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Authors: Henry James

The Ambassadors

BOOK: The Ambassadors
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2011 Modern Library Paperback Edition


Introduction copyright © 2011 by Colm Tóibín
Biographical note copyright © 2011 by Random House, Inc.
A note on the text copyright © 2011 by Random House, Inc.


All rights reserved.


Published in the United States by Modern Library, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.,
New York.


and the T
Design are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.


eISBN: 978-0-679-64408-8


Cover design: Emily Mahon


Cover painting: Gustave Caillebotte,
The Boulevard Viewed from Above
, 1880 (Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images)




by Colm Tóibín


by Henry James


Colm Tóibín

In the opening page of
The Ambassadors
there is a phrase which seems, on the face of it, to have an aura of unusual simplicity. Lambert Strether, who has arrived at Chester having disembarked at Liverpool, and is concerned about what the “note” of Europe will be for him, allows that note already to include “such a consciousness of personal freedom as he hadn’t known for years.” The novel will now attempt to explore what this freedom might mean for Strether and for those around him, dramatizing its limits and extent, while rendering it also complex and ironic.
The Ambassadors
will operate using sensuously noted detail, the fine flickering of a refined consciousness, but will also use tones which are comic and subversive. It will play freedom as represented by Paris against restriction as represented by a place called Woollett in Massachusetts. James will ensure, however, that this play, which seems on the surface a simple one of easy opposites, becomes nuanced and filled with the density of urgent human needs and strange treacheries, loyalties, and uncertainties.

Strether, in the words of R. P. Blackmur, is “a man of the world without a world.” The novel will seek to give him a glimpse of an old world he might possess; the book will tempt him with it, but the narrative will remain, despite Strether’s “consciousness of freedom,” oddly unsure about the absolute value of this world Strether sees and samples; it will remain uneasy, open-minded, and curious about the idea that someone who is as intelligent and inward-looking as Strether can resist his fate. Its central exploration will be around the poetics and politics of duty; it will set the innocence of Strether’s quest for late self-realization against the loaded futility of such a quest. It will propose, indeed, that such a quest may amount to nothing more than the destruction or the darkening of the very imagination which felt a need for it in the first place. Such a need will be seen, or regularly glimpsed, as pure illusion; James’s genius is to make such illusion glorious, absorbing, filled with substance, closer to reality at times than the set of hard facts or dull demands which hover over the book; the quality of Strether’s illusion offers the novel a fiercely rich dynamic.

In Book Two,
Chapter 1
, James allows Strether to set out his story, his role and function as an ambassador representing the interests of Woollett. Strether has a dialogue with Maria Gostrey, whose role in the book is almost the same as Ralph Touchett’s in
The Portrait of a Lady
or Fanny Assingham’s in
The Golden Bowl
. She is a sort of novelist-within-the-novel, who will appear and disappear, and take the same interest in the unfolding story and the fate of the protagonist as an ideal reader. In his conversation with Gostrey, Strether manages not to be openly disloyal to his place of origin or those who have sent him on his mission, most notably Mrs. Newsome, the mother of Chad, the heir to the family business who has remained in Paris against his mother’s wishes, and who is in the clutches of a woman who seems less than virtuous.
Despite his lack of disloyalty, Strether manages at times a tone about Mrs. Newsome and those who surround her so solemn that it leaves itself open to mockery, not least by Maria Gostrey, but also, by implication, by Strether himself.

By calling the town in Massachusetts where Mrs. Newsome lives by the almost comic name of Woollett, by naming Mrs. Newsome’s son-in-law Jim Pocock and his sister, who aims to marry Chad, Mamie Pocock, by refusing to name the article that the Newsomes, in their factory, produce, thus allowing us to feel that it is something comic and vulgar, Henry James gives Strether permission to move quite a distance from the very Woollett he represents.

Nonetheless, Strether has to remain ostensibly serious as he explains things to Gostrey. She feels entitled to ask, “Who in the world’s Jim Pocock?” knowing that the very question implies that Jim, viewed from Paris rather than Woollett, is nobody, or less than nobody. On the other hand, when Strether says that Chad Newsome, whom he has come to rescue, “has darkened his mother’s admirable life … He has worried her half to death,” he speaks “with austerity.” And when Maria Gostrey asks if Mrs. Newsome’s life is “very admirable,” Strether answers simply: “Extraordinarily.” The reader is entitled to feel here that Strether actually means this, that his newfound freedom has suddenly failed him, and that the austerity of his tone, the quality of his respect for Mrs. Newsome, will, from this point on, be subject to very great pressure.

If a “consciousness of personal freedom” is something Strether has not known for years, then the reader can feel that the impediment to this freedom has been the very admirable Mrs. Newsome herself, who, it emerges in this conversation, has not only sent Strether on a mission to rescue Chad, her errant son, but is bankrolling him as he edits an intellectual journal, “her tribute to the
ideal,” in Woollett. Also, if he succeeds in his mission in Paris, the admirable matron will do him the favor of marrying him.

The idea in
The Ambassadors
of offering England and France a certain nobility, of treating them as places of beauty and power, which could transform a sensitive soul, gave James pleasure. So, too, making America richly ridiculous, simply by having the names of worthy inhabitants such as Jim and Mamie Pocock sound ridiculous, or by making Mrs. Newsome austerely admirable enough to be absurdly so, gave James not only pleasure but satisfaction.

But James, as an artist, was deeply suspicious of what gave him pleasure, or indeed satisfaction. In his own complex sensibility, there was an ambiguity about most things, and this moved him towards subtlety when he approached character, drama, and scene, and nudged him towards many modifying subclauses when he wrote a sentence. Nothing came to him simply.

It seemed to some who knew him that he took great satisfaction from his life in England, and in his book
The American Scene
, published in 1907 four years after
The Ambassadors
, he wrote with some intensity about the things he disliked in America. But at the same time as he wrote
The American Scene
, he confided in the American novelist Hamlin Garland: “If I were to live my life over again, I would be an American. I would steep myself in America, I would know no other land. I would study its beautiful side. The mixture of Europe and America in me has proved disastrous. It has made of me a man who is neither American nor European. I have lost touch with my own people and I live here alone. My neighbours are friendly but they are not of my blood, except remotely.”

And yet he studied England and France with care, and enjoyed them enormously. In 1872 when he was not yet thirty he wrote an essay on Chester, where three decades later he would open
. “It is full of that delightful element of the crooked, the accidental, the unforeseen, which, to American eyes, accustomed to our eternal straight lines and right angles, is the striking feature of European street scenery. An American strolling in the Chester streets finds a perfect feast of crookedness.” It would have seemed almost natural to James to take his protagonist from there to a place even more gloriously crooked—Paris. James’s earliest memory, he claimed, was of the Place Vendôme when he was two years old. When he was thirteen, the family lived in the city for more than a year. During his travels in 1872 he also spent time in Paris.

BOOK: The Ambassadors
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