Written in 1892, Henry James‘s short story “Greville Fane” depicts the troubled and tumultuous relationship between a popular novelist, Greville Fane, and her two ungrateful children, Lady Ethel Luard and Leolin. The short story begins with the narrator’s receiving news of Greville Fane’s impending death and then chronicles the unsettled connection that exists between the children and their mother. Clearly, Greville Fane—whose real name is Mrs. Stormer— wants the best for her children, mainly entry into society for Ethel and a life of luxury for Leolin. Both children, however, only use their mother to further their own desires, so much so that the narrator doubts the innocence of Greville Fane’s death, implying that both Leolin and Lady Luard had motive to assist in the old woman’s death. On the surface, James seems to focus on this rocky relationship between the mother and her daughter and son. However, a closer read suggests that James uses “Greville Fane” to wrestle with his own demons about authorship.
Early in the story readers learn that Greville Fane is the pseudonym Mrs. Stormer uses to write her popular fiction, fiction that—at least for James—borders on the formulaic. James makes it clear that Fane is not a very good writer: “Her [Fane’s] table was there, the battered and blotted accessory to innumerable literary lapses, with its contracted space for the arms (she wrote from the elbow down) and the confusion of scrappy, scribbled sheets which had already become literary remains” (218). James’s narrator reminds the reader that Fane has written many stories: “The dear woman had written a hundred stories” (219).
For James’s narrator, Fane’s writing is an escape from literature. That narrator states, “This was why I liked her—she rested me so from literature. To myself literature was an irritation, a torment; but Greville Fane slumbered in the intellectual part of it like a Creole in a hammock” (219–220). But the narrator does not end here in his condemnation of Fane, and by implication, popular fiction. For James’s narrator, Fane lacks language skills, and this shows in Fane’s inherent ability to develop plot with no attention to the English language. James writes, “She could invent stories by the yard, but she couldn’t write a page of English. She went down to her grave without suspecting that though she had contributed volumes to the diversion of her contemporaries she had not contributed a sentence to the language” (220).
James tells his readers early in the text that Fane does not pretend to write great novels. According to James, “She made no pretence of producing works of art, but had comfortable tea-drinking hours in which she freely confessed herself a common pastrycook, dealing in such tarts and puddings as would bring customers to the shop” (221). Thus, James’s narrator criticizes Fane for catering to her audience, which enables her to sell so many books. For the narrator— and James—this type of selling out was to be avoided at all costs, and the selling out was the division between popular works and great literature. James’s narrator even gives us a glimpse of Fane’s inability to capture accents in dialogue in her novels. James writes, “Greville Fane’s French and Italian were droll; the imitative faculty had been denied her, and she had an unequalled gift, especially pen in hand, of squeezing big mistakes into small opportunities. She knew it, but she didn’t care; correctness was the virtue in the world, that, like her heroes and heroines, she valued least” (226). So for Fane, the emphasis is on selling the novel, not on the correctness of form, even if it means selling out.
At the end of “Greville Fane,” we learn that Fane is writing novels to support her children. The narrator tells us that he discovers Fane’s fiction at his club: “She kept it up amazingly, and every few months, at my club, I saw three new volumes, in green, in crimson, in blue, on the book-table that groaned with light literature” (233). So, not only is Fane supporting her children, but she is supporting them by composing popular fiction—or light literature—at an alarming rate. By calling attention to Fane’s ability to write this popular fiction at such an old age and in such a rapid progression, James—through his narrator—obviously questions the validity of such works.
On the surface, “Greville Fane” presents a story of sour relationships between a writer and her children. However, James cleverly uses this setting and plot to establish and work out his own frustrations with writers of popular fiction. Frequently referred to as the father of the modern novel, James himself never published a best seller in his time. In fact, James at one point used money from what he thought was an advance on his work but was actually money fronted by his contemporary and friend Edith Wharton. Is it any wonder that he resented the popularity of a certain kind of fiction?
James, Henry. “Greville Fane.” In Henry James: Complete Stories 1892–1898. New York: Penguin, 1996.