From The Record, October 27, 2017
I have to qualify at the outset. The Sacred Fount by Henry James (1843 – 1916) is a good read—“good” as in the following: “It’ll take a good two hours for your root canal!” or “It’ll take a good six months to recover from your surgery!” Not to put too fine a point on it, The Sacred Fount is a “good” and daunting read.
Henry James was the brother of philosopher-psychologist William James, and, although born in America, ultimately adopted England as home. He is famous for his more or less repressed homosexuality, his preoccupation with class differences in his works, and at times hugely convoluted syntax. He was a prolific reader and writer, producing novellas, plays, and a series of ground-breaking novels at the start of the twentieth century, the latter leading him to be considered by many one of the best novelists in English. He was also an insightful literary critic.
A friend put me on to The Sacred Fount, knowing my penchant for out-of-the-ordinary reads. This work did not disappoint in that regard.
At the start we enter the consciousness of the main character as he waits at a London train station to be transported to a country estate, Newmarch, for a weekend-long party. We recognize him at once as an obsessive, analytic type. As instantiation: He engages in speculation about the types of people one might meet at a station just before a party, and how their prima facie sociability might or might not be borne out by further acquaintance. This is typical of his thought processes as the story continues, for we are trapped from the outset in his restless and overly complicating vision of the world. He soon discovers that he is to be in the company of two former acquaintances. The first, Gilbert Long, he has met before, and remembers him as a “fine piece of human furniture”, i.e., good-looking but essentially dumb as a post. The narrator is astounded now to see that he is accomplished, urbane, a confident socialite. Immediately he encounters another acquaintance whom he at first does not recognize: Grace Brissenden, who was married five years ago to a man much her junior. She, although now aged “two or three-and-forty”, doesn’t look a day over 25. From the evidence of his senses he formulates in his private thoughts the theory that they have been magically worked upon. Long has been imbued with his witty urbanity by a lover who has been simultaneously drained of these qualities. Similarly, Grace Brissenden has sucked her youth and vitality from her husband.
Once settled in Newmarch, he spends the entire weekend testing this theory—through idle gossip, close inspection of the interactions of the different party-goers, and secret discussions with various of the participants. With the same certainty that Einstein posits the existence of black holes, the narrator conjures up the existence of a sacred fount, which is drawn on and its effects transferred in tangible youth, smarts, vitality—in short, all the high virtues of life in civilized society. Judging from the reactions of his different interlocutors, it seems that his theories get badly on their nerves. How close he is to the truth of the matter is settled (or is it?) in a knock-down, drag-out verbal duel with one of the main characters which takes up the full last quarter of the book.
Many critics, contemporary and subsequent (including the author himself!??), have been harsh with this novel. The consensus is that it is much ado about nothing—seemingly endless ink expended over trivial human relationships. So what are we to make of it? Well, it is not a typical novel. The settings, in comparison with other James novels, are sparsely evoked. The main focus is on the conversation and the psyche of the main character. In the absence of any other authority we place ourselves in his hands. But then, as his theorizing and obsessions intensify and as he starts to wilt under cross examination, we begin to doubt his sanity.
I believe the answer lies in James’ intent. In a conversation he confessed to attempting in The Sacred Fount a “consistent joke”. In fact, in that work he attempts to do for the novel of manners what Oscar Wilde did for the comedy of manners with The Importance of Being Earnest (and, by the way, what Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David do to the sit-com with the series Seinfeld!!).
It is no coincidence that Henry James was an aspiring playwright, and that his play Guy Domville bombed spectacularly (James was booed on opening night) in St. James theatre in 1895. So demoralized was James by this that he gave up theatre and pursued his novel writing career. Guy Domville was succeeded immediately by Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which was a huge success until Wilde was arrested for gross indecency and the play withdrawn. Wilde spent two years in jail and was released in 1897. He died in 1900.
It was one year later that The Sacred Fount appeared, and it has many features that link it to various aspects of Wilde’s works. It is a novel about nothing (like The Importance of Being Earnest [and Seinfeld!]), with a focus on the verbal artifice created by the characters. There are incidents where age, beauty, and intelligence are inverted, very much in the mode of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The main character is the dandy par excellence (like Henry Wotton [Dorian Gray] and Jack Worthing [Earnest], one who combines great verbal dexterity with an acute, almost decadent, capacity to analyse and seduce (see also Jerry, George, and Elaine!).
The most important aspect is perhaps the experimental use of language. It is like an enormously complicated parlour conversation (a la Kenneth Burke) in which readers are hard pressed to keep up with what is being said. In fact, whether one keeps up or not is the whole point!
Somewhat improbably there are French translations of The Sacred Fount available through the Lennoxville Library (from Lingwick and Ascot Corner [wt*?]) but the only English versions to be had are electronic. I am, thanks to my friend, in possession of the only hard copy (well-thumbed!) of the work this side of the St. Lawrence.