Henry James’s room with a view

The writer Henry James died on 28 February 1916. After a memorial service in London’s Chelsea Old Church, his body was cremated and the ashes smuggled back to Massachusetts.

JamesFor the next quarter of a century, a debate raged about James’s importance as a novelist, with Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot on one side and Rebecca West and E. M. Forster on the other. In Henry James: A Critical Study (1915), the British novelist and critic Ford Madox Ford recognised in him “the greatest of living writers” and predicted immortality: “Looking at the immense range of books written by this author, upon the immensity of the scrupulous labours, upon the fineness of mind, the nobility of the character, the highness of the hope, the greatness of the quest, the felicity of the genius and the truth that is at once beauty and much more than beauty.”

In Aspects of the Novel (1927), Forster was less complimentary. Of James’s characters he wrote that, “Even their sensations are limited. They can land in Europe and look at works of art and at each other, but that is all. Maimed creatures can alone breathe in Henry James’s pages – maimed yet specialised.”

James is never an easy read. In his essay “The Art of Fiction”, he noted that “literature should be either instructive or amusing, and there is in many minds an impression that … artistic preoccupations, the search for form, contribute to neither end, interfere indeed with both.”

For James, fiction provided “a direct impression of life”, best achieved by examining the psychological complexities of human beings. He developed a technique that relied on narrators who were not omniscient, inviting readers to enter into the process of making sense of the way the stories unfolded. James, himself, is elusive, despite a wealth of biography and critical commentary, but his personality can be glimpsed in his travel writing, where his guard is often down.

James published three collections. A Little Tour in France is a book of travel writing based on a serial published in 1883-84 in The Atlantic Monthly under the title “En Provence”. In the introduction James notes that, “France may be Paris, but Paris is not France.” It was followed by The American Scene, recording an extensive trip through the United States in 1904-05. But the best is Italian Hours (1909), a collection of essays written over nearly forty years about a country James loved and knew well.

The book is a glowing appreciation of Italian places, people, and art. Whimsically (if James can be whimsical) the preface begins, “It is possible to dislike Venice, and to entertain the sentiment in a responsible and intelligent manner. There are travellers who think the place odious, and those who are not of this opinion often find themselves wishing that the others were only more numerous.”

But he soon changes tack, “When you have called for the bill to go, pay it and remain, and you will find on the morrow that you are deeply attached to Venice. It is by living there from day to day that you feel the fulness of her charm; that you invite her exquisite influence to sink into your spirit.”

FlorenceItalian Hours suggests a man less austere than his reputation, in which his own emotions are on view rather than those of his characters. It came out one year after E. M. Forster published his novel A Room with a View, to which it owes nothing more than a flicker of recognition in the chapter “Italy Revisited”, where Florence basks in autumnal sunshine:

“I had never known Florence more herself, or in other words more attaching, than I found her for a week in that brilliant October. She sat in the sunshine beside her yellow river like the little treasure-city she has always seemed, without commerce, without other industry than the manufacture of mosaic paper-weights and alabaster Cupids, without actuality or energy or earnestness or any of those rugged virtues which in most cases are deemed indispensable for civic cohesion; with nothing but the little unaugmented stock of her mediaeval memories, her tender-coloured mountains, her churches and palaces, pictures and statues…

My room at the inn looked out on the river and was flooded all day with sunshine. There was an absurd orange-coloured paper on the walls; the Arno, of a hue not altogether different, flowed beneath; and on the other side of it rose a line of sallow houses, of extreme antiquity, crumbling and mouldering, bulging and protruding over the stream. (I seem to speak of their fronts; but what I saw was their shabby backs, which were exposed to the cheerful flicker of the river, while the fronts stood for ever in the deep damp shadow of a narrow mediaeval street.) All this brightness and yellowness was a perpetual delight; it was a part of that indefinably charming colour which Florence always seems to wear as you look up and down at it from the river, and from the bridges and quays.”


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