The Portrait of a Lady
David Stuart Davies looks at what many consider to be Henry James' finest work. ...
"Do not mind anything that anyone tells you about anyone else.
Judge everyone and everything for yourself. "
‘To be completely great,’ Henry James wrote in an early review, ‘a work of art must lift up the heart,’ and his own novels do this to an outstanding degree ...’ Edward Wagenknecht – American literary critic
Henry James was born in New York in 1843, and by the age of nineteen had determined to become a writer. The second son of the eccentric Swedenborgian philosopher for whom he was named, James spent his peripatetic childhood travelling between the United States and Europe, studying with tutors in Geneva, London, Paris, Bologna, and Bonn. Inheriting his father’s wanderlust, James visited London in 1869 and made the acquaintance of artists and intellectuals, including George Eliot, William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Leslie Stephen who both stimulated and influenced his work. In Eliot particularly he was greatly taken by the author’s ability explore the inner workings of a character’s mind in her novels.
While in Europe James wrote book reviews, and submitted numerous short stories to magazines such as the North American Review, North American Tribune, Macmillan's, and The Atlantic Monthly. By his mid-twenties James was regarded as one of the most skilful writers of short stories in America. However, some critics deplored his tendency to write of the life of the mind, rather than of action. It was in 1871 that he produced his first full-length novel, Watch and Ward (1871), which was serialised in The Atlantic Monthly.
His years wandering in England, France and Italy set the stage for a lifetime of travel in those countries. He lived for a time in Paris before moving to London in 1876. He continued his prodigious output of short stories and novels including Roderick Hudson (1875), The American (1877), The European (1877) Washington Square (1880) and The Aspern Papers (1888).
Many of his novels explore the cultural and psychological differences between Europeans and Americans. To his contemporaries, James represented the quintessential artist, labouring at his craft to the exclusion of much else. He regularly rejected suggestions that he should marry, proclaiming himself ‘a bachelor’. One of his biographers, F. W. Dupee, originated the theory that he had been in love with his cousin Mary (‘Minnie’) Temple, but that a neurotic fear of sexual intercourse kept him from admitting such affections: ‘James' invalidism ... was itself the symptom of some fear of or scruple against sexual love on his part.’
However, James was by nature friendly and even gregarious but, while he was an active observer and participant in society, he tended, until late middle age, to be ‘distant’ in his relations with people, and was careful to avoid ‘involvement.’
In his autobiography, Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), James credited his detachment to his rootless early years travelling. ‘The effect of detachment,’ he wrote, ‘was the fact of the experience of Europe.’ Not surprisingly, his novels deal with themes that have bearing on his own life: liberation, entrapment, exile, and artistry. In describing the internal states of mind and social dynamics of his characters, James often made use of a personal style in which ambiguous or contradictory motivations and impressions were overlaid or closely juxtaposed in the discussion of a single character’s psyche. For their unique ambiguity, as well as for other aspects of their composition, his works have been compared to impressionist painting. No other writer of his generation explored the internal thought processes of his characters as well as their actions with such intellectual precision.
In 1897 he moved to Rye in East Sussex where his home Lamb House is still situated and can be visited. Among the later works that he wrote here are The Turn of the Screw (1898 ), The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Ambassadors (1903).
When World War I broke out, James was not happy with America’s reluctance to join the hostilities and he became a British citizen in 1915. The following year he was awarded the Order of Merit by King George V.
Henry James died of pneumonia in 1916. His ashes were interred at the Cambridge Cemetery in Massachusetts but a memorial stone was placed for him in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey in 1976.
David Stuart Davies
TITLES BY HENRY JAMES