The Collected Stories of Henry James

I’ve just finished reading the Everyman’s Library edition of Henry James’s stories. They only published a selection, but they still run to two volumes, totalling 2400 pages or so. Henry James was quite productive.

Henry James’s style is interesting. The word “lapidary” comes to mind: hard, precise, glittering, and very carefully crafted. It’s not the easiest prose in the world to read, but I do rather like it. I should just make sure that I don’t try to write like that; it isn’t my style, so it wouldn’t work very well.

Reading the collection finally confirmed for me that The Turn of the Screw really is by Henry James. I read quite a lot of his novels some time ago, and they are so far from being ghost stories that I assumed that The Turn of the Screw was actually by M. R. James, who did write a lot of ghost stories. On reading the collected stories, however, I discover that Henry James actually wrote quite a lot of ghost stories: Owen Wingrave is another example. It is interesting that the stories constantly reminded me of White Wolf’s World of Darkness. There are definite similarities of tone, although the writing styles are very different (and I suspect that WW would not be happy if I tried to write a supplement in the style of Henry James).

The jacket blurb claims that the stories have no match in fiction for variety. This is a blatant falsehood. They are almost invariably about the rich and privileged, where “poverty” is having only one servant. They are commonly about writers or portrait painters (in one notable case, about a writer engaged to a portrait painter). One of the characters frequently dies at the end, particularly in the early stories. I think my fictional writings have more variety than that.

They are, however, very rich, and deeply concerned with the psychology of the characters, which is what most literary critics like. They are good stories, and I enjoyed reading them, although I don’t know that I would necessarily recommend reading both volumes over a couple of months, as I did. They might be better taken in small doses.

One point that struck me on a purely personal level. The family of the main character in one story is called “Chart”. That’s the first time I’ve come across our name in fiction.

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