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

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?