The Inept Detective: A Review of The Sacred Fount (1901) by Henry James

“The Inept Detective”: A Review of The Sacred Fount (1901) by Henry James

This novel is maddeningly difficult to read and, I believe, purposefully so. By the time it was published James, who had long since moved to England, had also completed a series of what might be called “English country house” novels, all of them about living in an age of transition that had given up on certainties—moral, religious, even scientific. There were no longer any generally recognized absolutes, statements we can with confidence call truthful.

Appropriately “The Sacred Fount” takes place in a house called Newmarch, where another of James’s upper crust social “sets” is staying for the weekend. An unnamed first person narrator conjectures that this or that guest is “in love with” or “making love to” or, as we might more frankly say, “sleeping with” this or that other guest. But we readers get no supporting evidence for any of the narrator’s guesses, nor are any of them ever verified. It’s as though the conventional detective, who as the story comes to a close gathers all the suspects together to identify the culprit, simply cannot do so. James forces us not just to live in an entirely uncertain fictional world, but to become aware of its unsatisfying effects if it were real.

The principal object of the narrator’s guessing game is one Gilbert Long. Gilbert now has a spring in his step and a civility in his conversation that the narrator has never seen or heard before. He concludes that a woman must be responsible for this rejuvenation, but who is it?  The cultivated but rough edged Lady John?  The newly stormy Mrs. May Server who may be making advances to a painter named Ford Obert, or so that gentleman believes. Or is it Grace Brissenden, the wife of a much younger Guy Brissenden (“poor Briss”) who has recently become astonishingly aged and unhappy?

From all this speculation the voyeuristic narrator derives a theory that is shaky to say the least: when a married couple is widely different in age, the older partner, like a vampire, feeds off the vitality of the younger while the energy of the younger is drained away.

The “sacred fount” of James’s title is on this assumption equated with one partner’s sexual juices. But James, a repeated visitor to Rome, Florence and Venice and a connoisseur of Italian painting, knew all about the death and rebirth significance of waters once regarded as literally “sacred”: those in the blessed baptismal fonts of Italian churches, for example, and in all the fountains of European art and architecture. In the “he said, she said” world of this novel, by contrast, the suspected exchange of bedrooms has become the scene of a new and more risky kind of sacredness.

If you wonder why James would deliberately set out to irritate his reader, I think it was because his reputation as a novel writer was by now secure and, arrogantly or not, he could do what he liked.  He was on the verge of writing his greatest fiction and becoming “the master” he would soon be known to be.