Home » Victorian Authors List » Henry James Biography

Henry James Biography

“It’s time to start living the life you’ve imagined”

Early life

James was born on April 15, 1843, in New York city of America to the already well known in those times Henry James Sr. Henry James Sr. was a theologian and Swedenborgianism (a group of Christians formed a new religious group who worshipped the idols of the scientist Emanuel Swedenborg). Henry James was born in a family of writers, with a psychologist brother, William James and a diarist sister, Alice James.

Henry was sent to foreign to study and then at the age of nineteen, he went to Harvard Law School. Even after majoring in law, he was interested in writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Honoré de Balzac and Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve.

Henry James major works

Two years after his law school admission his first story ‘A Tragedy of Error’ got anonymously published in New York Continental Monthly. The Atlantic Monthly, editor William Dean Howells became his friend and mentor who used to publish him regularly.

Since then he has written several short stories and plays. But he wrote his first novel almost after ten years of his writing career titled ‘A Portrait of a Lady.

A Portrait of a lady

A Portrait of a Lady was first published as a serial in Macmillan’s Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly in the 1880s and then was published as a novel in 1881. It is one of the most famous and significant works of James which has not only put forward the idea of individuality of women but also the dominant position social customs and beliefs have on any individual.

The novel has covered the dynamics of two relatively forward society yet different from each other is many aspects. He uses optimism, action, innocence, and individualism to represent Americans while to represent Europe he uses decadence, social convention, tradition and Sophistication.

He writes about the fear of death of women’s freedom with marriage vows and the individuality which is lost by most of the women due to social constraints.

Isabel, his protagonist is a free soul American who does not want to sacrifice her freedom and self-love. But eventually, she settles with the incorrect man and regrets her vows.

She then decides to leave the marriage and comes to America from the rigidness of European traditions. But in the end, she leaves behind everything and returns to the truth of her social obligation towards her marriage.

Daisy Miller

Again in this novel, originally published in 1878, James compares the values of Americans and Europeans and describes the distinguishing features in both the countries.

He hits the reality when he narrates the story of Daisy Miller who was being judged by Winterbourne because of her cool and carefree behaviour. How people are bound by social expectation and presume things according to what they see is what has been highlighted by James in this novel.

Turn of the screw

Originally published in 1898, evidence of his diverse writing, Turn of the Screw is a horror novella which deals with a woman aspiring and willing to love a gentleman and winning the love of the man at any cost.

Interestingly this novel can give a wrong impression initially about how the governess and emperor plot would eventually lead to that of gothic romances instead it brings some supernatural and ghostly twist to the story and makes it more engaging.

Adaptations of Henry James’ work

He has been adopted not only in different forms, like plays, dramas, songs, movies etc. , but has also been followed and applauded in different languages. In French (13 adaptations), Spanish (7), Italian (6), German (5), Portuguese (1), Yugoslavian (1) and many more.

There have been as many as 28 adaptations of a single story ‘the Turn of the Screw, 17 times of the novel ‘The Aspern Papers’, 3 times of the book ‘The American’ and several others.

Short stories by Henry James

He has written short stories like “The Figure in the Carpet” (1896), “A Tragedy of Error” (1864), “The Story of a Year” (1865), and a lot more.

James has a very exciting style of writing which he depicts in his distinctive works and interesting plots like that of The Tragedy of Error which is murder thriller of husband, wife and a lover, yet it questions the intersectionality between poverty and murder hence making it more entertaining.

Legacy of Henry James

He worked with the issues relating to consciousness, liberty and perception. His major writings show how he was critical about the love for Americans and the values they follow.

His love for Americans is shown in his famous quotes also:

“If I were to live my life over again, I would be an American. I would steep myself in America, I would know no other land.”

Henry James Realism

James approach towards writing was according to him, Realism. His idea of realism dealt only with opposite of romanticism. His concept of realism is of Psychological Realism.

Earlier realism was the idea of accepting the situation and things as it is and then reacting to it accordingly. But he covered the idea of psychological realism and despite poverty, war, patriarchy he dealt with issues like self-individualism, freedom, dominance, women oppression and many other analytical questions.

Many writers criticize James for this style of writing because they couldn’t understand the theory of psychological realism which is well-accepted today.

Later Life and Demise 

Henry James lived in America and Europe for more than twenty-five years but eventually settled in England. He became a resident of the country in 1915 just one year before his death on 28 February 1916. Before his death, he surprisingly altered his will and gave mostly everything to his brother William James’s son and wife, who died in 1910.

Fascinatingly he removed one of his nephews from the will because he printed wartime pamphlets which James did not like. He wrote his autobiographies “A Small Boy and Others”, and “Notes of a Son and Brother” in 1913.

He worked for the world war and died gaining the Order of Merit and ironically being a resident of Europe. As wished, after he died in Chelsea, London his ashes were buried in Cambridge Cemetery in Massachusetts.

Henry James once quoted “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”