Philip Hensher

Distinctions and likenesses

Philip Hensher on Paul Fisher's portrait of the James family

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House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family

Paul Fisher

Little, Brown, pp. 694, £

The last time all five James children were in the same room was at their mother’s funeral, in 1882. It must have been a strange gathering. Even by then, their lives had followed such extraordinarily different paths that, to the reader of their collective biography, they seem to have become randomly assembled strangers. Henry James, the novelist, is always going to be the one with the greatest interest and appeal, but his cosmopolitan elegance sits oddly next to William, the solid thinker and analyst of mysticism, Alice, the wry solipsistic invalid, or, especially, the rackety and sad lives of Wilkie and Bob. The story’s been told before, of course; but that’s because it’s a tantalisingly odd story. Collectively and individually, the five James children have been ‘done’ by biographers, and the extraordinary range of their lives continues to amaze.

They emerged from a peculiar upbringing, and their characters were forged in a weird conflation of Emersonian mysticism, obsessions with money and legacies, European travel and the more raucous traditions of American life. Though Henry James senior came from a very wealthy background, his social refinement was paper-thin; he lost his leg in a childhood accident of terrible recklessness and forever afterwards there was something of the frontier about him. Hard drinking runs like a theme through the lives of the James family, and a certain degree of sexual casualness. If Wilkie and Bob, the chancers and no-hopers of the family, seem the ones to have inherited Henry senior’s bolder style, there are a surprising number of indelicate passions, satisfied or hopeless, in the lives of both Henry and William.

The James parents were clearly very unusual, and among their odder enthusiasms were mystical philosophies. Henry senior was a devotee of Swedenborg, of all people, and subsequently of Emerson — their lives were transformed by the lectures Emerson gave in New York in 1842. If their novelist son never appears to be much touched by these obsessions, it certainly dominated the thoughts of some of their other children. Alice’s posthumously published diary and life are hedged about by Transcendalist mutterings; more grandly, William’s enormously successful and still fascinating study The Varieties of Religious Experience is rooted in those abstract passions, raised long ago.

And, of course, they were rich enough to indulge their whims. The key to Henry’s future lay in the extensive family journeys to Europe, accompanied by, as Henry much later recalled, ‘a vast, even though incomplete, array of Swedenborg’s works’. Repeatedly, in the account of the trip from 1855, when Henry was only 12, you can see the settings of his future fiction making their mark; the Geneva of Daisy Miller, the Paris of The Ambassadors, the Boulogne of What Maisie Knew. The James family were of the higher rank of tourists; they were one of a succession of American pilgrims to Carlyle on whom Jane Welsh Carlyle exercised her wit, and they made friends with a lion even as large as Thackeray. Nor were they exactly the rootless hotel-dwellers one might suppose, at one point renting Frogmore Cottage at Windsor from, of all people, Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. Henry did not parachute into London society; he had, really, always been there.

Henry James was so isolated from his family and, on the surface, so distinct from his brothers and sister, that his occasional close resemblances come as rather a surprise. The way he descended into a series of fruitless longings for pretty young men in later years, from Hendrik Andersen to Hugh Walpole, is very much like his brother William’s serial flirtations. It must be said, though, that Bob’s confident adultery, or indeed sex at all, was something, in practice, beyond him. (And, really, only a virgin could have written so many novels so very much obsessed with the question of romantic love). The celebrated prose style, it turns out, was very much a family one. This is his father in a letter to Emerson in 1855, but it could very easily be a line from The Princess Casamassima:

His character hid itself from an intimacy of years, and only disclosed itself in the penetralia of home, as made all the grinding littlenesses and coldnesses that are effectual at wearing out the human heart.

William, similarly, at the beginning of The Varieties of Religious Experience, says to his Scots audience that it seems the natural thing for us to listen whilst the Europeans talk. The contrary habit, of talking whilst the Europeans listen, we have not acquired.

It sounds just like a characteristically Henry Jamesian joke, and we start to recognise a family tone.

Bob and Wilkie are the sad cases; deprived of proper legacies, and having to make their own way, they were cast from the start as disappointments, and fulfilled their roles to depressing perfection. Even when Wilkie came up trumps and married an heiress of gratifyingly obscene endowment, the rest of them shook their heads over her Milwaukee shopkeeper origins, and complained about the vulgarity of her diamonds. And, in any case, Wilkie ran through the money long before he was finished; some of the saddest pages here are the letters between the two failures, commiserating about how hard-done-by they were.

Still, the two smaller Jameses add considerable interest to the story. While Henry was wandering through Europe in a very familiar way, Wilkie was adventurously stumping round the then exotic destinations of Wyoming, Yosemite and Salt Lake City, meeting the aged Brigham Young. Bob, in the meantime, was philandering his way round the more impressionable ladies of Boston with considerable success.

Alice never published anything, and only in recent years has some interest risen in her posthumously published diary. (Henry destroyed the privately printed copy he was sent after her death). She sounds, in every telling, merry hell on a sofa: a fulltime invalid, suffering from good old-fashioned 19th-century hysteria and nerves. ‘To him who waits, all things come!’ she wrote when diagnosed with a properly terminal illness. ‘Ever since I have been ill, I have longed and longed for some palpable disease.’ Clearly, her family found her very hard-going. Henry lampooned her and her ‘Boston marriage’ with Katherine Loring in the funniest of his novels, The Bostonians — weirdly described by Paul Fisher as his ‘weirdest and most lugubrious fictional cocktail’. A hardbitten aunt called Kate, who sometimes appears the only entirely rational member of the family, took savage revenge for years of Alice’s self-indulgence and whinging by leaving Alice life interest in a shawl in her will, with subsequent reversion to a male heir. ‘I can hardly think it was seriously meant,’ Alice said of the bequest, missing the point.

It’s an immensely interesting story, and makes, one more time, a decent and highly readable book. Fisher’s main failure is with William, who, despite everything, doesn’t come to life. The academic of the family must have been a man of great charm and intelligence — Gertrude Stein claimed that he showed nothing but wry sympathy when, as an undergraduate, she told him that she just didn’t feel like taking an exam on the prescribed day. Somehow, though, I don’t have much sense after reading Fisher’s book of what he was actually like, other than, evidently, pretty complicated.

Still, it’s interesting to have a perspective on Henry James himself which, for once in that much-biographied figure, makes him look distinctively American. Some price has to be paid for that; I feel that someone ought to have told Fisher that there is no such place as Christ Church College, and that Horace Walpole was the Earl of Orford, not of Oxford. Fisher’s more worldly readers might be amused at his earnest expl anation that ‘In the 19th century, wines accompanied every course, and strong spirits (particularly for men) came ritually both before and after.’ The diner who has a gin and tonic before dinner and a glass of brandy after is not quite extinct, even now. I have, too, to take exception to his description of London dinners including ‘snipe, kidneys … and of course turtle soup’ as ‘bland British dishes’. Has Fisher actually eaten turtle soup?

A James expert who fails to emulate the eating habits of this most famous of diners-out may be forgiven. Fisher knows his stuff in this gigantically trifling field, and the last years of the story, when everyone but Henry has died and he, at last, turns his explicit attention to his extraordinary family in A Small Boy and Others and its sequel, are terribly moving. In his last illness, sinking into delirium, Henry summoned his amanuensis Theodora Bosanquet and began to dictate. It soon became apparent that he was under the impression that he was Napoleon, his dead brothers French royal dukes. In its own way, Henry James’s story, and his family’s, was quite as extraordinary as Napoleon’s, and the delusion seems not so much comic as a temporary, understandable forgetting of the exact nature of his peculiar greatness.