As of late last night, I have read all the prose fiction that Henry James wrote.
That’s 20 novels and 12 volumes of short – and not-so-short – stories. I didn’t include two unfinished novels, nor a collaborative novel he wrote with 11 other authors.
It’s taken me a little over two years to read through the work of a lifetime.
I’ve never done this with an author before, but I have a bit of history with James. I first read The Portrait of a Lady – more of which later – when I was 17. I can’t even remember why I read it – it wasn’t a set text, I don’t think.
Soon after finishing reading it my English teacher at the time asked if I fancied having a punt at the Cambridge entrance exam, on the understanding that neither of us thought I had a particularly good chance of getting in. I said I would, but didn’t take the exam at all seriously. I mean, I wasn’t going to get in. Why should I? I didn’t even tell my parents I was taking it.
The exam itself must have fallen on a day very soon after I read The Portrait of a Lady. So I looked for a question that would allow me to shoehorn a ton of references to the book that was freshest in my memory. I can’t even remember the question now, but I can remember a line that the 17-year-old me put in the essay:
The Portrait of a Lady is the finest novel ever written.
I know, I know.
A few weeks later, I was invited for an interview at Peterhouse, the college I’d applied for on the scientific basis that it was very old. I hadn’t even been to Cambridge at this point. I took the train from Kent, wandered into the town, found the college, stood gawping for a while, made my way up a stone staircase, and found a man in an academic gown sitting before a fire sipping tea, surrounded by books. Books and books and books and books.
I introduced myself, though writing that makes me sound a lot more self-assured than I actually was. The robed ancient said: ‘Ah! Mr Shepherd! It is a rare delight to meet someone who has read all the books ever written! And so young!’
I don’t remember how I got out of it. I must have done, because to my even greater surprise they offered me a place. The man in the gown with the tea and the books was a splendid fellow called Martin Golding, who would become my director of studies. And I genuinely think that he offered me a place because I showed an insane enthusiasm for a single book – and didn’t back down when I was pushed on it. I did believe at the time that I would never read a better book than The Portrait of a Lady.
And, so far, I never have.
I had read perhaps half-a-dozen other James novels before I embarked on this new journey, and maybe a dozen stories. Which seems a little odd to me now – given how much I’d enjoyed that one novel, why did I not devour the rest of them? I don’t have an easy answer, but I do have a theory. Life intruded, and life in my late teens and into my twenties involved activities not conducive to reading long books. If you know what I mean.
And I suppose this always slightly bothered me. Not enough to do anything about it, until recently. But enough to think I should perhaps fill in some of the blanks. I didn’t feel that about any other author – that need to be a completist. But I sort of did about James. But I never got down to it.
So it was with a sense of guilt, almost – sorry, Henry, for not spending more time with you sooner – that I set out to rectify things.
I nearly gave up near the beginning, I’ll be honest. Watch and Ward, the first novel, is a seriously weird and not very good little story, which James later disowned. If I tell you it’s about a man who adopts the daughter of a suicide, and then later marries her, you’ll get a sense of that icky weirdness. But I would also say there is something about that weirdness that captures what was to come.
Roderick Hudson, the second, was a good deal better, but still felt incredibly forced. It was the third novel, The American, that really got me going. Here, I thought, were all the things I loved about James: incomprehensible emotions and passions, luscious settings, and glittering sentences and paragraphs which masked deep, dark, dangerous chasms of feeling.
Also keeping me going were the stories, which I read in real time along with the novels. Again, some of the early ones are awash with stylistic noodling, but there are enough gems, and enough signs of serious artistic progress, to keep one enchanted. There’s one tale in particular from the early 1870s, ‘The Madonna of the Future’, which I absolutely loved.
And so I came to the period that is often thought of as James’s ‘peak’, the great middle years: this is the time of Washington Square, Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers and, yes, The Portrait of a Lady. The sense of reading James through this period – say, the 1880s – is of a man at the absolute peak of his powers, full of confidence, successful, presumably delightful company, but always conscious of the dark side, the swirling undercurrents of fate.
James doesn’t do the working classes (apart from perhaps The Princess Casamassima, which seems to be a warning to steer well clear of the nobility), he doesn’t really even do work. His world is drawing rooms and parties and deer parks and Florentine palaces and English estates. But he emphatically does do economic and social anxiety, disloyalty and adultery, betrayal and despair. A nice frock doesn’t protect you from evil.
And money. Always money. It’s startling to find how much James worried about money even at this time of his greatest artistic success, although the relative failure of his sequence of three novels The Princess Casamassima, The Bostonians, and The Tragic Muse – and to be fair these can be pretty hard going – didn’t help. Money worries were so acute that, like a thriller writer getting the train to Hollywood in the 1930s, he started eyeing the theatre.
The result: disaster. In 1895, James’s play Guy Domville opened in London. At the curtain, he went out to take a bow, presumably hoping that this new medium would unlock the riches he craved, as well as providing a new channel for artistic experimentation. And they booed him. They actually booed him. He left the theatre white-faced, his dreams of being a playwright shattered.
Reading the novels and stories in order, the crisis is obvious, like a black seam in the fossil record telling of a cataclysm. For a period, his stories get seriously weird. This is the time of the major uncanny tales like ‘Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Figure in the Carpet’. There is also the short, and exceedingly good, short novel The Spoils of Poynton, which feels like an experiment in style which did him the world of good. And also What Maisie Knew, a terrible story of divorce and abandonment told through the eyes of a young girl, through whom we see the old social order of the glittering parties fracturing and decaying (you can sort of read James through the lens of the social history of divorce, though it’s impossible to see quite what he thinks of it). What Maisie Knew is chilling and amazing and extraordinary.
And then there are two very, very odd books indeed. The Sacred Fount is about…. well, what is it about? An unnamed narrator goes to a weekend party and tries to unpick the relationships and secrets of his fellow guests entirely through their public behaviour, sharing his theories and thoughts with the guests as he goes. It feels like a very – dare I say it – modernist take on reality and fiction. To me, it even reads like a satire on the theatre. It’s very weird indeed.
But not quite as weird as The Other House, which James originally envisaged as a play, and features a twist so mad, so shocking, so downright enraging in its on-the-noseness that I wonder if he went a little bit mad writing it. It came out the year after Guy Domville. Maybe that’s all you need to know about it.
During this time, James moved out of London to a (surprisingly big, given his money troubles) house in Rye. There’s an amazing picture of him some time after this which I have had, at intermittent times, as my desktop wallpaper. It reminds me very much of Graham Sutherland’s infamous portrait of Churchill, combining as it does bulldog determination with ageing rage and incipient, growing exhaustion. I love it.
Now we enter James’s final, some would say imperial, phase, the time of the great trilogy: The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl. It’s here more than anywhere that the stereotype of Henry James is located – where sentences and even paragraphs curl and extend and occasionally seem to fade away into nothingness, where you can read entire pages in a fugue-like state of incomprehension. Some people love this phase and these books best of all. I am not one of those people. I applaud and admire the attempt to do something genuinely new – and James was always, always, always an innovator – but occasionally I feel like people sometimes feel about jazz, that the artist is having more fun than the audience.
The novels end – apart from a few collaborations – with The Outcry, which, like The Other House, was originally conceived as a play but then adapted into a novel. In fact, by all accounts The Outcry is very faithful to the original play, and for me it’s delightful. A simple story, well told, and very, very different to the great trilogy that precedes it. Maybe he was exhausted. Maybe he was trying something new again. Maybe we would have seen another phase – one of shorter, more direct books, inspired or even goaded, perhaps, by HG Wells, whom James publicly admired (and isn’t that, in itself, interesting?) and who, in a satirical novel called Boon in 1915, described a Jamesian paragraph as a hippo trying to pick up a pea in a corner. James was intensely wounded.
Which brings me back to The Portrait of a Lady which, as a reminder, is The Greatest Novel Ever Written. I saved it till last in my readathon, the only thing I read out of sequence. It was my third reading of it, I think – I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel three times through unless I wrote it. I’ll read it again. And again. And, probably, again.
It’s a delight, this book. It makes you smile as you would at a beautiful painting or a lovely park; it even makes you laugh. And in Isabel Archer, it has a heroine who is intelligent, mysterious, infuriating, captivating and ultimately heroic (or is she?), whose inner life and motivations are both unknowable and transparent. It has two villains, Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond, who are each worse than the other. There is no hunger or deprivation or even discomfort, but there is a bleak sadness at the heart of everything, because love and fate are beyond our control, and there is always evil in the world, even if it wears nice things and always knows the right thing to say.
As I said at the top, I have yet to read a finer novel, and the word ‘fine’ seems to capture so much of why I love it. It is very fine indeed, and like all the finest things – wine, poetry, food, houses – there is always more to it than you thought there was, and always more to discover.