We know that this tale was written in January 1896 because there is an unusually full analysis in James’s notebooks, working out two brief jottings he made during 1895 on the subject of two people who never meet in life. Incidentally, a similar idea formed the basis of a British television comedy, Love soup, created by David Renwick (One foot in the grave, Jonathan Creek, etc.) and broadcast by the BBC (two series, 2005 and 2008), which is well worth seeking out.

The resulting compact story appeared as The way it came in the May issues of two magazines, one on each side of the Atlantic, thereby securing both copyrights. It was quickly reprinted in the book collection Embarrassments, which appeared just a month later. Ten years on, James revised the text for his New York edition and there changed the title to The friends of the friends. Although in his preface to that edition he describes the original title as ‘colourless’, I can’t honestly say that I find the revised one any more inviting. Don’t let that put you off the story though.

A number of things should strike one on reading this tale. Perhaps the most obvious is the fact that none if the characters is given a name. This is made possible, in fictional terms, by the introductory paragraph, which repays careful study. As in the famous The turn of the screw of two years later, this framing device serves to introduce a first-person narrative which is more a recollection than a diary and is therefore open to our interpretation of its own reliability in reading situations. In fact some critics have seen this tale’s narrator as a dry run for the governess in the Screw. That may be stretching things somewhat too far, but there are many balls being juggled here, particularly the postmodern one of asking whether we can ‘imagine for a moment my placing such a document before the world’. A sort of answer to that question, apart from his publishing of the tale, is provided in the later one entitled The story in it (1903), in which James again shows how something which doesn’t happen can form the basis of a fiction, despite often being considered a ‘non-story’.

A perhaps more obvious way in which The way it came turns out to have been a dry run for a future fiction is the way in which the ending…

reveal spoiler in remainder of paragraph :

anticipates that of the novel The wings of the dove (1902). In both fictions the female partner recognizes and accuses her intended partner of being in love with a dead woman, a charge which he finds it impossible truthfully to deny. The woman then lays down the law: she cannot accept to share a man who is haunted by a dead potential lover, and the two living persons must part. In the final paragraph of the tale James sketches out a future which, tragic as the end of The wings is, is difficult to imagine for the rather weak Merton Densher: that of committing suicide.

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.