The Women of Henry James

Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Portrait of Ahko, 1937.


Commentary on the female protagonists in the work of the American writer.

Apparently, Henry James was celibate. He never married, and didn't seem to be inclined to a bohemian life of sexual debauchery. Some of his biographers analyze his correspondence in search of clues about his sexuality. There is speculation that James could be homosexual, given the content of some of his letters. In any case, the single life seems to have helped the writer's travels through the old continent, where he settled, despite being born in the USA. Just as he seems to have helped his character as a social observer, being invited to events wherever he went, allowing the analysis of social particularities.

Many of Henry James' writings are testimonies of the societies of his time, in particular the behavior and conservative concepts of the old European civilization. Hence his appreciation for female protagonists, figures who best highlighted a century of behavioral transformations. Many were the soap operas dedicated to women, carrying their names already in the title. These novels usually come with one of the subjects most dear to James, the international subject.

The international theme is used by Henry James as a resource to analyze the difference between the psychology of Americans and Europeans living under different socio-political regimes. In this sense, we can see Henry James following similar steps to his brother, the philosopher and psychologist William James, in the task of building an intellectual identity for the young country even though Henry, early in his prolific career as a fiction writer, settled in England.

His stories were shipped across the Atlantic, where they appeared in the many literary magazines of the day, allowing James to remain a writer throughout his life. However, despite the many published writings, his fame was never popular, being well liked by intellectual circles that admired his style. Even after his death, the name of Henry James carries more breath than his work, being remembered still for his style, and even more for his ghost stories.

Ghost stories, by the way, served as inspiration for the Netflix series The Curse of Bly Manor. The most popular of Henry James' books follows this trend, The other turn of the screw, horror story published by a handful of Brazilian publishers and which serves as the main line for the aforementioned series.

But our focus in this text is on soap operas starring women, when Henry James points to a different psychological disposition among women living in a democracy and European women and men more inclined to the hereditary status of their social and economic conditions. In addition to an interesting testimony regarding the naturalization of female emancipation in a democratic scenario, the novels selected here by Henry James offer a bit of the transformative and egalitarian spirit that they expected democracy to carry, which could lead to even greater transformations.


The telenovela is not narrated in the first person, but takes on the point of view of the German Count Otto Vogelstein traveling to the USA where he will assume a post in Washington. At the stop of his steamship in Southampton, England, he accompanies the boarding of new passengers, including the young American Pandora Day who catches his eye. The count cannot divert his attention from the creature, although it is not its appearance that catches his attention so much, but its manner.

The first meeting between the two characters will take place after the vessel has set sail, after the count has spent some time observing the manners of the girl who travels with her family. In a mix-up involving ownership of chairs to sit in the sun overlooking the ocean, Pandora Day and Count Vogelstein meet and introduce themselves. She was looking for a chair for elderly parents, in yet another of her actions to take the initiative as the leader of the family, solving all her problems. For the Count, this initiative is very peculiar. A young woman shouldn't take the reins to solve her family's problems.

Pandora opens up a new universe for Vogelstein. The narrator already informed the count's interests in visiting and living in the USA in a condition of studying the behavior of this people under a democratic regime. Already in this floating box that takes him to the other side of the Atlantic, he has his first contact with a novelty that will never cease to cause him strangeness and wonder.

Pandora Day is one of those girls that Vogelstein will discover, already in American lands, to be dealing with a self made girl, an independent girl, who works, uses social occasions to make contacts that open doors for her. It is interesting for the reader to read between the lines of some situations and some dialogues. Henry James does not promote the cynicism of claiming that Pandora gets what she gets through freedom and knowing how to use that freedom; in a dialogue at a party with the elite of the Federal District, conjecturing about the self made girls, a lady says, "it's because we allow it". Doors don't open for everyone, but sometimes they open for those nearby.

What is evident in this novel is the construction of a character who is psychologically willing to take on the task of being the head of her family. Her parents are elderly and stay on the sidelines, waiting for the eldest to solve all the bad weather. through the international theme, James tries to paint this character as possessing a freshness given by the political experimentation of the country where he comes from. Placing a German from the aristocracy marks this strangeness with people able to rise in social status, but above all with the freedom that women, especially the younger ones, have in assuming the role of managers.

We cannot deny that this trend was already common in the lowest income segments of society, but it comes as a real surprise when witnessed in the highest income sectors, given to a conservatism that maintains their privileges. Pandora seeks to seize every opportunity that appears to her, not surprising that her trip to Europe that precedes the beginning of the narrative was to “raise culture”, to show the pillars of Western culture to her younger sister. This is also a source of learning for Pandora itself, which will be inserted in the midst of an increasingly common habit among Americans with a little more wealth: cultural tourism. With what she learned from her months of traveling in Europe, the returning Pandora will know how to place herself among the bourgeois elite of Washington, in a movement that will eventually earn her a job in Holland.

Daisy Miller

The success of this novel was such that the name Daisy Miller is used by the narrator of Pandora (published years later) as a resource for talking about a certain kind of American girl, the independent girl given to flirting for sport. Different than Pandora, this soap opera takes place in Europe, following the season that the young Daisy Miller spends there. Again, the perspective is male, following the confusion caused in the male mentality by encountering such a singular character.

The interesting thing about the construction of characters by Henry James, as in the case of the male protagonist Frederick Winterbourne, is that despite being from the USA, he was educated in Europe, thus gathering some qualities of the morality of the old continent. Rumor has it that Frederick Winterbourne has an affair with an older lady he has gone to visit in Vevey, Switzerland, but that doesn't detract from his judgmental nature of a character like Daisy Miller.

In turn, Daisy is completely enchanted by everything she sees in Europe, in a romantic rush common to Henry James's female characters who are enchanted by European culture, marveling at the scenery visited. However, Daisy Miller has a difference from the other characters, having an interest in being part of the European high society that she witnesses.

Winterbourne is impressed by Daisy Miller's beauty, and so he continues to accompany her, to meet her, even though he disapproves of her tendency to flirt, which is also present in the way she dresses. The class conflict, which could already be noticed in Pandora, and which will be noticed in greater proportion in an international episode, is present here as well. Winterbourne's aunt will more directly disapprove of the relationship between the two and the growing closeness of her nephew to the American girl based on the relationship established between Daisy Miller's family and her employee. A high-class family does not have such a friendly relationship with its employees.

Daisy Miller finds herself surrounded by European moral values, even when seeking the company of compatriots who, because they have lived in Europe for so long, have also come to live based on a different set of morals. The disapproval of Daisy Miller's behavior comes from all over the place, and we could say that it is what meets her later downfall.

Despite the progressive paint job given to the US, the soap opera received negative reviews which saw American girls being colored in such a way that it seemed to indicate that all American girls are coquettes. Throughout the work, we see Henry James's attempt to describe American women, especially young women, as independent, and with difficulty in discerning moral distinctions between classes – in particular the distance between people of different classes. In this particular work, we note Daisy Miller's attempt to progressively distance herself from this universe of censorship.

an international episode

In the same year of publication of Daisy Miller, it went out an international episode. A slightly longer novel, it has the particularity of describing events that took place on both sides of the Atlantic, with characters from both sides. Again, the US is represented by the female characters while Europe is represented by the male characters.

What we find in this soap opera are two Englishmen, a member of high society and his companion visiting the US on business – he was not born into a family as privileged as his compatriot, but belongs to the upper political classes of parliamentarism. On the other side, two women from Boston, the city portrayed by Henry James as a kind of intellectual capital of the USA in the second half of the century. The focus of the quartet is the relationship between the English aristocrat, Lord Lambeth, with the young Bostonian Bessie Alden.

The group meets at the summer house belonging to Bessie's sister, Mrs Westgate. Indeed, belonging to her ever-absent husband on business in New York, appearing in the narrative only to send the foreign duo to the island. Bessie Alden is an avid reader with a romantic view of England and its aristocracy. She approaches, delighted, Lord Lambeth who is surprised by the character. She is a very opinionated girl, who asks him about many things that he does not know how to answer. The proximity between the two little by little undermines the romantic view nurtured by Bessie in her readings: Lord Lambeth is an aristocrat, but of little culture, he doesn't have much to say about England, about his position, about his political involvements, even though he is he a member of the House of Lords. Your privileged position is based solely on the luck of your birth.

In any case, the first impression made by English friends on their summer season in the USA is positive. They have a lot of fun in a house that always has its doors open, receiving various guests, managing tours through the local villages and along the beach – occasionally there is someone in one of the rooms doing readings for the group. On one of these outdoor walks, Bessie and her sister are invited to visit Lord Lambeth in England.

The soap opera's great shock comes in this scenario transposition, when the English become hosts. Mrs Westgate, who had already been to England and has some friends there, knew that people behave in this conservative society quite differently. Bessie shouldn't be hoping to meet Lord Lambeth. Anyway, they meet. Lord Lambeth seems genuinely interested in Bessie's quirks. But their peers, their relatives, do not accept this relationship. Mrs Westgate warns that certain Bessie behaviors acceptable in the US are not acceptable in England – just as Daisy Miller warned.

The big break, however, is of an intellectual nature. Bessie's initial admiration for Lord Lambeth comes from an idealization of what would be the aristocracy of the old continent. A resident of cultured Boston, Bessie cannot accept Lord Lambeth's illiterate stance. She wanted to participate in soirées with artists, intellectuals, but the parties that Lord Lambeth attends hardly bring together these people, usually members of the lower classes. Again, a class relationship is formed, so pronounced in Europe for an American of the XNUMXth century. It is particularly interesting to interpret this way in which Henry James points to the lack of merit among the upper classes. People who, by luck of birth, are endowed with the highest privileges, among them being able to enjoy a life of leisure.

*Yves Sao Paulo is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at UFBA. editor of Sisyphus Magazine, book author The metaphysics of cinephilia (Publisher Fi, 2020). Write about cinema on the blog follow the scene.

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