputable college friend, half Jiminy Cricket and half Mephistopheles, the guy whose escapades make the best wry anecdotes. Peter and Nick, cousins, lifetime friends, implicitly rivals... in the end it seems to me that this novel is above all about their relationship, about the possibility of empathy and sustained regard between two men of such divergent temperaments. Two brothers, shall we suppose ...