(click image to enlarge)
The American writer, Henry James (1843-1916), settled in England in 1876, and wrote most of his major works from that time. He became the favourite novelist of Max Beerbohm and, when Beerbohm first met him in 1895, he found the man as fascinating as his books. Between 1898 and 1954, Beerbohm produced at least 22 affectionate caricatures of James that cleverly critique his authorial personality and literary style.
James gained a reputation for producing psychologically acute narratives that examined inevitable and universal conflicts of moral character. He became increasingly experimental in his attempts to represent complex states of mind and ambiguous motives, forming long paragraphs that proceed indirectly by way of suggestive, shifting rumination. This approach was affected, from 1897, by his change of practice, from writing his own drafts to dictating to a typist.
The most significant results of James’s experimentation were three late novels: The Wings of a Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904). These were particularly loved by Beerbohm, though he was aware that their stylistic idiosyncrasies were replete with difficulty and ripe for parody. As both writer and artist, he was able to respond in word as well as image; so he provided captions to his caricatures that succinctly mimic James’s mode of expression, and also penned a more substantial pastiche, ‘The Mote in the Middle Distance’, which first appeared in the Saturday Review on 8 December 1906, as part of his second ‘Christmas Garland’.
The present caricature was exhibited two years later, in April 1908, in an exhibition at Carfax & Co, London. It portrays James as an expert witness in a court of law, in the deliciously impossible position of being asked to provide a ‘plain answer’ to a ‘plain question’. It is unlikely to relate to a specific ‘cause célèbre’, though the figures seated behind the author look as if they may have stepped out of one of James’s novels. In his catalogue of Beerbohm’s caricatures, Rupert Hart-Davis notes that both James’s solicitor, Sir George Lewis, and Lewis’s son are among those present, being seated below left of the ‘Cross-Examining Counsel’. The study for this caricature was entitled ‘An Awful Fancy …’ rather than ‘A Nightmare …’. The final choice of words leaves the spectator wondering whether the ‘nightmare’ is that of Henry James or of one of his less sympathetic readers.