Book review: Live all you can, but stay on the sidelines

Henry James; A Life in Letters ed Philip Horne Allen Lane pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
Henry James was a prolific and prolix letter-writer. Many of us James addicts must have assumed, when Leon Edel had completed his magisterial labours - not only a multi-volume biography of the Master, but four stout door-stoppers of letters - that the world had seen the last scrapings of the James barrel. Basta, pure basta! as Henry James himself exclaimed in August 1908 to William Dean Howells, one of his oldest family friends, about the near completion of the 23- volume (disastrous) New York edition of his novels, in which he wrecked the ending of The Aspern Papers and translated some of the comparatively easy prose of early books into stodge.

What few of us non-scholars could have guessed was how many James letters there were still unpublished. Philip Horne has been learned enough, patient enough, to discover, decipher and transcribe them for us in a highly original way.

"He was so admirable a letter-writer that [the letters] will constitute his real and best biography" was the judgment of James on his brother William. Horne makes a good case for the same being true of Henry. So, what he has done is to arrange his discoveries of the hitherto unpublished letters in a chronological sequence, interspersed with others which we have already read, to form A Life in Letters. The result, a magnificent fat book which will be irresistible to any Jamesian, is something which comes to us with the freshness of a new biography of the man. What does it tell us? How does it make us see James afresh? For my part, I think I never had a stronger sense than I do now, having spent a few enchanted weeks reading and rereading Horne's addictive volume, of Henry James as an essential outsider. Some would think this was because of his psychological make-up, perhaps even his mysterious sexuality or lack of it.

James's sense of himself as an outsider in his own country lies behind his decision to live the life of exile, and goes much of the way towards explaining his prickly relations with his American public. Horne is especially good on this, reminding us of Theodore Roosevelt's denunciation of the greatest American novelist as an expatriate and a "bolter". The Bostonians, the funniest novel ever written about lesbianism (and about feminism), provoked howls of anger, and the predictable claims that James had caricatured an actual woman, Miss Peabody. It was the last time he ever set a novel in America.

Though he died a British subject, and a member of the Order of Merit, James, much more than T S Eliot, retained his Americanness in London and felt, as many a letter reveals, like a Yankee outsider even, or especially, when moving in high society. "Poor old grand monde" as he exclaims in one letter. He never altogether lost the sense of himself as an alien to the European scene he knew and loved. His father, the Swedenborgian philosopher, had been a wanderer from hotel to hotel, European capital to European capital, throughout James's boyhood. He had grown up with the sense that this was how you lived. So, imaginatively as well as in actuality, for much of this volume he is a leisurely tourist who stayed years not weeks and who had introductions to all and sundry - but remained still a tourist. Once he had reached England and his "conquest of London" had begun, with his famous year in which he dined out over 300 times - we might think that this feeling of exclusion had to do with his being an American, albeit a most cultivated and charming American, in the snobbish world of late Victorian England.

No doubt these outward and visible signs matched something of the inner truth. A young woman at a house party, when he was an old man, asked James if he would play croquet. He said he would prefer to watch. "That's right, Mr James - you always observe and never take part." His sad old eyes filled with tears. Yet although in this respect he was like Strether in The Ambassadors, realising too late that it's a mistake not to "live all you can" - there was in James (not in Strether!) some inner artistic motive for non-participation. A non-combatant in the Civil War, a non-marrier, a celibate bachelor who saw Oscar Wilde as "this unspeakable animal", he mysteriously understood more than almost anyone since Shakespeare about the tricks played by love and lovers. This is his grand theme, especially in the four great final books which were his masterpieces.

The prime, and most disappointing, sense in which he was an outsider was that he was by no means a popular writer. Like the unsuccessful novelist Ivy Compton Burnett, he could say, "I write for the few" but he could not say so with any satisfaction. Horne brings out James's exasperation with his publishers, and his dismay at poor sales. Any writer will realise with what pain he writes these letters to Pinker: "I acknowledge with thanks your cheque for pounds 8.3.1. today" and again, "receive my thanks for your cheque for pounds 10.7.1. - representing royalties from Scribner's Sons on old books." Mrs Humphry Ward was, at the same date, raking in thousands for her novels. James knew all too clearly that his verbose, dense style would lose him readers. "I think I see the faults of my too-voluminous fiction exhaustively myself; indeed when once my thing is done I see nothing but faults," he confessed to Mrs Humphry Ward, one of the many women - Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Boott, Theodora Sedgwick, Grace Norton - with whom he enjoyed an easy epistolary intimacy. You see, reading these letters, why he was so much in demand at dinners and house parties. You also see why he was the confidant of so many, and you glimpse that mystery - what makes a writer good. I haven't enjoyed a book so much in years. It is admirable - but that said, it is not perfect. Although the footnote and headnotes explain in adequate detail who everyone is, I am sufficiently forgetful to need some reminders. An appendix with a "Who's who" would have been helpful to those of us who know about Mrs Humphry Ward but have forgotten who her friend Alice Stopford Green might have been. She was the recipient of a splendid (hitherto unpublished) reply to her fan-letter about The Ambassadors: "Please don't take this grey result of dictation as the measure of the delight given me by your vivid letter about the poor dear Ambassadors. Take it rather simply for evidence of my having been most inconveniently laid up, for many days, with gout."

There are a few howlers. Betty Eberstadt Lewis was a theatrical lady, married to the most famous solicitor of the age, George Lewis,who was knighted in 1893. This meant that she changed her title from Mrs to Lady Lewis, but not that she became, as she does throughout this book, Lady Elizabeth Lewis. You might say that these little mistakes do not matter, but Henry James himself, who enjoyed observing the species on the higher branches of the tree, their exotic plumages and their peculiar mating- calls, would have known that to call someone Lady Elizabeth implied she was the daughter of a marquess or a duke.