• Cultivating Solitude,
    The Henry James’ Way

    On “the lonely celibate who has to boil his own pot.”

    Many of us lack the patience or inclination for hours and days and years of what Henry James called “mere twaddle of graciousness,” and in any case a writer is called to design and cultivate a labyrinth of solitude, with the greatest writers’ gardens featuring the most elaborated paths and beds.

    Recalling his urban childhood in his memoir A Small Boy and Others, James writes:

    I see myself moreover as somehow always alone in these and like New York flâneries and contemplations, and feel how the sense of my being so—being at any rate master of my short steps . . . I watch the small boy dawdle and gape again, I smell the cold dusty paint and iron as the rails of the Eighteenth Street corner rub his contemplative nose, and, feeling him foredoomed, withhold from him no grain of my sympathy.  He is a convenient little image or warning of all that was to be for him, and he might well have been happier than he was.  For there was the very pattern and measure of all he was to demand:  just to be somewhere—almost anywhere would do—and somehow receive an impression or a vibration. He was to go without many things, ever so many—as all persons do in whom contemplation takes so much the place of action; but everywhere, in the years that came soon after, and in fact continued long, in the streets of great towns . . . wherever it might be, he was to enjoy more than anything the so far from showy practice of wondering and dawdling and gaping: he was really, I think, much to profit by it.

    James is describing the life and spirit of the solitary contemplative—the person so sensitive to the world, so amazed by its spectacle, that she or he prefers sitting, watching, listening, and strolling over action.  Of all creatures (think of a cat), possibly only humans would have it otherwise, so preoccupied are we with a vanished past or an illusory future.

    In his sixties, James lived alone in Lamb House by the sea in Rye, England.  Decades of writing made holding a pen an arthritic agony; his eyesight was failing. He hired a series of secretaries and dictated his last three novels. Though at first hostile to the noise of the typewriter, James soon came to depend on its clack and clatter as background noise to inspire his still fertile imagination.

    This aged solitary summoned the strength to dictate three long novels, at least one of which—The Golden Bowl—scholars count among the great creative achievements of English literature. I am daunted at the thought of the single-pointed focus—the concentration—the presence to the here and now of the labor at hand required to create, sustain, speak, and weave these threads into word tapestries as complex and evocative as the images created in cloth by the weavers of the Middle Ages.

    “The lonely celibate,” he called himself in one letter, “who has to boil his own pot,” and in a letter to his brother William, “your hopelessly celibate even though sexagenarian brother.”

    James may not have had much or any sex, and he never married, but he understood sex and marriage better than most of those who engage in both. Any of his later novels proves the point, but I offer as the smartest, most perceptive, most painful marriage proposal in English literature the encounter between the billionaire Adam Verver and the impoverished, charming, beautiful solitary Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl, James’s last published (in 1904) and finest novel.  If more people read The Golden Bowl, fewer marriages would fail—if only because fewer people would marry.

    As a capitalist version of trial-by-ordeal, Verver, the widowed father of Charlotte’s best friend Maggie, has Charlotte accompany him on a weekend jaunt as he bargains for ancient tiles from Damascus—“priceless” tiles, but a price will be named and paid.  Along with the tiles, he exposes Charlotte “to the north light, the quite properly hard business-light, of the room in which they had been alone with the treasure and its master. She had listened to the name of the sum he was capable of looking in the face.”

    By inviting Charlotte to observe his pricing the priceless, Verver undertakes an intimacy more risky than dropping his drawers: he has opened his checkbook. He has shown her a template for her future. She need only replace the priceless tiles with herself. So exposed is Verver now that the scene can lead to only one conclusion: “A man of decent feeling didn’t thrust his money, a huge lump of it, in such a way, under a poor girl’s nose . . . without seeing, logically, a responsibility attached.”

    Charlotte is torn between power and passion—between money and sex.

    Verver had broached the subject of that responsibility the evening before, as he and Charlotte sat by the sea. Charlotte offers as ambiguous a response to his marriage proposal as ever spoken — “I won’t pretend I don’t think it would be good for me to marry.” She is acutely aware that marriage will establish her in the awkward position of being her friend Maggie’s mother-in-law as well as ending, or at least restricting, her ongoing, secret love affair with Maggie’s hot Italian husband. But she is equally aware of the implications of her fast-fading beauty and of Verver’s proposal.

    “In fact, you know, I want to be married,” she says. “It’s—well, it’s the condition,” and such are the ways of the world that James has no need to spell out what it’s the condition for. Not great love, surely, and not great sex—Charlotte already has those—but for access to power, entrance to the club, financial security. Then as now, a man who possessed sufficient wealth could lead a life indifferent to conventional morality. But for women, as Charlotte well knows, marriage is “the condition.”

    Charlotte is torn between power and passion—between money and sex—between her desire to be rich and pampered and her secret, red-hot lovemaking with her best friend’s husband—Verver’s son-in-law.  (Oh, Mr. James, you are so wicked!)  Over evening tea, Charlotte—not at all our stereotype of a prim Victorian spinster—tries to broker a deal in which Verver, ignorant of her illicit affair, would support her not as his wife but as his kept mistress; in which, in fact, she obtains the best of both worlds while remaining a solitary.

    “Oh, you want to be taken care of. Very well then, I’ll do it.

    “I dare say it’s very much that. Only I don’t see why, for what I speak of,” Charlotte smiled—“for a mere escape from my state—I need do quite so much.”

    “So much as marry me?”

    Her smile was as for true directness. “I might get what I want for less.”

    “You think it’s so much for you to do?”

    “Yes,” she presently said, “I think it’s a great deal.”

    Alas for love, Maggie comes to suspect the worm in the rose—she deciphers what’s going on between Charlotte and her husband.  For the first time, when her husband holds out the bait of his “infinite pressure”—sex—Maggie turns him down. In a turning point in their marriage, she decides to “keep her head,” “achiev[ing] the feat of not losing sight of what she wanted,” which is to separate Charlotte from her husband for good.  Maggie asserts the power of money,her money, over her and her father’s most priceless acquisitions—her spouse and her father’s fiancé; she becomes, in fact, a businesswoman in the mold of her father.

    And in obedience to the awful, merciless, inexorable law of desire, once she stands up to her husband—once she says no to his  “unfailing magic”—he feels for the first time a “hard yearning” for his wife. Between them, Verver and Maggie, father and daughter divide the spoils and the Western world:  The billionaire father marries Charlotte and removes her to Chicago; his wealthy daughter retains her husband in Europe.

    James’s magisterial biographer (five volumes) Leon Edel characterizes the conclusion of The Golden Bowl as “the only one [of James’s novels] in which things come out right for the characters” because their marriages are preserved rather than destroyed.  This is surely one of the greater miscues in American literary criticism, but Edel evidently believes that marriage is life’s only satisfactory ending, even if it makes a commodity of beauty and entails the sacrifice of love on an altar of gold.


    A decade earlier James offered the scenario for his play Guy Domville to the managers of an English provincial repertory theater. In Domville James proposes a drama of a young man destined for a religious life who has to abandon his calling because he is the last of his line and thus under pressure to marry and produce a male heir.

    Domville (Dom + ville, i.e., “City of God,” the title, as James well knew, of St. Augustine’s fourth century treatise that established the foundations of the Christian church) has his choice of a young, beautiful, wealthy woman or a similarly endowed widow, even as in his heart he believes that to marry would be in service to worldly selfishness—to bind himself to a life of material ease and endless afternoon cricket and teas.

    Domville quietly arranges for each woman to marry the man she really loves, sacrificing the worldly comforts of marriage for the more austere and demanding vocation to the common good embodied in solitude and celibacy. Like James, he chooses the priesthood, though James sacrificed himself on the altar, not of the church but of art.

    James fought hard to find a producer for the play. The first whom he approached asked him to devise a happy ending—one in which Domville marries. James larded his response with acid italics: “To make a Catholic priest, or a youth who is next door to me, marry, really, when it comes to the point, at all, is to do the spectators a disagreeable and uncomfortable thing.”

    How could they accept that solitude, not marriage, is the more selfless choice?

    James finally located a producer willing to take on the project, though only after cuts that in James’s view “abbreviated and simplified [the play] out of all close resemblance to my intention.”  Much of literary London attended opening night—George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells were on hand to write reviews. When at the end of the play the manager brought James to the stage for a bow, the balcony erupted in jeers and catcalls. Edel reports evidence that these critics were planted by James’s literary enemies, but having read the script, I can report that, at least as published, it is—well, not very good.  It’s a play written by a novelist, not a playwright.

    Domville closed after its contracted 30-day run. The gods never missing a chance to mock mortals, it was followed in the same theater by Oscar Wilde’s sparkling, wildly successful The Importance of Being Earnest, a tale of the conniving, manipulation, and selfishness required to arrange and sustain a marriage.

    Four months after its opening, Wilde was arrested, tried, and convicted for two years at hard labor for “crimes of gross indecency.”  The police immediately closed the play.  Constance, his long-suffering wife, resumed her maiden name and removed herself and their children to Switzerland.  Wilde never saw them again, and one of the most painful passages of De Profundis, his letter from prison, comes when he laments their loss.

    But I am concerned here not with the fate of Guy Domville but with its message. In his letters James makes clear that the play’s subject is “magnanimity” (for which term one can seamlessly substitute “altruism”) and that Domville’s decision illustrates his rejection of worldly selfishness, as epitomized in marriage, in favor of “his old ideal”—he “renounces his personal worldly chance, sacrifices himself and makes the others happy.”

    This understanding of a happy ending founded on a solitary sacrifice—the Christian message summarized in a phrase—was too complex for the English theatrical audience, or maybe any theatrical audience. How could an audience embrace the choice of altruism over selfishness? How could they accept that a life of celibacy and solitude was morally equivalent, perhaps superior, to the security, comfort, and companionship of fortress marriage? How could they accept that solitude, not marriage, is the more selfless choice?

    What James’s 19th-century audience wanted—what 21st-century audiences want—is validation, not complication of our life decisions. Without the avalanche of messages telling us that marriage is our most noble means of self-sacrifice, we might choose to sacrifice ourselves in other ways—we might sacrifice ourselves not for our individual wealth but for the common wealth. James was dramatizing a radical gloss on our definitions of generosity and self-sacrifice. For James, though solitude and celibacy were trials, they were also the most generous paths—and as such, in their ways, the most magnanimous, if not the most conventional, of endings.


    In a letter congratulating his brother William on his marriage, James wrote, “I believe almost as much in matrimony for other people as I believe in it little for myself.”  In another letter he wrote, “I am too good a bachelor to spoil. That sounds conceited—but one may be conceited in self-defense.” The verb that strikes me in that sentence is “spoil.”  Taken into consideration along with “almost” (“I believe almost as much in matrimony for other people”) as well as “self-defense,” and I find in the famously reticent James a clue to his opinion of the institution of which he is one of our most astute observers.

    “I shall never marry,” he wrote to his longtime friend and correspondent Grace Norton. “I regard that now as an established fact. Singleness consorts much better with my whole view of existence (of my own and that of the human race—italics mine), my habits, my occupations, prospects, tastes, means, and situation ‘in Europe,’ and absence of a desire to have children, fond as I am of the infant race.”

    This is not to characterize his solitude as a matter of pleasant days spent in blissful contemplation. As he aged he became fearfully lonely. Shortly after the Wilde trial and conviction he decamped from his beloved London for rural Rye, a relocation suggesting that, after Wilde’s trial, he may have had encounters of his own that would justify fleeing the dramatically altered social environment of London, where now the testimony of housekeepers and rent boys could send a man from the upper classes to prison.

    In his sixties James became infatuated with two young men, each of whom returned his affection but neither of whom were likely to have been lovers. Both left him to continue their lives elsewhere.  For “the lonely celibate” to encounter such departures late in life must have been heartbreaking indeed; the heart, like the rest of the body, grows more fragile with age.

    Though at Rye James entertained leading literary lights of the day—Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Edith Wharton—he writes, “The days depart and pass laden somehow like professional camels—across the desert of one’s solitude.” He counsels an aspiring correspondent, “[Writing] is solitude. If it runs after you and catches you, well and good. But for heaven’s sake don’t run after it. It is absolute solitude.”

    In the end technology offered James some consolation: the sound of the typewriter—his particular typewriter—without which later in his life he could not work; and, while his strength endured, his bicycle—providing both the head-clearing relief of exercise and the comforting spectacle of the world moving past slow enough to observe but fast enough to leave interior demons in the dust, at least for the duration of the ride.


    I asked a literate friend and fan of James whether, given that late in life Henry James falls in love with a sculptor, employs a bachelor typist, and hires a boy as gardener who later becomes his valet, it is possible to imagine that he was having sex. “No,” my friend answered firmly. “I agree,” I said, “but what leads us to say this with such confidence?” My friend thought for a moment. “Because of the arabesques and convolutions of his mind as revealed through his writing.”

    Somewhere around 1900, for the first time, so far as I am able to determine, since his youth, James shaved his beard. He looks younger without it, but I see him as revealing himself, late in life, to the world. Heavy beards are masks, concealing their wearers’ involuntary, revelatory twitches and grimaces, and no one was more adept at or interested in concealment than James. Removed from London to the simple life of the countryside, allowing himself to perceive, perhaps for the first time, the implications of his attraction for men, James makes a small and belated gesture of lowering his guard, removing his mask.

    James turned down a marriage proposal from a wealthy suitor who asked only the pleasure of his company in exchange for her financial support.

    Not that he jumps into bed or makes a move to requite those passions, but the late novels are driven by longing, and while this has been a lifelong subject for James, in no place is the energy more concentrated.  Concentrated? one might object, in speaking of those monumentally diffuse novels, but I hold my ground: They are convoluted and they are certainly long but their very length demands an intensity of focus almost impossible for ordinary mortals to conceive—and this from a man in his sixties.

    Ostensibly James took to dictating his novels because of arthritis, but I can testify that living alone, one perfects the art of talking aloud to oneself. Dictating his work brought James the company, not of a single speaking voice, but of the many speaking voices that populated his fictional world. I have a vision of James dictating to his typists—the “silent Scot” William MacAlpine, and more notably Mary Weld, MacAlpine’s crocheting successor—with James making love with and to each of those long sentences. For as all lovers worth the effort and all vocalists know, the mouth and the tongue are the most erotic human instruments.


    A certain kind of wisdom is given only to the outsider, the court jester who looks on as others go about their business. Edel understands that early in his life James, his subject, “substituted close observation of life for active participation.” But Edel’s use of “substitute” presumes an either/or choice between observing life and living it, when all my solitary writers and artists and composers demonstrate the opposite, i.e., that honing the powers of observation enriches the whole of one’s life; that an equally rich life is to be found in contemplation as in action.

    How many of those Edel would call “active participants” in life have led lives as rich and varied as that of Henry James or Eudora Welty?  Edel seems incapable of conceiving that a rich emotional life might happen outside the norms of marriage, children, cats in the yard, dog in the manger. And yet all my solitaries (Whitman, Thoreau, Dickinson, James, Moore, Welty, Hurston . . .) suggest that as full or fuller a life arises in and from a disciplined solitude. James, who panned Whitman in an early review, gave the last years of his life to emulating him, nursing soldiers from the battlefields of World War I as Whitman had nursed soldiers of the Civil War.

    Like Whitman and Dickinson, James turned down a marriage proposal from a wealthy suitor who asked only the pleasure of his company in exchange for her financial support. Each writer preferred solitude to companionship under the yoke of society. “Things for Henry James glow, flush, glimmer, vibrate, shine, hum, bristle, reverberate,” wrote poet and fellow solitary Marianne Moore.

    “Joy, bliss, ecstasies, intoxication, and a sense of trembling in every limb . . . Idealism . . . willing to make sacrifices for its self-preservation was always an element in [his] conjuring wand.” Note Moore’s invocation of “sacrifice,” which Thomas Merton named as the most essential quality of true love.

    Idealism willing to make sacrifices for its self-preservation. So this is the heart’s yin / yang, strophe / antistrophe, matter / energy, to be counted among the great inextricably intertwined opposites:  greater suffering born of openness and sensitivity; greater wisdom born of openness and sensitivity.


    From At the Center of All Beauty. Used with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2020 by Fenton Johnson.

    Fenton Johnson
    Fenton Johnson
    Fenton Johnson lives in San Francisco and Tucson but is often found hiking his native Kentucky. An award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction, he teaches at the University of Arizona and Spalding University, contributes to Harper’s Magazine, and has been featured on Fresh Air.

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