Henry James: Letters to Isabella Stewart Gardner, ed Rosella Mamoli Zorzi

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The Independent Culture

Such gossipy, effusive letters as these from Henry James to the wealthy American art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, full of apologies for broken appointments (usually by James, on account of double-booking), let us see just why James was such a sought-after dinner-party guest: he knew everybody, he was indiscreet but never vulgar or crude, he knew when to strike an intimate tone and when to keep his distance, and he was always full of feeling ("Was there ever anything so tragical – so melting? But I can't write of it or talk of it...").

This is not the repressed, private James that Colm Toibin portrayed so brilliantly in The Master, this is the fun, sociable James that David Lodge fell for in Author, Author; who is interested in others' love affairs and passes the occasional bitchy remark that his society friend clearly relished. Yet his friendship with Gardner clearly went beyond mere sociability and his letters to her on the deaths of her husband and his brother are moving ("Sitting in darkness though I thoroughly am...").