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Henry James: Biography and Visits

Garden behind the Reform, Travellers and Athenaeum Clubs in Pall Mall

I picture Henry James as being rather like Jules Verne's character Phileas Fogg. There they both sat in the Reform Club in Pall Mall, London seemingly social people, seemingly members of the establishment, when in fact they were using the Club as a way of avoiding engagement in life. They both seemed so proper, and yet lurking beneath their respectability was something much darker. As Phileas Fogg suggests, a man who commits a robbery and gets away with fifty thousand pounds is not a robber, but a gentleman. At a certain point money will start to talk. Fogg is suspected of robbing the Bank of England, and as we shall see James the great novelist may have been something of an emotional robber.

Henry James's grandfather, William James, an irish emigrant from Bailieborough in County Cavan, sailed to America in 1789. He was to become extremely rich, buying up vast areas in the new state of Illinois and western New York state. He bought the whole of Syracuse, then a swamp, knowing the future value of its salt springs. The money William James was to make from Syracuse was to aid his grandson Henry James through much of his literary career. In Henry James's novel Portrait of a Lady, a bright young American woman is given a huge inheritance by one of her wealthy relations, in the hope that this will keep her free for great things. In reality the money allows her to fall into the hands of fortune hunters. Similarly perhaps, the great wealth amassed by William James allowed his son Henry Senior to dismiss material things, and go in search of spiritual enlightenment, a search which took him close to madness. Henry James Senior was a very strange man, and his strangeness often took an ominous turn. He was an admirer of the insane New York physician Dr Joseph T. Curtis, who had heard voices from the spirit world telling him to kill his children. Henry Senior also spoke and wrote rather alarmingly of saving his family from sin by killing them.



Henry James at age 16. This image is copyright free

In 1855 the family moved to Europe, perhaps to escape retribution for anti-gambling articles that Henry Senior had written. The children, William, Henry, Wilky, Bob and Alice had few friends because of their wandering lifestyle, and were locked into their difficult family circle. In 1858 they returned to America and lived in Newport, Rhode Island. William was picked out as the family's academic star, which meant another long spell for the family in Europe, so that William could get a European education. Meanwhile his younger brother Henry - born 15th April 1843 - became a voracious reader of novels, a habit his father was not happy about. To correct his "loose imagination" Henry was sent to a technical school in Geneva. This was a school for boys training for careers in engineering, the syllabus comprising of science and mathematics. For the artistic Henry James this was a nightmare, and after a miserable year he was allowed to leave. He attended literature classes for a few months at what is now the University of Geneva. Then in the spring of 1860 his younger brother Wilky managed to peek through the persistently locked door of Henry's bedroom and saw "poetical looking manuscripts", and his brother sitting with an author-like air at his desk. Henry James had started out on his career as a writer.

Henry's father still had other ideas for him. The young man was sent to study law at Harvard in 1862 - 1863, and once again this course was not a success. It did, however, help to keep Henry out of the lethal fighting of the American Civil War. This was a complicated period of Henry's life. Apparently he developed a back injury which kept him out of the fighting, although how real this injury was is in doubt. Also his father had a typically strange attitude to the war, wanting to hold back his two elder sons so that they could experience life before risking war, but being quite happy to send off his two younger sons, who after all had even less experience of life, to join the Union army. Both boys survived the war, but neither ever recovered from the trauma of fighting it. Henry clearly wrestled with contradictory feelings over his non-involvement, and eventually created the character of Owen Wingrave, in the story of that name. who shows a form of bravery in defying social convention and refusing to take part in the barbarism of war. The Civil War was truly terrible, the first war to demonstrate the horror of the Industrial Revolution applied to warfare, so we can hardly blame someone for wanting to escape it. James seemed to hide in his "invalidism", which he was only able to throw off in 1865 when the war ended. He returned to life again, and went on a holiday with his cousins, the Temples, in New Hampshire, a time which he remembers as the highlight of his youth. His cousin, the beautiful, rebellious and brilliant Minny Temple, was to have a great influence on James and his work. Minny was to be the inspiration for Isabel Archer, the heroine of what is arguably his greatest book Portrait of a Lady. But that book was a long way in the future. For now Henry saw the publication of his first story, The Story of a Year which appeared in March of 1865.

In 1869 James travelled to Europe with letters of introduction, which allowed him to meet George Eliot at her house in Regent's Park, William Morris in Queens Square, and Charles Darwin at Down House. Meanwhile back in the United States his beloved cousin Minny was dying from tuberculosis. Sadly James ignored her pleas to take her to Europe to enjoy new sights and perhaps find benefit for her failing health in the climate of Italy. Henry James was not a thoughtful man in his relationships. He kept everyone at arms length, and according to his biographer Lyndall Gordon, was happier to commune with Minny after her death in 1870 through his work, rather than offer her any practical help during her life. Henry James used relationships for his work. He would become involved, and then disappear. In this sense he was a charming emotional robber. An ordinary person would have been called selfish.


Reform Club

James settled in Europe at the end of 1875. He was deeply affected by George Eliot's novel Middlemarch, seeing his own powerful heroines in the character of Dorothea. This novel may even have influenced his decision to settle in England. With a letter of introduction from John Adams, a descendent of two American presidents, and Leslie Stephens, father of Virginia Woolf, he had easy access into the heart of the British establishment. He became a member of the Reform Club, and was given temporary membership of the writers' club the Athenaeum, when membership usually took sixteen years to achieve. He ate well, chatted to the ladies, being most friendly to those who were safely married. He took tea on the lawns of fine houses. All the while he was using his seeming acceptance into the heart of British life to maintain distance. No need for a wife when the Club looked after you.


His career reached its first peak in 1878 - 1881 with the publication of Daisy Miller, The Europeans and The Portrait of a Lady. This last book, published in 1881, tells the story of the Minny Temple inspired character, Isabel Archer. Isabel comes to England and tries to avoid the usual pattern of life followed by a young woman. She wishes to be a success, but doesn't accept the usual definitions of success. She turns down offers of marriage from two successful men, American entrepreneur Casper Goodwood, and English nobleman Lord Warburton. Her tubercular cousin Ralph Touchett is so impressed by Isabel that on the death of his father he turns half his inheritance over to Isabel to give her the freedom to make something spectacular of her life. James's novels are often about success, and trying to identify what it is. James had met Darwin in 1869, and was much influenced by him, often creating characters crippled by sickness and watching to see how natural selection might work. Success in James's books is not simple. The sickly men don't get the girl, but the healthy, hearty,and often boring, men don't do too well either. In the memorable opening scenes of Portrait of a Lady old Daniel Touchett is taking tea on the lawn at Gardencourt. He is rich and successful, but he looks nostalgically back to the days when he was twenty years old, working "tooth and nail" and struggling. He says that in being comfortable on the lawn he has lost the ability to feel comfortable. Success brings indolence, which is why Daniel Touchett sees more success in not being so rich. In all the troubles to come in this book it is as though the reader is being told you can't have success and comfort without experiencing a lack of it. The end of the story takes an older and sadder Isabel back to Gardencourt, where she sits with the dying Ralph: " 'Oh Ralph I'm very happy now' she cried through her tears." She feels comfort more keenly in the apparent lack of it. Henry James was a snob, shut away in the gentlemen's clubs, but there was a humane side to him, where ideas of success could exclude everyone, or include anyone. Natural selection for James could select everyone, even as it throws everyone aside in the end.

After the publication of Portrait of a Lady James's career declined. He failed as a playwright, and was booed from the gallery in 1895 when he came on stage to take a bow after the performance of one of his plays. Thomas Hardy was taking all the plaudits at this time, and James hated Hardy's novel Tess, simply because it was successful. Since 1879 he had conducted a cautious relationship with the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, but this came to a tragic end in January 1894 when Constance killed herself by jumping from a window in Venice after a period of the depressive illness which had plagued her for many years. James back in England was deeply shocked, and tried to distance himself from the embarrassment of a relationship with a "mad woman". He did not attend Constance's funeral, but he did go to Venice and stayed in her apartments, sorting through her things. He burnt many of her letters, no doubt in part seeking once again to play down the relationship and, as he saw it, preserve his reputation. In April 1894 he sailed out into the Venetian Lagoon with a collection of ball gowns which had belonged to Constance. He tried to drown them in the lagoon, but the voluminous fabric of the dresses kept bringing them back to the surface.


Mermaid Street, Rye, East Sussex. Lamb House is at the top of the hill in West Street.

Following the death of Constance, James's career gained a second period of momentum, culminating in The Wings of a Dove (1902) and The Ambassadors (1903). Socially he began to retreat into solitude. In 1896 long periods were spent in complete isolation in Rye, East Sussex. During this time in Rye he saw Lamb House, built in 1723 by James Lamb, the Mayor of Rye. James bought Lamb House and moved in permanently in June 1898. It was a place he clearly loved, and The Great Good Place published in 1900 describes an idyllic retreat where peace is found. At Lamb House James pursued his strange conflict between a desire for companionship, and for isolation: Lyndall Gordon says that behind a playful benevolence "lay a terrifying will to possess the souls of people he had marked out for 'use.' " He continued to conduct this strange emotional robbery with his visitors at Lamb House.







Lamb House

By 1910 Henry James was falling into mental breakdown. In 1911, following his brother William's death he was in the United States, seeking treatment for depression. In August he sailed back to England on the Mauritania and returned to Rye. He recovered a little, and began work on his autobiography. The writer Edith Wharton secretly diverted $8000 from her royalties to James, making it appear as if this was an advance on a new novel from her publisher Scribner. The novel that Wharton's "advance" paid for never appeared, but the secret gesture seemed to help James's state of mind, if only for a while. In 1912 he developed shingles, and had the misfortune to consult Sir Henry Head. Following a consultation with Head the following year, Virginia Woolf attempted suicide. By Christmas he was living in London as an invalid. He now realised the pain he had ignored in others, the mental anguish caused to his brothers by the American Civil War, Minny Temple's desperation at advancing tuberculosis, depression suffered by Constance, and his sister Alice: "This beastly thing is so bad.... that one is quite ashamed of... having lived in a sphere where it could rage and of having brushed carelessly and detachedly passed its victims" (quoted A Private Life of Henry James by Lyndall Gordon P349).


The two volume autobiography, published in 1914, was a success, mainly because of a collection of letters from Minny Temple to John Chipman Gray. Most of the second part of Notes of a Son and Brother was based on these letters, and their bright, direct tone made the book. James then destroyed the letters, in his typically high handed way. "There is surely little to add" was his comment on their destruction. If they had been interesting enough to make his book a success they would surely have been interesting enough to keep. But James wanted to be in control, to the last.




The garden at Lamb House

By 1915 Henry James knew he was dying. In October he visited Lamb House for the last time. He burnt letters and wrote nasty things about future biographers, and about biography in general, trying to control the future and how it would look at him. As a final image I picture Henry James back at the Reform Club in those heady days of the 1870s when he moved to England. There he'd sit, cultured, charming, seemingly benevolent, and all the while he was conducting such an audacious emotional robbery that his work transcended his crime and turned him into a great novelist.














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