Impediments

“The big question about Roderick Hudson,” a friend said to me, before I started reading it, “is, did Henry James have any idea how gay it was.” Now that I’ve finished, I agree that this is a good question.

I had read a fair number of James’s other novels before coming to Roderick Hudson, and in that light, what my friend refers to as its gayness is a bit of a surprise. One hears a lot about the alleged homosexuality of James, but in most of the novels of his that I’ve read, it’s so implicit in his subjectivity as to be beneath notice, unless you’re the sort of person who tags delicacy of perception or subtlety of expression as gay. True, it’s possible to see something not quite heterosexual in the valetudinarian, hands-off policy of Ralph Touchett, or in the refined collecting habits of any number of other characters, but the reader doesn’t sense any deformation in the material because of it. That is, if a character seems a tad gay, it’s perhaps because James wants you to understand that he is a tad gay. It’s plausible that Touchett might be, for example, leaving aside the question of whether he knows it about himself; one may entertain the possibility without having to imagine that James has lied to you about Touchett anywhere along the way. There don’t seem to be any substitutions or rearrangements; James doesn’t seem to try the Albertine strategy, for example, Proust’s trick of turning a man’s male beloved into a female character. The women seem to have been conceived of as women, not as men who have been transposed into women. Where he seems to have worked with material that in its original form involved homosexual desire, he omits but does not distort.

But that’s not the case in Roderick Hudson, and there’s something a little off about it, as a result. In the opening chapters, James drops hints that seem almost lurid. When Rowland Mallet, a well-meaning, somewhat purposeless, thirty-year-old heir, visits Cecilia, the sexy, ironic-voiced, twenty-eight-year-old widow who is his not-by-blood cousin, in Northampton, Massachusetts, she at one point apologizes for the town’s meager social resources by saying, “If I refused last night to show you a pretty girl, I can at least show you a pretty boy,” and then reveals a bronze statuette of a “naked youth drinking from a gourd . . . a loosened fillet of wild flowers about his head.” Rowland likes it an awful lot. It was sculpted, Cecilia reveals, by her friend Roderick Hudson, a twenty-four-year-old law student, who, when he and Rowland meet, explains that the cup in the statue is a symbol of “knowledge, pleasure, experience.” Rowland replies, “Well, he’s guzzling in earnest,” and soon decides that what he will do with his life is take Roderick, whom he considers a “beautiful, supple, restless, bright-eyed animal,” to Italy, so that he can study art and blossom into a sculptor.

And no one bats an eyelash—that’s the first thing that seems false. When, in a similar case, Mrs. Touchett takes Isabel Archer to England, there’s no whiff of scandal: the age difference is much greater, Mrs. Touchett is married, however unhappily, and the two women are related. But the motivation for Rowland to take Roderick abroad seems insufficient, unless one supposes that Rowland has a crush. James immediately quashes that supposition by concocting a female love interest for both Rowland and Roderick—in fact, the same female love interest. The reader is asked to believe that as a consequence of Rowland’s invitation, Roderick suddenly proposes marriage to his distant cousin and longtime housemate Mary Garland, whom Rowland just as suddenly discovers that he’s in love with. On second thought, Roderick’s abrupt proposal isn’t the false point—one can easily imagine that a heterosexual, somewhat egotistic young man, in the face of new and unknown risks, might suddenly grab for security at a woman he has long taken for granted—but Rowland’s abrupt tumble into love definitely is. Or rather, the notion that he is in fact in love is implausible. Where Mary is concerned, James’s narrative doesn’t allow us to see too clearly what’s in Rowland’s mind, but the most perspicuous emotion he seems to have is feeling sorry for her. He seems very badly to want to believe he’s in love with her, but that fish belongs to a different kettle.

In Venice, there’s another lurid touch. Faced with masterpieces by Titian and Veronese, Roderick briefly feels inadequate. Then he and Rowland hire a gondola.

Roderick lay back for a couple of hours watching a brown-breasted gondolier making superb muscular movements, in high relief, against the sky of the Adriatic, and at the end jerked himself up with a violence that nearly swamped the gondola, and declared that the only thing worth living for was to make a colossal bronze and set it aloft in the light of the public square.

The reader fans himself with alarm over such passage, but nothing really comes of them. James seems to have toyed with the notion that something in Roderick’s artistic sensibility might have responded to Rowland’s generosity, but he went no further than toying. That’s fine; there’s no real distortion here. Someone like Roderick probably wouldn’t have responded to someone like Rowland, in the way he might have responded to a gondolier. The trouble is with Mary Garland, and with the conceit, which James sticks to grimly until the end, of Rowland’s love for her. I ended up more or less convinced that James had effected a variation on the Albertine strategy with her. (Spoiler alert: Stop reading now if you don’t want to know how the novel ends.) In other words, I felt that James more or less consciously intended for Rowland’s supposed love for Mary to stand in for something he felt he couldn’t represent, namely, Rowland’s actual love for Roderick.

The conviction seems hard to avoid while reading Roderick and Rowland’s final confrontation. In it, Rowland offers Roderick money, which Roderick resists taking, out of what he calls “brute instinct.” He lashes out at the older man’s generosity, making a strange accusation: “Decidedly there are certain things you know nothing about.” Rowland: “These things—what are they?” Roderick: “They are women, principally, and what relates to women. Women for you, by what I can make out, mean nothing. You have no imagination—no sensibility, nothing to be touched!”

To the anachronistic gay reader, this seems promising. “You are incredibly ungrateful,” Rowland answers. “How do you know whether I have loved or suffered?” he continues, and then goes on to call Roderick an egotist. “You are selfish. . . . You regard other people only as they play into your own hands.” The anachronistic gay reader marvels: Is James headed for the éclaircissement that I think he’s headed for—that of an older gay man about to lose patience with a younger straight one who has taken his favors without returning his affections, and is the older gay man about to discover, to his chagrin, that love doesn’t go by tit-for-tat rules?

The two men continue their accusations and confessions. Roderick reaches the point of realizing that Rowland has been suffering at his hands. “I must have been hideous,” Roderick half-apologizes. “It has been a terrible mistake, then? . . . And all this time, you have been in love? Tell me the woman.”

Rowland felt an immense desire to give him a visible palpable pang. “His name is Roderick Hudson.”

Not, of course, though a rewrite is temptingly easy (“The surprise was great; Roderick coloured as he had never done. ‘Heaven forgive us!’ Rowland observed the ‘us’…”). In James’s novel, Rowland outs himself as a man in love with Roderick’s fiancée. Oh well. The revelation sends Roderick careening to his death, as such revelations generally do in melodrama, and the death doesn’t bring Rowland and Mary together, as such deaths generally don’t in crypto-gay fictions. But wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?

2 thoughts on “Impediments”

  1. I just taught RH this semester (on a course on "culture"), and this post is better than most of the criticism I found on the novel. And you didn't even mention the scene where Rowland waits with RH's beautiful, perfect corpse.

    One thing to note: In the New York preface to the novel, I think James actually identified the speed with which Rowland falls in love with Mary Garland as one of the weaknesses of the novel.

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