The New Compass: A Critical Review

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Ticket to Rye: a Visit to Henry James's House
Michèle Mendelssohn

"[Rye, 17 January] Henry James, looking somewhat cold, tired and old, met me at the station: most affectionate, patting me on the shoulder and really welcoming, with abundance of petits soins…" Or so I imagined it would be. But these words are not mine. They are Arthur Benson's, and they were written in 1900. [1]

My visit to James's house in Rye took place a century later, on a hot summer day. My welcome was administered by a screech of seagulls circling above the tiny train station at Rye. I was thankful for not being patted on the shoulder by them, or their petits soins. At the time, I had been spending most of my hot summer days doing doctoral research in temperature-controlled archives with the atmosphere of ice-boxes. There, I would pore over James's letters and manuscripts. Knowing that I was holding a sheet of paper that James had held was a thrill; the frisson I felt was not because of the air-conditioning.

By the time I visited James's house, I had created for myself a strong idea of him and of what I might expect to find at Rye. By dint of holding all that pale blue letter paper and deciphering James's intricate web of scrawls, I thought I had come to know James as a person, not just an author.

Benson's experience was the one I had wished for myself. Of course, James would not be there to greet me, but I would find in this Sussex seaside village a strong sense of him. Lamb House, in which he took up residence in 1897, would confirm my ideas. The House would speak for the Master, though the master of the house had long since passed away.

Though I had seen pictures of Lamb House, they hadn't adequately prepared me for the reality. Or rather: they had given me another reality to superimpose upon my experience. Wedged into a dark corner of West Street, the house glowered at me as I approached. The high stone wall that girdled the garden made the place seem carceral. At the threshold, National Trust ladies sold brochures and chatted amongst themselves about how James's novels were supposed to be very good. Inside, everything was neat and spare. Someone had crocheted a cringe-inducing poem and hung it by the staircase:

In Heaven there'll be no algebra,
No learning dates or names,
But only playing golden harps
And reading Henry James
In the garden, the sun shone upon the tombstones of James's beloved dogs. Where a spotty teenager now stood, James had sat for his picture in a wicker lawnchair. That was all that remained of him.

I didn't stay very long. Despite its relative emptiness, the house felt oppressive and cramped. For a man so urbane and urban, Lamb House seemed desperately wrong. Set atop a small hill in a small town, the house and everything about it challenged my conception of James. And yet he'd been so happy there. After so many years of travel, he had found in Rye a place to work, to rest, to call home. A year later, a trip to James's final resting place at the Cambridge Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts left me with the same strong sensation I had had at Rye: the disconcerting feeling that, despite years of devoted interest, I had misunderstood James.

Having been a frequent visitor to James's house of fiction, I expected his house to feel something like home. I had fallen prey to a version of the intentional fallacy. I had used the works to interpret and define the author. I suspect that I am not alone in this. Having become intimate with an author's work, we mistakenly come to believe that we also know the author. This is why we say we have read Melville, or Pater, or Wilde, not only their works. The elision implies that we have read them and their minds, and somehow captured something of their essence. They have touched us and, we feel we have touched their mystery. Through a mysterious tuning process, we come to think we know them because we have a sense of how they thought a room ought to be decorated, because we know their favourite words, and whether or not they appreciated woven verse.

Why do we visit authors' houses? What is it we hope to find there? Confirmation. Communion. The real thing. Although visiting an author's home is an effort to apprehend and understand that author, the inevitable discrepancy between our expectations (tempered by our readings) and the real thing leave us unsatisfied and unhomed. In his study of space and psychology, Gaston Bachelard argues that we "read" houses and rooms since they are psychological diagrams that help us analyse intimacy. [2] When we are reading these spaces, we are also instantly rewriting them. "Very quickly," Bachelard claims, "at the very first word, at the first poetic overture, the reader who is ‘reading a room' leaves off reading and starts to think of some place in his own past". [3] When we visit authors's houses, however, we are obliged to reread the real space in terms of our prior, literary experiences of it. It is precisely this second reading that is unsettling. We have come to think that we know this place already, as we would know a place in our own past. When we finally come to this house, we think we will be at home. We know its contents and configuration. And yet when we enter this space we are confronted with its alterity, with the fact that nothing is quite as we expected.

When we make our passionate pilgrimages, we want to have our senses confirm our thoughts. And yet we know that this can never be the case. The work of time and of our fond imaginations enhances, distorts, and fills in the gaps. Our situation is not unlike that of a novelist. As Andrew Taylor has noted, referring to James's famous preface to The Portrait of a Lady, "in James's fictional house there can be no sense of placid satisfaction because there can never be a single perspective which is able to achieve such an all-encompassing view." [4] We, like the novelist, must reconcile ourselves to the fact that the author's house will never be a home, no matter how well we think we know it.

[…] the house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million— a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine. And so on, and so on; there is fortunately no saying on what, for the particular pair of eyes, the window may not open. [5]
[1] Nowell-Smith, Simon. The Legend of the Master, Henry James. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1947.
[2] Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon 1994.
[3] Bachelard. The Poetics of Space.
[4] Taylor, Andrew. Henry James and the Father Question. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.
[5] James, Henry. Literary Criticism: French Writers, Other European Writers, the Prefaces to the New York Edition. Vol. 2. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Mendelssohn, Michèle. "Ticket to Rye: a Visit to Henry James's House." The New Compass: A Critical Review 4 (December 2004) []

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Michael John DiSanto and Sarah Emsley