Henry James

The papers



by Adrian Dover

The papers is one of the longest but at the same time one of the least commented upon of Henry James’s tales (short stories). Written in the autumn of 1902, with two other tales, to make up a collection published in the book The better sort, it is a delightfully sardonic working-up of an idea James had entered in his note-book about a year earlier.

Perhaps because of its length, James found no space for it in his collective New York edition later in the decade, and similarly it has not been much anthologized by subsequent editors, although it has managed one paperback appearance in each of the United States and the United Kingdom in the last fifty years! (see the bibliography for details). One of the reasons for this edition is to help remedy this lack of exposure.

For devotees of the tale, this neglect is hard to understand, as the writing fairly sparkles with wit and comic invention and with Jamesian turns of phrase, whilst the story itself is full of characteristic situations and even manages ‘the time-honoured bread-sauce of the happy ending’, which the author so decried in other contexts.

Before you gain too many preconceived ideas, I urge you to start reading, but if you must have a pointer or two, I would like to draw your attention in particular to the jokes, which are plentiful; the parallel pairings, which are somehow both obvious and subtle; and the religious overtones of death and resurrection.

Adrian Dover

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