Endlessly becoming

Henry James: A Life in Letters

Philip Horne (editor) <em>Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 668pp, £25</em

Henry James was a great culmination. The pontifical, magnificent language he created, with its multiplicities and rococo qualifications, is an extension of the elaborate courtesies of the New England aristocracy in which he grew up, but no one else ever spoke or wrote as he did. The cadences are his alone. His own brother, the philosopher William James, confessed that when confronted with The Wings of the Dove, he read "many pages, and innumerable sentences twice over to see what the dickens they could possibly mean". He persisted, "and all with unflagging curiosity", not to know what the upshot might be but, brilliantly, "to know what the upshot might become".

For Henry James was incurably fascinated by the processes of thinking, ramifying, becoming and particularly in the evolution of his own - and he didn't shirk the word - genius. He told Henry Adams at the end of his life: "I still find my consciousness interesting - under cultivation of the interest" (itself a sentence in the process of becoming). He might write that the vicarious experience of fiction was "a beguiling interruption to the dire familiarities of self ", but for him, on the contrary, it was a continuation of that dearest of subjects.

Many readers, unlike his loving brother, refused to submit to his exorbitant demands for patience, and in 1902 James was an early plaintiff in a now familiar case: "The faculty of attention has utterly vanished from the general Anglo-Saxon mind, extinguished at its source by the big blatant Bayadere of Journalism, of the newspaper & the picture (above all) magazine."

Heeding public preference, to his mind, was the very opposite of his exercise of taste, and he made no concessions. But prescriptivism and egotism meant that his critical sympathies were very narrow. His insistence in 1880, for instance, that "it is on manners, customs, usages, habits, forms, upon all these things matured and established, that a novelist lives" excluded not only any idea of a fiction that set out to challenge those things, but also the actually achieved unconventional American masterpiece Moby Dick (1851). When a correspondent cited Walt Whitman's demand for "a newly-founded literature not merely to copy and reflect existing surfaces, or to ponder what is called taste . . . but a literature underlying life, religious, consistent with science, handling elements and forces with a competent power, teaching and training men", James did not recognise the impulse as the other side of his coin. He found the passage "mere drivel". What was alien to him, such as the cares of the underprivileged, he simply dismissed. Horrified, insulated and sure of his better way, he refused to contemplate the tearing of veils that was to be the preoccupation of this century of Freud, Lawrence and Joyce: world wars and modernism; socialism, feminism and television.

This new selection of his correspondence, from a fresh examination of the originals, perhaps concentrates too heavily on James's literary affairs, when one would wish to read instead about his reaction to the deaths of his parents and sister. Quoting from many more letters than he can give in full, Philip Horne displays a mastery of James's diary, notebooks and bibliography, and his linking passages and elucidation are tactful and intimate. Half of the letters in the book have not been published before, although most of the truly great ones have.

Among the new ones is a comical reply to a lady who asked what Maisie "became": "I am afraid I told all I can tell - for the money. Send me another five dollars." And a passage of splendid solicitude for his servants during his absence from Lamb House: "It's their boredom over nothing to do that preys on them. However, I go down to see them when I can . . . " Can he be serious? As Horne says, the letters are "never without a glint of humorous possibility".

Jim McCue writes for the "Times"

Next Article