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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Henry James as a fictional character

Updated below (9/24)

This month’s publication of What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James & Jack the Ripper, by Paula Marantz Cohen, renews our wonder at the enduring appeal of Henry James as a fictional character. James of course would not approve. In 1914 he admonished his nephew:
My sole wish is to frustrate as utterly as possible the postmortem exploiter.... I have long thought of launching, by provision in my will, a curse not less explicit than Shakespeare's own on any such as try to move my bones.
Nor would contemporary accounts of how he spoke seem to recommend him. Here is 25-year-old Virginia Woolf describing in a letter her meeting with the 64-year-old James in 1907:
Henry James fixed me with his staring blank eye, it is like a child’s marble, and said, “My dear Virginia, they tell me—they tell me—they tell me—that you—as indeed being your father’s daughter nay your father’s grandchild—the descendant I may say of a century—of a century—of quill pens and ink—ink—ink-pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me—ahm m m—that you, that you, that you write in short.”
Yet, as Cynthia Ozick wrote in 1986: “Mysteriously, with the passing of each new decade, James becomes more and more our contemporary—it is as if our own sensibilities are only just catching up with his.” One of James’s fictionalizers, David Lodge, thinks this new subgenre could be seen either “as a sign of decadence and exhaustion in contemporary writing, or as a positive and ingenious way of coping with the ‘anxiety of influence’.” J. Russell Perkin concurs and believes that “Henry James is an exemplary hero as man of letters: he combines an oeuvre of Victorian amplitude with a modernist sense of artist vocation.”

Whatever the reason, we count no fewer than seven other novels since 2002 featuring James himself or a James-inspired character:
  • Felony: The Private History of “The Aspern Papers” (2002), by Emma Tennant, examines how James’s long and mysterious relationship with the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson affected his writing and considers the possibility that James was responsible for Woolson’s suicide.
  • The Master (2004), by Colm Tóibín, opens with the failure of James's play Guy Domville in 1895 and ends with his move to a new home in Rye, England in 1899.
  • Author, Author (2004), by David Lodge, imagines Henry James in his deathbed in 1915, reviewing and reliving scenes from his life.
  • The first of the three stories in The Pagoda in the Garden (2005), by Wendy Lesser, features Charlotte, a successful novelist similar to Edith Wharton, who visits her revered mentor, the James-like Roderick, at his country estate near Cambridge in 1901.
  • The Typewriter’s Tale (2005), by Michael Heyns, recreates the social circle around James and Wharton, through the eyes of his typist Frieda Wroth. (Heyns wrote an article for Prospect Magazine about his difficulties finding a publisher because of the “spate of novels about Henry James.”)
  • In Lions at Lamb House (2007), by Edwin M. Yoder, Jr., William James, concerned about his younger brother’s eccentricities, asks Sigmund Freud to visit him in Rye in 1908.
  • The whimsical mash-up The James Boys: A Novel Account of Four Desperate Brothers (2008), by Richard Liebmann-Smith, conjures Henry and Williams James aboard a train stopped in Missouri by robbers Frank and Jesse James, who turn out to be their long-lost brothers Rob and Wilky.
And this list omits The Line of Beauty (2004) by Alan Hollinghurst and A Jealous Ghost (2005) by A. N. Wilson, novels in which the main characters are obsessed with Henry James.

Update (9/24): Two readers reminded us of two other works of fiction that feature Henry James as a character (and we belatedly remembered a third, or should we say eleventh?):
  • Nicholas Birns (New School professor; The Tropes of Tenth Street): In Henry James’ Midnight Song (1993), by Carol de Chellis Hill, Edith Wharton and Henry James become entangled in a series of murders, one of them at the home of Sigmund Freud, in fin de siècle Vienna.
  • Larry Dark (director, The Story Prize): In the title story of Dictation: A Quartet (2004), by Cynthia Ozick, the two secretaries who take dictation from Henry James and Joseph Conrad in London conspire to fool the world with a literary joke.
  • Henry James turns in cameo appearances in the opening and closing scenes of Hotel de Dream (2007), by Edmund White, which recreates the last days of writer Stephen Crane in 1900.
Related LOA works: Henry James: Complete Stories; Henry James: Essays on Literature, American Writers & English Writers (includes his essay on Constance Fenimore Woolson)


  1. This is quite an eye-opener. I had no idea James was being used as a fictional character at all.

    Good grief, and I thought most of the (far too many) novels that used Poe as a character were weird.

  2. Carol De Chellis Hill's HENRY JAMES:S MIDNIGHT SONG.

  3. I'd like to add my own modest inclusion of Henry James as a character in my novel about John Singer Sargent (Portraits of an Artist, 2013), in which James encourages Sargent to move to London, and provides his support and immense interest, after the debacle of the Madame X scandal in Paris, 1885. James wrote many articles of art criticism for London journals, and frequently reviewed art exhibits in which Sargent's paintings were highly praised. James will also appear in future episodes of my new historical mystery series, The John Singer Sargent and Violet Paget Mysteries, the first of which (The Spoils of Avalon) was just published in November 2014. Thanks for a quite wonderful article above!


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