Giving Henry James a Second Chance

An Impressionist sort of painting of a public park featuring a woman dressed in black and white who is holding an orange parasol.

by Angie E.

A friend recently told me she recently checked out and watched the 1949 film The Heiress and that she was oddly enthralled and affected by it.

“That’s based on a Henry James novel called Washington Square.” I said excitedly. “You should read it sometime! It’s absolutely heartbreaking.” Her face grew a bit stricken as she said, “Oh, Lord, no! I can’t do that.” She sounded like I had just suggested an unexpected root canal, and I had to wonder if maybe she had had a bad experience with Henry James at some point in her reading life. Maybe I should say a particularly bad experience, as she would not be alone in her feelings on him. Biographer Susan L. Mizruchi writes that a law professor she knew once confided in her, “I never read a James novel that I did not want to hurl across
the room when I finished.”

It is kind of true: Henry James can be off-putting to a lot of readers, especially in his writing style. He appears stuffy and unapproachable in nearly all known pictures of him. You might even wonder: what could he possibly have to say to today’s readers? Despite all this, I unapologetically love Henry James. I named my tuxedo cat after him and have read almost everything he ever wrote. I buy all my favorite titles of his in every imaginable edition, just to see the different ways covers treat his novels and to read yet another introduction (or afterword).

I’m determined to sell someone besides me on Henry James. It’s not that he doesn’t already have his fans (though probably not in the same number as Dickens or Austen), or that I’m the first person to ever hear of or love him. Joseph Conrad, a contemporary of James, once said: “His books stand on my shelves in a place whose accessibility proclaims the habit of frequent communion.” Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth is also a fan of Henry James and well-deserving of a read with her terrific Girl In A Band (reviewed here).

Washington Square remains my favorite of his and is the book I would give to anyone who believes that Henry James is as dry as day-old toast. In her slim biography on Henry James, literary critic Rebecca West writes, “The book so beautifully expresses the woe of all those people to whom nothing ever happens, who are aware of the gay challenge of life but are prevented by something
leaden in their substance from responding. It’s a work of genius and a story of how a plain and stupid girl was jilted by a fortune hunter when he discovered that she would be disinherited by her contemptuous father on her marriage. It has in it a wealth of feeling.” Even critics of James often say that Washington Square is his most accessible title.

I remember when I discovered him back in college, Washington Square touched me profoundly. James could see right through the veneer of proper society and heavy clothing to the heart that beats in anyone who has ever been manipulated or spurned in the name of love…or lack of it. And he had a feel for emotions and social observations that were ahead of their time. Whether it’s the 19th century or the 21st, the power of emotions can bring down even the most staid of persons and are something all people from all times can understand.

But if I can’t sell you on Henry James with any of the above, consider, for a moment, this passage, both lovely and far from uptight, that I have held on to many times in my life: “Don’t melt too much into the universe, but be as solid and dense and fixed as you can. We all live together, and those of us who love and know, live so most. We help each other—even unconsciously,”

Washington Square is available as a book, an audiobook on CD, and as an e-book via Libby.

You can download the selection here, in the public domain and completely free of charge.

Angie is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Her ideal day is reading in her cozy armchair, with her cat Henry next to her.

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