Literary Places: Lamb House & a Henry James book review

August 05, 2013

A few weekends ago we decided to enjoy the sun by having a day out in Rye. We jumped into Mum's car and drove through the tumbling hills along the winding roads with the intention of having a relaxing wander around the pretty town. The sun was shining as we walked up the cobble streets admiring the picturesque town. We then came across the fine Georgian house pictured below, and excitedly promised to return later on after lunch, to have a peruse of whose house, but Henry James'? 

To those that don't know,  Henry James was an American novelist born in New York in 1843. He moved to England, lived in London for 20yrs, before moving to Rye in 1896. He died in 1916, having assumed british nationality. He was considered a key-figure in the 19th century birth of literary realism and his novels concentrate on observations of the higher ranks of society with intimate detail. Often his novels offer a narrative romance set against a backdrop of social commentary regarding politics, and class. He is also interested in exploring personal freedom and individualism versus social obligation and morality, and this he does specifically in juxtaposing Europe and Britain, with America. He is commended for his narrative techniques that allow for this character insight, those which include: interior monologue, point of view, and unreliable narrators.
He is best known for his novels The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, The Ambassadors, and The Portrait of a Lady, although he was also a playwright, and literary critic.

Having walked through the imposing door, which rose high in accordance with Georgian architectural symmetry and proportion, we made our way into the hallway. Along one of the walls were portraits of all of the literary figures that had visited Lamb's House, including portraits of Hugh Walpole, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Arnold Bennett, H.G Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf etc. I have a strange fondness for this kind of trivia, I love learning about the connections between authors, and how they were interlinked with certain places, or with different artistic movements.
This is particularly interesting since I subsequently learned how James' later work was seen to have influenced the modern movement, particularly regarding the stream of consciousness most famously attributed to Joyce or Woolf.

We wandered around the rooms, all of which  were beautiful- this one particularly, which looked onto the garden.

Having enjoyed the blooming gardens, and yearned to have a high tea in the garden - a garden that gave the impression of having being designed with that very purpose in mind, we went to explore the rest of Rye. I wasn't quite able to avert my attention from the stall of his books before leaving Lamb House. I couldn't help but pick up The Portrait of a Lady, which had been on my reading list for a long while. 

If you read my last book review, you might have found that I alluded to James' novel being slightly displeasing. In truth, it was mainly frustrating, slow and rather long so I can be forgiven for finding his comment about Collins' The Woman in White, a bit rich- thus demonstrating why I felt the need to stick up for Collins! 

A Portrait of a Lady is interesting in that it very different from anything I have ever read.  The commentary on both American and British character and their respective civilisations was new to me. Undeniably James has great skill in characterisation achieved largely through the observatory narrative which details the character's emotions and thoughts, creating a psychological novel that deeply explores the minds of its characters. Since James wrote whilst watching the Victorian era draw to a close, the insight into the underlying fissures in a society that had vehemently maintained an archaic social hierachy despite dissent, and huge changes technologically, informs his writing. The only problem I found was that despite my enjoyment of these two aspects, of his skilful writing, that was essentially all there was. A lot of convoluted language, but very little plot, very little movement, making for a very static novel. Now, bear in mind this is being said by a lover of 19th Century literature, not one who absolutely requires an abundance of action, nor simplistic language, but even for me the story itself was a little insubstantial. It was essentially disappointing.  I definitely appreciated James' skill, but the novel felt like it could have been condensed to half if not a third of the size! Anyway, that's my twopence on James; he's a little pretentious, and a little bit too disinterested in entertaining the reader.
H.G. Wells harshly portrayed James as a hippopotamus laboriously attempting to pick up a pea that has got into a corner of its cage- whether this is fair, and his language is clumsy or not, or whether the picking up of a pea is pretty banal and never climaxes into anything more complex or significant, is for you to decide. But despite all of this, I came across a little anecdote that told of James on his deathbed, having just had a stroke, searching a thesaurus for a word more appropriate than 'paralytic' for his present state. So evidently, it wasn't all show, which is at least something!

Have you ever visited any literary places? Have you read any Henry James?

1 comment:

  1. Lois Ollerenshaw6 August 2013 at 11:47

    So interesting! Particularly liked H.G. Wells' opinion of James. Daisy Miller is the only one of his works that I've been able to read and enjoy, I'd recommend it!