Report from the Middle of The Ambassadors by Henry James

Embedding oneself in The Ambassadors by Henry James is like reading little else. Every time I take book in hand again, an unending endoscopy of my perceptions proceeds until I shut it. Take this section of beauty from a quarter of the way through. Strether, the main character, is talking to Madame de Vionnet—a woman who has some hold on Chad. This young man is the son of Mrs. Newsome. It is she who has dispatched Strether to Paris to see what is keeping her son there—she wants him to return to Massachusetts and take over the family business. Mrs. Newsome is also Strether’s love interest and it is probable he will marry her if he succeeds in getting her son back to the old USA:

‘Well, I can bear almost anything!’ our friend briskly interrupted. Deep and beautiful on this her smile came back, and with the effect of making him hear what he had said just as she had heard it. He easily enough felt that it gave him away, but what in truth had everything done but that? It had been all very well to think at moments that he was holding her nose down and that he had coerced her: what had he by this time done but let her practically see that he accepted their relation? What was their relation moreover—though light and brief enough in form as yet—but whatever she might choose to make it? Nothing could prevent her—certainly he couldn’t—from making it pleasant. At the back of his head, behind everything, was the sense that she was—there, before him, close to him, in vivid imperative form—one of the rare women he had so often heard of, read of, thought of, but never met, whose very presence, look, voice, the mere contemporaneous fact of whom, from the moment it was at all presented, made a relation of mere recognition. That was not the kind of woman he had ever found Mrs. Newsome, a contemporaneous fact who had been distinctly slow to establish herself… (177-8)[i]

If what is happening is easy enough (a man is becoming attracted to a woman, comparing the kind of woman she is to the kind of woman he has back home), what joy comes is delivered by words and sentences that have never been quite so combined as to tell what happens when someone is taken with the one one isn’t with. “Deep and beautiful on this her smile came back, and with the effect of making him hear what he had said just as she had heard it,” is a sentence for the ages, a gold-plated locomotive with a built-in freezer. Let’s break it down, component by component.

Deep and beautiful – beginning the sentence with adjectives, a nice variant; I think anybody would follow such a sentence’s start, even if it lead to a goblin’s fundament—just because we all want what is “deep and beautiful” and need to know where it is

on this – this refers to Strether’s prior line of dialogue and if the reader chugs back to those easy words with the bat and ball at the end, they return to this sentence peeved—You aren’t just making me hug this sentence you big oaf, now I’ve got two to contend with!

her smile came back, – this would be a spectacular sentence by itself—it is so pregnant with meaning I’m ashamed to look at the words; James constructs around it to avoid sounding like 1980’s US fiction

and with the effect – here is live tape delay within the sentence; the smile has come back but it already has an “effect” while the reader has not had the pleasure of leaving this sentence (calm down, you can make it); James is not one for “cause and effect,” but “cause of the cause for effect of the effect,” as we shall soon see

of making him hear – let the shitstorm of h’s begin; also this periscoping from her cognition to her face to his sense of hearing begins to rev, only to end with him hearing himself (No surprise, ladies?) as she would have heard it (Is there any better example of animal attraction?) (Oh, I can’t get you out of my head)

what he had said – again reverberations extraordinaire, referring again to the “Well, I can bear almost anything!” line—now the reader has hip checked that sentence of splurge twice (He can “bear almost anything!?” Are you serious? Is James fucking with me? Had Henry picked this directly from a smut mag?)

just as she had heard it. – that “just” is a little unjust and maybe inexact; how can he hear something just as she can hear it?—maybe the greatest impossibility of human endeavor; but the narrator would have it so and so it is, if you want to believe it, but fight for the right and what do you have? something like the mystery of why you love your cat, or boo*, or bend in the river; if you can explain such without duress, I never writ nor no boo ever loved

Why read The Ambassadors? I honestly liked the cover painting of the Penguin Classics edition by the not so famous Paul Gustav Fisher. By the brunette leaning at the gallery outfitted in a fetching gray dress displaying her rear bounty was some place I wanted to be. And I wanted Henry James to tell me what it was like to be there. To be in Europe, to be in Paris just as the whole ball of earth was about to be blown by technological advances and that Yugoslav Nationalist.

Sven Birkerts says:

…if it was not a specific message or set of realizations that I took away from my reading of The Ambassadors, what was my payoff? What made the reading worth the many hours it took?…I have no hesitation now about marking the experience out as worthy, even important, both on the immediate “process” level, but even more in terms of what the great Italian poet Eugenio Montale called “the second life of art,” referring to the ways in which a work lives in us after we have finished our looking, listening, or reading. Indeed, for me the value of the novel lies mainly in its aftereffects, the residues it has left behind—residues that become subtle goads to new awareness. (153)[ii]

Since I’m only halfway through I can’t make friends yet with my residues—besides they’d dress up as Cheetos if they thought it would help me understand at thing or two about humanity. I’m reading The Ambassadors because it’s winter, people are sick, some are getting drunk, and I’m not too interested in money markets, Mcfearmongers, or the tears of Maria Shriver. I want the hair of the dog never to leave my blood. I’m occupying The Ambassadors because Annie Dillard said,

Henry James launched the century with a splash: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl. It is hard to see why writers write anything else after James, and readers read anyone else, but literature persists. (58)[iii]

Just before the midway point, in Book Seventh to be exact, The Ambassadors starts to shoot forward and the page upon page of perception/reflection/reperception starts to melt over a plot that plucks from The Portrait of a Lady. What doesn’t change with time is how people play with each other—and play in a not nice fashion. Usually this has to do with money, power, and family. That is the world of Henry James. Older people’s sport is influencing the lives of the young, making sure they marry who they want them to be married to. It’s a delightfully heartless pastime and you don’t have to dress in black to understand it. It can even be fun, especially with this endnote from Professor Christopher Butler from page 63. He is defending James against a fusspot critic who asks if anything is adequately realized in the late works of the Master. Butler smotes him—thus:

…his argument is simply a plea for a more naturalistic kind of novel. But the reader who has got this far is probably not wishing he or she was reading something else. (443)

*colloquial for boyfriend or girlfriend


[i] The Ambassadors, Oxford World Classics edition

[ii] Reading Life: Books for the Ages

[iii] The Annie Dillard Reader

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5 thoughts on “Report from the Middle of The Ambassadors by Henry James

  1. as someone who has read all the works of Henry James
    excepting the ivory tower
    (which makes the sentences in the ambassadors look kindergartenish)
    I applaud your admiration!!!

  2. I really enjoyed this review very much! Only last night I read the extraordinarily rich, long summary used by James to plan “The Ambassadors” itself (in: The Notebooks of Henry James). Having struggled with James (and won in the sense that I finish his novels but feel that he didn’t want me to have the easiest time doing so) I wonder of course if you finished the book…and what you took away from it in the end.

  3. Read this at university and it lives in me as my favourite novel by one of my favourite if not favourite writers. I love your lengthy analysis of that Jamesian sentence above too. Oh if you haven’t finished it yet: it gets better and better as it goes on, being, in the words of my old Uni tutor, ‘terribly good.’

  4. Thank you Marcus and James. I certainly finished it and read The Wings of the Dove next, and now I am finishing The Golden Bowl. The take away?
    Well, James expands my consciousness. His dramatizing of people trying to the manipulate others is its own golden bowl. The words hurt. The fencing match of words between Strether and his friend adds up to how we have what we think are the best intentions, but often we fool ourselves. Strether learns, but it’s not epiphany, it’s hard won. It might not save him, but life won’t be so much of a blur to him anymore.

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