This delightful comedy of bad manners is set, as we soon discover, in Boston, Mass. and partly arose out of James’s residence there after the deaths of his mother and father in 1882. Far from morbid associations, however, attach themselves to the tale, which revels in the observation of social life in the New England ‘capital’. Although the jokes at the expense of its inhabitants are perhaps, sometimes, too broad, the story is not nearly as bad as James casually stated in a letter to William Dean Howells (1884-02-21, from Paris) and certainly the claimed impression of the city is achieved: ‘My tendency to disproportion remains incorrigible. I begin short tales as if they were to be long novels. À propos of which, ask Osgood to show you also the sheets of another thing I lately sent him – A New England winter. It is not very good – on the contrary; but it will perhaps seem to you to put into form a certain impression of Boston.’

The tale seems to have been written in Boston, as James’s notebook entry of 1883-05-30, detailing the idea of The impressions of a cousin shows that Osgood and the Century magazine wanted the two ‘shorter’ tales, of a proposed three, before Lady Barberina. However, it could have been written, or at least completed, later, either on the transatlantic ship in August of that year or in London, since it wasn’t published until the August 1884 issue of the magazine. It then appeared in Osgood’s next book of James’s tales, Boston being one of the three cities, together with New York and London, giving the book its title. Despite the strong Boston setting, James was actually reworking a generic situation he had noted two years earlier: that of a mother who invites a girl, a distant relative, to stay, in order to keep her expatriate son interested in prolonging his visit. With the Boston circle in mind, James was able to improve the irony of his story by the introduction of the fascinating Mrs Mesh.

With the benefit of hindsight we can see in this tale a lot of pointers forward to future works of James:

In addition it is possible to discern in the preoccupied reflections of Mrs Daintry during her walk into central Boston in chapter 1 of the tale a distant precursor of Mrs Dalloway’s walk through London in the opening of Virginia Woolf ’s novel of 40 years later.


You may like to know about the exact source of the text presented here, and any errors I encountered while making the edition: these can be found in the note on the text. If you need full details of publications of this tale in James’s lifetime or of a selection of recent critical discussion about it see the bibliography, otherwise just start reading and enjoy!