The Jolly Corner by Henry James

The Jolly Corner by Henry James book cover


Goodreads: “The Jolly Corner”
Series: None
Source: DailyLit
Published: 1908

Official Summary

The Jolly Corner was first published in 1908 in The English Review. Henry James describes the adventures of Spencer Brydon as he explores the empty New York house where he grew up. He encounters a “sensation more complex than had ever before found itself consistent with sanity.” The Jolly Corner is the nickname he gave to his childhood home. Brydon begins to believe that his alter ego-the ghost of the man he might have been is haunting the house. The theme of unlived lives runs throughout the story.

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The Jolly Corner is what I might call a “typical” Henry James story, one told in somewhat convoluted prose that explores some psychological horror the protagonist is experiencing (not to be confused with a story that would actually frighten the reader).  While there is some food for thought in it, it can take some muddling through to get there, and I think the main points could be conveyed much more succinctly.

The general premise is that the main character returns from abroad to New York City, where he holds some property that he could have inhabited but never did.  He meets with a young lady who prompts him to think about this “possible life” and subsequently becomes obsessed with visiting the empty property and looking for the ghost of his alternate self, the person he would have been if he’d chosen to liven in New York.  There’s a bit of Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” about the story, as the protagonist is consumed by thoughts and perhaps visions only he can access and descends into a bit of madness because of it.

The idea that our choices determine who we are is, I think, inherently interesting.  I’d wager that most readers have taken a moment to ponder how their lives might have been different if they’d chosen to go to College B instead of College A or if they had accepted Job Y instead of Job X or if they had pursued art lessons instead of piano lessons.  Would our personalities be different?  Our incomes?  Our families and friends?    James’s protagonist is simply different in that he can inhabit the space he believes would have led to a different life, roaming the empty rooms and looking for his alternate self behind corners and closed doors.  It’s unlikely readers visit college campuses they never attended and intensely ponder what it would have been like to go there, after all.  So James takes the basic “What if?” idea and brings it to a dramatic depth, building the “horror” of the story.

But that was basically it for me.  James could have, like me, asked the basic question of, “How would life be different if I had made this specific choice?” in the space of a single paragraph, but to make it a whole story involves drawing out, something James is good at (if you’re into that).  Personally, I often think most of his prose is “atmospheric.”  He builds that setting and the mental state of his characters with complex sentences, but ultimately little more is happening than the protagonist roaming the halls and having an existential crisis, which is a let-down if you’re looking for more of a plot.

The Jolly Corner is worth reading in the sense that it’s short and raises some thought-provoking questions, but it ultimately is a Henry James story written in Henry James prose, which is something some readers like and others don’t.

3 Stars

Washington Square by Henry James


Goodreads: Washington Square
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1880

Official Summary

(From the Signet Edition)

The plot of Washington Square has the simplicity of old-fashioned melodrama: a plain-looking, good-hearted young woman, the only child of a rich widower, is pursued by a charming but unscrupulous man who seeks the wealth she will presumably inherit. On this premise, Henry James constructed one of his most memorable novels, a story in which love is answered with betrayal and loyalty leads inexorably to despair.”

— from the Introduction by Peter Conn

In Washington Square (1880), Henry James reminisces about the New York he had known thirty years before as he tells the story of Catherine Sloper and her fortune-seeking suitor Morris Townsend. This perceptively drawn human drama is James’ most accessible work and an enduring literary triumph.

Washington Square Press’ Enriched Classics present the great works of world literature enhanced for the contemporary reader. This edition of Washington Square has been prepared by Peter Conn, Andrea Mitchell Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. It includes his introduction, notes, selection of critical excerpts, and suggestions for further reading as well as a unique visual essay of period illustrations and photographs.

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Washington Square, if reduced to its core plot, sounds a bit dull: It’s about a young woman, Caroline, who becomes engaged to a man her father suspects of courting her only for her money and her struggles to be true to both pieces of her heart, the part that wants to honor and obey her father and the part that wants to marry the man she loves.  The book is relatively quiet, without much drama, but it’s a fascinating character study, not just of the protagonist but of all the people who surround her become invested in her courtship.

Caroline’s father, a doctor, is the voice of reason in the novel; one frequently finds oneself rooting for him, his pragmatism, and his insight into the human soul, even if there are times he seems to be a little too cool and logical.  Her aunt is the opposite, overly romantic and determined to involve herself in the affair of others simply because she thinks things have a certain aura about them; she will, for instance, arrange clandestine meetings with nothing to say to the person she’s meeting simple because the idea of a secret rendezvous has an appeal to her.  She’s also a bit of a Panderus, determined to act as a go-between for separated lovers.

The protagonist is quieter, but her inner struggles are fascinating as she tries to balance her love for two different people who do not (will not) get along.  Even today, when many readers might romanticize the idea of Caroline just telling her father to get over himself because she’s going to marry whom she wants no matter what he thinks, her desire to respect her father’s opinions while also courting a man he dislikes is arresting, and one cannot help but hope there will be a way for it to all work out amicably.  It’s also great to see a somewhat quiet character who also has a spine and iron will that the other characters do not always suspect.

Henry James’s work can be a bit of an acquired taste, or maybe just polarizing, but Washington Square is very readable–more so than some of his other texts if you’ve tried them–and will likely appeal to readers who like classics and romances in general.

4 stars

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James


Goodreads: The Turn of the Screw
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1898


A young governess accepts a new position on a grand but isolated estate that comes with but one condition: she is never to contact the guardian of her charges about any circumstances that may arise while they are under her care.  All goes well until the governess believes she is seeing the ghosts of two former employees and that it is up to her to save the children from their malicious intents.


For many, The Turn of the Screw is a captivating, heart-pounding Gothic mystery that keeps readers glued to the pages.  For me, the story was a total bore.  Often I feel I can see something worthwhile and interesting in classics, even if I personally don’t love them., but Henry James is really making me struggle to do so here.

The story revolves around some mysterious figures that a new governess believes she sees hanging around her new charges on an isolated estate.  Who are they?  What do they want?  Are they really there?  If something sinister is happening, what exactly is it?  But as fascinating as these questions sound in theory, I thought James dragged them out, and the final payoff was hardly worth the trouble.

Add to this the fact that James has an extremely convoluted prose style, and it just makes every point even harder to get to in the narrative.  Now, I read a lot of old literature: Milton, Shakespeare, texts in Middle English.  All these texts are frequently labelled as having complicated prose, but James can give them a run for their money.  His issue is not that he has an unusual word order (older texts aren’t always straightforward with the subject-verb-object arrangement in sentences).  Rather, the problem is that he tends to start a sentence, stick a couple clauses with fairly extraneous information in the middle of the sentence, and then finally get to the actual main point of the sentence several lines’ worth of writing later.  It makes it hard to even find the main point of the sentence at times.

There’s probably something in here for people who like mysterious and Gothic literature, but I’ve read better Gothic literature.  This one is pretty much a pass from me.  It’s fairly short, but feels enormously long.

2 stars Briana

The Bostonians by Henry James

The BostoniansInformation

Goodreads: The Bostonians
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1885-86


Young Verena Tarrant seems poised to conquer Boston society as a charming speaker on women’s issues and fierce feminist Olive Chancellor is determined to see her all the way.  However, when Mississippian Basil Ransom enters the picture, the feminist and the Southern chauvinist will have to engage in battle to determine who will possess Verena.


The Bostonians may be considered a classic, but I have to suspect that it may have been far more interesting in its time.  No doubt the depictions of Boston society would have been of more pertinence to contemporary readers while the character of Basil Ransom, a Southerner who fought in the Civil War now transplanted to New England, would have touched on the still-raw emotions created by the conflict.  However, even while I recognize elements that have thematic interest, I found myself mostly engaged with the struggle between the feminist Olive Chancellor and the sexist Ransom–a struggle that often seems far too simplistic to give a book about women’s issues the relevance it deserves.

Though the book touches upon various members of the feminist movement, few of them are painted sympathetically and, even when they are, the feeling remains that the author suspects their motives misguided and their efforts sometimes silly.  Meanwhile, Olive Chancellor, as the most prominent member of the women’s rights circle, manages to gain the status of representation for the whole movement, even as she clearly represents the most extreme side.  Addicted to suffering, determined to find men at fault for all wrongs and women for all rights (the bad women of history, she says, must have been so because of men!), and revengeful to the extreme, Olive hates all men personally and passionately.  When her protegee Verena protests that they have met nice men, Olive refuses to admit it–she hates them for being nice.  It must be an act.  There must be something wrong with them because they are men.  Obsessed with this thought, she bars almost all leisure and pleasure from her life and Verena’s, talking and thinking only of the plight of women throughout history.  Verena expresses once the idea that hearing music made her forget, for a moment, about the plight–but this, to Olive, is practically a sin.

Olive’s all-consuming passion to be revenged on men for history makes her claim Verena possessively.  She controls the girl, makes her report all her actions, wants to make the girl swear off marriage.  She is jealous to the point of absurdity and restrictive to the point of madness.  Accordingly, some readers may wish Basil Ransom success in marrying Verena–a rescue must be made!–but he is just as bad.

Henry James depicts Basil as believing women exist solely to be agreeable to men. He thinks himself still chivalrous in the Southern tradition and tells himself that women do have rights–the right to small attentions from a man, such as having him find a woman a seat in a crowded hall.  However, though Basil thinks himself so fearfully attentive and charming, he repeatedly refuses women even these small attentions when it would interfere with his own desires.  Worse still, he proposes to throw history back farther than it already is, subjugating women even more, making politics available only to a certain class, etc.  The book calls him a “conservative,” but, like Olive, he goes much farther than most of his colleagues.  By the end, he appears as simply odious, delighting in hurting Verena simply because it proves his power as a man over her (one suspects he is secretly frightened by her success while he himself languishes in obscurity and poverty).

The struggle between women and men thus almost verges on the ridiculous, except that most readers will know that men and women like Basil and Olive really do exist.  Still, if the battle of the sexes has to be acted out in this book, it seems strange that no middle road is ever provided.  It is almost as if the author does not believe one can exist, cannot see how a truce is ever to be made.

One might hope that Verena Tarrant herself would provide an answer, or at least some sort of relief–the story has a dreadful aspect to it, filled as it is with unlikable characters and repulsive views.  Verena, though light and pretty, unfortunately seems to have little intelligence–or at least no will to wield it.  She yields to the strongest will in the room time and again; one begins to wonder which thoughts are her own and which the thoughts of another.  She herself seems to have trouble distinguishing.

The Bostonians is no doubt an important work (even more so in its day), but I would never call it a pleasurable read.  I remember it most for its unflattering depictions of just about everyone and everything, and its dismal outlook on the relations of men and women.

Krysta 64