Henry James: A Life in Letters by Philip Horne (ed) - review by Clive Bush

Clive Bush

Wily and Tough Man who Became an Insider

Henry James: A Life in Letters


Allen Lane The Penguin Press 668pp £25 order from our bookshop

‘He talks slowly but continuously’, said one of Henry James’s later amanuenses, who of course wrote most of it down. The writing-down in part produced what can only be called the ‘world’ of James’s Letters, with its distinctness from, yet relatedness to, the other magnificent worlds of the novels, the essays, the notebooks, the prefaces and the short stories. The letters of Henry James, variously collected, stand secure as one of the imaginative triumphs of the late nineteenth century and the early modern period. Estimates of how many letters he actually wrote vary from 15,000 to as many as 40,000. Next year the University of Nebraska Press will begin publication of all the extant letters, a project that will require thirty volumes. Any collection, therefore, of James’s letters before the Nebraska project is completed must be partial in scope. But this is no handicap, given that few will read that prospective thirty-volume work from end to end and that ‘completeness’ is in itself something of a mirage, especially with a writer whose best work reveals itself only through slow and attentive reading. Take my Golden Bowl five pages at a time, James once advised his close friend, the American novelist William Dean Howells.

Philip Horne’s aim in Henry lames: A Life in Letters is to make a case for reviving the Victorian ‘Life and Letters’. In a sense Leon Edel’s four-volume selection of the letters has already done that, but the difference is that whereas Edel’s interpolations direct us to a biographical continuity,

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