By Viola van de Sandt
1. He had no regrets. In a letter to fellow novelist Hugh Walpole, James wrote in 1913: ‘We must know, as much as possible, in our beautiful art . . . what we are talking about – & the only way to know it is to have lived & loved & cursed & floundered & enjoyed & suffered – I don’t think I regret a single “excess” of my responsive youth – I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions & possibilities I didn’t embrace.’
2. James’s close and long-standing friendship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, a widely-read writer who like James had also settled in Europe, ended abruptly when Woolson jumped from her bedroom window in Venice in 1894. It fell to James to sort through her belongings and finally dispose of her clothing. Unable to sell or burn her dresses, he eventually got into his gondola and was rowed to the deepest part of the Venetian lagoon. Here, he laid the dresses into the water and tried to make them sink, but ‘the dresses refused to drown,’ writes Lyndall Gordon in his fanciful interpretation of this moment of James’ life which still speaks to the imagination of his biographers. ‘One by one they rose to the surface, their busts and sleeves swelling like black balloons. Purposefully, the gentleman pushed them under, but silent, reproachful, they rose before his eyes.’
3. James was a regular visitor to Broadway – that is, a tiny village in the English Cotswolds. Here, American painter Frank Millet had set up an American artists’ colony of sorts, where painters and writers would meet during the summers to work together. In a letter to her parents, Millet’s sister remembers one of his visits: ‘Saturday Henry James came. He is shy even to awkwardness and is a source of inward amusement to me. . . . Last night he asked me to waltz twice and no one had even thought of dancing. After the first one, he said he had not danced for ten years and after the second waltz said it was twenty. . . . I chuckled a little after, particularly as he went to sleep in a big chair and danced with no one else.’
4. James was famous for his dexterous, somewhat long-winded phrases, both in his writings and in ‘real life.’ A famous anecdote survives which describes how James goes about asking directions from a passer-by while motoring through England with his good friend, Edith Wharton: ‘”My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.” I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: “In short” (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), “in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to…” “Oh, please,” I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, “do ask him where the King’s Road is.” “Ah–? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?” “Ye’re in it,” said the aged face at the window.’
5. In her autobiography, Wharton similarly recalls how she and James sat by a ditch at Bodiam Castle, in East Sussex. ‘For a long time no one spoke,’ writes Wharton, ‘then James turned to me and said solemnly: ‘Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.’
Viola van de Sandt is a postgraduate student in English literature at King’s College, London. She loves writing about women in English and American novels, and does exactly that on her own blog, “Broken Glass”.
Image: Photograph of novelist Henry James, by prominent photographer Alice Boughton, sometime before 1916 (source: North American Review, vol. 203, no. 725, April 1916. Plate at the front of the issue), Wikimedia Commons.
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I think Alice was the more intriguing member of that family. She had a clarity of expression that beat Henry’s, and very vivid, true insights into the world. And she was heartbreakingly more complex. Poor Alice.
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Reblogged this on 51stories and commented:
I don’t often reblog but I like this one: an interesting blog about everything you always wanted to know about Henry James – by Interesting Literature / Viola van de Sandt.
This was fascinating. I love his writing, but I never knew much about him until now. Thankyou
Thanks for another thought-provoking read, I enjoyed visiting.
Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
I wonder how many of those who may read my blog will be familiar with, much less a reader of, Henry James, a writer who is perhaps the most opposite to Ernest Hemingway, in his style of writing, that is, if not just his time and nature. In short, I have a lovely Modern Library edition of The Ambassadors that I’ve never been able to complete reading because I start dozing after only a couple of pages, and I wonder if any of this blog’s followers have had that experience with James or not, but if you are interested at all in Henry James then you must, indeed, click through and read these fascinating facts about him.
Wonderful post about James!
I didn’t know about the sad event in Venice. I live in Padua, and have been working for long years in Venice. I can’t help visualizing the magic venetian lagoon and at the same time shivering for the strong image of Constance’s floating dresses, refusing to drown… I love Henry James. Thanks
Yes – it’s a very sad event, but the imagery of it is beautiful, in a way. Thanks for your comment!
I laughed out loud at the poor widow’s reaction to James’ long-winded spiel ;)
I enjoyed the polysyndeton in number one. And like others I thought four was a lovely story.
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I veritably laughed, nay, guffawed out loud at number four – not just for the story but because I see myself in HJ there. :)
Henry James had a brother equally famous William James who wrote his dry as dust subject (Principles of Psychology) as smooth as treacle running while Henry made his novels read as a fly would try getting unstuck from it. As a contemporary critic summed it up Henry wrote fiction as it were philosophy and William wrote as it were fiction.
I didn’t know that – how quirky… Thanks for letting me know!
It amusses me that he actually spoke that way as well. How wonderful!
Another corker, thanks Viola! I love the direction asking, even though its almost bound to be invented a sort of ‘here is my Henry James asking for directions pastiche’
Love the anecdotes – out of curiosity, have you ever read Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James, his sister? a very good, if poignant/sad read.
Thanks for your comment! I haven’t read Jean Strouse, but it looks fascinating. Thanks for the tip, it’s on my list ;-)
“Summer afternoon”. Wonderful!
LOVE the anecdote about asking for directions!!
Thank you for this. I have loved James for decades now, which is a little odd given how much I also love concise writing.