My favorite literary time period is the Victorian era (1814-1895, UK) and the late 19th century in general. I haven’t read everything from that era, of course, but my favorite authors and books come from that time period: Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Bram Stoker (Dracula is considered Gothic, not Victorian, but it was written in the late 19th century, 1897).
Henry James is not Victorian either – he’s an American and a Naturalist – but I am attracted to his work. Much of his writing was produced in the late 19th century. My attraction to that time period is probably due to its pessimism about society, criticism of class divides, defiance of certain social conventions, and an attitude of self-determination rather than relying on supernatural solutions to human problems. Naturalism, though, tends to believe that environment creates destiny, which I disagree with. Victorian literature responds to its disappointment with society by attempting to provide hope; it is essentially optimistic. Exploring the predicaments that arise from confronting the power of Custom is engaging and timeless. So, I’ve decided to celebrate 19th century literature periodically in this blog by spotlighting certain authors.
Today, it’s Henry James. There are several things that stood out to me about James’ life. One, is that he grew up fairly privileged. Both of his parents came from money. This afforded James the opportunity to travel extensively at a young age. Certainly, his experiences in Europe influenced his writing. Many of his stories are about clashes between American and European culture when Americans are on European soil. He knew about this first hand, choosing to eventually give up American citizenship to become a Brit.
In Europe, he also associated with other writers. Association is crucial. Charles Dickens and George Eliot were two of James’ acquaintances, along with other artists and intellectuals. I often forget how important association is. Most successful creatives throughout history have had other creatives to associate with, and gain inspiration from. Birds of a feather…
My favorite fact about Henry James is that he continued to have success later in life. The piece that is considered by many to be his first real masterpiece is Portrait of a Lady (1881), which came out in his 38th year. And one of his most famous works, Wings of the Dove, came out when he was fifty-nine. The good news about writing is that it’s not like modeling. As long as you keep at it, you can get better with age!
Following is a list of some his most notable novels and novellas. I know summer is unofficially over, but I hope you haven’t put away your summer reading list yet!
- Portrait of a Lady (1881)
- Washington Square (1881)
- The Bostonians (1886)
- The Princess Casamassima (1886)
- The Aspern Papers (1888)
- The Tragic Muse (1890)
- The American (1891)
- What Maisie Knew (1897)
- The Turn of the Screw (1898)
- The Ambassadors (1903)
- The Wings of the Dove (1902)
- The Golden Bowl (1904)
Happy reading and have a beautiful weekend,