The Hand of Henry James


Carl Rollyson

“You have just shaken the hand that shook the hand of Henry James.” I was interviewing Frances Partridge (1900-2004), who had invited my wife, Lisa, and me to tea to discuss her friendship with Anthony West. I was researching the life of Rebecca West and wanted to know more about her troubled relationship with her son. Partridge and her husband Ralph had been members of the Bloomsbury circle, and Frances had earned a considerable following after publishing her diaries, which were still coming out at the time of our visit in the 1990s.

I think Frances made her comment about meeting James when she was just a little girl after I admired the portrait of Lytton Strachey situated just across from the chair where I sat, cradling my teacup and feeling that I had just been initiated into the literary fraternity. I am not by any means a fervent admirer of Bloomsbury. Indeed, I had come to tea with Rebecca West’s caustic dismissal of Frances Partridge—“a goose down to the last feather”—in mind. But Frances was so gracious I had no trouble imagining how comforting her welcoming manner had been to Anthony, overwhelmed by his overbearing mother. Rebecca meant well, but for all sorts of reasons it was nearly impossible for him to relax in his mother’s presence. Emily Hahn, a New Yorker writer and a confidant of Rebecca, told me that even as a young teenager Anthony felt he had to compete with his mother’s astringent commentary. With Frances, on the other hand, he could share his doubts: for example, about what to do about his national service during World War II. Frances and Ralph (who had fought in World War I) were pacifists and could commiserate with him. The mercurial Rebecca had veered from trying to book him safe passage out of Britain to America, to accusing him of being a slacker. Whatever Anthony decided (eventually he was excused from service because he worked a farm deemed essential to the domestic production of food), he felt the pressure of his mother’s concern. Frances, I felt, took you as you were.

I think the presence of my charming wife made a difference too. Simply by bringing Lisa, I had come to Frances as more than just an interviewer. Indeed, after that experience I realized how much more I could accomplish if I could have Lisa by my side as co-author for my next biographical subject, Susan Sontag. Anthony had a similar asset: He was married to the painter Katherine Church, a beautiful and witty woman who managed to entertain and entrance both Rebecca West and Frances Partridge.

Meeting Frances Partridge reminded me of why I decided to become a biographer. I had spent the summer of 1980 researching the life of Marilyn Monroe for a biobibliography, basically a book with a short biographical narrative followed by chapters on how other biographers had treated my subject.  Such books can be extraordinarily insightful. I can recommend two: Lucasta Miller’s The Bronte Myth and Sarah Churchwell’s The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe. But frankly, by the end of the summer I was bored. I was reading about Marilyn Monroe, but I wanted to get in touch with people who actually knew her. Biography is history made palpable. I wanted to forge the human chain of evidence, not just read books and write about them. That was the moment, in fact, that I ceased to be an academic concerned solely with the text. I’ll never forget the time an academic biographer of Marianne Moore was invited to give a talk at NYU’s Biography Seminar. He spoke of his experience at the Rosenbach Foundation, which housed Moore’s papers as well as a good deal of her personal effects. At end of the talk, someone asked him who he had interviewed. The biographer (if he can be called that) looked as though he had smelled something rather foul. “Interviews,” he sniffed, “are so messy.” End of answer.

But that messiness was exactly what attracted me to biography. Whereas documents create the illusion of fixed evidence, bricks of narrative to be  built upon, interviews pulse with unexpected and shifting perspectives as I size up my interlocutors and they assess me. My subjects suddenly burst into surprising life in a way that their letters and other documents cannot quite conjure. That give-and-take and shaking of hands over the subject—that is what biography is for me.

Books mentioned in this column:
The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)
The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Bartlett Churchwell (Metropolitan Books, 2005)
The Diaries of Frances Partridge:
       Everything to Lose: Diaries 1945-1960 (Gollancz, 1985)
       Hanging on: Diaries, 1960-1963 (Harper Collins, 1990)
       Other People: Diaries, 1963-1966 (Harper Collins, 1993)
       Good Company: Diaries, 1967-1970 (Harper Collins, 1994)
       Life Regained: Diaries, 1970-1972 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998)
       Ups and Downs: Diaries 1972-1975 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001)


Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. He is currently completing a biography of Dana Andrews and beginning work on a biography of Sylvia Plath. When not writing, he is playing with his three Scotties. Contact Carl.



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