Woolf on Henry James

The attempts that I have made to read Henry James have been unrewarding. I was therefore amused to read Virginia Woolf’s opinion in a letter to Lytton Strachey:

Please tell me what you find in Henry James. I have disabused Leonard of him; but we have his works here, and I read, and can’t find anything but faintly tinged rose water, urbane and sleek, but vulgar. . . Is there really any sense in it? I admit I can’t be bothered to snuff out his meaning when it’s very obscure.

Woolf went on to write numerous essays on the fiction of Henry James. In her later Guardian review of James’ final novel, The Golden Bowl (1905) Woolf wrote,

Mr. James is like an artist who, with sure knowledge of anatomy, paints every bone and muscle in the human frame; the portrait would be greater as a work of art if he were content to say less and suggest more . . . Many overburdened sentences could be quoted as proof of his curious sense of duty.

Better put than I am able, but Woolf’s views accord with my own reading of Henry James.


8 thoughts on “Woolf on Henry James

  1. >Dear Anthony,Oh, I couldn't possibly agree. Woolf was wrong about Joyce, and proves once again her unreliability as a critic in her inability to appreciate James. James takes effort, tremendous effort, but he repays that tremendous effort ten-fold. He is not immediately accessible–but then neither is Joyce, and you will admit that having sampled him, he was worth the effort.I do not know how to advise to start on James, but I will say, keep coming back from time to time. Choose something small–say Daisy Miller or Turn of the Screw–and sample every now and again. James is an author who takes time. I took me half a lifetime, and now there are few I enjoy more.shalom,Steven

  2. >I've somehow read seven novels by James. I started out lukewarm about him, and ended up HATING him. I can't stand the mannered quality of his characters' conversations, and the overdone way they exclaim over each other's slightest actions (Wings of the Dove was particularly egregious in this regard). Hate his style, even though I love other stylists whose sentences are just as long and convoluted. Fail to connect with his dichotomy pitting the fresh-faced brashness of American girls against the seductive yet corrupt and bloated beauty of European males, which I think romanticizes both women and America in very tiresome ways. I don't know if I agree with Woolf's diagnosis of "nothing but faintly tinged rose water," but I do know I get no pleasure out of the man's work. Bah!

  3. >claudia – Welcome, it tickled me too.Steven – I trust your judgement, and will not abandon my attempts to appreciate James. I threw both Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw aside after my customary fifty trial pages. One day I will sample again. I almost enjoyed The Portrait of a Lady.Woolf allowed her snobbery to cloud her critical judgement, obvious in her comments on Joyce and James. "Vulgar" is always a giveaway in Woolf's criticism, a common refuge for the socially uneasy. In the latter case her summary of being unable to find "anything but faintly tinged rose water" sums up so well my reaction to James' style.Emily – Thank you, I feel less philistine knowing you share my antipathy to James, with considerably more reason if you made it through seven novels. Perhaps there is rather too much style.

  4. >What I find in James is exacting nuance and a style that is always making finer distinctions. It can be harder and harder as one goes along to keep track of his lines and see everything within its larger frame, but I think it's important to ask yourself why he's putting things the way he is and have faith in its greater purpose. As entrapping as his sentences can feel, spinning a web around the characters and the action, he always frees them, and you, at the end in often a very beautiful way. I've felt ecstatic freedom, even blissful, finishing the books, a kind particular to them and that I would never have experienced without them.If you haven't read it the one I'd recommend is "The Spoils of Poynton." There it's clearer than in some of the others what's happening to the characters. They're basically stand-ins for artworks. Also very true in "The Portrait of a Lady." The characters are trying to "shape" Isabel, each as they see fit, as if she were an object. She as a character is so organically linked to the scrupulousness of the writing that is crafting her, that what she undergoes throughout the course of the novel can be looked at as a metaphor for writing and art making.Maybe what's hardest to see underneath James's style is the passion. He had a burning passion for what he wrote and the moral concerns sorrounding society's games of manipulating others, not so much because of personal motives as because of how we think that person should be. It all stems from his fascination with gossip, the source for many of his stories. Gossip as a kind of art of qualifying a person around social/ritual lines. All the while he's writing to wrap around his "subject," in order to protect it.

  5. >Another thing I take from James is a particular sense of time. "The Sense of the Past" is very aptly titled, not only for the subject matter but as a description of all James's writing. His unique uses of past and present tense, the pin-point quality of the language that feels outside of time, the continuous weight he accomplishes, and the suspension he can leave you in… it can be transfixing, put you in that wonderful realm the best writing places you in and that's unlike anything else.Sorry for going on like this!!

  6. Interesting and true, imo, and I came here because I just started rereading some Woolf herself, and found it now quite like James in many respects, not just clausally but also really needing a ‘Lord, just get on with it!’ editor

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