"[T]heir backward space": Placing the Past in James's Turn-of-the-Century Fiction

El-Rayess, Miranda. 2015. '"[T]heir backward space": Placing the Past in James's Turn-of-the-Century Fiction'. In: Henry James and Memory. The British Library, United Kingdom 14-16 April 2016. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

‘[A] good ghost-story … must be connected at a hundred points with the common objects of life’ (LC 1, 742), wrote the 22-year-old James in a now often quoted review. He argues that more ‘force’ may be achieved by a skilful deployment of ‘prosaic, commonplace, daylight accessories’ than by ‘[R]omance pure and simple’. These early comments furnish a clue, not only to what are often broadly referred to as James’s ghostly tales, or as James himself would describe them much later, ‘tales of the quasi-supernatural … order’ (Edel, Ghostly xxvi), but to the complex negotiations between ‘realism’ and ‘romance’ evident in many other parts of his oeuvre. His authorial sense of the past, conceived in characteristically spacial terms in the preface to The Aspern Papers, calls for a similar ‘balance’ between the two realms. For literary treatment, he prefers ‘the region’ that is ‘far enough away without being too far’, ‘a palpable imaginable visitable past’.
The frequent proximity of the strange and the familiar in James’s ghostly tales has been fruitfully considered in relation to Freud’s theory of the uncanny or ‘unheimliche’. On he other hand, this paper explores instances in James’s ghostly or ‘quasi-supernatural’ tales in which the introduction of mundane objects or monetary values creates a different sort of effect, one that stops short of the uncanny, or, if you prefer, tips the scales and goes beyond it. These can be seen as conscious transgressions of his own principle of ‘adumbration’ – that is dramatic intensification through the rejection of ‘weak specifications’, as he puts it in his preface to The Turn of the Screw (1908). While the uncanny can arouse ‘dread and horror’ (Freud), these instances may provoke laughter, seeming to break the spell. The enduring effect, however, is often more unsettling. The paper focuses mainly on turn-of-the-century examples such as ‘The Great Good Place’ and ‘The Third Person’, but also looks at the 1876 tale, ‘The Ghostly Rental’.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


14 April 2016Completed
15 August 2015Accepted

Event Location:

The British Library, United Kingdom

Date range:

14-16 April 2016

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

19 Jul 2019 13:49

Last Modified:

26 Jul 2019 11:09



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