Friday, December 30, 2011

An English New Year

Henry James (1843–1916)
Illustrated by Joseph Pennell

From Henry James: Collected Travel Writings: Great Britain and America

On both sides of the Atlantic, the 1870s were a time of economic collapse, beginning with a series of bank failures in 1873 and lasting until the end of the decade. Now referred to as the Long Depression, the downturn was known as the “Great Depression” before the Great Depression.

At the tail end of period, thirty-five-year-old American author Henry James, living in England, wrote a dispatch for the New Year that was published in
The Nation on January 12, 1879. (He would republish the piece twice: once in his 1883 collection, Portraits of Place, and later in revised form in his 1905 travel book, English Hours, with illustrations by Joseph Pennell.) In spite of the societal gloom and the very thick London fog, the previous year had been an exciting, prosperous one for James, who had published “Daisy Miller” to international acclaim, soon followed by his novel The Europeans. He suddenly found himself a celebrity of sorts, the toast of English society; he met the poet Tennyson, the novelists George Meredith and Robert Louis Stevenson, and the painter James McNeill Whistler. He kept a tally of engagements and exclaimed in a letter about “my having dined out during the past winter 107 times!”

But, as his writing shows, the devastation of the economic malaise was never far away and during the holidays he accompanied a friend to “visit the children of a workhouse.” There, somewhat stodgy in bearing and not a little romantic in outlook, he finds a modicum of seasonal joy in surroundings that evoke
Oliver Twist.

Note: The reference to Lady Bountiful in the last sentence is to a character in George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem (1707) who gives away half her income as charity.

It will hardly be pretended this year that the English Christmas has been a merry one, or that the New Year has the promise of being particularly happy. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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