Remembering Henry James – life at Lamb House

The first screen of the Lamb House Henry James digital story

2016 marked the centenary of the death of Henry James. Take a walk around a house he loved and where he penned some of his greatest works.

You can also read the text of this story below:

In 1895 the author Henry James spotted, by accident, a watercolour painting by his friend Edward Warren.

It depicted the Garden Room of Lamb House in the historic town of Rye, East Sussex. Deciding to visit Lamb House for himself in the following summer, Henry James immediately fell in love with it. Initially it appeared to be unobtainable and James described his reaction to his sister Alice: 

" I simply sighed and renounced; tried to think no more about it, till at last, out of the blue, a note from the good local ironmonger, to whom I had whispered at the time my hopeless passion, informed me that by the sudden death of its owner […] it might perhaps drop into my lap."
- Henry James

Letter

Learn more about the letter

Henry James was on a quest for what he called a ‘lowly refuge,’ and Lamb House suited his desire for a permanent home away from the bustle of London life. He was 55 when he took out a 21 year lease in 1897 and settled down in the historic house, built by James Lamb in 1722.

" I am just drawing a long breath from having signed – a few moments since – a most portentous parchment: the lease of a smallish, charming, cheap old house in the country – down at Rye – for twenty-one years!"
- Henry James

Lease

Henry James' lease now hangs in the entrance hall at Lamb House, Rye, East Sussex.  

The lease states that James must keep the garden 'cropped and manicured' and that the house must be repainted with three coats of 'good oil colour' at the end of the seventh and fourteenth years.  In fact it took nearly eight months to make Lamb House 'sanitary and comfortable' and James moved in during June 1898.

Henry James grew more and more attached to Lamb House, filling it with books and paintings by artists that he admired like Flaubert, Whistler and Burne-Jones.  He was also fond of the garden; as Arthur Benson wrote in 1900:

" To see him, when I came down to breakfast this morning, in a kind of Holbein square cap of velvet and black velvet coat, scattering bread on the frozen lawn to the birds, was delightful…"
- Arthur Benson

The Garden Room

It was the Garden Room which had first attracted James to Lamb House and captured his imagination and it was in the Garden Room that Henry James worked on his last three major novels, 'The Wings of the Dove' (1902), 'The Ambassadors' (1903) and 'The Golden Bowl' (1904).

Deep, complex and nuanced, they are now considered the epitomes of his work. They focus on ‘innocent’ Americans encountering sophisticated, duplicitous Europeans; self-deception, and the struggle to live life to the fullest extent.

The Garden Room
The Garden Room at Lamb House

The Green Room

  '... of coloured china glimmering through glass doors and delicate silver reflected on bared tables…'  

In the winter months Henry James wrote in the comfort of the Green Room.

Lamb House clearly inspired creativity and in James’ novel 'The Awkward Age' (1899) the character Mr Longdon lives in a house that echoes James’ own surroundings:   ‘Suggestive of panelled rooms, of precious mahogany, of portraits of women dead, of coloured china glimmering through glass doors and delicate silver reflected on bared tables, the thing was one of those impressions of a particular period that it takes two centuries to produce.’  

The Green Room
The Green Room, Lamb House

Routine

Henry James' routine at Lamb House changed little day-to-day. He awoke at 8am and breakfasted in his bedroom, known as the King's Room in reference to King George I’s overnight stay in the room in 1726.

James started work at 10am, writing in the Garden Room in the Summer and the Green Room in the Winter. After lunch he selected a hat - of which he had many - and went for a walk with his dachshund Maximilian.

In the evenings James would revise his work, often whilst drinking tea and eating chocolate with his trusted secretary, Theodora Bosanquet.

The amanuensis

In 1924 The Hogarth Press published Theodora Bonsanquet’s account of 'Henry James at Work.' In it she fondly recalls her experience of working for James as his secretary.

He called her his 'amanuensis.'

" The business of acting as a medium between the spoken and the typewritten word was at first as alarming as it was fascinating ... He took pains to pronounce every pronounceable letter, he always spelt out words which the ear might confuse with others, and he never left a single punctuation mark unuttered, except sometimes that necessary point, the full stop."
- Theodora Bosquanet

Literary life

Henry James had many well-connected friends and literary visitors including H.G Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Hueffer (who in 1919 became Ford Madox Ford).
 
Wells called the group 'a ring of conspirators.' James was fond of keeping in close contact with all of his friends and family, particularly his brother William, and wrote over 1000 letters during his lifetime.
 
James’ secretary used a Remington typewriter to capture his dictation.
 

'It all seems,' he once explained, 'to be so much more effectively and unceasingly pulled out of me in speech than in writing. Indeed, at the time when I began to work for him, he had reached the stage at which the click of a Remington machine acted as a positive spur.  He found it more difficult to compose to the music of any other make.'

Later years

In 1915, as a gesture of support during the second year of the First World War, Henry James became a British citizen. His posthumously published and uncharacteristic work of war propaganda, 'Within the Rim' (1918) takes a patriotic stance in defence of Britain and contrasts life in Rye with the horrors experienced across the Channel:  

'In looking over from the old rampart of a little high-perched Sussex town at the bright blue streak of the Channel, within a mile or two of us at its nearest point […] Just on the other side of that finest of horizon-lines history was raging at a pitch new under the sun; thinly masked by that shameless smile the Belgian horror grew.'

Henry James in the garden at Lamb House
Henry James in the garden at Lamb House

In December 1915, James told his secretary that he had suffered a stroke 'in the most approved fashion.' He dictated to her a telegram that was sent to his nephew, which read; 'had a slight stroke this morning. No serious symptoms. Perfect care. No suffering. Wrote Peg yesterday.'

On 11 December he called once more for his typewriter, the sound of the familiar machine helping to soothe his delirious mind.  Henry James recovered and lived for over two months. His mind wandered to faraway places, to Cork Island, to motor cars, to river boats and to paintings. He was still driven to dictate, as Theodora Bosanquet recounted;  

'He wanted me again and dictated, perfectly clearly and coherently two letters from Napoleon Bonaparte to one of his married sisters … After he had finished the second letter he seemed quite satisfied not to do any more and fell into a peaceful sleep.'

 On New Year's Day Henry James was given the Order of Merit by George V, having completed 20 novels, over 100 short stories, 3 plays and over 1000 letters.  

28 February 2016 marks the one hundred year anniversary of the death of Henry James, whose great works deal with intertwined themes: the relations between Europe and America, love and money, innocence and betrayal, and, as he might put it himself, all the ways in which art makes life.  

After the death of Henry James the house was taken by another writer, E.F. Benson. While he kept the house as James left it, the Garden Room was destroyed by a bomb in 1940.

The Garden Room was destroyed by a bomb in 1940, but Henry James' novels and experiences at Lamb House live on. Lamb House passed to The National Trust in 1950 ‘to be preserved as an enduring symbol of the ties that unite the British and American people.’

" It’s such a place as I may, when pressed by the pinch of need, retire to with a certain shrunken decency and wither away in – in a fairly cleanly and pleasantly melancholy manner – towards the tomb. It is really good enough to be a kind of little, becoming, high door’d, brass knockered façade to one’s life."
- Henry James