View of the Wrekin from Wenlock Edge. Photograph 2005 by the author.

Plans for another excursion on Saturday 14 July had to be shelved owing to continuing heavy rain and bad weather, and necessitated staying indoors, at least for part of the day: "Gaskell had proposed another for the morrow, but I am sorry to say that the heavens disposed, otherwise. There is, however, a very handsome entertainment in simply loafing – lounging about such an interesting old house as this. I imagine, from what G. tells me, that it is better now than when you saw it – has more of its ancient detail uncovered & disentangled" (Monteiro 2.127).

James and Gaskell both enjoyed the Shropshire countryside and walking. Clover Adams noted in 1873 how vigorous Gaskell and his male friends were, how they "behave like young colts in a pasture" and "scour the hills on foot" (Letters of Mrs Henry Adams 133). Their "afternoon's walk" (Portraits 234) on Wenlock Edge took place, most likely, on Saturday 14 July, the only time not accounted for with precision in the reconstruction of the timetable of James's stay. Wenlock Edge is a steep, coppiced escarpment – a rich geological limestone seam with fossils and rare wild flowers – stretching in unbroken line for approximately eighteen miles from the Ironbridge Gorge, via Much Wenlock, Presthope, Wilderhope, Church Stretton to Craven Arms. This is the ridge beloved of A. E. Housman in his poem A Shropshire Lad (1896):

On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble,
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

To reach the crest of the Edge, James and Gaskell walked along the High Street as far as the Gaskell Arms, past the vicarage on the left and on the right an eighteenth-century house with bow windows named "Pinefield": in the late ninetenth-century this was the home of the Rev. D. H. S. Cranage, vicar of Holy Trinity Church, and learned local historian who became Dean of Norwich Cathedral. They went under the Wenlock to Craven Arms railway bridge, turned into the Church Stretton road and took the old packhorse road (leading to Shrewsbury) up Blakeway Hollow. Dense woods covered the steep slope on the right of the track: on the left (to the East), well beyond the fields of sheep, was the county of Staffordshire with the Black Country and Cannock. They looked down a cutting, which was in fact a vestige of the old road going towards Shrewsbury.

View of the Clee Hills from Wenlock Edge. Photograph 2005 by the author.

As they climbed higher, among the wild orchids, wild garlic, spindle trees, maples, hawthorn, oak, beech, silver birch and ash, the Clee Hills unfolded to the south: they continued to follow the long ridge up to the Major's Leap, a cliff over which a local Royalist, Major Thomas Smallman, was reputed to have leapt, on horseback, to make a deft escape from his pursuers during the English Civil War. James had an impression of danger and awe. "The 'edge' plunged down suddenly", he wrote, "as if the corresponding slope on the other side had been excavated" (Portraits 233). The two friends chatted, and with great pride and affection Gaskell proclaimed: "I do believe it is the loveliest corner of the world" (233). James concurred. When they reached the highest point, Ippikin's Rock – so named after a legendary highwayman who inhabited a cave beneath the rock – the vast panoramic view encompassed Wales and the line of blue Welsh hills, Caer Caradoc and the Wrekin (both ancient Iron Age hill forts), the Lawley and the Long Mynd (5000 acres of heather-clad grouse moor), North Shropshire and the Cheshire Plains. From here, James looked across at the "hills and blue undulations" – the range of shades of pale to dark and threatening blue, purple and green is truly breathtaking – at this "exquisite modulation, something suggesting that outline and colouring have been retouched and refined by the hand of time". Such a landscape, with "the definite relics of the ages, [...] seems historic" (233).

From his "vantage-point", the seemingly small and compact county expands before his eyes, as the rich patchwork of colours and tones delineate the estates of the landed gentry. He associates the gradations of colour with wealth: thus "a darker patch across the lighter green [represents] the great estate of one of their lordships" (234). "Beyond these", he continues, "are blue undulations of varying tone, and then another bosky-looking spot, which constitutes [...] the residential umbrage of another peer. And to right and left of these, in wooded expanses, lie other domains of equal consequence". In "this delightful region", James is enchanted by the "old red farmhouses lighting up the dark-green bottoms" of the hillsides, "gables and chimneytops of great houses peeping above miles of woodland" and "in the vague places of the horizon, [...] far away towns and sites that one had always heard of". The half-timbered, late fifteen-century Larden Hall, and the great Elizabethan country houses of Lutwyche Hall, Shipton Hall and Wilderhope Manor were all in the vicinity of the Edge.

The landscape oozes history: the "hand of time" (233) is present just as acutely as in ancient buildings. The view is characteristic of English scenery with its "density of feature", in which "there are no waste details [in which] everything in the landscape is something particular – has a history, has played a part, has a value to the imagination" (233). The patchwork effect of the hedgerows is the result of history, of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century Enclosure Acts which divided land into parcels, a development from the system of open farming. And well before that, even in the Middle Ages, attempts were made to define much of England's farm and grazing lands by simple wooden gates and fences.

The Edge was, and still is, dotted with limestone quarries and limekilns. The high quality Wenlock limestone, known as Wenlock marble because it can be polished so finely, is packed with fossil corals and shells. James was treading the very earth that created Wenlock Abbey – the solid lectern from which the monks read their religious books, although hewed and carved in the twelfth century, was made of local stone that was millions of years old. The steep-gradient railway that opened in 1867 was built mainly to facilitate the transportation of this important mineral. Lower down, James was also treading the earth of the ancient Spittle where lepers were confined in the Middle Ages and who were given medical help at Wenlock Abbey, through that mysterious hole that was "something of the monks".

Seen through his American eyes, the Shropshire landscape seemed "almost suburban in its smoothness and finish" (Portraits 239), in such contrast to the wildness perceived by local people. Chapter twenty-five of The Princess Casamassima opens with a description of the countryside where Hyacinth Robinson, while a guest of the Princess at her country home, went walking. This is the Shropshire scenery that James knew and loved (with echoes of the "little girls bobbing curtsies in the street" he had seen in Much Wenlock) compressed in one long sentence:

Hyacinth took several long walks by himself, beyond the gates of the park and through the neighbouring country – walks during which [...] he had still a delighted attention to spare for the green dimness of leafy lanes, the attraction of meadow-paths that led from stile to stile and seemed a clue to some pastoral happiness, some secret of the fields; the hedges thick with flowers, bewilderingly common, for which he knew no names, the picture-making quality of thatched cottages, the mystery and sweetness of blue distances, the bloom of rural complexions, the quaintness of little girls bobbing curtsies by waysides (a sort of homage he had never prefigured); the soft sense of the turf under feet that had ached but from paving-stones. [338]

A Protestant Sunday

James was not a practising Christian. He had observed not without a certain cynicism the power of custom in the "universal church-going" (Portraits 162) so closely linked to the State in England. Church-going was, for him, a performance or sublime spectacle, a ritual that was repeated throughout the land. When he visited "the picturesque little town of Abergavenny" in Monmouthshire, in late April 1879, he deliberately stayed away from going to church on the Sunday because "the sacred edifice had a mediæval chill" (Portraits 247) and he was fearful of catching a chill, lumbago or rheumatism. It was an aesthetic experience that he preferred to watch, observe and enjoy from a distance: "The outside of an old English country-church in service-time is a very pleasant place; and this is as near as I often care to approach to the celebration of the Anglican mysteries" (248). In a deeply moving letter to his grieving friend Grace Norton in 1883, James proffered stoicism rather than a belief in God: "I am determined not to speak to you except with the voice of stoicism. I don't know why we live – the gift of life comes to us from I don't know what source or for what purpose; but I believe we can go on living for the reason that [...] life is the most valuable thing we know anything about" (Letters 2.424)

James refused to be institutionalised, and by keeping a safe distance ensured his independence. Although he may well have appreciated the aesthetics of the ceremony and ceremonial for their feeling, he could not make any compromise and be seen to be part of the Establishment. He had had a very broad, even anarchical religious and secular education and his tastes were largely ecumenical. As with so many aspects of his stay, he remained the outside observer of society.

So he did not attend morning service with the Gaskells to hear their protégé, the Rev. Frederick Ellis, deliver his sermon at Holy Trinity Church, Much Wenlock. Instead he stayed indoors, on that cold Sunday morning, "with a great raw rain-storm howling outside", an "unpleasantness" that had "lasted 48 hrs" (Monteiro 2.126). He penned a long letter to Henry Adams, then at home in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, commencing: "This is my last day, & I can't let it pass without thanking you for your share in bringing about so agreeable an episode" (2.125-26). The letter – and that Sunday morning – concludes with the portrait of beautiful Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell, in a medieval setting, emerging from her private chapel with its recessed oratory and altar with seven blind panels before a three-light window. She announces not something spiritual, but what James desires most of all: "But Lady Catherine comes in from the "chapel" – you remember the chapel – to inform me with her own easy lips that lunch is being served. Commend me humbly to your wife, the memory of whose merits even the presence of those of Lady Catherine does not obscure (2.128).

Sunday in much of Victorian England was a traditional day of rest: shops were closed and, in the strictest households, no work or entertainment of any kind was permitted. Church worship was de rigueur, sometimes several times a day. The Lord's Day Observance Society, established in 1831, exerted a powerful force and disapproved strongly of the consumption of alcohol, theatrical and musical entertainments, gambling and trading on a Sunday. Ruskin's evangelical parents restricted their young son's reading to certain kinds of books, such as Pilgrim's Progress, and the family did not travel on a Sunday. For many people, it epitomised boredom and dullness and was something to be endured or even dreaded rather than enjoyed. James had been accustomed to the bustle of a continental Sunday with markets and cafés, and he disliked intensely the English Sunday: it "is so difficult", he wrote in The Princess Casamassima (304). In The Aspern Papers, Miss Bordereau's palazzo is in a corner of Venice that is "as negative [...] as a Protestant Sunday" (49). One of his most painful experiences was around Christmas-time in 1876 when he "encountered three British Sundays in a row – a spectacle to strike terror into the stoutest heart. A Sunday and a 'bank-holiday' [...] had joined hands with a Christmas-day" (Portraits 167). When staying at Eggesford Manor, in North Devon, the country residence of Lord and Lady Portsmouth, Lady Catherine's parents, so great was James's boredom and need to return to the city that he wrote home: "I don't think I could stick out a Sunday here" (Life 235).

Buildwas Abbey

Buildwas Abbey. Courtesy of Tom Foxall.

To relieve the monotony of the lengthy interval between lunch and tea on that "long, wet Sunday", his host took him on a walk, of about an hour, to a place that Gaskell described as "the paradise of a small English country-gentleman". The destination was Buildwas, with its ruined twelfth-century Cistercian Abbey, dedicated to Our Lady and St Chad, standing in meadows by the fast-flowing, often dangerous, river Severn. Once the Abbey was teeming with monks from the Normandy village of Savigny, south of Mortain. In 1536, it fell victim to King Henry VIII who suppressed the monastery and appropriated its valuable possessions including a fine collection of books many of which had been produced by the monks themselves. The two men, both in their mid-thirties, set off, hesitating between two paths: the scenic route via Wyke with a grange originally belonging to Wenlock Abbey or the road through romantic Farley Dingle with its steam and water-powered corn mill. They walked down the steep, winding road through the woods into the valley, near the little railway that James had taken the previous Thursday. In the distance was the Wrekin, part shrouded in mist. James was spellbound by the magnificent Buildwas Park and its setting that reminded him of Northern Italy:

It was indeed a modern Eden, and the trees might have been trees of knowledge. They were of high antiquity and magnificent girth and stature; they were strewn over the grassy levels in extraordinary profusion, and scattered upon and down the slopes in a fashion than which I have seen nothing more charming since I last looked at the chestnuts of the Lake of Como. It appears that the place was not very large, but I was unable to perceive its limits. [Portraits 236]

View of the Wrekin on the way to Buildwas. Photograph by the author.

In 1873, on the drive from Bellinzona to Como, James had been enthralled by the beauty of the Swiss and Italian lakes and hills and "the lawn-like inclinations, where the great grouped chestnuts make so cool a shadow in so warm a light" (Italian Hours 96).

Buildwas Abbey looking East. Courtesy of Tom Foxall.

James writes sparingly about Buildwas Abbey, "another great ruin, which has held together more completely. There the central tower stands erect to half its altitude, and the round arches and massive pillars of the nave make a perfect vista on the unencumbered turf" (Portraits 239). He did not record such interesting architectural features as the waterleaf motifs on the capitals or any technical details. The stones of Buildwas were dead without a human presence. Painters of the picturesque had depicted Buildwas Abbey as a welcoming place among whose ruins people could have picnics, rest and chat with their friends, let their animals roam freely and even store their hay. These were not religious scenes and were far removed from the monastic piety of medieval times. Michael "Angelo" Rooker (1746-1801) included a large family group, possibly gypsies, around a campfire waiting for the pot to boil (the cooking-pot is suspended from a tripod of sticks) and the food to cook, next to one of the round pillars in the north aisle of the church. In that same watercolour, there is a group of goats, and a wagon is parked beneath the crossing and hay piled high in what used to be the holy presbytery. In John Sell Cotman's Romantic watercolour of Buildwas Abbey seen from the south-west, a cow (or is it a goat?) is positioned in the foreground. The Strasbourg-born painter, Philippe de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) sketched The Ruins of Buildwas Abbey depicting the central ruined tower, Buildwas Bridge over the river Severn, a boat with two oarsmen, a lady with a basket and a man pointing the way, an artist sketching, two washerwomen and the Wrekin in the background. Paul Sandby and Turner also painted the ruins.

Buildwas Abbey, interior of the chapter house. From the official guide published by H. M. Office of Works.

Groundplan of the Abbey. From the official guide published by H. M. Office of Works.

However, particularly on such a cold, wet day, and in order to yield to the seduction of the place, James needed living history: that he found in the private residence, formerly the Abbey House or Abbot's House, situated in the north-east corner of the grounds of Buildwas Abbey. Viewed from the outside, it was "most agreeable" and "stood", wrote James, "on a kind of terrace, in the middle of a lawn and garden, and the terrace overlooked one of the most copious rivers in England [...]. On the terrace also was a piece of ornamental water, and there was a small iron paling to divide the lawn from the park" (Portraits 236-37).

Gaskell left his visiting card with the butler, but due to their "bespattered", muddy condition, walked away. Much to James's relief and expectation, they were recalled by the butler and invited into the house. He had rightly gauged that the occupants would welcome company in such a quiet place, on a rainy Sunday afternoon! Although "the house was charming, the terrace delightful, the oaks magnificent, the view most interesting [...] the whole thing was quiet" (Portraits 237). This was an opportunity not to be missed, to gather more material for his writing, to penetrate the mysteries of another inhabited Abbey House, and establish, if possible, the existence of "a curious series of underground passages, said by tradition to communicate with Wenlock". Perhaps the blocked doorway with early carving on it concealed a secret passageway? Once again, James's curiosity had been whetted by the enticing, albeit brief, account of Buildwas Abbey House in Murray's Handbook for Shropshire, Cheshire and Lancashire (1870):

The abbot's house (recently restored) contains the ambulatory, the chapel, and a large hall of the 13th century, with some interesting doorways and carved stones. There is also a curious series of underground passages, said by tradition to communicate with Wenlock. The ceiling of the hall is of oak and Spanish chestnut. It is entered by a good Norman doorway, and lighted by beautifully moulded Norman windows, one being on either side of the door (p. 31).

So, James writes, "we went back, and I carried my muddy boots into the drawing-room – just the drawing-room I had imagined – where I found – I will not say just the lady I had imagined, but a lady even more charming. Indeed, there were two ladies, one of whom was staying in the house" (Portraits 237). The lady of the house was Ms Moseley, whose family had owned Buildwas Abbey, Park and estate since the seventeenth century.

Learning that one of the ladies is "staying", leads James, also "guilty of 'staying"', to conclude that this is a custom that typifies English life:

In whatever company you find yourself in England, you may always be sure that someone present is "staying". I seldom hear this participle nowadays without remembering an observation made to me in France by a lady who had seen much of English manners. 'Ah, that dreadful word staying! I think we are so happy in France not to be able to translate it – not to have any word that answers to it'. [237]

The theme of "staying" in country houses is a leitmotiv in some of James's novels: Hyacinth Robinson at Medley Park in The Princess Casamassima, and Isabel Archer at Gardencourt in The Portrait of a Lady.

Buildwas Abbey House Restored. Photograph 2005 by the author.

James and Gaskell approached the house by a lodge entrance. The butler escorted them through a side hall, up a staircase, through round, early Norman arches with simple mouldings, and opened a heavy oak door leading to the drawing room on the first floor. From the magnificent, oak-floored drawing room, measuring approximately 44' x 15', warmed by an open, stone fireplace, there are stunning views. Looking south, through the five Gothic windows, beyond the lawn with its fountain and ornamental terraced gardens, are the wooded slopes on both sides of the steep, winding road between Buildwas and Much Wenlock, and also some of Buildwas Abbey ruins. Through the four, deeply recessed, tall, Gothic windows at the east end of the drawing-room, can be seen the powerful river Severn – this is one of its most dangerous stretches – rushing among woods and hills on its way towards Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, before eventually disgorging into the Bristol Channel, having commenced its journey on the Welsh peak of Plynlimmon. James described the view (now partly obscured by tall trees): "The large windows of the drawing-room [...] looked away over the river to the blurred and blotted hills, where the rain was drizzling and drifting" (Portraits 237-68). This strong river had provided power and energy for the monastery mills, as well as being a conduit for sewage disposal.

James harboured doubts about the apparently idyllic country life. He recalled the vast literature "of manners" – Jane Austen for example – that had exposed its dullness and the "recorded occupations and conversations [that] occasionally strike one as lacking a certain indispensable salt" (235). His doubts were confirmed, for, in spite of the beauty of the place, an impression of languor and boredom prevailed. The conversation unveiled the ladies' longing for a more interesting life in the town:

It was very quiet [...]; there was an air of large leisure. If one wanted to do something here, there was evidently plenty of time – and indeed of every other appliance – to do it. The two ladies talked about "town": that is what people talk about in the country. If I were disposed I might represent them as talking about it with a certain air of yearning. At all events, I asked myself how it was possible that one should live in this charming place and trouble one's head about what was going on in London in July. [Portraits 238]

Likewise, in The Portrait of a Lady, Henrietta Stackpole is bored with country life and longs for the stimulation of London: "I've described all the scenery in this vicinity [...] scenery doesn't make a vital letter. I must go back to London and get some impressions of real life" (125). The boredom and tedium of the reclusive lives of aunt and niece, Miss Juliana and Miss Tina Bordereau, in a crumbling Venetian palazzo, with their "mystic rites of ennui", is the setting of The Aspern Papers (75).

"Then we had excellent tea", wrote James (Portraits 238). Did the tea table offer "an anomalous and picturesque repast" such as that served to Baroness Münster at the great house of Mr Wentworth in The Europeans? The ritual of afternoon tea was well established in the nineteenth century, and James valued highly that pleasant, relaxing period. China or Indian tea was prepared in a silver (or china) teapot and served in the best china cups. This was accompanied by delicately cut sandwiches filled with sliced cucumber or gentleman's relish, home-made scones with fresh butter, strawberry jam and clotted cream, and a selection of sponge and fruit cakes. Echoes of this Sunday afternoon at Buildwas can be found in the opening scene of The Portrait of a Lady, a tea ceremony on the lawn in the English country house of Gardencourt. Pure tea was then an expensive, heavily taxed commodity and the drink of the gentry – the poor drank adulterated tea or gin.

It is to be hoped that James was shown more of this historic Abbey House, with its chapel, ambulatory, library, winding staircases and passageways. One of the finest rooms is the great dining hall on the ground floor with a garden entrance, stone fireplace, serving hatch, old tiled floor, half panelled walls and moulded ceiling. The motifs on the plasterwork ceiling include portcullis, rose, fleur-de-lys, designs also found in Wilderhope Manor (Forrest 86).

It was not until 1925 that the Abbey ruins, in a perilous condition, were placed in the care of the state (HM Office of Works, later English Heritage) by Major H.R. Moseley. The Abbey house, however, remained in private hands until it was sold in the early 1960s. It was then owned by Ironbridge Power Station and used as a private social club. By 2016, the property was for sale and by 2019 it returned to being a private dwelling.


At Wenlock, Stokesay, Buildwas and Ludlow, James achieved what he had failed to experience on his first visit to Venice in September 1869. Whereas Ruskin had engaged mainly in a technical way with the stones of Venice, and often moralistically towards its artistic treasures, James was unable to respond at all. He explained to his brother William how he tried in vain to follow some of Ruskin's recommendations "to frequent and linger in a certain glorious room at the Ducal Palace where Paolo Veronese revels on the ceilings and Tintoret rages on the walls" (Venice Desired 158). He was unable to respond to the "Italian tone of things" that lay "as a cold and foreign mass – never to be absorbed and appropriated". Perhaps too much under the didactic influence of Ruskin and with memories of the evening at his Denmark Hill home only a few months before, James remained a Venetian outsider who could not shed what he called his "inexorable yankeehood". That feeling of "yankeehood" would be well and truly shed as he became more and more absorbed into British life and culture. It was in Shropshire in particular that he responded fully to the "tone of things". The metaphor of the images of "the pierced aperture, either broad or balconied or slit-like and low-browed" representing James's "literary form", his "house of fiction", as he explains in the preface to The Portrait of a Lady was inspired by these country houses (ix). This Shropshire idyll contributed to making 1877 the "happiest and most 'lived' year yet" (Life 215).


In a letter to his brother William, written from the Reform Club on 23 July 1878, James states his intention to remain in London all summer, where he has a busy work schedule and as usual, plenty of invitations. However, the attraction of staying again at Wenlock Abbey was strong: "I have received several invitations to pay short visits, but have declined them all, save one for a week at Wenlock Abbey (Charles Gaskell's) on August 10th" (Letters 2.180).

This time, James was not the sole guest of the Milnes Gaskells. This successful critical observer of society, with his trenchant wit and cutting pen, was on this occasion able to observe closely several visitors and guests at Wenlock Abbey. He was among interesting company, stimuli that he always craved and would incorporate invariably into his writings. Assuming he arrived on 10 August as per the invitation, it was not until Sunday 13 August that he signed the Visitors' Book as "Henry James Jr" alongside the signatures of Somerset Beaumont, G. Wallop, and Lord Portsmouth. Other visitors were Robert F. Boyle, and E. D. Leeke, of Longford Hall, Shropshire, on 12 August; and on 16 August, Lady Portsmouth (Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell's mother) and her daughter Lady Eveline Camilla Wallop.

James expressed his delight at being once again a guest at the Abbey, in a letter, written from Wenlock Abbey on 14 August 1878 to Elinor Dean Howells, née Mead, the wife of William Dean Howells, then editor of the Atlantic Monthly:

I am spending a few days in one of the most curious and romantic old houses in England – an old rambling medieval priory, intermingled with the ivied ruins of a once-splendid Abbey, dissolved by Henry VIII. The place is full of ghosts and monkish relics and is, in every way, delightfully picturesque; I wish that for an hour I might be a well-bred British young lady, so that I might make you a sketch of it. But the lunch-bell tolls, and I can't even stay to make word-pictures. [quoted Wenlock Abbey 160]

Last modified 16 March 2020