Henry was a passive child who preferred to withdraw into his imagination or books. But this was in part an accommodation to the overpowering presence of his older brother, William, who "played the active, masculine role to Henry's passive, feminine role--the devil of the house in comparison to the angel of the house," Kaplan contends. In his novels he would tend to identify with the problems of his independent-minded heroines, while his male protagonists tended to be sensitive aesthetes.
His unresolved sexuality left him terrified of an intimate relationship with a woman and precluded him from marriage. Similarly, in his middle years, when he developed "crushes" on handsome young men, he remained fastidiously celibate. This burdened him with a crushing loneliness even as he compulsively fluttered about London society, and contributed to Lambert Strether's famous cri de coeur in "The Ambassador": "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to."
Kaplan concludes that James' fears of his homoerotic desires blighted the possibility of heterosexual relationships for him: "His most effective defense against the potentially frightening, perhaps disabling, confrontation with homoerotic desire (was) the renunciation of physical sexual relationships entirely."
James "projected into fictional characters the conflicts and tenuous resolutions that had been his since childhood." In "The Beast in the Jungle," a man lives in overpowering dread of some nameless menace, and one day realizes that his fear prevented him from marrying the woman who loved him--and from having lived.
Kaplan's discussion of James' homoerotic life is convincingly handled and woven like a prominent thread into this full, yet concise and shapely biography. Inevitably, however, Kaplan skirts reductionism, especially in relating the life to the books. For example, he can infer that Isabel Archer turns down the marriage proposals of the aggressively masculine Caspar Goodwood and the rich, gentlemanly Lord Ashburton because of her sexual fears, fleeing into a bad match with the dilettantish, supremely egotistical Gilbert Osmond. But to me, Isabel's love for Osmond does include sexual attraction--as much as James can hint of it in portraying a heroine in the Genteel Age. Her innocence and idealism blind her to Osmond's true nature. It is that blindness, coupled with romantic desire, that impels her to choose him over the two seemingly more attractive men.
Still, Kaplan has tapped hidden springs of James' art--and the source of the great loneliness that was his persistent plaint in latter years. Yet, for all his reticences, James placed on the altar of art far more of himself than a piece of string, or a kitten. "I am getting close--for immortality," he once wrote. "One has to buy that with the blood of one's heart." He did.