Henry James’s ‘The Private Life’ disturbingly indicates that authorship demands that the writer must suffer a separation into two distinct but dependent identities, the public self and the private self. Perhaps James wants to imply that a public life is perversely necessary in order to preserve the private one: does the public self ironically make the private self more significant? In ‘The Private Life’ writing has an uncanny effect on selfhood. In ‘On the Uncanny’ (1919), Freud suggests that the uncanny is the fear we feel when something “is familiar and agreeable [and] concealed and kept out of sight”. It is within this conception of the uncanny that we find Clare Vawdrey, the writer who is almost shockingly consistent, who “never talk[s] about himself, and like[s] one subject [… ] precisely as much as another”, and whose “opinions were sound and second-rate”; he is, in effect, boring.
And yet Vawdrey’s creative outpourings are stunningly beautiful and exciting: he is “the greatest [… ] of our literary glories”. That he is dull in public and a brilliant writer in private is not, however, what makes him so singular, since what makes him so singular is that Vawdrey is, in fact, double. He has a bland, reliable, public self and a private genius self.
The division between writer and the writing self-seems an unequal one, since the writer seems to have consumed the personality of both.
James’s story reveals that the writer is haunted by a ghostly other self who is both himself and someone else, making authorship within the text slippery: who is it holding the pen and controlling the words that flow from it? Who owns the work when it becomes part of the literary marketplace?
James’s story touches on concerns about the act of writing at the fin-de-siècle. Indeed, the symbolic importance of writing in the second half of the nineteenth century was already beginning to be invested with new meaning, particularly as a result of the fascination with spiritualism and developments in mental science. The mediums who practised automatic writing and other phenomena at seances (such as table-rapping, and even bodily appearances of ghosts) enthralled Victorian audiences.
The scene in which the narrator finds Vawdrey writing alone in the dark evokes the spiritualist seances in which the medium would sit while spirits manifested themselves outside. Like a medium, Vawdrey is in a “fit” of “abstraction”, so possessed by the act of writing that he devotes all of himself to it: in turn, his public self-becomes a materialised spirit, only the ghost of a personality.
Automatic writers believed their hands to be guided by the dead. Studies by the SPR on the activities of mediums and particularly automatic writing, however, implied that it was the subconscious mind, rather than spectral entities, which was responsible for the spiritualistic phenomena (Oppenheim, pp. 123-33).
Eminent mental scientist, and President of the SPR, F. W. H. Myers, wrote an article ‘Automatic Writing or the Rationale of the Planchette’ (1885) arguing that automatic writing is the result of unconscious cerebration: writing could be physical evidence for activity in the brain of which a person is completely unaware.
In the field of mental science, studies on a ”secondary self within indicated that it was not only the seance that was haunted but also, disturbingly, the mind”. While automatic writing highlighted that the mind could no longer be contained within the tidy boundaries of “academic neatness”, ’The Private Life’ shows that creative writing also denies writers this precision and clarity. Instead, the act of writing transforms the writer into an unfathomable, ghostly, and multiplied presence.
In ‘The Private Life’ writing destabilises boundaries to such an extent that literary language negotiates selfhood itself. Lord Mellifont’s public identity, for example, is described in terms of a novel. His dress, manners, and all his actions are the ”topic” of discussion, the “subject” (p. 196) gracing everyone’s lips, and setting the “tone” (p. 197) for every occasion. In fact, he seems to write in popular society, for without his presence “it [society] would scarcely have had a vocabulary” (p. 133).
Just as Vawdrey writes himself in two, Mellifont’s “writing” has transformative power so that social trends are reinvented. Mellifont not only reinvents social identity, shaping moods and styles in the fashionable world, he is also written himself. He is constantly compared to an actor who never forgets his lines, and whose part has been so carefully composed that it seems “his very embarrassments had been rehearsed” (p. 196).
Indeed, Mellifont’s very being must be written by those around him, his lines foisted upon him, and without another’s gaze, he cannot contextualize himself. He is a “legend” (p. 196), the perfect socialite, created through the public’s ceaseless talk of his actions and sayings. But in authoring the latest social trends, Mellifont, like Vawdrey with his creative writing, is at the mercy of the masses, and has nothing but a ghost of himself left for his private life.
James’s story is particularly anxious about the possibility that in writing (whether Mellifont’s symbolic writing of social fads or Vawdrey’s fiction) the successful writer must literally become a stranger to himself in order to achieve critical and commercial prestige. In making this division, however, the writer is in danger of having his secret or private life discovered. In Mellifont’s case, the terrible truth in his private life is that he does not have one, (perhaps because there are so many windows in the house of fiction that the public can always see in), whereas Vawdrey’s unsettling secret is that his public face is only an imitation of his private one.
If Vawdrey’s private life is discovered then everyone will know that his public self-has simply been mechanically, uncannily performing a social duty. When Blanche Adney realises the truth about the public Vawdrey, the narrator observes that “she shrank from him, without a greeting; with a movement that I observed as almost one of estrangement” (p. 226). For her, by the end of the story, “the other” Vawdrey (the private Vawdrey) becomes “the real one” (p. 222). The price Vawdrey pays for artistic success is the sacrifice of the “academic neatness” of his identity.
One of Freud’s definitions of the uncanny is that of something which is familiar, or of the home, and by extension of the paradoxical definition of the German word, that which is also unfamiliar, and strange to the home (‘Uncanny’, p. 220). Significantly, Mellifont “would not be at home” (p. 207) with initiating a discussion about Vawdrey’s private life since it lies too closely with his own particular problem.
Furthermore, Lady Mellifont is “not at home with him [Lord Mellifont]” (p. 413) herself. The critic Paul Coates has suggested that one’s lover is always one’s other, or double — his “intenser self” (p. 213), as James suggests. And yet Lady Mellifont’s double has become completely unfamiliar. She both knows and refuses to register the truth about her husband who is indeed not at home with himself or with her. Mellifont has to play the part of a devoted husband, implying that his identity is always a role carefully refined through artifice. He is threatening to the narrator, not because of his all-encompassing presence, but because of the absence that must lurk beneath: “I [… ] had wondered what blank face such a mask had to cover, what was left to him for the immitigable hours in which a man sits down with himself” (p. 213).
The revelations of Vawdrey’s private life and Mellifont’s public one, and the new familiarisation with their identities in an unfamiliar place, indicate that the very choice of setting for the story is uncanny. The hotel is a transitional space for its guests, and lacks any specific private and public areas. The narrator enters Vawdrey’s chamber as easily as if it were his own. The hotel also evokes James’s elaborate “house of fiction” metaphor, which is filled with figures in every window looking out and each seeing something fresh or unexpected.
While Lady Mellifont does not (or perhaps refuses) to see that her husband has lost or forsaken his private life, the narrator surveys all aspects of him, both present and absent. In the context of this story James’s “house of fiction” metaphor becomes a metaphor not only for writing, but also for the mind. Thomas Hardy’s discussion of the mind as a palimpsest in rar ‘From the Madding Crowd’ (1874) is here useful.
Hardy’s narrator suggests that “man, even to himself, is a palimpsest, having an ostensible writing, and another beneath the lines.“? The house of mind, as evidenced by Vawdrey, can hold many guests or identities, and hides unexplored resources, inscriptions, and erasures: beneath the surface of Vawdrey’s public self, his private self is still composing hidden meanings.