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A portrait of Oscar’s rival

Continuing his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley turns his attention to the US author Henry James

12 September, 2019 — By Neil Titley

Henry James by John Singer Sargent (detail)

There are not many authors who can claim (albeit posthumously) to have had at least 21 of their books and stories turned into films or can boast a list of leading ladies that includes Vanessa Redgrave, Kate Beckinsale, Lee Remick, Olivia De Havilland, Cybil Shepherd, Helena Bonham-Carter, Michelle Dockery, Julianne Moore, Isabelle Huppert, Deborah Kerr, Nicole Kidman and Thora Hird. But Henry James can.

James (1843-1916) was not strictly a resident of Camden, but he would have been a familiar sight strolling across Hampstead Heath to visit the home of his friend George du Maurier. His mood was not always improved by the experi­ence as he complained that Hampstead “used to be so rural and pretty – now all red brick and cockney prose”.

James was undoubtedly one of the major novelists of the English language, creating such masterpieces as The Wings of a Dove and The Turn of the Screw. Raised in New England, he was not always appreciated in his native USA. Mark Twain remarked of one of James’s novels: “Once you put it down, you simply can’t pick it up.”

Preferring life in Old England, he settled first in London, then in Rye, Sussex, and became a profound Anglophile. His growing reputation as an important author soon gave him entry to the respectable social world he enjoyed.

However, he soon fell out with a major figure of London society – Oscar Wilde. It was a friction that led to a renowned theatrical denouement.

Although in truth Wilde thought highly of James as a novelist, he also had irritated the American with such comments as “Henry James writes novels as if they were a painful duty” and describing his literary style as “like an elephant picking up a pin”.

Wilde was unaware of the depth of the hostility that he had aroused. James himself became increasingly malicious in his remarks about Oscar. Referring to Wilde as “a fatuous fool and a tenth-rate cad”, he described Lady Windermere’s Fan as “infantine”, A Woman of No Importance as “a piece of helpless puerility” and An Ideal Husband as “clumsy, feeble and vulgar”.

It was unfortunate that James’s major humiliation coincided with Oscar’s greatest success.

In January 1895, James’s play, Guy Domville, was produced at the St James Theatre by George Alexander. James, nervous about its chances, decided not to attend the first night and instead went to see Wilde’s An Ideal Husband at the Haymarket Theatre. Emerging from the cheers for his hated rival, he returned to the St James Theatre in time for the curtain call.

Unbeknown to James, his own play had had a disastrous first performance. During the third act, when the leading actor had delivered the line: “I am the last of the Domvilles”, a loud voice had echoed from the gallery: “Well, thank Gawd for that!”

James arrived in the theatre wings and mistook the howls of derision for applause. When he went out on stage to receive the plaudits as author, he was greeted by increased booing. Transfixed with horror, he stayed shaking and white-faced to endure the catcalls. One audience member said that “it was like prodding a soft, large animal in the zoo”.

To make matters even worse, after what James called “the horridest four weeks of my life”, Guy Domville was taken off only to be replaced by Oscar’s new triumph, The Importance of Being Earnest.

James’s rather ponderous personality was lightened by his occasional capacity to land himself in absurd situations. Once, after a woman friend had committed suicide in Venice, James travelled to the city to pay his respects.

He decided that he would gather her many voluminous black dresses, row himself out in a gondola, and throw them beneath the waters of the lagoon. Unfortunately, after he had reverently cast them away, the dresses remained filled with air and floated back up to the surface. James was left snared in mid-lagoon, surrounded by enormous black bubbles.

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 placed James in a difficult moral position. Although still a US citizen, he regarded the American President Woodrow Wilson’s neutral stance as cowardly and self-seeking.

As a gesture of solidarity with his adopted homeland, he applied for British citizenship. On his application form, James needed sponsors to confirm that he was literate in the English language. Highly amused, the prime minister, HH Asquith, agreed to be one of the signatories.

The British press were unanimous in their praise for James’s action, but in the USA he was reviled. The New York Times: “His desertion is good riddance.”

He remained a source of unconscious comedy to his circle. After a group of actresses had been invited to tea at his Rye home, one friend asked him whether they had been pretty.

Henry replied: “Pretty? Good Heavens!”

And then with the air of one who must be scrupulously fair he added: “One of the poor wantons had a certain cadaverous grace”.’

• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For information go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk

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