contents of this page

the problem
the can of worms is opened
an attempt is made to reseal the can
a critical reading of the New York edition ordering
why did James use such a confusing narrative scheme?
conclusions
references
appendix
the problem

The publishing history of The ambassadors is complex, even for a work by James. The novel was written from October 1900 to mid-1901, before the bulk of The wings of the dove, but did not immediately find a publisher. To fit the eventual serialization in The North American review (NAR) throughout 1903, various passages had to be omitted, including three whole chapters: the NAR had not published any fiction in the 90 years of its history and demanded cuts to fit a rigorous twelve instalment schedule. James hoped to use the serial proofs to provide the majority of copy for the book versions’ publishers in London and New York but the NAR supplied only one set of proofs, instead of the requested two. Thus in August 1903 James had to supply the British publisher with carbon-copy of the unrevised original typescript to enable them to meet their scheduled publication date. He also lacked duplicate copies of the omitted passages at this time and these two factors resulted in some significant textual variations in the Methuen edition (see the 1965 explanation by Brian Birch, ref. 2).

One of the most serious of these discrepancies was that an unserialized chapter was inserted before ‘chapter 28’ instead of after it, as found in the Harper edition (which was the one James had time to proof-read thoroughly). When he came to prepare the revised text for the New York Edition (NYE), five years later, James chose to work from the Harper edition. The two chapters (28 and 29) became numbers 1 and 2 in book 11.

The current situation, over a century later, is that all modern editions of the novel, regardless of which text they choose to reprint, present these two chapters in the Methuen order, which has very weak authorial sanction compared with that of the New York edition. How has this come about and what should a reader do when they get to the end of chapter 27 (book 10 chapter 3)? Answering these questions is the purpose of this page.

To assist you in following the details of the discussion, I will refer to the chapters by their content: one describes a conversation between Strether and Maria Gostrey and the other a conversation between Strether and Chad Newsome. Thus the chapters can be designated for the purposes of this discussion as the ‘Maria’ and ‘Chad’ chapters. (Of course, there are other chapters in the novel with scenes between Strether and these characters.) Each scene takes place in the evening, on successive days, and in chronological order of events the scene with Chad occurs first. I have also provided, in an appendix at the foot of this page, a copy of the table on my ‘textual variants’ page showing the opening text of each chapter and their dispositions in the various source editions of The ambassadors.

the can of worms is opened

In 1950 Robert E. Young, not knowing the Methuen edition, nor details of James’s work on the novel, argued (ref. 1) that the New York edition order was incorrect, on the basis of the chronological sequence of events in the book. For example, in the ‘Maria’ chapter (Harper 28, NYE 11/1) ‘we learn that Sarah [Pocock] is leaving that evening for Switzerland. Yet in chapter 29, Strether, meeting with Chad around midnight of that evening, speaks of his intention of seeing her again before her departure.’ (Young ref. 1, page 247, quoted by McGann, ref. 3) Young pointed out other inconsistencies and most critics agreed with his analysis, including the doyen of James scholars, Leon Edel, who pointed out that the Methuen edition had the chapters in Young’s preferred order. Thus it came about that published versions of the novel from then onwards usually reversed the position of the two chapters when reprinting what they called the ‘New York edition text’. Of course those (few) publishers using the Methuen edition as their source had the chapters in the ‘chronologically acceptable’ order anyway.

an attempt is made to reseal the can

Then in 1992 the noted textual and bibliographical scholar Jerome McGann reopened the question. In an article published in the same journal as Young’s original observations, American literature (ref. 3, subsequently reprinted in an anthology of essays on the New York edition), McGann made several telling points :

a critical reading of the New York edition ordering

I think it is important to expand on and explain McGann’s last point. In the following discussion, I have added some of my own observations to McGann’s explanations. The ‘Maria’ chapter begins :

One of the features of the restless afternoon passed by him after Mrs Pocock’s visit was an hour spent, shortly before dinner, with Maria Gostrey, whom of late, in spite of so sustained a call on his attention from other quarters, he had by no means neglected. And that he was still not neglecting her will appear from the fact that he was with her again at the same hour on the very morrow – with no less fine a consciousness moreover of being able to hold her ear. It continued inveterately to occur, for that matter, that whenever he had taken one of his greater turns he came back to where she so faithfully awaited him. None of these excursions had on the whole been livelier than the pair of incidents – the fruit of the short interval since his previous visit – on which he had now to report to her. He had seen Chad Newsome late the night before, and he had had that morning, as a sequel to this conversation, a second interview with Sarah. “But they’re all off,” he said, “at last.”

(Norton critical edition, 2nd ed., 1994, page 292, as book 11 chapter 2, = chapter 29; my emphasis)

This tells us two important things: that Strether sees Maria on two successive evenings, but the following details – comprising the rest of the chapter – only relate to the second evening, and that between these two meetings Strether sees Chad (late at night) and Sarah (during the following morning). When we read the ‘Chad’ chapter we start with :

He [Strether] went late that evening to the Boulevard Malesherbes, having his impression that it would be vain to go early, and having also, more than once in the course of the day, made enquiries of the concierge. Chad hadn’t come in and had left no intimation; he had affairs, apparently, at this juncture – as it occurred to Strether he so well might have – that kept him long abroad.

(Norton critical edition, 2nd ed., 1994, page 282, as book 11 chapter 1, = chapter 28; my emphasis)

We can see that this chapter is going to describe the meeting with Chad late at night, which we already know occurred before the second meeting with Maria, about which, in the New York edition order, we have just been reading. The key word is the fourth of the first sentence: the ‘that’ which I have emphasized. As McGann points out, with the chapters in the New York edition order Young wants to read this word as referring to the evening of Strether’s second meeting with Maria, just described, and therefore to create the anomalous references to Sarah’s departure and other matters.

To correct this, Young moves the chapter forward, to make the word refer to the evening of the day on which Strether has met Waymarsh, who told him that Sarah Pocock wanted to see him (chapter 26), and the subsequent meeting with Sarah herself, an hour later (chapter 27) (These are later numbered book 10, chapters 2–3). But we don’t need to move the chapter to make ‘that’ refer to the day of those encounters: the ‘Maria’ chapter indicates that the intervening description relates to something that will happen in the ‘future’, relative to the point reached in the story, so it makes good sense to read ‘that’ as referring back to the day of chapters 26 and 27, before the ‘digression’. This reading removes the chronological discrepancies noted by Young in the same way as changing the order of the chapters does. To an objection that referring back ‘over’ the immediately preceding chapter is ‘clumsy’, one can respond that the same thing happens in Young’s order, where the opening sentence of the ‘Maria’ chapter refers back to Mrs Pocock’s visit before the evening with Chad described in the intervening ‘Chad’ chapter.

Additionally, James has left us four clues in the first paragraph of the ‘Maria’ chapter. Most importantly, if he intended this chapter to follow the midnight scene with Chad, why would he have explicitly to remind us of their conversation by using free indirect speech to introduce Strether’s remarks to Maria: ‘He had seen Chad Newsome late the night before, and he had had that morning … a second interview with Sarah.’ Surely we can’t have forgotten in a dozen lines. In the serialization these words serve to report the main event of the missing chapter 29, but in the book editions they could be removed if the ‘Maria’ chapter follows the ‘Chad’ one. In revising for the New York edition, they should have acted as a flag to James that the chronological order of events was not being followed, if that was his intention. Further, by writing that Strether ‘had seen Chad Newsome late the night before’, James has given us a specific object of the ‘that’ at the start of the ‘Chad’ chapter: it is the evening that Strether went to see Chad, as opposed to this evening, after Sarah’s departure. Similarly, at the beginning of this opening paragraph, James writes ‘One of the features … was an hour spent…’ but if this was intended to follow the ‘Chad’ chapter, wouldn’t it have been more natural to have written ‘One of the features … had been an hour spent…’, signalling the reference back over the intervening chapter? Finally, and more tangentially, we read that ‘whenever he had taken one of his greater turns he came back to where she so faithfully awaited him’, which looks a little like a clue that we are taking a ‘greater turn’ and must wait to come back to where we are, to hear about Chad. These points are not made by McGann but serve, I think, to strengthen his case.

why did James use such a confusing narrative scheme?

In his article, McGann goes on to discuss the possible reasons for James’s ordering his narrative in this non-chronological way. At the root of his explanation is James’s use of irony. As I find some of his points confusing, I cannot do better than give a lengthy quote of McGann’s own words :

If we read the chapters in James’s rather than Young’s order, our attention is, I think, drawn more deeply into the dialectic of Strether’s blindness and insight. In Strether’s conversation with Maria Gostrey, for example, the reader is led to focus on two related emotional facts: that Maria is in love with Strether and that Strether – though Maria continually exposes her true feelings to him – fails utterly to register those feelings, let alone to respond.
In the novel’s plot-time this failure happens after Strether’s midnight conversation with Chad, which is dominated by the subject of love and people’s failed chances at a true emotional life. The reader will perceive this plot-time irony only after the events are over; it is an irony we gain by reflection, sometime after chapter 29.
Structured in this way, however – that is, structured as in James’s 1909 text – the narrative provides another moment of irony that we may register as it were ‘immediately’, a dramatic and experiential irony. This emerges as we move in reading-time from Strether’s conversation with Maria to his (earlier) conversation with Chad. When we follow Strether’s conversation with Chad in that textual sequence, we are forcibly confronted with the deep pathos of Strether’s nuanced and sympathetic imagination. The insight he reveals to and for Chad is matched by an evil reciprocal – by the blindness (is it a willful blindness?) that he reveals toward his own situation, where real opportunities for love are lost. (ref. 3, page 120)

I am not convinced that we are ‘drawn more deeply into the dialectic of Strether’s blindness and insight’ by encountering the conversation with Maria before that with Chad, although I agree that the effect of the ‘dramatic and experiential irony’ will register more immediately in the ‘Chad’ chapter if the talk with Maria is in mind.

conclusions

McGann’s article seems to me to present a very cogent exposition of the reasons for reversing Young’s opinion on the two chapters. In the absence of any firm evidence, we should not be changing James’s ‘definitive’ New York edition just to make it correspond with one way of reading, one where the narrative follows the chronology of events. McGann perhaps strains his argument too far by venturing upon interpretative claims which have weaker justification than his bibliographic ones, but I don’t think we can ignore the main thrust of his article.

So far, since 1992, few, if any, publishers of new editions of The ambassadors, who usually choose the New York edition text, have followed McGann and restored James’s definitive order, but, in a characteristically postmodern way, it is now up to each reader to decide for themselves in which order these chapters should be read. I hope that these notes will help clarify the bases on which to make such a decision.

references
  1. Robert E. Young, “A error in The AmbassadorsAmerican Literature 22 (November 1950), 245–253
  2. Brian Birch, “Henry James : some bibliographical and textual matters”, The library : a quarterly journal of bibliography 20 (1965), 108–123
  3. Jerome McGann, “Revision, rewriting, rereading; or, ‘An error [not] in The Ambassadors ”, American literature 64 (1992), 95–110;
    reprinted in : David McWhirter (ed.), Henry James’s New York edition : the construction of authorship, Stanford, CA : Stanford University Press, 1995. – ISBN 0-8047-2564-0, pages 109–122
  4. Henry James, “Letter to Mrs Humphry Ward, December 16th, 1903” C. Waller Barrett Collection, University of Virginia Library; printed in Jerome McGann, op.cit., page 122
appendix

For reference, here is a copy of the table included in my list of distinguishing variants in The ambassadors, summarizing the positions of the chapters (I have added the ‘content’ designators used in the above discussion, for reference). Note that, although chapter 19 (of the book versions) was omitted in the serialization, chapter 18 appeared there in two parts, as chapters 18 and 19, so the ‘Maria’ chapter carries the same number as in (some of) the books :

Summary of the chapter order
first sentence(s) of chapter (all texts) mag. UK 1903 US 1903 NYE 1909 reprints since 1950
[‘Maria’ chapter:]
One of the features of the restless afternoon passed by him after Mrs Pocock’s visit was an hour spent, shortly before dinner, with Maria Gostrey, whom of late, in spite of so sustained a call on his attention from other quarters, he had by no means neglected. And that he was still not neglecting her will appear from the fact that he was with her again at the same hour on the very morrow – with…
ch. 28 ch. 29 (in bk 11, as first ch.) ch. 28 (in bk 11) bk 11, ch. 1 bk 11, ch. 2
[‘Chad’ chapter:]
He went late that evening to the Boulevard Malesherbes, having his impression that it would be vain to go early, and having also, more than once in the course of the day, made enquiries of the concierge.
omitted ch. 28 (in bk 10, as fourth ch.) ch. 29 (in bk 11) bk 11, ch. 2 bk 11, ch. 1