"Home vs. House of Fiction: Henry James, Alice Munro and the Mixed Blessing of Authorship" by Miroslawa Buchholtz
Miroslawa Buchholtz is Professor of English and American Literature and Head of the English Department at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland, where she teaches American and Canadian literature. She has published books and articles on both Henry James and Alice Munro, including Henry James and the Art of Auto/biography (Peter Lang, 2014) and Alice Munro: Reminiscence, Interpretation, Adaptation and Comparison (Peter Lang, 2015). She is a member of the Polish quality assurance agency (PKA) – since 2012. An elected Officer of the Henry James Society, in 2017 she will serve as the Society’s President. Email:
Alice Munro was born fifteen years after Henry James’s death. She never completed any academic degree, though she had studied English and journalism at the University of Western Ontario for two years before she married her first husband James Munro in 1951. She is unlikely to have taken any courses specifically on Henry James at that time, but she is certain to have read and learnt from Henry James over the years. In fact, his name is often mentioned along with other “classic writers,” such as Chekhov or Turgenev, as her intellectual nourishment in the 1950s and 60s (Sampson 2016: 38). The bookstore she and her husband opened in Victoria, British Columbia in 1963, proved to be the poor housewife’s college, just as the printing shop had been the poor boy’s college for Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, or Mark Twain in the earlier centuries. Like Munro, James had never completed a university degree, though his reasons were a matter of intellectual choice, rather than of financial necessity. This social difference may well explain why in Alice Munro’s biography, James is mentioned sparingly and only by way of contrast. His literary pursuits are thought to have gone hand in hand with intense socializing: dining out, conversing with people, traveling, while hers alternated with “changing diapers or scraping egg off plates” (Thacker 2011: 309). James is seen as “a permanent tourist in the land of marriage and romantic union,” whereas Munro is said to be “intimately informed about what actually goes on there” (Thacker 2011: 504).
Although Alice Munro’s fiction lends itself to endless intertextual studies, one can hardly claim with any degree of certainty that she has “rewritten” any author other than herself. It is possible to find in her stories motifs from Shakespeare and even a direct mention of his name (e.g. “Tricks” in Runaway, 2005). Henry James’s influence, however, is far less obvious in her fiction, despite the recorded fact that in her early twenties “she wanted to write like Virginia Woolf or Henry James” (Sheila Munro 2001: 37). Her aims and idols may have changed in later years, but it can still be argued that James “is an appropriate presence in Munro’s intellectual life, as he concerns himself not only with the realization of women’s consciousness, but also the inappropriate and damaging power that parents can wield in a child’s life – well into adulthood.” Like James, Munro is also “continually interested in how people experience moments of realization and self-actualization” (Berrett 2012). From my perspective, James and Munro share first and foremost the habit of relentless precision in describing experience, including the experience of being an artist (Kovács 2006: 48) – very often a literary artist – in (and outside of) society. Both James and Munro ponder repeatedly what it means to be an author in the sense of literally putting decipherable signs on paper and in the sense of representing a profession in the marketplace. Both use the spatial metaphor of “house” when referring to the acts of reading and writing. In her 1982 essay entitled “What is Real?”, Munro confesses that to her a story is not a road “taking [her] somewhere”. Instead “[i]t’s more like a house” in that “it encloses space and makes connections between one enclosed space and another.” The enclosed space inevitably “presents what is outside in a new way” (Munro 1993: 332). Despite “organic” metaphors of “soil,” “springing,” and “growing” (James 2016: 964) in his famous 1908 preface to The Portrait of a Lady, James’s eulogy of the novel’s
power not only, while preserving that form with closeness, to range through all the differences of the individual relation to its general subject-matter, all the varieties of outlook on life, of disposition to reflect and project, created by conditions that are never the same from man to man (or, so far as that goes, from man to woman), but positively to appear more true to its character in proportion as it strains, or tends to burst, with a latent extravagance, its mould. (James 2016: 965)
is concretized in the following paragraph in the clear “house of fiction” image that once again stresses the great number of both windows and possibilities:
The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million—a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. (James 2016: 965)
In this paper I would like to pierce the walls of time and look at James’s story of a literary artist through the lens of two comparable stories from Alice Munro’s oeuvre. A formalist would see it as an act of defamiliarization. For a psychologist it goes without saying that our memory of the past events and stories (to psychologists stories are also events) is always colored by current experience, and so my reading of James’s story is shaped by what I have learnt from later writers, including Alice Munro. I would like to discuss Henry James’s “The Lesson of the Master” (1888) and two of Alice Munro’s stories: “The Office” (1962) and “To Reach Japan” (2012). All three narratives comment on authorship in a way that offers an important, though by no means straightforward, lesson for readers today. All three stories juxtapose the concept of home and house, family and public life, intertwined with the more general and abstract opposition of inside and outside. So this essay does not try to trace a specific intertextual connection or psychological influence between the two authors’ work but rather considers the way Munro’s rhetoric of authorship highlights social and gender insecurities in a Jamesian tale of art.
Alice Munro wrote and published the two stories of female writers fifty years apart. They obviously invite a comparison with her own life and her effort to be(come) an author. “The Office” was first published in 1962. “To Reach Japan” appeared in Munro’s latest (and possibly last) volume, Dear Life, in 2012. “The Office” is a first-person narrative of a married woman who wants to become a writer. Unlike James, who foregrounded a love triangle (two writers and their dedicated reader), while in fact tracing the conflict between two men, Munro chooses as her cast two married couples and foregrounds the conflict between one person from each couple: a young woman who wants to rent an office and an elderly man who rents out offices.
In spite of politeness, there is tension and distrust between the young woman and the aging landlord from the very beginning. To what extent their mutual attitude reflects their respective marital lives, however, can only be guessed. The narrator offers nothing but facts about her own family life and nothing but suppositions about the marriage of her landlord. The circumstances of the woman’s decision to look for an office are presented laconically in the first sentence of the story:
The solution to my life occurred to me one evening while I was ironing a shirt. It was simple but audacious. I went into the living room where my husband was watching television and I said, “I think I ought to have an office”. (Munro 2000: 59)
The idea “sounded fantastic, even to me” (Munro 2000: 59), she admits, because she has a house which is “pleasant and roomy and has a view of the sea; it provides appropriate places for eating and sleeping, and having baths and conversations with one’s friends. Also I have a garden; there is no lack of space” (Munro 2000: 59). In other words, the woman is aware of having a place that can be believed to satisfy far more than basic existential needs. She realizes, however, that writing is also an urgent need that cannot be gratified in this space, which makes her think of having in addition an office outside her home. The woman expresses not so much a wish to have an office as an externally imposed obligation: “I ought to have an office.” She does not admit that it is her desire, or even that she has the right to experience such a desire. The assumed attitude of external obligation (“I ought to”) blocks out entirely the idea of desire.
The need for an office, and not just a room within a woman’s own house, signals a request for acknowledgement of her creative activity as “work” and not just “pastime.” The husband’s response is not exactly encouraging, but it is not dismissing either. The woman’s ambition is not an issue worth pondering. Money is. “Go ahead,” her husband says, “if you can find one cheap enough” (Munro 2000: 61). The husband’s conditional consent means that he views the narrator’s wish as a whim and the “work” she wants to do in her “office” as a hobby that is unlikely to bring any income. Since “work” and “office” are from his perspective only (perhaps childlike) make-believe, the only real and hence important thing in the whole affair is the cost, which should be kept at the minimum. The story explains “how difficult it is for a woman to assert her writing talent in a social context” (Staines 2016: 15). The cause of handicap seems to be prejudice that (despite apparent charity) begins at home.
The prospective landlord, Mr. Malley, is absent during the narrator’s first visit; she can only meet his wife, who is defined by her attribute, a vacuum cleaner, as the one whose task it is to literally and metaphorically clean up mess. The narrator describes her in detail, searching her appearance for traces of Mr. Malley’s (mis)conduct. The woman has “the swaying passivity, the air of exhaustion and muted apprehension that speaks of a life spent in close attention on a man who is by turns vigorous, crotchety and dependent” (Munro 2000: 62). The landlord’s wife admits that she can make no decisions, but she promises to mention the narrator’s visit to her husband. She receives the would-be writer in a room which is “a combination living room and office.” Even though the man is absent and the space has the double, public and private, function, the signs of his mastery and masculinity are clearly visible all around. The visitor notices immediately models of ships scattered all over the place. She also singles out “masculine” ornaments, such as “china deer, heads, bronze horses, huge ash trays of heavy, veined, shiny material. On the walls were framed photographs and what might have been diplomas”. The room is “dominated by a portrait, with its own light and a gilded frame” presenting “a good-looking, fair-haired man in middle age, sitting behind a desk, wearing a business suit and looking preeminently prosperous, rosy and agreeable” (Munro 2000: 62–63). When the narrator meets Mr. Malley “in the flesh” (Munro 2000: 63) during her second visit, she compares the portrait of the “master” with the man who is sitting in front of her.
Ten years, maybe fifteen, had greatly softened, spread and defeated the man in the picture. His hips and thighs had now a startling accumulation of fat, causing him to move with a sigh, a cushiony settling of flesh, a ponderous matriarchal discomfort. His hair and eyes had faded, his features blurred, and the affable, predatory expression had collapsed into one of troubling humility and chronic mistrust. I did not look at him. I had not planned, in taking an office, to take on the responsibility of knowing any more human beings. (Munro 2000: 63–64)
In spite of “masculine” ornaments in the room, its double function as living room and office is a projection of the master’s androgyny. Masculinity may be a mere ornament, but even as a “matriarch,” Mr. Malley is the decision-maker in the family. The narrator throws the traditional patriarchal or matriarchal system off balance when she claims for her creative activity a space that is “not home.” This is precisely the request that the landlord cannot understand, and still less accept. His understanding, as far as it can be surmised in his (verbal) behavior, is that the narrator is seeking new creative impulses outside her home, and he seeks to oblige with stories of his own and other people’s lives. When this supposition turns out to be false, he begins to insinuate that the office might be serving as a space of illicit sexual relationships.
The office is comfortable, but the landlord is a nuisance because of his effort first to find out the narrator’s real motivation for renting the office and then to turn the rented space into what it “ought” to be from his perspective, namely home. Mr. Malley keeps calling on the narrator, bringing little gifts: a plant, a flowery teapot, a decorative wastebasket, or a foam rubber cushion for her chair. The woman has to learn how to refuse. At first she just meekly accepts kindnesses that are none, though she knows from the beginning that such gifts undermine her intention of finding a space that is “not home.” She knows that his effort to turn her “office” into “home” means that he does not see her writing as “work.” When the narrator begins to defend herself against Mr. Malley’s intrusion and literally walls herself in (ignoring his knocking and keeping the door locked), he retaliates: he orders her to his “office” – which, as the reader already knows, is also a living room – and raises allegations about her misconduct. Finally he is able to show evidence in the form of obscenities written on the washroom walls.
This accusation is not only unjust – the washroom is a space open to many people and not exclusively to the narrator – but also demeaning. It is a cruel joke on the profession to which the woman aspires. Whereas Brad Hooper mentions “The Office” as a prime example of Munro’s sense of humor (2008: 11), Magdalene Redekop reads “the filthy writing on the wall in the washroom” as “yet another practical joke,” which “seems to be laughing at the narrator” (2009: 18). From Mr. Malley’s point of view, the narrator’s writing amounts to obscene scribblings on the washroom walls. The landlord goes as far as to threaten her with obscenity laws, which, as he argues, apply to both kinds of “artistic” activity (Munro 2000: 72). The landlord’s suspicion about the narrator’s indecent behavior seems as absurd to her as her idea of having an office must appear to him. It seems, however, that the whole bitterly comic episode is not so much a matter of gender conflict after all – the matriarchal Mr. Malley does not have “an office of his own” either – as of a prejudice against artistic professions, including (or perhaps especially) writing.
The narrator moves out of her “office,” even though she has paid in advance for several months ahead. In doing so she admits that what had seemed to be an external obligation was after all a whim. A still more bitter recognition ensuing from the failed experiment is that her writing was not (and might never be) acknowledged as serious work. It was in fact pronounced to be equal to intoxicated and inconsequential scribbling in a washroom. Mrs. Malley reappears at the end of the story to help the narrator carry her bags, but interestingly enough, the narrator envisions Mr. Malley, and not his wife, as the one who scrubs the washroom walls clean when his tenant leaves. His scrubbing of the washroom walls contributes to his image as a matriarch – cleaning is in his family the woman’s job – but it also proves that the obscenities are also a major threat to his system of values and hence require the intervention of the “master,” rather than of his wife. Instead of becoming a writer in (and through having) an “office,” the narrator became one by being subjected to demeaning jokes and (if one identifies her with the writing that was attributed to her) by being wiped away – in a way “cleansed” – in a washroom. She finds her voice at the end, as Munro also does. “The Office,” one of Munro’s early stories is a humorous, and at the same time powerful, accusation of landlords, including perhaps also the then landlords of Canadian literature.
In another story of a female writer published fifty years later, Munro again looks back to the 1950s and 60s and the time when the protagonist was still young and unknown. Isla Duncan claims that “To Reach Japan” (2012) is set in the early 1960s, “as the reference to the 1959 film The Four Hundred Blows indicates” (165). The title of the story is far less straightforward than “The Office.” It counterpoints the stasis of “the office” with the dynamism of pointing out the aim and the direction. The phrase “to reach Japan” suggests an entirely different conceptualization of space in relation to writing career from the one in “The Office.” The space is vaster than in the previous story, and the purpose is at once specific and vague. The journey the protagonist makes from Vancouver to Toronto actually takes her further away from the destination named in the title.
The nameless narrator of the earlier story hopes to find the space where her literary activity would be clearly distinguished from housework. Her struggle to attain some degree of social recognition for her artistic work is all in vain and she remains literally nameless throughout the story. This anonymity reflects her lack of significance in the literary marketplace. By contrast, the protagonist of “To Reach Japan” has a name, though it is only her given name, Greta. It is quite important, however, that she is not the narrator of her story, which seems to indicate her lack of control over both her story and her life.
Like the nameless narrator in “The Office,” Greta has a practical, conciliatory husband, Peter, who is presented in a more detailed manner than the husband in the earlier story. Greta defines her artistic pursuit as a reaction against Peter’s practical turn of mind. He “learned Business Practice […] when Greta was learning Paradise Lost. She avoided anything useful like the plague. It seemed he did the opposite” (Munro 2012: 4-5). Greta’s literary achievements are nevertheless modest. They include two poems that appeared in The Echo Answers, a magazine published irregularly in Toronto. An invitation from the editor of the magazine to a party he is planning to attend in Vancouver may also count as a moderate social-literary success. The number of her published poems is not impressive, the magazine’s name hardly connotes work of genius, its irregular publication suggests an amateur endeavor, and an invitation to come along to someone else’s party is hardly a great honor. Having an office is not an issue to Greta. The challenge she faces is greater than an unsympathetic landlord who knows nothing about literary art. The next stage of the female writer’s progress entails coping with the conceited and chronically insecure community of local literati. Her task now is to find a place for herself among them.
To this end, she sets out to attend a party “at the house of a writer whose name had been familiar to her, it seemed, for her whole life” (Munro 2012: 7). The famous name is never revealed, and the host, whom she cannot find in the crowd, does not even notice her presence. The narrator describes in detail, however, the pain, also the literal physical pain, of going to that party (Munro 2012: 7–8). She had to find a baby-sitter for her daughter, she got lost, and then on the way her feet were aching in high-heel shoes. After much hesitation Greta enters the house where the party is taking place, but she does not feel welcome at all:
Nobody looked at her with any recognition or pleasure, and why should they? People’s eyes slid round her and then they went on with their conversations. They laughed. Everybody but Greta was equipped with friends, jokes, half-secrets, everybody appeared to have found somebody to welcome them. (Munro 2012: 8–9)
Greta attempts to strike up a conversation with several people, but all these efforts are in vain. Eventually, she gets drunk out of despair. The girl who serves drinks seems to be her sole interlocutor, and drinking what she serves is a vestige of conviviality. Instead of participating, Greta keeps observing and comparing the party with the meetings of engineers, which she attended with Peter before. She not only notices the difference, but also explains why the literati behave the way they do.
She thought that when she went with Peter to an engineers’ party, the atmosphere was pleasant though the talk was boring. That was because everybody had their importance fixed and settled at least for the time being. Here nobody was safe. Judgment might be passed behind backs, even on the known and published.” (Munro 2012: 10)
The famous writer’s home turned into a house of fiction is hardly an inviting place. Mr. Malley’s demeaning judgment could be repeated in this space as well and would be still more scathing because coming from people of authority in the literary marketplace. Their neglect is painful to Greta. Their judgment could be still worse.
Greta is eventually rescued and brought home by a friendly newspaper columnist, Harris Bennett from Toronto, who happens to be the son-in-law of the mysterious host. As his own marital life is far from perfect, Greta hopes that an affair can develop out of this acquaintance. She travels to Toronto with her daughter apparently to do house-sitting for a friend, but in fact in the hope of meeting Harris, who indeed greets mother and daughter on their arrival at the train station. In contrast to the nameless narrator in “The Office,” Greta is a “sexually bold protagonist” (Duncan 2011: 165). Not only does she leave her husband to start an affair with a new acquaintance, but she also has casual sex with a stranger on the train, leaving her child completely on her own. One may argue that she thus turns her life into an adventure story, and that she is living a life of fiction while writing nothing. Like the nameless protagonist of “The Office,” Greta leaves the safe space of home. Bitterly disappointed with the community of professional writers, she seeks her creative space in the house of fiction itself, piercing the walls and looking inside and out of many windows. This way of living may be harmful to her family and to her career, and nobody can tell if it can bring her to Japan or whatever it stands for.
To readers of Henry James, “Japan” is a familiar (and puzzling) place name. In Chapter 29 of The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel and Osmond have the following conversation in which the country’s name is mentioned several times:
Isabel, with her eyes bent, fingered the pages of M. Ampère a little. “You turn things into ridicule without seeming to do it, though not, I think, without intending it […]. You’ve no respect for my travels—you think them ridiculous.”
“You see my ignorance, my blunders, the way I wander about as if the world belonged to me, simply because—because it has been put into my power to do so. You don’t think a woman ought to do that. You think it bold and ungraceful.”
“I think it beautiful,” said Osmond. “You know my opinions—I have treated you to enough of them. Don’t you remember my telling you that one ought to make one’s life a work of art? You looked rather shocked at first; but then I told you that it was exactly what you seemed to me to be trying to do with your own life.”
Isabel looked up from her book.
“What you despise most in the world is bad art.”
“Possibly. But yours seem to me very good.”
“If I were to go to Japan next winter, you would laugh at me,” Isabel continued.
Osmond gave a smile—a keen one, but not a laugh, for the tone of their conversation was not jocular. Isabel was almost temulously serious; he had seen her so before.
“You have an imagination that startles one!”
“That is exactly what I say. You think such an idea absurd.”
“I would give my little finger to go to Japan; it is one of the countries I want most to see. Can’t you believe that, with my taste for old lacquer?”
“I haven’t a taste for old lacquer to excuse me,” said Isabel.
“You’ve a better excuse—the means of going. You’re quite wrong in your theory that I laugh at you. I don’t know what has put it into your head.”
“It wouldn’t be remarkable if you did think it ridiculous that I should have the means to travel when you have not; for you know everything and I know nothing.”
“The more reason why you should travel and learn,” said Osmond, smiling. “Besides,” he added, more gravely, “I don’t know everything.”
“Go everywhere,” he said at last, in a low, kind voice; “do everything; get everything out of life. Be happy—be triumphant.”
“What do you mean by being triumphant?”
“Well, doing what you like.”
“To triumph, then, it seems to me, is to fail! Doing all the vain things one likes is often very tiresome.” (James 2016: 297-299)
Greta does not converse with her husband the way Isabel Archer does with her scheming fiancé, but if she did, she could be making similar claims about her “ignorance” and “blunders,” about being “bold and ungraceful,” and then also about making her life “a work of art.” Like Isabel, she might be worrying that her life is bad, laughable art and that being “triumphant” while doing what one likes may also be “tiresome.” To both Isabel and Greta, Japan is a figure of speech, a provocative gesture of a woman who tests the extent of her personal freedom construed as artistic imagination. It is by no means certain that Munro’s Japan is the space of experiment that Isabel has in mind when challenging Gilbert Osmond. In giving her protagonist the characteristics of an amateur writer, lovingly opening up to all kinds of experience, Munro exposes the deceptiveness of writing as a profession, which consists in turning one’s life into a work of art.
A Jamesian lesson of authorship
The relation of life and art is also at the heart of “The Lesson of the Master” (1888), which James published in his mid-forties. As Ernest Dowson and George Monteiro after him indicate, the novella was inspired by Robert Browning’s relatively little-known poem entitled “A Light Woman,” included in Men and Women of 1855 (Monteiro 2016: 33-40). The poem revolves around a question addressed to Robert Browning, who is mentioned by name in the last but one line. The question itself is posed at the beginning of the poem: “Which do you pity the most of us three? – / My friend, or the mistress of my friend / With her wanton eyes, or me?” (qtd. in Monteiro 2016: 34). “The Lesson of the Master” is in fact the second narrative in which James reworks the motif of the love triangle from Browning’s poem, the first being “A Light Man” of 1869. In “The Lesson of the Master,” James recasts the dilemma as a competition between writers that is played out on two intersecting levels of public and private life.
There are two male authors in James’s novella: Paul Overt and Henry St. George. The former is an aspiring young writer and the latter a celebrated old one. The young author feels both attracted to and repelled by the more experienced one. He seems to love the young lady, Miss Fancourt, whose youthful enthusiasm dominates the scene, but when the older “master” warns him against the danger that married life and a family pose to creative work, Paul takes the lesson and leaves. Even though St. George seems to be a happy husband and father, he claims to his young disciple that “[o]ne has no business to have any children […]. I mean of course if one wants to do something good” (James 1963: 239). St. George is convincing when he makes this claim. Indeed, as an artist he has not accomplished much in the recent years, and his personal happiness (if it is indeed happiness) may well be the cause of his diminishing creative talent. Paul gives up his love for Miss Fancourt, but when he returns to London two years later, St. George, now a widower, is getting married to Marian Fancourt. The younger man is outraged, but the elder man merely smiles (James 1963: 282) and argues that it is all for the best for the younger artist. St. George claims to have taken the burden of family life off Overt’s shoulders to make him free and capable of great literary achievements.
The awareness of the dilemmas addressed by Alice Munro in her stories of aspiring female writers makes the reader of James’s novella particularly alert to two aspects: first, the space where literary work is performed and, second, the woman’s literary ambition. The narrator of “The Lesson of the Master” indeed takes the reader “downstairs” and “through a long passage” to a room in “the rear of [St. George’s] habitation” (258) which serves as the writer’s study. The word “office” is never used, though such a function is implied. The room is emphatically not homelike:
St George was in his shirt-sleeves in the middle of a large, high room—a room without windows, but with a wide skylight at the top, like a place of exhibition. It was furnished as a library, and the serried bookshelves rose to the ceiling, a surface of incomparable tone, produced by dimly-gilt “backs,” which was interrupted here and there by the suspension of old prints and drawings. At the end furthest from the door of admission was a tall desk, of great extent, at which the person using it could only write standing, like a clerk in a counting-house; and stretching from the door to this structure was a large plain band of crimson cloth, as straight as a garden-path and almost as long, where, in his mind’s eye, Paul Overt aimmediately saw his host pace to and fro during his hours of composition. […] “Ah we’re practical—we’re practical!” St George said, as he saw his visitor looking the place over. “Isn’t it a good big cage, to go round and round? My wife invented it and she locks me up here every morning.” (James 1963: 258)
The description abounds in ambiguities. The room has no widows, and its “wide skylight at the top, like a place of exhibition” makes the reader think of a dungeon, perhaps an oubliette, especially in view of the metaphor of prison that St. George uses when describing his wife’s role in the publishing business. The place is a “library,” a kind of secular temple, but the “tall desk” at the far end of the entrance is identified as the place of “a clerk in a counting-house,” which suggests the significance of income, rather than art. The “crimson cloth” stretching between the door and the desk, compared – one might say expressionistically – to “a garden path,” connotes at the same time great honor and great pain, crimson being the color of royalty, power, and wealth, as well as the color of blood.
Whereas Browning portrays the “light woman” as the figure of a temptress or a femme fatale, a proud hunter with “wanton eyes,” James endows her with a literary ambition all of her own. Miss Fancourt is the third writer, and the only female one, in this small group. She admits as soon as she gets to know Paul that she has “tried to write a novel” (James 1963: 227). She has opinions of her own. Inverting Isabel Archer’s claim, she asks: “But what is art but a life – if it be real?” (James 1963: 228). It is she who has read Paul’s novel and narrated it to St. George. The “master” does not hesitate to reveal her mediating function (James 1963: 242). Even at the time when his wife is still alive, he sings praises of Miss Fancourt, using the kind of language Gilbert Osmond would also employ:
she gives away because she overflows. She has her own feelings, her own standards; she doesn’t keep remembering that she must be proud. And then she hasn’t been here long enough to be spoiled; she has picked up a fashion or two, but only the amusing ones. She’s a provincial—a provincial of genius; her very blunders are charming, her mistakes are interesting. (James 1963: 243)
The death of the master’s first wife seems to put an end to his dependence on “false gods” – “[t]he idols of the market – money and luxury” (James 1963: 239). His second wife is, as her father puts it when passing the news of the upcoming wedding to Paul Overt, “so awfully literary” (James 1963: 277). Unlike St. George’s first wife, a shrewd businesswoman, who would not hesitate to make her husband burn a “bad,” that is too artistic and hence unsaleable, book (James 1963: 219), Marian promises to be a perfect reader, worshipper, and muse. As her father, a former colonial officer, indicates at the beginning of his and his daughter’s acquaintance with Paul Overt, she also hopes that Mr St George will help her in her artistic pursuits (James 1963: 217).
Analyzing James’s novella through the lens of Munro’s stories of female writers sensitizes the reader to the social and gender instability involved in authorship. Paul Overt’s insecurity about the value of his work – evident in the closing paragraph of James’s novella – is echoed in the “writers’ party episode” experienced by Greta. Paul’s sense of literary professionalism, which justifies his sacrifice of “personal passion” (James 1963: 284), but makes him skeptical about turning the writer’s study into a counting-house is given an interesting new twist in Munro’s stories. Her female characters do not even dream of becoming a popular success, and “personal passion” is not identical for them (especially Greta) with married life, but they also illustrate the inescapability of some kind of personal sacrifice, even if the gain resulting from it remains meager. In James’s novella even the eponymous “master” relies on the judgment of his wife: market-oriented in the case of his first one and possibly more artistic in the case of Marian Fancourt. Conversely, Marian’s own literary interest and ambition needs to be endorsed by the literary “master.” In the two stories by Munro, home is not the space of literary careers pursued by both husband and wife. To Munro’s protagonists entering the house of fiction and especially the house of literary fame requires leaving the safe space of home.
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