Saturday, July 15, 2017
Viewing British class and manners
In his Introduction Leon Edel writes: "British royalty dazzled America--it does still--but the British class structure and British manners were viewed with a certain distance and chill. It was one way in which the children of New England asserted their independence." Henry was a child of New England. Does he view British class and manners with enough distance and chill?
It is important to remember that Henry James’s grandfather came from Ireland and his father Henry James’s senior spent time in England before the Civil War. The James’s family roots were deeply imbedded in the soil and British history went back over a thousand years. British royalty could be traced to “Egbert (Ecgherht) was the first monarch to establish a stable and extensive rule over all of Anglo-Saxon England in 827 A.D.” James would have undoubtedly learned much about English and European history from his parents’s lengthy trips to Europe, his tutors, and his education in private schools where he learned several languages.
With this travel background and education, he wrote several short stories which were published. In 1869, he again travelled to England where he met Charles Darwin and George Eliot. American history was relatively recent and it is understandable that as the United States went through the wrenching experience of challenging slavery, fighting the Civil War, recovering from the war during Reconstruction, and focusing on material expansion in the Gilded Age, materials for a young writer searching for his own identity were more likely to be found in England and Europe. He would be attracted to the greater artistic freedom and scientific awareness that was capturing the attention of the British social and intellectual classes.
His view of British class and manners may have been more focused on how they could help in the development of the characters for his stories and he would have the opportunity to search out, meet, and discuss literary ideas with some of the established writers, like Turgenev, Flaubert, and Zola who had already explored character development.