A Tribute to Henry James with Miranda Seymour and Alan Hollinghurst

A Tribute to Henry James, chaired by Deborah Moggach, provided an illuminating and insightful discussion between author and biographer Miranda Seymour and novelist Alan Hollinghurst, whose recent novel The Line of Beauty, winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction, is steeped in Jamesian references.

Deborah Moggach began the evening by introducing the two authors and their work. Miranda Seymour has written both adult and children’s fiction and several literary biographies. Her study of Henry James, A Ring of Conspirators: Henry James and his Literary Circle, looks at the last 20 years of James’s life, while her latest book, The Bugatti Queen is a fascinating account of the life of Helene Delangle, a record-breaking racing driver. Alan Hollinghurst has written four novels. His acclaimed first novel was The Swimming Pool Library and his latest publication is The Line of Beauty.

 Miranda Seymour and Alan Hollinghurst

Both authors are members of a unique Henry James reading group, set up 14 years ago and emphatically devoted to James alone. The group started after Seymour wrote her group portrait of James in 1987 and was delighted that much of the group’s discussions would be devoted to his short stories as she was enchanted by their humour.

Hollinghurst discovered the group some time later while writing The Line of Beauty. Seymour was thrilled he had joined, not only as a welcome addition but as someone with a ‘ravishing voice‘, perfect for reading Henry James! Hollinghurst found the group helped him to develop a close relationship with James, saying of his growing fascination with the author, ‘It was like an affair. Everything seemed to feed into it, be illuminated by it… I love everything about James; his rythms, his ironies and his idiosyncracies.’

Hollinghurst talked about his use of James in The Line of Beauty in terms of a practical and structural approach to plot. He was ‘drawn to James because of his stern precepts about what conditions should govern the novel as a work of art; the relevance of everything in it; the coherence of the point of view.’ Hollinghurst set himself a kind of Jamesian structure through which his cast of characters would be spread over several years and the story would be told in the third person but seen from an individual’s consciousness. 

The two speakers moved on to discuss James’s writing process and his need to speak his later novels aloud as a kind of process of connection. The author dictated to a secretary, whose constant and rythmic tapping of the typewriter keys aided the writer’s trail of thought. Indeed, when a silent typewriter was introduced James all but dried up! Hollinghurst talked about the author’s desire to record prelimary notes and reactions and his process of thinking through characters, layer upon layer. 

Both authors recounted stories of James’s largely disastrous stage career. Hollinghurst said James really had no idea of spoken dialogue and that he was already moving towards the peculiar speech patterns of his later work, which had its own coherence. ‘The characters understand each other but this is not the language of the common man’. The first performance of James’s Guy Domville fell on the same night as Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a play that attracted both a larger and more appreciative audience. James was in a state of nervous breakdown after his play’s disastrous reception, but it was in fact his relative failure as a playwright that saw him move into the most brilliant period of his writing career. It was a bitter pill for James to swallow but it was now that he entered a totally individual, extraordinary and experimental style of fiction.

Seymour compared The Europeans with other work, a novel admired for being ‘delightful, gay, witty, amusing, but not frivolous. It has an iron-hard structure but it hasn’t got the depth or resonance on a double level of his later work when you have a surface where almost nothing seems to be happening; it’s just sparkling. Then underneath, in a language of metaphor there is the most unbelievable drama’. Hollinghurst agreed, saying ‘the surface replicates the glitter of society in a way which is connected to the tradition of the comic novel that he belongs to, but he takes it somewhere much further.’ Hollinghurst saw James’s later style as an instrment of precision but said there were also changes of aesthetic, suggesting James was a kind of symbolist writer; withdrawing from the visible world into an interior world of feelings, intuitions and moods. 

So does Henry James have anything to teach us now? Hollinghurst said that he felt in awe of James’s amazing intelligence and saw the author as an exhilarating example to others. He commented, ‘You can see what he has brought to the task, which is so inspiring’. Seymour wondered whether one could put him into a modern setting, Hollinghurst replying that the ‘aestheticisation of the novel into this tremendously coherent art object is not really a path that was widely followed in the 20th Century.’ Seymour agreed with Hollinghurst that James is to be admired for his amazing intelligence and integrity and Hollinghurst closed the discussion saying, ‘His habits are awe-inspring. James had to write. He was a habitual writer and his happiness was found in writing.”


English PEN would like to offer their warmest thanks to all the evening’s speakers for such a delightful discussion, and to Adam Street Club for accommodating such a wonderful evening.

Report by Alice O’Hanlon

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/henryjames/

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