IN 1900, THERE LIVED on the Kent and East Sussex border, within a day's ride of each other, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, H.G. Wells, and Stephen Crane. Their relationships with one another, relationships not of intimacy but of friendship and a shared devotion to the profession of letters, is the subject of Nicholas Delbanco's Group Portrait. It is a tempting subject. There is more here than simply five distinguished writers thrown together by chance and acquaintanceship. More than any others (and setting aside Wells, who is a special case), these are the very men who created what we mean by the modern novel in English, bringing to their separate tasks a sense of craftsmanship and of absolute artistic integrity which had been, before them, an exclusively French possession.

But it is a temptation toward a subject which proves singularly elusive. The five do not hold themselves together for Delbanco's camera. He can get two, sometimes three, of them to stand still for him, posed before the garden steps of a country house in the golden, autumnal sunlight of the final Victorian years. But the others will have sloped off somewhere else, to a work-table, perhaps, or to a game of croquet. He is admirably cheerful about this: he is not the kind of photographer who badgers his subjects. But he must nevertheless have found his task at times a frustrating one. What seems to have kept him going is affection and respect--his respect for them, in the first instance, but beyond that, his recognition of the generous respect which they accorded each other. They offer a chastening model to our present literary scene, but then, our present scene does not contain a James or a Conrad. His "last and best" reason for writing the book, he says, is this: "I love to read these novelists, and hope that others will."

A good, an excellent reason, but it points directly toward the next of his formidable difficulties. His book is very likely to find its way chiefly into the hands of readers who do read these novelists and who already love them. And they are almost certain to discover here very little which they do not already know. Full and handsome modern lives and biographical studies of these writers exist, and few admirers of Henry James, for example, will not be familiar with Leon Edel's masterly biography. Thus, the account of the eventual quarrel between James and Wells will be for such readers a familiar story, and so too will be the account of the collaboration between Conrad and Ford, and the painful account of Stephen Crane's final year. And, too, they will be aware that Ford, the member of the group who set down its fullest and most colorful records, was a congenital fabulist.

Delbanco's own style is delicate and sure, but even so, his generalizations have a way of crumbling beneath its touch. "They knew themselves in opposition," he writes. "The world of literary London, its clubs and power brokers, looked at them askance or with the kind of tolerance that incorporates disdain." This was true, certainly, of the Conrad of that year, and of Crane, a raffish Yankee, but not true at all of Henry James, who moved easily in clubland and in the country houses of the lordly.

If I had myself to formulate one generalization, it would be that all of them were foreigners. James and Crane were Americans. Conrad a world-battered Pole, and Ford of partly-German extraction. But then there is Wells. But Wells, as Delbanco points out, was a son of the servant class, and hence in Victorian England an outsider in a different way. Each of them, though, in his own way, adopted as a personal style that of the Victorian, and later the Edwardian, landed gentleman. Much of the biographical drama (and comedy) issues from the contrasts between these provincial social styles, and a devotion (save for Wells) to the Flaubertian and very un-English notion of the novel as high art. Save for Wells--they won't hold still for my camera, either.

Wells seems to me the real odd man out here. He inherited uncritically, and proceeded to practice, the serviceable, rough-and-ready old English view of the novel as a carriage which could be relied upon to rattle along. He had no hankering after foreign-made esthetic principles of the sort that later caused Ford's The Good Soldier to be called "the finest French novel in the English language." Indeed, his sense of James and later of James Joyce makes it clear that he didn't have a clue as to what the modern novel was doing, nor why it was worth doing.

The charm of Delbanco's book--and it is a book of genuine charm--is that suggested by John Updike in a paragraph of jacket praise: "The photographer's shadow falls most enhancingly across this group portrait." That is exactly right. Delbanco has got himself into his book, a shadow upon stone steps, fussing with his camera, waving his subjects a bit closer together than they might have wished. This makes the book contemporaneous, in a way, with its subjects. There were, in those far-off days, writers who were spoken of as "bookmen" and who gave their readers graceful, unbuttoned, but never unguarded portraits of the liteary lions--"half-Hours with Famous Writers"--that sort of thing. Delbanco has made himself the last of the bookmen, and he brings to his task a nuanced and affectionate pen.

But what we chiefly value in his subjects is captured not by a bookman's book, but by four lines by a poet, by Pound in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (1920): His true Penelope was Flaubert, He fished by obstinate isles; Observed the elegance of Circe's hair Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials. But there is something to be said these days, after all, for affectionateness as a literary trait. James would not have found Pound a very clubbable fellow, but I suspect that he would have returned Delbanco's affection, smiling with benign understanding upon the difficulties presented by his subject.