Novelist, playwright and man-of-letters Henry James (1843-1916) was a bridge between the Victorian novel and early 20th century modernism. American-born but a committed Europhile, James was celebrated for his satirical novels such as Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady about the clash between brash, exuberant American new money and the old, aristocratic cynicism of Europe. James’s talent for social and psychological observation made him a pioneer of ‘internal dialogue’ – or stream-of-consciousness – that anticipates Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.
Henry James’s literary life was long and prolific. In over fifty-one-years, James wrote twenty novels, 112 short stories and twelve plays as well as literary criticism, travel diaries and over 10,500 surviving letters. Despite his output, James was not a consistently popular author and was only reinstated as one of the greats by critics in the second half of the 20th century. T. S. Eliot said of James ‘he had a mind so fine that no ideas could violate it’.
That elegant, inquisitive mind was formed by an affluent upbringing in Manhattan and Newport, Rhode Island with regular trips to the European capitals. James was educated by tutors and fluent in French by the time he was ten years old hence his early passion for Honoré de Balzac though he also credited American Nathaniel Hawthorne as a formative influence. At his family’s behest, James enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1862 but he dropped out and began to write professionally. His first paid assignment was an appreciation of Sir Walter Scott for the North American Review.
In 1869 Henry James commenced a fourteen-month European Grand Tour and decided to make London his home. While in England he met great Victorian minds such as John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, William Morris and George Eliot. His first novel Watch and Ward was published in 1870 with very little fanfare but the early 1870s were James’s research years when he travelled constantly as a guest of the elite in Paris, Geneva, London and Rome and watched his fellow countrymen – and women – unconsciously go into battle with an old world that distrusted and envied Americans.
James famously said he couldn’t see any difference between the English novel and the American since ‘there are only two kinds of novels at all, the good and the bad’. But he did bring together his compatriot Edith Wharton’s fascination for the highest of transatlantic social circles and British novelist E. M. Forster’s liberal humanism. Like Wharton, James believed ‘money’s a horrid thing to follow but a charming thing to meet’. In an echo of Forster, he cautioned ‘three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind and the third is to be kind’.
Henry James found success with The Americans (1877) and The Europeans (1878) but it was Daisy Miller (1878) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881) that gave him critical and commercial acclaim. In the latter, American heroines Daisy Miller and Isabel Archer are ultimately crushed by European manners and malice. Daisy was said to be inspired by James’s cousin Minny who had died aged twenty-four in 1870 and who called him ‘dearest Harry’ in her letters. As the beau ideal of his Newport youth, Minny may provide a reason why Henry James remained a bachelor.
The success of The Portrait of a Lady began the creative ‘wilderness years’ for the author although he was by now a literary lion in London invited to dine at all the best tables. Of his novels The Bostonians (1886) and The Princess Casamassima (1886), James said ‘they reduced the desire, and demand for my productions to zero’. The lack of financial and critical success stung him and he turned to the theatre. Henry James’s most important play, Guy Domeville, was written for the re-opening of the St. James’s theatre in 1895. When James took his bow, the audience booed. Apparently, the playwright was near-suicidal when Guy Domeville closed to make-way for the debut of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
Disillusioned by his experience as a playwright, James returned to the novel and wrote arguably his best if darkest works. What Maisie Knew (1897) is a brilliant portrait of a divorce seen through the eyes of a child. The Turn of the Screw (1898) is arguably one of the most famous horror novellas in the canon and has since been adapted as a drama and opera. The Wings of the Dove (1902) is a horrifying tale of an American heiress in Venice at prey to fortune hunters and The Golden Bowl (1904) one of the first novels about adultery.
The last years of Henry James’s life were spent in Lamb House in the walled old town of Rye overlooking the Kent coast. The house would later belong to author E. F. Benson who staged many of his Mapp & Lucia novels in and around Rye. Though nominated three times for a Nobel Prize for Literature, James never won. He did become a British subject in 1915 and King George V presented him with the Order of Merit in 1916. There is no finer epitaph for Henry James than his most oft-repeated line of literary criticism: ‘the only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life’.