94 and Not Dead Yet: The Sentencing of Henry James

by Reg Green (March 2023)

Portrait of a Lady
, Gustav Klimt, 1925


A resourceful critic says the following sentence is the longest in any of Henry James’ novels, whose cascade of subsidiary clauses most of us have labored through with simultaneous admiration and exasperation: “The house had a name and a history; the old gentleman taking his tea would have been delighted to tell you these things: how it had been built under Edward the Sixth, had offered a night’s hospitality to the great Elizabeth (whose august person had extended itself upon a huge, magnificent and terribly angular bed which still formed the principal honour of the sleeping apartments), had been a good deal bruised and defaced in Cromwell’s wars, and then, under the Restoration, repaired and much enlarged; and how, finally, after having been remodeled and disfigured in the eighteenth century, it had passed into the careful keeping of a shrewd American banker, who had bought it originally because (owing to circumstances too complicated to set forth) it was offered at a great bargain: bought it with much grumbling at its ugliness, its antiquity, its incommodity, and who now, at the end of twenty years, had become conscious of a real aesthetic passion for it, so that he knew all its points and would tell you just where to stand to see them in combination and just the hour when the shadows of its various protuberances—which fell so softly upon the warm, weary brickwork—were of the right measure.”

P.S. A comment by ‘Clover’ Adams, the 19th century society hostess, seems apposite: “He chews more than he bites off.”


Table of Contents


Reg Green is an economics journalist who was born in England and worked for the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Times of London. He emigrated to the US in 1970. His books include The Nicholas Effect and his website is nicholasgreen.org.

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast


5 Responses

  1. When I was a grad student in London in 1996, aged 25, I for a time dated an American girl who was an English major, aged 21 [nonetheless, a grad student too]. If, as they do for me, these points help set the scene, let me add that she was a 21 year old fresh-faced German American girl from small town Wisconsin, precociously but only modestly worldly [more so than me in some ways], and an enthusiast of the late 19th century novel.

    Henry James was her favourite writer. I found him absolute, eye watering torture. I suspect I might have even if the subject matter had been more interesting to me. And I am not exactly Hemingway myself.

  2. It is a shame that the circumstances in which “the shrewd American banker” bought the house were “too complicated to set forth.” The sentence could have been a good deal longer…

  3. Yes, Lev. He seems to have lost heart. I’m not surprised: Charles Scott Robinson, the Oklahoma child rapist, has a sentence set to last 30,000 years.

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