Henry James (1843-1916)
From Literary Anecdotes About 19th Century Authors Born After 1829

JAMES, who was a frequent companion on our English motor-trips, was firmly convinced that, because he lived in England and our chauffeur (an American) did not, it was necessary that the latter should be guided by him through the intricacies of the English countryside. Signposts were rare in England in those days, and for many years afterwards ...

It chanced however that Charles Cook, our faithful and skilful driver, was a born path-finder, while James's sense of direction was non-existent, or rather actively but always erroneously alert; and the consequences of his intervention were always bewildering and sometimes extremely fatiguing. The first time that my husband and I went to Lamb House by motor (coming from France) James, who had travelled to Folkestone by train to meet us, insisted on seating himself next to Cook on the plea that the roads across Romney Marsh formed such a tangle that only an old inhabitant could guide us to Rye. The suggestion resulted in our turning around and around in our tracks till long after dark, though Rye, conspicuous on its conical hill, was just ahead of us and Cook could easily have landed us there in time for tea.

Another year we had been motoring in the West Country, and on the way back were to spend a night at Malvern. As we approached (at the close of a dark rainy afternoon) I saw James growing restless, and was not surprised to hear him say: `My dear, I once spent a summer at Malvern and know it very well; and as it is rather difficult to find the way to the hotel, it might be well if Edward were to change places with me and let me sit beside Cook.' My husband of course acceded (though with doubts in his heart) and, James having taken his place, we awaited the result. Malvern, if I am not mistaken, is encircled by a sort of upper boulevard, of the kind called in Italy a strada di circonvallazione, and for an hour we circled about above the outspread city while James vainly tried to remember which particular street led down most directly to our hotel. At each corner (literally) he stopped the motor, and we heard a muttering, first confident and then anguished. 'This—this, my dear Cook, yes . . . this certainly is the right corner. But no; stay! A moment longer, please—in this light it's so difficult . . . appearances are so misleading ... It may be . . . yes! I think it is the next turn . . . a little farther lend thy guiding hand ... that is, drive on; but slowly, please, my dear Cook; very slowly!' And at the next corner the same agitated monologue would be repeated; till at length Cook, the mildest of men, interrupted gently: `I guess any turn'll get us down into the town, Mr. James, and after that I can ask'—and late, hungry and exhausted we arrived at length at our destination, James still convinced that the next turn would have been the right one if only we had been more patient.

The most absurd of these episodes occurred on another rainy evening when James and I chanced to arrive at Windsor long after dark. We must have been driven by a strange chauffeur—perhaps Cook was on holiday; at any rate, having fallen into the lazy habit of trusting him to know the way, I found myself at a loss to direct his substitute to the King's Road. While I was hesitating and peering out into the darkness James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. `Wait a moment, my dear—I'll ask him where we are'; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.

`My good man, if you'll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer—so,' and as the old man came up: `My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.'

I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: `In short' (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), `in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right) where are we now in relation to . . . '

`Oh, please,' I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, `do ask him where the King's Road is.'

`Ah—? The King's Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King's Road exactly is?'

`Ye're in it', said the aged face at the window.

Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (1934), pp. 240-243.

IT was an extremely weak drama. James was a strange unnatural human being, a sensitive man lost in an immensely abundant brain, which had had neither a scientific nor a philosophical training, but which was by education and natural aptitude alike, formal, formally aesthetic, conscientiously fastidious and delicate. Wrapped about in elaborations of gesture and speech, James regarded his fellow creatures with a face of distress and a remote effort at intercourse, like some victim of enchantment placed in the centre of an immense bladder. His life was unbelievably correct, and his home at Rye one of the most perfect pieces of suitably furnished Georgian architecture imaginable. He was an unspotted bachelor. He had always been well off and devoted to artistic ambitions; he had experienced no tragedy and he shunned the hoarse laughter of comedy; and yet he was consumed by a gnawing hunger for dramatic success. In this performance he had his first and last actual encounter with the theatre.

Guy Domville was one of those rare ripe exquisite Catholic Englishmen of ancient family conceivable only by an American mind, who gave up the woman he loved to an altogether coarser cousin, because his religious vocation was stronger than his passion. I forget the details of the action. There was a drinking scene in which Guy and the cousin, for some obscure purpose of discovery, pretended to drink and, instead, poured their wine furtively into a convenient bowl of flowers upon the table between them. Guy was played by George Alexander, at first in a mood of refined solemnity, and then, as the intimations of gathering disapproval from the pit and gallery increased, with stiffening desperation. Alexander at the close had an incredibly awkward exit. He had to stand at a door in the middle of the stage, say slowly, `Be keynd to Her... Be keynd to Her,' and depart. By nature Alexander had a long face, but at that moment with audible defeat before him, he seemed the longest and dismalest face, all face, that I had ever seen. The slowly closing door reduced him to a strip, to a line, of perpendicular gloom. The uproar burst like a thunder-storm as the door closed and the stalls responded with feeble applause. Then the tumult was mysteriously allayed. There were some minutes of uneasy apprehension. `Author,' cried voices, `Au-thor!' The stalls, not understanding, redoubled their clapping.

Disaster was too much for Alexander that night. A spasm of hate for the writer of those fatal lines must surely have seized him. With incredible cruelty he led the doomed James, still not understanding clearly how things were with him, to the middle of the stage, and there the pit and gallery had him. James bowed; he knew it was the proper thing to bow. Perhaps he had selected a few words to say, but if so they went unsaid. I have never heard any sound more devastating than the crescendo of booing that ensued. The gentle applause of the stalls was altogether overwhelmed. For a moment or so James faced the storm, his round face white, his mouth opening and shutting, and then Alexander, I hope in a contrite mood, snatched him back into the wings.

H. G. Wells, Experiment in Autobiography (1934), ii. 535-536.

Henry James WAS complaining to us that Ellen Terry had asked him to write a play for her, and now that he had done so, and read it to her, had refused it. My wife, desiring to placate, asked: `Perhaps she did not think the part suited to her?' Henry James turned upon us both, and with resonance and uplifting voice replied: `Think? Think? How should the poor toothless, chattering hag THINK?' The sudden outpouring of improvised epithets had a most extraordinary effect. A crescendo on `toothless' and then on `chattering' and then on 'hag'—and `think' delivered with the trumpet of an elephant.

Bailey, Letters and Diaries, p. 175 (in a letter from Gosse to Bailey, 14 April 1920).

ONE summer we took a house at Rye, that wonderful inland island, crowned with a town as with a citadel, like a hill in a medieval picture. It happened that the house next to us was the old oak-panelled mansion which had attracted, one might almost say across the Atlantic, the fine aquiline eye of Henry James. For Henry James, of course, was an American who had reacted against America; and steeped his sensitive psychology in everything that seemed most antiquatedly and aristocratically English. In his search for the finest shades among the shadows of the past, one might have guessed, that he would pick out that town from all towns and that house from all houses. It had been the seat of a considerable patrician family of the neighbourhood, which had long ago decayed and disappeared. It had, I believe, rows of family portraits, which Henry James treated as reverently as family ghosts. I think in a way he really regarded himself as a sort of steward or custodian of the mysteries and secrets of a great house, where ghosts might have walked with all possible propriety. The legend says (I never learned for certain if it was true) that he had actually traced that dead family-tree until he found that there was far away, in some manufacturing town, one unconscious descendant of the family, who was a cheerful and commonplace commercial clerk. And it is said that Henry James would ask this youth down to his dark ancestral house, and receive him with funereal hospitality, and I am sure with comments of a quite excruciating tact and delicacy. Henry James always spoke with an air which I can only call gracefully groping; that is, not so much groping in the dark in blindness as groping in the light in bewilderment, through seeing too many avenues and obstacles. I would not compare it, in the unkind phrase of Mr. H. G. Wells, to an elephant trying to pick up a pea. But I agree that it was like something with a very sensitive and flexible proboscis, feeling its way through a forest of facts; to us often invisible facts. It is said, I say, that these thin straws of sympathy and subtlety were duly split for the benefit of the astonished commercial gentleman, while Henry James, with his bowed dome-like head, drooped with unfathomable apologies and rendered a sort of silent account of his stewardship. It is also said that the commercial gentleman thought the visit a great bore and the ancestral home a hell of a place; and probably fidgeted about with a longing to go out for a B and S and the Pink ' Un.

Whether this tale be true or not, it is certain that Henry James inhabited the house with all the gravity and loyalty of the family ghosts; not without something of the oppressive delicacy of a highly cultured family butler. He was in point of fact a very stately and courteous old gentleman; and in some social aspects especially, rather uniquely gracious. He proved in one point that there was a truth in his cult of tact. He was serious with children. I saw a little boy gravely present him with a crushed and dirty dandelion. He bowed; but he did not smile. That restraint was a better proof of the understanding of children than the writing of What Maisie Knew. But in all relations of life he erred, if he erred, on the side of solemnity and slowness; and it was this, I suppose, that got at last upon the too lively nerves of Mr. Wells; who used, even in those days, to make irreverent darts and dashes through the sombre house and the sacred garden and drop notes to me over the garden wall. I shall have more to say to Mr. H. G. Wells and his notes later; here we are halted at the moment when Mr. Henry James heard of our arrival in Rye and proceeded (after exactly the correct interval) to pay his call in state.

Needless to say, it was a very stately call of state; and James seemed to fill worthily the formal frockcoat of those far-off days. As no man is so dreadfully well-dressed as a well-dressed American, so no man is so terribly well-mannered as a well-mannered American. He brought his brother William with him, the famous American philosopher; and though William James was breezier than his brother when you knew him, there was something finally ceremonial about this idea of the whole family on the march. We talked about the best literature of the day; James a little tactfully, myself a little nervously. I found he was more strict than I had imagined about the rules of artistic arrangement; he deplored rather than depreciated Bernard Shaw, because plays like Getting Married were practically formless. He said something complimentary about something of mine; but represented himself as respectfully wondering how I wrote all I did. I suspected him of meaning why rather than how. We then proceeded to consider gravely the work of Hugh Walpole, with many delicate degrees of appreciation and doubt; when I heard from the front-garden a loud bellowing noise resembling that of an impatient foghorn. I knew, however, that it was not a fog-horn; because it was roaring out, `Gilbert! Gilbert!' and was like only one voice in the world; as rousing as that recalled in one of its former phrases, of those who

Heard Ney shouting to the guns to unlimber
And hold the Beresina Bridge at night.

I knew it was Belloc, probably shouting for bacon and beer; but even I had no notion of the form or guise under which he would present himself.

I had every reason to believe that he was a hundred miles away in France. And so, apparently, he had been; walking with a friend of his in the Foreign Office, a co-religionist of one of the old Catholic families; and by some miscalculation they had found themselves in the middle of their travels entirely without money. Belloc is legitimately proud of having on occasion lived, and being able to live, the life of the poor. One of the ballades of the Eye-Witness, which was never published, described tramping abroad in this fashion:

To sleep and smell the incense of the tar,
To wake and watch Italians dawns aglow
And underneath the branch a single star,
Good Lord, how little wealthy people know.

In this spirit they started to get home practically without money. Their clothes collapsed and they managed to get into some workmen's slops. They had no razors and could not afford a shave. They must have saved their last penny to re-cross the sea; and then they started walking from Dover to Rye; where they knew their nearest friend for the moment resided. They arrived, roaring for food and drink and derisively accusing each other of having secretly washed, in violation of an implied contract between tramps. In this fashion they burst in upon the balanced tea-cup and tentative sentence of Mr. Henry James.

Henry James had a name for being subtle; but I think that situation was too subtle for him. I doubt to this day whether he, of all men, did not miss the irony of the best comedy in which he ever played a part. He left America because he loved Europe, and all that was meant by England or France; the gentry, the gallantry, the traditions of lineage and locality, the life that had been lived beneath old portraits in oak-panelled rooms. And there, on the other side of the tea-table, was Europe, was the old thing that made France and England, the posterity of the English squires and the French soldiers; ragged, unshaven, shouting for beer, shameless above all shades of poverty and wealth; sprawling, indifferent, secure. And what looked across at it was still the Puritan refinement of Boston; and the space it looked across was wider than the Atlantic.

G. K. Chesteron, Autobiography (1936), pp. 218-22.

I REMEMBER once walking with him in the fields beyond Rye, and two very small and grubby children opened the gate for us. James smiled beneficently, felt in his deep pocket for coppers, found some and then began an elaborate explanation of what the children were to buy. They were to go to a certain sweet shop because there the sweets were better than any other; they were to see that they were not deceived and offered an inferior brand, for those particular sweets had a peculiar taste of nuts and honey, with, he fancied, an especial flavour that was almost the molasses of his own country. If the children took care to visit the right shop and insisted that they should have only that particular sweet called, he fancied, `Honey-nut'—or was it something with `delight' in it? `Rye's Delight' or `Honey Delights' or—But at that moment the children, who had been listening open-mouthed, their eyes fixed on the pennies, of a sudden took fright and turned, running and roaring with terror across the fields.

He stood bewildered, the pennies in his hand. What had he done? What had he said? He had meant nothing but kindness. Why had they run from him crying and screaming? He was greatly distressed, going over every possible corner of it in his mind. He alluded to it for days afterwards.

Hugh Walpole, The Apple Tree (1932), p. 59.

WHEN I was admitted into his presence by the astonishingly ornate manservant he said:

`A writer who unites—if I may use the phrase—in his own person an enviable popularity to—as I am told—considerable literary gifts and whom I may say I like because he treats me'— and here Mr. James laid his hand over his heart, made the slightest of bows and, rather cruelly rolling his dark and liquid eyes and moving his lower jaw as if he were rolling in his mouth a piquant tit-bit, Mr. James continued, `because he treats me—if again I may say any such thing—with proper respect'— and there would be an immense humorous gasp before the word 'respect'— `I refer of course to Mr. Kipling ... has just been to see me. And —such are the rewards of an enviable popularity!—a popularity such as I—or indeed you my young friend if you have any ambitions which I sometimes doubt —could dream of far less imagine to ourselves—such are the rewards of an enviable popularity that Mr. Kipling is in the possession of a magnificent one thousand two hundred guineas motor car. And, in the course of conversation as to characteristics of motor cars in general and those of the particular one thousand two hundred guinea motor car in the possession of our friend. . . . But what do I say? . . . Of our cynosure! Mr. Kipling uttered words which have for himself no doubt a particular significance but which to me at least convey almost literally nothing beyond their immediate sound ... Mr. Kipling said that the motor car was calculated to make the Englishman . . .' and again came the humorous gasp and the roll of the eyes— 'was calculated to make the Englishman . . . think.' And Mr. James abandoned himself for part of a second to low chuckling. `And,' he continued, `the conversation dissolved itself, after digressions on the advantages attendant on the possession of such a vehicle, into what I believe are styled golden dreams—such as how the magnificent one thousand two hundred guinea motor car after having this evening conveyed its master and mistress to Batemans Burwash, of which the proper pronounciation is Burridge, would tomorrow devotedly return here and reaching here at twelve would convey me and my nephew Billiam to Burridge in time to lunch and having partaken of that repast to return here in time to give tea to my friend Lady Maud Warrender who is honouring that humble meal with her presence tomorrow under my roof. . . . And we were all indulging in—what is it?—delightful anticipations and dilating on the agreeableness of rapid—but not for fear of the police and consideration for one's personal safety too rapid—speed over country roads and all, if I may use the expression, was gas and gingerbread when ...There is a loud knocking at the door and—avec des yeux éffarés . . .' and here Mr. James really did make his prominent and noticeable eye almost stick out of his head . . . `in rushes the chauffeur.... And in short the chauffeur has omitted to lubricate the wheels of the one thousand two hundred guinea motor car with the result that its axles have become one piece of molten metal. . . . The consequence is that its master and mistress will return to Burwash which should be pronounced Burridge, by train, and the magnificent one thousand two hundred guinea motor car will not devotedly return here at noon and will not in time for lunch convey me and my nephew Billiam to Burwash and will not return here in time for me to give tea to my friend Lady Maud Warrender who is honouring that humble meal with her presence tomorrow beneath my roof or if the weather is fine in the garden . . .'
`Which,' concluded the Master after subdued `ho, ho, ho's' of merriment, `is calculated to make Mr. Kipling think.

Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday (1931), pp. 6-7.

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