Henry James and the American Novel


Professor David Timms, former VC Bath Spa University

12 January 2011

This extended essay is by Dr Robert Blackburn, BRLSI Convenor for Literature and Humanities, and former Principal Lecturer in Music at Bath Spa University. It incorporates certain material from Professor David Timms’ talk at the BRLSI on 12 January 2011, in particular his references to metaphor in James, but is otherwise Dr Blackburn’s work. The bibliography is a much-expanded version of the one issued by the speaker in January 2011. The works of Henry James as an indisputably great writer of fiction was approached through three of his novels, each representing a different period of his life. They are The American (1877), The Portrait of a Lady (1879-1881) and The Ambassadors (1902/1903). In what follows, the opportunity has been taken to include short discussions of other works not referred to in the talk, but which have some direct bearing on the overall theme. The essay is directed at the general reader with some interest in and curiosity about the life and works of Henry James.



From the viewpoint of the 21st century’s second decade, approaching the centenary in 2016 of Henry James’ death, the reputation of the American novelist, short-story writer and critic has never been higher. Interest in his work and life has grown to such an extent in the half-century since 1960, that it now seems astonishing to reflect on the struggles he had at many points in his career as a writer, to reach out successfully to a wider audience, one whose appetite for high quality fiction could be matched by a sense of discrimination, even refinement. James was always an American, one who had developed a taste for Europe in childhood and boyhood through privileged family circumstances. Writing increasingly about the European scene from an American East coast viewpoint, he loved France and Italy as well as England, and was a fluent French speaker and reader early in life. Increasingly, as time went on, he absorbed into his writing the nuances and complexities of the life of his own social class, and that of the landed aristocracy, in London and southern England. Yet in 1899, on the verge of writing his three greatest novels, all set in Europe, yet all with American protagonists, James said to his friend Hamlin Garland that ‘If I were to live my life all over again, I would be an American. I would steep myself in America, I would know no other land.’ From the beginning, he loved the work of Nathanael Hawthorne (1804-1864), who, in a famous letter of 10 June 1904 to the Hon. Robert S. Rantoul, he described as ‘this flower of romantic art, never to become a mere desiccated specimen.’ In his own work, James achieved a range which was almost certainly far beyond what Hawthorne would realistically have aspired to. But with the passage of time, and his disillusionment with turn-of-the-century materialist America (reflected in The American Scene (1907)), James intensified his early admiration for a writer of genius, a novelist, like himself, of deep moral subtlety, awareness and perspective, but one who, unlike James, had never felt comfortable with his limited experience of Europe. Hawthorne was the subject of James’ only extended separate study of a single author, published in the ‘English Men of Letters ‘series in 1879.

Born in New York in 1843, Henry James had both Irish and Scots antecedents. He became a writer of clear major status and range, but a European-type writer, one who was unusually self-conscious, whose work-rate was formidable, and whose output over a lifetime was vast. Fortunately for us, he completed a huge array of full-length novels, novellas and short stories, practically the whole of his work being serialised initially following nineteenth-century practice. But his career experienced a strange hiatus when, in 1889/1890 he was tempted to turn his back on fiction to write plays, in the hope of making more money from the theatre than his novels had ever done. But he was temperamentally and artistically unsuited to the theatrical world, however much he might have persuaded himself otherwise, and at the first performance of his last play, Guy Domville (1894-5) he was, at the close, howled off the stage by the very many in the audience who had disliked the play itself, and James’ wordy style in particular. The shock was so great that he never wrote another original play again, and, happily, returned to what he was best at, the production of imaginative fictional prose.

The father of the James family, Henry James Sr (1811-1882) was a businessman, a writer on theological and philosophical subjects, and eventually a Swedenborgian, who had inherited a large fortune from his own father, and therefore never had to work for a living. The boy suffered a terrible accident in a fire at the age of thirteen, and had part of his right leg amputated. Henry Junior’s mother was Mary Robertson Walsh, who had a sister, Kate. Mary and ‘Aunt Kate’ were the two formative female presences in Henry James’ early life. After her death, Henry (the son) described her as ‘the keystone of the (family) arch. Henry the son had an elder brother, William (1841-1910), the pluralist-empiricist, pragmatist philosopher, famously the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) as well as other works. Henry was in awe of William throughout his life, and was very close to him emotionally. He was deeply affected by William’s death in 1910. There were two younger brothers, Robertson (‘Bob’) and Garth Wilkinson (‘Wilky’). Both men enlisted in the American Civil war, and suffered grievously as a result, their lives being seriously shortened. In addition there was a beloved and remarkable invalid sister, Alice (1848-1892). It was to Alice that Henry generously gave his own portion of the father’s bequest to the family in 1882-3. Alice died in London, aged only 44, in 1892, leaving a diary of the very highest quality. To complicate matters, William married Alice Howe Gibbens, and their first child was also called Henry James (b. 18 May 1879). This Henry became Harry, and was the main beneficiary of his uncle’s will in 1916.

Despite his great standing as a writer, and his productivity, Henry James never made a great deal of money from his works. He arrived in France in 1876, at 33, with extensive previous experience of living in Europe. However, his time in Paris was not a real success, since for various reasons, he found it difficult to amalgamate easily with Parisian society. So James moved to London in December 1876, became celebrated there quite quickly, and in 1878-9, for example, dined out no fewer the 107 times. He spoke (in a letter of 1886) of ‘the gilded bondage of the (English) country house’, a topic he dealt with many times in his writings, for example, in ‘The Real Thing’(1893), one of his finest short stories.

Both parents died in 1882, when Henry James was nearing his fortieth birthday, and was already the author of Roderick Hudson, (1875), The American (1877) and Daisy Miller (1879), together with numerous shorter prose works. At 40, he was an acknowledged master of the short story. The first collected edition of James’ novels and stories, in 14 volumes, appeared in 1883. A widely travelled man, Henry James continued in this mode up to 1910, when his health, never completely robust owing partly to a mysterious back injury sustained when he was 21, began to fail noticeably. He kept his American citizenship until near the end of his life, becoming a British citizen only in 1915, affected strongly by the grim progress of the Great War. His final illness took its hold, and he died on 28 February 1916; he had been awarded the Order of Merit only two months previously.

For twenty years, Henry James lived in London, firstly at 3 Bolton Street, off Piccadilly, later at 21 Carlyle Mansions, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, and finally at 34 De Vere Gardens, Kensington. From these three addresses he cultivated wide circle of friends, including the illustrator, family man and author of Trilby, George du Maurier. There is a fine, moving fictional portrait of this friendship in David Lodge’s novel Author, Author, published in 2003. In 1898, James made the decision to move from London to Lamb House, an impressive Georgian property on a hillside above Rye town centre in Sussex. Here he lived until his death, first, briefly, as a tenant, then buying the freehold. This house and garden passed to the National Trust after 1945, and is open to the public. It contains many books, pictures and items of furniture which belonged to him, though many other items were shipped to America after his death.

It was at Lamb House that James wrote his final completed long novels The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903, but the first of the three to be written) and The Golden Bowl (1904) in the brick-built Garden House. All were composed by dictation to a (male) secretary at a typewriter, owing to long—term RSI (as it would now be called) to the author’s right hand. The mode of dictation probably accounts for the extraordinary complex and florid nature of the ‘late’ style as presented in these three great works. Sadly, the Garden House was demolished by a stray German bomb in 1940, and despite later good intentions, it has never been rebuilt. There are three volumes of autobiography from his final years, but the project remained unfinished, a fascinating beginning only. Philip Horne has observed that, disciplined writer though Henry James was, he left a whole range of projects which were unfinished, sketched out, barely started, or in many cases were never to go beyond the stage of an idea. At his death, there were two unfinished novels on his desk, The Ivory Tower and The Sense of the Past, published posthumously in 1917, in their fragmentary form. Both these fragments are available in modern scholarly editions.

In the opinion of Harold Bloom (The Western Canon, Macmillan, 1995, page 273), Henry James was ‘arguably the most organised critical sensibility we (the U.S.A.) have produced.’ James counted as his key intellectual contemporaries and influences Henry Adams, Charles Eliot Norton, Oliver Wendell Holmes and William Dean Howells, especially the last of these four. At the same time, he was out of tune with some leading 19th century American minds, notably Emerson and Thoreau, though after some early hostility to Walt Whitman’s world-view, he unexpectedly came to admire Whitman in his later years. As already mentioned, James’ feeling for Hawthorne and his work never wavered.  He felt that Hawthorne, though not a moralist, combined a haunting imagination with a strong feeling for moral problems-as he himself also did. Hawthorne’s was a lasting emotional influence, all the more powerful for being ambiguous at root, centring on Hawthorne’s sensibilities as a prose writer, but also concerning itself with an American ‘provincial’ mentality seen as too arid and narrow when James was young and hungry for European culture, and as profound and full of integrity by the time James was past the age of sixty. By then, James had done something which Hawthorne could never have achieved, which was to turn the European scene into credible, compulsively interesting fiction, from the viewpoint of a native, privileged American.

Henry James’ great hero amongst all writers was unquestionably Honore de Balzac. (1799-1850). For James, Balzac was simply ‘the first and foremost member of his craft’, a figure in whom ‘the scheme and scope are supreme’, a writer whose plan was ‘simply to do everything that could be done.’ Balzac was for him associated supremely with ‘things’, with the concrete, the actual. As a young man, Henry James had devoured the works of Charles Dickens, but as a mature writer he was never an uncritical admirer, sensing always too much ‘surface’. He felt Our Mutual Friend, for instance, Dickens’ last completed novel (1864-5) to be artificial; never, he said, had he read a novel so intensely written, so little seen, known or felt.’ On the other hand, he did identify warmly with the moral sensitivity and literary style of George Eliot, drawing consciously or unconsciously on her work in his own, notably Felix Holt, Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch. His love of her writings is revealed, for example, in Chapter Five of ‘The Middle Years’, published posthumously in 1917. It was she, more than anyone, who introduced him to the subtleties and  social tones of Middle England. By contrast, the unique figure of Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867, and a close contemporary of George Eliot, though poles apart from her in sensibility) was a sort of Hawthorne in reverse, with the French writer always an analyser and experimenter without boundaries, endlessly seeking new sensations, his brilliant, searching intellect less interested in moral niceties than in the ineffable and the unreachable.

James’ metaphor for the moral sense, or pervading need for morality in human affairs and behaviour was ‘flowers’. He felt the absence of this in the works of Hawthorne, and to a great extent in  Balzac too, and also in the Goncourt brothers. Corruption was always just round the corner here, and did not allow ‘flowers’ to grow. Looking back in 1903, James wrote a preface (among others) to Madame Bovary (1857), seeing it as ‘a single classic’ and Flaubert as a smaller-scale writer than his hero Balzac, without the latter’s abundance, scope and ‘monumentality’. He would have been interested in Flaubert’s very high reputation over a century on, in our own time. James admired Zola in many ways, not least for his urgent, very public defence of Dreyfus, but he could never identify with Zola’s so-called ‘dirty’subjects. As a writer, in terms of sensibility and approach, James could never have felt a great affinity with either Flaubert or Zola, the Norman or the Provencal. But he did admire Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series of novels as a whole, while feeling a limitation in Zola’s general pessimism. Likewise, he respected Flaubert’s literary fastidiousness while recoiling personally from his subject matter.

Of special interest is Henry James’ strong admiration for the work of Ivan Turgenev who was, like George Eliot, a full generation older than himself (b.1818). James had met Turgenev in Paris in 1875-6. It was through his friendship with Turgenev that he met a range of French writers, among them Flaubert, Zola and Maupassant, as well as George Sand (Mme Dudevant), Alphonse Daudet and Edmond de Goncourt. James read Turgenev in French translation s at first, and only later knew the novels in English through the versions by Constance Garnett. For him, Turgenev was a master of concision, whose eye for 'the commonest truth’ was surrounded by ‘an exquisite envelope of poetry’, and whose sense of ‘character, expressed and exposed’ never fails. Not surprisingly, James writes enthusiastically about Turgenev’s younger women characters, his ‘heroines’, feeling them to be ‘one of the most striking groups the modern novel has given us.’

Metaphor in James can quickly be found in his titles, as well as in his texts. The wealthy invalid Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove  (1902) is an obvious example. The novel is saturated with imagery of the trapped, compliant or helpless dove, fair-haired  Milly herself, keenly observed by her friend the dark-haired ambitious and healthy Kate Croy. Kate is nominally on terms of intimate friendship with Milly, but this relationship is undermined by a sense of the strong possibility of ultimate betrayal. Milly is broadly based on James’ much-loved cousin Minny Temple. She had died of tuberculosis in 1870, and it has been argued that her loss, when he was 27, was the most profound bereavement he would ever experience. She appears again in the story Georgina’s Room (1884).  Minny Temple was never forgotten by James to the end of his days. Some would say that she is present in The Beast in the Jungle (1903) in the form of the doomed May Bartram, close friend, though never actual lover, of John Marcher. The balance of probability her, however, is that May Bartram is based at least in part on Constance Fenimore Woolson, great –niece of the American writer Fenimore Cooper, and a close friend of James for many years, who after years of physical pain took her own life in Venice in 1894.(see below)

The Golden Bowl (1904), James’ last finished novel is partially built around a metaphor. Here the ‘golden bowl’ is actually made of gilded crystal, not gold. It is also known to be cracked, and is a gift from the Italian Prince Amerigo to the young American Charlotte Stant. Its flawed condition is symbolic of the flawed relations between the novel’s four main characters, the other two being the American girl Maggie Verver (close friend of Charlotte) and her father, the very wealthy and successful but widowed and somewhat quiet and reclusive international antique dealer Adam Verver.  The golden bowl is later accidentally shattered, not by one of the protagonists, but by Mrs Fanny Assingham, close friend of the Ververs. Mrs Assingham knew of the Prince’s affair with Charlotte (by now the young wife of Adam Verver, who is aged 47) long before Maggie did. As the critic Richard Freadman has observed: ‘the title The Golden Bowl divests the novel of an individuating personal focus, but without implying a situational context. Rather, it refers eerily to each of the principal characters.’ Most of the action takes place in central London, including an embrace between Amerigo and Charlotte which stands out in James’ work for its unambiguous eroticism. All readers have been swept along by Maggie’s ruthless determination to save and rebuild her marriage to Amerigo, following his adultery with Charlotte at Matcham, a Gloucestershire country house. This is not, of course,described by James in the novel, but is reported by Mrs Assingham at some length in conversation with her husband. Maggie makes sure that Charlotte and her father are, in effect, sent permanently (the word might be ‘banished’) to America, out any possible harm’s way. She is well prepared to sacrifice her most intimate life-relationship, that with Adam, her father, as well as her old, genuinely warm friendship with Charlotte (particularly the latter) in order to preserve a marriage which had proved from its early days to be flawed. Charlotte is, in effect, the scapegoat for Maggie’s future happiness But as the novelist Tessa Hadley has expressed it :  ‘At the end , Maggie has lost her father, her fantasy-companion, her child-parent in that Eden relationship which has been at the heart of her imagination of value.’



The American, a relatively short novel published in 1877, two years after James’ first, substantial novel Roderick Hudson, is essentially a social comedy. The rich, successful youngish Californian businessman Christopher Newman (more often than not, James chooses his characters’ names very astutely and appropriately) comes to Paris, hoping to conquer the city by force of personality, and specifically by ‘American drive.’ Not only this, he also aims to marry into the Parisian haute bourgeoisie.  Leon Edel, James’ great biographer, calls Newman ‘an innocent Western Barbarian.’  There is a drawn-out struggle with the elderly Marquise de Bellegarde, tough, resistant to argument, and effectively hostile to Newman’s plans to marry the young Claire de Cintre. Newman is mocked for his brashness (though not necessarily for his wealth) by the French aristocrats, but he has a naïve belief in his own destiny, and is only dimly aware of what is going on socially before his very eyes.

In due course, the courtship fails, and Claire enters a convent. Newman quickly becomes reconciled to this turn of events, rather too quickly, one might think. Claire looks and behaves like ‘a flower’, but James made her a creature of ‘weakness and inconstancy’, a fickle woman, as though to stress that Newman would be better off without her. Leon Edel observes that James shuts Claire up in a convent just as, in real life, he shut women away from himself. And yet, in his much later stage adaptation of The American for the stage, James did what Dickens had done in Great Expectations, and reversed the original ‘tragic/sad’ ending. He said in his Preface to the New York Edition of The American that,  in reality, the wealth of Newman would  really have been no obstacle to the snobbish Bellegarde family. They would in the end have seen all too easily the advantages of a match between Newman and Claire.

In its theme, The American is the precise opposite of Washington Square (1880), one of James’ best-known works, in which the tragic Catherine Sloper, heiress to her rich widowed physician father, is ‘plain, shy and without social graces or conversation.’ She is nevertheless pursued for her money by the penniless Morris Townsend. Catherine’s relationship with her father is cold and affection-free. . It is little wonder that she lacks empathy or confidence. Despite being presented as a cold fish, with no understanding of his daughter’s need for love, Dr Sloper knows a gold-digger when he sees one, and drives Townsend away. But after her father’s death, Catherine’s new freedom to act of her own accord is met by her realisation of the truth. Townsend returns, only to be renounced by her for the last time. The novel is widely read today, and was the basis for the 1949 film The Heiress, starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, directed by William Wyler. The part of Dr Sloper in The Heiress was played by no less an actor than Ralph Richardson.                          

This was one of the earlier film adaptations of Henry James’ works. Writing about the novel in The Spectator in February 1881, R.H.Hutton said that he did not really like Washington Square, but he could only admire the author. James, he said, showed genius of the most marked order, genius for painting character, and genius for conceiving unalloyed dismalness of effect, without tragedy and without comedy. ‘If you desire a consummately clever study of perfect dreariness’, he said in conclusion, ‘you have it here in Washington Square.’ Remarkably, James left this novel out of the New York Edition of his works (1907 onwards), together with The Europeans (1878) and The Bostonians (1886).

In The Portrait of a Lady (1879-81), Henry James sealed his burgeoning reputation as a master stylist and subtle chronicler of social mores among the middle and upper classes, a novelist of acute psychological insight. The Portrait is a greater and more complex work than either The American or Washington Square, written on a far more ambitious scale.  Many would rate it as his most approachable masterpiece, other than the ghost story, The Turn of the Screw. He himself described it as ‘before all things a study in character.’ Isabel Archer, a penniless young American in England, is one of James’ most memorable heroines, obviously likeable and attractive, if also naïve and gullible.as well as rather fixed in her attitudes. At one stage, she is described as ‘cold and priggish.’ Isabel is pursued by Casper Goodwood, a persistent and passionate suitor from earlier days, and by the wealthy Lord Warburton, with rather less vehemence. She is also genuinely loved from the sidelines by her cousin Ralph Touchett, a progressively sick man who dies young. Ralph Touchett’s observant father, husband of Isabel’s aunt, leaves most of his large fortune to the girl, so that almost overnight she becomes a wealthy woman, yet another of James’ women whose destinies seem to be conditioned by the presence or absence of money. Among the lesser figures in The Portrait is the gifted but over-blunt American journalist Henrietta Stackpole. However, James in his Preface to the 1908 New York Edition described Henrietta as, along with Maria Gostrey in The Ambassadors, as ‘but wheels to the coach : neither belongs to the body of the vehicle, or is for a moment accommodated with a seat inside.’

The well-known plot of The Portrait takes Isabel eventually into marriage with the scheming American aesthete Gilbert Osmond. He is a ‘monster’ figure for most readers, a quasi-stage villain, though he has had his defenders from time to time. His ‘beautiful mind’, to which Isabel is so ready to respond, leads to ‘the house of darkness…….of dumbness…….of suffocation.’ Osmond’s accomplice in snaring Isabel, following her inheritance, is the girl’s most trusted friend, Madame Serena Merle, also American. She is a lady of great guile and dishonesty, who turns out to have been Osmond’s former mistress, and the mother of his daughter Pansy. The marriage of Isabel and Osmond is a disaster. Isabel experiences deep disappointment through her husband’s controlling cruelty and coldness towards her. His character is modelled to some extent on that of Grandcourt in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, another study of masculine perversity and control obsession. Both are described by one critic as ‘psychological sadists’, with and entanglement of sexual and personal domination. Although there seems to be no clear way out for Isabel, an opportunity does present itself near the novel’s end, when Casper Goodwood returns for the last time , begs Isabel to leave with him, and demonstrates the truth of his feeling in a passionate embrace, to which Isabel responds momentarily with utter conviction. The chance to leave there and then with him is wide open to her, and the reader’s sympathies are intended to be with Goodwood. But Isabel’s own strand of fixity, even perversity, rises up. She attaches more significance to the formal marriage bond, to that commitment she entered into with Osmond, however unwisely, than to her own personal happiness. Realising what despair awaits her when she goes to meet her husband in Rome, but resigned to it, Isabel turns her back on Goodwood and prepares to make the journey to Italy, aiming to safeguard her stepdaughter Pansy from the coldness and hypocrisy of Osmond, even if it means having to endure them indefinitely herself.

An anonymous review in The Nation (February 1882) praised James’ ‘imaginative treatment of reality’, observing that The Portrait of a Lady is ‘thoroughly and at times profoundly real, and at the same time its presentation is imaginative.’ The same reviewer highlighted the characteristic Jamesian manner as ‘carrying the method of the essayist into the domain of romance: its light touch, its reliance on suggestiveness, its weakness for indirect statement, its flattering presupposition of the reader’s perceptiveness, its low tones, its polish.’

Once again, the pattern of metaphor asserts itself. ‘Flowers’, as an analogy for the moral sense, reappears. Isabel is seen outdoors in parks in Rome or London, seldom indoors. Osmond, a man of taste if not of conscience, is seen in terms of ‘buildings’ or his physical surroundings. James hardly describes Isabel physically at all ; we are told very little about her appearance. But we are told in detail what Osmond looks like. Lord Warburton’s great house, Gardencourt, plays an important part in the novel’s story, with its perfect marriage of interior and beyond. James speaks of ‘the wide carpet of turf (which) seemed like an extension of a luxurious interior’. Isabel says at one point that ‘I am very fond of my liberty’, stating her right to choose her destiny for herself, even to the extent of choosing some atrocity’-which is precisely what happens. The grand, aristocratic English country house life was one which Isabel might have had, if she had known even slightly what actually lay ahead of her. In effect she stays with Osmond for the sake of Pansy, the daughter, hoping to influence her for good, and take her forward, away from the domination of her father and Madame Merle.

Henry James was a tireless correspondent, perhaps the most prolific in the history of major literary figures. The originals of his letters are scattered in libraries and private collections across the world, and their great importance in understanding his life and work has been gathering strength in recent decades. It is estimated that he might have written in all at least 15,000 letters to various recipients. Large numbers of them have not  survived. Alongside his fiction, and the unsuccessful plays of the 1890-1894 period, James produced a substantial amount of literary criticism over most of his life from 1865 to 1915, covering most, though not all, of the leading authors of his day. Among these, in England, were R.L. Stevenson and George Meredith, Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells. His best-known piece of critical writing was The Art of Fiction, published in Longmans Magazine for September 1884, three years after the publication of The Portrait of a Lady, and later reissued in Partial Portraits in 1888.Walter Besant had given a lecture on popular and realistic standards in fiction at the Royal Institution. James disagreed with Besant’s rather narrow, even pedantic view of what fiction could and should be. His famous essay shows him as, at his best, a superb, entertaining critical writer, generous-spirited, warm-hearted, and already, at 41, speaking with the voice of great experience. He sees’the only distinction which has any meaning’ as one ‘between good and bad novels, as between good and bad pictures.’ ‘What is character’ asks Henry James, ‘but the determination of incident ? What is incident, but the illustration of character?’ Life and freedom are the basic principles of the writing of fiction, for James, who feels that ‘the only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life.’ He dislikes the want of discretion in, say, Anthony Trollope (otherwise much admired) when at one point Trollope concedes to the reader that the enterprise of his novel is ‘only make-believe’, that the events being narrated ‘have not really happened.’ James is very shocked by this, and says so clearly. He feels that such an attitude of apology by any writer undermines the whole purpose of fiction. The requirement of any novelist must be ‘a sense of reality’, since ‘humanity is immense, and reality has a myriad forms.’ James’ advice to a young novelist would be to ‘write from experience, and experience only,’ with the caveat ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.’ The writing of novels was, for him, as he said in a piece praising the work of R.L.Stevenson, a matter of ‘seeing and facing everything.’



The Ambassadors was considered by Henry James to be the novel he liked best among all his works, and one can see why. He spoke in the 1908 Preface to the New York Edition of the ‘golden glow’ he experienced while writing it. It is a great pity that F.R.Leavis , in The Great Tradition, said that he considered it a failure. In fact The Ambassadors is surely a comedy, with some poignant and stirring emotional features, it is true, but still a work filled with a spirit of lightness. In no sense is it a novel with dark or tragic undertones, as must be said of The Wings of the Dove, which followed it. The Golden Bowl, last of the ‘trilogy’ falls somewhere between them, since it is a piece of acute social observation with some comic and some potentially darker elements, and a strain of ruthlessness throughout, but is certainly not, in the end, a tragic work. In all three of these extraordinary novels, James, at the height of his powers, is in the grip of what he called his ‘irrepressible and insatiable, his extravagant and immoral interest in personal character and the ‘nature’ of a mind, of almost any mind the heaving little sea of his subject may cast up.’ (Preface (1908) to the New York Edition of What Maisie Knew (1897))  Perhaps realising that the central character in The Ambassadors (the reference to a novel by Balzac is quite deliberate) contains key aspects of the author himself, James revealed his fondness for the novel in the later Preface, where he spoke of its ‘scenic consistency.’   He says that he disguises that virtue, very oddly, by ‘just looking…….as little scenic as possible’, the novel dividing itself ‘into the parts that prepare, that tend to over-prepare, and the parts, or otherwise into the scenes, that justify and crown the preparation.’

Lambert Strether –always referred to by his surname, or as ‘our friend’ by the narrator, is at the centre of The Ambassadors from start to finish. James has a view of him as ‘poor, fine, melancholy, missing, striving Strether,’ a middle –aged American (specifically from an East Coast intellectual from Woollett, Massachusetts) in Paris on a mission of rescue. The object of his rescue-mission is Chad(wick) Newsome, 25-year-old son of the formidable Mrs Newsome of Woollett, a rich widow to whom Strether is nominally engaged. Strether is the ‘ambassador’ in Paris, sent there by Chad’s mother to ‘rescue’ him from the clutches of a woman off (allegedly) dubious virtue and background, about whom the people of Woollett , Mass., have no knowledge at all, apart from darkly prejudiced hearsay. Many other characters form part of the story, which takes place entirely in Paris, or nearby, but it is through Strether’s eyes that we see everything and everybody. His reactions become our reactions, so that we know very quickly that he loves France, and Paris in particular, and both respects and admires Chad, who has been living in France for over five years.

Strether is 55, and lost his wife and ten-year-old son, on separate occasions, many years previously. Mysteriously, we are told nothing further about his marriage and fatherhood at all. He is of pleasant disposition, is a cultivated man, and is also very susceptible to feminine charm. Yet we sense about him a lack of drive, even of disappointment over his achievements in the American environment in which he grew up. Mrs Newsome is clearly a very powerful and controlling personality, though we never meet her directly. She is referred to as ‘a giant iceberg’, and we sense from the start that, even in her permanent absence, this would be a very unequal relationship. The metaphoric role of Woollett and Paris form the background to the whole, quite slight story; Woollett a world of strict codes of behaviour, of formal etiquette, narrowness and social intolerance, Paris a city of permanent interest, adventure, opportunity and a kind of sunlit joy which Strether has never previously known.

The ‘woman of dubious virtue’ turns out to be Mme de Vionnet, a charismatic lady in her early forties, separated from her husband, but with an 18-year-old daughter Jeanne who has inherited her mother’s beauty. The question seems to be, is Chad’s relationship with Mme de Vionnet chaste, or is it not? We are asked to believe that Strether took at face value the advice of Little Bilham, another American in Paris, that it was. And so the behaviour of Strether springs from a naivete which we would now find almost incredible, just as we would find it hard to credit Strether’s indecisiveness when he is surrounded by feminine charm in such abundance. His female friend and confidante (ficelle) throughout is Maria Gostrey, also American, and about twenty years his junior. We have already seen what James himself felt about Maria’s role as a character in the novel, even though he presents her as an eminently sensible and practical person. She virtually proposes to him near the end, but Strether backs away. Long before this moment arrives, he has, in effect, lost his heart to Mme de Vionnet, whose relationship to the young Chad turns out to be anything but chaste. Strether does not discover this reality until late in the novel, when he takes a trip into the country, and, by chance, sees them (as they also see him) on a riverboat, propelled by Chad. Mme de  Vionnet is in the bows, jacketless. No more needs to be said. This is the long-postponed ‘moment of realisation’.

The American Waymarsh, Strether’s friend, is the means by which Mrs Newsome receives information by letter of Strether’s progress (or lack of it) on the issue of Chad. He is described by one critic as ‘a richly comic character’. When Sarah Pocock, Mrs Newsome’s daughter, is sent out with her husband Jim as the second ‘ambassador’ to resolve the Chad question, once and for all, it is clear that Strether’s role will be shortlived, and his relationship with Mrs Newsome summarily ended. Sarah, with her ‘glittering eyes’ verbally attacks Strether for his indolence and inertia ;this to a man who was at one stage her father-n-law elect. She and Jim have brought with them young Mamie Pocock, Jim’s sister, as a suitable girl-friend for Chad, a counter-attraction to Mme de Vionnet, but nothing is likely to come of this. There is a superb scene in the Ambassadors in which Strether arrives on an hotel balcony to encounter the attractive young Mamie, apparently waiting for the arrival of Little Bilham, and is drawn characteristically, into an elaborate conversation with the girl which is nothing if not flirtatious, though always controlled and polite.

Chad is heir to a substantial business empire in Woollett, the source of which is never revealed by Henry James. Much light-hearted speculation has gone into this. Is it buttonhooks? Is it alarm clocks? Is it even chamber pots? James teasingly does not tell us. More importantly, Mme de Vionnet longs for Chad to stay in Paris as her lover. So much is clear. And Chad says to the end that he intends to stay loyal to her. But we realise, finally, that he will return to America to take up his responsibilities, and become the successful businessman he obviously is, potentially. Chad doesn’t appear as a developed character until quite late in the story, still very much the ‘young man’, against Strether, who at 55 is more than once described as ‘an elderly man’, to the surprise of today’s readers of The Ambassadors. He will return to Woollett, and the American world he came from, but now without access to, or the support of Mrs Newsome. Mme de Vionnet and Paris are seen together, almost indistinguishably, as images of sensual pleasure and power, of irresistible attractiveness. At the same time, Strether’s long friendship with Maria Gostrey in the end comes to nothing, even though the levels of communication between them are presented as so much more ‘normal’ and realistic. It is clear that what is missing here, at least on Strether’s side, is the spark of sensual attraction so powerfully present when he meets Mme de Vionnet. We are made strongly aware by James, as the novel progresses, that with the exception of Mme de Vionnet and Jeanne, all the characters are Americans, living out their lives, or parts of their lives, in a stimulating foreign environment, and in Strether’s case making the original cause of his actually being there in a city he loves into a failed opportunity for change, a chance to break away permanently from his roots, and create a new life. A great irony lies at the heart of this tale. An interesting comparison might be made with The Portrait of a Lady, and it justifies the description of social comedy which many would apply to The Ambassadors.



That Henry James deeply enjoyed the company and companionship of women is beyond all doubt. The range of women friends from his youth to the end of his life was remarkable. They all clearly liked and admired him. The numbers included fellow-writers like Edith Wharton, Lucy (Mrs W.K.) Clifford, Rhoda Broughton, Mary (Mrs Humphry) Ward, and Florence (Mrs Hugh) Bell. Then there were women he met and knew socially, such as Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Boott, Katherine de Kay Bronson, Jessie Allen, Grace Norton, and the actress Fanny Kemble.  The scholar Susan E. Gunter published a study in 2000 (U. of Michigan Press) under the title Dear Munificent Friends : Henry James’ Letters to Four Women. The four ladies were, in order, Alice James (William’s wife), Mrs Mary Cadwalader Jones (Edith Wharton’s sister-in-law), Mary Frances Prothero, and Lady Louisa Wolseley, the wife of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces.  The depth of his feeling for his late cousin Minny Temple has already been mentioned; there is a distant reminder here of Dickens’ idealised feeling for Mary Hogarth, his wife Catherine’s sister, who died aged only 17.

However, love, which is the central subject of the majority of James’ scenarios, is usually seen at one or two removes, latent rather than actual, often with the probability of failure or denial. One can only agree with Edmund Wilson’s cross comment (in The Triple Thinkers) that ‘you cannot enchant an audience with stories about men wooing women in which the parties either never get together or are never seen functioning as lovers.’

There is no doubt now that Henry James’ true sexuality was homoerotic, even if he never fully admitted this to himself, or allowed his inclination full physical expression. There has been no serious suggestion that he ever did: rather, all comments about his attitude have agreed that he was prudish and very wary of physical contact when it came to the point. Fear lay behind it. In our own time, Colm Toibin’s compelling novel The Master (2004) gives full imaginative vein to James’ (conjectured) suppressed longings for other men, including his butler at Lamb House. The letters to other men are as open as could be in expressions of affection, given that the conventions of the time prevented homoeroticism from ever being discussed in public. James was one of many literary figures who knew very well that the writer and scholar John Addington Symonds, who died in 1894, had always been a closet homosexual; private comment about this was widespread after Symonds’ death.

Henry James wrote familiarly to many different men, most of them considerably younger than himself. Again, Susan E. Gunter followed up her collection of letters to women friends with another volume, Dearly Beloved Friends: Henry James’ Letters to Young Men (Michigan U.P.,2001). Examples are the Norwegian-American sculptor Henrik Christian Andersen (b. 1872) and the Harvard-educated international lawyer Walter van Rensselaer Berry. Another figure was the Connecticut journalist William Morton Fullerton, who is said to have been the original of Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove. Morton was the man Edith Wharton (then 46) fell seriously in love with in 1908. Andersen and James met in Rome in 1899 when James was 56 and the younger man 27. However, in the view of Gore Vidal, the relationship was a disappointment to the writer, for all the tactile endearments in his correspondence. Andersen was vain and fickle, and spelt trouble for James.

More suitable for the ageing writer was the young Irishman Duncan Jocelyn Persse, whom James met in 1903, at the wedding in Marylebone of Mrs Francis Stillwell (64, niece of the late R.L.Stevenson) and the critic Sidney Colvin (58). Persse, full of charm, a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, but essentially unliterary, gave James as much joy as any such friendship had ever done. Persse was a minor beneficiary in Henry’s will. The friendship with the young Hugh Walpole, whom he met in 1909, when James was 66, was intense, but as Edel has pointed out, it was, for all the emotion and affection, more a relationship of writer to writer. James was very frank in his criticism of Hugh Walpole’s work. There were also minor ‘sentimental’ figures, all Americans, such as Jonathan Sturges, crippled by polio in childhood, the writer Henry Harland, and the cosmopolitan author Henry Bennett Brewster, who was the long-term lover of the composer Ethel Smyth.

Returning to James’ female friendships, many listed above, we see the life of a man who, again in Leon Edel’s words ‘could not bring himself to love and marry.’ He could, says Edel, ‘worship a younger woman in the utopia of the mind. But in life he required the friendship of protective and sheltering females, to whom he could be kind and attentive, but who gave him everything and seemed satisfied that he simply be ‘kind’ in return.’ Much ink has been spilled over the years as to James’ friendship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, his senior by three years. In 1880 she had been given a letter of introduction to James by Henrietta Temple Pell-Clarke (1853-1934), the late Minny Temple’s youngest sister. In 1886-7, James sublet the Villa Brichieri from Constance, later moving into the Hotel du Sud. In late October 1888, the William James family were staying at the Hotel de l’Eau, Geneva. Constance was staying at an hotel across lake Geneva, and it seems that she and James met regularly in the evenings.

Portrait of Henry James in 1913 by John Singer Sargent (National Portrait Gallery)

In 1887, James wrote The Aspern Papers, one of his best-known long stories, in a villa on Bellosguardo overlooking Florence, which was tenanted by Constance. What Adrian Poole has called ‘the delicate importunity of Constance’s affection for Henry seems to have influenced the relationship of the first-person narrator and Miss Tina Bordereau in the story, first published in 1888. James later saw Constance at her Venetian palazzo too; she was living in Oxford when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 1891. It may have been due to her progressive pain that she threw herself over the balcony of her palazzo on 24 January 1894.Edel speculates that ‘only after her death had it occurred to James that she had loved him more than he knew.’ He visited her grave in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, and there was (and still is) a prominent portrait of her at Lamb House. Many of the letters of Constance, as well as of his sister Alice, were among the great bonfire of old papers James later organised in Rye. The two women had known each other in London, and had become great friends. Constance had read all James’ writings, including The Portrait of a Lady. In a surviving letter to James from Venice in 1883 (quoted in Edel, Life of Henry James, 1987 edition, pp. 296-7) she asked him why he ‘could not give us a woman for whom we can feel a real love?’ Going straight to the heart of the matter, as one suspects she always did, Constance said: ‘There are such surely in the world……I do not plead that she should be happy, or even fortunate ; but let her be distinctly loveable……Let her love very much, and let us see that she does. Let us care for her, and even greatly. If you will only care for her yourself, as you describe her, the thing is done.’

Constance put her finger on the very thing that James, by his very nature, found it impossible to do. Again, thanks to Leon Edel, we have the testimony of Ehrman Syme Nadal, Second Secretary of the American Legation in London, who shrewdly observed that James could present women with a particular detachment because he was not emotionally involved.  ‘James seemed to look at women’, he said, ‘rather as women looked at them. Women looked at (other) women as persons; men look at them as women. The quality of sex in a woman, which is their first and chief attraction to most men, was not their chief attraction to Henry James.’ (Edel, Life of Henry James, 1987 edition, p.234)  In the end, it is James the literary artist, the prodigious writer, who emerges intact from all this.  Hugh Walpole stated that James had spoken these words to him in September 1912, when (aged 69) the great writer’s health was definitely beginning to fail. He said, characteristically: ‘I’ve had one great passion in my life—the intellectual passion. What that has been for me I cannot say.’



The 5-volume Library of America edition of Henry James’ short stories totals almost 5000 pages. Penguin Classics have issued The Figure in the Carpet and other stories, The Jolly Corner and other stories, Daisy Miller and other stories, and In the Cage and other stories. Penguin also publish The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw in one volume. The Portable Henry James (revised edition, Viking Penguin 1979) contains three tales, three novellas, a selection of criticism, passages of autobiography, a Journal of 1881-2, and a selection of 22 letters from 1869 to 1915.

For e- Book readers, 60 volumes of James’ fiction can be downloaded for £13 (inc. VAT), though accuracy of the texts is not guaranteed. Project Gutenberg is recommended: http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/james

Another website is The Ladder; http://www.henryjames.org.uk/home/htm

Leon Edel’s authoritative 5-volume Life of Henry James was published between 1853 and 1972. A two-volume version, revised appeared in 1985, and a single volume, condensed version (1987) is also available, published by Collins. However, certain critics have been hostile to the late Leon Edel for some time. Purely for the record, in Michael Anesko’s Monopolising the Master (Stanford U.P., 2011) Edel, who devoted his life to the study of Henry James, is portrayed as  ‘a Robert Maxwell of literary scholarship, monstrously self-centred, a bully and a crook’ in his dealings with archivists and the James family.

Leon Edel published the ‘authoritative’ edition of The Letters of Henry James between 1974 and 1984. These contain 1100 letters, covering 2345 pages. This has been described as ‘a generous sampling’, but is a small fraction of the total number of surviving letters by James, felt to be in the region of 15,000, maybe more. Percy Lubbock made the first collection, The Letters of Henry James (1920), with 403 letters in all. Yet Edel reprints only 173 of these. An edition of The Complete Letters of Henry James, edited by Pierre A.Walker and Greg W.Zacharias, published by the University of Nebraska Press, was announced in 1997, and will run to at least 30 volumes. It is well under way, and has now (2012) reached the period from 1872  to 1876. Philip Horne, the British James scholar, has warned that many letters are not in archives or private libraries, but are actually still in the hands of private collectors or the heirs of the recipients.

Henry James: A Life in Letters, by Philip Horne, was published by Viking Penguin in 1999. It is arguably the most important single compilation on James of recent years. There are 296 letters addressed to 115 recipients, half of which had never previously been published. Horne drew on 33 archives in the U.S.A., Britain and France for the texts, and, as he says, from possibly as many more archives for quotations and information. But the supreme virtue of this splendid volume is that the letters are presented, in chronological sequence, within the context of a detailed biographical commentary, in italics, placed before each letter, starting in March 1864 and ending in November 1915. The commentary amounts to a substantial re-telling of James’ complex life, with all the revisionist emphasis that a modern scholar such as Horne can bring to this splendid and now indispensable work. Apart from the quality, detail and humour of Horne’s commentary, the copious footnotes and references provide in a single volume a range of material never available in this form before.

There was much fine criticism of the works of Henry James in the decades after his death, led by Joseph Warren Beach’s The Method of Henry James (1918) and Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction (1921). Americans who wrote with understanding about James include T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound, Yvor Winters, Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, as well as F.W. Dupee (1947/51), Quentin Anderson (1958), Richard Chase (1957) and F.O.Matthieson (1944/47). Elsewhere, Simon Nowell-Smith (The Legend of the Master, 1947), F.R.Leavis (The Great Tradition, 1948), Douglas Jefferson (1960)  and Georges Markow-Totevy (1969) are important contributors after the Second World War.

From the 1970s onwards there has been a flood of critical writing on James. One wonders what he would have made of it all. These are just a few of the hundreds of titles, presented randomly, to give a flavour of the range :

  • Jonathan Freedman (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Henry James - C.U.P., 1998
  • Ross Posnock: The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James and the Challenge of Modernity - O.U.P., 1991
  • W.W.Stowe: Balzac, James and the Realist Novel - Princeton U.P. 1983
  • Sara Blair: Henry James and the Writing of Race and Nation - C.U.P., 1996
  • David McWhirter: Desire and Love in Henry James - Princeton U.P. 1983
  • Richard Salmon: Henry James and the Culture of Publicity - C.U.P. 1997
  • David Gervais: Flaubert and Henry James - Macmillan 1978
  • Lawrence Holland: The Expense of Vision: Essays on the Craft of Henry James - Johns Hopkins U.P. Baltimore
  • Fred Kaplan: Henry James: The Imagination of Genius - Hodder and Stoughton 1992
  • Nicola Bradbury: Henry James: The Late Novels - Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979
  • Hugh Stevens: Henry James and Sexuality - C.U.P. 1998
  • Ora Segal: The Lucid Reflector: The Observer in Henry James’ Fiction - Yale U.P. 1969
  • Tessa Hadley: Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure - C.U.P. 2002
  • Susanne Kappeler: Writing and Reading in Henry James - Macmillan 1980
  • Lyndall Gordon: A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art - W.W.Norton NY, 1998
  • Millicent Bell: Meaning in Henry James - Harvard U.P. 1991


Dr Robert E.Blackburn, 2012