An introductory note
by PAMELA THURSCHWELL.
THROUGHOUT THE EIGHTY years of her life, Theodora Bosanquet (1881-1961) encapsulated the mobile identities of the early twentieth-century New Woman. Trained in touch-typing and dictation at Miss Mary Petheridge’s Secretarial Bureau, London, she began work for Henry James in 1907. “Amanuensis” was James’s preferred, somewhat romanticized label for her job (in another wonderfully Jamesian mystification, he also called her his “Remington priestess.”) She worked for him loyally, until the end of his life. Although Bosanquet highly valued her connection to James, after his death in 1916, she left behind the labour of typing up men’s words. Turning down an offer of more secretarial work from Edith Wharton, she looked elsewhere, working in the War Trade Intelligence Department and the Ministry of Food at the end of World War One, and then as Executive Secretary of the International Federation of University Women from 1920 to 1935. She also wrote two literary studies, Harriet Martineau: An Essay in Comprehension (1927) and Paul Valéry (1933). She was literary editor at the journal Time and Tide from 1935-1958, and a feminist and suffragist along with her life-partner of twenty-five years, Lady Margaret Rhondda. In a superb twist on the idea of taking dictation, she was also a tireless psychical researcher who channelled a marvellously verbose James in automatic writings after his death.1
Visit James’s lovely Lamb House, in Rye, East Sussex (now owned by the National Trust), and you will find a small portrait of her hanging in the telephone room, along with other important presences in James’s late life. I always saw Bosanquet as a character in a novel waiting to happen, and am pleased she now seems to be happening, in Michiel Heyns’, The Typewriter’s Tale (2005), Cynthia Ozick’s short story, ‘Dictation’ (2008) and in a recently published “imagined memoir,” The Constant Listener: Henry James and Theodora Bosanquet, by Susan Herron Sibbet with Lady Borton (2017). In the twenty-first century Bosanquet finally is getting a (fictional) voice of her own.
After James’s death in 1916, Bosanquet, wrote several articles about her late employer. The first of these, titled simply, “Henry James,” appeared in The Fortnightly Review in 1917 [and republished here; see below—Ed.]. Virginia and Leonard Woolf later encouraged Bosanquet to expand another memoir-essay about James from the Little Review in 1918 into a longer pamphlet that was published by their imprint, the Hogarth Press, in 1924 as Henry James at Work. Bosanquet’s writing on James’s literary techniques remains some of the most illuminating available, not only because, as his secretary, she had intimate access to the Master’s working methods in the final years of his life, but because she herself was such a savvy and exacting critic, attuned to the rhythms of James’s language, and (gently) aware of its faults. She was an incisive parodist of James, as well as staunch fan. Only someone who has spent years absorbing the rhythms of James’s writing could make fun of it with such razor sharp precision. The Saturday Westminster Gazette published “Afterwards” by her in 23 January 1915 edition, while James was still alive:
One does, as it were, anyhow, so very immediately see!” he murmured; and till then had scarcely been aware how, in the near past, one had so very indubitably not seen.2
The essay below shows Bosanquet’s admiration of James—not just in her fulsome praise of him, but in the way she adopts his characteristic linguistic formations. Even in describing her early life, she can’t escape his cadences. The bookshelf in the Devonshire farmhouse where she grows up is a terrifically Jamesian bookshelf, “bristling with possibilities”. Bosanquet’s first encounter with James finds him without the “critical angles and judicial pauses I had looked for”. Instead he is “all generous curves and benign reassurances.”
“His keen eyes needed no lens to help them to focus the palpitating young person entering the room, and that was in itself a relief.” Bosanquet, like James himself, does a lot with a pair of eyeglasses, or their absence. Vaguely erotic “palpitations” (another Jamesian word) haunt their fateful meeting. Bosanquet’s descriptions of James’s working habits and environment are delightful, although also occasionally touching on some light class resentment. In their first dictation sessions, Bosanquet can’t quite decide whether it’s good to be thought stupid (so that James will spell out the potentially difficult words) or offensive to her sense of self:
In short, he wisely and safely assumed dense ignorance on the part of his human medium of expression, and I can remember even feeling slightly aggrieved on the very first morning of dictation by his careful spelling out “The Newcomes,” to which he added for my benefit that it was a name written in one word and was the title of a novel by Thackeray.
A “slightly aggrieved” feeling might be integral to the experience of the early twentieth-century secretary. Like the governess, a profession which is beginning to die out at the beginning of the twentieth-century, the literary secretary needs to be educated and well-read, perhaps beyond her class.3 Bosanquet, having read many of James’s novels, comes to her job with expert knowledge. She does not want him to think she’s unfamiliar with a novel by Thackeray. Bosanquet’s interactions with James and his family at the end of his life, are often touched with a sense of insecurity about her place in the household. The intimacy with the secretary, keeper of an author’s words, can be a strange and intense one; Bosanquet was also witness to, and recorder of, James’s delirious, post-stroke, death bed dictations, eventually published in an article by Leon Edel in The Atlantic Review in June, 1968.
Bosanquet is wonderful on the effects that James’s dictation habit has on his late, modernist style, especially during the protracted process of revising his earlier works for the New York Edition. Reading Bosanquet’s descriptions of working with James, you can almost see and hear him pacing around the Garden Room in Lamb House, dictating, stopping, refining his meaning, and then refining it again, adding yet another comma and another clause. She takes up the contemporary critical frustration with James’s modernist difficulty delicately, “…it has to be admitted that, logical and orderly as Henry James’s fully evolved scheme of punctuation was, it sometimes fails to guide us to an immediate understanding of his meaning.” An immediate understanding of meaning is never the pay-off with James. He is always searching for “the finer grain” which for him means more words, rather than fewer, a reaching for a truth that is oddly specific and obscure at the same time. As Bosanquet puts it of his late work: “The final form is not so pretty, but it is ever so much more alive.” Bosanquet, one of his best readers, reminds us of the ways in which James’s work continues to be maddening, brilliant, and alive.
Extracts from Theodora Bosanquet’s diaries as well as more details about the publication by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press of Henry James at Work, can be found in Henry James at Work, edited by Lyall H. Powers (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006).
By THEODORA BOSANQUET.
IN THAT PREFACE to Rupert Brooke’s Letters from America, which was the last piece of work done by Henry James, he assures us that “the chances and changes, the personal history of any absolute genius, draw us to watch his adventure with curiosity and inquiry, lead us on to win more of his secret, and borrow more of his experience (I mean, needless to say, when we are at all critically minded).” It is under the protection of those words that I have put together these notes about one of the finest literary artists of our time, for they constitute in themselves a refutation of the theory that the only thing that should concern us about an artist is his accomplished work. The contention that the gifted fellow-creature through whose passion and perseverance we are brought into relation with a work of art should be for us nothing more than the crystal lens of our vision is met by the consideration that however fine the lens may be the light it transmits is not the white blaze that came down from heaven. The ray emerges coloured, and often highly coloured, by the temperament it has passed through. It is by understanding the temperament that we may best understand what is has given us; and in no way is a man more temperamentally himself than in his relation to his chosen and cherished art and craft.
IT SURELY SAYS much for the permanence of early impressions that is any time I unexpectedly see or hear the name of Henry James I am aware at once of a certain unmistakable atmosphere. For though that name comes to me always trailing dense clouds of memories and associations, the immediately perceived atmosphere is not one that to my mature sense markedly characterised either himself or his work. It is compounded altogether of lightness and brightness and sunshine over open spaces, and I can account for it only by remembering that it was just such a clear translucent air that bathed my first meeting with him in the pages of a little paper-coated volume taken from a bookshelf in my father’s study on an afternoon when I was looking vaguely about for “something to read.” Although the ceiling of the study in the old “adapted” Devonshire farmhouse we lived in was comfortably low the top shelf in question was too high for a girl of not more than twelve or thirteen years to explore its possibilities without the aid of a slippery three-legged stool. It was bristling with possibilities – a sort of literary bran-pie of odd volumes. There were gathered together all the books that for reasons of shabbiness or multiplication or singularity had no obvious claim on the hospitality of any other shelf. I suppose The Europeans was tucked among those waifs and strays because no other member of its family circle was lodged in our house at that time. At any rate, there I found it, wedged affectionately between Bellamy’s Looking Backwards and Mosses from an Old Manse.
It would be idle to pretend that reading The Europeans marked for me an epoch of discovery. I read it to the end without any precocious comprehension of the actions and motives of the irresponsible Felix and the sophisticated Eugenia. What I did absorb was a sense of atmosphere, and that I still retain. I can account for it in no other way, for it is impossible that anything sunlit and gay should have resulted from my second and more deeply impressible encounter with Henry James. This took place half a dozen years later, when a friend confided to me the distressing fact that she had entirely lost her nerve for facing the hours of darkness because her mind was obsessed by the horror of a tale she had read lately called The Turn of the Screw, by a writer “called Henry James.” To my fascinated inquiries about the nature of the horror she replied that the thing was a ghost-story concerning the haunting of two little children by “a butler and a governess.” I recalled even now my immediate conviction that if the ghosts took those forms in the story surely could not be so very horrid. The butlers of fiction were as incorrigibly comic as the governesses were pathetic – more incorrigibly, indeed, for governesses were sometimes designing, but butlers never. But that account of Peter Quint was, of course, an error. If my friend had spoken of him as a valet or, following Mrs. Grose, as a “body-servant,” I should never have questioned his sinister capacity. It was abundantly evident as soon as I had read the story, and my friend, who had lent me the volume with engaging eagerness, was delighted to learn that my nights were as horror-stricken afterwards as her own had been. To the charm of the heroine of Covering End, the second tale bound up in the book, I succumbed more happily. She seemed to me the most radiant creature that had ever danced over printed pages, and her spell was beautifully explained many years later when her creator told me that he had originally conceived the character for impersonation by Miss Ellen Terry.
After The Two Magics there was no more room for doubt about books written by Henry James. He took his place as a writer to be read whenever one came across him. So I read him as I found him, not at all in chronological order, but by the end of a few years fairly comprehensively. It is the easiest thing for any victim of the visualising habit to form a mental image of a frequently read author, and long before I was offered the astonishing chance of a personal meeting with him I had furnished myself with an imaginary portrait. I was an entirely unwarranted portrait. I had nothing whatever to paint it from but the possibility that he might be like some of his own presented studies. I had seen no reproduced photograph and heard no word of description. The only literary figure that had been known to my childish eyes was the picturesque one of Francis Turner Palgrave, and although he was my sole model I never expected that Henry James could look like that. Mr. Palgrave was too typically like a poet. Indeed, none of the present-day poets I have seen reading their verse to enraptured audiences at the Poetry Bookshop has been able to contribute so effective an appearance to the scene as he might have done. The picture I made for myself of the writer of Henry James’s novels was of a man rather tall than short, of a slight and nimble figure, clad in inconspicuous grey. The note of grey rather predominated. I saw his hair as straight and fine and silvered. His eyes would be grey, too, deeply set in a long pale face and regarding the world through pince-nez glasses adjusted by lean fingers on a discriminating nose. I thought of him as a silent man, embarrassingly full of unspoken observations and criticisms.
It was in the summer of 1907 that I was suddenly confronted not only with the almost incredible prospect of seeing Henry James face to face, but of becoming his literary amanuensis if the preliminary meeting passed off without misfortune. I had heard, by a happy chance, that he would shortly need an amanuensis – a typist to whom he could dictate his literary work – and that the special qualifications required were the ability to spell correctly and to work a Remington typewriter. I was anything but an expert typist, and had the gravest doubts as to the general accuracy of my spelling. Also it had not been at all suggested that I should apply for the post. There was an applicant already in the field, and I was being trained for a very different kind of work. But that counted for nothing. The established candidate was strangely unenthusiastic about the prospect before her, was even, it seemed, relieved to look towards another; and when I had made it abundantly clear that no considerations, however serious, and no other career, however speciously profitable, could have a feather’s weight set in the scales against that more golden opportunity, it was kindly conceded that I might abandon the course I had set sail on, practice performing on a typewriter, and be “interviewed” by Mr. Henry James.
He astonished me from the moment I nervously stepped into the room where the decisive interview was to take place by contradicting in his own person not merely my preconceptions about himself, but about literary men in general. Whatever he looked like at that first moment it was not like a writer. He had recently passed four months on the Continent and was browned by the Italian sun to a hue that no doubt partly accounted for my quick fancy that he might have been a seafaring man. It was a fancy to which his stout, broad-shouldered figure gave a certain support, though that may only have been for eyes that had known retired naval officers of the same thickset build. I have heard it said, however, that in the days when he wore a beard he might well have been mistaken for a sea-captain. But he had shaved off the beard before ever I saw him, and his face, save for that temporary bronze, was not a sailor’s. What was most immediately striking about it was that it belonged essentially to the classical type of dignity and grandeur. Genius is often lodged in strange habitations, while men of a comfortable mediocrity may be burdened by an appearance of rare distinction; but in Henry James the visible features and the informing spirit were fitly joined together. He looked a “great” man, even if he did not unmistakably look a man of letters. He might have been a merciful Caesar or a benevolent Napoleon, and it was easy to understand how an artist who, a year or two later, painted a profile portrait of him, was able to see in his model a bewildering succession of resemblances to illustrious characters of the world’s history suggest themselves during the course of the sittings.
If it was disconcerting it was also comforting to find my prospective employer so unlike the portrait imagination had drawn. Here were none of the critical angles and judicial pauses I had looked for. He was all generous curves and benign reassurances. His keen eyes needed no lens to help them to focus the palpitating young person entering the room, and that was in itself a relief. It was somehow encouraging, too, that the clothes he was wearing were gayer than the flat neutral tint I had taken for granted. I remember thinking as I noted an expanse of brightly checked waistcoat that he would have been well suited by some earlier style of costume, that a liberal silk cravat and handsome purple coat would have looked much more right for him than the undistinguished garments of this century.
It was quite in keeping with the general effect of amplitude and abundance that he should immediately show himself to be kind and considerate and unquestioning. There can seldom have been any kind of interview, indeed, conducted with fewer inquiries. I think he asked me nothing at all after he had been assured that I was the expected applicant. He had been told something about me, no doubt, beforehand. He had applied to the friend who had previously provided him with typists, and had taken her word for my being sufficiently the right young woman. How little hope he had of any young woman I was soon to discover. For my part I had nothing to ask. I wanted to go down to work a typewriter at Rye on any terms – and I cannot remember that the pecuniary ones were so much as hinted at by either of the parties to the interview. But if I had wished to put any questions to him it would have been hard to find a good opportunity, for the strong, slow stream of his deliberate speech flowed over me without ceasing. He had it on his mind to tell me everything possible and relevant about the conditions of life and labour at Rye, and he did so at length, with hesitations and amplifications innumerable, but without ever really stopping. What he particularly wished to place before me was the probability that I should find Rye very dull!
SIX WEEKS LATER – weeks during which I diligently practised ticking out passages from The Ambassadors on a superannuated Remington machine – I went to take up my duties at Rye. The duties began each morning at a quarter-past ten, when I pushed up the inner latch ingeniously attached to the big brass knocker of the front door of Lamb House and walked straight upstairs to the little square green-panelled room where Henry James worked on winter mornings. It was a perfect room for winter, small enough to be comfortably warm on the coldest days and catching every ray of the gentle south-coast sunshine through a wide, southward window. There was a smaller window for the afternoon sun, doubly glazed against the force of the westerly gales. Three tall bookcases and two big desks and an easy chair took a heavy toll of the available space, but left enough uncumbered floor for a restricted amount of pacing about that was conducive to literary composition. On warm summer days Henry James preferred working in the big, light “garden-room,” where there was a longer stretch for perambulation and where the main window overlooked the little cobbled street that curved past his front door. He liked to be able to see whatever might be taking place in the street, or sometimes to hail a passing friend; he enjoyed watching motor-cars pant up the sharp little hill and turn down towards the Mermaid Inn. The sight of one could always be counted on to draw from him some vigorous expression of amazement, admiration, or horror for the complications of an age that had produced such annihilators of protective distance.
The hours between breakfast and luncheon, from about half-past ten to quarter to two, were the only ones that Henry James liked to spend at fresh creative work. He seldom made the effort in the evening unless he was very hard pressed to finish something. But every sort of work that was not so wholly a strain on the imagination he did in the evening, including all the exhausting labour of proof-reading.
The business of fulfilling my function as the medium between the spoken and the written word was from the first full of interest and fascination, though for a few weeks it was also a mild terror. I was desperately afraid of mis-spelling the words be dictated, and was by no means at my ease with the new pattern of Remington machine he had just bought. But his patience during my struggles with the baffling mechanism of the typewriter was unfailing, and he was as easy to spell from as an open dictionary. Years of dictation had apparently taught him that it was unsafe to leave the spelling of any polysyllabic word to chance. He took pains to pronounce each pronounceable letter; he always spelt out homophonous words, no matter how clear the meaning in the given instance might be, and he never left any punctuation mark unuttered except sometimes by inadvertence that important point, the full stop. In short, he wisely and safely assumed dense ignorance on the part of his human medium of expression, and I can remember even feeling slightly aggrieved on the very first morning of dictation by his careful spelling out “The Newcomes,” to which he added for my benefit that it was a name written in one word and was the title of a novel by Thackeray.
I do not know exactly when Henry James began the practice of dictating his work, but I think it must have been in ’95 or ’96. Mr. Ford Maddox Hueffer is no doubt right in his suggestion that the habit had a marked effect on his style, which became as the years went by more and more like “copious, involved, labyrinthine talk.” He perfectly recognised the effect on himself; to a certain extent he even deplored it. “I tend,” he once said, “to be too diffuse when I’m dictating.” He found, however, that dictation was not only an easier but also a more inspiring method of composition than writing with his own hand, and considered that the increased facility more than made up for any loss of concision. It seemed to me very curious that he should find dictating easy, considering his perpetual apprehension that what he said might be wrongly taken down. It was strange that the constantly felt necessity for spelling out his words and uttering his punctuation was not a fatal impediment to the expression of his thought, but there can be no doubt of the fact. “It seems,” he explained, “to be so much more effectively and unceasingly pulled out of me in speech than in writing.” And at the time when I began to work for him he had arrived at a stage at which the click of the Remington machine acted as a positive spur. He found it less easy to work to the accompaniment of any other make of typewriter than the one he was used to – other kinds sounded different notes; and it was almost impossibly disconcerting for him to dictate to something that made no responsive sound at all. Occasionally, if he were ill and in bed, I might take down a note in handwriting, but he preferred to have the typewriter moved into his room for even the shortest letters. There were, however, certain kinds of composition that he found himself obliged to work at with a pen. Plays, and short stories, if they were to remain within the bounds of possible publication in a magazine, he usually wrote by hand, knowing that the manual labour of writing would be his best aid to the desired brevity. The short stories he would afterwards dictate, and probably expand, from his manuscript draft. Plays he preferred to have copied straight from the manuscript. He was too much afraid of exceeding “the murderous limits of the English theatre” if he allowed himself any opportunity for further embroidery.
His method of writing what may be called full-length novels was different and extremely interesting. He liked to “break ground” by talking to himself day by day about the characters and the construction until the whole thing was clearly before his mind’s eye. This preliminary talking-out of the scheme was, of course, duly recorded by the typewriter. He had always, as he so often affirmed, “dramatised” his material, he tended more and more, I think to prefigure his tales as staged drama — to see the whole thing in acts and scenes with the persons of the drama making their observed entrances and exits. These scenes he worked out until he knew so much about the action that he could begin on the actual writing of the novel — a process that I have seen described, incorrectly, as a re-dictation from a first draft. It was really nothing of the kind. He did not enlarge and amplify a rough sketch of his novels after the manner of Balzac. His method might better be compared with Zola’s habit of writing long letters to himself about the characters in his next book until they became alive enough him to begin a novel about them. The thirty thousand words or so of typewritten scheme dictated by Henry James contained none of the phraseology of the novel he was going to write from it. It was really just an ample scenario for the proposed drama. It was also an extraordinary record of inspiration, for I doubt if any writer has ever been more fully conscious of each step along the path of illumination or given more articulate utterance to the whole process of this experience. In The Death of the Lion he has himself described a scheme of the kind, attributing its authorship to Neil Paraday, the victim already doomed to be sacrificed on the altar of renown. “Loose, liberal, confident, it might have passed for a great gossiping eloquent letter – the overflow into talk of an artist’s amorous plan.” So he mapped out his design. But he mapped it out, at the same time, with the fullest recognition that at closer quarters with his subject he might more often than not find it refusing to be confined within the architectural limits provided. “In the intimacy of composition,” as he remarked, “pre-noted arrangements, proportions, and relations do most uncommonly insist on making themselves different by shifts and variations, always improving, which impose themselves as one goes and keep the door open always to something more right and more related. It is subject to that constant possibility, all the while, that one does pre-note and tentatively sketch.”
For the two volumes of memories, A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother, he dictated no preliminary notes. He plunged straight into the stream of the past, without a doubt or an hesitation. The reading over each morning of the pages written the day before was all the stimulus needed to start him on a fresh effort to render adequately the depth and the delicacy of his early impressions. After about an hour of conscious effort he would often be caught on a rising wave of inspiration and would get up from his armchair and pace up and down the room, sounding out his periods in tones of resonant assurance. He was then beyond reach of unconnected sights or sounds. Hosts of cats – a tribe usually routed at the first cry, with shouts of execration – might wail outside the window; phalanxes of dreaded motorcars bearing incursive visitors might hoot at his door. He was impervious to them. The only thing that could arrest him was the escape of the word he wanted to use. When that had gone he paused, he left off walking about the room, and, standing by a bookcase or chimney-piece tall enough for him to support his arms on it, he rested his head in his hands and audibly pursued the fugitive.
WHEN I FIRST went to Rye, in the autumn of 1907, Henry James was engaged in the immense business of preparing his novels and tales for the big, definitive New York edition, which was published in 1909. The mornings he devoted to dictating the illuminating prefaces, the interesting series of apologies prefixed to each of the works contained in that far from complete collection. Concurrently with this “inventive” work of the morning, the mass writings was performed in the evening. This revision was a task he had seen in advance as extremely formidable, one of the chief difficulties being that he had considerably forgotten his early work. Far from ever reposing, even for an instant, on any laurels already won, Henry James was always eagerly pressing forwards. His statement that “to get and to keep finished and dismissed work well behind one, and to have as little to say to it and about it as possible, had been for years one’s only law,” was the absolute truth. If the question of the definitive edition had not come up, he would never have given another glance at the tales of his younger time. The thing he was going to write next always shone more splendidly before him than anything he had already achieved. And he was also conscious that his way of seeing and rendering a situation had greatly changed since the days when he was writing his early and more generally popular books. It had changed so much that he had come to believe that his younger productions would prove to be, from his later aesthetic standpoint, almost unreadably bad. On a morning when he was obliged to give the hours to making a selection among some of the shorter tales for one of the forthcoming volumes, he confessed that the difficulty of selection was mainly the difficulty of reading them at all. “They seem,” he declared, “so bad until I have read them that I can’t force myself to look at them except with a pen in my hand, altering as I go the crudities and ineptitudes that to my sense deform each page.” But when he had managed, by dint of treating each page as a proof-sheet, to read the older stories, he was relieved to find them, as a rule, really much better than he had feared. They were perhaps not, he decided, the disgrace to his more mature artistic self that he had been persuaded they must be.
But he has himself dealt in the preface to The Golden Bowl with the whole debatable question of this “revised version,” and there is no need to insist here on his point of view. Many of his readers have protested against the drastic pruning of old shoots and grafting of new ones on the fine old stock of the novels and tales they have known from far back. They have particularly denounced the imposition of a later system of punctuation and it has to be admitted that, logical and orderly as Henry James’s fully evolved scheme of punctuation was, it sometimes fails to guide us to an immediate understanding of his meaning. He was occasionally misled himself. But anyone who takes the trouble to collate the earlier forms of the revised tales with the later can hardly fail, I think, to be struck by the increased vividness, the quality of life, the richer effect of atmosphere that has generally been gained. Sometimes this gain is at the expense of ease and smoothness. The final form is not so pretty, but it is ever so much more alive. It is not so pretty because, as the years went by, he became increasingly anxious to render adequately the whole truth and depth of his perceptions rather than to sketch a graceful surface. There are artists for whom beauty is truth, and others for whom truth is beauty. It was to the latter class that Henry James essentially belonged. His struggle was always to stretch his power of expression to the compass of the things he saw and felt; and it seemed to him, when he re-read his forgotten stories, that he had missed in writing them countless precious opportunities for rendering vision and feeling which the process of revision allowed him at last to retrieve. His labour was untiringly devoted to bringing out the visual values and to substituting wherever he could some definite sharp image for early loose vagueness. In The Madonna of the Future, a tale published in 1879, a sentence in the original form runs: “His professions, somehow, were all half-professions, and his allusions to his work and circumstances left something dimly ambiguous in the background.” In the New York edition this is converted to: “His professions were practically, somehow, all masks and screens, and his personal allusions, as to his ambiguous background, mere wavings of the dim lantern.” That is a representative sample of the kind of thing he was trying to do to every tale he touched with his revising pen. Another sentence from the same story began as: “He turned upon me almost angrily, but perceiving the genial flavour of my sarcasm, he smiled gravely.” In its final form it is: “He turned upon me at first almost angrily – then saw that I was but sowing the false to reap the true.”
But the writing of explanatory prefaces and the revision of stories and novels was far from being the complete tale of literary labour even of the years when preparation for the edition was most actively going forward. The years 1907 and 1908 were bright with the promise of a new era for English drama. Valiantly led by Miss Horniman, the advocates of the repertory system were marching forward, capturing one by one the intellectual centres of the provinces. Henry James was quickly responsive to the appeal for non-commercial drama. The theatre had always allured him, even if it had also repelled. He had in earlier years written such plays as Covering End and The Other House only to find them unproducibly on his hands, and he had thereupon, “economically,” as he said, turned them into works of fiction, “embedding the dialogue of the plays in a certain amount of descriptive commentary.” A few attentive readers had guessed the origin of Covering End, or had, at any rate, recognised its dramatic possibilities, and when it was suggested to the author that he should re-write it as a three-act comedy to be performed by Mr. Forbes Robertson (as he then was) and Miss Gertrude Elliott, he willingly assented. The play, re-named The High Bid, was not produced in London, until February, 1909, and then only for a series of matinées, for the prodigious success of [Jerome K. Jerome’s] The Passing of the Third Floor Back precluded the possibility of an evening run for any other production under the same management. But in the meantime Henry James had felt encouraged to embark on other play-writing experiments. For a writer who had consistently seen his subjects in a dramatic light it was not difficult to put them into strictly dramatic form. It was the easiest thing in the world for him to turn The Other House back again into a tragedy. It was scarcely less easy to take other published tales and make plays of them. The story of the exhibition of moral courage leading to the victorious death of the boy named with grim propriety “Owen Wingrave” was made into a one-act play, The Saloon, which was produced by Miss Gertrude Kingston at the Little Theatre in 1910. Finally, in 1909, an entirely new three-act comedy entitled The Outcry was written. Highly topical in its subject, it was meant for production at a London theatre pledged to a repertory season. The play was not produced. At the time when it should have been rehearsed Henry James was seriously ill and he afterwards went to America. When he return the day of repertory performances in London had died in a fresh night of stars. The Outcry, like some of its predecessors, was published, not as a play, but as a novel.
It is almost literally true to say of the sheaf of stories collected in The Finer Grain that they were written in response to a request for a single short story for Harper’s Monthly Magazine. The desired length was, I think, about five thousand words, and each budding idea for a tale was cultivated in the optimistic hope that it might produce a flower too slight and frail to demand any exhaustive attention from the author. But each in turn insisted, even under the pressure of being written by hand, on developing to lengths that no amount of lopping or chopping could reduce to the Procrustean word limit. The tale eventually sent to the editor of Harper’s Monthly was the appealing portrait of “Crapy Cornelia,” and I seem to remember that though it was the shortest of the batch it could appear only in two halves, printed in successive numbers of the magazine.
The two volumes of memories, A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother, written after Henry James came back from the United States in 1911, were composed chiefly in London. He had by that time come back, after many seasons of country solitude, to his earlier love of the friendly London winter. During the first winter after his return he lodged at the Reform Club and repaired every morning to a room in an old house in Chelsea, which he had taken for his working hours and arranged as a study. It was a narrow, rather dark little room – it was his habit to allude to it as “my Chelsea cellar.” But even under these gloomy conditions the charm of Chelsea worked its spell on him, and he decided to make a new London home for himself in that neighbourhood. He took a flat on Cheyne Walk and there, in a big room overlooking a clear stretch of the river, he worked for the remainder of his time. He still spent the summer months at Rye; he was there when the war began, engaged on a novel which he immediately abandoned because he felt it impossible to go on with such “utterly irrelevant work. The only thing he felt able to turn to, after he had recovered sufficiently from that tremendous shake of the ground under his feet to be able to turn to anything at all, was the beginning of what was intended to be a third volume of reminiscences. The fragment that he wrote – he had meant to call the book The Middle Years – holds the sure promise that it would have been one of the most charming and valuable of his works. He laid it aside, however, to do work that seemed to be more immediately pressing. A novel begun many years before was taken up again because its subject was so independent of contemporary history that he found it possible to revert to it even during the war. But whenever an appeal came for him to write something in aid of one of the great works of charity called into being by war, whenever he felt that he could bear effective witness to his complete and ardent sympathy with the cause of the Allies, he set aside everything else to reaffirm his emphatic testimony. He was never for a single moment a benevolent neutral, but always a belligerent ally, and the action which made him an Englishman in name as he had long been in fact was but the final seal to his firm signature.
FOR READERS OF his books it may well seem superfluous to lay any stress on the fact that his hours of work were what Henry James lived for. But if a man scarcely ever mentions the passion of his life, if he cultivates the art of conversation to a high pitch and yet is never to be heard conversing of that, the people among whom he chiefly moves and talks may not unnaturally thrust into the background of their view of him an object he himself leaves discreetly veiled and shrouded. And Henry James, exhaustively communicative on every other topic of his talk, maintained about his writing a marked reserve. This was not at all because he was indifferent to what his friends thought of it. He cared very much what they thought, too much to run the risk of feeling that he had not been completely understood. Invariably touched by any evidence that his books had been intelligently read and appreciated, he never sought such evidence for himself. He found it safest to assume that nobody read him, and he liked his friends and acquaintances none the less for that. His enjoyment of human intercourse was unclouded by any breath of that uncomfortable consciousness known as an “author’s vanity.” And no man ever more keenly appreciated the beauty of a formed relation or kept more fresh his power of forming new ones to the end. But this very extremity of apparent disconnection from his work induced in him at times a corresponding extremity of loneliness. Meanwhile, the volumes of his published works piled themselves up year by year – visible, palpable, readable proofs of those unceasing travails of the creative spirit that was always labouring behind the barrier of his silence.
The lives of men of genius have too often resolved themselves into a desperate struggle between inner and outer necessity. Their temperamental need to express what is in them has been pitted against the need to make money, the need to be a satisfactory husband and father, the need to compromise with the claims of a neglected body and an overworked brain for rest and refreshment. From these hindering pressures Henry James was noticeably free. The economic basis of life is recognised in this country in so gentlemanly and unobtrusive a manner that it sometimes seems to escape attention altogether, and biographers and novelists alike leave us wondering how their interesting subjects managed to “live.” The people of Henry James’s own novels exist, for the most part, on unmentioned incomes which are at least ample for the provision of opportunities for enjoying travel and leisure, for visiting in expensive country houses, and for making suitably clad appearances in the best society. The pursuit of riches beyond that necessary minimum is certainly branded as wrong, by implication if not by open admission. By that sin fall many of the worldly, predatory actors in his dramas, however splendidly they may blaze on their descent. The whole course of his life showed him to be without the least taint of the sordid passion. But, like his finer creations, he never lacked a liberty that rested on an income sufficient to gratify his taste for a life of impressions and appreciations. He had never known a time when the expense of travel was prohibitive; when hansoms or motor-cars, gondolas or vetture, were not at his service; when a struggle for the means to live obscured even for a moment his lucid vision of the ends for which life should be lived. His fundamental economic independence of his work enabled him to fashion it in the mould he desired, irrespective of the demands of the market.
From domestic anxieties he was also to a great extent free. No wife or child shared his hearth, and though his relatives in the United States enjoyed the highest measure of his affection and interest, the wide stretch of the Atlantic Ocean prevented his time or energy from being greatly occupied with family claims. If he had to consider his health carefully, he had, at any rate, the good fortune to possess, as the supporting ground of his rich consciousness, a really strong constitution. He was often suffering from various definite indispositions, but he had none of the frail delicacy that we almost expect to find in men of letters. He rallied quickly from illness, he throw off minor complaints with ease, and he was quite remarkably free in later life from headaches or any of those lesser sensations of cerebral discomfort which few brain-workers escape. He gave his freshest hours to his work, but until the last year or so of his life he had an ample fund of energy left over for the rest of the day. But it was a fund that he never squandered on irrelevant objects. However divided his hours might seem to be between the divergent pursuits of the ideals of literary art and social amenity, there can never have lived a man who did one thing all the time more consistently than Henry James. Other man whose prime business is thought and its expression find recreation and refreshment in occupations quite outside the domain of their work. They play golf or fell trees; they study Sanskrit or carve wood or collect postage stamps. Henry James did none of these things. He had a profound belief in the virtues of air and exercise. He liked to be out walking on find afternoons, and he was expert as making a walk of two or three miles last for as many hours by his habit of punctuating movement with frequent and prolonged pauses for meditation or conversation. He liked the exhilaration of motion in a motor-car; it gave him, he said, “a sense of spiritual adventure.” But these forms of exercise were so little of an interruption to concurrent mental activity that it would almost be true to say that except during the hours he was actually asleep, his mind was working in one unchanging way. He might be reading or talking or thinking; but he read critically, he talked expressively, and he thought creatively. That is only another way of saying that he was incessantly occupied with the business of receiving and analysing, appraising and transmitting, the impressions he so eagerly received from the bountiful hand of life. Nothing at all that he perceived and assimilated was likely to be lost. Sooner or later it would reappear, wrought into a fabric of glowing phrase. He spent a long life at that one task. And it was natural enough that as a result of this economy of energy, this restriction of effort to one supreme end, he became in time more copiously expressive than could well be realised by anyone who did not hear him talk. He is said to have been rather silent as a young man, to have been too busy taking things in to have much to give forth immediately. His medium then was rather exclusively the pen. But as the years passed he more and more enjoyed and cultivated the pleasure of conversing; and his manner of speech, assisted no doubt by his practice of dictating his work, became so inveterately characteristic that his inquiries about luggage from a railway porter or lobsters from a fishmonger might easily be recognised as coined in the same mint as his address to the Academic Committee. Bewildering at times to the uninitiated, his talk was a constant delight to those who had ears to hear it, and no pious pilgrim to the shrine of his genius can ever have left it without feeling himself surprisingly rewarded. Meetings with admired contemporaries too often bring with them the flatness of disillusion, but Henry James was never disillusioning. He was always and strikingly distinguished.
Pamela Thurschwell is a Reader in English at the University of Sussex. She is the author of Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880–1920 (Cambridge, 2001) and the Routledge Critical Thinkers, Sigmund Freud (2009) and the editor of Quadrophenia and Mod(ern) Culture (Palgrave, 2017). She is currently working on a book called About the Young Idea: Adolescent Time Travel across the 20th Century.
Theodora Bosanquet (1881-1961), worked for Henry James from 1907 until 1916, when he died. The essay republished above first appeared in the June 1917 issue of The Fortnightly Review. From the early thirties until just before her death she lived with suffragist and literary editor, Lady Rhonnda. Her memoir, Henry James At Work is available online.
More from The Fortnightly Review: “Pierre Loti” by Henry James.
- See Powers, “Theodora Bosanquet at Work” in Henry James at Work, pp. 127-8 and Pamela Thurschwell, Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880–1920 for more on Bosanquet’s interest in psychical research.
- Quoted in Henry James at Work, Lyall H. Powers, Introduction, p. 6.
- See Thurschwell, “Supple Minds and Automatic Hands: secretarial agency in early twentieth century literature”, Forum for Modern Language Studies, 2001: 37 (2). pp. 155-68 for more on Bosanquet and the position of the secretary in the cultural imagination in the early twentieth-century.