James peoples his novel with figures from the London anarchist scene of his day. He makes the indefatigable Johann Most serve as the basis for three characters: a bookbinder, a chemist, and a German international revolutionist, all of which Most was. Kropotkin, still tired from his journey, perhaps, will do for only one, but James compensates by giving him a sex change and making him the expatriate noblewoman of the book’s title, who abandons a life of luxury to side with the oppressed.
In his preface, James claims to have gathered the information with which to set the scene by sheer dogged observation: “pulling no wires, knocking at no closed doors, applying for no ‘authentic’ information”; instead, it was his practice to “haunt the great city and by this habit to penetrate it, imaginatively, in as many places as possible”.
When it comes down to it, James’s “imaginative penetration” consists of projecting his personal hang-ups and his class prejudices onto the working class in general and the revolutionary socialist movement in particular. The central figure, the bookbinder, has a grudge against the nobility, while at the same time he hankers for their “cultivated” life: a clear metaphor for James’s own persistent bourgeois-colonial hobnobbing.
The actual absence of any true independence of mind and total incapacity for any enlightened social thinking that are the rule among both the state/industrial baronry and the academic mandarins who are their cerebral proxies — this chronic intellectual debility, which is concealed by their impressive titles, appearances, and generally exalted positions, James projects upon the would-be revolutionaries, who are all muddle and dither. The murderous selfishness of the privileged and mighty, so elegantly promoted in that day in the apparel of the academically approved doctrine of social darwinism, finds its reflection in James’s novel in the portrayal of social revolution as culminating in a massive slaughter of the rich and the share-out of their property. This despite the fact that anarchist communism, i.e. collective ownership, self-management and free exchange, was well established as a revolutionary doctrine before 1886.
The instrument of the revolution, at least in its early stages, is to be an international terrorist conspiracy that binds its members by oath before giving them its orders. For of course, since the violence of the ruling class really is originated in hidden hierarchical conspiracies (for the sake of “national security”), and carried out by mere myrmidons, whose slave status is sealed by swearing them in, so must revolutionary violence be ordered by shadowy command structures that enforce blind obedience by the administration of oaths so terrible that they cannot be reported.
James cannot see the inhumanity, idleness, and cowardice of the rich, because of their veneer of “culture”. These vices, however, are all too obvious to him in the poor: insurmountable obstacles to the creation of a just social order. Yet the evidence of tenderness, the skill, the courage of the dispossessed was all around him. It was into the bosoms of working women that the rich thrust their children for nursing, it was into the hands of the working men that they put their very lives when they went travelling, it was the sons of working men and women in the army and navy that kept them safe from their enemies and defended or extended their dominions for them. The idea that it is the sheer usefulness of the poor that makes the rich determined to keep them poor was evidently beyond Henry James.
To describe and comment upon the actual plot of the novel would be to dignify it quite unjustifiably. In their blurb, the publishers describe the book as portraying “the crucial era of England before socialism”. Of course, what they mean is authoritarian socialism, with its bourgeois, parliamentary, statist and militarist tactics. It would have been fascinating to read an account of life before this disease had infected the labour movement. Unfortunately, all we get is an account of the author’s prejudices. Since these correspond to the ideology of the ruling class today, just as much as yesterday, they are of little interest.
Recently, James’s old house in Sussex was acquired by the Rolls-Royce car firm, to be used for their directors’ frolics. Words or wheels, the social reality expressed is the same.
From: Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review #5 (1980).