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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Tragic Muse

Henry James

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To purchase The Tragic Muse

Title: The Tragic Muse
Author: Henry James
Genre: Novel
Written: 1890
Length: 530 pages
Availability: The Tragic Muse - US
in Novels 1886-1890 - US
The Tragic Muse - UK
The Tragic Muse - Canada
La muse tragique - France
La musa tragica - Italia
La musa trágica - España

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Our Assessment:

B : a rather flabby heap of a novel, but has its moments -- and a great character in Miriam

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 25/12/1890 .
The Ny Times A 29/6/1890 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr. James is, in fact, guilty of selecting complex creatures -- creatures who are centuries away from savage simplicity -- and of devoting his greatest energy to the exhibition of the storehouse of their complexities, the mind. He finds an infinite variety of mind, and its tricks are vastly more surprising and entertaining than a conjurer's tricks, which we see but do not in the least understand. (...) (T)he Tragic Muse [is] by far the most brilliant and faithful representation of the successful modern actress that has ever been achieved in English fiction." - The Nation

  • "Mr. James deals with art artfully, taking the word in a double sense and in a much broader sense than it is often possible to use it. The very obvious purpose in the book has the unusual effect of extending rather than contracting its limits. (...) The Tragic Muse, quite unlike Mr. James's typical choice of composition, is a story full of movement. They're all struggling, all aspiring, all contending, they are pulled this way and that. (...) Mr. James's former work appears to have been a schooling for this latest book, which takes its place, for the present at least, as a masterpiece." - The New York Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Tragic Muse opens at the annual art-exhibit in Paris, the Salon. Nicholas 'Nick' Dormer -- the big hope of the family, who had already won a seat in the House of Commons, and then lost it at the next election -- is there with his widowed mother, Lady Agnes, and two sisters, Grace and Bridget (known as Biddy). They encounter a friend of Nick's there, Gabriel Nash, who is in the company of a Mrs. Rooth and her daughter Miriam. The Rooths have led an itinerant life all across Europe, with the young Miriam now determined to become a success -- as an actress. The Dormers also meet up with Peter Sherringham, a nephew of Lady Agnes' who is in the diplomatic service, currently posted in Paris.
       Peter has a sister, the widowed Julia Dallow -- who, unlike Peter or the Dorners (or the Rooths), has a great fortune --, and Peter relays the message from her that the member of parliament for Harsh has died and that she wants Nick to stand for the seat. It would basically be a sure thing: Julia is a leading figure there and, as she observes, self-assuredly, the election would basically be no-contest: "They'll have the person I want them to have, I dare say". Nick has been romantically linked to Julia, and the expectation -- especially Lady Agnes' -- is that they will eventually get married.
       Nash has arranged for Miriam to have an audience with the illustrious Madame Carré, a leading teacher for the stage; coïncidentally (and very conveniently), Peter is acquainted with Madame, and, "because I'm English", she had asked him to attend -- which he then does.
       Miriam proves to be a very raw talent, but also a very determined one: "I will succeed -- I will be great", she insists -- indeed, insistently so:

Suddenly she raised her head and broke out with vehemence: 'I will, I will, I will !'
       She has no difficulty accepting criticism, simply eager to lap up and learn as much as possible. She'll do whatever it takes -- always certain too that she will succeed, and at the highest level no less: "I shall be the Garrick of my sex". Peter, quite taken by her, supports her, not least in facilitating lessons from Madame Carré, but from early on there's considerable ambivalence here, too, as he's not entirely enthusiastic about her single-minded pursuit. Indeed, from early on he repeatedly tries to dissuade her:
'You're a strange girl.'
     'Je crois bien ! Doesn't one have to be, to want to go and exhibit one's self to a loathsome crowd, on a platform, with trumpets and a big drum, , for money -- to parade one's body and one's soul ?'
     Sherringham looked at her a moment: her face changed constantly; now there was a little flush and a noble delicacy in it.
     'Give it up; you're too good for it,' he said, abruptly.
       But nothing can convince her -- indeed, her reply here is: "Never, never -- never till I'm pelted !"
       Nick is somewhat similarly artistically driven -- he wants to paint portraits -- but Lady Agnes disapproves and expects better things from him. She wants him on the public stage -- in politics. With Julia's support -- and, especially, money -- he can -- and indeed does -- return to parliament, but his heart isn't in it. He keeps a studio, and indulges in his art -- disappointing his family as well as Julia ("He aspires to practice ?" an incredulous Julia asks, unable to take painting-work at all seriously). It probably doesn't help that when Julia tries to go at least a bit along with Nick he responds rather harshly:
     'You shall paint me,' said Julia.
     'Never, never, never !' Nick uttered these words that made his companion stare; and he appeared slightly embarrassed at the result of his emphasis.
       (James' deployment of epizeuxis in this novel has surely -- surely, surely ! -- been the subject of any number of scholarly papers and dissertations ....)
       Nick does ask Julia to marry him -- as does Peter Miriam -- but it doesn't quite come off, as Nick's realization that he doesn't want a life in politics but rather wants to devote himself to his art has a ripple effect of consequences. Julia's money and influence would have been a great stepping-stone to a great political career -- conveniently without him then being fully dependent on her, as Nick could have -- had he trod the proper path, including marrying Julia -- counted on the support of the very wealthy Mr. Carteret, willing to bestow a fortune on him that would have given him complete financial independence. Nick can't be doing too badly -- he can afford a studio, and he has a servant attending to him -- but the opportunities he has are so great that the alternative seems dismal indeed: "Julia was money, Mr Carteret was money, and everything else was poverty".
       James' case for the (non-pecuniary) riches and rewards of the artistic life that Nick wants to lead might be more convincing and affecting if he had a better sense of what actual poverty involves (though admittedly his description of the Rooths' itinerant life hits the mark); as is, there's always something of the Sunday-painter to well-to-do Nick, whose struggling is, at best, on a very entitled plane. (Unsurprisingly, James -- or at least his narrator (there is the occasional 'I' that raises its head in the narrative) -- himself doesn't seem quite convinced of Nick-as-artist, and isn't able to describe much of his art in any meaningful detail.)
       It is Miriam who is much more clear-eyed (and to the point):
And the artistic life, when you can lead another -- if you have any alternative, however modest -- is a very poor business. It comes last in dignity -- after everything else. Ain't I up to my eyes in it and don't I know ?
       Miriam sees no alternative for herself (though of course she could have one in marrying Peter), but Nick, who has one, just can't bring himself not to devote himself to his art (if not necessarily the 'artistic life'). The aging Mr. Carteret is then sorely disappointed by Nick's choices, and his money then isn't forthcoming -- a crushing blow to Lady Agnes, as the family lives reasonably comfortably but really not at all in the style she thinks they're entitled to. (She really takes the news badly; practically overnight she looks: "ten years older; she was white and haggard and tragic".)
       Nick is intrigued by Miriam as well, but only as a subject, admitting early on already: "I should like to paint her portrait; she's made for that". Nash mentions this to Julia, who doesn't take to Miriam at all (nor to Nick's dabbling in painting generally) and cattily remarks: "I dare say she'd do for that", and when Nick does paint Miriam that certainly does exacerbate the rift between the two. Nash stirs things up further in suggesting that Miriam has fallen in love with Nick, which of course troubles Peter; fortunately James lets the idea more or less fizzle -- Nick won't go for it -- and avoids the traps of the love triangle.
       Meanwhile, in the wings, there's also the annoying Basil Dashwood, a theater-insider who flutters around Miriam and makes himself useful; he knows how to insinuate himself; eventually: "Dashwood appeared to have become Miriam's brother-in-arms and a second child -- a fonder one -- to Mrs Rooth". Peter is cognizant that Dashwood is cozying up to Miriam but seems oddly incapable of dealing with him, perhaps blinded by his own passion. He doesn't give up however, even as he tends to his own professional advancement -- something about which he has always been as determined as Miriam is about her career: "There was only one thing in life his mind had been much made up to, but on this question he had never wavered: he would get on, to the utmost, in his profession". So when the opportunity comes -- in the form of: "the high position of minister to the smallest of Central American republics" -- he doesn't take long in deciding to take it.
       Peter proposes yet again -- in one the novel's funniest scenes, James at his ridiculous best (even: "Nick marvelled a moment" when he realizes how Peter has gone about proposing) -- and then repeats his same old plea:
     'Give it up -- give it up !' stammered Sherringham.
     'Give it up ?' Miriam fixed him like a mild Medusa.
     'I'll marry you tomorrow if you'll renounce; and in return for the sacrifice you make for me I'll do more for you than ever was done for a woman before.'
       Ah, yes, Peter is such a ... romantic. He has an ideal -- "What I want is you yourself", he tries to explain to Miriam -- without understanding her reality. Admirably, Miriam isn't having any of that -- and in the novel's most interesting turn suggests to Peter: "Stay on my stage; come off your own", as she points out:
     'I mean that if it were to occur to you to offer me a little sacrifice on your own side, it might place the matter in a slightly more attractive light.'
       Peter, of course, proves incapable of that, too much a man of his age who couldn't imagine taking a back seat to his wife and allowing her to be the public (and money-earning) figure. He takes a stab at offering a kind of olive branch, but realistic Miriam knows he's deluding himself; he too can't really change his skin. His suit is, of course, hopeless -- with James' rather rushed conclusion, after Peter returns from his year abroad, working well in this regard, the final blow a fast and hard one (with Peter then, however, easily slipping into the marriage he was much more obviously meant for).
       Nick's situation is more complicated. Peter notes about Nick's relationship with Julia: "Don't they know how to love ?" and they don't, not for a while; as Biddy sighs: "It seems a kind of fatality !". Struggling some with what to do with her, James lets Julia wander out of the picture; like Peter, she is abroad for an extended period of time, but while Peter's year abroad is done with in a matter of pages, her absence takes up a long section of the book, with Nick occasionally still thinking of her but she completely out of touch and, and least as far as her person goes, out of the picture.
       Julia is an efficient, responsible person, and she is highly-regarded locally; obviously, she should be the member of parliament for Harsh, rather than sleek Nick -- who, however good a talker he is, doesn't have his heart in it. (Of course, at the time, women couldn't even vote .....) As to her and Nick being a couple -- surely Nick should have stronger second thoughts about someone who actually spits out at him: "I hate art" and:
'You're an artist: you are, you are !' Julia cried, accusing him passionately.
       Accusing him ! As if there could be anything worse !
       No, these two don't seem very well-matched ..... (Yes, they do come from the same milieu -- but they're also ... cousins .....)
       Near the end they do get closer again -- with Julia letting it be known that she would sit for a portrait by him (god forbid she'd ask him herself ...), not long after Miriam had suggested he should get her to pose (occasion for the novel's best line, as Miriam encourages Nick: "for God's sake, risk the daub !"). In the novel's finale, the portrait has been finished -- and a great success when exhibited -- but James coyly leaves the status of their relationship still not fully resolved. (Peter -- and Biddy --, on the other hand, get their happy end.)
       The romances in The Tragic Muse are a bit of a muddle, with only Miriam, and pining Biddy, clear in their passions (whereby Miriam never loses sight of her professional ambitions -- her greatest passion). Peter, Nick, and Julia just can't seem to figure things -- notably themselves and each other -- out; one sympathizes with Miriam complaining:
     'Ah, why ain't we simple ?' Miriam quavered. 'Why ain't we of the people -- comme tout le monde -- just a man and a girl liking each other ?'
       (Tellingly, James reveals that Miriam and then Biddy have married at the end, but neither is seen once they have, their happiness inferred -- they have both made what appear to clearly be the 'right' matches -- but unconfirmable.)
       At one point Miriam tries to explain to Nick what she has in mind about her future, warning: "It's ingenious, it's complicated; but I dare say you follow me". Readers might well think James is trying to be similarly challenging here -- though The Tragic Muse tends more to the complicated than ingenious. In fact, he doesn't seem quite sure of where he might want to go with it. Miriam and her trajectory are the most successful parts of the novel -- but then she is the easiest of characters as well: she is extreme, almost entirely single-minded, and James just runs with that. Beside her, Peter comes across as little more than hapless, even as he is meant to be shown as a professional, dutiful and competent. (We at least get glimpses of Miriam doing what she does -- becoming and then being an actress --; we never see Peter at actual work, which proves to be a problem.)
       James never fully captures Nick as artist either, and he remains a wishy-washy kind of fellow. (Curiously, there is a fourth Dormer-child, the eldest son, Percival -- who one would have expected to be the one Lady Agnes put her hopes on; he is mentioned a few times in the novel, but never appears, and remains a mystery-figure, with James never really figuring out what to do with him, despite the obvious potential.) Nick's on and off again relationship with Julia is not uninteresting, but has trouble competing with Miriam and Peter's -- or, indeed, even Biddy's background pining. The very quickly polished off conclusion also seems to suggest James wasn't really sure about what to do with it all ......
       The Tragic Muse is certainly long-winded, and somewhat oddly shaped. There's quite a bit to enjoy here -- not least, the sheer peculiarity of it all --, and certainly James' take on the theatrical world is of interest (though one gets a sense as to why he failed as playwright), but he does spread himself too thin, especially with Nick and his painting, which he can't take nearly as much interest in as he does Miriam and her ambitions. Miriam certainly is a great character, and a well-realized one -- but there's just too much else floating around here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 August 2022

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The Tragic Muse: Reviews: Henry James: Other books by Henry James under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Henry James lived 1843 to 1916.

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© 2022 the complete review

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