The Portrait of Henry James
Colm Tóibín

Henry James is a great writer from the turn of the 20th century. An expert in human psychology and a refined stylist, he was the creator of a vast, powerful harbinger work, in which the theme of the meeting-confrontation of Europe with the United States appears insistently. In his work, the subtlety of the mysteries combines with the harshness of the conflicts. Born 180 years ago, his enigmatic personality traits and the surprising events of his life continue to generate enormous curiosity and fascination. Novelist, short story writer, essayist, literary critic and journalist, the renowned Irish writer Colm Tóibín is a devoted connoisseur of James, about whom he wrote The Master, a biographical novel translated into many languages. In this issue of Electra, Tóibín revisits the author of The Portrait of a Lady, to show the importance of houses in James’ life and work. From these, he gives us a picture full of truth and vigour of this tormented genius.

lamb house

Lamb House, Rye, East Sussex


Houses mattered to Henry James. In 1906 when he looked back at his novel The Portrait of a Lady, James described the book as ‘a square and spacious house.’ He also described fiction itself as a kind of house: a building that has ‘not one window, but a million – a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather’. From these, one could observe ‘the spreading field, the human scene.’ In 1906, when James wrote to his agent about choosing a photograph for the frontispiece of a revised edition of The Portrait of a Lady, he suggested ‘a view of the English country house (Hardwick, near Pangbourne, on the Thames’) which I had vaguely and approximately in mind, years ago, for the opening of the Portrait.’

In his book Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, Michael Gorra writes that this house, ‘sits on a low rise above the water, with a steep hill rising directly behind, and its view across the river to the hedged field beyond is little changed from what it would have been in James’s day… The Thames runs placidly here, and in the novel’s early chapters James describes Ralph [Touchett] and Isabel [Archer] as spending some of their time in a rowboat; a 1906 article in Country Life claims, in fact, that “there is no more beautiful reach of the river than that upon which the Hardwick terraces look down.”’

James’s notebooks are peppered with imagined names for houses. For example, on the 17 April, 1900, he wrote out this list: ‘Waterworth – Waterway – Pendrel – Pendrin – Cherrick – Varney – Castledene – Coyne – Minuet – Fallows – Belshaw – Qaurrington – Dammers – Beldm – Deldham – Tangley.’

Until he was fifty-four years old, however, James had no house of his own. He lived in rented accommodation. His acquiring of his first house was not merely a momentous decision for his life but would have fascinating consequences for his work.

On a Saturday afternoon twenty years ago, when I was close to completing a draft of The Master, my novel about Henry James, I went to visit Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, in England, which James leased in 1897 and later purchased outright; he lived there until close to his death in 1916.

This was the house of James’s dreams. He had taken holidays in the area, he had passed the house many times, noting the weathered brick, the sense of rich history, the stateliness without too much grandeur. He had walked the streets of Rye asking its more friendly inhabitants if there was a house for rent. The local blacksmith took James’s London address, promising that he would get in touch if he heard of any suitable properties. Then he wrote saying that Lamb House could be had and James rushed down to Rye to acquire it.

"James’s letters to the much younger and very handsome Andersen are passionate about friendship, disappointed about Hendrik’s lack of emotional response to him, and withering about the young sculptor’s overreaching ambition."

henry james

John Singer Sargent, Henry James, 1913 © Photo: Scala, Florence / National Portrait Gallery, London


The summer house where James wrote in warm weather was bombed in the war. But the walled garden is still there in all its splendour. And the house itself is full of the atmosphere created by James. The modest downstairs rooms which he decorated so lovingly were furnished with help from his friend Lady Wolseley who believed that James had used her as the furniture-loving widow in his novel The Spoils of Poynton.

In the dining room, the small bust of an Italian count made by Hendrik Andersen, whom James met in Rome in 1899, sits in the corner over the mantelpiece exactly where James put it when it arrived in a box from Rome. James’s letters to the much younger and very handsome Andersen are passionate about friendship, disappointed about Hendrik’s lack of emotional response to him, and withering about the young sculptor’s overreaching ambition.

James’s own ambition as a novelist was also enormous, but he understood the need for careful, slow, painstaking work, which is why he sought to leave London in his mid-fifties to find solitude in a town where there were no fashionable dinners or literary lunches.

Over the mantelpiece in the front reception room on the ground floor, I found an object that took my breath away. It was a piece of needlework by James’s closest friend of the 1880s, the American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson. After her suicide in Venice in 1894, James went through her papers, burning what he did not wish the world to see, such as his own letters to her. But he must have taken this object home with him, a way of remembering her, which he gave the same pride of place as Andersen’s bust of the Italian count.

For me as a novelist attempting to dramatise James’s life, the five years between his failure in the theatre in 1895 and his beginning to work on his three late masterpieces (The Wings of the Dove; The Ambassadors; and The Golden Bowl) seemed the richest years of his life. It was a time when he looked failure straight in the eye and did not blink, but a time also when he was haunted by the death of his parents and his sister Alice. His moving to Lamb House in these years rescued him, offered him a haven, and, in turn, offered me, trying to imagine him, inspiration.

James was born in 1843, a year and a half after his brother William. James’s father, who had inherited a fortune, was interested in religion and intellectual freedom. He knew many of the important writers of the day in both England and America and was a great talker. At a whim, he would unseat his family – there were five children in all – and take them across the Atlantic, using the excuse that in Europe their ‘sensuous education’ would be better looked after. They became neither Americans nor Europeans, but joked instead that their upbringing had been so restless and strange that they were ‘natives of the James family’.