Henry James is one of my Top 5 favorite authors. It’s impossible to order them by preference but the other four are Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and Virginia Woolf.
Why his Henry James one of my favorite authors? Well, first of all I really gravitate towards intricate writing styles, as they just feel closer to how I think (and write, as you may have noticed). Every one of Henry James’ novels also include strong though flawed female characters that I find relatable and interesting in their complexities. He often deals with questions of female independence versus traditional society expectations which still feel modern, though they are obviously set in the 1800s in his writing. I’d recommend any of his novels for these reasons.
The 8 novels recommended below are some of Henry James’ most famous, and I loved every single one of them. He was an extremely prolific writer and some of his well-known novels, as well as numerous novellas are not included in this list (not to mention nonfiction works and plays). I did not review Princess Casamassima and The American for example, as I have yet to read them. Something to look forward to.
Henry James was born in America in 1843 in a wealthy New York City family. His father, Henry James Sr., was a well-known theologian and philosopher. The author traveled with his family and later alone extensively throughout Europe, staying for a prolong period as a young boy in France and becoming fluent in French. He struggled to find an audience for his writing until 1869, when he began to publish his works in serialized form for a primarily middle class female audience. Remaining mostly in Europe and bouncing between London and Paris, he continued to publish feverishly and met famous literary and political figures. Of particular influence on him were writers Emile Zola, George Eliot and Ivan Turgenev. He never married, declaring himself a bachelor, and died in 1916 at age 72 in London.
“There were several ways of understanding her: there was what she said, and there was what she meant, and there was something between the two, that was neither.”
The Europeans revolves around the arrival in a stiff American family of two very bohemian European cousins, The Baroness Eugenia Munster and her brother, Felix Young. Enraptured by these new arrivals, their young American relatives, Clifford, Charlotte and Gertrude are tempted to throw their puritanical upbringing to the wind. Hilarity ensues.
“Catherine, who was extremely modest, had no desire to shine, and on most social occasions, as they are called, you would have found her lurking in the background.”
Instead of the nosy and middling mother in Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, Henry James offers an equally stiff and unyielding father. Dr. Sloper fails to see the many attractive qualities of his daughter Catherine and unremittingly attempts to intercede between her and her suitor Morris Townsend in this tragicomedy of parental misdirection.
The Portrait Of A Lady
“Sometimes she went so far as to wish that she should find herself in a difficult position, so that she might have the pleasure of being as heroic as the occasion demanded.”
Isabel Archer has money, beauty, freedom and a mind of her own. She travels to Europe to see the sights and soon finds herself surrounded by pressing suitors fighting for her hand. Her spirit of independence is tried over and over again by the masculine world as it tries to seize her and tame her. Will she be able to escape traditional society expectations?
“It was the usual things of life that filled her with silent rage; which was natural enough inasmuch as, to her vision, almost everything that was usual was iniquitous.”
The Bostonians is set amid broiling political activism on women’s rights. The two diametrically opposed characters of Olive Chancellor and Basil Ransom struggle for the charming Verena’s affection and allegiance in this setting. Olive represents principle and independence while Basil represents tradition and subordination. Who will Verena ultimately choose?
What Maisie Knew
“She had a new feeling, the feeling of danger; on which a new remedy rose to meet it, the idea of an inner self or, in other words, of concealment.”
This is one of Henry James’ less typical novels. The main character is a child – Maisie – who observes and muses over the actions of the many irresponsible adults around her. Her parents – Beale and Ida Frange – are divorced and soon married to equally immoral and/or frivolous people. Amid the murkiness of a confused childhood, Henry James intersperses rays of humor to lighten the mood.
The Wings Of The Dove
“She found herself, for the first moment, looking at the mysterious portrait through tears. Perhaps it was her tears that made it just then so strange and fair … the face of a young woman, all splendidly drawn, down to the hands, and splendidly dressed … And she was dead, dead, dead.”
To what ends will beautiful and impoverished Kate Croy and charming journalist Merton Densher go in order to realize their engagement? An sickly American heiress – Milly Theale – becomes the target of their scheme, as they wrestle between their love and their morals.
“Strether had never smoked, and he felt as if he flaunted at his friend that this had been only because of a reason. The reason, it now began to appear even to himself, was that he had never had a lady to smoke with.”
Bumbling middle-aged Lambert Strether is sent to Europe by his fiancée to rescue her son Chad Newsome from the clutches of fallen Parisian society. It soon is clear that Lambert is only too taken with the freedom of Paris and its ladies himself. Will Mrs. Newsome lose both son and husband to the continent?
The Golden Bowl
“The golden bowl – as it was to have been.’ And Maggie dwelt musingly on this obscured figure. ‘The bowl with all our happiness in it. The bowl without the crack.”
The Golden Bowl represents Prince Amerigo and heiress Maggie Verver’s apparently perfect engagement. She brings money to the table, and he his noble title. In comes the flaw in the Golden Bowl, however, in the shape of Maggie’s friend Charlotte Stant. Unbeknownst to Maggie, Charlotte has had a past tryst with Amerigo. Who of the characters will notice the fatal flaw in this love triangle first?
Please note this post contains affiliate links from Amazon.