Under stress, underpaid - the unknown Henry James

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HENRY JAMES, the eloquent chronicler of late Victorian manners and mores, is revealed as gossipy, insecure and work-obsessed in a new collection of previously unpublished letters.

Published next month, the letters reveal a man who would have made the perfect drinking companion in today's metropolitan literary haunts. "They [editors] don't seem to realise that authors can't be worked like lawnmowers or ice-cream freezers," he lamented to a friend in one correspondence. Plus ca change.

There are frequent references to the pressure of deadlines, rejections of his short stories, and the exacting demands of publishers.

As ever, the bottom line was money: "My reputation in England seems (considering what it is based on) ludicrously larger than any cash payments that I have yet received for it," he writes to another friend in 1879.

James wrote some 15,000 letters and about 10,000 of them survive, although many are privately owned. Henry James: A Life In Letters, published by Penguin and edited by Philip Horne, reader in English at University College London, brings together almost 300 and exposes a side of the author hitherto unseen.

James seems frustrated by the publishing world and the fact that he never succeeded as a playwright. He was clearly envious of Oscar Wilde's status - Wilde's career in the theatre was soaring as James's was plummeting. In 1892 he wrote to his friend Mrs Bell: "Everything Oscar does is a deliberate trap for the literalist and to see the literalist walk straight up to it and step straight into it, makes one freshly avert a discouraged gaze from this unspeakable animal." Ouch.

Marion Adams, a wit of the day and friend of James's, once said, famously, that he chewed more than he bit off, an affectionate dig which would certainly explain why James found deadlines so difficult. Of his novel The Wings of the Dove he writes in 1902: "I've had a workful autumn and early winter, finishing a novel which should have by this time been published ... it is ... I fear too long."

He was also disappointed that it initially provoked very little interest. "No publishers, alas, have told me that it has 'taken their fancy'." Such was always a source of deep anxiety for James. In those days there wasn't the dangling carrot of that potentially lucrative film option: it really was publish or be damned. According to Mr Horne, the most interesting writing relationship to emerge from the letters is with the literary agent James Brand Pinker, who represented Joseph Conrad, Arnold Bennett and H G Wells. It was Pinker who negotiated his later publishing deals and contributed to his "major phase", the great run of works including The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl.

"He talks to him in a way that he won't talk to anyone else," says Mr Horne. "Half-intimate and half-superior."

In many of the letters James seems to be negotiating for more time as publishers grew ever more impatient. "I can't knock off pages of prose like a war correspondent writing on his knee," he complains to Pinker in 1904.

There are also one or two revealing insights into his view of women. Although he clearly respects the work of fellow novelist Edith Wharton, author of Age of Innocence, other attitudes are less enlightened. He writes to Edward Fawcett in 1891: "Women aren't literary in any substantial sense of the term and their being 'fashionable' or 'stylish' - nauseating words - doesn't make them so."

He could be less than glowing about his audiences, too. He wrote to Mrs Bell in 1890: "Give them [the readers] what one wants oneself - it's the only way: follow them and they lead one by a straight grand highway to abysses of vulgarity."

Perhaps James wouldn't have been quite so at home in today's media world after all.