Tyrannical Imagination: Henry James’ “An International Episode”

The role of the imagination appears while reading the novella An International Episode by Henry James.

Portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent
1913 portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent

The Context of An International Episode

The vicissitudes of the novella’s plot I will not recount. The primary event is a sort of romantic relationship that develops between the British Lord Lambeth and American Bessie Alden when they meet in Newport, Rhode Island.

If you’ve ever been to Newport, you know about the host of mansions that can be found there. This story is set in the 1870s, probably before or while all of those mansions were (being) built. Newport was the Hamptons of the 19th century.

Nothing for the imagination in an early photograph of a Newport mansion
Early photograph of a Newport mansion

Lord Lambeth, a young man in his mid-twenties, meets and is certainly inclined toward Miss Bessie Alden, and his attentions, even if they are somewhat uncertain in intention, are repaid in kind. But the actual status of this relationship is what is in question: to what end shall this relationship go?

Will it lead to marriage? This seems dubious as Miss Alden, although of good stock, is an American. Lambeth’s family has no interest in such a match. The Lord himself seems to know this, and he insists to his close friend that he doesn’t seek marriage. But chafing at the family’s intercessions seems to make him more and more inclined to marriages.

Does Miss Alden seek marriage?

Imagination vies with Direct Experience

Instead of answer that question, I’ve included the following passage from a point when Bessie is almost conscious of her confusion. The key seems to be in the difference between her mind’s image of the Lord and his actual person.

She had a kind of ideal of conduct for a young man who should find himself in this magnificent position, and she tried to adapt it to Lord Lambeth’s deportment, as you might attempt to fit a silhouette in cut paper upon a shadow projected upon a wall. But Bessie Alden’s silhouette refused to coincide with his lordship’s image, and this want of harmony sometimes vexed her more than she thought reasonable. When he was absent it was, of course, less striking; then he seemed to her a sufficiently graceful combination of high responsibilities and amiable qualities. But when he sat there within sight, laughing and talking with his customary good humor and simplicity, she measured it more accurately, and she felt acutely that if Lord Lambeth’s position was heroic, there was but little of the hero in the young man himself. Then her imagination wandered away from him–very far away […]

Bessie met Lord Lambeth in Newport, but before long he had to return to England. It was during that time her imagination — without the exemplar given — set itself to work. Yet when she is reunited with him in England, that imagination stands in variance to “reality.” Bessie’s irritation is the undeniable fact of Lord Lambert’s failure to resemble that image.

Or so the story goes, both in general and in this particular story. That is, direct experience wholly supplants the imagination.

Yet I wonder whether the imagination plays such an ancillary role. Isn’t the imagination always at work both in the absence as well as the presence of the person?

Even if we limit the judgment we have of another person to their bodily appearance, what we know of that person’s body is formed as well by our knowledge of other bodies. We judge this body in relation to so many others. What sense does this particular shape of nose express?

Isn’t the role of the imagination even more at work in respect of certain psychological characteristics attributed to an individual? No one action makes a person courageous or thoughtful or evil.

Bessie Alden makes one think of Madame Bovary, insofar as Emma saw her entire world through the perspective of the novels that she consumed. Bessie does the same insofar as she has accumulated so many views of England that shape her interactions with Lord Lambeth.

But imaginations, like false ideas, are not simply discarded. To the degree with which they have been invested with meaning, they are replaced by a proportional effort. Given all that Bessie thinks of England, her views of the Lord are vitally important. They will be hard to displace.