The Lesson of the Master


Although out-dated in its implication that only men can ever hope to attain the perfection of genius, Henry James’ The Lesson of the Master explores the still relevant tension between artistic achievement and ordinary life. As Cyril Connelly famously put it, “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway.” (Though as James’ work consists largely of people talking, one might think the greatest enemy was chat).

It brings together two writers, the young Paul Overt whose “fresh fiction had caught the eye of real criticism,” and the older, established Henry St George, whom Paul admires with the caveat that his recent work has not matched his best:

“His private conviction was that, admirably as Henry St George wrote, he had written for the last ten years, and especially for the last five, only too much…”

They are brought together by mutual respect, but also by Miss Fancourt, a young woman who is a great admirer of the arts (as a woman, it seems, she has little option but to watch: “Women are so hampered”). She tells Overt that St George is well aware his latest work is inferior to what he once wrote:

“…at any rate that they’re not what they should be. He told me he didn’t esteem them.”

Later, St George discusses this with Overt in his ‘practical’ writing room (no window, no seat – all, as arranged by his wife, for greater efficiency). He claims marriage has led him to prioritise income – and therefore production – over quality, saying “I’ve got everything but the great thing…”

“The sense of having done the best – the sense of which is the real life of the artists and the absence of which is his death, of having drawn from his intellectual instrument the finest music that nature had hidden in it, of having played it as it should be played.”

By this point Overt has fallen in love with Miss Fancourt but St George convinces him that marriage will prevent him from achieving the perfection of his art that should be his aim. The story apparently has a twist at the end (look away now if you don’t want to know) though I feel it’s fairly easy to foresee: Overt leaves England to pursue his writing; St George’s wife dies and, when Overt returns, it is to discover St George and Miss Fancourt are engaged.

It is this which makes the story rather light-hearted (for James) as there have been plenty of indications of St George’s attraction to Miss Fancourt which the naïve Overt has chosen to disregard. The first time Overt sees them together General Fancourt comments (asked to point out St George):

“The fellow talking to my girl. By Jove, he is making up to her – they’re going off for another walk.”

Overt’s naivety continues to the end when he wonders: “Are you marrying Miss Fancourt to save me?” James’ concern that domesticity is antithetical to art is real, however, and behind the comedy lie some of the choices that any artist has to make.

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4 Responses to “The Lesson of the Master”

  1. Tredynas Days Says:

    These stories by HJ about the struggle the artist must go through in order to create are so good. I first read them in the Penguin collection ‘The Figure in the Carpet’. I posted a while back on one of these: The Author of ‘Beltraffio’, along with some others. Then I ran out of steam. Now, after reading this piece, I feel inclined to go back to him in the new year. Thanks for the nudge! And happy Christmas!!

    • 1streading Says:

      I enjoyed this. I think reading some of James’ longer novels (The Golden Bowl, The Portrait of a Lady) rather put me off exploring his shorter fiction, but I should probably do so now.
      (I had a look at your blog – you’ve reviewed a few of James’ stories, some I’d heard of but others I hadn’t – looks like there’s plenty to explore!)

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Connolly ought to have recognised that the pram in the hallway is just as muich an enemy of female creativity…! But that’s by the by – I’ve found James quite dense on my attempts to read him but maybe the short stories would be a bit more approachable!

    • 1streading Says:

      Having not read James for many years, I found this much more readable than I expected. Whether that was just the time gap or the fact it was a shorter piece I’m not sure, but I think the stories are the place to start.

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