Category: Author Spotlights

Author Spotlight: Henry James

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.

Brief Biography

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.

The_Europeans_CoverThe Europeans

Published: 1878
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“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.



Washington_Square_CoverWashington Square

Published: 1880
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“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

Published: 1881
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“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?


The_Bostonians_CoverThe Bostonians

Published: 1886
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“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_CoverWhat Maisie Knew

Published: 1897
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“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_CoverThe Wings Of The Dove

Published: 1902
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“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.



The_Ambassadors_CoverThe Ambassadors

Published: 1903
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“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_CoverThe Golden Bowl

Published: 1904
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“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?


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Author Spotlight: Robert K. Massie’s Biographies On Tsarist Russia

When I discovered Robert K. Massie’s books on tsarist Russia’s Romanov family I realized I had struck historical nonfiction gold.

Tragically, the author’s interest in the Romanov dynasty began with the discovery that his own newborn son suffered from hemophilia, a disease which also affected tsar Nicholas II’s son Alexis Nikolaevich.

You might expect a pedantic writing style from a Yale and Oxford educated Rhodes Scholar, but Massie brings his training as a journalist to his prose. What results is highly-accessible and still richly-evocative portraits of some of Russia’s most storied tsars and tsarinas.


Nicholas And Alexandra: The Classic Account Of The Fall Of The Romanov Dynasty

Published: 1967, reissued November 2011
Length: 673 pages

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Though published in the 1960s, Nicholas and Alexandra remains the definitive account of the lives of the last Romanov Tsar and Tsarina. It starts with the improbable story of how a Princess from a small German state was selected to become Empress of Russia. Alexandra’s strong, overbearing personality is contrasted to her husband’s relatively weak demeanor, and her influence essentially directs his political decisions. The happiness of the couple at producing a male heir (after four daughters) is short-lived with the discovery he suffers from the then deadly disease of hemophilia. As mystical faith healer Rasputin’s influence on Alexandra increases due to her distress over her sons’s illness, the Russian people’s disaffection with their distant monarchs propels the country towards a revolution that will ultimately spell a bloody end for the Romanov dynasty. I couldn’t put this book down.



The Romanovs: The Final Chapter

Published: 1995, reissued February 2012
Length: 320 pages

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Considered in part a more recent update to Nicholas and Alexandra’s story, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter also stands on its own as a chilling scientific account of the efforts to recover and identify the purported remains of the Romanov family.

After the demise of Soviet Communism brought to light the prior 1979 discovery of the possible grave of the Romanov royals, an examination of the remains was conducted by an international team of forensic specialists to determine their authenticity. Massie adds details to the tragic story of the capture, prisony and assassination of the Romanovs and of the expert effort to determine the provenance of these remains. Interweaved is also a thorough analysis of Anna Anderson’s claims to be Nicholas and Alexandra’s remaining living daughter Anastasia.


51aCH9YCAoLCatherine The Great: Portrait Of A Woman

Published: November 2011
Length: 656 pages

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Winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal For Excellence In Nonfiction in 2012

Though empress Alexandra’s story of rise from unknown German princess to Russian tsarina is remarkable, Catherine The Great’s similar beginnings led to an even more incredible result. After being plucked from relative obscurity and married to Russian heir to the throne Peter III, Catherine quickly realized her husband was no match for her strength of character or intelligence. Unable to count on him as an effective ruler on his ascension or even as a viable partner to produce an heir, Catherine took matters into her own hands. While Peter was still alive, she took a lover to secure the royal family’s line of succession and then orchestrated a coup d’etat after his assassination, installing herself as empress. She became the longest ruling female monarch in Russia and her reign is often considered as the Golden Age of the Russian Empire.



Peter The Great: His Life And World

Published: 1980, reissued February 2012
Length: 928 pages

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize For Biography in 1981

Peter The Great’s rule established the Romanov dynasty, preceding that of all other tsars and tsarinas covered in Massie’s books. Through significant territorial gains, Peter turned Russia into an empire and speerheaded a series of Enlightenment inspired reforms that modernized the country’s military,its educational system and its government, transforming Russia into a great European nation in its own right.

This is actually the only one of Massie’s books on tsarist Russia that I have yet to read. Now that I’ve been reminded of how much I loved reading his other works, I’m adding it to my short term list.


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