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The Birthplace

By Henry James 

Foreword by Mark Rylance

Hesperus Press, February 2012

ISBN 13: 9781843912071

The Birthplace by Henry James

It is always an exhilarating moment when you finish a piece of prose by Henry James and find that you have followed it right to the end.

Man, what Louis Auchincloss wrote in Reflections of a Jacobite is true, you think.  When he chooses to be, this Henry James guy can be understandable and accessible and even entertaining.  Rather fine, actually, his way of going about things: the rambling prose veering always it seems towards incoherence, though never quite losing the thread completely, has an incisive bite.  He is a labyrinthine teller of tales.

This volume collects together two short works: The Birthplace (1903) and The Private Life (1892), each touching on the theme of the presentation of the self in everyday life.

An early and excoriating take on the heritage industry, the title tale is about a couple, the Gedges, who are employed to take care of a house where a great poet (Mark Rylance alludes to Shakespeare in the foreword) was born and grew up.  Their position requires that they show literary pilgrims around, spouting a potted spiel and parroting ‘false facts’ (or at any rate things they don’t believe).  There’s no way that they – and the male Gedge especially – can honestly speak their mind and keep the job.  Political machinations whirr and buzz.  Ultimately, it’s about power and manipulation.

Let the following sentence act as a coda for The Private Life, which is set at a social gathering in Switzerland:

The world was vulgar and stupid, and the real man would have been a fool to come out for it when he could gossip and dine by deputy.  (117)

Never expose yourself completely to others, that way lies confusion and folly, instead see social life as akin to acting on stage – artifice not authenticity is the order of the day.  Maybe it’s intelligent advice, maybe not.  The doppelganger scene, calling to mind the denouement of  The Jolly Corner, gives the tale a weird, uncanny aspect; but the main register is one of playful intrigue and pleasant dalliance.  Violence and melodramatic gesture are absent but the sense of life present and time passing (a low-key, under-emphasised melancholy) is palpable.  Nothing much happens here yet one is moved at the close.

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here.