Henry James
Public DomainHenry James - Credit: John Singer Sargent

Making his entrance into the world on 15th April, 1843, Henry James was the second of five children born to Henry James senior, an American intellectual who wrote about social theory and anti-clerical theology, and Mary née Walsh, the daughter of a cotton merchant. Though he was born in New York, the rapturous love affair with Europe that was to imbue so much of his writing began in early life. Under his father’s direction, he embarked on an eclectic and experimental education that whisked him from Geneva to London to Paris to Boulogne. He drank avidly from all that the continent had to offer, and its grandeur, history and artistic achievements impressed themselves strongly on his mind. He was a confirmed bibliophile from an early age and, returning to America to live in an artists’ community at Newport, Rhode Island, he began to flex his own literary muscles. His youthful output consisted mainly of luridly sensational short stories, but his style quickly matured and by 1864 he was publishing work in literary periodicals. At the beginning of his career, he was better known as a critical rather than a creative writer, his specialism being Anglo-American literature.


Those germinal years sowed the seeds for a highly cultured and enormously productive life. A passionate Europhile, he returned to the continent many times, living in Paris, London and Sussex and travelling extensively. The vivid social life that saw him dining out, attending gatherings and paying visits on an occupational basis also brought him into contact with most of the 19th century’s pantheon of literary and intellectual giants. Ruskin, Darwin, Flaubert, Zola, Turgenev, Morris, Browning and Tennyson, to name a few, were amongst his friends and contacts.


John Everett Millais, John Bright and Henry James at Dalguise
Creative Commons AttributionJohn Everett Millais, John Bright and Henry James at Dalguise - Credit: Martin Beek

James’s first novel, Watch and Ward, was serialized in Atlantic Monthly in 1871. This melodrama, in which a wealthy dilettante adopts a young orphan and grooms her to become his bride, was published anonymously and James disowned it in later life. Both he and his critics have preferred to regard Roderick Hudson (1875) as his literary debut. This novel marks the inception of what many commentators have viewed as the first of three distinct periods, jokingly referred to as ‘James the First, James the Second and the Old Pretender’. His early novels were, by Victorian standards, direct in style and they often concerned the meeting of European and American culture. Despite his huge output he earned little, and he soon turned to theatrical writing in order to boost his income. This had a marked effect on his approach to plot construction, and when he returned to fiction his works were enhanced by a new formal discipline and dramatic intensity. It was during this period that he wrote The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904). Between 1907 and 1909, he published the New York Edition of his novels and tales, a sprawling collection which ran to some 24 volumes.


A lifelong victim of assorted maladies, James suffered in later years from illness exacerbated by a taxing working life and a commitment to the crankish dietary regime of Horace Fletcher. He nonetheless continued to write, dictating his stories to a series of secretaries. His works of this final period, many of which were autobiographical, became increasingly abstract and self-reflexive. Though some critics felt this complexity to be an unnecessary stylistic affectation, it paved the way for the stream-of-consciousness experimentation of the 20th century.


By the 1910s, James was viewed as something of a national treasure in his adoptive home of England. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1912 and, when World War 1 broke out, he wholeheartedly supported the British effort. Partly as a result of his disgust at America’s refusal to join the war, he applied for naturalization in 1915, a bid roundly supported by the then Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. In 1916, he was appointed to the Order of Merit by King George V.  


Henry James' grave
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeHenry James' grave - Credit: Midnightdreary

James died two months later on 28th February 1916, after succumbing to pneumonia. Following his cremation at Golders Green, James’s sister-in-law, Alice née Gibbens, smuggled his ashes back to America and had them interred in the family plot at Cambridge Cemetery, Massachusetts. The memorial stone reads, “Novelist, Citizen of Two Countries, Interpreter of His Generation on Both Sides of the Sea”.

Henry James' signature