In discussing Henry James' influences, Carl Van Doren in 'The American Novel' writes thus:
'Balzac, of course, James greatly preferred to either Flaubert or George Sand, for his great range and close texture: “He has against him,” James however added, “that he lacks that slight but needful thing—charm.” '
I laughed when I read this. How often have I read some clumsy attempt at graciousness in Balzac fall flat! You read it and say "Well, he tried!" but the fact is he kept trying and trying to charm and failing quite completely. The interest of the Comedie Humaine seems less in its charm than in its vitality. By attempting, Balzac would make it so. But words alone do not a novel make.
In concluding his brilliant commentary, Carl Van Doren writes this remarkable and lucid passage. It is written as a single par but I have broken it up for the medium of a blog:
'James’s essential limitation may rather accurately be expressed by saying that he attempted, in a democratic age, to write courtly romances.
'He did not, naturally, go back for his models to the Roman de la Rose or Morte d’Arthur or Sidney’s Arcadia or the Grand Cyrus. But he did devote himself to those classes in modern society which descend from the classes represented by the romancers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. His characters, for the most part, neither toil nor spin, trade nor make war, bear children in pain nor bring them up with sacrifices. The characters who do such things in his novels are likely to be the servants or dependents of others more comfortably established. His books consequently lack the interest of that fiction which shows men and women making some kind of way in the world—except the interest which can be taken in the arts by which the penniless creep into the golden favor of the rich or the socially unarrived wriggle into an envied caste. James is the laureate of leisure. Moreover the leisure he cared to write about concerns itself in not the slightest degree with any action whatsoever, even games or sports. Love of course concerns it, as with all novelists. Yet even love in this chosen universe must constantly run the gauntlet of a decorum incomprehensible to all but the initiate.
'Decorum is what damns James with the public. In one of Chrétien de Troyes’s romances Lancelot, on his way to rescue Guinevere from a most precarious situation, commits the blunder of riding part of the way in a cart and thereby brings upon himself a disgrace which his most gallant deeds can scarcely wipe out. Sensible citizens who may have happened upon this narrative in the twelfth century probably felt mystified at the pother much as do their congeners in the twentieth who stare at the wounds which James’s heroes and heroines suffer from blunders intrinsically no more serious than Lancelot’s. How much leisure these persons must enjoy, the sensible citizen thinks, to have evolved and to keep up this mandarin formality; and how little use they make of it!
'Only readers accustomed to such decorums can walk entirely at ease in the universe James constructed. But they have the privileges of a domain unprecedented and unmatched in modern literature. It is not merely that he is the most fascinating historian of the most elegant society of the century. He is the creator of a world immensely beautiful in its own right: a world of international proportions, peopled by charming human beings who live graceful lives in settings lovely almost beyond description; a world which vibrates with the finest instincts and sentiments and trembles at vulgarity and ugliness; a world full of works of art and learning and intelligence, a world infinitely refined, a world perfectly civilized.
'In real life the danger to such a world is that it may be overwhelmed by some burly rush of actuality from without. In literature the danger is that such a world will gradually fade out as dreams fade, and as the old romances of feudalism have already faded. Elaborate systems of decorum pass away; it is only the simpler manners of men which live forever.'