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The Woman Who Met Henry James
by Andrew Lee-Hart




Kate, 1902


“It was extraordinarily easy for him to recover the past; he had always been sensitive to impressions and his mind was stored with records of exposure.” From Henry James at Work by Theodora Bosanquet, 1924


She stands in a garden looking away from the camera, a ghost from another world, almost present, but not quite. Even though I met her countless times and was probably as close to her as I have been to anybody, I have no idea who she really was, it is as if she were a character from a book; unreal and a little removed.


“Who is that?” asked my daughter Adele, on one of her infrequent visits to see me.

“That is my grandmother, your great grandmother. She died just before you were born.”

“She looks peaceful, I wonder where the picture was taken.”

“London probably, that is where she lived all her life, born there and died there.”

Adele lost interest and picked up the next photograph on my mantelpiece, one of her as a child, she looked at it complacently.

“I was a pretty girl.”

“You still are.”

She smiled, and for a moment looked just like her mother.

“She met Henry James, your great grandmother, when she was a little girl.”

“Oh.” She sits back down, trapped “who was Henry James?”


I must have been my daughter’s age when I sat with my grandmother watching The Innocents at The Majestic Cinema in Dagenham, not far from the ground floor flat where she had lived ever since I could remember, and only a dozen or so tube stops away from my parents’ house. After doing my music degree I had stayed in London, teaching at a college and indulging in a brief and ill-fated lover affair, whilst still living with my parents. Every Wednesday evening I would meet up with my grandmother, and we would watch whatever was on at the cinema and then eat fish and chips in her front room, a tradition that had started many years earlier when I discovered that she shared my obsessive love for film, the movies that drowned the noises in my head and gave me peace.


The Innocents is a great film; moody, atmospheric and with the darkest of endings; I have watched it several times since and always think of my grandmother sitting beside me smelling of the pear drops that we were both sucking and of some kind of old ladies’ perfume.

“I met him, you know?”

I looked at her in the dark. I assumed she meant one of the actors in the film.

“Henry James, it is based on his novel The Turn of the Screw, he lived in Rye, in Lamb House, and I saw him when I was on holiday there, he asked me what my name was, I told him Katherine, but that everybody called me Kate, and then we both looked at the sea and he gave me a ha’penny, and when he said goodbye he made a formal bow.”


Later as we ate our greasy chips I asked her more about the meeting with the great writer; unlike my daughter, I knew who Henry James was, I had even read The Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square as a teenager, and had a rough idea of his place in the pantheon of English Literature.

“He was friendly, you could tell that he was an intelligent man as he seemed so interested in me, and then after he walked away someone told me that he was Henry James and that he was a famous writer, I have never forgotten him and I always buy his books if I see them. Some of his stuff is difficult, but not if you know him.”

After I had thrown away the newspaper that our dinner had been wrapped up in, my grandmother gave us both a banana that she had saved, and we ate them slowly and appreciatively. I wondered where she kept her collection of Henry James’ novels; the only books I had ever seen in the flat were some cookery books and, in pride of place, a poetry anthology which contained one of my mother’s poems, after she won a competition at school, perhaps they were in her bedroom, in their own bookcase, like an altar.


“Did you know gran met Henry James?”

“Yes, she mentioned it once or twice. No idea if it is true. Seems a bit unlikely,” my mother distractedly answered whilst ironing my father’s shirts.

“Unlikely? Why?”

“I doubt she is old enough; didn’t he die in the Victorian age?”

“A bit later I think. I am sure he took British nationality during the Great War, or maybe that was somebody else.”

“Next time you are in the library, you can look it up.”


Her husband, my grandfather died of flu.

“He was only in his thirties, he was a clerk in a bank but he didn’t enjoy it, he wanted to move on and find something better, and then one morning he collapsed at work; he was brought home and I had to nurse him whilst also looking after your mother and your Aunt Elspeth.  At first he seemed just a little off; wheezing a bit, tired and I thought that he would soon be back at work, but he just never got better.”

This conversation was a couple of years later, I was living with Adele’s mother by then but still continued to go with my grandmother to The Majestic once a week; we must have been to see something sombre to get her talking about her late husband.

“And then one morning, I went downstairs it was a bright Spring morning and I had had a most beautiful dream, and I thought he must be better, that it was a sign, but he was cold and dead on the settee, and your mother was sat opposite him oblivious, just reading.”

She shook her head, and I made her some tea.


My grandmother died not long after that conversation, it may have been the last one we had; a neighbour saw her through the window, lying motionless on the floor and telephoned for an ambulance; she appeared to have slipped and banged her head on the fireplace, there was a dry pool of blood on the carpet, still she was in her seventies, not a bad age, and I hope it was quick, that she died straight away. She was buried at St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church; having become a Catholic after my grandfather died although I suspect it was more for the company and for curates to mother, rather than a strong spiritual belief, but they mustered a creditably large congregation for her final Mass.


“Grandma said it was you who found granddad when he died.”

“No, he died in hospital. He fell ill at work and they took him to Guy’s and he died there a few days later. She was never the same afterwards, got religion and spent all her time working, had no choice.”

“But she said she went downstairs and you were reading opposite him, and he was dead.”

“No, he died in hospital and I wasn’t allowed to see him. Your grandmother was getting old, she didn’t always remember things clearly.”

She left me to talk to her sister, who was drinking something alcoholic in a corner.


Since I was a teenager I was aware of voice that was always at the fringes of my consciousness; a dry, American voice slowly dictating in a precise, steady tone, a voice that had become more and more frequent the older I got. Sometimes when it was quiet, in the early hours of the morning with Adele’s mother asleep in my arms, or when I was walking the streets near where I lived, there it was, quiet but persistent, but I could not tell what it was saying, it was just too faint, as if from another room. I never mentioned it to anyone, it was just too strange, I dared not even tell my grandmother, who I would tell most things to. And now, after her funeral, there was the same voice, calm and unhurried and I searched for someone to talk to, to distract my mind.


“Oh you are the musical one” said the Priest, with a cup of tea in his hand, “she was very proud of you, and was very grateful that you used to visit.”

I smiled, “I loved her company.”

“She loved the fact that you played the piano so well, felt that you were carrying on the family tradition.”

I looked at him puzzled.

“Didn’t she tell you? She was a performer, but then she met your grandfather and got pregnant with your Aunt, and that was the end of it, and she became a housewife.”

“I didn’t know that.”

The Priest smelt of soap and brylcreem and seemed an affable chap; experienced at negotiating the main ceremonies of life; birth, marriage and death, without embarrassment.

“She told me that she played the violin, and was a member of various orchestras in London, and on the South coast. She loved Beethoven most of all, he was her favourite; she loved the power and passion of his music.”

I shrugged and wondered if that were true, certainly she had paid for my piano lessons when I was younger and had then encouraged me to study music at University rather than mathematics as my father wanted me to do “the world needs mathematicians, useful in all sorts of jobs.” But my grandmother told me to stick to my guns, and eventually I got my way, but I did not remember her mentioning that she had ever played in an orchestra, and the few records that she owned were light music; Gilbert and Sullivan highlights and Mantovani; nothing too serious and no Beethoven.


I walked round her flat; filled with a surprisingly large number of friends and relations, most of whom I didn’t know, although Adele’s mother was absent, she had cried off at the last moment, something for which my mother never forgave her. As I sauntered about trying not to look lonely, I saw, in a small silver frame the picture of my grandmother, Kate, as a young girl, wearing white and standing in a garden.

“That is a lovely photograph, why don’t you take it,” suggested my father, who appeared to be as lost as I was.

“Did gran play in an orchestra, when she was young?”

“I doubt it,” my father said, “she never mentioned it if she did.  But she was a strange woman; a bit like your mother but more so” and he wandered away to find something to eat, whilst I took the photograph, and put it in my jacket pocket.


Now my daughter is married with three children, and a husband I don’t much care for, she lives in Brighton, near where Henry James spent the latter part of his life in Lamb House which has been turned into a museum and perhaps I will visit it one day, and think about my grandmother. I suspect that I am lonelier than my grandmother was; at least she had her church and her family nearby, whilst I teach music in a comprehensive school in Nottingham, where I moved soon after Adele’s mother and I split up, I am far away from my family, and even within the school I am isolated; language and science are regarded as the important subjects whilst music is a bit of a ghetto; I am the first music teacher that the school has ever employed and the other teachers regard my subject as trivial and as a consequence ignore me as much as possible, and there is nobody else in my department to have meetings with or bolster our fragile self-esteem.


If I was going to amount to anything in the teaching world it would have happened long before now; I am just serving my time until retirement, hoping for a spark of musical ability in one of my pupils and unsuccessfully bargaining for more funds for my department so I can replace the broken and discordant guitars that the pupils have to play year after year. Perhaps I should have studied mathematics like my father suggested, who knows where I would have ended up if I had. Or perhaps once my grandmother was dead I just wanted to escape from the past and my memories.


I spend my evenings watching videos and listening to music; William Boyce and Henry Purcell at the moment, rather than my grandmother’s supposed favourite Beethoven, my parents are still alive and just at the end of the telephone, and I would be welcome to visit them, but when there I am forced to realise how little my life has amounted to, and I swiftly leave again, although I should make the most of them for the short time that they have left. And there is still the same, sharp American voice that comes into my consciousness more and more frequently, the background noise to all my activities great and small, but now I catch the odd word and shiver with fear.


Last night I watched The Wings of a Dove, I remembered the reviews had been good when the film came out, and I like Helena Bonham Carter, who reminds me of Adele’s mother; something in her look which suggests boundless possibilities and freedom, but unfortunately these possibilities did not include me.  I had forgotten that The Wings of a Dove, was an adaption of a Henry James novel, if I had ever known it, and after the film had finished I stayed up until the early hours reading a biography of James which previously I had only ever dipped into; I had bought it in the vain hope that it would mention my grandmother, but it didn’t of course, but it confirmed that they could have met.  It was interesting reading about his time in Venice and his rather repressed life, and I fell asleep with it open next to me on my bed.


On Saturday I bought a copy of The Wings of the Dove in a local bookshop, and over the next couple of weeks read it; enjoying Henry James’ long, sinewy sentences and forensic characterisation, I had probably not read anything by him for at least thirty years or more, and thought I could go through his entire works; surely a project I could complete before I died, it was good to have a purpose to my desultory reading.


A colleague, Gillian, who taught Chemistry saw me reading it in the staff room during morning break, she was an attractive woman, always well-dressed, and friendlier than most of my colleagues.

“Henry James, I could never get into him.”

I smiled, “oh this is a good book, maybe a bit long, I have a copy of The Turn of the Screw, it is a ghost story, much shorter, you are welcome to borrow it.”

She looked down at me and smiled sweetly, and I realised how young she was, and how old I am.

“Thank you, but I am so busy with my husband and daughter, I never get time to read, certainly nothing heavy.”

She edged away, leaving behind only the faint aroma of her expensive smelling perfume, and a sense of contempt, as if I had made her an improper suggestion, and then the bell rang and with relief, I returned to my pupils.


Kate was feeling tired, but had had to get away from her parents who continually bothered her with their own discontent, they were sitting on a bench somewhere below, and had waved her away in frustration and she had refused to give them a backward look as she set off up the hill behind them. The sun was hot on her head and she felt sweaty in her thick dress and underwear, as she walked she was aware that the hill was getting steeper and she wondered if she would make it to the castle, which was far ahead of her, and then once there, what? She would only have further to travel back down. She did not even like castles, and she wished that she had chosen to walk along by the sea instead, where she could have sat and rested and watched other families playing and talking.


There was a gentleman dawdling along in front of her leaning on a stick; he reminded her of her grandfather who had recently died, but when he said “good day” his voice sounded different, posher and more polite.

“Good day sir.”

By mutual inclination, they both stopped and stood together watching the sea, which, according to her father, went all the way to France, and which was grey and fierce looking.

“What is your name child?”

She enjoyed his accent, a mellow voice, and she smiled up at him, suddenly her mood was lighter, and she liked the man next to her, who smelt of flowers.

“Katherine Troy, but everyone calls me Kate, apart from Mama when she is cross with me.”

“Is she cross with you a great deal?” he asked mockingly.

“Occasionally.” She answered judiciously.

“Are you on holiday?”


She looked up at him and smiled trustingly.

“I think so” and she thought of the boarding house, and the horrid smells and noise, “I do not like it much, I miss London.”

“I miss London too” he told her, “I am a violinist, and I have to go where I can find an orchestra to play with.”

She smiled at him, not knowing either what a violin or an orchestra was.

“I am playing here now, for old ladies and their dogs,” she noticed his yellow teeth and a rather musty smell that seemed to come from his jacket, and that he spat as he talked.


He seemed less friendly now that he had got her attention, and Kate all of a sudden wanted to leave and go back to mama and papa, but she did not want to appear rude and the man was blocking her way.

“Uhm” he muttered, and then coughed, “do you like music?”

She shook her head, there was a piano in the house, which her mother occasionally played when her father was out, but she had not felt inclined to try it out for herself, and did not like the harsh, clanging noise that it made.

“Beethoven is my favourite” he told her, “you should listen to Beethoven Kate; he is stately and has grandeur,”  she felt crowded by him and rather bored by his pomposity, and she did not like his calling her “Kate”; she looked behind him at the path which lead to safety, and wondered if she could barge past him, furtively she wiped some of his spittle from her cheek and tried to edge further away from him. 


And then, much to her relief, a young couple came up behind them, talking intensely, and her interlocutor was forced to move to the side to the let them past, and Kate took her chance, and with a swift goodbye hurried past him, and back down the hill; it was only when she had gone quite some distance that she looked behind her, and to her relief saw that the man had gone.

“Did you reach the castle?” her father asked Kate, but she shook her head.

“I saw a man” she started to tell him, but it was clear that he was not interested, and after her mother had adjusted her daughter’s hat, the three of them headed back towards their lodgings, her parents clearly not speaking to each other, and both using her as a shield from each other.


Later that night she told the landlady about the strange man.

“That sounds like Mr James, he is a writer, he lives over in Rye. An American gentleman, I have met him several times, a lovely man.”

“No, this man was not a writer, he plays in an orchestra” she told her, saying the last word slowly so as to get it quite right, but the landlady was determined that it had been the famous writer, and so Kate went to bed puzzled, and that night between damp sheets she wondered what a violin was and if a writer used it for something; perhaps it was a pen, but then what was an orchestra? With these thoughts she went to sleep, perturbed and curious; her parents’ loud argument, on the other side of the fragile bedroom wall, barely disturbing her.


The great writer finished the sentence and his secretary, Miss King, looked over at him expectantly, her fingers hovered over the keys of the Remington typewriter, poised to start typing once again when he had shaped his thoughts, but he was tired and it was time to dine; he pondered over what he had just written with that pursed expression that she had become so used to since becoming his amanuensis a few days before Christmas.  She enjoyed the work and liked Mr James, a polite and thoughtful man, who paid her well, she hoped that he was satisfied with her and would keep her on at least until the summer when she was due to get married.


She had found the story diverting and a break from the longer Wings of a Dove, which they had been working on since she started at Lamb House, and which she found unsettling and grim, but she was consoled and cheered by the thought that, in however small a way, she was contributing to great works of art. She stretched her arms luxuriously and then, one by one, her fingers, which were aching from this morning’s work.


As she mused, her employer sat staring into the fire, and then he coughed quietly and Miss King, prepared for another of those long, winding sentences, that Mr James so loved, but he was finished for the morning and was evidently dissatisfied with his story about the young woman called Kate and her unnamed grandson.

“Please tear it up, it is nothing” he said ponderously, “it is just a squib of a story, too fantastical and I am not sure of its purpose.”

“Are you sure sir?” she asked.

“Quite sure, now I wonder what Mrs Smythe has prepared for luncheon.”

And as Miss King tore the sheets up and one by one and threw them into the fire, her employer headed into the dining room, his mind on the lunch that had been carefully prepared for his enjoyment.


And yet as the great writer ate and as Miss King went outside to smoke in the wintery garden, above the house was the faint but persistent of someone typing, tapping hard and determinedly, but then it stopped and there was absolute silence.




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