“M. Clairin” (my title) is a masterful work of flash fiction by Henry James, inserted – not woven – into his long (70 pages) 1874 story, “Madame de Mauves”. M. Clarin appears only here in “Madame de Mauves”. He does not figure in the recollections of the story’s other characters nor in James’ exposition. “M. Clairin” stands alone, as a 400 word short story.
According to Wikipedia (of a couple of days ago), flash fiction is a story of 1,000 words or less. As far as I know, this is the only example of flash fiction in James. It may have been a sort of breakthrough (never followed up) for James, but he was not some sort of flash fiction pioneer. It was, for example, a staple in the feuilleton columns of 19th century European newspapers.
The little tragedy of M. Clairin, I have to admit, may not have been as gratuitous a diversion as I suggest. One element in it presages the awesome denouement of “Madame de Mauves.” Nevertheless, as a skillful work of stand-alone flash fiction it holds its own. James’ instinctive brilliance leads him to devote three of the paragraph’s fifteen sentences to the helpful policeman and M. Clairin’s desperate hope that the retributive powers of this dashingly uniformed representative of authority will moot the necessity of his punishing himself.
(For context, I’ve conflated the first two sentences into one: deleting extraneous bits and interpolating a 14-word phrase from earlier on in “Madame de Mauves”. The rest is as James wrote it.)
by Henry James
Madame Clairin, of exalted birth, having, as she did, ancestors honourably mentioned by Joinville and Commines, had sacrificed her name to the millions of a prosperous and aspiring wholesale druggist—a gentleman liberal enough to regard his fortune as a moderate price for being towed into circles unpervaded by pharmaceutic odours. His system possibly was sound, but his own application of it to be deplored. M. Clairin’s head was turned by his good luck. Having secured an aristocratic wife he adopted an aristocratic vice and began to gamble at the Bourse. In an evil hour he lost heavily, and then staked heavily to recover himself. But he was to learn that the law of compensation works with no such pleasing simplicity, and he rolled to the dark bottom of his folly. There he felt everything go—his wits, his courage, his probity, everything that had made him what his fatuous marriage had so promptly unmade. He walked up the Rue Vivienne with his hands in his empty pockets and stood half an hour staring confusedly up and down the brave boulevard. People brushed against him and half a dozen carriages almost ran over him, until at last a policeman, who had been watching him for some time, took him by the arm and led him gently away. He looked at the man’s cocked hat and sword with tears in his eyes; he hoped for some practical application of the wrath of heaven, something that would express violently his dead-weight of self-abhorrence. The sergent de ville, however, only stationed him in the embrasure of a door, out of harm’s way, and walked off to supervise a financial contest between an old lady and a cabman. Poor M. Clairin had only been married a year, but he had had time to measure the great spirit of true children of the anciens preux. When night had fallen he repaired to the house of a friend and asked for a night’s lodging; and as his friend, who was simply his old head book-keeper and lived in a small way, was put to some trouble to accommodate him, “You must pardon me,” the poor man said, “but I can’t go home. I’m afraid of my wife!” Toward morning he blew his brains out. His widow turned the remnants of his property to better account than could have been expected and wore the very handsomest mourning.
I found “Madame de Mauve” in Volume I (1864-1874) of the American Library’s edition of James’ Complete Stories. None of the stories among these early twenty-four could be called “Jamesian,” although once in while a sentence or two, or a whole paragraph, appears, structured in the later James’ intelligent and enticing style. (Notice, I did not call it “inimitable.”)
Most of the stories range from not very good to okay. The worst are nothing but tacky melodramas or hyperbolic travelogues. In the melodramas, love and money grapple to the death. The travelogues are rapturous, or at least enrapt, encomia of European nature as nature at its most sublime and European natives as humanity at its most picturesque. They are justified as “fiction” by plots as slim as they are stunted that peep out now and then through the cascading waves of adjectives. I found some of them unreadable. It certainly was odd, saying to Henry James, of all people, “No, thank you,” and flipping the pages to the next story.
The American Library edition includes an endnote that provides the publishing history of each story. For the most part, they first appeared in either The Atlantic or Galaxy.
What was Galaxy? Let’s look it up. Galaxy – A Magazine of Entertaining Reading. a monthly, was launched in 1866 and eventually “absorbed” (Wikipedia’s word) by The Atlantic in 1878. Politely progressive, it regularly published Twain and Whitman. Writing as Carl Benson, Charles Astor Bristed, who’d previously written a block-buster exposure (a polite and respectful one, to be sure) of the New York upper class, contributed a monthly column in which, among other progressive notions, he espoused the cause of admitting Americanisms to the English language.
To make an assumption for which I have no basis but my own intuition: The melodramas which gilded the 19th century liberal middle-brow reader’s drab and somewhat embarrassing concerns about class, and the symphonies of descriptive prose which reassured the 19th century liberal middle-brow armchair traveler that Europe was as sublime and the Europeans as charming as she (more likely than he) imagined them to be, served the same purpose as agony memoirs of abuse or of congenital disability or – best – of both, and heartwarming and heartbreaking stories about people not fortunate enough to have been born white, serve today. Like the melodramas and travelogues of James’ time, the agony memoirs and identity fiction of our own time provide a gloss of sophistication, political and aesthetic, to the sentimentality of the liberal middle-brow reader, licensing reflections which otherwise might be considered demeaning, condescending and even a bit tasteless.
Many of the stories, though, were enjoyable, and two were really good: “The Sweetheart of M. Briseux” and “Madame de Mauves”. Still, while top-notch James, they were not particularly Jamesian. “The Sweetheart of M. Briseux” is more Whartonesque, with its sly eye, than Jamesian. “Madame de Mauves”, a long story, 70+ pages, ends with a stupendous coup de théâtre, a final sentence which undoes the narrative that precedes it and upends the a complacency in the reader that James has carefully nurtured.
“Madame de Mauves” may not be Jamesian in style, but its finale is James at his psychological best. Instead of a twist in the plot – for example, a character discovered to be another character’s unacknowledged offspring – there is a twist in the story’s basic assumptions, in its moral judgments. Some people in “Madame de Mauves” behave well; with these the narrator sympathizes and the reader follows suit. Others behave badly; they are the story’s villains. James never questions what constitutes good behavior and what does not, although he dwells on the subject at length and confidently analyzes it in terms of class and stereotypical national characteristics.
I won’t give the ending away. You should read “Madame de Mauves”. In the unlikely event that there is anyone out there who both (1) has read this post and, either beforehand or on my recommendation, (2) has read “Madame de Mauves” (the chances are, um, 1,000 to 1?) I’d love to know your what your thoughts were on reading the story’s last words.
They describe the shocking moral collapse of “Madame de Mauves”’s most reliably, stalwartly and sturdily “good” character, who “has become conscious of a singular feeling – a feeling for which awe would be hardly too strong a name.” Curtain.