How Henry James's family tried to keep him in the closet

Towards the end of 1915, as he became increasingly unwell, Henry James revised his will. He left Singer Sargent’s portrait of him, made two years earlier for his 70th birthday, to the National Portrait Gallery. He cut one nephew out of his will – the son of his brother Bob had published an anti-war pamphlet of which he disapproved. Although he had become a British citizen, he directed that his ashes should be buried in the family grave in Cambridge in Massachusetts. He left most of his estate to the family of his brother William. William had died in 1910.

On 4 December 1915 Singer Sargent wrote to Edmund Gosse: “Henry James has had two slight strokes within the past 48 hours. He is paralysed on the left side – his brain is clear and his speech. A nephew has been called for from America.”

The news of his illness was broken to friends, including Edith Wharton, by James’s devoted amanuensis, Theodora Bosanquet, who spent each day with James at his flat in Chelsea. Years later, Wharton reported that James’s friend Howard Sturgis had been told by the novelist that his first thought on falling was: “So it has come at last – the Distinguished Thing.” Another friend reported that she heard James say: “It’s the beast in the jungle, and it’s sprung.”

As his temperature went up and down, James asked Bosanquet to bring the typewriter into the bedroom. He began to dictate sentences about Napoleon Bonaparte, soon imagining that he himself was Napoleon as he grew delirious.

On 13 December, the formidable Alice James, the widow of William, arrived in London, having braved the Atlantic. Mrs James had years before promised her husband that she would “see Henry through when he comes to the end”. She dismissed Bosanquet and took over the management of the household. She disapproved of Miss Bosanquet’s writing to Wharton with news of James’s condition. Being a good Boston matron, she harboured an intense dislike of Wharton. Burgess Noakes, James’s servant from Rye, remained with him, having returned from the war. “It is a touching sight,” Alice wrote, “to see little Burgess holding his hand and half kneeling in the chair beside him, his face very near to Henry, trying to understand the confused words Henry murmurs to him.”

James was still raving, believing that he that he was in Cork in Ireland or in California or at Lamb House in Rye. At times, his hand would move, mimicking a hand in the act of writing.

In the New Year, James’s name was included in the honours list, being offered the Order of Merit. As his condition worsened, his nephew Harry, son of William and Alice, arrived in London and prepared himself to be his uncle’s executor. Peggy, Harry’s sister, was also there.

Henry James died on 28 February 1916. The memorial service was held in Chelsea Old Church; the body was cremated at Golders Green and then the ashes smuggled into the US by Alice.

At one moment, as he lay dying, James discussed her sons – his nephews – with his sister-in-law and then said: “Tell them to follow, to be faithful, to take me seriously.” This would become more important than he imagined in the years after his death as the family of his brother took control of his estate. In his book Monopolizing the Master, published in 2012, Michael Anesko sought to outline the struggle that went on to control James’s posthumous reputation.

It began some years before James’s death as the novelist worked on the volume of his autobiography called Notes of a Son and Brother. As he began to use letters written by his brother William in this book, letters that had been given to him by his sister-in-law, he felt free to make amendments to suit his own purposes. Harry wrote to his uncle sharply when news of this leaked out. When Henry replied: “the sad thing is I think you’re right in being offended”, Harry wrote an exclamation mark in the margin. He wished to control publication of his father’s letters himself.

Both Harry and his sister Peggy were also concerned about the literary legacy of their aunt Alice (not to be confused with their mother, also called Alice). Both of them had all of the James entitlement without any of the talent of the older generation. They were dull people and they craved respectability. Wharton called Harry, who was a graduate of Harvard Law School and later was involved in the governance of Harvard, “the great & grim brother”. Bosanquet noted: “He has a tremendous chin – the most obstinate-looking jaw.”

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