House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family by Paul Fisher - review by Peter Washington

Peter Washington

It’s All Relative

House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family


Little, Brown 704pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

This is not the first group portrait of the James family; intended to be the most comprehensive, it may also be the worst.

Paul Fisher has a promising subject and he has done a great deal of reading. His purpose is to write about the entire James household, including cousins, ancestors and even friends. The Jameses will keep biographers in work for many years to come. Talented, rich, productive, often perplexing, eccentric and – as Fisher reminds us rather too often – touching at many points on the evolution of nineteenth-century America, they are a match for those troubled quasi-aristocratic clans so beloved of film and television producers: not an intellectual version of Dallas or Dynasty, exactly (there isn’t quite enough sex and money for that), but far more interesting. In fact, although sometimes referred to as aristocrats, the Jameses are nearer to the middle-class intellectual families who emerged from the English commercial classes, such as the Darwins, Stracheys, Wedgwoods and Stephens.

Most readers, even those indifferent to fiction, will know something about Henry James. Fewer will be familiar with his brother William, though he remains for many America’s most distinguished philosopher. Their sister Alice is still almost invisible, which may vindicate the feminist critics who have taken her up recently. Alice,

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