Are these Henry James’s best short stories and novellas?
Henry James (1843-1916) was a prolific writer of short stories and novellas – what he himself called ‘tales’ – and a number of them are widely read and studied. In this post, we’ve picked just five of James’s very best tales, and said a little bit about them.
‘The Beast in the Jungle’. In this longer tale from 1903 – it’s so long it is sometimes categorised as a ‘novella’ – Henry James uses his interest in delay (enacted so well by his meandering and clause-ridden syntax) to explore a friendship between a man and a woman which never turns into a romantic relationship because the man, John Marcher, fears that something terrible is going to befall him. His stalwart and patient female companion, May, stands by his side and tries to help him make sense of this mysterious and imprecise threat which he feels hangs over him. Will this ‘beast’ lurking in the jungle of his unconscious ever be unleashed? Perhaps James’s finest example of a subversion of the traditional love story. Read the rest of this entry
Was Henry James’s great tale one big joke?
‘The Figure in the Carpet’ has become a short-hand or idiom for the ‘key’ to understanding a writer’s work. And yet the story in which the idiom was born, Henry James’s 1896 tale ‘The Figure in the Carpet’, refuses to open itself up to easy interpretations or analysis. Neither we nor Henry James’s narrator learn the secret, the ‘figure in the carpet’. So what is this ambiguous story saying? You can read James’s story here.
First, a brief summary or recap of the plot of James’s story. An unnamed narrator reviews the latest novel by the author Hugh Vereker, and congratulates himself on having divined the true meaning of Vereker’s book. But at a party, he overhears Vereker telling the other guests that the narrator’s review was ‘the usual twaddle’. When Vereker discovers the narrator heard him badmouthing his review, he seeks to mollify him by telling him that nobody has managed to divine the true meaning of his work, but that there is an idea present in all of his novels, which he likens to the complex woven figure in a Persian carpet, which provides the ‘secret’ or ‘key’ to understanding all of his work. Spurred on by this, the narrator sets out to discover what ‘the figure in the carpet’ really is that will unlock the secrets of Vereker’s work. Read the rest of this entry
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.