In 1949 Compton Mackenzie (1883–1972) gave a sublimely elegiac talk on the BBC Home Service, recalling his last visit to the aged Henry James (1843–1916) at his flat off Cheyne Walk in the late summer of 1914. He had already published a written version in his “My meetings with Henry James” (Mark Twain quarterly 6.3, 1945).
The BBC broadcast his talk again in the 1970s, and copies circulated among a little group of friends. Even then, there was a double nostalgia about listening to a 1949 reminiscence of a 1914 meeting. The encounter rather reminds me of my own Cambridge visits to Laurence Picken, as well as Sir Harold Bailey. It’s one of my most treasured recordings, and I’m mortified that the BBC hasn’t made it available online (go on, BBC!). Mackenzie’s delivery is at once hilarious and poignant, evoking James’s sense of frailly handing over the baton to a younger generation; to transcribe highlights on the page is a paltry stopgap.
“And now, my dear boy, make yourself as comfortable, as, in this monstrous time of war, comfort either of body or mind is… is…”. He paused to grasp the adjective, floating for a moment out of his reach, and then, just as his fingers were closing upon it, or rather—I become Jamesian myself as the memory of the scene recurs —or rather, poising like a butterfly hunter, net in air, to swoop upon the perfect adjective and imprison it in the reticulation of his prose… at that moment, his housekeeper came into the room.
Henry James looked round for the epithet, now well on its way to escape, desperation in his mild and magnificent eyes. And then his housekeeper said, gently but most firmly,
“It’s about the marmalade, Mr James.”
“Marmalade…” he ejaculated.
“Marmalade—from the Army and Navy Stores,” she insisted. Henry James turned to me:
“Will you, my dear boy, try to entertain, or perhaps not so much entertain as engage yourself with a book, while I devote a minute or two of most unwilling attention, or rather, er… tortured concentration upon one of these hideous encounters with domestic necessity. A vast emporium, one of these appalling achievements of our modern craving for the huge, the immense… looms between myself and this delightful company of yours […]”
“Mr James,” the housekeeper interposed, with hardly concealed impatience, “the man from the Army and Navy Stores is waiting, for the order.”
“One moment, Mrs Dash, I will not keep you a moment… Now, my dear boy—where is our dear H.G. Wells’s last book, full of that Wellsian quality, which sometimes flows, perhaps a little too…? Or you may rather beguile yourself for a moment while I surrender to the remorseless ritual which these domestic conveniences demand from us… Yes! Here is our dear Arnold Bennett’s last…” While Henry James was picking up book after book on the table, and bumbling around them like a great irresolute bee, his housekeeper was tapping the floor with her foot.
“Mr James, please,” she protested. The great novelist seated himself at his desk, pen poised above the notepaper, looked anxiously up to his housekeeper:
“How would you, er… how shall I address the apex of this pyramid, the, er, director of this magnificent display of co-operative energy?”
“Mr James, just write the order please, and the man will take it,” she almost pleaded.
“And what was the peculiar title of the condiment which we seek to import into this so humble corner of this vast London of ours, Mrs Dash?”
“Mr James! Oh… We were going to order six jars of that Oxford marmalade you liked.”
From the corner of my eye I watched the operation of writing that order, as Henry James’s pen advanced to paper and drew back, and advanced again, and again drew back and then hovered above the notepaper, making a traceless pattern upon the air in a kind of sarabande, to which the housekeeper’s foot tapped quite out of time. At last the pen descended upon the paper, and a large, angular script flowed across it. The six jars of marmalade were ordered, and with a sigh of exhaustion and relief, Henry James came back to his guest, apologising once more for the interruption, and full of solicitude for the way I’d been able to pass the time while the marmalade was being ordered. […]
To this day the very word “marmalade” invariably sends us into fits of giggling. For the tribulations of composers beset by mundane concerns, as recreated by Monty Python, see here.
Anyway, with James liberated at last from his “hideous encounter with domestic necessity”, he can devote his attention once again to his young visitor:
Just before I said farewell to Henry James on that October afternoon, I told him it was my intention to revise, and possibly rewrite altogether my novel Carnival in the light of my experience. He held up his hands in a wide gesture of dismay. […] “I once wasted ten, indeed twelve precious years in foolishly supposing that in the light of experience I could grope my way towards a more… towards that always elusive… in short, that I could add yet something to what, when it was written, I had given all that I could give at that time. Renounce this preposterous ambition of yours, my dear boy. You have been granted the boon which is all a novelist should beg for himself. You have been granted that boon with a generosity beyond that accorded to any of your young contemporaries. You fling the ball up against the wall, and it rebounds immediately into your hands— […] whereas I fling the ball against the wall, whence it rebounds not into my hands but onto the next wall, and from that wall to the next…” He followed, with apprehensive glance, the flight of that ghostly ball around the room… “Until it at last falls to the ground, and dribbles, very, very slowly, towards my feet; and I, all my old bones aching, stoop, and most laboriously, pick it up.”
With thanks to Leo Kanaris.