Secret Sharers in a Jolly Corner

Cynthia Ozick’s story “Dictation” creates a fictional relationship between two real women — Theodora Bosanquet, the secretary of Henry James, and Lilian Hallowes, the secretary of Joseph Conrad.

By the story’s end, Bosanquet has entered into a lesbian relationship with Virginia Woolf, although since Woolf is identified only as Leslie Stephen’s daughter “Ginnie,” inattentive readers may fail to identify her. Bosanquet and Woolf really did correspond — Bosanquet’s “Henry James at Work” was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press — but the lesbian relationship part is Ozick’s invention.

The story’s main event occurs in the late winter of 1910, the time Virginia Woolf once suggested as the approximate moment when human character changed. Having belatedly made this connection, I find myself wondering what other literary references I’ve missed. What happens in “Dictation” is that Bosanquet persuades Hallowes to exchange, without their Masters noticing, lines from two stories, James’s “The Jolly Corner” and Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer.”

Could one realistically substitute, without being detected, lines from a third-person story set in New York and a first-person story set off the coast of Siam? When Ozick’s Hallowes asks as much, Ozick’s Bosanquet replies, “What we mean to search for are those ruthless invokings, those densest passages of psychological terror that can chill the bone. Pick out a charged exactitude, tease out of your man the root of his fertility –”

It’s a powerful premise for readers who care enough about James and Conrad to feel a transgressive thrill at the thought of this covertly homoerotic exchange. The image of cross-pollination partly works by making us think about what kinds of influences James and Conrad actually exerted on each other — it helps that both stories involved feature mysterious doubles. “Dictation” is a rich reading experience, provided the reader is fascinated by James and Conrad to begin with — I’m left, in the spirit of Pierre Menard, to try reading Conrad as if he were James and vice versa, and to wonder what subsequent tricks Bosanquet and Woolf might have gotten up to…
Posted in Everything UnfinishedBookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • The other Olga

    I am tempted to read "Dictation" in order to get inspired to venture reading James and/or Conrad again. My previous attempts have failed miserably.

  • James Warner

    "The Secret Sharer" is a great place to start with Conrad.

    I don't think either James or Conrad were at their best in their later work — in each case, the transition from penning their novels to dictating them to an amanuensis may have had unfortunate stylistic consequences.