First serialised in Scribners magazine in 1879 and published in full during the same year, Confidence is a light romantic comedy of marriage declined and accepted. The plot centres upon three... More > characters, Bernie Longueville, an artist, Gordy Wright, a scientist, and Angie Vivien without occupation but a strong, gregarious female. When Gordy asks Bernie whether he should marry Angela, Bernie, having already met her, advises against it. Yet later, when Bernie again meet Angela, he realises that he loves her himself and proposes.
Confidence is unusual for James in that it is light and comedic. While there are familiar themes including the pressure to marry, it is the treatment that marks it out. There is also an impression that James was keen to provide a resolution in the set of relationships and critics have suggested that the one provides, and its means, was somewhat contrived.< Less
First appearing in the Cornhill Magazine in 1878 and published book form a year later, Daisy Miller is a novella that follows the fortunes of the eponymous character as she manoeuvres around the... More > courtship of Frederick Winterbourne, while acting flirtatiously with a young Italian.
Winterbourne is advised against this pursuit on the grounds that Miller is hardly marriageable material considering her nature, but he continues with his courtship regardless. The resolution, when it arrives, turns the story from romance into tragedy.
Daisy Miller follows familiar themes for James, notably the strong, outgoing female lead as an American abroad, contrasting with a more staid male harbouring differing opinions about the old world. The other notable aspect is the familiarity between Miller and Minny Temple, a strong spirited woman James knew before her death from Tuberculosis.< Less
Originally serialised in the Atlantic Monthly during 1875 and published in book form later in the same year, Roderick Hudson was James' first novel notwithstanding the earlier Watch and Ward, which... More > the author preferred to disregard. Strong with autobiographical elements, the plot concerns travails and travels of the eponymous character, a talented sculptor, and his relationship with Rowland Mallet.
Recognising Hudson's talent as an artist, Mallet resolves to fund a move to Europe. On the same day he falls in love with Mary Garland, a house guest to the Hudsons. Unable to declare his love, he leaves for Europe with Hudson only to discover that before he left the artist had proposed to Garland and she had accepted. With such a tension between the two characters, James fashions a plot to take advantage of it.< Less
Originally serialised within the North American Review in 1903 and published in book form later the same year, The Ambassadors uses a rather contrived plot to further examine European society through... More > the eyes of an innocent American. Here the principal expatriate is represented by Lambert Strether who is sent off to Europe by his rich fiancé in search of her wayward son Chad. During his trip, Strether comes to question his American upbringing and, in the process doubt, the sense in his forthcoming marriage, especially when he meets, through Chad, Marie de Vionnet and her daughter Jeanne.
The Ambassadors was one of the highlights of James' late period, using dark, and at times, a terribly subtle ironic slant to cut a slice into American mores. Many critics consider the novel James' best though the dissenters cite plot irregularities or at least the choices of Strether as its weak points.< Less
Originally serialised in the Atlantic Monthly between 1876 and 1877 then published in book form within a year, The American was James' second novel after Roderick Hudson. The plot, which eventually... More > runs amok, concerns the efforts of Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman, to marry the beautiful French widow Claire de Cintre. Newman's progress, which at times runs counter to the wishes of Cintre's family and at other times to their tune, is further complicated by hidden secrets and social mores.
Unfortunately, while the first half of the book keeps matters under restraint, it seems James literally lost the plot during the second half, allowing all the available threads to find their own limits rather than tying them onto the central thread of Newman's pursuit. This fraying of the threads creates a sense of mayhem that is unusual in a James novel in which, typically, the plot is underdone.< Less
Originally serialised in the Atlantic Monthly during 1888 and published in book form the same year, The Aspern Papers is a celebrated novella from the middle stage of James' career. The plot concerns... More > the efforts of the unnamed narrator to obtain letters and papers by the fictional American poet Jeffery Aspern believed to be held by his former lover Juliana Bordereau. Pretending to be courting Bordereau's niece, the narrator gains access to the household and thinks he is within touching distance of his prize. James based the characters on Percy Bysshe Shelley and the letters he wrote to Claire Clairmont, the step sister of Mary Shelley.
The Aspern Papers is rightly acclaimed as one of James' best written tales. It reads more as a suspense novel and manages to hold the reader in place until the final revelations and events over the last few pages. The theme of the literary biographer in search of undiscovered letters or papers has appeared subsequently by authors including Somerset Maugham and A.S. Byatt.< Less
Originally serialised in Harpers Weekly between 1898 and 1899, subsequently published in book form, The Awkward Age deals with the social mores of English upper class life. The plot revolves around... More > the young, attractive and intelligent Nanda, daughter of the Brookenhams, who has turned eighteen and entered that 'awkward age'. Her suitors include a young civil servant Vanderbank, who has little money behind him, and the rich but naïve Mitchy who may yet be in love with another.
The novel is particularly heavy in dialogue and what narration it uses is loftily presented, away from the characters. By concentrating more on the dialogue, James allowed the plot to be presented from differing perspectives. Critics have noted similarities between this novel and the earlier, What Masie Knew, with Nanda as the more mature Maisie.< Less
First published in 1903 as part of the collection called The Better Sort, The Beast in the Jungle is a short novella about John Marcher who has a strong foreboding that his life will be defined by... More > one single spectacular event. He meets May Bartram, a woman he knew earlier in his life and they decide to live together ostensibly so that she might witness this profound event that he is sure will take place, the prophetic beast, waiting in the jungle to ambush him. Once the James reveals the nature of that event it's far too late to change course.
The story can be read as a parable about the meaning or direction of life, but it can also be read autobiographically. James never married and, we might presume, had limited relations with women. He might have married more than once but decided not to. This story, written late in his career can be seen as looking back on a life with regret, though not a life without achievement.< Less
Originally serialised in the Century Magazine between 1885 and 1886, before being published in book form later that year, The Bostonians is unusual for a James novel in that it is presented as a... More > light social tragicomedy set in America. The plot centres upon what is in effect a love triangle between, on the one side, the lawyer and Civil War veteran Basil Ransom, on the other his cousin Olive Chancellor, and in between the young, pretty feminist Verena Tarrant.
Though James doesn't explicitly talk of a lesbian relationship between Olive and Verena, the fact that he has them living together and sets a precedent with the term 'A Boston Marriage' to describe this state (the term would later be used to summarise such an arrangement), did place the novel in a precarious position with the more conservative critics in America.< Less
First serialised in the Atlantic Monthly in 1878, The Europeans was published in book form later that year after being heavily revised by James. An early work in his career, following on from The... More > American, the previous year, the novel is unusually set in America, where two siblings, emanating from Europe where they travelled extensively, are trying to settle with their cousins. One of this pair, Eugenia Munster, is seeking an end to an unsuccessful marriage, while the other, Felix Young, is looking to marry for the first time.
James' purpose for the novel was as an examination of American society using the Eugenia and Felix as innocent parties against which the omniscient narrator could present the author's observations. Whilst some critics understood this objective, others, many of them contemporary, saw the novel as to slight – at around 59,000 words it only just exceeds a novella size – and in some instances lightly written. Modern assessments have been less harsh.< Less