Henry James and the Joys of Binge Reading

March 17, 2011 | 11 books mentioned 20 8 min read

During a recent semester spent studying abroad in the UK, I had the opportunity to take an undergraduate course on Henry James. I seized the chance, having never taken a class devoted to a single author before. Previously, Henry James had existed in my mind as a hazy legend in Anglo-American letters who wrote hefty novels and dense stories in an ominously opaque prose. The only thing I had ever read of his was “The Middle Years”, a short story about an aging writer resting in Bournemouth, who befriends a doctor who also happens to be a fervent admirer of his work. It sounds awfully boring but I was impressed by the story, which reveals a great deal about reader-writer relations, although of course I found the writing itself a little impenetrable at times (the number of commas in the first sentence alone would send a good number of readers packing). It’s easy to lose your way in a James story if you’re not careful. Your eyes keep scanning the words, but your thoughts tend to wander off. Often what’s literally happening is buried beneath endless looping sentences, words that lap like waves, eddies of thoughts and counter-thoughts. It all sounds beautiful, but the reader is left wondering: what does it actually mean?

It’s obvious that Henry James is ill suited for a text-heavy undergraduate course, which requires extensive reading in a very short time. It’s not so bad when you’re studying earlier James, which tends to be more straightforward (although with the novels the length can sometimes get to you) — but things get an awful lot worse with later James. The prose becomes denser, the metaphors extend into page-long emotional parables, the grammar is impossibly convoluted, and numerous adverbs cling to and clutter the sentences.

James’ prose is notorious for becoming more elusive and complex and he grew older (it may be in part due to the fact that he started dictating to a typist in 1897, just before the advent of his “late phase”). In a letter to the Duchess of Sutherland, dated 1903, James gave his correspondent a few tips on how to read one of his novels:

Take, meanwhile, pray The Ambassadors very easily & gently: read five pages a day — be even as deliberate as that — but don’t break the thread. The thread is really stretched quite scientifically tight. Keep along with it step by step — & the full charm will come out.

It may have been that the Duchess was a particularly obtuse reader, but I do think it’s true that James is much better appreciated with lots of time to take him in slowly, a few pages at a time, to let his magic quietly come through. But James’ own recommendations, of course, are impossible to follow when you have to rifle through a whole novel in a few days for a seminar.


The reading list for the class in question included:

I ended up quite liking most of the tales, especially “The Lesson of the Master”, about the relationship between a young, promising writer and an older one whose art is in decline. It has a certain ironic bite, which I found enjoyable — the “lesson” in question being that novelists shouldn’t marry, in order to concentrate on their art (James remained a bachelor all his life). It is apparent that there are quite a few gems in the tales of Henry James, which are often in the vein of the French nouvelles (Maupassant often comes to mind). Although writing many of these short stories was bread-and-butter work for James, they offer much insight into art and human expression.

covercoverAmong the novels, I never finished The Wings of the Dove, What Maisie Knew, or The Princess Casamassima, one of James’ forays into more traditional social realism (with The Bostonians), which I found read like a bad imitation of Dickens. The Portrait of a Lady was by far the most readable and engaging of his novels, and Isabel Archer remains one of his most sympathetic characters — despite the famously unsatisfactory ending. The two later novels I read, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl — especially the latter, where so little happens for so long — initially put me off. They are demanding books, but in the end they proved more interesting to think and write about. The Ambassadors, for instance, through some intricate literary trick, manages to charm the reader into embracing the middle-aged protagonist’s point of view. Strether’s fascination for Paris, for Chad (whom he comes to Paris to save) and for Madame de Vionnet (with whom Chad is having an affair) becomes the fascination of the reader, while James masterfully pulls the strings behind the scenes. It’s a rewarding, beautiful reading experience; and there really is a kind of taut, charming thread running through it.

A certain reputation precedes Henry James, I think — and it’s not a very good one. Another preconception I had about him was that he was rather passé, in both style and content. He already seemed outdated in his own time (at the turn of the century, who else was writing novels about adultery among the rich and beautiful in such wordy prose?), so how could he possibly be relevant today?

covercovercoverI was wrong, of course. Although James was never read by the masses, he still generates a fair deal of critical attention and admiration. Many authors today use James’ life and work to inspire their own fiction: Colm Tóibín’s Booker short-listed The Master is a fictionalized account of a part of James’ life (more on that later), while David Lodge’s Author, Author (published six months after Tóibín’s novel) does something similar. Joyce Carol Oates’ recent collection of stories Wild Nights! includes a moving story about James visiting a wounded soldier in a London hospital during World War I, and Cynthia Ozick’s 2010 novel Foreign Bodies is a retelling of The Ambassadors. In the last decade, Penguin Classics has reedited most of James’ novels and stories in a new series under the general editorship of one of the most prominent Jamesian critics, Philip Horne. NYRB Classics has also included many of James’ little known titles in their series, while Cambridge University Press is planning a new, multi-volume critical edition of James’ works, to be published by 2016 for the centenary of his death.

It is clear that James is not passé, and never was. He is, in fact, perhaps more relevant than ever; but his works lie in a strange place outside of time, and they were written that way. James was and remains a demanding author because he found something intensely true about the complexity of human nature and felt compelled to communicate this truth in the stories that took hold of his imagination. He was a careful writer, true to his art and craft, and a meticulous revisionist. His works are deep, long, airless dives into the complexities and multiplicities of the self. It’s not an easy subject to write about. His stories, lacking in plot, are simple accounts: mere turning points in the lives of characters or revelations of social organizations. Yet in their self-consciousness and ambiguities, and even in the circumlocutions of James’ language — which in truth is closer to the fragmented consciousness of modernism than to Victorian verbosity — they reveal something irresistibly true about life.

It’s easy, of course, to call binge reading Henry James a joy when the term is over and the essay is handed in and corrected. For most of the duration of the course, I would’ve probably called the process “Henry James and the Woes of Binge Reading”. Often times it felt like I was out of breath as I jumped from one work to the next, trying to catch up on my reading just before class, and then having to move on to the next book down the list without having finished the previous one.

But, as anyone who has taken a class like this (or anyone who has ever binge read from a single author in a short period of time) will know, this type of reading can also be highly rewarding. One passes from one book to the next almost seamlessly, without having to adapt to a new style, witnessing (if the works are read more or less chronologically) the progression of the writer’s art over time, the evolution of his concerns, and the development of his authorial voice.

James’ themes become richer and more multi-faceted when looked at across his entire oeuvre: things like the so-called international theme, problematic endings, his obsession with art and reality (or realism v. romance), and the self-consciousness of his fiction. For instance, I noticed that in nearly all of his novels, whenever fate intervenes in a way that seems exaggerated, a character usually declares something along the lines of: “I feel like we’re in a novel!”

coverThe binge reader also starts to notice stock characters as they crop up from story to story. One of the most common, in James, is the young, empowered American heiress: for example the eponymous heroine of “Daisy Miller”, James’ first successful story; Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, who struggles between her freedom and her duty; and Maggie Verver (aka The Princess) in The Golden Bowl, who starts off as a meek wife and manages to get rid of her husband’s lover (also married to her father) by the end of the novel through the most skillful, subtle social maneuvering.

Theater is another recurring (although not always explicit) theme in Jamesian fiction. James uses a great deal of theatrical metaphor throughout his stories to describe the shifting nature of his characters and the multiplicity of their personalities, which they project out into the world like carefully constructed roles. Thus the adulterous women in his novels — another stock character — like Madame de Vionnet in The Ambassadors or Madame Merle in The Portrait of a Lady, are often described as actresses. They put on masks, makeup, and costumes and bury their identities beneath layers of constructed characteristics to manipulate their audiences.

Perhaps the great number of theatrical metaphors relates to James’ involvement with the theatre, which more or less ended with the failure of his play Guy Domville in 1895 (again, shortly before his “late phase” began). It was a deeply traumatic experience for James (both Tóibín and Lodge make it a central element in their novels). He described the humiliating premier in a letter to Henrietta Rendell as “the most horrible hours of my life.” Thus James was forced to return to the less lucrative — albeit probably more comfortable — business of writing for print only (“thank heaven there is another art”), but it is clear that his failure in the theater left its mark.

covercoverIt seems I didn’t want to get away from Henry James after the course was over because I continued to peruse his Life in Letters, brilliantly edited by Philip Horne, which has some really beautiful bits of writing in it. I also read The Master by Colm Tóibín, and I would like to end with a few words on this book. It walks the fine line between biography and novel, a tricky genre that Tóibín pulls off majestically. It proves an insightful way of writing and thinking about James, whose life and work are a complicated balance of fiction and reality.

Tóibín’s novel is a gripping, major work of literature, which I binge read with relish not because I had to, but because it offers a fascinating exploration of James as a character whose consciousness is revealed to be as complex and deeply moving as those of the characters he, in turn, created. Tóibín’s novel offers a prism through which many of James’ works are refracted, illuminating them with new meaning and a more directly human resonance. He also treats James’ probable homosexuality with subtlety and respect — no easy feat. The Master is a good read intrinsically, as well; intelligent, endearing, moving, and even funny at times (in a quiet, quaint, all too Jamesian way).

If you read nothing by Henry James or nothing else related to him, I urge you, at least, to read The Master. It seems almost disrespectful to the “master” in question to say so, but I am confident that if you do read Tóibín’s novel, you’ll be tempted to pick up one of James’ books afterward. I’m quite certain you won’t be disappointed by either.

comes from Montreal, Canada and completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. He currently teaches English and French in the San Francisco Bay Area.


  1. Yes, yes, yes to bingeing on Henry James. His “stock” characters are each distinct, portraying both the essence of his times and also the universality of the human condition. LOVE Portrait of A Lady and Isabel Archer — she never grows old or outdated, and always offers something to think about. I am overwhelmed each time I attempt The Golden Bowl — you have inspired me to try again.

  2. It seems to me that James has developed a reputation over the past century–one that I must say that think I picked up as an undergraduate myself–of being distant, cold, bloodless, passionless–in a word, Victorian. But I have read many of the James works that you mentioned over the years, and I’m sure that Wells’ mocking of his style (“A leviathan retrieving pebbles” I believe is how Wells put it) has not helped. I have read many of the James works you mentioned over the years since, and have found James to be a most entertaining writer. I think I was most surprised to find out that he was also a writer of comedy–something that would surprise most people, I think. His short story “The Death of the Lion” is a good example–fast-paced, sharply observed, and well worth finding and reading.

    I am now just finishing The Ambassadors, a book that I have owned for probably 25 years and just now go to reading. Since I am not in school, I have had the pleasure of reading it slowly, and enjoying it immensely. This is my favorite of the late James novels–I have managed to read all three now, and they are all worth the time and effort. But The Ambassadors strikes me as the best of the three. It is the most sensual of three very sensual novels. It also strikes me as being the most Flaubertian of the three–witness the early section shortly after Strether has arrived in Paris, sitting on a part bench and observing the parade of Parisians walking by–very reminiscent of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Throughout the book James also details the scents, the play of light, the food, the sound of the traffic and the splash of the river. Later in the novel, Strether takes a day trip to the country, and again, there are elaborate descriptions of the small towns, the hills, churches, inns, and so forth.

    Mme. de Vionnet is described at one point in terms that strike me as placing her in the long line of classic beautiful women–Cleopatra, Queen Dido, Helen of Troy. A nice contrast, indeed, with the second of Mrs. Newsome’s ambassadors, Sarah Pocock. In fact, while I was reading the final confrontation between Mrs. Pocock and Strether, I was reminded of that scene in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth–Lily Bart’s aunt confronting her on her gambling debts.

    Thanks so much for a beautiful essay. James is so worth reading. I have yet to read anything by him that wasn’t worth the effort and the time. The reputation that has attached itself to James is so far from the truth. Instead of being cold, distant, unengaged, James was very much engaged in life.

  3. Nice work, Charles. I’m re-reading Portrait this week. I go on periodic James binges myself. A couple of his early ones, like “Watch and Ward” and “Confidence” are less than fine, but they’re readable — which is more than I can say for a later one titled “The Sacred Fount.” I kept starting it over, never could quite grasp what was going on, kept losing track. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, the news that “Early critics treated the novel with blank incomprehension or near-contempt ” made me feel less alone, and when I learned that even James himself didn’t care for it I lost all ambition to finish. I think this will be one of the very last books of his I’ll read, last book of the last binge. Save the worst for last — sort of like “Self-Portrait” with Bob Dylan or “O.C. and Stiggs” with Robert Altman.

  4. Thanks for this fine article. When considering James’ life and work together — and Tóibín’s powerful depiction of the two entwined — Leon Edel’s towering five-volume biography, The Life of Henry James (winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer), will also rivet one’s attention with its novelistic immediacy and sweep. Tóibín relied upon it heavily, as his acknowledgments note. Also, in addition to adapting him in her latest, Cynthia Ozick has written extensively and absorbingly about James in each of her wonderful essay collections.

    Good work here, Charles, championing an indispensable great.

  5. I can never think of James without the image of him out in that boat desperately poking the floating dresses of the dead one downward with a pole.

  6. Great essay, and always wonderful to see James getting some love. I’d urge you to go back at your leisure and read all of What Maisie Knew. To me it has a uniqueness in both James’s work and English novels in general, in the way it portrays a very complex, adult, duplicitous world through the sensorium of a growing child (she’s about 8 at the beginning and maybe pushing 12 at the end, but still pre-adolescent). And the novel’s situation is amazingly contemporary — a very glitzy, ‘social’ couple has divorced, both have lovers, neither really wants custody of the child, and custody is shared. Most of Maisie’s time is spent not with her birth parents but with their employees and paramours; how these adults play her, and play one another, and how Maisie eventually tries a bit to play them — and what happens to her innocence — makes for a fascinating read.

  7. But the prose, the prose. All those commas, all that convolution. Randall Jarrell might have been thinking of James.

  8. Better you than I.

    I’ve read quite a number of James’ short stories, several of which I actually liked at the time. But the novels? I had to read THE AMBASSADORS in college and faked my way through it. I still have the book–I keep it around to glare at. I found nothing rewarding in those serpentine thickets of prose.

    In his book HOW TO MAKE SENSE, “readability” expert Rudolf Flesch related a story about Henry James, whom he described as spending “his whole literary life completely disregarding his readers.” The story has it that James and his friend Edith Wharton got lost while out riding in an automobile, and James asked an old man for directions:

    “My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer–so–…My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently *passed through* Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we are now in relation to High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.”

    When the old man stared at him dazedly, James continued: “In short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to…”

    “Oh please, do ask him where King’s Road is,” Edith Wharton interjected.

    James asked in another unnecessarily convoluted way, and the old man answered, “Ye’re on it.”

    Flesch cites James’ style as an example of “neurosis from a prolonged lack of feedback.”

  9. Thanks so much, Ward, for explaining why James isn’t really worth reading. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of all those other neurotic feedback-dodgers who write impossibly long sentences, like Faulkner and Woolf. These folks aren’t artists so much as mentally disturbed loners, incapable of engaging in the rich, healthy social contact that Flesch and his short, simple sentences give us. I plan to go to every bookstore now and throw away all the copies of James I can find, since it’s insane that this self-absorbed reader-hater is still in print. I can’t understand it: it’s almost as if bookstores are trying, doubtless because of their own neuroses, to create the illusion that there are people out there who like to read James. But of course that can’t be true, not with someone who suffered from a prolonged lack of feedback.

  10. I tried to read “The Master” but I could not get hooked into it. I am not a fan of James anyway, I am sorry to admit. But I did enjoy your essay.

  11. I must say you have done yourself a bit proud in being somewhat Henry James-ian yourself in writing this post. In today’s world (which, last time I checked, is the one I have wakened to this morning) such a long blog post is, for most of us, but admittedly not for all, is bound to appear a bit daunting, and I must admit, although with some reluctance, to having skimmed the top from a few of your paragraphs. I not only admire the writing of the master (that would be, of course, Henry James) I absolutely adore it. I find “The Golden Bowl” bearing up to Gore Vidal’s audacious summation: “a DIVINE LUMINOSITY” -I believe that was Vidal, perhaps I dreamed it-
    Your eassay was enjoyed, sir (or madame) by one
    Wayne McEvilly

  12. “Often what’s literally happening is buried beneath endless looping sentences, words that lap like waves, eddies of thoughts and counter-thoughts. It all sounds beautiful, but the reader is left wondering: what does it actually mean?”

    I’m at work on a short book about the correspondence of Henry and William James…for what it’s worth, William James, on reading The Wings of the Dove, wrote to Henry almost exactly this same line, something to the effect that he had to read the sentences over and over simply to figure out what they might mean. You’re in good company!

  13. Thank you for your thoughtful essay.
    I’ve always assumed that Henry James was not as appreciated as he should be. I’m delighted to hear how popular he is.
    Don’t forget his short stories.
    I”ve just visited the American Museum in Bath ( for the excellent Marilyn Monroe memorabilia exhibition) and found -and bought- in their bookshop “London Stories and Other Writings” ( pub Tabb House) and “The Uncollected Henry James”( pub Duckworth).
    Perhaps his short stories can serve as an introduction for those who have not yet penetrated his novels.
    I also recommend “The Awkward Age” for Henry James beginners.

  14. James is just wonderful. I binge read in extremis as an undergrad, and never actually wrote my essay, so props on that one, and on the essay above.

    In the good but underrated category, I’d put the novella ‘In the Cage.’ Really terrific thing, and well worth a read. It’s in a Norton edition of the Tales and just about everything in there is great. The first thing that got me into him was ‘The Spoils of Poynton’ which is actually a really accessible place to start.

    ‘The Ambassadors’ the best for me. Incredibly subtle stuff, luring you in, and the great reveal near the end with Mme de Vionnet and Chad punting down the river. I think one of the things with James is he didn’t really write explicitly about sex which always confuses people.

    Also, relatedly, try reading his sister Alice James’ diary. It’s remarkably bleak.

  15. In The Talented Mr.Ripley (Patricia Highsmith), a retelling of The Ambassadors, Tom Ripley seeks the book in the ship’s library, having overheard Dickie Greenleaf say he wished to read The Ambassadors. The only way Ripley could have obtained the book on the ship would have been to steal it.

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