Henry James' "The Art of Fiction" and the application of his theory in "What Maisie knew"

"A novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3




I. The Art of Fiction
I.1 The representation of life
I.2 Freedom of form
I.3 The subject of the novel
I.4 Psychology in the novel
I.5 Morality and the novel
I.6 Subjectivity
I.7 Conclusions

II What Maisie knew and James' theory on the novel
II.1 Incidents and their different functions in the novel What Maisie knew
II.2 Maisie as a centre of consciousness
II.3 Maisie’s learning and development
II.4 Maisie as an object of study
II.5 What Maisie knew – a highly structured drama?


Works cited


Henry James is known not only as a novelist but also for his work as literary critic. In his famous essay “The Art of Fiction” (1884), he reacted on a pamphlet that the British author Walter Besant had published under the same title earlier that year. In fact, a discussion and controversy on the novel had already been started in 1882 with Howells' “Henry James Jr.” and Stevenson's “A Gossip of Romance”. James used the opportunity to present his ideas on the novel of fiction: “A novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life”[1]. It is very important for him to stress that life is personally -and therefore subjectively- received by an author who than tries to represent life in his[2] work. James offers in his essay various new aspects that a novelist should be aware of and make use of if he wants to write a realistic and true novel.

This essay deals with the novel What Maisie knew (first published in 1897) which is one of the less known and less studied novels written by Henry James. Critics see it as a work in which James has left the `mainstream literature´ that the literary market asked for and has realised some of his ideas he had coped with in theory already in the 1880’s when he wrote “The Art of Fiction”. Most of these critics have studied the morality in What Maisie knew and the innovation to present the story from a child’s consciousness. This essay is not interested in the moral aspect of the novel but raises the question if Henry James put into practise his own theory when he wrote Maisie more than ten years after his “Art of Fiction”. After presenting the main arguments of James’ theory, I will scrutinise whether James really has put his theory into practice. Most attention will be turned to his ideas of a realistic writing, looking not only at the aspect of how to write a realistic novel but also of how to create a realistic atmosphere. This essay will try to prove that Henry James did practise his own preaching at least to a certain degree in What Maisie knew and show where James' realistic fiction might reach its limits.

I. The Art of Fiction

Henry James responds in 1884 to a pamphlet written by Walter Besant (whose lecture at the Royal Institution on April 25, 1884, was the origin of the pamphlet that was first published in Longman's Magazine in September of the same year) and gives his own article the same title: "The Art of Fiction". In his text, Besant presents his believe that fiction is one of the Fine Arts, seeing fiction as a very artistic form of it[3], restricts the author's freedom and explains several laws that the author of fiction has to respect. Given that Besant was the first to introduce these ideas, James thankfully bases his own argumentation on Besant's. He refers to different arguments in Besant's text and argues in most of the cases against him without doing this by plainly contradicting him. James agrees with Besant on fiction's participation in the Fine Arts and introduces several new ideas that he deeply believes in: according to James, a novel should not be just a pure piece of art without anything more but its beauty, but something that builds up a connection between itself and the reader, something that `talks´ to the reader[4] ; the novel has a conative function, but its very first duty is to represent life as it is, without rearranging it by the application of a pessimistic or optimistic style. He is aware of the author's subjective point of view on life and therefore calls for the implication of different points of view. James explains the necessity for an author's freedom of content and of form, and criticises not only literary critics but at some point even the readership and its too constraining expectations towards form and content.

James understands his essay as an article written from the point of view of an author (cf. AF: 393/394). He almost never attacks or mocks Besant directly but mainly agrees with him at first, than states a view that slightly differs from Besant's and finally expresses his own point of view. Another noticeable modus operandi of James is that he does not discus a topic only once but he comes back to it after talking about something completely different. This might have its reason in the text he is responding to, anyway it certainly enables James to strengthen his opinion; he presents different aspects of the art of fiction and in each of them his ideas play an important role. Additionally, it shows that it is not possible to examine fiction only by its individual parts because these have to be seen as interacting elements. It is after a time of stagnation that discussions, experiments, curiosity, variety of attempt, exchange of view and the comparison of standpoints begin to inspire art (cf. AF: 376)[5] and James wants to introduce with “The Art of Fiction” his own thoughts into the discussion on the novel.

I.1 The representation of life

Although the time that an author had to apologise for writing realistic texts has already passed, critics and readers sometimes still expect the author to clarify the use of realistic features in his novels. James opposes this pressure put on the authors and says that the writers should not “renounce their pretension of attempting really to represent life” (AF: 378). On the very same page he adds that “the only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life”. James draws parallels between the art of painting and the art of writing (concerning the inspiration, the process -art is seen as a vehicle for the artist- and the success) and concludes with two reasons why fiction does not need to apologise for its attempt to represent life: Firstly because the art of painting does not have to apologise neither and secondly because, “as the picture is reality, so the novel is history” (AF: 379), the novelist is a historian[6] and history is allowed to represent life. James criticises colleagues like Anthony Trollope for still apologising and calls this behaviour a “terrible crime” (ibid.).

Given that an artistic form does not automatically make a good novel, the question what makes a good novel good is raised several times in James' “The Art of Fiction”. Due to the high number of fictional novels, people sometimes doubt that fiction is “as free and as serious a branch of literature as any other” (AF: 383). Although there are many novels that are quickly written and lack quality, the general idea of fiction is still artistic. James believes that the bad novels will be sorted out very fast while the good ones will keep on stimulating the readers' “desire for perfection” (ibid.). According to James, a good novel is good because it is interesting. For him a good novel has to represent life, it has to have the “odour” (AF: 388) of reality. Later on (AF: 398 f.), he states that those people that look at art (e.g. at paintings) or read novels have experience, they know life and hence are able to recognise those novels that represent life and those that don't. James distinguishes between novels that present life without rearrangement (good novels) and with rearrangement (bad ones). He then turns to the reality of life and the way it is supposed to be presented in the novel of fiction. The odour of reality mentioned above has its major source in the experience of the author:

Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spiderweb of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative -much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius- it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations. (AF: 388)

James contradicts Besant and his idea that authors should stick to their class and their surrounding life, i.e. that they should not try to write about things they have not experienced themselves[7]. He states that already short experiences, short incidents, can offer enough material for a whole story. Incidents are moments in life, according to James, that can be part of the everyday life, simple things and situations like a standing woman whose hand rests on a table (cf. AF: 393). It is not necessary that the character actively does something but of course it can be the case as well. Incidents, in general, can have three different functions: Firstly, they can be the motivation and inspiration for a novel. Secondly, they can help the author to make his novel appear more realistic because they can be included in the story as the tiny little moments that are part of life but do not need to contribute to the plot (for instance as a characterising element). As a third function, the author can try to show the readers things that they usually would not realise or perceive as something worth having a closer look at (cf. ibid.). The degree of interest that lies in these moments that the author presents in his book depends on the way they are described, not in the event itself. James is aware of the fact that personal experience is highly subjective, that the writer produces a reality (cf. 389) and not the reality, basing the story on some incidents. This aspect of subjectivity will be dealt with in more detail in chapter I.6. According to James, the supreme virtue of a novel is to have the air of reality, to represent life in a way that the author has produced an illusion of life. This high expectation towards a true and realistic representation shows James' attitude towards movements like pessimism, optimism or naturalism[8]: He wants to show life as it really is and rejects any -ism that changes or misleads the true representation.

I.2 Freedom of form

The most important thing -according to James- an author needs is freedom. James differs between the freedom of content and the freedom of form, i.e. style. The first is necessary for intensity within the novel and -generally- the content is more important than the form (cf. AF: 384/385). It is possible to learn the latter by observing and by identifying the style of other authors but the content is something personal of every author. James contradicts Besant who claims that “laws of fiction may be laid down and taught with as much precision and exactness as the laws of harmony, perspective and proportion” (quoted in: AF: 386). According to James not laws but personal experience is the important guideline for a writer. After demonstrating the call for a liberty of writing even within Besant's own list of recommendations concerning the process of writing (by alluding to the lack of exactness and precision within this list), James gives his own idea of how one should proceed if one wants to write a novel: The first step is to observe life and take as many notes as possible (in this point he agrees with Besant). The next step is that the author asks himself which of his notes he can use for his work. James underlines the fact that it is only the author himself who can answer this question and that he should not receive any help from critics or other authors, although they might be eager to interfere. After the task of deciding which incidents to make use of, the next step leaves the field of content and enters the field of style. The characterisation of people can be realised by three different manners: Description, dialogue and incident. Description is to be understood as the character's action, dialogue as the character's talking, incident as moments in which the character does something that not necessarily is important for the plot but serves as a part of characterisation (e.g. a person stands like the woman described above). The author has to make use of all three elements because only a composition of them enables him to characterise his characters in a good and realistic way, according to James. It is in the detailed description where he sees an important element for a true and realistic description of the real life that is produced as an illusion of life in the novels (cf. AF: 390).


[1] James, Henry, 1970: "The Art of Fiction". Partial Portraits. Ed. Leon Edel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, page 383. Page numbers hereafter are given in the text, under the abbreviation AF.

[2] The usage of male pronouns in this essay is not meant to discriminate; it is simply done to avoid awkward formulations and constructions.

[3] As Davidson (2004: 123) points out, this idea was “by no means commonplace” in 1884 and would have caused an outcry if people like James or Howells had stated it.

[4] James obviously stands in opposition to the l'art pour l'art movement, represented by Oscar Wilde and others, and gladly underlines that a change occurred within a few years concerning the function of the novel.

[5] As a matter of fact, at first there was hardly any reaction on James' text, what made him lament: “My little article has not attracted the smallest attention here & I haven't heard, or seen, an allusion to it. There is almost no care for literary discussion here, - questions of form, of principle, the `serious´ idea of the novel appears apparently to no one, & they don't understand you when you speak of them.” (James cited in Davidson 2004: 133). Of course his ideas were widely discussed but the reaction took more time than he had expected.

[6] Irene Tucker (1998: 347 ff.) refers to Maisie 's historicity when she discusses the role of the `brown lady´ as a possible description of racism in the 1890's society.

[7] “This is a very simple Rule [sic], but one to which there should be no exception – never to go beyond your own experience” (Besant cited in Davidson 2004: 127).

[8] James expresses his disagreement with French naturalism in several texts and criticised Zola already in 1880.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Henry James' "The Art of Fiction" and the application of his theory in "What Maisie knew"
"A novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life"
University of Freiburg  (Englisches Seminar)
The Art of Fiction in 1890s Britain
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
528 KB
Britain, What Maisie knew, The Art of Fiction, Henry James, Literatur
Quote paper
Sebastian Frese (Author), 2007, Henry James' "The Art of Fiction" and the application of his theory in "What Maisie knew", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/114978


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