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Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Biographical Note

THOUGH Henry James lived to the age of seventy-three, and though his literary career covered half a century, the story of his external life can be told in a few sentences. He was born in New York on April 15, 1843, the son of Henry James, a Swedenborgian minister who wrote on theology with an originality and in a style which go far to explain the source of the most remarkable characteristics of both the novelist and of his elder brother William, the psychologist and philosopher. Henry James, Jr., has given in “A Small Boy and Others,” if not a chronicle, at least a series of pictures of persons and places, and still more of the atmospheres of persons and places, that impressed his youthful imagination and stayed in his memory till old age. The family, we gather, was in race a mixture of Irish, Scottish, and English, and had been established at Albany, where Henry spent part of his boyhood. His youth was a wandering one, with “small vague spasms of school,” but with abundance of educative and imaginatively stimulating associations and experiences, first in New York, then in London, Paris, and Geneva. At seventeen he returned to America and entered the Harvard Law School, but soon gave up the law for literature. He published his first story in the “Atlantic Monthly” in 1865, and four years later went back to Europe. His home for the rest of his life was in England, in London or at Rye in Sussex, though he made occasional visits to the Continent and to America. When the war broke out in 1914 he took an active interest in the relief of the Belgian refugees, and he testified to his allegiance to the cause of the country in which he had spent the greater part of his life by becoming a citizen of Britain. On February 28, 1916, he died in London.

Though Henry James’s reputation rests chiefly on his fiction, he was a critic of exquisite taste and rare delicacy of expression. Among the most important of his writings in this field are “French Poets and Novelists” (1878), “Life of Hawthorne” (1879), “Partial Portraits” (1888), and “The Lesson of Balzac” (1905). His gift for conveying the special flavor and distinction of places found expression in several volumes of impressions of travel, such as “Portraits of Places” (1884), “A Little Tour in France” (1884), and “The American Scene” (1906).

His more important fiction began with “Watch and Ward” (1871), “A Passionate Pilgrim” (1875)—one of the best of his shorter stories, “Roderick Hudson” (1875), and “The American” (1877). He reached the larger public in 1878 with “Daisy Miller,” and from this date he was justly regarded as the most successful interpreter of American character from the cosmopolitan point of view. “The Portrait of a Lady” appeared in 1881 when he was at the height of his powers, and, as much as any of his books, is agreed upon as his masterpiece. As time went on James’s prose became more and more intricate and allusive, and though such later works as “The Wings of the Dove” (1902), “The Ambassadors” (1903), and “The Golden Bowl” (1904) show an increase rather than a falling off in his power of subtle analysis and his feeling for the individual quality of people and of social groups, many of his readers were estranged by the difficulty of the style, and his vogue remained limited.

Henry James was the most conscientious of artists. His motive for writing lay in the impulse to represent those things in life that roused his own interest and curiosity, and to such representation he confined himself, making no concession to “what the public wants.” Thus we must take him on his own terms or not at all. But if we do take him on his own terms, we are rewarded by a unique rendering of human motive and behavior in a series of the most interesting predicaments, a rendering which yields an intense intellectual pleasure and not infrequently touches even tragic depths. And his instrument of expression, however involved it may later have become, is seen in such a book as “The Portrait of a Lady” to be unsurpassed in its power of portraying those subtleties and refinements of mood and character for which the author had an eye keen beyond that of any of his rivals in English.

W. A. N.