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James, Henry

(US/British, 1843–1916) James was born in New York, son of a prominent theologian and philosopher, who took his children to Europe repeatedly. In 1875 Henry James settled in Paris, then moved to London, living in England for the rest of his life, becoming a British citizen in 1915. Cultural differences between America and Europe are a central theme in many of his novels, with America representing openness and naïvety, and Europe standing for sophistication, culture, and deviousness. James makes dramatic use of point of view, taking the reader deep into individual characters’ thoughts and feelings, and showing how little these inner thoughts are accessible to others. His novels reveal how often motives are misinterpreted; how innocence can be manipulated and betrayed.

Start with Washington Square (1880), set in New York. Rich, clever Dr Sloper regards his devoted daughter, Catherine, as plain and dull. Catherine falls in love with a handsome fortune-hunter, Maurice, and her father threatens to disinherit her. He takes her on a tour of Europe and regards her divided loyalties as an entertainment, finally revealing his contempt for her when she announces that she will marry Maurice. Maurice, who has been much encouraged by Catherine's silly aunt, forsakes Catherine when he realizes she will be penniless. ‘Maurice had trifled with Catherine's affection; her father had broken its spring.’ Outwardly a very civilized story—no sex, no violence, nor even any raised voices—this is one of the most emotionally brutal and dramatic novels there is. Move on to The Portrait of a Lady (1881), which takes an American heroine to Europe; Isabel Archer is beautiful, rich, independent, high-spirited, and attracts several suitors but makes a bad choice, with disastrous consequences. James described the book as ‘The conception of a certain young woman affronting her destiny’.

James wrote many short stories, of which the best known is The Turn of the Screw (1898), a powerful and ambiguous ghost story in which a governess becomes obsessed by the corruption of her young charges. James's later novels have been accused of being wordy. This is because he qualifies and modifies each statement so that it is precise; and the pleasures and revelations of these novels far outweigh any effort demanded of the reader. The Wings of the Dove (1902) echoes the story of Isabel Archer, but here the American heiress, Milly, is suffering from an incurable illness. In her search for happiness she makes friends with a dazzling woman who plans—through using Milly—to acquire the fortune and marriage she herself desires. This has been memorably filmed, starring Helena Bonham Carter. In The Golden Bowl (1904) innocence and betrayal are again central; a very rich American and his daughter both marry; but their new (European) spouses are each other's lovers, and their affair looks set to continue. In The Ambassadors (1903), James's own favourite, Strether is sent to Europe by wealthy widow Mrs Newsome, to track down her errant son. But Strether himself becomes romantically entangled in Paris. The use of point of view here to conceal information from the central character (and the reader) is brilliant.

Edith Wharton, George Eliot, Patrick White. See CLASSICS, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA  JR

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionBooks & Authors: Award-Winning Fiction (Ha-Ke)