Why I dumped Henry James

I knew when I tried to read The Portrait of a Lady, that Henry James probably wasn’t right for me. There was no spark, no chemistry in that first chapter. But then, I love Thomas Hardy. I like E.M. Forster. I devoured Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and House of Mirth. Why didn’t I like James? I decided to give him one more chance when I started reading The Turn of the Screw as my Halloween read this past month. I’d heard that it was a thrillingly creepy story and if I didn’t like his human drama, perhaps I could learn to like his horror novella.

I was wrong.

Or, my first impression of James was correct after all. Henry James is not for me. I can’t stand his grammar, that’s what it is. I even tried to read the text aloud to get a feel for his style, but that didn’t help either. Here are the first two sentences from The Turn of the Screw:

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion—an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shaken him.

In these two sentences there are 15 comas, one em dash, one semi-colon, and two periods. Fifteen commas! Even for a Victorian that’s excessive. I just couldn’t get past the prose. That hasn’t happened to me for a long time.

What is the trick to reading Henry James? Why do people (and by people I mean critics) like him so much? Any suggestions are welcome.

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One thought on “Why I dumped Henry James

  1. Anonymous

    If, and only if, you ignore the grammar and plod through it, then The Portrait of a Lady is a captivating novel; it's a masterpiece of restrained, raging drama- but I admit that it wasn't an easy read, for all the reasons you mentioned.

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