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.