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Reference group
Literary impressionists (act. c.1895–c.1925) were a group of novelist friends—Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, and Stephen Crane, all resident in either east Sussex or west Kent—who worked to introduce continental techniques in the art of fiction into English writing. Though they did not constitute a formal society they met frequently (as a trio after Crane's death in 1900), as neighbours, collaborators, and friends, and developed a shared sense of the importance of self-conscious artistry. Though they all had different, and differently evolving, attitudes towards impressionism in painting or literature, and did not describe themselves as impressionists at least before the First World War, all gave a privileged place to the ‘impression’ in their criticism as well as their fiction. Contemporaries regarded them as a literary network, as, increasingly, have modern biographers (such as Nicolas Delbanco and Miranda Seymour) and critics (like Paul B. Armstrong, Tamar Katz, and Jesse Matz), who highlight interactions between the writers, and have explored the concept of literary impressionism as the most fitting conceptual framework in which to place their collective work.

Impressionism is difficult enough to define in visual art, and attempts to apply it to literature have traditionally been regarded as unhelpfully vague, or too loosely metaphorical. By contrast the recent rehabilitation of the concept of literary impressionism identifies a category that can help explain the transition from late nineteenth-century realist or aesthetic writing to early twentieth-century modernism. In France impressionism in literature was contemporary with pictorial impressionism (as in Maupassant's preface to Pierre et Jean of 1888), and arguably even preceded it (as in Baudelaire's influential The Painter of Modern Life, which anticipated the programme realized by the impressionist artists who began their group exhibitions in 1874). However, in Britain, though some literary advocacy of impressionism was contemporary with impressionist painting the practice of impressionist fiction generally came later.

The three most significant writers for impressionism in English before the 1890s were John Ruskin, Walter Pater, and the Anglo-Irish novelist George Moore. The painters Ruskin wrote about were not the French impressionists, but earlier British artists—J. M. W. Turner and his contemporaries—considered in Modern Painters (1843–60). Though Ruskin's notorious attack in 1877 on James Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold cast him as the enemy of the French style of pictorial impressionism, Kenneth Clark (in his 1948 introduction to Ruskin's autobiography, Praeterita) described Ruskin as ‘by nature an impressionist’; Ruskin's deeply personal and perceptual prose also had an influence on later impressionist writers, especially Proust. Pater, a more exact contemporary of Monet and Renoir, produced his classic statement of impressionist aesthetics in the ‘Conclusion’ to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (a year before the French impressionists' first group exhibition). Though Pater also wrote on an earlier period his emphasis on consciousness, perception, indeterminacy, and transient effects articulated a similar programme. In Confessions of a Young Man (1888) George Moore prided himself on writing ‘the first eulogies’ of the French painters, and also of Whistler. His advocacy of impressionist art and literature was continued in Impressions and Opinions (1891) and Modern Painting (1893). However, Moore's own fiction, when it is not mythical, is more usually categorized as realist or naturalist.

Important though these earlier contributions were, it is the slightly later grouping of James, Ford, and Conrad (along with Crane) who became the principal exponents of literary impressionism in England. From the late 1890s all four lived in close proximity on the Kent–Sussex border: Ford, after 1894, at Bonnington, near Ashford, and later at nearby Aldington and then Winchelsea; and Conrad, from about 1898, at Pent Farm, near Hythe, which he rented from Ford, having been introduced to him by their mutual friend the critic and literary editor Edward Garnett, with whom they all discussed fictional techniques. James lived at Lamb House, Rye, from 1898 and in the following year they were joined by Stephen Crane, also introduced by Garnett, who moved to Brede Place, Northiam, near Rye. Crane, like James, was an American expatriate, Conrad was a Polish émigré, and Ford, though born in England, was the son of a German émigré, and known until after the First World War as Ford Madox Hueffer. Ford imagined another mutual friend, H. G. Wells, describing them as ‘a ring of foreign conspirators plotting against British letters’ (Ford, Return to Yesterday, 29). Though personally close to these authors, Wells advocated his own brand of Dickensian, mildly comic, and sprawling social realism as an alternative to what he criticized (and satirized in his novel Boon, 1915) as the impressionists' excessive aestheticism.

Though none of these writers described themselves as ‘impressionists’ at the time (as the French painters had in the 1870s), they did take as their inspiration the self-conscious literary technique found in the work of Flaubert, Maupassant, and Turgenev. Conrad and Ford were especially close, collaborating on three novels over a decade, and meeting in each other's houses on a daily basis. Both held James in awe, and exchanged books as well as regular conversation with him. Both wrote about James and Crane, while Ford wrote copiously about Conrad, in a series of vivid combinations of reminiscence and criticism.

Common to their work was a focus on impressions and an engagement with the idea of impressionism. However, James and Conrad were initially profoundly sceptical about the movement, only later adopting its principles. In a review of the French painters from 1876, for example, James had complained that none ‘show signs of possessing first-rate talent, and indeed the “Impressionist” doctrines strike me as incompatible, in an artist's mind, with the existence of first-rate talent’ (James, ‘The impressionists’, 114–15). Yet James returned repeatedly to his uneasy early encounter with the movement, and found in it the inspiration for his late novels, especially The Ambassadors, which is regarded as perhaps his most impressionist fiction. The notion of ‘the impression’ was central to James's aesthetics, and also received elaborate treatment in his late volumes of autobiography.

Equally unimpressed by impressionist painting, Conrad subsequently moved from his early rejection of the movement, via his ‘qualified praise’ of Crane's writing, to a position where he ‘began to aim for the same effects that he had earlier questioned’ (Hay, 55). By the time that he was writing The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ in 1896–7 he certainly appears to have modified his views. The preface to that novel has been read as a manifesto for impressionism in fiction, and was often echoed by Ford in his later criticism. ‘My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see’ (J. Conrad, ‘Author's note’ to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, New Review, 17, Dec 1897, 628–31). Conrad did not discuss impressionism directly in the preface. But he did argue that art's ‘appeal, to be effective, must be an impression conveyed through the senses’ and that ‘It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting’. Later that year Conrad told Crane: ‘You are a complete impressionist. The illusions of life come out of your hand without a flaw’ (1 Dec 1897, Collected Letters, 1.415). He was somewhat more ambivalent when he took up the theme of Crane's impressionism a few days later with Edward Garnett. ‘His eye is very individual and his expression satisfies me artistically. He certainly is the impressionist and his temperament is curiously unique … He is the only impressionist and only an impressionist’ (5 Dec 1897, ibid., 1.416). Even if Conrad hoped he was more than ‘only an impressionist’, by this stage he nevertheless acknowledged himself an ‘impressionist from instinct’ (Conrad to E. L. Sanderson, 17 Oct 1897, ibid., 1.398).

After Crane's death in 1900 the others continued to meet, and Conrad and Ford continued to collaborate after their major joint novel, Romance (1903). Ford contributed an episode to Conrad's Nostromo (1904), took down some of Conrad's reminiscences in The Mirror of the Sea (1904) from dictation, and told him the story Conrad would turn into The Secret Agent (1907). Conrad assisted Ford in launching his literary monthly, the English Review, in 1908, a landmark in the emergence of Anglo-American modernism (though Ford's utopian business methods got him ejected from the editorial chair after little more than a year). Ford hoped the English Review would establish the ‘school’ of novelists he felt English literature lacked; and in its pages he published established authors like Thomas Hardy, Tolstoy, James, Wells, Arnold Bennett, and Conrad, alongside his modernist ‘discoveries’ such as Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, and Wyndham Lewis. It was not until 1913 that Ford explicitly defined himself as an impressionist—a position he was to maintain for the rest of his life—but he was clearly articulating his creative and editorial practices of the previous decade. Conrad and James fell out with him in 1909–10 after he left his wife, who refused to divorce him, and went to live in Kensington with the novelist Violet Hunt. Though they still met from time to time, this marked the end of any cohesive network; though each man continued to practise impressionism, and to write about it.

In 1910 Roger Fry organized the ‘Manet and the post-impressionists’ exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London, featuring works by Manet, Cézanne, Gaugin, and Van Gogh. The exhibition's impact on British artistic life was profound: for Virginia Woolf this was the year that ‘human character changed’ (‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 3, 1988, 421). The arrival of post-impressionism in the visual arts meant that announcing oneself as an impressionist—as Ford was about to do—might seem belated. Yet literary impressionism did not end in 1910 and Ford now became the principal advocate of impressionist technique among the three surviving authors. Of his voluminous writings on the topic, three works were especially important: the essay ‘Impressionism: some speculations’, later revised into the preface of his Collected Poems (1914), which had a decisive influence on one of Ford's pre-war discoveries, Ezra Pound; his essay ‘On impressionism’ (also 1914); and the memoir Ford wrote after his collaborator's death, Joseph Conrad: a Personal Remembrance (1924), which included a section detailing the literary techniques the two men had developed. Like Ford, Conrad and James both maintained their interest in impressionism after 1910, though for both this was increasingly via autobiography rather than fiction. Though later writing introduced aspects of modernism, works like Conrad's Under Western Eyes (1911) and Victory (1915) also show the author working through his uncertainties about the impressionist emphasis on vision and interiority.

Ford's attachment to impressionism in fiction was maintained in his masterpiece about Edwardian society, The Good Soldier (1915), and a brilliant sequence of novels about the First World War, Parade's End (1924–8), both of which developed his impressionist methods. As with that of James, Conrad, and Crane, Ford's writing gave prominence to the fragmentary impressions and memories of intensely visual scenes in the consciousnesses of his characters. Like Conrad and Crane in particular, he showed these characters often in the grip of passions and catastrophes that push them to the borders of sanity.

It is Ford's literary reminiscences which make the strongest claim for the cohesiveness of the four (from 1900 three) writers as a literary circle, detailing their friendships, his walks on the Rye Road with James, their fondness for Crane and concern about his frail health, as well as the gruelling process of collaborative work. James and Conrad would doubtless have taken a different view after their falling out with Ford; and their admirers were quick to criticize Ford's claims to intimacy as exaggerated.

Echoing Ford, recent biographers have likewise identified them as constituting a literary network, albeit one loosely defined. Yet Ford also presented literary impressionism as a much broader movement, stretching from Flaubert in the mid-nineteenth century to modernists like James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemingway. This challenges the notion of successive literary movements, which tends to see modernism as an epistemological break with the previous century. It reveals the extent to which ‘modernist’ is generally a retrospective designation, and highlights how rarely writers, now identified as such, were willing to describe themselves in such terms. Thus when in 1919 Woolf analysed what she called ‘modern’ novels, she did so in terms of attention to the impression freed from conventional plotting, citing Chekhov as an exemplar (V. Woolf, ‘Modern fiction’, The Common Reader: First Series, 1968). She, and such other writers as Katherine Mansfield and Jean Rhys, continued experimenting with notions of the impression and impressionism into the 1920s and 1930s.

Max Saunders


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