In Heaven there’ll be no algebra

Henry James blog

Henry James (A3 charcoal and graphite 2016)


I’ll always be grateful to Peter Kemp – one of my teachers when I was a literature student (he later became Fiction Editor of the Sunday Times) – for introducing me to the work of Henry James, who died a hundred years ago on February 28th.

Apart from Peter and Colm Toibín, I don’t know anyone who reads Henry James for pleasure. This, to me, is baffling. There is a wonderful arc of discovery and development from his early novellas, such as Daisy Miller and The Europeans, to his beautiful, nuanced masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady.

There is so much to admire in Portrait, such as this: “She dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places, where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective, so that as she sat in a sun-warmed angle on a winter’s day…she could almost smile at it and think of its smallness.” Mindfulness, 1881.

This rather Expressionist portrait of James is based on three sources: John Singer Sargent’s masterly portrait of the writer at 70, a photograph of James with his brother, William; and a rather cruel drawing by Edward Gorey in a book called Instant Lives. Despite – or perhaps because of – his towering genius, James was a conflicted figure: not least about his sexuality (whatever it might have been).

So celebrate the passing of genius a century ago and treat yourself to a nicely-bound edition of The Portrait of a Lady. You won’t regret the investment. I’ll leave you with an anonymous poem from a postcard I bought from Henry James’ house in Rye, which I’ve carried with me through numerous moves over the past thirty years:

In Heaven there’ll be no algebra,

No learning dates and names;

But only playing golden harps

And reading Henry James.



37 thoughts on “In Heaven there’ll be no algebra

  1. One more book to add to the bedside nightstand…now two stacks along…which makes the end of my day so anticipated and such a delightful event. Not unlike, I suppose, listening to harp music and off-loading one’s memory of any and all digits…

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  2. I love Henry James! I have a collection of some of his stories which I have read over countless times. His observant and entertaining style of writing is both impressive and enjoyable. I really loved learning more about him from your post! ^_^

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  3. Marvelous, evocatively unsettling portrait.

    Hurray for eliminating algebra, my own bête-noire from scholastic days of yore!

    And yes, please, let’s all read more Henry James. Especially my own favorite (novella), The Turn of the Screw—a far more compelling mystery/horror story than any ten tales feeding the modern taste for slashing and gashing above the compellingly quiet frisson. Ever see ‘The Innocents’? That 1961 filmic version of ‘Turn’ is an effectively gothic romantic take on the story that is to most horror and suspense films much more Hitchcockian and delightfully insinuating in the same way that the original story surpasses its would-be competitors. Thanks for the reminder of James’s glories!!


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  4. What a penetrating gaze! Much like his writing?
    I love Henry James, too. Portrait of a lady is exquisite! I recently picked up a collection of his short stories. Have yet to read them but I am sure they are going to be awesome!
    Wonderful portrait.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Half my books are packed, but there is James in there…although it’s been awhile. Only so many hours in the day.
    Nice portrait too!
    And although I’m no mathematician, I agree with Teresa…math gets a bad rap. There is beauty there, as much as in words. (K)

    Liked by 1 person

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