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MonkeyNotes-Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
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BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Author Information

Henry James was born in 1843 to Henry and Mary James, an independently wealthy couple, who had five children, four boys and one girl. Henry Sr., was an extremely conservative thinker who spent his time working out his own theological system. This system prescribed roles for women and men which emphasized the view that women were non-persons, nothing but a "form of personal affection" and that men were naturally brutish. Women, as Mr. Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady believes, are morally useful for civilizing and constraining men. The James siblings were quite close. The most famous of them, aside from Henry, was William James, the eldest. He became a famous psychologist and pragmatic philosopher. His sister, Alice, was a gifted thinker, but suffered the effects of living under an oppressive patriarchy throughout her life.

Henry James was educated by private tutors and in private and public schools in the States and in Europe. In his childhood and youth, he lived in New York, Geneva, London, Paris, and Newport. In 1862, he went to Harvard Law School. He left Harvard soon after and began writing. He published his first short story when he was twenty-one years old.


When he was thirty-three, James moved to England and when he was seventy-two, he became a British citizen. He did so as a sign of his support of England during World War I. He died shortly afterwards. When he died, he was a critically successful writer, but certainly not a popular one. Most of his works had gone out of print. Many U.S. Americans didnít like his writing out of a sense of patriotism; they were offended by his portrait of Americans as cloddish and naive against the superior and sophisticated if sometimes perverse Europeans of his fiction. Many of those who read his novels didnít like them because their subject matter was so limited to the upper class world of country estates and arranged marriages. The style of his late period didnít help him gain any democratic followers. That style was so elaborately sophisticated, spent such exquisite time on the minute workings of momentary social interactions, that people were either bored or frustrated. James recognized by this time that his writing was "insurmountably unsaleable."

He was better treated after his death. His critical popularity has been steadily growing since the 1930s and 1940s. His experimentation with fiction writing is said to have freed the novel of its heritage in journalism and romance. He is now known as a psychological or social realist par excellance.

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