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Introduction to Henry James's "The Middle Years"

Bournemouth, the setting for "The Middle Years," is a coastal town in the south of England that sits below a magnificent cliffline. The photocrom above is from the 1890s and shows "Invalids' Walk," perhaps the very recess in the cliff where Dencombe and Doctor Hugh first conversed.


James wrote "The Middle Years" in 1893, the year he turned 50. For the previous ten years he had been casting around for a new approach. He had tried social realism in two novels, The Bostonians (1886) and The Princess Casamassima (1886), but it was a style unsuited to his complex genius. Both novels failed, and demand for his work had declined precipitously. He began to think of writing plays, an even more ill-fated direction that was to explode in failure later. In his personal life his sister, Alice, had died the previous year. They had always been closest to each other in the family, and after their parents' deaths, in 1884 she had moved to England, where Henry became responsible for her care. Now she was gone, his work was meeting with rejection, and he was turning 50.

"The Middle Years" is a story about Dencombe, a writer who is old and ailing and has come to Bournemouth to try to recover his health. Dencombe is a perfectionist, much like Henry James, who cannot resist continuously revising his own works, for whom nothing he writes is ever his final word. He has just received the advance copy of his latest book, probably the last he will write, from his publisher. But gazing at it, he can only think that his career is over. "He had done all he should ever do, and yet hadn't done what he wanted," he says to himself. Dencombe wishes for more time, an extension, a second chance, to be the writer he now feels he could be.

James described his plan for this story in his Notebooks:

"The idea of an old artist, or an old man of letters, who, at the end, feels a kind of anguish of desire for a respite, a prolongation--another period of life to do the real thing that he has in him--the things for which all others have been but a slow preparation . . . . Some incident then, to show that what he has done is that of which he is capable--that he has done all he can, that he has put into his things the love of perfection and that they will live by that."

The "incident" James creates to convince Dencombe "that what he has done is that of which he is capable" is to have Dencombe meet a young doctor at Bournemouth who happens to be a tremendous admirer of his writing. Doctor Hugh's immense appreciation for Dencombe is proven beyond a doubt because he praises the author Dencombe to the skies when he does not know he is speaking to the author himself, and because he is willing to sacrifice a large inheritance to help him.

Parts of the incident are improbable, however, which raises problems for some readers. Doctor Hugh wishes to assist Dencombe as his physician. But Doctor Hugh, who is just starting out in his profession, is employed as the personal physician to a wealthy Countess, who wants him all to herself. Dencombe learns that the Countess has promised to make Doctor Hugh her sole heir, and that he will lose the inheritance if he makes her angry. Dencombe urges Doctor Hugh to stay with the Countess, but Doctor Hugh chooses to stay with the great author. The Countess immediately dies, leaving Doctor Hugh "not a penny," but he does not care:

"I gave her up for you. I had to choose, his companion explained. . . . I chose to accept, whatever they might be, the consequences of my infatuation," smiled Doctor Hugh. . . . It's your own fault if I can't get your things out of my head."

Joyce Carol Oates thinks it was the unreal quality of this plot, which is a kind of fantastic fable, that allowed James to spin out his "gently homoerotic fantasy" of a young man who would give up everything to care a for lonely and depressed old writer. Or it may be that James just did not have space enough to develop a realistic plot and we should not expect one here. Scribner's Magazine, where the story was first published, required him to limit himself to five or six thousand words. Years later, in his Preface to the New York Edition, he was still complaining about the "straightjacket" that placed on him.

In James's telling, Dencombe finds three consolations as he approaches his death. There is the experience he has on opening his latest book, reading his own prose. He realizes that his writing is "extraordinarily good." There is Doctor Hugh. It is not just that having one person who values his work makes it all worthwhile. His readership may be small but it is not that small. Doctor Hugh represents the writer's hope of a new readership, the younger generation, the future. Doctor Hugh made him feel that the future possibilities were inexhaustible; "the exhaustion was in the miserable artist." The third consolation is art itself. The paean to the pursuit of art that Dencombe whispers to Doctor Hugh with his dying breath is in language that is, for James, unusually rhetorical, Churchillian in its courage:

"A second chance--that's the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark--we do what we can--we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

Jan Pridmore
Cambridge, June 2015

Quotations above are from The Aspern Papers and Other Stories, ed. Adrian Poole, Oxford World's Classics, which is based on James's New York Edition of 1908

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