It all depends what you mean by `the'

Literary Notes
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IN 1979, when I began in the Houghton Library at Harvard to do research about Henry James, I made what was to me in my naivete a slightly shocking discovery. I kept finding very interesting letters by James that weren't published anywhere. In fact, most of his letters remained unpublished. I had assumed that everything written by an acknowledged great writer, especially an American one, and above all a great letter-writer like James, would have found its way into print, so that one could always consult "the official edition".

In James's case, there were two. The older edition, The Letters of Henry James, from 1920, was nicely done by Percy Lubbock, a young friend of James during his lifetime. Its definitive-sounding title is misleading, as it contains 403 letters and James is now thought to have written between 10,000 and 15,000. Perhaps this title says "The" letters because we won't get any others. The more modern edition, in four fat volumes which came out between 1974 and 1984, was Henry James: letters, by James's famous biographer Leon Edel. The title of this collection, by omitting any article or qualifying adjective - not "Some" or "The" or "The Complete" or "The Selected" - leaves some doubt as to what is on offer in its 2,345 pages and 1,100 letters.

I found I needed both editions. Of Lubbock's 403 letters, surprisingly, Edel reprinted only 173; well over half of the letters in Lubbock are not to be found in Edel. And the picture was further complicated by, for instance, the existence of a preliminary volume edited by Edel, in 1956, called Selected Letters of Henry James, which contains 28 letters that he leaves out of his later set. His 1987 Henry James: selected letters, though based on the four-volume edition, surprisingly includes two dozen previously unpublished letters. My headache was compounded by the existence of separate editions of his letters to H.G. Wells, R.L. Stevenson, A.C. Benson, and several others. More recently his letters to Edith Wharton, Edmund Gosse, Macmillans, Henry Adams, W. D. Howells, and his brother William James have also appeared.

So Edel's big edition contained less than 10 per cent of Edel's own estimate of James's total correspondence - though few even among James critics were aware of this huge iceberg of unpublished stuff. And liberally calculating the number of letters now published outside Edel's volumes at another 1,000, we still find no more than a fifth of James's correspondence available in printed form.

Once I had looked at the riches in the archives, I felt a fresh selection was needed. Edel's selection, chosen to reinforce the story he had already told in his five-volume biography, could not be allowed to settle the matter of what it is in the public interest to know from James's vast and magnificent correspondence. For one thing, Edel had missed or passed over some timelessly wonderful letters. For another, new generations of readers have new and different interests, and since the 1960s we have become much more attuned to questions of feminism, sexuality, race, and to the business side of creative careers.

In Henry James: a life in letters, which includes nearly 300 letters, half of them previously unpublished, I have tried then to offer a fresh view of James and his world, in his own vivid and entertaining words. The book draws on the rich materials in libraries from New York to Hove, from Paris to Texas, from Leeds to Berkeley. It is as fully and interestingly annotated as possible, and as accurately transcribed - despite James's frequent near illegibility. And, to offer some relief in an age of excessive biographical "spin", a modest linking narrative between the letters allows them to be read as chapters in the story of James's developing career.

Philip Horne is the editor of `Henry James: a life in letters', (Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, pounds 25)