Henry James’s funeral, 100 years ago today

The weather was dull, cold and very wet, but just before 1.30 pm mourners were still being Kept waiting in the pouring rain outside Chelsea Old Church – except for the Ranee of Sarawak and Mrs Lucy Clifford, who sat cosily in the former’s car. In due course the verger turned up, and the congregation filed in. Among them was Henry James’s Lamb House gardener George Gammon, who had come up from Rye that morning for the funeral and sat in the front row with the other servants. Earlier he had been led in to see his master’s corpse, and commented, “He has kept very well, hasn’t he?”

James had been lying in the fifth-floor corner flat at 21 Carlyle Mansions, in nearby Cheyne Walk, a block built in 1886 (and later inhabited by T. S. Eliot, Somerset Maugham and Ian Fleming). When he took it in 1912 he had told Lucy Clifford it offered “two ‘best’ rooms on the river, with an admirable exposure and view”; and was “in every way propitious to such possible further winterings in town as I may be spared to perpetrate”. Indeed, he had written some of his memoir Notes of a Son and Brother (1914) there, dictating to his amanuensis Theodora Bosanquet, who lived round the corner in a flat at 10 Lawrence Street.
Despite failing health, particularly chronic angina pectoris, James might have completed more books but for the advent of war. He wrote to Edward Emerson on August 4, 1914 that “It has all come as by the leap of some awful monster out of his lair – he is upon us, he is upon all of us here, before we have had time to turn round”. The effect was devastating: “It gives away everything one has believed in & lived for”. British friends and their children were wounded or killed. James flung himself into the war effort – caring for Belgian refugees, visiting wounded soldiers, serving as honorary president of the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps. Though it was draining, James could cherish what he called, writing to Edith Wharton in May 1915, “the unspeakable adventure of being alive in these days”. He was especially tormented by the prolongation of American neutrality in the face of German aggression – to the point of taking the oath of allegiance on July 26, 1915. “Civis Britannicus sum!” he wrote to Edmund Gosse. London friends were pleased. On August 8, he told Rhoda Broughton of the many welcoming reactions to his act of conscience, declaring that “like old Martin Luther, ‘Here I stand, I can no other’”. But his given reasons looked suspect if not downright treasonous to American detractors, and he hoped for relief, as he told Lucy Clifford the next day, from “White’s Spectator thing” of August 14 – Dr J. William White’s article revealing “another and probably a controlling factor” in James’s decision: an “intense dislike for and disapprobation of the official attitude of America since the beginning of the war”, based on “the principles of civilization and of humanity”.
The strain seems to have been too much. On July 30, only four days after his great step, James was again taken ill. His diary would look back: “Date from that day the beginning, with intermissions, very brief, of all this late and present (Sept. 12th) crisis”. Perhaps foreseeing the end, in October he went back down to Lamb House and as his sister-in-law would record “burned up quantities of papers and photographs”. But he became so ill he sat up for three nights, breathing with difficulty. His Rye doctor, Skinner, conveyed the truth: that, as he told Rhoda Broughton on November 15, he was suffering “a bad heart-crisis . . . . Bustling is at an end for me for ever now”.
By this time he was back in London. James’s last recorded letter, on December 1, to his niece Peggy, records months of insomnia; though dictated, it ends “the pen drops from my hand”. That evening he looked over the pages of his unfinished novel The Sense of the Past. On the morning of Thursday, December 2, he suffered a stroke which left him with brain damage and paralysis on the left side (he subsequently contracted pneumonia in his right lung). Theodora Bosanquet was fetched at once. Her diary records that “Mr. James . . . told me he had a stroke ‘in the most approved fashion’”. As he fell, he would recount to his friend Fanny Prothero when she visited later that day, “he heard in the room a voice which was distinctly, it seemed, not his own, saying: ‘So here it is at last, the distinguished thing!’” According to his biographer Leon Edel, James also referred to the title of one of his own best-known stories: the maid Minnie Kidd, who found him, reported hearing James say “It’s the beast in the jungle, and it’s sprung”. It pounced again, in the form of a second stroke, the following day, after which James became confused about where he was.
Theodora Bosanquet, left in charge, cabled the late William James’s widow Alice Howe Gibbens James and her son Henry James III in America. On December 6, she wrote to Edith Wharton, who had asked to be kept informed, that her position vis-à-vis James was poignant, because “seeing and hearing me only troubles his mind with thoughts of his work”. She told her diary on the 10th that “he has lost his own unmistakeable identity – is just a simple sick man”. It was however during this first fortnight that, in his confusion, James attempted to carry on writing – with trying results for Bosanquet, as she told Wharton on the 12th:
“At present he is perfectly capable of taking in who is talking to him or being spoken about but has no consciousness of where he is – or rather he has a consciousness that he isn’t in London, but is in an hotel somewhere, we can’t make out where . . . . It’s almost more than I can bear to go into his room . . . to take down from his dictation fragments of the book he imagines himself to be writing. At the same time that it is a heart-breaking thing to do, though, there is the extraordinary fact that his minddoes retain the power to frame perfectly characteristic sentences . . . . At first I thought it might be bad for him, but I believe now that it really helps him to hear it being ticked off on the typewriter . . . . And the fragments he dictates do, in the queerest way, hang together – they seem to form part of a book he is writing in his mind about Bonaparte.”

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