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.