“The Sense of the Past”: Henry James’s Rickety WABAC Machine

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The Sense of the Past
Henry James

A hundred years ago this September, the publishing house W. Collins, Sons and Co. offered British readers Henry James’s unfinished novel The Sense of the Past, as well as another of his uncompleted works, The Ivory Tower. The publications came less than two years after the American-born author’s death in London. In October 2017 The Sense of the Past was published in the US, by Scribner’s.

It’s a testament to the popularity James enjoyed with readers on both sides of the Atlantic that publishers assumed readers would be interested in these literary fragments, especially considering that his later writing had become such a dense tangle of verbiage (thickets that continue to require much patience from readers today). I recently read the American edition of The Sense of the Past, which consists of the first four “books” of the planned novel as well as 64 pages of the author’s notes on his plans for the rest of the opus. It was decidedly rough going in spots, although there were some rewarding stretches. The novel is both familiar terrain for experienced James readers and something of a departure. Its exhaustive focus on the interior life of its protagonist, Ralph Pendrel, is classic Jamesmanship. So, too, is the novel’s “international” theme — in which Old World and New World values bump up against each other. But the book’s plot centers on something few people would expect from American fiction’s acknowledged “Master”: time travel!

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Or maybe it’s not so surprising. H.G. Wells‘s The Time Machine had appeared in 1895, so the idea of fanciful flights to the past was certainly in the zeitgeist. James and Wells had even frolicked together at a party welcoming the year 1900, hosted by Stephen and Cora Crane. Whether they discussed bopping about on the historical continuum is unknown.

Forgotten “Past”: a vintage edition

The first two books of James’s novel (especially the second) include some powerful writing. They, along with the beginning of Book III, were written in 1900 when James was in his mid-fifties. Afterward, James put the novel aside, not returning to it until 1914, at which time he also dictated the notes for its completion. He was still struggling to finish the book at the time of his death. Books III and IV are highly unsatisfying and at times purely exasperating. James flailed in trying to, in his words, “catch hold of the tip of the tail” of the story he’d begun a decade and a half earlier. Certainly he’d lost the punch and the mesmerizing spookiness that he’d evoked before.

James had apparently begun the novel hoping to craft something marketable. According to celebrated James biographer Leon Edel, it had initially been publisher Frank Nelson Doubleday’s suggestion that James write more ghost stories in the manner of his 1898 success “The Turn of the Screw.” In James’s notes for The Sense of the Past, he repeatedly talks about striving to capture the otherworldly quality of that earlier novelette.

The Sense of the Past remains a fragment of what might have been an extraordinary ghost novel

The novel begins with Pendrel, the young American protagonist, proposing marriage to Aurora Coyne, a young widow who previously lived abroad. Aurora agrees to marry him on the condition that he will never spoil himself by venturing to Europe. But Pendrel, coincidentally, has inherited a property in London from a distant relative and is determined to travel overseas. Once there, he begins to develop his unsettling “sense of the past.” Prowling one night through the shadowy rooms of his new residence, he becomes fixated on the portrait of one of his ancestors, a figure painted with his face hidden from the viewer: “The gentleman in question here had turned his back, and for all the world as if he had turned it within the picture.” (Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray may have been on James’s mind as much as Wells’s Time Machine.)  In a chilling moment, Pendrel meets the face of the figure in the painting, and discovers that it is his own. In daylight he confesses this disorienting experience to the bemused American ambassador, who accompanies him back to the house. This time, when Pendrel pushes through the door and into the building, he is thrust back to 1820, magically exchanging identities with his alter ego from the painting. In the last completed chapters of the novel, Pendrel is introduced to a family from the older era and soon becomes engaged to marry one of the daughters.

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Edel detected autobiographical content in The Sense of the Past, and there are indeed elements that seem to want to illuminate the famous expatriate’s own personal history. But by 1914, with the horrors of the first World War heavy on his mind, the aging James could not find a way to bring the novel to a satisfying conclusion. It was, suggests Edel, “a story too large for him to write, a plot that would remain unresolved. The Sense of the Past remains a fragment of what might have been an extraordinary ghost novel, James’s ultimate discovery — had that been possible — of how to complete his journey into himself and his personal past.”

The dictated notes for the novel are fascinating but sometimes painful to read. James seems to be vamping, brainstorming madly to find his way to a suitable denouement. His imagination races, but he falls short:

[O]h I see somehow such beautiful things that I can hardly keep step with myself to expatiate and adumbrate coherently enough. Let me just nail 2 or 3 things, by 2 or 3 of the roughest simplest strokes, in order to catch and hold them fast before I go on.

He may, though, have already had a lucky strike with the material he was attempting to mine. Edel suggests that James borrowed from the partial draft of The Sense of the Past for his 1908 story “The Jolly Corner.” In that tale (considered one of his best ghost stories after “The Turn of the Screw”) an American who has lived his adult life in Europe returns to his childhood home, where he lumbers about late at night. Eventually, like Pendrel, he encounters his frightening alter ego: the man of industry and action that he might have been had he stayed in the States. The phantom figure is complete — or, rather, incomplete — with two missing fingers.

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Leslie Howard in the 1933 film of “Berkeley Square”

If James could not, at last, bring his original idea to novel-length fruition, his preliminary work was picked up after his death and successfully presented on the stage (an arena in which James himself had had very little success). In the 1926 drama Berkeley Square, John L. Balderston, an American journalist and playwright, revamped and completed James’s basic storyline, with the protagonist transported back to 1784 rather than to 1820. The play was first presented in London, and later at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, in a production starring Leslie Howard. It ran in Manhattan for 229 performances.

I had a look at the Berkeley Square play script after I read The Sense of the Past. It doesn’t have the same startling force that James created in the first two books of his novel, but I found it an engaging work — one that might still be revived effectively today. The play has much more eventful detail than the novel, with the protagonist adjusting to such features of 1784 life as public executions and infrequent bathing. The play was also filmed, not once but twice: first in a 1933 version featuring Howard; then as a 1951 vehicle for Tyrone Power, titled The House in the Square in Britain and I’ll Never Forget You in the US.

There are echoes of Berkeley Square in more-recent dual-era scenarios, ranging from the Alan Jay Lerner musicals Brigadoon and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever to the Back to the Future film franchise. James’s posthumously published fragment may have been more influential — albeit indirectly — than the discouraged Master could ever have deemed possible.