Saturday, April 13, 2019


Henry James (1843–1916)
From Henry James: Complete Stories 1884–1891

Title illustration for “Brooksmith” by Henry James, from the May 2, 1891, issue of Harper’s Weekly.
Two decades after the death of Henry James, British novelist Ford Madox Ford recalled their friendship in his memoir Return to Yesterday. Although James could be impatient or prickly to those closest to him—especially when they didn’t live up to his expectations for social behavior—he was attentive to and gracious with acquaintances and strangers from all stations of life:
His eyes were singularly penetrating, dark and a little prominent. On their account he was regarded by the neighbourhood poor as having the qualities of a Wise Man—a sorcerer. My servants used to say: “It always gives me a turn to open the door for Mr. James. His eyes seem to look you through to the very back-bone.” . . .

His conversation used to contain a great many compliments to his interlocutor, male or female. They were the current coin of his conversation. . . Every woman from the Lady Maud Warrender on the hill to Meary Walker in the meshes was “dear lady”; every man, “my dear fellow.”
The attention James paid—and the sympathies he extended—to those outside his immediate circle informed his creation of the characters in his novels and stories. The protagonist of “Brooksmith,” one of the most highly regarded stories from his so-called “middle years,” is a butler, a man (as The Henry James Encyclopedia puts it) “whom James’s social milieu normally considered beneath notice.”

James first got the idea for the story in 1884, when the journalist Christina Stewart Rogerson updated him about a longtime lady’s maid employed by her mother, Harriet Gore Stewart (Mrs. Duncan Stewart), who had just died. For several years mother and daughter had hosted a highly regarded literary salon, and James knew the maid from his visits to the Stewarts’ home. He recorded her plight in his notebook:
She had to find a new place of course, on Mrs. S.’s death, to relapse into ordinary service. Her sorrow, the way she felt the change, and the way she expressed it to Mrs. R. ‘Ah yes, ma’am, you have lost your mother, and it’s a great grief, but what is your loss to mine?’ (She was devoted to Mrs. D.S.) ‘You continue to see good society, to live with clever, cultivated people: but I fall again into my own class, I shall never see such company—hear such talk—again. She was so good to me that I lived with her, as it were; and nothing will ever make up to me again for the loss of her conversation. Common, vulgar people now: that's my lot for the future!’
James considered how he could turn the descent of the maid into a story:
Represent this—the refined nature of the little plain, quiet woman—her appreciation—and the way her new conditions sicken her, with a denouement if possible. Represent first, of course, her life with the old lady—figure of old Mrs. D.S. (modified)—her interior—her talk. Mrs. R.’s relations with her servants. ‘My child— my dear child.’
The story James published seven years later faithfully retained his original concept, with one considerable modification. He later explained that his “little derived drama . . . seemed to require, to be ample enough, a hero rather than a heroine. I desired for my poor lost spirit the measured maximum of the fatal experience.” James felt that, even more than a lady’s maid, a butler would better able to insinuate himself in the “rare table talk” of a salon, and he likewise changed the host to a retired diplomat—this despite the fact, acknowledged by James, that successful salons were usually hosted by women. Unsurprisingly, critics in recent decades have made much of James’s deliberate decision to transform an anecdote about two married women and a lady’s maid into a story about a trio of lifelong bachelors, one of whom—the narrator—has an interest that borders on obsession with the butler, Brooksmith.

Hardly an unobtrusive or neutral observer, the unnamed narrator “often reveals his own snobbery, and his frequent, unfounded inferences make him unreliable,” notes Andrew Maunder in the Encyclopedia of the British Short Story. “While Brooksmith descends into casual work and poverty in full view of the narrator, neither the narrator nor any of his social circle do anything to help.” After making their cherished salon an extraordinary success, Brooksmith is excluded from their lives. This dichotomy—the superficial concern for servants against the reluctance to get too involved with their lives—has led many scholars to extol what biographer Fred Kaplan recently termed the story’s “subtle indictment of British class structure.”

Notes: Mentioned on the first page, dotations are endowments. James tosses off numerous French expressions and words during his story, including several that have since passed into the English language: L’Ecole Anglaise, The English School; malentendus, misunderstandings; c’est la fin de tout, it’s all over; casaque, a kind of woman's blouse; coucher, repose in bed; de race, pure bred; sur le retour, past her prime.

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We are scattered now, the friends of the late Mr. Oliver Offord; but whenever we chance to meet I think we are conscious of a certain esoteric respect for each other. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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