Essay: New women: a man writes

Women liked Henry James because, in an oppressive age, he understood their potential, argues Lyndall Gordon

ELIZABETH ROBINS, who acted in Henry James's own adaptation of his novel The American for the stage, recalled "that Mr James was much beset by the attention of ladies". It was a time when electric lighting was not yet under control. The first of the London establishments to install the new luxury was Grosvenor House, and there, at an evening party, when the scene was at its most brilliant, the lights went out. "As suddenly they came on, to discover ... 13 ladies clinging to Mr James."

He was a celebrity among the titled and the fashionable, but his particular appeal for women had a more solid cause. James understood women almost better than we understand ourselves: in Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady he redefines a "lady" as a woman who can face up to an imprisoning marriage through an inward freedom to choose her path; in Catherine Sloper in Washington Square, he created a plain young woman who survives with dignity a bullying father and a captivating fortune-hunter; and in Milly Theale, he invented a woman who can transform a low plot to gain her fortune into a drama of her own which opens up a rare form of love at the end of The Wings of the Dove. Other perceptive men have shown us women such as Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary who are victims of their passions, but James shows us unfamiliar possibilities; not women as we are, but as we might be.

The insights didn't come just from intuition. James involved himself with two women who lived - precariously - on the evolutionary frontier. One was an ambitious writer, Constance Fenimore Woolson, great-niece of James Fenimore Cooper - privately, James called her "Fenimore". Among her works are three extraordinary stories of artists which precede James's pre-eminence in that genre. In fact, he took from her his title for the short story "The Figure in the Carpet", as well as the idea for "The Beast in the Jungle", a tale in which an ageing man fails to recognise a commanding experience for which he has waited all his life. Fenimore disarmed James with self-effacement, while her fictions challenged his scorn for women writers. She soothed editors with modest letters which went out of their way to stress how inferior was the lot of a single woman who must write for a living to that of a cherished wife. It is uncertain to what extent she believed this in the loneliness she certainly endured, but her best stories question marriage and feminine dependence. Her 14-year tie with James is filled with mystery: they had a pact to destroy their correspondence and kept their reunions secret: a shared house outside Florence in 1887, a spell in Geneva in 1888, and four days in Paris in the summer of 1893.

Fenimore's roaming life, her trophies of "Europe", and the psychological home she offered the expatriate in James, provided a model for the independent traveller, Maria Gostrey, in The Ambassadors. "You've recognised me - which is rather beautiful and rare," Maria remarks to the Jamesian man as they stroll along the old wall of Chester with its gaps and dips. "You see what I am."

Fenimore, who met James in 1880, was the second of the potent women in his life. The first was his orphaned cousin Minny Temple, who at 16 cut off her hair. "Could no one wrest the shears from her vandal hand?" asked Henry's brother William, excited by the bared contour of Minny's neck even as he called her "insane". Their mother deplored an unpolished girl who defied the norm of inanimate ladyhood and laughed in an open-mouthed way, showing all her teeth. But to Henry she was a free spirit, an "experiment of nature". In April 1863, when he was 20 and she 18, he asked her to tell him about a woman "body and mind". She confided to a friend: "I told him loads."

So, Minny and her unrealised dreams (one, a dream of joining James in Rome) became the prime source for his forward American girl. In 1870, after her death from tuberculosis at the age of 24, James promoted her to "pure fellowship" with his future thoughts and fancies, given her power to suggest "the reach and quality and capacity of human nature". In the same way, the Jamesian woman "affronts her destiny" when Isabel Archer turns down an English lord, the plum of romance. ("If she would not do this," Isabel thinks, "then she must do great things, she must do something greater.") The dying Milly Theale finds greatness through an act of generosity to a man who has not granted the experience she craves, but instead has made up to her with an eye to her fortune. All the same, as an evolving Jamesian man, he has the "reach" to meet her, after her death.

James, too, understood women better after their deaths. Fenimore's sudden death, when she fell or threw herself from a Venetian window in 1894, shocked James with a realisation that he, the master of the inward life, had failed to know a woman with whom he had been "extremely intimate". Her death exploded the comfy story he had told himself about "an angel of quiet virtue" who reserved for him her "infinite charity". Why was he convinced that it was suicide? What was the truth behind this woman's death? Why did James journey from London to her "death-house" in Venice and spend five weeks sorting her "things", and what do we make of his story of a surreal scene on the lagoon when he tried to drown her dresses and they came up around him like "black balloons"? And why, too, as an old man in 1914, did James not include Minny's dying pleas to him in his radiant memoir of her as the "heroine of the scene"? These are questions to do with living women before they became the material of art. James "preyed upon living beings", as Eliot recognised. To do this, he did involve himself (contrary to the legend of the detached master), but in the end his involvements were for readers, for us, and only in passing for women whose need for reciprocity remained active. Miss Loring, the companion of his sister, Alice, recalled his "horror of having responsibility about himself or his friends". For this reason, he was in his element with those who had died.

After Fenimore's death, James stayed in her rooms in Venice and Oxford where he set down his outline for "The Altar of the Dead", about a man who "cherishes for the silent ... dead, a tenderness in which all his private ... need finds a sacred, and almost secret expression". A year later he devised another tale in which a woman, so freshly dead that she still vibrates with human need, seeks out a man she has failed to meet in life. It's the start of a posthumous affair: she gives him back "passion for passion". These are ties more intimate than sex, leading to "inconceivable communion".

Alone, it seems, Minny Temple and Constance Fenimore Woolson were bold enough to cross the uncrossable boundary of "the private life" - James's phrase for the creative life. In doing so, they took him beyond the Woman Question of their age (issues of the vote and education in the 19th century; the issue of professional advance in the next century) to what is yet to come. Virginia Woolf said in 1915 it would take six generations for women to come into their own. If so, we're not there yet. Our unresolved future makes James increasingly pertinent, more than ever our contemporary as the 20th century recedes, now, into the past.

Lyndall Gordon's A Private Life of Henry James is published on Thursday by Chatto and Windus, pounds 20.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas