here are several chronologies of James' life, and from these one can readily select salient facts about his national identity. But nearly all of them raise more questions than they answer about this great, sometimes maddening, elusive and deracinated writer. He was born in Washington Square, New York City, in 1843, had an international and quirky education, moved more or less permanently to England in late 1876, and became a British subject in 1915, partly as a protest that the USA was taking its time to enter The First World War, and partly because, as an alien, he had to report to the police before revisiting coastal Rye in Sussex. He was appointed to the Order of Merit later that year, died in London in 1916, had his funeral there and was commemorated in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey by the unveiling of a tablet on 17 June 1976. But his ashes were transported to the family plot in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Henry James (left) and his brother William (right). [Click on this and the following pictures to enlarge them, and for more information.]
James' invalid sister Alice came to live near him in England in 1884. The most famous of his three brothers, William, the philosopher and psychologist, made numerous trips to Europe but consciously opted to make his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts (as he unavailingly urged Henry also to do) and taught at Harvard for much of his life. James' great testamentary selection of Prefaces to and revision of his works, "The New York Edition" of 1907-9, was an American commission by Scribner's, republished by Macmillan in Britain. His late projects of social observation and autobiography were predominantly American in inspiration. Yet at the end of his life James remained based in London and Rye, and the First World War saw him join the war relief effort and visit wounded soldiers in hospitals.
It is difficult to distil from sometimes contradictory and often indirect evidence a single clear statement by James of an intention to settle in Europe, or to be sure that, once he had started to put down roots in England in 1877, this was to be, as he almost immediately claimed, a permanent domicile. After the American Civil War he visited Europe alone in 1869-70, and again in 1872-74, initially with his Aunt Kate and Sister Alice. The later stages of this visit involved some fraught exchanges with William about the fork in the road which, in his view, Henry now faced.
From November 1875 to December 1876 James was mainly in Paris, meeting what he called the Sons of Balzac, perhaps his most formidable collection of peers. But most of these French novelists were unable or reluctant to read his works in English, or to introduce him to their French families. He also thought that the works of some of them, especially Zola, gave off the odour of the sewer, describing one of his novels as "merde au naturel" compared with the "merde a la vanille" of Gustave Droz (Horne 71). It was Turgenev who introduced James to this group, led by Flaubert, and Turgenev, whom he both liked and admired, was probably the strongest magnet for James in Paris. But Turgenev, who occasionally travelled to England to shoot partridges in Cambridgeshire, was jealously guarded by his lover Pauline Viardot, and would die in 1884.
So why did James relocate to London in December 1876, especially considering that he took a dim view of most British reviewers and critics (Matthew Arnold was an exception)? It is arguable, though also questionable, that England was only his third choice, after Italy and France, which he appeared successively to have auditioned in 1872-74 and 1875-76, and found wanting.
There is no simple answer. England's tailors and doctors, and relative ease of communications with the USA, were factors. In the early 70s James was often costive, and took the spa waters both in England and on the Continent, but he found the resorts boring places. There were also the things England did not have, such as the summer heat and malaria mosquitoes of Italy, or what James found to be the peculiarly impenetrable family life and institutions of France. Another consideration was domestic heating: on 13 December 1876, just after his arrival in Bolton St, Piccadilly, James reported to his sister that he now felt warm, "a pleasure I never knew in Paris" — and London was apparently cheaper than Paris, where he "had fallen into expensive ruts" (Complete Letters 1876-78 I: 4). (He changed his mind when he realised how much his London horse-drawn cabs were costing.) On 17 December he announced to Houghton and Co. that his change of address was "permanent" (Complete Letters 1876-78 I: 9). On Christmas Eve he wrote to his mother that he felt "a born Londoner" in spite of the "glutinous fog" (Complete Letters 1876-78 I: 13).
But any more satisfying explanation must go deeper. James certainly reacted, and defined himself, against what he saw as the business culture of the USA. He knew he could never be part of it. In addition, he had convinced himself that the literary culture in America after The Civil War was meagre and unnourishing. Hawthorne had somehow produced great works in spite of this barren soil, but James still thought he had been held back in America.
Like France, Britain had produced great novelists from the previous generation, such as Thackeray, Dickens and George Eliot. James had met them all, but was too much younger to be able to exchange the secrets of the craft with them. Most of the British novelists of the 70s (with the immense exception of Eliot) he regarded as mere dishwater. Yet he still had hopes of benefiting from contacts with British culture, and later in his life succeeded in establishing a loose circle of peers which included Stevenson, Conrad, H. G. Wells and Ford Maddox Ford. His brother William commented that British aristocrats were congenial to him, and provided good material for fiction, and there is some truth in this. But more illuminating and important is Henry James' insistence that "it takes an old civilization to set a novelist in motion," and that "It is on manners, customs, usages, habits, forms, upon all these things matured and established, that a novelist lives...." This was the subject of a sharp disagreement between James and his editor and fellow novelist William Dean Howells, and the quotations are from James' letter to Howells of 31 January 1880 (Horne 118).
In Italy and France, which in some ways he loved more than Britain, James felt himself to be less rooted and too exclusively caught up in expatriate or visiting American society. In Britain the dynamic was different: his senior American friends such as Henry Adams and Charles Eliot Norton provided networking leads to British contacts. This is perhaps the most important social factor in his choice.
It is difficult to judge quite what weight to give, in James' opting for London over Paris, to his friendship in Paris in 1876 with Paul Zhukovsky, the young Russian courtier and Wagnerian. They may have been lovers, but if so, James has covered his tracks very thoroughly. Increasingly, the Russian was pulled into the orbit of the Wagner Circle. By 1881 James was writing of him as a subject unworthy of attention. Maybe we are getting a glimpse here of a hidden life, but maybe not.
The clubs where James could dine out "in Society." Left: The Reform Club. Right: The Athenaeum.
James was consistently secretive about his personal life. He may have been aware fairly early, without making any identity statement, that he was primarily homosexual. Also, contrary to his earlier reputation as an aesthete, he was deeply interested in the novelist's relationship with society, including its material conditions. For a time he took notes, like many of his French peers the Naturalists, of his social observations. But he was more a seeker of perceptions, impressions and consciousnesses, and found England on the whole the most fruitful place for collecting them, and shaping them into dramatic plots. He loved Rome, Florence, Venice and Paris, but their own citizens play only minor parts in his novels and he did not think he could truly know and understand them. In England he could have privacy, dine out in Society (on 107 occasions during the winter of 1878-79, he claimed — although sources vary here), enjoy his memberships of the Reform and (briefly) Athenaeum Clubs, and observe, talk to and write about people from all walks of life. His novels and stories include not just artists, writers and aristocrats but shopworkers, the impoverished families of clergymen, disinherited widows, spiritualists, hucksters and commercial travellers, and even revolutionaries.
Much but not all of James' long and short fiction centres on what he called his International Theme: the interactions, collisions and often mutual incomprehensions of Americans in contact with Europeans, and vice-versa. All three of the last great novels, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, have this theme, though in each of them the American characters are much the more deeply felt and prominent. But James grew more and more alienated in his own life from the American side of this equation. He found the Boston Brahmins stifling, and knew that the America of Theodore Roosevelt, and indeed that President personally, regarded him as effete, anglicised and unvirile. His last completed novel set in America was the mid-period work The Bostonians (1886).
Left: Lamb House, James' home in Rye, which provided "an idyllic alternative in England to London life." Right: Walled garden at Lamb House.
After James' move to and conquest of London came other great pulls and tensions in his career. At the end of the 1870s he suffered adverse reactions in America to Daisy Miller (1878), and his biography Hawthorne (1879). The Bostonians, too, was attacked as an alleged caricature of a real Boston person, Miss Peabody. The period from the late 80s to the mid 90s marked James' ultimately disastrous attempts to write for the theatre, but although this strategic failure was distressing for James it did not make him seriously consider leaving England. The expense of the purchase of Lamb House in 1899 produced financial anxiety and the burst of productivity resulting in the three great late novels, but Lamb House proved for a number of years an idyllic alternative in England to London life.
Finally, the First World War moved James to English patriotism and charitable work. Yet James could not escape his American roots and heritage. His visit to his native country in 1904-5 provided much material for satirists and caricaturists, as well as his own profound social reflections in The American Scene. His last major writing project was biographical and autobiographical, comprising two volumes, A Small Boy and Others (1913), and Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), and a fragment The Middle Years (1917). In a sense, the James Family was more important to him than any nationality for his sense of belonging and self-definition. And yet that family was one of the things he needed to get away from after the Civil War. The eccentricities of his father, the tender questioning of his mother, the intellectual shadow of William and the Civil War trauma of his younger brothers Wilky and Bob were all things he had needed to escape from.
The late autobiographical fragment published in 1917, The Middle Years, casts a glimmering retrospective light on the process lasting from 1869 to 1876 by which James homed in on London as his most fruitful terrain for collecting impressions and for exercising the craft of writing. It is in James' very late style: dictated, nebulous, evocative, and, to some tastes, barely comprehensible. But various themes are discernible. James recalls London's sincerity and perversity, its sheer difference from foreign cities, its social breakfasts, its museums and galleries, in one of which he realised that his neighbour in contemplating a Titian was the auburn-headed Swinburne. Two discomforts are particularly notable. Contrary to some accounts, James was always deeply interested in politics and international relations. But this self-effacing observer was alarmed to be interrogated by Englishmen about American politics, sometimes finding them more knowledgeable than he was. Secondly, his veneration of George Eliot was undiminished in 1914 (when the fragment was written). Indeed he seems to have forgotten some of his earlier, more critical responses to individual works of hers. But a strong sense of excited nervousness pervades his few encounters with this great figure. Clearly, though, she also underwrites for him the propitious suitability of England as a base for realising one's potential to make great art. Indeed, on 22 February 1876 James had written from Paris to Alice about Eliot's final novel, Daniel Deronda, and said:
But I enjoyed it more than anything of hers — or any other novelist's almost — I have ever read. Partly for reading it in this beastly Paris, and realizing the superiority of English culture and the English mind to the French. The English richness of George Eliot beggars everything else, everywhere, that one might compare with her. [Complete Letters 1872-76, III: 71-72]
Was James' mind Victorian? Yes, in the sense that he deplored the insalubrious subject matter of his French contemporaries. Even a relatively late novel like The Spoils of Poynton (1897), with its entirely English cast of characters, gives its heroine, Fleda Vetch, a series of reasonings about her situation which look impossibly high-minded and self-defeating to the modern reader. In short, Fleda has very Victorian scruples. But much of James' literary output was channelled through American periodicals, the values of whose readers could be said to be even more Victorian than the Victorians of the Athenaeum and Reform clubs. Another sign is that James was sympathetic towards Matthew Arnold, that great refiner of Victorian sensibility, writing an article in praise of him in 1884. On the other hand, James is silent over vast tracts of his writings about religion, and shows little interest even in religious doubt. By contrast, Arnold's Notebooks of 30 years display intense meditation on the scriptures, the mystics and other Christian writings.
Victorian sexuality is a complex subject, and any evidence of James' own sexual activity (or abstinence) comparable to the flagellation symbols in Gladstone's Diaries has probably vanished beyond our reach, if it ever existed. To his close friend Thomas Sergeant Perry in a letter of 12 January 1877 he described himself as "a lonely celibate" (Horne 76). This tone would change. In his later years his letters display a degree of unguarded affection and longing towards young male friends which Hugh Stevens and others have described as a camp sensibility (see Stevens 167-68).
James did not become a Decadent like Wilde, but came to display, in his more fastidious way, a measure of fin de siècle taste. Perhaps more importantly, late James now seems to us less the late Victorian and more the proto Modernist, who met the young Virginia Woolf, and whom the young T. S. Eliot must have had in mind in his poem "Portrait of a Lady." He was both more of a formalist and more reflexively subjective and self-conscious than most of his British Victorian contemporaries.
But is James really the father of Modernism? This doesn't seem quite right. He is not very like, say, Joyce, Proust or Woolf. One of the most striking things about him is his unrivalled sense of the way in which time and place constrain the available consciousnesses and values of his characters. He was the great historicist of the late Victorian novelists. And in Britain in the period between The Second Reform Act and the First World War he found for himself the best milieu available to him for the flourishing of his art. He had undertaken the conquest of London and made "The Great Babylon" his own, with all of its ugliness, bad weather, limitations and vast possibilities.
Edel, Leon. Henry James. 5 vols. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1953-72.
Horne, Philip, ed. Henry James: A Life in Letters. London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1999. (Note: Horne has been used in preference to the new Complete Letters for letters he includes, because his volume is more accessible, and his notes are very good).
James, Henry. Novels, Stories, Travel Writing, Literary Criticism, Autobiographies. Library of America Edition.
Stevens, Hugh. Henry James and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Zacharias, Greg W. et al., eds. The Complete Letters of Henry James. University of Nebraska Press, 2006 to date.
24 April 2017