For years I steered clear of Henry James. My mother had long championed The Portrait of a Lady, which sounded rather too fey and effete, and looked rather too long. When I learned that he was John Banville’s, one of my favourite writers, favourite writer, I was disappointed. When I became hooked on Donna Leon’s series of Venetian murder mysteries, I instinctively sided with the unconvinced Commissario Brunetti who, however highly cultured, is not cultured as highly as his wife, a Jamesian scholar lovingly lavish with his epithet of ‘The Master’. My root prejudice probably went back to university and Ezra Pound’s needless defence of Dante: ‘For sheer dullness one reads Henry James, not the Inferno‘.
But it was in my last year as a student that a dear musicologist friend of mine lent me The Turn of the Screw, which he had read on account of the opera that his favourite composer, Britten, had made from it. This looked more appealing than The Portrait of a Lady: it was shorter, for one thing, and the blurb was enticingly gothic. Elliott gave it to me with a glowing review, having read it in one wintry, nocturnal, fireside sitting. At the moment of reaching ‘the part with the ghost’, he had looked up, caught his reflection in the dark window, and spilled his whisky with fright. I told my mother about this new borrowing. ‘I hate The Turn of the Screw,’ she said. ‘The only Henry James worth reading is The Portrait of a Lady.’
It’s strange how memories twine themselves around the most convenient chronology. Even now I have to remind myself that The Turn of the Screw was not the first Henry James that I read. It was the first Henry James that I had, on my bookshelves, but there it remained for a good eighteen months while I, for once the educator rather than the educated, spent a year teaching English in Ravenna, a small city about a hundred miles down the road from Venice. As with every Italian town there was a Via Mazzini, but Ravenna’s appeared to be semi-officially known as the Via dei Poeti for its dozen or so panels, which sported quotations from not only the poets but also from the artists, novelists, popes and psychiatrists who had spent time in the place and had had something to say about it. There was T. S. Eliot and his French poem ‘Lune de Miel’; there was Oscar Wilde and his early prizewinner ‘Ravenna’; there was a postcard from Klimt and appreciative grunts from Freud. And there was Henry James and a few lines from his essay on the city, which one can find collected into his Italian Hours: ‘For Ravenna, however, I had nothing but smiles – grave, reflective, philosophic smiles, I hasten to add’, just in case we suspected him of outright, vulgar happiness.
But it was not until the following April that I read more than this panel. It was The Aspern Papers, a novella similar in brevity to The Turn of the Screw, and it was divided over my journey back to Northumberland for the Easter holidays, which began on the gorgeous Apennine line from Faenza to Florence and finished on the ungorgeous one from Leeds to Newcastle. Between the two there was a flight, on which I recall reading nothing. I probably would not have completed The Aspern Papers that day had I not fought with my then-fidanzata soon after landing. We sat on the train in silence, side by side, I with The Aspern Papers, she with an Italian translation of Daisy Miller. The frostiness between us was entirely Jamesian, but I feel that his characters would have oiled it over with strained, elegant civilities.
The Aspern Papers, then, was (or were) my introduction to Henry James. I loved it. But unusually for any book of mine, still more so for one so beloved, I do not remember where it came from. I can point to the provenance of most of the volumes on my shelves. This one was second-hand, from the beautiful old Penguin range with the bone-coloured backs and spines and the oval frame around the title. I have no recollection of buying it; why would I have bought it, with my avowed, uninformed denial of The Master’s mastery? I can see myself seduced by the edition, its slightness, its synopsis, its Venetian setting and its story of a hallowed poet’s prying biographer, scrupling at nothing to prise the surviving letters from the aged innamorata, certainly not at preying on the confidence and marital hopes of her niece. Yes, I can see myself falling for that. I am certain that I did not go out to Ravenna with The Aspern Papers, yet I had them with me when I took that train to Florence. I must date it, then, to the Christmas holidays of 2016-17, probably as a stocking-filler; I cannot imagine having found it on the foreign-language shelves of any of Ravenna’s bookshops, still less having forgotten such a find.
As much as I loved The Aspern Papers, I waited maybe another six months before finally picking up The Turn of the Screw at around the same time as belatedly reading another nasty, lurid, poisonous little tale, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Reinstalled in my family home in Northumberland, which I watched over with my parents at work and my brother at university, my thoughts had taken a turn for the dark; perhaps I saw the frame of Bly in my own rural residence. Still the taper burned slow: it was not until a year later, now living and working in Florence, that the Jamesian impulse fully seized me. The brother got me The Ambassadors for my birthday; I meanwhile snatched up every two-euro second-hand copy that I could find in the Paperback Exchange. Some I had vaguely heard of, such as The Wings of the Dove; some not at all, like The Awkward Age and Roderick Hudson, his first novel. Each time I returned to the shop there seemed to be a new one, sneaked into the box beneath the shelves. It was as if someone was drip-feeding them to me.
Of course, there is a world of difference between reading and collecting, and James understood the perils of the second mania. He understood how one can be possessed with the desire to possess, simply for possession’s sake. We see it in The Outcry, which I bought in a booksale at the Harold Acton Library on the Arno’s south bank: an American with a bottomless chequebook tussles with an English lord for an heirloomed portrait, which over the course of the novel spikes and falls in value depending on the identity of the supposed artist. It is beneath Beckenridge Bender to pay anything less than a huge, headline-grabbing sum, and it is beneath Lord Theign – who desperately needs it – to accept any at all. Never does James give us any details about the portrait itself, its dimensions, its medium, its uniquities, for none of that is of the least interest to either party. All that matters is the having.
The first mania only compounds the second. Starting with The Ambassadors would put many a reader off for life, but since beginning with The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw and Roderick Hudson, I have battled through subsequent longueurs in search of the chills I have come to presume. The Jamesian world is a labyrinth, and characters you’ve met before glide through the passages: the sculptor Gloriani, for instance, a major player in the Rome of Roderick Hudson and a guest at a number of Parisian socials in The Ambassadors. My current desideratum, meanwhile, is a lesser-known novel named after the Princess Casamassima, née Christina Light, Roderick Hudson‘s bored, self-loathing siren.
Were it by any other writer, I would search for that Princess among the Amazons. But all of my Jamesian buys have been occasional, none premeditated, and if Henry James has infected me with the acquisitiveness that rules so many of his characters, he has also infected me with the desire that rules almost all of them: to do things properly. The Beckenridge Bender of the twenty-first century would log into eBay, locate a first edition of book and bid ten times its asking price, blowing all rivals out of the market. But the breadline has necessarily attuned my sympathies more to the impoverished Lord Theign, who affects indifference to the point of…well, that you’ll see when you read it. Like him, I shall feign insouciance and bide my time until I should cross paths with The Princess Casamassima, as Roderick Hudson does, ultimately and fatally, in the unlikeliest of places.
This piece was written in summer 2019. A second Jamesian diary entry will be out soon.